The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Ben Taub, Paige Blankenbuehler, Alex Horton, Victoria Gannon, and Gustavo Arellano.

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* * *

1. Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret

Ben Taub | The New Yorker | April 15, 2019 | 78 minutes (19,519 words)

“Instead, he began to wonder whether what he was actually protecting at Guantánamo was one of the government’s darkest secrets: that its highest-value military detainee was being held essentially by mistake, and that his isolation in Echo Special was intended to cover up the hell that had been inflicted upon him.”

2. How a Tiny Endangered Species Put a Man In Prison

Paige Blankenbuehler | High Country News | April 15, 2019 | 20 minutes (5,199 words)

In Death Valley National Park lies Devils Hole: an aquifer-fed pool home to one of the rarest fish species in the world — the Devils Hole pupfish. The pupfish has been the center of controversy between conservationists dedicated to protecting the inch-long fish species and Nevadans who believe the fish isn’t worth sacrificing their right to pump water on their land. Trent Sargent learned about how well the pupfish is protected the hard way.

3. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five in Baghdad

Alex Horton | Washington Post | April 13, 2019 | 8 minutes (2,000 words)

A beautiful meditation on Kurt Vonnegut and the trauma of war.

4. The Metrics of Backpacks

Victoria Gannon | Art Practical | April 3, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,130 words)

Optimization can’t be all there is to life, can it? On data, and backpacks, and technology, and gender, and messy personhood.

5. I get one last Lent with my Mami. I’m using it to learn our family’s capirotada recipe

Gustavo Arellano | Los Angeles Times | April 18, 2019 | 6 minutes (1,602 words)

As his mother enters hospice care, Gustavo Arellano pays tribute to her life and to her cooking, trying to preserve the memory of his favorite dish.

from Longreads http://bit.ly/2GuY4fk

This week, we’re sharing stories from Ben Taub, Paige Blankenbuehler, Alex Horton, Victoria Gannon, and Gustavo Arellano.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

* * *

1. Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret

Ben Taub | The New Yorker | April 15, 2019 | 78 minutes (19,519 words)

“Instead, he began to wonder whether what he was actually protecting at Guantánamo was one of the government’s darkest secrets: that its highest-value military detainee was being held essentially by mistake, and that his isolation in Echo Special was intended to cover up the hell that had been inflicted upon him.”

2. How a Tiny Endangered Species Put a Man In Prison

Paige Blankenbuehler | High Country News | April 15, 2019 | 20 minutes (5,199 words)

In Death Valley National Park lies Devils Hole: an aquifer-fed pool home to one of the rarest fish species in the world — the Devils Hole pupfish. The pupfish has been the center of controversy between conservationists dedicated to protecting the inch-long fish species and Nevadans who believe the fish isn’t worth sacrificing their right to pump water on their land. Trent Sargent learned about how well the pupfish is protected the hard way.

3. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five in Baghdad

Alex Horton | Washington Post | April 13, 2019 | 8 minutes (2,000 words)

A beautiful meditation on Kurt Vonnegut and the trauma of war.

4. The Metrics of Backpacks

Victoria Gannon | Art Practical | April 3, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,130 words)

Optimization can’t be all there is to life, can it? On data, and backpacks, and technology, and gender, and messy personhood.

5. I get one last Lent with my Mami. I’m using it to learn our family’s capirotada recipe

Gustavo Arellano | Los Angeles Times | April 18, 2019 | 6 minutes (1,602 words)

As his mother enters hospice care, Gustavo Arellano pays tribute to her life and to her cooking, trying to preserve the memory of his favorite dish.


‪Need Postage Stamps quick? I’ll send 20 Forever Stamps to your mailbox today! http://bit.ly/2EIXtqC

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None of the President’s Men

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,422 words)

INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY

SORAYA sits down at her laptop with a cookie
or some cake or that weirdly oversize banana bread. As she starts
working on a column like this one, the woman next to her, working
on a spreadsheet, glances at Soraya’s desktop and turns to her.

WOMAN: What do you do?

SORAYA: I’m a columnist.

WOMAN: Holy shit, that’s cool.

