Psychology & Theories

Why the Notre-Dame fire has raised passionate reactions & debates?

On April 15th, I was on my way to dance class in the Marais, feeling determined and excited. It was around 6.50pm. All of a sudden, I saw a large group of people looking frantic, all heads turned towards the Town Hall, Hôtel de Ville. I was surprised by the strong anxiety I could sense and thus turned my head in the same direction. And was absolutely shocked by what my eyes could see but my mind was not able to grasp… Notre Dame burning right before my eyes! We really thought she would burn down completely.

And then as you all know, there was an immediate outpouring of disbelief, grief, loss. A quick fix had to be the immediate response, the need to rebuild as fast as possible. Even this absolute need that got a quick answer lead to passionate debates, misunderstandings, and to another need – human care. But why? Why are we all reacting with such passion?

1. Collective Memory & History

People tend to connect through mutual experiences, and these experiences may be related to the history of the city they live in. Parisians are deeply attached to the architecture and art history of the French capital. They are all aware it was the place to be at the beginning of the XXth century when Paris was the artistic hub of the whole world. This is still very much ingrained in the Parisians’ minds.

Therefore, a huge and impressive event such as the fire right in the centre of the capital ‘attacking’ one of the greatest monuments loved by the whole world is simply felt like a personal ‘onslaught’.

This collective memory is based on the history of Notre-Dame and its symbolism. Parisians & tourists alike referred to the ‘life’ of Notre-Dame – she has survived horrendous periods such as the Revolution, two World Wars. They mentioned her unusual ‘life expectancy’, her beauty spanned over centuries, the religious treasures she has been looking after for centuries. She looks and is seen as a protective mother to all Parisians, a nurturer for the Christians. She is tall, grandiose, reassuring, and secures Paris.

This symbol has been ambushed, making everyone feel insecure in a blink of an eye. As you have seen I have used terms related to the loss of a loved one. Yes, it is exactly what it meant for Parisians. Notre-Dame has triggered an anthropomorphic feeling. It is as though they have lost a part of themselves, the innocence and reliability Notre-Dame represents in their minds. To the world, it is also losing a part of their romantic vision of Paris, of a World Heritage Site so many fond memories are attached to.

2. Personal Memories & History

We invest sites with personal memories too. When we go abroad, we visit monuments and heritage sites that become symbols of the, hopefully, good times we had there. The direct personal experience we have with a place resonates with the collective memory due to its symbolism. They are deeply intertwined.

This touristic site brings back a lot of personal memories, usually lovely ones that have a strong emotional impact. The images of the fire destroying one of the top three sites that attract loads of visitors in Paris resuscitated feelings from times when they were experienced.

Therefore, a monument can never be a simple ‘building’ due to the emotions we invest in the site at a specific time and the fond memories the place is linked with.

3. The Impermanence of Life

Furthermore, the anthropomorphic feeling attached to Notre-Dame has had another emotional meaning. Watching it vanishing before our eyes helplessly makes us realise that nothing lasts forever. In a way, it has triggered the fear of our own death that is certain, whatever we do and however solid or healthy we may feel.

Strolling around our usual environment seems a given. The architecture, gardens, parks, monuments, bridges we are used to seeing on an everyday basis look ‘solid’. We think they will ‘live’ forever, especially when they were created and built centuries ago. We thus feel they protect us and they represent eternity.

However, Notre-Dame is living proof of the impermanence of life. Yes, we have seen buildings being destroyed by earthquakes, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, so we all know this does exist. When it affects our usual surroundings – or buildings, landscapes we feel deeply attached to – the emotional impact is greater though. We thought they were indestructible and they are not, unfortunately. This reminds us of our own mortality, the impermanence of human existence and the impermanence of our own existence.

4. And the need for a quick fix?

The first immediate response whilst Notre-Dame was still burning was the promise to rebuild it and rebuild it fast. We were still in total disbelief and all of a sudden we were promised a ‘quick fix’

I was stunned by such an immediate response and tried to understand why this answer was seen as the appropriate one instantly.

And then thinking about loss, this need for a quick fix became obvious to me. It reminded me of the 5 stages of grief by Kübler Ross. Although these stages are not linear, the usual first reaction to loss is denial. You are in a state of shock, the news you have just heard must be fake. You cannot accept or grasp what has just happened, you would rather stick to the reality you once knew. Therefore, you deny the current reality.

The quick fix promised is a quite typical response to something that cannot be comprehensible. It is part of the denial process. Since Notre-Dame cannot be dismembered by an accidental fire – this is totally unintelligible – the only answer to such an obvious impairment is ‘fast restoration’ as if the fire had never occurred.

But why the passionate debates about donations then? This could be an emotional reaction in the anger stage. Once the reality has set in, you may think that life is unfair, you may try to prioritise to feel more secure. You may need to blame someone, to find an object – this could be a person or a thing – you project your anger onto. This is called defense mechanism.

Notre-Dame is a World Heritage Site. The anger has rapidly spread all over the world depending on each other’s beliefs and priorities. The personal anger one may have felt initially has been turned into a collective one growing in intensity every day.

My interpretation may sound a bit far-fetched but may I remind you that Notre-Dame has triggered an anthropomorphic feeling. This means that she is seen as partly human, mutilated and wounded. The accidental fire is perceived as totally unfair. We may have to go through the 5 stages of grief to accept the new reality as well as the new shape and aspect of Notre-Dame.

Let’s see what the future has in store for all of us…

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