Holy week in Notre Dame de Paris got off to a catastrophic start, but the president and his ministers are there to raise our spirits, even if it’s hard to believe what they say.
When Notre Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire on April 15, the number of associations in people’s minds as they watched the images may have outnumbered the sparks flying from the rafters. With more than 800 years of religious, cultural and political history, spanning the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the French Revolution and five republics, Notre Dame symbolizes too many things to be thought of as a mere building. In more recent history, flames leaping from a public monument tend to evoke a different set of associations. The blaze transmitted in real time across the globe could only provoke strong emotion.
Victor Hugo made Notre Dame cathedral the central character of his famous novel, Notre Dame de Paris, which when translated into English should never have been called The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In his novel, Hugo established the soaring gothic monument on the Ile de la Cité as a kind of hive for the queen bee of Paris, around which the melodramatic plots played out by his mere human characters unfolded, with the queen bee (Notre Dame) positioned to observe the city around her as the worker bees and drones go about their frenetic business inside and outside her peaceful core.
For many tourists, Notre Dame served as their introduction to French gothic architecture. For those who had never seen it, its image standing alongside the banks of the Seine was a symbol of Paris, the city of light, as well as both the past and perennial splendor of European culture. For others, it was the mythical and magical setting of a Disney cartoon about a deformed bell ringer and the empathy of another outsider, a gypsy girl.
Speculation about the cause of the fire — found to be accidental — fortunately didn’t last too long as people fixed their attention on the damage itself and, more obscurely, on the meaning the disaster had for them. Like 9/11, as the television cameras broadcast the catastrophe, the spectacle of flames leaping from an iconic building in the center of a mythical city fascinated and terrified, generating a multitude of emotions for all who watched it, from the sense of the fragility and vulnerability of objects and institutions we think of as stable and reliable (sic transit gloria mundi) to our own mortality.
On Easter Sunday, six days later, the French minister of culture, Franck Riester, came forward reassuringly to inform the nation that “Notre-Dame aujourd’hui est quasi sauvée.” The most literal translation, which doesn’t make sense in English, would be: “Notre Dame is today quasi saved.” A more accurate translation would be, “Notre Dame is basically saved,” but that fails to express the curious ambiguity of the word, quasi.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Quasi (as used in French):
Not quite, but the best hypothesis on a sliding scale between any two extremes that will keep people from complaining or asking too many questions
When speaking about public catastrophes, ministers generally prefer to reassure. When Riester says “quasi,” one has to wonder how much he may be hedging his bets. His president, Emmanuel Macron — undoubtedly inspired by Donald Trump — has promised to “rebuild Notre Dame to be even more beautiful” so that Paris may have, in Trumpian terms, a “big, beautiful” cathedral.
Macron also showed that he was even more American than Trump, at least in his conviction that “time is money,” since he promised to have the job done by 2024. Alas, the experts, such as Eric Fischer, director of the Notre-Dame Foundation, consider that the reconstruction will take much longer, possibly decades to complete. Macron apparently dreams of still being president in 2024 and imitating George W. Bush by appearing in front of Notre Dame under an unfurled banner announcing “Mission Accomplie.”
Many are speculating that Macron sees this as an opportunity to unify the population with a new sense of purpose and push aside his growing inability to handle the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement, whose protests every Saturday prevent him from unwinding for the weekend. One of the protesters in the latest demonstration carried a placard with these wonderfully appropriate words: “Tout pour Notre-Dame rien pour les misérables.” The Guardian commented: “‘Everything for Notre Dame, nothing for Les Misérables,’ read another sign that evoked Victor Hugo’s novel.”
But the wit of the sign was untranslatable. It referred not to a single Hugo novel, but compared the titles of two. Translated literally, the sign said, “Everything for Notre Dame, nothing for the needy (les misérables).” But since Hugo’s novel about Notre Dame was simply called Notre Dame de Paris, the sign jokes about money going to one of Hugo’s titles (the cathedral) while neglecting the other (the poor people of France).
Riester’s choice of the epithet “quasi sauvé” — which might also mean “kind of saved” or “nearly saved” or “just about saved” — curiously evokes the name of the character everyone remembers from Hugo’s novel: Quasimodo, the hunchback bell ringer. Hugo explains that the priest, Claude Frollo, discovered the abandoned baby on the steps of Notre Dame the Sunday after Easter, traditionally called Quasimodo Sunday. In Hugo’s words (Penguin translation), Frollo:
“… baptized his adopted child and called him Quasimodo; whether it was that he chose thereby to commemorate the day when he had found him, or that he meant to mark by that name how incomplete and imperfectly molded the poor little creature was. Indeed, Quasimodo, one-eyed, hunchbacked, and bow-legged, could hardly be considered as anything more than an almost.”
In Latin, quasimodo comes from the phrase in the New Testament, “Quasi modo geniti infantes” (1 Pet. ii. 2), and it means “Like newborn babies.” The further irony is that quasi in French also means “not quite,” the idea Hugo sums up when he describes Quasimodo as “incomplete and imperfectly molded.”
In other words, Riester may be hinting that Notre Dame is incompletely and imperfectly “saved,” despite his intention to reassure the public that under President Macron everything is under control.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.
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