The burning of Notre Dame was an unequivocal tragedy. Seeing the flames slice the spire from its roof, the blaze appealed to our millennial sense of grief for cultural patrimony. Much more than a religious emblem, the cathedral denotes archetypal Parisian romance. It is a site that has evolved with us as we have remodelled ourselves through history.
Not only does it pervade literary and art history. Notre Dame has also witnessed many of France’s great battles. Beyond aestheticism, its burning threatened our collective imagination of European gothicism. But for some reason, all these facts were obscured by another great loss when I saw the Notre Dame footage. Grenfell.
#NotreDame will be rebuilt, a testament to the continuity of European culture and ideals. #Grenfell will be torn down, a tasteful memorial put up, so the kindly millionaires of Chelsea can tut sadly without worrying that an eyesore will impact their land prices or bank balances. pic.twitter.com/8LqijLIWCW
— The Open Bookshelf (@TheOpenShelf) April 21, 2019
Perhaps because I was at the coalface of events, the videos of Notre Dame served as an inescapable reminder of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 73 people in London, two summers ago. If I was feeling this way, I had little doubt that given the same media exposure, Grenfell’s survivors would be subject to symptoms of PTSD.
The two are markedly different tragedies. One is about the loss of cultural heritage and the other is about the loss of human life. Yet, it was almost impossible not to draw parallels. The most uncomfortable distinction to make is the way in which Notre Dame evoked worldwide mourning in a way that Grenfell never could.
Besides the world’s familiarity with terrorism, which no doubt underscored many peoples’ initial reactions, the sorrow reached small pockets of the world.
The reel of tweets from international leaders made plain how the heartbreak was universal. Of course, Grenfell Tower is not a symbol of art-history pedantry, but it was a home to more than 600 people and it should have been dissected more by the media.
The truth is that to most observers, Grenfell was a tragedy in its accidental nature. The fridge that spontaneously combusts was out of anyone’s control. Many still don’t know that the fire was perfectly avoidable and that calls for safety reform in the building were continuously ignored for years.
The two infernos have also exposed the selective solidarity we feel for certain losses. After Grenfell, aid and support poured in from all recesses of the country. Much like the Manchester bombings, the devastation showed the resilience of the people.
But whilst Macron vowed to rebuild the French ‘psyche’ the very same day, Grenfell victims have enjoyed no such certainty about their future, or their justice. The North Kensington councilmen and women’s’ decisive ambivalence about a rehousing plan has intensified the feeling among survivors of their disposability.
The two events have become an allegory for the rising inequality within nations. The Grenfell Tower residents, who for years called for fire safety improvements and even forecast a fire of Grenfell’s magnitude on their action group website, were overshadowed by the preferences of the richer households.
In the last month, the Notre Dame fund has accumulated a remarkable €1bn from a number of donors. For the families that reside in the same hotel room they were taken to on the day of the fire, the sheer ridiculousness of billionaires pledging tens of millions to the Notre Dame cathedral the very same day, without any hesitation, only sharpens their feeling of subordination.
Of course, our mourning for Notre Dame is slightly muted by the fact it has already been restored, many times before. But whereas Notre Dame is the patchwork of historical time periods, Grenfell is the patchwork of poor corporate decisions.
The £10m refurbishment in 2014 that saw the application of flammable cladding facade to the tower’s exterior transformed a safe structure into an infernal machine.
Now, Grenfell has a gothicism of its own. Its macabre coat of ash reminds the community every day of their institutional neglect.
— Mark Johnson (@mwjtweet) April 16, 2019
Photograph courtesy of Duncan C. Published under a Creative Commons license.