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Luiss Guido Carli

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Luiss Open: Notre Dame burns, here's why it hurts us so much

The reflection of Professor Gianfranco Pellegrino on the flames over Paris


What happens to our value system and our feelings when we witness an event like the fire of Notre Dame? On the impression it made, there are no doubts. The few conflicting voices have pointed out that, at the end of the day, it is an inanimate object: we lose so many human lives in the world every day and our reactions are smaller, or less passionate. And yet, even these voices – merely for the fact they are expressing such countercurrent ideas at this precise moment – prove that they are participating in the general emotional climate, at least implicitly.

More are those who lament the irreparable (or at least very difficult to repair) loss. The pathos of the reactions leads us to think the question is more than just historic or esthetic. The flames of Notre Dame inflict a sense of moral loss. But what have we lost, exactly? Have we, as some say, lost our European or Western identity? Have we lost a one-of-a-kind product of the human spirit? Has something of immense beauty vanished? Are we mourning the death of our past that cannot return, that has a value precisely because it is irretrievable?

 These responses could all be true. But each has a different consequence and meaning. To understand the root of the emotions sparked by the flames, to comprehend the origin of our sense of loss, and if it is truly sound, we must unravel the consequences and meanings. We must understand the ethics of cultural patrimony. We must understand what lies underneath our feeling that the fire at Notre Dame caused irreplaceable loss. – that the cathedral, as it was prior to the fire, is impossible to substitute.

Reflecting on these themes is not of little importance. Events such as the fire make us question our relationship with the past – our past as Europeans and as Westerners, with our past as individuals, who have all, more or less, gone to Paris to see Notre Dame, and with the past of others, who hold different beliefs. Our relationship with the past is a part of our identity and our present. A heightened awareness of that which lies beneath our sense of loss would maybe help us to not fall so readily into an ideological battle, waking the specter of an opposition with the Other.

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