One of my favorite authors of all time is the fin de siecle French master of the short story genre Guy de Maupassant. Maupassant came from minor but ancient noble Norman family with deep roots dating back to the 8th and 9th century Viking invasions that gave Normandy its name. He, like his near contemporary Anton Chekhov, wrote in a sublime realist tone, using his precise, measured prose to infuse even the most common scenes with high drama and suspense.
As a Jew myself and as a student of history, it is impossible for me to ignore the very peculiar stance taken by Maupassant towards a certain class of people that started appearing in France after its disastrous war with Prussia in 1870. These people spoke excellent French, but perhaps with a slight German accent. They had funny names, names like Dreyfus, German sounding and yet not German per se. And what were they doing these weird people with their weird accents and weird sounding names? Business. That’s what they were doing and lots of it. They appear in Maupassant stories and novellas as greedy newspaper owners and lenders who do not hesitate to collect on their collateral and confiscate country estates that were in the hands of families just like his for many centuries. You get the point, these people were Jews.
Maupassant, like all great writers, accurately captures the moods of his time and place. Having died at the age of only 42 from syphilis, he had just missed the Dreyfus affair, which came to symbolize the French anti-Semitism of the late 19th century. I struggle with what I am about to write next, because I know that I, a Jew and a grandson of two grandfathers who were killed fighting the Wehrmacht, will be accused of anti-Semitism, but I was never one to censor my own opinions, so I will soldier on.
Perhaps the French revulsion at foreigners taking over many French institutions, be they newspapers, or banks, or great noble estates was well-justified. Perhaps it would have been better if French media and banks were run by, you guessed it, French. And I don’t mean people who have a French identity card. I mean people who are ethnically French and who are Roman Catholics. Better for whom, you may ask. Better for France, is my answer, and better for all of humanity, because the French culture is one of the great cultures of the world and its loss, now nearly complete is a disaster for all of us.
“So you’re saying that Jews in France should have been discriminated against?” I hear you demand of me, eyebrows raised high. I hesitate to answer. Many Jews in France, like many Jews in America today, used their enormous acumen for higher education to become lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Perhaps it would have been better had they, out of respect for their host country, voluntarily limited their scope of activities to those that help people rather than seek to affect public life and public discourse. I still believe that this would be a prudent course for diaspora Jews today, particularly in America.
When the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral was completed in 1160, anti-Semitism was rampant and deadly. Jews lived in closed ghettos, constantly in fear for their lives, constantly expelled, forced to move, have their possessions stolen, and often simply hacked to pieces or burnt alive. Throughout most of the cathedral’s 850 years’ existence, this was the case, though France, having expelled its Jews in the early Middle Ages never had a large Jewish population until the early 20th century Jewish migration from the French colonies in North Africa. During most of that time, France was a fiercely nationalist and religious country. In the early part of the 17th century, under king Louis the 13th, France had a civil religious war in which French protestants, the Huguenots, were massacred and expelled by the king’s forces under and Cardinal Richelieu’s command.
Throughout this complex history, a history of bloodshed and superstition, internecine warfare, religious intolerance, and yes, colonialism, the Notre Dame cathedral was loved. It was more than loved, it was adored, revered, embraced. Many today are saying that this is why it is good that it has burnt down never to regain its old glory. It was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the world, they say.
Guess who shares this opinion? The President of France, the one man who is supposed to embody the French ideal, Emanuel Macron. And this, my friends, is why the Notre Dame cathedral lies in ruins today having withstood everything from the Huguenot wars to the French Revolution to the twin German occupations of 1870 and 1940. It matters not what was the actual physical reason for the fire. Was it a “Frenchman” with a name like Ahmed who set the blaze? Was it a Frenchman by the name of Jean-Pierre who was working on the restoration project and couldn’t be bothered to make a proper electrical connection? We may never know, simply because it will be covered up, of that we may be certain. But we do know one thing, the one thing that really matters: the cathedral died of a broken heart. It died, because its people, the people who expended enormous efforts to build her and cherish her and guard her for nearly a full millennium, suddenly fell out of love with her.
They reinvented their country as a militantly secular republic in which no faith had precedence over any other, making all faiths irrelevant. They stopped learning or caring about their own history, except in so much as vilifying their ancestors as bigots and colonialists. They invited into their country hordes of people who saw in the cathedral nothing but a symbol of oppression and hate. They simply stopped loving her.
Every small village in France, even if it has only a dozen houses, has a mini Notre Dame. Most of them are shattered now. Our Airbnb hostess in Brittany, a woman who is very proud of her Breton heritage, did not bother to baptize her three children. She was not comfortable with such an outdated ritual, she said.
The world we live in today would not be possible without the French. French mathematicians like Descartes , Cauchy, and L’Hopital laid the foundations for modern mathematics. French explorers like Cartier and Champlain opened the northern part of the American continent to European settlement. And who can envision a world without French cuisine and ballet and literature and music and art? Who would want to live in such a world anyway?
An unseverable chain links these great Frenchmen and the Notre Dame cathedral. She was their spiritual mother, their inspiration. Judging their great deeds by today’s fleeting standards is as asinine as it is counterproductive. We should all be grateful to these French giants for their accomplishments, accomplishments that Our Lady of Paris made possible.
We are living in a time of diminishment, a time of descending darkness. We stopped making distinctions between the holy and the profane, the sublime and the slime. Nothing that elevates the spirit is at home in our world of petty identity politics and dredged up historical grievances. Perhaps the grand old dame of Paris does not belong in this world as we are, most certainly, not deserving of her grace.
One of the markers of our age, not one of the worst, but certainly the most unrooted in reality, is our craving for, and expectation of, a happy ending. We must have it. But this is not how the world works and there is no happy ending to the decline of the greatest achievement of the human spirit, the Western Civilization. It is irrevocably dying and whatever comes to replace it will make us all wish we weren’t so quick to dispose of it.
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