I starred in this scene two weeks ago, and again just this past week at a party. The women don’t have to tell me why they think it’s cool, I know why: Carrie Bradshaw. An apartment in New York, a photo on the side of a bus, Louboutins, tutus, and a column at the top of each week. Which is why I qualify it every time: “I don’t make as much as Carrie Bradshaw.” Yes, the job is cool, and it is holy-shit-worthy because so few journalists are able to actually work as journalists. But I’m freelance: I can cover my rent but can’t buy a house, I don’t get benefits, and I might be out of a job next week. Not to mention that I might not be so lucky next time. The women usually turn back to their admin after that — admin looks a lot cooler than journalism these days. But only if you’re not going by Sex and the City or basically every other journalism movie or series that has come after, all of which romanticize an industry which has a knack for playing into that.

“This is the end of an era, everything’s changing,” Gina Rodriguez tells her friends in the trailer for Someone Great, a new Netflix rom-com in which she, a music journalist, gets a job. At a magazine. In San Francisco. This is not a sci-fi movie in which the character has time traveled back to, I don’t know, 1975. It is only one recent example of the obfuscation of what journalism actually means now. There’s also the Hulu series Shrill, which presents itself as if it were current-day but is based on the life of Lindy West, who had a staff job at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger when you could still have a staff job and make a name for yourself with first-person essays, i.e., 2009. Special (another Netflix show) also harkens back to that time, and though it’s more overt about how exploitative online media can be — the hero is an intern with cerebral palsy who writes about his disability (which he claims is from a car accident) for clicks — the star is still hired straight out of an internship. (What’s an internship?)

Hollywood romanticizes everything, you say? Perhaps, but this is a case where the media itself seems to be actively engaging in a certain kind of deception about how bad its own situation actually is. In February, The Washington Post, which is no doubt still benefiting from the press off the still-gold-standard journalism movie — 1976’s All the President’s Men — ran a Super Bowl ad narrated by Tom Hanks, which applauds late journalists Marie Colvin and Jamal Khashoggi, who, in their words, brought the story, “no matter the cost.” The spot highlighted what we already know, which is that we need journalism to be a functioning democracy and that many journalists risk their lives to guarantee it. What it kept in darkness (ha), however, was that to do their job properly, those journalists need protection and they need resources — provided by their editors and by their publishers. Hanks, of course, starred in The Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film based on the journalists who reported on the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The ad was using the past to promote the future, rather than dealing with a present, in which more than 2,400 people lost media jobs in the first three months of the year and journalists are trying to unionize en masse. But that’s not particularly telegenic, is it?

* * *

The romanticized idea of the journalist — dogged, trenchcoated — really took off at the movies. In 1928, ex-reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote a play which was adapted into The Front Page, a 1931 screwball that became the journalism movie prototype, with fast dialogue and faster morals. My favorite part is that not only is the star reporter trying to quit the paper (in this economy?), but his editor will do anything — including harboring an accused murderer — to keep him on staff. Matt Ehrlich, coauthor of Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, once told me for Maclean’s that The Front Page came out of the “love-hate relationship” the writers had with the industry even back then. “The reporters are absolute sleazebags, they do horrible things,” he said. “At the same time The Front Page makes journalism seem very exciting, and they do get the big scoop.” Ehrlich also told me that some initially thought All the President’s Men, which eventually became the prototype of the journalism movie, was reminiscent of the earlier era of the genre. In case you are not a journalist and so haven’t seen it, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters whose stories on the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up helped lead to President Nixon’s resignation. While the film also played fast and loose with the truth, it had a veneer of rumpled repetitious reality — not to mention a strong moral core that made taking down the president with a typewriter seem, if implausible, at least not impossible.

In February, Education Week reported that a survey of 500 high school journalism teachers across 45 states found that, in the past two years, 44 percent of U.S. school teachers saw a rise in journalism enrollment and a 30 percent increase in interest in journalism higher education. “This is this generation’s Watergate,” the executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association said. “With President Trump, everyone is really in tune to the importance of a free press.” Sure. But this isn’t 1976. No doubt there are scores of WoodSteins out there, but not only do a number of journalists no longer have the resources or the time to follow stories of any kind, they rarely have the salaried staff positions to finance them, nor the editors and publishers to support them doing the job they were hired to do. In All the President’s Men, executive editor Ben Bradlee asks WoodStein if they trust their source, before muttering “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters, which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody.” Then he tells them to “Run that baby.” These days there is little trust in anything beyond the bottom line.

