Along with millions around the world, I watched in horror as the great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris went up in flames. Less than a week later, the donations for its reconstruction had reached one billion euros, made up in large part by some hugely generous offers by certain wealthy individuals. My Facebook feed rapidly began to fill up with posts about how the money would be better spent helping ‘the poor’ rather than on the recovery of the cathedral, which was, after all, ‘just a building’.
I was reminded of my first visit to the Taj Mahal in India. Afterwards, I wrote about the extraordinary feeling that this monument had the capacity to invoke.
But how does this atmosphere come to be? However beautiful it might be, a building cannot feel, a building cannot love, and yet love seems to flow from the Taj as scent from a flower. Is it our own minds that imbue this inanimate with sentience—a kind of emotional field formed over centuries from millions gazing upon it with wonder and adoration in their hearts? Or does the feeling come from its own side, from a purity of intention that continues to inform the very material from which it is crafted? Or perhaps it is the union of the two. Either way, the Taj speaks of a love that it’s hard not to want to believe in. A love that is immortal and indestructible. A love that can rise unsullied and undismayed from the ruins of a soul-crushing grief.
Edward Lear was one of the few writers who accepted the impossibility of describing the indescribable, declaring after his visit to the Taj Mahal that the world was now divided into two types of people, ‘them as has seen the Taj Mahal and them as hasn’t.’ The same could be said of Notre Dame. Those who have been there know—even if they can’t exactly say how—that it is far more than ‘just a building’. Notre Dame is different things to different people, and this is part of its magnetism. It is a place of worship, contemplation, and pilgrimage, an architectural marvel, an historic landmark, a testament to human artistry and a symbol of some inexpressible transcendent reality.
Although often well intentioned, I quickly became tired of the arguments that soon filled the media criticizing the donors of the Notre Dame reconstruction. They seemed to imply that poor people are only poor, that they have no aspirations or concerns beyond their own survival. Such thinking reduces people down to the sum of their most basic needs, and denies our shared capacity for awe and our equal need for inspiration. Other assumptions were often at work, such as the donors were not already involved in any humanitarian causes, and that all it takes to eradicate poverty is large injections of cash. Sure it would be nice if more billionaires were like Bill Gates—but he is rare in that he has taken the time to try to understand how successful social programs actually work, and has set his sites on more achievable goals such as the eradication of tuberculosis. Philanthropy takes many forms and the time honored role of the rich as patrons of art and culture is certainly a worthwhile one to play.
It is condescending to imply that poor people are not emotionally invested in their cultural and artistic heritage. It is also patently wrong. If the Taj Mahal were damaged in some catastrophe, every Indian would feel personally affected and contributions would stream in from every quarter, from poor and rich alike. And although the media is presently focused on massive donations from the super-rich, there are also countless donations being made by ordinary people not only from all over France, but from all over the world. When tens of thousands of Tibetans fled Tibet in the wake of China’s invasion in 1959, many of them ended up as road workers in India’s Himalayan regions—one of the toughest jobs imaginable. And yet, almost all of them contributed some small amount of their already meager wages to support the building of a library to house the Buddhist texts that had been smuggled out—and this at a time when the basic needs of the Tibetan exiles had barely begun to be met. You can see the plaque honoring the contribution of these road workers today in the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala.
I’m sure that some poor people are upset about the amount of money being channeled from the wealthy to the reconstruction of Notre Dame. Certainly groups that claim to represent the poor are getting riled up. But nobody ever seems to ask the poor what they think. The people I see getting upset are the moderately comfortable who, in their eagerness to signal their concern for those less fortunate, manage instead to diminish them.