The Burning Down of Legacy
The 12th Century in France was an interesting time. It included both the building of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Inquisition. These two events cannot be separated if one is to commit to the dogma of current “burn down the past” dogma, and yet the dissonance was in full effect earlier this week.
Perhaps it is because 1160 is so removed and France is in Europe but the cathedral on fire can be seen in two distinct lights, although the second is a bit of a stretch. In one light, it is a tragic disintegration of a grand piece of architecture, a monument revered throughout the world, a symbol of the heart of Paris, the site of so much tourism that has touched millions upon millions of vacationing people. It is the desecration of a work of majesty and art known everywhere.
In another, more remote but no less relevant light, it is the toppling of a symbol of a church hellbent on torture and ethnic cleansing, of witch hunts and the extreme punishments of heresy against the hierarchies and religious intolerance of an organization more known now for sodomizing children than art.
How does one separate the two? How does one acknowledge the horrors of the Crusades and the push for Catholic dominance in the world under a rigid papacy which provided the funding of the construction with the building we mourned on Monday?
"Notre Dame is our history, it's our literature, it's our imagery. It's the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations," French President Macron said.
"This history is ours. And it burns. It burns and I know the sadness so many of our fellow French feel," said Macron.
Is this a true reflection of French history or simply the convenient one? When Macron invokes history does he include the horrors of what provoked the revolts and revolutions of the time or just the liberation from them?
On the same day that I witnessed thousands of people post pictures of their tourist experience of the cathedral online (yes, I have one, too) I noticed a rising meme that told the world that while we mourn the burning of a church in France we ignore the burning of black churches across America. A parallel might be the world collectively grieving the death of Anthony Bourdain and someone popping up to declare that we aren’t appropriately paying funereal deference to five lesser known black chefs. I found that weird and unwarranted on some level but grief is grief and we all express it differently, yes?
Perhaps our ability to separate our reverence for a work of art and our disgust at the context and author of its creation is predicated on our enjoyment of the art itself. It’s easy to dismiss the body of work by Woody Allen if you don’t care for his films in the first place but if Annie Hall was an important part of your early life, maybe it’s easier to ignore your personal feelings about the man. I love Pulp Fiction despite the fact that it would never have happened without Harvey Weinstein. I still love visiting Mount Vernon even though Jefferson was possibly the historical equivalent to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.
When Dana and I visited Paris a few years ago, it never even occurred to me that the Cathedral of Notre Dame was a building constructed by an institution known for extreme xenophobia, brutal dogma, wars on other religious beliefs, and the modern equal to a pedophile’s dream ranch. We took the cathedral in the same way I took in the British Museum in London, the actual Declaration of Independence, and at least a few movies starring Kevin Spacey — with a sense of wonder and joy at the sight of extraordinary creation.
In fact, we did not enter the cathedral. We were planning on it and we spied, just to the east of the building, a small courtyard. In the courtyard was a piano, sitting alone and unattended. Dana walked over and started playing and it was one of my loveliest memories of Paris.
The question is larger than the moment we dwell in. The question is how do we reconcile the brutality just underneath the surface of creative forces and the accomplishments of artists who we might not eat a meal with with the creation itself? On an even larger scale, how do we live with the fact that almost all of modern civilization was built upon the backs of slaves, that the subjugation of others has fueled our industry? Or as Rob Kozlowski put it once: “We all tread upon stolen land, and anyone who does not commit suicide from the shame of it is Satan.”
I’m not even sure if this dichotomy rises to hypocrisy. It’s just a paradox with which we all grapple (or ignore).
How can you truly enjoy watching the NFL or college football knowing that many of the players are domestic abusers?
How can you really celebrate the music of Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Cee Lo Green, James Brown, and David Bowie with the knowledge that all were abusive on some level and all danced the horizontal mambo with children?
Can you just show up and take selfies in front the Pyramids, the Washington Monument, the Coliseum, or Chichen Itza without at least acknowledging they were built by slaves?
If there is anything constant in the universe it is this: anything created by humans is tainted with the duality that is humankind. Anyone on the planet who claims to be pure and pious is lying to themselves and everyone around them and therefore, if one is so rigid in their view of art and architecture and song and film, the only logical conclusion is to burn it all down. Not just that created by men or by white culture but all of it. It’s all tainted in some way.
I find that I have to separate my reactions to art from the history behind it. I want to see the beauty and majesty of amazing artistry sans the history behind it and deal with the history in a different way and in a different forum. I can enjoy Gene Wilder in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and know that Roald Dahl was a horrible anti-Semite. I can enjoy The Usual Suspects despite knowing that both Spacey and Bryan Singer are sexual predators. I can mourn the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame without feeling shame over the organization that created it, paid for it, and continues to use it as a place of worship.