Notre Dame Cathedral, April 1995, personal archive

(Un)Historical Memories

Lived or Revived? Do our minds strive to encompass the present under the image of the past? Can we truly embrace the trope of “living historically” without brushing aside the present? Is memory generated solely by particularly personal experiences or can one resuscitate the past without having previous physical attachment to it?

In Goethe’s perspective, a superfluous record of the past is nothing but a vile constraint which imprisons the human mind by paradoxically allowing it to escape to an over-glorified historic scenery. However powerful in terms of culture and comprehension of our historical backdrop, reviving a memory to a state that physically alters the authentic can risk  transforming it into a pathetic and misleading artefact. The feelof belonging to something grand that extends back to forgone civilisations, to a slower time that felt and passed differently is materialised through constant transportations to envisaged sceneries, suppositions, chimerical realms. What Nietzsche labels as “living historically” in his book Use and Abuse of History  has become for some a way of living, an escape route from ennui and boredom, which in turn results in a degeneration of the present. One exits the present time in a quest of becoming more, of feeling and experiencing what has already happened. It seems attractive and beguiling, yet while living in a state of memory and past, we deny ourselves the chance to become part of a present that has yet to turn into a memory.

To exist means to forget, to remember, but primarily to create. After that comes to recreate and reli(e)ve. The genuine concept of memory can be implemented only after we embrace the present: as an aftermath, a record that is stored as a subjective yet truthful version. Our personal past. It seems that one is willing to escape the present as a means of awakening and nurturing the excitement of feeling present, alive, human. It is quite a paradox that however contentious, it gives some a sense of wholeness. Yet we are already alive though our daily experiences. We act, we speak, we interact. In our perpetual experimentation with moments and perceptions, we conjure up memories that we later on revisit within the space of our minds. We create our own history by “living unhistorically” by turning a blind eye to what the past legacies and focusing on the living moment and the reshapement of it.We build up symbols that serve as a depiction of our existence and allow others to become part of it as well, regardless of time and place. There comes now the question of whether our personal, lived memory is enough to generate that dignifying sense of belonging or whether we need to embrace the collective past so as to truly feel complete. Presumably both, if not for certain.

In the light of the dire fire of Notre Dame, one experiences a genuine feeling of loss, as if a memory that has never been known started wearing out already. A genuine symbol of Paris, Notre Dame stood not only as an inspiration source for writers and painters, but also as a vestige that housed political, social and historical events. However grand and imposing, the cathedral strikes one with a spiritual fragility that shows through its timeless nature. Standing for almost 800 years in the centre of a town which became a symbol and an ideal for artists and writers, the cathedral remained a a quiet witness of its turbulent history, damaged during the French Revolution and once again revived by Hugo’s masterful novel. The spire that collapsed on Monday was added by Viollet-le-Duc during the 19th century restoration and generated an endless chain of negative remarks not only architecturally, but also socially. Considered unnecessary and inappropriate, the spire had a pivotal impact on the aesthetics of the cathedral, introducing a distinct geometry within a typical gothic formation whose presence and identity was already embedded in both the French and international memory.

Notre Dame Cathedral, view from Seine, April 1995, personal archive

In Picasso’s depiction of the cathedral, one can truly grasp the disparity between the old and the new and how these two distant approaches attain a strange yet intriguing harmony.  His depiction of the facade in purely flat front perspective brings forth all the primary geometric typologies. Consequently, the viewer understands the ultimate presence and impact the spire has within the perception of the cathedral as well as its relation to the two twin towers. Metaphorically mimicking a sort of folding bridge, the spire breaks the typical gothic symmetry and sets up a new, constrasting dynamics.

In contrast to Picasso’s straightforward depiction, Matisse chooses a different angle of portrayal, painting the cathedral from a distant perspective that naturally omits the spire while giving priority to the authentic facade. Nothing seems to exist but the two identical towers  setting an almost sacred, mythical rhythm to the facade. In this light, one realises how the 1864 restoration project allowed both past and present to coexist in a new form.

When confronted with the question of reshaping symbols of national identity, one is faced with the issue of a historical or “unhistorical” metamorphosis. Le Duc interpreted it by introducing a contrasting structure that  through time and acceptance somehow became part of a symbol and a memory. An image of the past which redesigns the authentic by becoming one itself. The fire gave birth to a new form, a new stage of Notre Dame that will have to reach its completion through new rehabilitation and a new design. A memory was created the moment the spire collapsed, the past image erased and replaced, people’s perceptions altered, awakened and stimulated. New perspectives will now arise, and one should not strive to attain what has already existed. Let us live unhistorically while embracing the history. Let us give the present a chance at becoming a memory for the future, let us see the fire as a symbol of renewal that allows this present to eventually become an emblem, a statement, a feeling, an experience open to change and bound to change with every single passing generation.