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Letter from Paris: The Bells Are Silent

David Berlinski


I have lived within half a city block of Notre Dame for the last twenty years. I saw the spire from my bedroom window every morning, and at noon, or in the evening, on leaving my apartment, I could touch the cathedral walls. I always directed taxi drivers to head for Notre Dame, and even if they had never heard of rue Chanoinesse — my street — they knew how to get there. 

My father played on the cathedral’s organ, and after his concert, when the cathedral was deserted, he played Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for my wife and me, the sound booming. In winter, when there were few tourists, I would go into the cathedral and light a candle for M.-P. Schützenberger. He had wished to return as one of the gargoyles, and, perhaps, he had. No building has ever been more a part of my life. I saw the spire topple, slowly at first, and then quickly. The police forced me to evacuate to the other side of the Seine. All of Paris was there. I thought of myself as a Parisian, if not by birth, then, at least, by sentiment. Twenty years is a long time. 

The pompiers were in their glory last night, and, when I was allowed to return home as dawn was breaking, they were still there, red-eyed, exhausted, grim. The police, too. The great cloud of smoke had drifted to the west and south. Later that day, I saw the front of the cathedral. Its towers were still standing, but its great bells, which I had heard every day, were silent. 

They will never ring in the same way. Not for me. Not for anyone.

Photo credit: Antoninnnnn [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.