The myth is that All the President’s Men led to a surge of interest in journalism as a career. But in reality it was women, increasingly educated post-liberation, whose interest explained the surge. (My editor is asking: “Is it an accident that shitting on journalism as a worthy profession coincided with women moving into journalism?” My reply is: “I think not.”) Still, women remain underrepresented in the field to this day, a fact reflected by the paucity of movies about the work of female journalists. While there were scores of ’70s and ’80s thrillers built around male reporters with too much hair taking down the man, for the women … there was The China Syndrome, with Jane Fonda as a television reporter named Kimberly covering a nuclear power plant conspiracy. And, um, Absence of Malice? Sally Field is a newspaper reporter who sleeps with her subject (I mean, it is Paul Newman). I guess I could include Broadcast News, which stars Holly Hunter as a neurotic-but-formidable producer and personified the pull between delivering the news and delivering ratings (the analog version of clicks). But Network did that first and more memorably, with its suicidal anchorman lamenting the demise of media that matters. “I’m a human being, GODDAMN IT!!!” he shouts into the void. “My life has value!!!” You don’t hear female journalists saying that on-screen, though you do hear them saying “I do” a whole lot.

The quintessential journalism film and the quintessential rom-com are in fact connected. Nora Ephron, who was briefly married to Carl Bernstein, actually cowrote an early script for All the President’s Men. While it was chucked in favor of William Goldman’s, she went on to write When Harry Met Sally, and I’ll forgive you for not remembering that Sally was a journalist. She probably only mentions it twice because this was 1989, an era in which you decided to be a journalist and then you became one — the end. The movie treats reporting like it’s so stable it’s not even worth mentioning, like being a bureaucrat. Sally could afford a nice apartment, she had plenty of time to hang out with Harry, so what was there to gripe about (Good Girls Revolt would suggest Ephron’s trajectory was less smooth, but that’s another story)? Four years later, in Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan is another journalist in another Ephron movie, equally comfortable, so comfortable in fact that her editor pays her to fly across the country to stalk Tom Hanks. This newspaper editor literally assigns a reporter to take a plane to Seattle from Chicago to “look into” a possible lifestyle story about a single white guy. (Am I doing something wrong?!?!)

Journalism and rom-coms were fused from almost the start, around the ’30s and ’40s. The Front Page went from being a journalism movie to being a rom-com when it turned its hero into a heroine for His Girl Friday. The reporter repartee and the secretive nature of the job appeared to lend themselves well to Hays-era screwballs, though they also indelibly imprinted a lack of seriousness onto their on-screen female journalists. After a brief moment in the 1970s when The Mary Tyler Moore Show embodied the viability of a woman journalist who puts work first, the post-Ephron rom-coms of the 2000s were basically glossy romances in “offices” that were really showrooms for a pink-frosted fantasy girl-reporter gig no doubt thought up by male executives who almost certainly saw All the President’s Men and almost certainly decided a woman couldn’t do that and who cares anyway because the real story is how you’re going to get Matthew McConaughey to pop the question. I can’t with the number of women who recently announced that 13 Going on 30 — the movie in which Jennifer Garner plays a literal child successfully running a fashion magazine — made them want to be journalists. But the real death knell of the aughts journo-rom-com, according to rom-com columnist Caroline Siede, was in 2003 with How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days in 2003. In that caper, Kate Hudson has a job as a columnist despite thinking it is completely rational to write a piece called “How to Bring Peace to Tajikistan” for her Cosmo-type fashion magazine.

