Notre Dame, Mark Twain, and How Old Buildings Connect Us

I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad which is a travelogue that recounts a grand voyage by sea and land that Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain embarked upon with some super rich Americans in 1868. The writing is wonderful and Mark Twain is an absolute hoot. I’ve laughed out loud on almost every page. And, as you might expect of a book written 150 years ago, there’s some real troubling views on minorities and basically anything that is not America. American Exceptionalism: It’s not a new concept! During a jaunt in Tangier, Twain found that some local veiled women would quickly show their faces to a “Christian dog,” after all, they’re only human and thus craving male attention. Twain declared himself to be “full of veneration for the wisdom that leads them to cover up such atrocious ugliness.” What a skilled pen had he with which to yield such racist and sexist bon mots!

What has really amazed me about this old book is that when Twain describes a place, it sounds just like it does today, from small details to the overall essence. What a visceral description of the city of Paris as a whole, and of the Notre Dame.

Reading this book has made me feel that 150 years ago isn’t very long at all and I’ve felt a sense of wonder at the enduring physical things – the monuments, the churches, the mosques, the pyramids, the buildings. To stand on the same stone and look at the same edifice as someone from hundreds of years ago evokes a powerful feeling of connection and it makes me think the concept of time is both incomprehensible and laughable.

When I heard the incredibly upsetting news yesterday that the Notre Dame de Paris – the iconic Gothic cathedral that has reached her spiny spire up into the gray Parisian skyscape for something like 800(!) years was burning, my first thought was why now? Why, in the 21st century, when we presumably have the best fire prevention and firefighting technology ever, would such enduring monument burn? Aren’t we supposed to read about great destroying fires on a placard at a historic site and feel a sadness that we never got to experience the majestic structure as it was all the while feeling an assuredness that such a thing couldn’t possibly happen today? (Apparently, a fire did break out in Notre Dame in the 13th century).

Here’s how Twain described Notre Dame – or “the brown old Gothic pile” when he first glimpsed it in 1868.

We stood at a little distance and changed from one point of observation to another and gazed long at its lofty square towers and its rich front, clustered thick with stony, mutilated saints who had been looking calmly down from their perches for ages. The Patriarch of Jerusalem stood under them in the old days of chivalry and romance, and preached the third Crusade, more than six hundred years ago; and since that day, they have stood there and looked quietly down upon the most thrilling scenes, the grandest pageants, the most extraordinary spectacles that have grieved or delighted Paris. These battered and broken-nosed old fellows saw many and many a cavalcade of mail-clad knights come marching home from Holy Land; they heard the bells above them toll the signal for the St Bartholomew’s Massacre, and they saw the slaughter that followed; later they saw the Reign of Terror, the carnage of the Revolution, the overthrow of a king, the coronation of two Napoleons, the christening of the young prince that lords it over a regiment of servants in the Tuileries today – and they may possibly continue to stand there until they see the Napoleon dynasty swept away and the banners of a great republic floating above its ruins. I wish these old parties could speak. They could tell a tale worth the listening to.

Just two years after Twain stood beneath the Notre Dame, wondering wether the Napoleon dynasty would fall, it did, during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which put an end to rule by French monarchs.

Twain notes that before the foundations for Notre Dame were laid, some time in the early 12th Century, the same land had held a different Christian church, a different one before that, and an old Roman pagan temple from 18 or 20 centuries before that.

British troops burned down Washington, basically, during the War of 1812. They torched the Capital (which then housed the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress) and the White House, and lots of other buildings in DC. Up until that point, Congress had debated with some regularity the plan of moving the nation’s capital to more built-up cosmopolitan city, like Philadelphia. After the fires, the nation bonded together over the loss and agreed that DC was the nation’s forever capital. They rebuilt. No one introduced any more bills to move the capital.

While I can’t even imagine such a thing happening today, Paris obviously will rebuild, and I’m sure the country will come together with strength and vigor just as they have after other devastating events in recent years. This sad destruction of history will put a renewed focus on what iconic French structures like Notre Dame and the city of Paris means to the world as a whole.

To me – one little speck of a 21st century human, who strolled under that “brown old Gothic pile” while in Paris to study just as did people did a hundred years ago and a hundred years before and a hundred years before that, me who never ventured inside the Medieval church because there’d always be another time to do that –  well to me, Notre Dame was, as my friend and former classmate Mary Grace described it, “like your mom. You might roll your eyes at it sometimes—so many tourists with their selfie sticks, getting in your way when you needed to get to workshop—but it was always there, a permanent presence, the backdrop to life. You didn’t have to think about how much you loved it because it would always be there.” 

To Notre Dame and to history,


The spire of Notre Dame visible from NYU’s panoramic classroom.
From a different angle, with a quiche fromage.
Me with my friend Susan in front of the Notre Dame in the summer of 2015.
My parents in front of Notre Dame in the summer of 2015.
The husband, myself, and friend Sarah (who is moving to Paris, lucky her) behind Notre Dame in the summer of 2016.

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