Reflections on Notre-Dame by Sarah Pelmas, Head of School and O'Donnell Family Chair
In 1992, right after I finished my PhD qualifying exams, I received a fellowship to study parks and museums in Paris for a semester. (I know; times were different then.) I found myself a flat in Montmartre, and bought a lot of black clothes, grabbed my Plan de Paris and my dictionary and off I went. There was no internet to give me answers; if I wanted to know something, I would have to ask. I sat in on lectures at the Sorbonne, rode the metro in all directions, and analyzed La Villette, the Musee D’Orsay, and La Defense with my deconstructionist theoretical background and my literary criticism tools. And I sat, many afternoons of the week, at a cafe overlooking Notre-Dame, reading or writing letters and trying to understand my place. Notre-Dame was eternal, signifying a culture that was not mine at all and also my connection to history. I would try to imagine the people who had begun building the cathedral in the year 1160, and who knew all the while that they would never see its completion. Notre-Dame spoke to me, profoundly, an affirmation that things do survive over generations and centuries, and that we can all share in the power of something that has weathered so much and supported so many. She made me feel, briefly and elusively, French. And I knew she would always do that for visitors like me, for generations to come.
So it is indeed a blow, to all of us who have visited and loved the cathedral, that she is not after all eternal and that it may be well after we leave this earth before she is complete once again. For me, the process of rebuilding embodies the same spirit of hope and commitment that laid the foundations 9 centuries ago. And I hope that the stories shared here, from our Saltonstall scholars who have lived in and loved Paris, will help us connect with one another, grapple again with our individual and collective sense of history, loss, and permanence. Above all, I hope we will celebrate the extraordinary spirit that Notre-Dame represents.