The Current

'You cannot rebuild the dust': A restored Notre-Dame won't be the same, says Bernard-Henri Lévy

The world watched in horror Monday as fire ravaged Notre-Dame in Paris, an international landmark that has withstood war and disaster for centuries. We speak to an eyewitness and a prominent French intellectual about the loss felt both in France and around the globe.

Beating heart of a monument is the age of its materials, says French philosopher

The view from a boat on the River Seine as the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames Monday. (Benoit Labonne)
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The iconic structure of the Notre-Dame Cathedral can be rebuilt, but it won't be the same, according to Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of France's most prominent intellectuals.

There are few places in Europe "where you have, in such a little space, such an accumulation of masterpieces," said the French philosopher and author.

"The roof that burned last night was made of wood of the 12th or 13th century," Lévy said.

"You cannot rebuild the age, you cannot rebuild the dust, you cannot rebuild the trace of the time," he said, noting the cathedral, which dates back to 1163, had withstood "so many moments of barbarity [that] went through Europe and France," before this "absurd accident" came so close to destroying it.

Lévy commended the international solidarity and the urge to rebuild, but he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that "the beating heart of a monument is ... the age of its materials," which link the present day back to the ideas and the will of its builders.

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      Fire broke out at Notre-Dame Monday evening, and raged through the night before firefighters managed to quench it Tuesday morning. The cathedral's spire and roof were lost in the blaze, but the bell towers and much of the artworks contained inside were saved.

      The cause of the fire is not yet known.

      Thousands of people gathered on the sidewalks and bridges that surround the cathedral Monday night.

      Eyewitness Franck Pierron described the scene as "just a quiet crowd, watching this inferno going on."

      "Some people started singing, praying, others were crying," said Pierron, a former Radio-Canada cameraman who lives in Paris.

      Pierron said he often walks past the cathedral, but has never been inside.

      "Sadly I've never visited it, which is a typical thing when you don't have time, when you live in the city."

      Architecture is the pinnacle of a civilization's excellence, Bernard-Henri Lévy tells Anna Maria Tremonti. 1:32

      Speaking in front of the cathedral as the flames still raged Monday night, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to set up a national fund to rebuild it.

      "Notre-Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives," he said.

      Firefighters in Paris battled for over 12 hours to extinguish an inferno engulfing the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral. 1:52

      "We will rebuild Notre-Dame because this is what the French expect, because this is what our history deserves, because this is our profound destiny. So I solemnly say tonight: We will rebuild it together."

      By Tuesday morning, two of France's top businessmen had pledged more than €300 million (over $450 million Cdn) to the cause.


      Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

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