#431 To human ingenuity

A while back I mentioned an intellectual friend from my college days whose Facebook I often find thought-provoking. His most recent pearl of wisdom that struck me this morning concerned the unfortunate fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. As countless others were, I was heartbroken to hear about the fire yesterday evening. I have an abiding love for and fascination with history and find such indiscriminate destruction too difficult to comprehend, whether it was intentional or accidental. So when I woke up this morning (bleary eyed from a restless night where a small person kept us awake), I locked myself in the bathroom as usual and before washing my face and brushing my teeth, I pulled out my phone and tried to kick start my brain by checking the news, my messages and emails, and snuck a quick peek at Facebook. Usually I mindlessly scroll down for a little bit just to see if anything jumps out at me, before putting my phone away to get on with my morning routine.  This morning, something did catch my eye:

“I’m willing to bet that none of the atoms currently of my body are original to the body I was born with. And yet, here I am.

Churches are things, nothing more. Faith itself endures.”

This was my friend’s opening salvo, and I of course stopped to read the rest. It is worth quoting his entire post in full (with his permission).

This Easter, I’m sure more Parisians will attend services at Notre Dame – in whatever form remains – than have attended in a generation. If, in the Grand Scheme of Things, the material loss of a building brings faith and hope back to those who once had it, or who never had it, then the loss can be endured. It can, perhaps, even be worth the price.

From Douglas Adams:

“I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century. “So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s burnt down?”
“Yes.”
“Twice.”
“Many times.”
“And rebuilt.”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burnt down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”
I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.”

~ John J. 15 April 2019, quoting Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

I have not read Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See, though I see now that I will have to rectify this omission. The tone, however, is quintessentially Adams. I had put my phone away and was now zoning out with my arms propped up on the sink, watching the hot water rush over my fingers. The pattern of the water always moving but the stream of water not varying at all unless I twitched my fingers. Stillness and motion together. Two things that are outwardly contradictory appearing in harmony with each other. I tried to apply the same principle to my friend’s thinking because my first instinct was to dismiss his argument. Not about his understanding of faith, but his implicit dismissal of the significance of the fire’s devastation. I rubbed my hands together under the hot water, still mesmerised, watching droplets bounce off my fingers and splash around them.

But… but… the history! The beauty! The ignominious and quick end to something that had endured all the elements for centuries! That survived the Revolution and two World Wars! my brain cried out. I shook my hands out in frustration, grimaced at my blurry reflection in the mirror, and moved on to brushing my teeth, trying to pinpoint the precise source of my discontent with my friend’s thinking. Even to my sleep-addled brain, my own responses were petulant. I knew that in essentials, he was right. Faith will endure. The Cathedral will no doubt be rebuilt. Why could I not agree with him then?

Loss of one’s craftsmanship….

Ahhh, I paused there, with my toothbrush still in my mouth, watery toothpaste slowly dribbling down my chin, staring at myself in the mirror again but not really seeing. This thought had potential.

I recalled dimly the subject of my college admissions essay. No one line remains imprinted in my memory, but the feeling it evoked then remains. I know I wrote about my summer spent in the UK on a four-week high school trip. I wrote about walking down the streets of Oxford, about seeing the White Horse at Uffington, climbing the battlements of Conwy Castle. I wrote about touching history. There are many places, Notre Dame being one of them, where such history is a tangible, physical presence. Where you cannot escape the knowledge that your hands, your eyes, your feet, are merely the latest in a long line of countless nameless faces, people, who have touched the same walls, trod the same streets, looked out over the same land. To me, such a feeling is its own form of faith. Belief in human endurance and ingenuity.

My hands returned to the tasks at hand of their own accord, but my mind was now awake, spinning away with this train of thought. I sought to square the circle – find a way to make myself comfortable with my friend’s point of view without relinquishing my own. Was it a sense of materialism that kept me bound to the physical loss? Why could I not accept the notion that the idea of the building was more important than the materials used to build it? Having finished with my teeth, I reached out with one hand to dry my fingers hastily on a towel and swiped the screen on my phone to glance at the Douglas Adams quote again before returning my hands to their meditative position under running water.

I called up my recollection of the Cathedral’s spire. The delicate lace-like stone carvings in contrast to the heavy, domineering facade of the two bell-towers at the front of the church. My mind instantly thought of the labour that was required to erect the original structure and I knew I had my answer.

My friend, speaking through the words of Douglas Adams, is correct that, once rebuilt, the Cathedral will continue to serve its purpose. Architects, historians, engineers, builders – these people will no doubt admirably restore the idea, intention, design, and essence of the building. Tourists will continue to flock there. The faithful will continue to pray. In the meantime, the process of restoration will present a challenge that experts will relish. This is a great testament to human ingenuity and the human spirit. Where we humans once toiled with just our hands, we now create with our minds. We can now create the vision of a restored cathedral in immense digital detail, run computer model simulations on the strength of the materials, use laser precision tools to mimic the detail. Hell, scientists have just printed the very first 3D human heart, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone out there attempts to rebuild the Cathedral with components created with a 3D printer!  Things we can now achieve with science and mathematics would have been nothing less than miracles and magic to the people who first built the Cathedral.

