Paris, the Marxist geographer David Harvey argues, is the Capital of Modernity. There is a way through Harvey’s voluminous work, as he himself shows in his collected essays on the city, in which Paris as a city is the concrete thread that ties together so much of his analysis of the uneven geographies of capital. The operative concept here is creative destruction, that the modern — that is, the new — has to come out of the old being destroyed. The magical year for Harvey is 1848, the revolutions that were said to have caused a break in Parisian consciousness, a rupture between everyday lives with a kind of romantic alienation to an all-out revolutionary consciousness at least in the realm of theory. The general wisdom that out of the ashes comes new life is the ideology of modern creative destruction, the kind that burns the old and quaint to make room for the new and sleek.
It has been a week since the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, and much commentary has been spilled on it. My favourite has been my friend Chris Schaefer’s in Commonweal, because his account is so non-ideological, the view of just another person on the streets of Paris feeling like the gut-wrenching pain of the architectural heart of his city undergoing immolation. What I said in the heat of the moment is that it is our home too, as Greek-Catholics have found themselves in that house of prayer, even in the enthronement of our church’s bishop for Western Europe at the time, Borys Gudziak, in 2013.; he is now going to be our metropolitan in the United States. Other commentators have not been so good, some remarking on how the flames were symbolic and even more-than-metaphorical of Western civilization burning down, mostly because its Catholic heart had long been vacated — and that line of thought in particular, mostly because the commentators were recycling the counter-revolutionary propaganda that Harvey also writes about at the end of his book on Paris when he writes about the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. A few even speculated that Muslims had burned down the cathedral, a terribly Islamophobic thought that feeds off the paranoia wrought by the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the other shooting at the Bataclan, and the images of Islamic hegemony that arises through Houellebecq’s novel Submission.
The truth is probably much more banal. A friend of mine pointed out to me that VICE had made a documentary last year about Notre-Dame de Paris needing serious architectural repairs. The building was becoming structurally unsound, and wealthy Americans had begun to chip in by the thousands and tens of thousands for it to be repaired. One of them is interviewed in the video. He compares his own trans-Atlantic giving to the way that Notre Dame was constructed in the first place: ‘It’s incredible when you think about it, that Notre-Dame has survived for 850 years. Even at that time, they were sourcing raw materials all over Europe, like the timber would come from Scandinavia, and I thought, how could is that? This is like 1400, and there was already, you know, like, globalization.’ The rest of the story almost tells itself. The repairs were under way. Something caught fire. The workers notified the fire brigade before it was too late. The visitors were evacuated. The building burned. The billionaires decided to give more. It was all, you know, like, globalization.
I am not cynical enough to think that the building was intentionally destroyed to make room for a new one. But it is a bit embarrassing to consider, in contrast to the conspiracy theories about the fire’s origins, the banal way in which the cathedral probably burned: by its repairers, funded at a global scale, necessitating more repairs, with funding still at the level of the globe. It’s creative destruction as a nonchalant reality, that as the world changes, new technologies will have destructive side-effects that are redeemed by a future of new stuff replacing the old.
I have been thinking about this dynamic over the last week, and since it is Great and Holy Tuesday, it finally feels like the right time to write about it. The synaxarion, as well as the kondak, focuses our attention on the ten virgins waiting for the Bridegroom, five of whom are wise and carry oil in their lamps, and five who are foolish who do not. The meditations on this day are pointed in their reflection on how the emphasis on each of these parabolic persons is a virgin means that they have all managed to practice the one virtue of chastity. Being chaste is not the issue, though it is often elevated to the only thing there is often by social conservatives who think that the heart of Western, or European, or Christian, or Catholic, or Orthodox ‘civilization’ is under attack by a ‘sexual revolution’ from which a number of options should be advanced to stem its tide: pass draconian laws against sexual non-normativities, retreat into intentional Christian communities, enact social experiments in our families to re-educate our children about abstinence. The reading from the synaxarion elaborates on the tropars of the canon to say that the five foolish virgins were the ones who focused on chastity at the expense of the more social virtues — almsgiving, they say at one point, and love at another, but really in the context of the kingdom of heaven that comes to the high point in the series of three parables that begins with the virgins and ends with the sheep and the goats, social justice. Focusing on chastity at the expense of social justice puts you in danger of the fires of hell, the Orthodox commentary on Great and Holy Tuesday says. The oil in our lamps must be the works of love, almsgiving, and service at both the personal and structural levels if we are to be prepared for the arrival of the Bridegroom.
But as with any commentary that comes from the mothers and fathers of the church, the words cannot be taken at face value, but considered within the biblical context and the contemporary reality. The synaxarion speaks of virginal chastity as marking all the virgins, but the context in Matthew’s Gospel casts a wider criticism of both the Temple authorities and the anti-colonial separatists who are ganging up on Jesus. When the Lord criticizes the scribes and Pharisees who sit on the seat of Moses, it is not about their works of chastity, but rather their obsession with liturgical propriety, the details of ceremonial law, the aesthetics of worship, and a kind of rad trad proselytization where a separatist might cross oceans and rivers to make a proselyte twice a son of Hinnom’s Vale as one of them. Theological aesthetics, especially the kind with a salvific civilizational impulse, without social justice, in other words, makes for a dead faith; it is, in the final analysis that is also set forth in the third chapter of William Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination, a façade of Christian communion that serves as ideological mystification for the processes of creative destruction inherent to the workings of global capitalism, of which globalization is a cipher.
The problem of the fires of Notre-Dame that confronts us on this Great and Holy Tuesday, in other words, is not so much the ratcheting up of attention to one burning sacred space in the world at the expense of black churches and indigenous prayer sites, nor even the naïve idea that global philanthropy could save the world if only there were the political will. It is rather that it reveals what kind of site Notre-Dame has itself become in the global imagination: a hub of globalization that is mystified by an ideology of Western Catholic civilization to be deployed against atheists and Muslims alike. It is ironic indeed, that at the end of the day, the so-called ‘globalists’ whom the alt-right blame for the watering down of ‘Judeo-Christian civilization’ and those who invoke the trope of the restoration of European Christianity from the creative destruction of Notre Dame are really saying the same thing, likely without knowing it. Neither group, the irony continues, is really all that concerned about Notre-Dame as a house of prayer for the people of Paris who make that city their home. It is the fantasy of what Notre-Dame could be for a Paris without only symbols and no people that fuels the funding.
For this reason, the Parisians who saw the heart of their home burning were right to rush to the streets. If the ideology of globalization devastates anything, it is the notion that a city is, first and foremost, the home of persons whose everyday lives make of urban spaces sites of prayer, family, food, and laughter. To have such a sense of groundedness is the source, usually, of a sense of social justice, that because I live in this space and I am rooted among this people, I want to work for these commons to be truly just to everyone. Globalization and social justice are often at odds with each other; conservative nostalgia for a civilization that never existed masking the processes of global capital and a rootedness in love and place are like oil and water. The message of the Gospel is that it is in fact the latter that is the oil that the wise virgins bring in their lamps to meet the Bridegroom, the fuel that burns as light in darkness in opposition to the fantasies of creative destruction by which homes are burned and hearts are devastated.