Last week, watching Notre Dame on fire: a sight as extraordinary as it was horrible; when the spire collapsed it felt like the whole thing might burn down. Reports, later falsified, suggested that the cathedral’s magnificent 13th-century Rose Windows — west and north and south, that glow blue and green and red and purple with all the beauty and majesty that God, if there is a God, must have — may already have smashed in the heat. A monument I had always assumed would stand there, would just sort of be there in the center of Paris for at least as long as anyone now living was sentient at all — it seemed like, somehow, we were watching it being erased from the map in real time.
“End times,” my partner messaged me. I’m not sure that’s quite right: during the Middle Ages, cathedrals got set on fire all the time, the story of the Big Fire is usually one of the main points around which any cathedral tour is built, but it was certainly the sort of event that makes you feel like the world has spun off its axis somewhat.
In his book On Certainty, Wittgenstein discusses what we might think of as “grounding” or “bedrock” propositions, which are those that cannot be doubted, since they form “the starting-point of belief,” and are part of “the inherited background against which” we distinguish between true and false at all. Wittgenstein gives the image of water flowing across a riverbed — most empirical propositions, he tells us, are like the water; but others are like the rocks which form the channel, allowing the rest of our thoughts and experiences to flow.
Most obviously, these propositions include things like “there is a world that existed before my birth.” But Wittgenstein also gives examples like “no one has ever been on the moon” — which, when he was writing On Certainty between 1949 and 1951 might well have seemed unshakably true, but by the time it was published in 1969, did not. In a way, though, this just proves Wittgenstein’s point. Over time, as he tells us, “the riverbed of thoughts may shift” — the progress of the water over the riverbed may cause new channels to form, may cause smaller bits of the river-bed to break off and float away. That is what it felt like we were undergoing last Monday: the disorienting, de-centering experience of seeing the previously very firm and settled proposition, “Notre Dame is a cathedral in Paris,” suddenly come loose and drift downstream.
Notre Dame on fire was an astonishing spectacle, but it was not a spectacle that was solely or even primarily about watching a cathedral burn. We bore witness to Notre Dame on fire through videos shared on social media, and that meant it was impossible, while watching events unfold, to avoid everyone else’s terrible Notre Dame takes.
Whatever bullshit you normally care about, whatever shtick your social media account normally trades in, the Notre Dame fire could be contorted to fit it.
It was like leafing through an encyclopedia of badness: Donald Trump suggesting that “flying water tankers” ought to be used to put the fire out, only for it to turn out that this was the one thing that would definitely cause the whole cathedral to collapse; right-wing political commentator Ben Shapiro using the fire as an opportunity to spout Islamophobic dogwhistles; other right-wing commentators openly using it to start some “Muslims did it” conspiracy theories.
We saw people ostensibly on the left celebrating the destruction of the cathedral on the basis that it must, by virtue of standing in Europe, be racist (yes okay, there is no document of civilization that isn’t also a document of barbarism, but that doesn’t mean you can then simply undo the barbarism by destroying them). Some idiot saying that watching the destruction of the cathedral was “a gift” since it “stood for thousands of years but it can be destroyed only once”; another using it as an excuse to push for Scottish independence. The soccer player Neymar sharing an almost distressingly vulgar image of the Disney Quasimodo hugging the cathedral and crying; the comedian Brian Limond aka Limmy doing the same stupid joke he always does whenever a celebrity dies; some bloke on a Periscope stream of the fire commenting “respect from a Sheffield Wednesday fan.”
Whatever bullshit you normally care about, whatever shtick your social media account normally trades in, the Notre Dame fire could be contorted to fit it. And so the strange, de-centering event of seeing Notre Dame on fire, the experience of seeing one of the settled propositions of our world come loose, was able via The Discourse to give way to, simply: more of the same.
It feels like we’re trapped somewhere — spiritually, existentially trapped. Specifically, it feels like we are trapped in Season 8, Episode 1 of the British sitcom Peep Show, “Jeremy Therapised.” Let me explain.
For those of you who’ve never seen Peep Show, the show is about two thirtysomething friends, Mark and Jeremy (Jez), who live together in Croydon on the suburban outskirts of south London. Mark and Jez are ostensibly Odd Couple opposites: Mark is pedantic and uptight, a history buff old before his years, who works (for the bulk of the show’s run) for a loan company called JLB Credit; Jez is an impulsive, hedonistic parasite, whose long-term plan starts out being to break big with his terrible band, and ends up being to sell a newspaper the headline “Three-O Walcott” when the soccer player Theo Walcott turns 30.