* * *

In 2016, the Oscar for Best Picture went to Spotlight, which follows The Boston Globe’s titular investigative team — three men, one woman — as it uncovers the Catholic Church abuse scandal. The film earned comparisons to All the President’s Men for its focus on journalistic drudgery, but it also illustrated the growing precariousness of the newsroom with the arrival of the web. In one scene, executive editor Marty Baron expresses shock when he is told it takes a couple of months for the team to settle on a story and then a year or more to investigate it. At the same time, Baron and two other editors are heavily involved and supportive of the three reporters, who went on to win the Pulitzer in 2003 and remained on the team for years after. Released only 12 years after the fact, the film suggested that journalists who win Pulitzers have some kind of security, which, you know, makes sense, and is maybe true at The Boston Globe. But two years after Spotlight came out, David Wood, who had won HuffPost its only Pulitzer, was laid off. As one of BuzzFeed’s reporters told The Columbia Journalism Review after BuzzFeed shed 15 percent of its staff, “It’s this sense that your job security isn’t tied to the quality of your work.”

“We have so much to learn from these early media companies and in many ways it feels like we’re at the start of another formative era of media history where iconic companies will emerge and thrive for many decades,” BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti blew hard in a memo in 2014, referring to traditional outfits like Time and The New York Times. But both those publications have unions, which Peretti has been clear he doesn’t think “is right” for his company. “A lot of the best new-economy companies are environments where there’s an alliance between managers and employees,” he said in 2015. “People have shared goals.” In this case the shared goals seem to be that Peretti profits (his company was valued at more than $1 billion in 2016) while his staff is disposable.

Which brings us back to the Globe in 2019. That is to say the real one, not the romanticized one. This version of the Globe hires a Gonzo-esque leftist political writer named Luke O’Neil as a freelancer and publishes his “controversial” op-ed about the Secretary of Homeland Security’s resignation titled “Keep Kirstjen Nielsen unemployed and eating Grubhub over her kitchen sink.” “One of the biggest regrets of my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon,” it opened, and it concluded with, “As for the waiters out there, I’m not saying you should tamper with anyone’s food, as that could get you into trouble. You might lose your serving job. But you’d be serving America. And you won’t have any regrets years later.” The article was gone by Friday, pulled upon the request of the paper’s owners (O’Neil sent me the original). According to WGBH, a now-deleted note on the opinion page stated that the article “did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards. The Globe regrets its lack of vigilance on the matter. O’Neil is not on staff.” And, oh, man, that last line. It says everything there is to say about modern journalism that is unspoken not only on-screen but by the culture at large and the media in it. It says you serve us but we provide no security, no benefits, no loyalty. It says, unlike Spotlight or All the President’s Men or even The Front Page, we do not have your back. Because if they did, you better believe it would have a good chance of ending up on-screen.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

from Longreads http://bit.ly/2vd41az

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,422 words)

INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY

SORAYA sits down at her laptop with a cookie
or some cake or that weirdly oversize banana bread. As she starts
working on a column like this one, the woman next to her, working
on a spreadsheet, glances at Soraya’s desktop and turns to her.

WOMAN: What do you do?

SORAYA: I’m a columnist.

WOMAN: Holy shit, that’s cool.

I starred in this scene two weeks ago, and again just this past week at a party. The women don’t have to tell me why they think it’s cool, I know why: Carrie Bradshaw. An apartment in New York, a photo on the side of a bus, Louboutins, tutus, and a column at the top of each week. Which is why I qualify it every time: “I don’t make as much as Carrie Bradshaw.” Yes, the job is cool, and it is holy-shit-worthy because so few journalists are able to actually work as journalists. But I’m freelance: I can cover my rent but can’t buy a house, I don’t get benefits, and I might be out of a job next week. Not to mention that I might not be so lucky next time. The women usually turn back to their admin after that — admin looks a lot cooler than journalism these days. But only if you’re not going by Sex and the City or basically every other journalism movie or series that has come after, all of which romanticize an industry which has a knack for playing into that.

“This is the end of an era, everything’s changing,” Gina Rodriguez tells her friends in the trailer for Someone Great, a new Netflix rom-com in which she, a music journalist, gets a job. At a magazine. In San Francisco. This is not a sci-fi movie in which the character has time traveled back to, I don’t know, 1975. It is only one recent example of the obfuscation of what journalism actually means now. There’s also the Hulu series Shrill, which presents itself as if it were current-day but is based on the life of Lindy West, who had a staff job at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger when you could still have a staff job and make a name for yourself with first-person essays, i.e., 2009. Special (another Netflix show) also harkens back to that time, and though it’s more overt about how exploitative online media can be — the hero is an intern with cerebral palsy who writes about his disability (which he claims is from a car accident) for clicks — the star is still hired straight out of an internship. (What’s an internship?)

