I remember a morning, years ago, as a nation watched a spacecraft soar towards the skies. I was teaching then - High School English. It was a Tuesday morning, and my classroom, like most in the nation, had this launch on “live” TV — because one of the passengers was a school teacher, and she had delighted the nation with her courage, her determination, and her promise to make her experience a learning experience for all. Moments later - a devastating, soul searing sight.
Years later, turning a rental car in near the airport in Phoenix, the “lot” guy told me there was no shuttle bus available to take me to the airport. No explanation - he just pointed at the door to the rental area. Inside, people were staring in disbelief at a television hanging in the corner, and as I began to understand what I was seeing, the second aircraft penetrated the second World Trade Tower. Again… devastation, and horror for those whose lives were wiped away, senselessly, instantly.
And last week, the same reaction to the conflagration that struck Notre Dame… a building so ingrained in our culture and collective identity/experience, that its potential destruction opened again the wound of our modern culture/zeitgeist/hatreds — we are a civilization at risk, and the destruction of elements that have formed our sense of foundation, understanding — existence… seem threateningly unstable.
In western civilization, we have visual symbols that in no small way form and solidify our sense of identity.
The Pyramids anchor an Old Testament story that begins a nation’s journey to a “promised” land. They still stand as one of mankind’s most audacious construction accomplishments.
The Acropolis in Athens remains a symbol of democracy — a radical mindset where “the people” could join together to SELF determine the decisions affecting their life.
Big Ben in London, tall and proud, soars beside a building where a country shed its monarchy, and chose instead, representative democracy.
In Paris, three of the more enduring symbols of modern ‘western’ civilization stand… Notre Dame, a building, that in its time, was nothing less than a “moon-landing” of a construction accomplishment. The Arc de Triumph — built to commemorate Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, has since come to stand for the power of people to unite to overthrow oppression. In June, 1940, Germans marched through the arc as they assumed control of Paris. Four years later, in August 1944, General DeGaul led French troops through the same Arc, to reclaim that national symbol of patriotism and pride. The Eiffel Tower — an enduring monument to modern construction and new technologies, rose over the World’s Fair Paris hosted in 1889. For over 40 years it stood as the world’s tallest structure, and became an enduring symbol of our modern ages.
All these “places” share a common thread:
Monument -> Icon -> Symbol
Three words… ones we frequently use. Ones we rarely consider for what they are — structured concepts with embedded, unquestioned value and function.
We don’t analyze language much… we use it, abuse it, toss it aside in frustration or doubt. We simply don’t acknowledge it for what it is — a culture’s attempt to define, interpret and give utterance to this spectacle of living we as humans share.
Imagining its absence isn’t possible — because the thought formed to consider the question cannot be formed without it. An ultimate conundrum…
And we… are faced with a more ultimate conundrum… as we witness the destruction/desecration of the symbols that have shaped our very perception of life as we ‘know’ it, do we have the will, the fortitude, the essential cultural awareness — to rebuild, to reconfigure, to transform our foundations towards … the opposite of horror… hope?
And as Notre Dame begins a re-birth, it is my hope we can come to a better understanding of our symbols and embedded beliefs, and create a model reflecting deeper truths, and hopes, of the mankind such structures are intended to serve.