By Sean O’Hare
Mere weeks have passed since the burning of the cathedral in Paris. All of us, each for their own reasons, were gripped by the flames that engulfed Notre Dame. Few recent events seem to have been saturated with as much aching symbolism as that day was, and from it came an outpouring of grief and a grasping for beauty.
Apart from the usual noise, the following days elicited many careful attempts to reflect upon what had occurred. With the sublime amidst the flames so suddenly, we had been confronted with its incalculable worth and forced to reckon with our relationship to it. What does it mean to lose so swiftly such a repository of culture and religious meaning? And, as the damage was revealed to be less extensive than anticipated, how ought we accept the unlooked for grace of art and beauty preserved when we had steeled ourselves for its utter loss?
It almost felt though that the fury with which all of our eyes were transfixed could not be sustained, that it was bound to subside, and with that, our gaze would alight on some other thing. And so, most of us have promptly forgotten; this far removed from the fire, it feels awkward to read or write an essay on something so in-between. If it is not safely in the deep past or belligerently in the present it must be avoided, after all.
Yet through the haze of this learned forgetfulness also emerges the opportunity for a profound type of rebellion. Now we are called to the persistent and holy act of remembrance.
In his important and prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman anticipates this moment, as well as the larger system of discourse from which it takes its shape. In the aptly named chapter “Now . . . This,” he identifies the pervasive dismantling of context that the logic of “electronic media” imposes upon our public conversations. Nothing arises from its natural relationship to that which came before, or that which will follow—it is all an endless stream of abstracted spectacles.
‘Now . . . this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now . . . this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.
For Postman, to inhabit technological spaces whose ruling logic is a disjointed cacophony is to become subservient to its forms, to be remade into its likeness. This truth is formulated in the book’s opening chapter “The Medium is the Metaphor,” where he argues that the mediums our culture chooses to traffic in profoundly shape our thoughts and habits in turn. Speaking of the aim of the book, he says:
It is an argument that fixes its attention on the forms of human conversation, and postulates that how we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.
Here is far more than the tired critique of social media to which we are all accustomed of late. It is instead the recognition of our media’s magnetism towards an unmoored existence—and not merely social dynamics, but the pervasive rootlessness that comes to define every aspect of our lives. The deepest reaches of our imaginations and loves become inevitably fractured by the corrosion of these forms, not just our dinner parties.
And tragically, the rules of engagement within a medium supersede any attempts to rebel, no matter how noble the effort. Try as we may, we cannot leverage within them the kind of sustained reflection that a cathedral requires. The moment we land upon something truly substantial (say, the near loss of an old and holy building), it is immediately swept from under us.
There is yet another reason why we have forgotten the wounded cathedral, and it is one which offers up to us the potential for real hope.
Simply put, our memory fails us so soon because very few of us call Paris home, and very few of us are daily confronted with the gnawing absence of its former grandeur. So it slips from our minds, because frankly there are more immediate things assailing us at every turn. This is not a luxury afforded the people of France. They are, and will be for quite some time, engaged in an effort to rebuild and restore.
Embedded within this recognition we find the response which Postman’s diagnosis demands of us. We recall that Notre Dame the building belongs distinctly to Paris, that it is a gathering place for Catholic worshippers in a particular setting. To the people of France we entrust the task of its restoration, and turn instead to the thousands of Notre Dames that can be found within our own cities and towns. They are not all cathedrals, nor are they all as old—yet each one, in its own noble way, stands in revolt against the gleeful transience of our age.
To these places of history and worship we must return in earnest, to let their old stones and stained glass work upon our souls. They serve as the mediums, to use the language of Postman, which impart to us again the power of remembrance. They are saturated in context, in the memory of the places to which they belong. And in a beautiful symbiosis, by dwelling within them we regain the means of faithfully preserving them forward into the future.
This is admittedly far from a sweeping movement to storm the cultural barricades. It is rather the simple admonition to find the havens of history and religious tradition, and along with one’s neighbor to commit themselves to its cultivation. It is the quiet work of stalwart individuals and tight-knit families and devoted communities. A simple vocation, yet a far more radical one than may appear at first glance.
As we seek the wisdom required to knit these habits into our lives once more, Tolkien’s masterful tale of Middle Earth offers us a picture of this humble resolve. Accompanying Frodo and Sam on their agonizing journey, one is struck by the disparity upon which the survival of all that is good in the world depends. The schemes of great lords, the fates of massive armies, a final protection of innocence and beauty—all these ultimately turn upon the faithfulness of two small hobbits.
With this tale, Tolkien awakens us to something profoundly true about the nature of our own task today: that no matter how small our part, each of us has been entrusted with these places of beauty, to play a mighty role in their storied existence.
Returning to inhabit them in this bewildered and forgetful age, we may discover that remembrance is the only true revolt.
Sean O’Hare is a native of Rochester, New York. He is a research technician at the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics and a member of Forefront Festival, a local group of Christians in the arts. He writes over at his blog Further Up Further In.