Bonjour tristesse

Photo ©


Last night we went to bed numb with shock. Not because of a human catastrophe with loss of life, but because of the loss of a monument, the heart of Paris, our Paris where we started our life together. Human tragedies draw on sympathy with the victims and their families. Grief is a sharp, stabbing pain because we are all human (whatever some people may tell us) and violent, untimely death is something we can all empathise with. Perhaps because it’s human, and we know death is waiting for all of us, the pain fades. We get compassion fatigue, there being only so much we can give to people who are after all complete strangers.

The loss of such a symbol, a jewel of Gothic architecture, the heart of Paris is different. It can never be replaced. We are all touched in the same way. There are no families who will take their grieving with them for decades to come, long after the rest of us have forgotten their personal tragedy. We, who have ever been parisiens or parisiennes, feel the loss of Notre Dame as the loss of a little part of ourselves.

For me, Notre Dame is fourteen years of my young adulthood, the place where I had my first job, where I was married. Four of my children were born at the Hôtel-Dieu whose rooms look across the river to the cathedral. I walked across the parvis twice a day, on my way to and from work, and when I was pregnant, a pew at the end of the nave by the main doors was a handy mid-point where I could have a sit down to get my breath back and watch the light falling in red and blue from those tiny pieces of heaven. One piece of good news is that, contrary to what was believed last night, the rose windows have survived, though the fear is for the fragility of the stonework holding them in place.

You don’t have to be a believer to be awed by the splendour of Gothic cathedrals, just an ordinary human being. Empty the building of the chattering hordes of tourists trooping around behind their guides and trooping out again, and we are left with jewel glass and soaring stone, vaulting too high to work out any detail, but we know it’s there, lovingly carved by some stonemason dead maybe eight hundred years since. Now, we are just left.

I cried last night. Time passes for flesh and blood, but stone and genius and beauty are supposed to last forever.


Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

52 thoughts on “Bonjour tristesse”

  1. I wanted to share this on FB, too, for some of my friends, but I got a message that said I couldn’t because it contained material that other people reported as abusive. ??????

    1. Facebook has flagged my last the WordPress poetry links as violating Community Standards. I’m not happy with it. I wanted Margaret to see my Cazadero Sunlight poem, so I tagged her in a post that used (DOT) in the URL.

      1. I just tried to post my last WP post to FB and it refused, said it contravened FB community standards. A poem about nightingales. When you see the abusive, incoherent ignorant hatred inciting crap that is allowed, you wonder what stone they found their standards under.

    1. I can’t help thinking of one of the last links we have to the world that is lost being broken. There was a specialist in carpentry talking about how the beams of the roof can never be replaced because there aren’t any trees big enough any more. The original beams came from massive trees from the primeval forest that were probably not far off a thousand years old. There is no more primeval forest and even our oldest and largest trees are nowhere near big enough.

  2. Deep conferences Jane, for your personal loss. I had hoped to one day see her in person. This, of all weeks to lose her. Though well meaning people may try try to rebuild her, she won’t be the same. Our feeble attempts to reimagine treasures lost never are. The world weeps.

    1. The rebuilding will be symbolic too. Paris without Notre Dame is unthinkable, so it will have to look the same. What they can never bring back is the artistry, the love, the gruelling hard work that went into building something like a cathedral in the twelfth century. No machinery, no machine tools, just oak trees that were a hundred yards tall. There aren’t any of those any more. All of that is lost.

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