Hollywood romanticizes everything, you say? Perhaps, but this is a case where the media itself seems to be actively engaging in a certain kind of deception about how bad its own situation actually is. In February, The Washington Post, which is no doubt still benefiting from the press off the still-gold-standard journalism movie — 1976’s All the President’s Men — ran a Super Bowl ad narrated by Tom Hanks, which applauds late journalists Marie Colvin and Jamal Khashoggi, who, in their words, brought the story, “no matter the cost.” The spot highlighted what we already know, which is that we need journalism to be a functioning democracy and that many journalists risk their lives to guarantee it. What it kept in darkness (ha), however, was that to do their job properly, those journalists need protection and they need resources — provided by their editors and by their publishers. Hanks, of course, starred in The Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film based on the journalists who reported on the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The ad was using the past to promote the future, rather than dealing with a present, in which more than 2,400 people lost media jobs in the first three months of the year and journalists are trying to unionize en masse. But that’s not particularly telegenic, is it?

* * *

The romanticized idea of the journalist — dogged, trenchcoated — really took off at the movies. In 1928, ex-reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote a play which was adapted into The Front Page, a 1931 screwball that became the journalism movie prototype, with fast dialogue and faster morals. My favorite part is that not only is the star reporter trying to quit the paper (in this economy?), but his editor will do anything — including harboring an accused murderer — to keep him on staff. Matt Ehrlich, coauthor of Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, once told me for Maclean’s that The Front Page came out of the “love-hate relationship” the writers had with the industry even back then. “The reporters are absolute sleazebags, they do horrible things,” he said. “At the same time The Front Page makes journalism seem very exciting, and they do get the big scoop.” Ehrlich also told me that some initially thought All the President’s Men, which eventually became the prototype of the journalism movie, was reminiscent of the earlier era of the genre. In case you are not a journalist and so haven’t seen it, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters whose stories on the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up helped lead to President Nixon’s resignation. While the film also played fast and loose with the truth, it had a veneer of rumpled repetitious reality — not to mention a strong moral core that made taking down the president with a typewriter seem, if implausible, at least not impossible.

In February, Education Week reported that a survey of 500 high school journalism teachers across 45 states found that, in the past two years, 44 percent of U.S. school teachers saw a rise in journalism enrollment and a 30 percent increase in interest in journalism higher education. “This is this generation’s Watergate,” the executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association said. “With President Trump, everyone is really in tune to the importance of a free press.” Sure. But this isn’t 1976. No doubt there are scores of WoodSteins out there, but not only do a number of journalists no longer have the resources or the time to follow stories of any kind, they rarely have the salaried staff positions to finance them, nor the editors and publishers to support them doing the job they were hired to do. In All the President’s Men, executive editor Ben Bradlee asks WoodStein if they trust their source, before muttering “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters, which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody.” Then he tells them to “Run that baby.” These days there is little trust in anything beyond the bottom line.

The myth is that All the President’s Men led to a surge of interest in journalism as a career. But in reality it was women, increasingly educated post-liberation, whose interest explained the surge. (My editor is asking: “Is it an accident that shitting on journalism as a worthy profession coincided with women moving into journalism?” My reply is: “I think not.”) Still, women remain underrepresented in the field to this day, a fact reflected by the paucity of movies about the work of female journalists. While there were scores of ’70s and ’80s thrillers built around male reporters with too much hair taking down the man, for the women … there was The China Syndrome, with Jane Fonda as a television reporter named Kimberly covering a nuclear power plant conspiracy. And, um, Absence of Malice? Sally Field is a newspaper reporter who sleeps with her subject (I mean, it is Paul Newman). I guess I could include Broadcast News, which stars Holly Hunter as a neurotic-but-formidable producer and personified the pull between delivering the news and delivering ratings (the analog version of clicks). But Network did that first and more memorably, with its suicidal anchorman lamenting the demise of media that matters. “I’m a human being, GODDAMN IT!!!” he shouts into the void. “My life has value!!!” You don’t hear female journalists saying that on-screen, though you do hear them saying “I do” a whole lot.