And yet… and yet… Is that all there is to human ingenuity? Do we only celebrate the progress, the idea of achievement, and discard the past results of human labour? Finally admitting to myself that I needed to move on with my morning or risk running late, I fully dried my hands and my face and prepared to exit the bathroom to battle the day, having discovered the source of my malcontent. Having discovered both the stillness and the motion in my thinking.

Human ingenuity isn’t only about intangible progress. It’s also about the evidence of our past. From the initial construction in the twelfth century, to the last substantial renovation in the 1850s before the dawn of the technological era, everything about the building was a testament to a different kind of human ingenuity. A physical kind. It speaks to the ability of man to envision in his mind, and then create with his hands, without the aid of computers or machines. When I think of the loss of the Notre Dame spire, I don’t think of the intention or purpose of the building. I think about the hundreds of hands that must have been involved in carving and installing each individual stone and statute by hand. How can someone contemplate such a feat and not marvel at what humans were able to achieve with minimal technological progress? When I last saw a textile exhibit in a museum I marveled at the stitching on a Dutch ruff collar from the 17th century. Trying to peer as close as the glass display case would permit, I practically went cross-eyed trying to identify the countless tiny stitches holding the fabric together, all done by hand. Today’s clothing, no matter how elegant, does not inspire the same awe in me. I am sure that someone today, with the help of computers and mechanised weaving machines, could easily recreate the 15th century Unicorn Tapestries, but their original creator, whose identity is now lost to time, must have painstakingly sketched elements of the design by hand and wove the tapestries, one inch per hour, without the benefit of being able to see the overall picture anywhere until completion.

We have quantified all the physical elements of construction at this point. Every day on my way to work, I pass the massive construction site at Boland Flour Mill. The original stone warehouses were built in the 1830s and are now listed buildings due to their use during the Easter Rising. However, the site itself stood derelict for a number of years when the mill closed, overshadowed by massive concrete silos until eventually the economy picked up enough to allow the site to be redeveloped. From a graffiti-covered concrete eyesore and a crumbling stone elegance hidden by grime and rusted grates, there is now clean restored stone facade behind which rise tall steel skeleton frames of new high rise towers.  It has been fascinating to watch the careful deconstruction of the site and now the methodical-yet-swift rise of the newest commercial buildings in the area, but the beauty I see isn’t lasting. I admire the emerging facade but I don’t find it inspiring. Not the way I felt when I stood in the bowels of Newgrange, looking up at the corbelled roof soaring above me, wondering how something like that must have been built 5,000 years ago with such skill as to remain completely waterproof to this day.

(Much later, a friend reminds me of the Cathedral in Vienna, parts of which were meticulously rebuilt to the original style following the destruction of World War Two. My mind immediately leapt to the Coventry Cathedral, completely devastated during the Blitz. Instead of rebuilding, the old stone walls now stand as a memorial to the devastation wreaked by human hands, and another, “modern” Cathedral imposes its bulky presence over the more delicate medieval architecture that remains. A solid monolith of brick and glass, it intimidates more than it inspires. I wonder then, what Douglas Adams would say about this particular, oddly-joined up edifice. There is nothing in the new Cathedral that contains the idea and design of the original, although as a church, I imagine it qualifies as maintaining the intention and essence of the original building. I wonder what people will think in another 100 or 200 years. Will the original walls still stand? Will today’s “modern” architecture become dated and unwelcome like concrete 1960s high rise apartment blocks, or will its design and structure gain historical and sentimental value with time?)

Yes, the original building materials may be “sentimental souvenirs of the past”. But they are also testaments of human skills which are no longer valued as vocations. Some of these skills may even no longer survive. Delicate carvings in stone have given way to clean lines. Ornamentation has given way to simplicity. Those buildings, artworks, fabrics that do survive – they are reminders that once, anything we humans envisioned was achieved with this different kind of human ingenuity. They are tangible representations of the greatness that lies within all of us. Testaments to the idea that the human brain is the greatest computer ever created. And once lost, those “souvenirs” cannot be replaced. They are not only souvenirs of our history, they are We can recreate the faithful image of the Notre Dame Cathedral, but we can never again recapture the enduring symbol of human perseverance and patience of raising such a grand edifice with nothing more than our hands, and that most basic of tools: limitless human ingenuity.


The feature photo is copyrighted by AP/Thibault Camus from this article. It is reproduced here without explicit permission, (and with my apologies to the owners) however it is used with no intention of monetary gain, and only because I can’t find my own photos of the Notre Dame right now. 

1 Comment

  1. […] a very-well written piece about the recent Notre Dame catastrophe. The Feathered Rose, in “To human ingenuity,” described “both the stillness and the motion in (her) thinking” as she […]

    Liked by 1 person

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