Notre Dame fire dramatizes the truly irreplaceable

If not cathedrals, what then are irreplaceable? Human life, above all, with animal and plant life close behind – and ideals and quests.

Image Credit: FABIEN BARRAU/AFP/Getty Images

“Time ravages all” endures as one undeniable message from the Notre Dame tragedy. Equally shocking is how fast an inferno (or bomb, weather event or asteroid) manages nearly unimaginable damage, demolishing a man-made cathedral older than all western countries. Cable news mania aside, millions of lives are stopped in their tracks when a potent artifact we thought timeless disintegrates in front of our eyes.

Nevertheless, cathedrals are not irreplaceable.  In fact, judging by Reims and Amiens cathedrals, sorely damaged by 20th C wars, big structures are fully rebuildable, almost as good as new. London’s St. Paul and Cologne Cathedral, among others, have survived massive devastation. The pointed Notre Dame spire that fell so dramatically last week was a 19th C renovation.

Since bridges, skyscrapers, walls, tunnels and dams – the most formidable of human creations – were built once, they can be restored.  And certainly Notre Dame will rise again, looking much the same but stronger, with the latest technology against firestorms. Restoration doesn’t dismiss incredible emotional outpourings as the world assesses what it means when an epic monument, laden with symbolism and history, turns to ashes. It’s heartening that historic relics and art work were saved, many not replaceable because they hold mystic power for believers.

What is irreplaceable?

So, if not majestic cathedrals, what then are irreplaceable? Human life, above all, with animal and plant life close behind – either in their own terms or because we starve without topsoil and subsequent food production. The ongoing destruction of the earth, for our paltry species, is well under way, and the future in doubt were we to poison too much of this earthly nest.  Climate deniers, whether from ignorance or self-interest, pose far more threats to humanity than any church fire. That goes for the starving of children (with rich nations wasting torrents of nutritious food) or the negligence toward sick fellow earthlings denied medical access and drugs.

Human sanctify and inherent rights, when violated or abandoned, are irreplaceable.  What happens when violence so imperils a community’s survival and the options are unspeakable – bartering children, murdering innocents, blocking essential medicine, even politicized boycotts to injure an entire population? When children are brutally, needlessly separated at border crossings from parents some may never see again, that strikes me as an irredeemable tragedy. Are not such abuses of family solidarity, done as cruel, demagogic gestures without addressing the distorted “immigration problem,” worse than fire gutting one religious icon? 

The dregs of human depravity are all worse than any single incident, whether sex trafficking, murdering children for religious or cultural reasons, selling impure drugs to the desperately ill, or maliciously bombing innocent civilians, whether by terrorists or organized armed forces? Yes, human innovations in arts, science and technology are astonishing, but equally startling are repeated, needless mass murders, whether from ideology, religion, or hatred of the other. 

In fact, our most renowned artifacts are more irreplaceable than structures or buildings.  A fire in the Louvre or the Uffizi in Florence, or dozens of other major museums worldwide, would incinerate our greatest paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, plus invaluable cultural treasures. There is no Leonardo to repaint the Mona Lisa, and no Michelangelo to re-chisel his David, were a fire or fallen roof to destroy them. No Vermeer exists who can duplicate his marvels of lighting and intimacy. If top works by our greatest composers or literary figures were ever censored or outlawed (re Fahrenheit 451) or lost forever, that would be a monumentally irreplaceable human loss. Imagine the world without Shakespeare or Dickens, Dante or Homer, the Beatles, Arabian Nights, the Bible, the Qur’an or core Asian religious texts. 

Ideals are irreplaceable

Finally, equally irreplaceable are the permanent, uplifting political ideals and advances that inform the democratic spirit, the sanctity of universal human rights, justice for all, plus basic fairness, tolerance, ad expanding opportunities across class and ethnicity.  If the best of our Declaration and Constitution were so undermined, and the relative neutrality of our justice system decimated (notwithstanding current corruption by big money), we would lose something beyond estimation that defines our vaunted humanity. Nothing we most value, whether material stuff or faith or rights, are immune from change or destruction by oppression, if not time. Climate change menaces the very habitability of our planet, and the fragile richness of life forms is emphatically not guaranteed. 

Nothing as they say is forever – and yes, the sun will explode in billions of years – but who can imagine our species not going extinct well beforehand? But that inevitability does not preclude working and fighting for the highest, unaccomplished quests the human mind has presented, defended, and sustained, however brief so far our existential moment of time. The looming conundrum is we won’t know when or how much of our best is lost until after it’s gone.

An irreplaceable question

We take so much for granted and many still resist imagining America as a oppressive dictatorship.  The current president, while seemingly too inept to pull off that “revolution,” certainly raises the specter, reminding us our confidence in seeming solidity is an illusion.  All life is closer to Humpty-Dumpty’s fate on the wall than we want to daily internalize, if not from a one-day fire than the continuum inferno of ignorance, fraudulence and bad faith that is Trumpism.

Despite appearances to the contrary, we are only marginally more skilled at survival that innumerable dinosaurs who commanded the earth millions of years longer than our upstart species, homo sapiens, less than a million years old. The timeless jury is out, and apocalypse looms as never before. Are we truly “sapiens” or just another replaceable experiment, a transient idea falling short of our own presumptuous ideals.  How does our million year duration compare with the sea turtle span of 100 million year?  Now that’s an irreplaceable question.


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.