The quintessential journalism film and the quintessential rom-com are in fact connected. Nora Ephron, who was briefly married to Carl Bernstein, actually cowrote an early script for All the President’s Men. While it was chucked in favor of William Goldman’s, she went on to write When Harry Met Sally, and I’ll forgive you for not remembering that Sally was a journalist. She probably only mentions it twice because this was 1989, an era in which you decided to be a journalist and then you became one — the end. The movie treats reporting like it’s so stable it’s not even worth mentioning, like being a bureaucrat. Sally could afford a nice apartment, she had plenty of time to hang out with Harry, so what was there to gripe about (Good Girls Revolt would suggest Ephron’s trajectory was less smooth, but that’s another story)? Four years later, in Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan is another journalist in another Ephron movie, equally comfortable, so comfortable in fact that her editor pays her to fly across the country to stalk Tom Hanks. This newspaper editor literally assigns a reporter to take a plane to Seattle from Chicago to “look into” a possible lifestyle story about a single white guy. (Am I doing something wrong?!?!)

Journalism and rom-coms were fused from almost the start, around the ’30s and ’40s. The Front Page went from being a journalism movie to being a rom-com when it turned its hero into a heroine for His Girl Friday. The reporter repartee and the secretive nature of the job appeared to lend themselves well to Hays-era screwballs, though they also indelibly imprinted a lack of seriousness onto their on-screen female journalists. After a brief moment in the 1970s when The Mary Tyler Moore Show embodied the viability of a woman journalist who puts work first, the post-Ephron rom-coms of the 2000s were basically glossy romances in “offices” that were really showrooms for a pink-frosted fantasy girl-reporter gig no doubt thought up by male executives who almost certainly saw All the President’s Men and almost certainly decided a woman couldn’t do that and who cares anyway because the real story is how you’re going to get Matthew McConaughey to pop the question. I can’t with the number of women who recently announced that 13 Going on 30 — the movie in which Jennifer Garner plays a literal child successfully running a fashion magazine — made them want to be journalists. But the real death knell of the aughts journo-rom-com, according to rom-com columnist Caroline Siede, was in 2003 with How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days in 2003. In that caper, Kate Hudson has a job as a columnist despite thinking it is completely rational to write a piece called “How to Bring Peace to Tajikistan” for her Cosmo-type fashion magazine.

* * *

In 2016, the Oscar for Best Picture went to Spotlight, which follows The Boston Globe’s titular investigative team — three men, one woman — as it uncovers the Catholic Church abuse scandal. The film earned comparisons to All the President’s Men for its focus on journalistic drudgery, but it also illustrated the growing precariousness of the newsroom with the arrival of the web. In one scene, executive editor Marty Baron expresses shock when he is told it takes a couple of months for the team to settle on a story and then a year or more to investigate it. At the same time, Baron and two other editors are heavily involved and supportive of the three reporters, who went on to win the Pulitzer in 2003 and remained on the team for years after. Released only 12 years after the fact, the film suggested that journalists who win Pulitzers have some kind of security, which, you know, makes sense, and is maybe true at The Boston Globe. But two years after Spotlight came out, David Wood, who had won HuffPost its only Pulitzer, was laid off. As one of BuzzFeed’s reporters told The Columbia Journalism Review after BuzzFeed shed 15 percent of its staff, “It’s this sense that your job security isn’t tied to the quality of your work.”

“We have so much to learn from these early media companies and in many ways it feels like we’re at the start of another formative era of media history where iconic companies will emerge and thrive for many decades,” BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti blew hard in a memo in 2014, referring to traditional outfits like Time and The New York Times. But both those publications have unions, which Peretti has been clear he doesn’t think “is right” for his company. “A lot of the best new-economy companies are environments where there’s an alliance between managers and employees,” he said in 2015. “People have shared goals.” In this case the shared goals seem to be that Peretti profits (his company was valued at more than $1 billion in 2016) while his staff is disposable.