But the pair shares more than might be immediately apparent: both are utterly selfish to the point of being unable to maintain healthy relationships with anyone; they make the lives of most of the people they come into contact with almost immeasurably worse. Distinctively, the show presents the bulk of the action from the point of view of either Mark or Jez, using point-of-view camera shots as well as stream-of-consciousness monologues, exposing the pair in all their petty stupidity and underhanded, typically illegitimately wounded, self-interest.
It feels like we’re trapped somewhere — spiritually, existentially trapped. Specifically, it feels like we are trapped in Season 8, Episode 1 of the British sitcom Peep Show.
At the start of “Jeremy Therapised,” Jez is set to move out of the apartment Mark owns and Dobby, Mark’s on-off girlfriend, has agreed to move in with him. “Get her locked in like Fritzl,” Mark thinks. “No, not like Fritzl. Like a nice, normal loving guy... who knows where she is at all times.” But this arrangement is complicated by the affections of Gerrard, a former co-worker (and sort-of friend) of Mark’s who in the previous season had formed a “Dobby Club” with him — effectively, because they both fancied her and wanted to stalk her. Gerrard is sick in bed with some horrible cocktail of illnesses, and Dobby keeps interrupting dates with Mark to go look after him.
“I know what you’re doing,” Mark tells Gerrard when he tags along on one such visit. “It’s no dice for you and your sickly ways.” “I’m playing the long game,” Gerrard replies, before offering Dobby a room in his flat rent-free.
But then one night, Mark stops Dobby from going to see Gerrard on the basis that “I think there’s going to be someone on The Apprentice who we’re both going to really loathe.” Dobby acquiesces, but a few hours later, Gerrard dies of the flu. “Jesus,” Mark thinks, on learning of the death of his rival. “Life. Spinning past. Every second, every single fleeting moment, till we’re gone.” This man, with whom Mark, despite his ambivalence, had shared enough of his life to be invited to give the eulogy at his funeral, is no more.
This turn of events seems like it might have given Mark an opportunity to reflect, to reconsider at least some of the excruciating, duplicitous minutiae which he has allowed to define his own finite time on earth. “Mourning,” Freud tells us, “impels the ego to give up the object by declaring the object to be dead and offering the inducement of continuing to live.” Mourning can be healthy: an opportunity for us to find new ways of living, differently and better.
But if Mark undergoes any process of mourning here at all, it is one that immediately fails. “I’m taking a look at my phone tariff,” Mark reflects. “I’ve got a very strong feeling I’m being fucked in the arse.” For Freud, failed mourning gave way to melancholia, characterized by “painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world... inhibition of all activity.” But here we almost have melancholia’s opposite: Mark doubling down on his pathologically selfish investment in the world; his previous interest in it intensifying.
As the rest of the episode unfolds it becomes clear that Mark is unable to regard Gerrard’s death as anything other than a brilliant move in the battle for Dobby’s affections. “It feels like she’s still seeing more of him than me,” he thinks as Dobby helps plan Gerrard’s funeral. “The guy’s really come into his own since he’s been dead.” Death does not allow Mark (or anyone else) to transcend the pointless cycle of bullshit by which he was previously consumed. Mark cuts his eulogy short to attend a job interview, attempts to make up for it by buying the other mourners a “wake cake” depicting Liverpool soccer player Steven Gerrard (when it’s pointed out to Mark that Gerrard had no interest in sport, he objects that “there were three shelves of cake cheaper than this!”). At the end of the episode, Dobby tells Mark she won’t need to move in with him after all, because Gerrard has left her a substantial sum of money. “Well played, Gerrard,” Mark thinks. “You couldn’t beat me on earth so you’re shitting on me from heaven.” And here Mark will remain, in hell.
Death does not allow Mark (or anyone else) to transcend the pointless cycle of bullshit by which he was previously consumed.
The lead characters in Peep Show are comic in a very traditional, Aristotelian sense: in the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that comedy shows humanity as worse than it is — and Mark is certainly that. But events like those surrounding the Notre Dame fire must warn us that we’re not far off.
For the most part, the world is bad, and we (as individuals, as a society, as a species) are living badly. If we’re ever going to get better, we’re going to need to change: to see things differently like Mark needs to, to move beyond ourselves as we presently are. But if we can’t even stop and take stock long enough to marvel on the sheer awful strangeness of seeing Notre fucking Dame cathedral burning down — what transformative experiences might we even, possibly, be capable of? It would be as if I learned that the world really hadn’t existed before I was born, and would cease to exist when I died — and then just went “oh, well” and carried on talking about Twitter’s latest asshole of the day.
Those moments where the “riverbed” of thoughts shift have a real ethical significance: without rupture, redemption is impossible. Last Monday was yet another reason to worry if we’ll be damned forever.