A debate has broken out in France over the outpouring of financial pledges to rebuild Notre Dame while the needs of the nation’s poor don’t fare so well. But Richard Friedlander isn’t surprised. He’s says the dichotomy is rooted in our nature.
We humans are strange birds. Yeah, I know that’s a mixed metaphor, nevertheless it’s true. Some of us go to pieces over the destruction of an 800 year-old building and turn the page past a story about the plight of a million refugees. Others don’t give a fig for the building and weep copious tears at the thought of so much human suffering. But neither response should serve as fodder for a rebuke. There’s an old saying that it’s not the nail in the wall that hurts, but the pin in the shirt. In this case, both crises can have a visceral effect on us. As the afore-mentioned humans, we are all creatures who live in the present, worry about the future, and find our stability if not our meaning in a collective past.
I read that Victor Hugo would turn over in his grave, or some such exaggeration, at the thought that billionaires were eager to give millions of dollars to save an old building, while regarding the cries in the street for economic reforms as unworthy of their dime. But while alive, Hugo was very much aware of the kinship, not the enmity, between the importance of saving a national treasure and bettering the plight of the poor. The same man who pilloried heartless authority in Les Miserables, also wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame to bring attention to the need to save that building - a limestone symbol of the ancient unity of church and state - from decay, while telling the story of a persecuted Gypsy who could only find sanctuary within its walls! A woman who is rescued - if only briefly - by a man despised by the populace for a physical deformity. Les Miserables does not end as many might have wished, but in a lonely graveyard, with the hero’s epitaph describing his life, after all, as just another unrecognized event swallowed by an implacable history. The musical has a more crowd-pleasing tail to wag.
As I said, we humans are strange birds. But it’s not our fault. It’s the way we are made.
With a Perspective, I’m Richard Friedlander.