Which brings us back to the Globe in 2019. That is to say the real one, not the romanticized one. This version of the Globe hires a Gonzo-esque leftist political writer named Luke O’Neil as a freelancer and publishes his “controversial” op-ed about the Secretary of Homeland Security’s resignation titled “Keep Kirstjen Nielsen unemployed and eating Grubhub over her kitchen sink.” “One of the biggest regrets of my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon,” it opened, and it concluded with, “As for the waiters out there, I’m not saying you should tamper with anyone’s food, as that could get you into trouble. You might lose your serving job. But you’d be serving America. And you won’t have any regrets years later.” The article was gone by Friday, pulled upon the request of the paper’s owners (O’Neil sent me the original). According to WGBH, a now-deleted note on the opinion page stated that the article “did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards. The Globe regrets its lack of vigilance on the matter. O’Neil is not on staff.” And, oh, man, that last line. It says everything there is to say about modern journalism that is unspoken not only on-screen but by the culture at large and the media in it. It says you serve us but we provide no security, no benefits, no loyalty. It says, unlike Spotlight or All the President’s Men or even The Front Page, we do not have your back. Because if they did, you better believe it would have a good chance of ending up on-screen.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.


‪Need Postage Stamps quick? I’ll send 20 Forever Stamps to your mailbox today! http://bit.ly/2EIXtqC

Rewriting A Symphony In Stone

Summer Brennan | Longreads | Month 2019 | 11 minutes (2,685 words)

 

As flames erupted from the roof of Notre Dame cathedral, snapping their bright orange tongues against the blue of a darkening springtime sky, people the world over felt the scorch of its destruction lick the walls of our internal picture galleries. We patted down our memories, as one does when fearing the loss of a wallet, making sure they were still there: the year we lived on the Left Bank, the semester abroad, the summer vacation or backpacking trip when, after what felt like an eternity standing in line, we climbed up to the bell towers for a view of Paris among the gargoyles. Jutting stone of an ancient river island, lapped by eight centuries of the city’s shifting tides of politics and light.

If we had never set foot in Notre Dame, or even in France, our vault of association was no less full. Novels, paintings, photographs, postcards, and films both old and new rushed in to provide romantic context: Audrey Hepburn spilling ice cream on Cary Grant on the quai opposite the famous cathedral in Charade; Jesse telling Celine in Linklater’s Before Sunset about the Nazi who defied orders by refusing to blow it up; Quasimodo swinging down on a rope to save Esmeralda from the mob, and shouting from the symbolic protection of the church his stirring claim of “Sanctuary!” If we do not have our own Paris to recall, there is the fabled city of Victor Hugo, Colette, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin. As Notre Dame burned and we found ourselves, despite our representations and our memories, still pickpocketed by loss, I was reminded of the ways in which Paris has been repeatedly damaged, demolished, rebuilt and reimagined.

***

I’ve been visiting Paris for work for the past three years. When last I was there, in September, I enacted what has become an informal ritual. After dinner on my final night, I walk down to the Seine from the apartment where I am staying — most recently, on a little street in the 9th that houses artists and young families in limestone buildings, a good café, and a few discreet brothels. I make my way along the water to Shakespeare & Co bookstore by way of the medieval bridges of the Île de la Cité, over which Notre Dame cathedral presides. Even at night there is often a crowd gathered in its great square. Street performers juggle or make music. Senegalese men sell miniature Eiffel towers to American tourists. Young people gather in couples and small groups along the water, drinking openly from bottles of wine. The bright flood lights on the nighttime façade spill over the quais and the people and the souvenir stalls, and fall molten into the black river as shards of liquid gold.

As Notre Dame burned and we found ourselves, despite our representations and our memories, still pickpocketed by loss, I was reminded of the ways in which Paris has been repeatedly damaged, demolished, rebuilt and reimagined.

In front of the cathedral is a round plaque set into the cobblestones indicating that this is both the center of the capital and of the country as a whole. Books bought at Shakespeare & Co too can, if you choose, be stamped to commemorate their purchase at this same locality; the navel of a great city; France’s kilometer zero. I liked the idea of ending my trip in the place where Paris began.

As the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in an essay in 1935, since prehistoric times the work of art has been, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. “We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual,” he writes, “first the magical, then the religious kind.” A work of art has always been reproducible — at least in principle. But even the best and most accurate reproductions, whether they are created for study, profit, or preservation, lack one fundamental element: the unique existence of the object in time and space. The beingness of a work of art, he argued, is not just the impact to the eye, but the damage it has suffered and the stories it has accrued. They are individual and irreplaceable, like a person, not in spite of hardships weathered, but because of them.

