Notre Dame Fire and the End of History

Notre Dame Fire and the End of History

Thursday, May 2, 2019 8:45 am


Fire at Notre Dame Cathedral

                                                                      By Nehru Odeh

The world was brought to its knees on Monday, 15 April, when the 850-year old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France was gutted by fire. As the historical monument went up in flames, many who watched the scenario live on television across the globe were pained by the sombre fact that nothing could be done to stop it. As the flames licked most part of the edifice, including, artifacts, paintings and the spire, not a few nostalgic feelings were aroused, not a small religious fervor were aroused,  no small tears were shed, and no small, religious national and continental pride was piqued.  

No doubt it was a devastating blow to the French people and Catholics across the globe. President Emanuel Macron while addressing the French nation, vowed to rebuild the Cathedral, “even more beautifully” within five years and called for support. “The fire of Notre Dame reminds us that our history will never end. Never. And that we will always have challenges to overcome,” he said. No sooner had he finished his speech than pledges, donations amounting to billions of euros geared to rebuilding the cathedral came flying from across the globe.

Indeed, it was a monumental loss not only to the French people, but also to all lovers of the arts, culture and history across the globe. The devastating effect of that inferno goes beyond religion. It goes beyond national boundaries. It goes beyond religious sentiments. It goes beyond all kinds of parochial sentiments.  If that misfortune could happen to the Notre Dame Cathedral, It can happen to any edifice across the globe. It speaks not just to the transience of all things but also to our mortality. It is about centuries of history lost. It is about centuries of culture lost. It is about the soul of the French people and culture under attack. It is about our common humanity, no matter our religious affiliation, belief or unbelief that has been set ablaze. These are things religion, money or any material thing can’t buy.

Nehru Odeh

Still, ironically, no sooner had the flames been extinguished than the temper of the French people flared. It seemed the stinging sadness that the fire engendered gave way to boiling anger. Barely had the flame died down than the yellow vest protesters who had staged series of protests in Paris since last November against glaring fiscal injustice and inequality took to the streets again. But this time, they were angered by the fact that in few hours billions of euros had already been donated to rebuilding the cathedral while their demands haven’t been met. They became aware of how things made of human hands are prioritized over their welfare. They became aware once again of the inequality that stares them in the face. To them the rich seems to get richer and they, the poor, poorer. While their demands haven’t been met, huge sums of money have been donated to rebuilding a structure that, to them, has outlived its usefulness.

Given the fire that gutted the centuries-old gothic building and the emotions it engendered, what are the lessons to be learnt? Does the destruction of that historical monument, the house of God, signify that God is dead as Nietzsche would say? Does it literally signify the end of history, considering what were destroyed in the inferno and their accompanying stories? Indeed, as the fire raged, it raised some existential questions. Not a few called the existence of God in question. Not a few cried out to God to intervene.  Why would God allow His abode to be razed down by fire, if He truly exists? many asked. Patrick Chauvet, the rector of Notre Dame, said   “I asked the lord: Why? I think I will get my answer when I reach the heavens … It is apocalyptic.” Bisikay Ayedun raised an existential question on his Facebook page. Notre Dame fire: Where art thou, God?” he asked.  

However, the Notre Dame fire is a two-edged sword. It is also Janus-faced. While it buttresses the end of history on one hand, it questions it on the other. Taken literally, it symbolizes the end of history, considering the destruction of that historical monument. It symbolizes the end of history considering the amount of history and memory lost in that inferno. It symbolizes the end of history, given that all that had gone into its construction, its almost millennial age, and the lives of great men and events associated with it that seem to have gone with the flames. It symbolizes the end of history because the inferno seems to be telling us that history has outlived its usefulness. What matters now are the people, their condition of living and how they relate with one another; because, at the end of the day, it’s people that remain and matter.      

But when one looks at the protests that it engendered, It also interrogates Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History and the Last Man. In his groundbreaking book, Fukuyama sees history as a progression culminating in capitalist liberal democracies. Fukuyama was influenced by George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher who, in his book, ThePhilosophy of History, also postulated that history is a progression from primitive societies to higher level of rationality and freedom which is embodied in the modern constitutional state or liberal democracy.

However Karl Marx disproved it while postulating the communist ideology. He sums it up in his book, The Communist Manifesto, thus. “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Fukuyama however believes, as I have said earlier that no sovereignty is more important than that of the people. “That is to say, for a very large part of the world, there is now no ideology with pretensions to universality that is in a position to challenge liberal democracy, and no universal principle of legitimacy other than the sovereignty of the people,” he says.

While postulating his ideas Fukuyama does not shy away from the fact that though liberal democracy is the last stage in the movement of history, it can throw up contradictions. “Sharp social cleavages along class, national, ethnic, or religious lines can be mitigated by the process of capitalist economic development itself, improving the prospects for the emergence of a democratic consensus over time. But there is no guarantee that these differences will not persist as a country grows economically, or indeed, that they will not come back in a more virulent form.”

In the introduction to the book Fukuyama says: This was not to say that today’s stable democracies, like the United States, France, or Switzerland, were not without injustice or serious social problems. But these problems were ones of incomplete implementation of the twin principles of liberty and equality on which modern democracy is founded, rather than of flaws in the principles themselves. While some present-day countries might fail to achieve stable liberal democracy, and others might lapse back into other, more primitive forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved on.

But is it true that the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved upon? Is it true that today’s liberal democracies cannot exist without injustice and serious social problems? Liberal democracy is not only self-contradictory but also, like other dead ideologies, it is sowing the seeds of its own destruction. In the light of what transpired in France after Notre Dame fire, and consequent donations pledged towards rebuilding the gothic building, those contradictions that Fukuyama points in his book comes to the fore. Whatever has been achieved in liberal democracies pale into insignificance when compared to its deep social cleavages. There is an ever-widening gap and inequalitybetween the rich and the poor in liberal democracies which does not only need to be bridged but also calls for an alternative. The yellow vests protesters took to the streets because they believed the glaring fiscal injustice and social injustice in the French society they had been fighting against has not been addressed, yet billions of euros has been donated towards rebuilding the cathedral. They believed that rather than investing a huge sum of money in that project, the French government should be more concerned about improving the quality of life of its citizens.

The questions then are: is liberal democracy the last stage in theso-called movement of history? Has liberal democracy been able to solve the inherent contradictions in its system? Has it been able to completely satisfy man’s desire for ‘recognition’?  Has it been able to bridge the ever widening inequality between the rich and the poor in capitalist societies? Just as an unnamed author wrote in what looks like a forward to the book  “The great question then becomes: can liberty and equality, both political and economic — the state of affairs at the presumed “end of history” — produce a stable society in which man may be said to be, at last, completely satisfied?” If what transpired in France after the Notre Dame fire is anything to go by, your guess is as good as mine.

-Nehru Odeh, journalist, writer and poet, is the author of The Patience of an Embattled Storyteller

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