The news footage of Notre Dame in flames reminded me of 19th century illustrations depicting the burning of the Tuileries Palace in May of 1871. That fire, set during the Paris Commune, must have heaved a similar tempest of smoke and ember into the spring sky, while communard artists like Gustave Courbet are said to have scrambled to save the paintings in the connected wings of the Louvre. I thought also of the stately homes and warren-like Medieval slums alike that were torn down at the bidding of urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann during France’s Second Empire, to make way for the city’s now-famous Grand Boulevards and to disadvantage the use of barricades. Even the imposing glass-domed Grand Palais, visible from much of the city, was built on the site of a recently demolished, quite similar pavilion, which in turn had replaced another grand structure, all within the span of a century; France flexing its colonial wealth; reinvention for reinventions’ sake.

The cathedral of Notre Dame itself, as it stood before this latest interference by fire, had already been altered by time, revolution, repair, and artistic reinterpretation. The same month that Marie Antoinette was guillotined at Place de la Concorde, anti-royalist mobs stormed the cathedral, dragged the statues that they took for kings into the great square, and beheaded them, too. The spire that came crashing down so dramatically on Monday, April 15th had been installed, not in the 12th or 13th century, but in the 19th, when the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was running around France renovating castles and gothic buildings to better match his era’s idea of them, Notre Dame included. The past was itself rebuilt to replace the past.


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It reminds me, for some strange reason, too, of a time in my mid 20s when a man I was in love with and I shared a wonderful spring day together in Vermont, but took no pictures. Regretting that we had missed the opportunity to have a photographic record of those experiences, the next day we reenacted what we’d done and took photographs as if we were doing it all for the first time. We laughed as we tried, together, to remember and re-stage each moment: here was where he climbed up onto an old brick wall to pick some lilacs — click; here was where we embraced under falling apple blossoms — click, again. We wore the same clothes and performed, like a ritual, what we had first done spontaneously and without the worry of posterity. Over time, I often forgot that these photos were of a reenacted day and not the day itself. The homage stood in for the original. And what is an original?

Our concepts of originality and authenticity in a work of art depend on this specificity, this ritual — which is a kind of magic. A Manet is distinct from and worth infinitely more than a reproduction, no matter how skilled, because we want the breath in the brushstrokes, the present absence of the mood of the man himself; the blessing of a specific moment. But, as Walter Benjamin wrote, the act of reproduction also enables the original to meet the viewer halfway. He writes that via representation, “The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art.” With Notre Dame, here is a cathedral that has, at least in spirit, left its island and traveled all over the world.

***

As spectators the world over mourned the damages being inflicted before our very eyes, some were already thinking ahead to what repairs or revisions might be carried out this time. Their imaginations jumped ahead to the reimagining. If, as Victor Hugo wrote in his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral was “a vast symphony in stone,” now would be the start of a new orchestral movement. But what form will that take? Hugo’s symphony also included, by necessity, the bass notes produced by its rubble and disrepair, the beingness of its individual history. Some elements of this music — enduring as the names carved centuries ago into wooden oak beams, or fleeting as the birds’ nests built this spring among the rooftop statuary — are lost no matter what.

The greatest enemies to historic buildings are weather, accident, politics, and time. If left without interference, Hugo’s symphony in stone would already be nothing but the ruin of a melody, not unlike the way the ambient album of William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops, captures the death of musical phrases in real time. He does this by replaying a short loop of audio cassette over and over until the physical tape begins to degrade, the ends of notes falling off like bits of masonry from a crumbling church. The melody retreats until all that is left are the standing stones of its tonal rhythms. Finally, the dust that makes the sound has fallen completely away and the music is lost. People have repurposed these dying melodies to serve as requiems for everything from romantic relationships to buildings, like the Twin Towers.

Without intervention, so many of the treasures we’ve carried into the digital age from an antique world would be more like these loops — but we’ve gone and replaced the dust of music to their tape. In reality, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is missing parts of her earring and her face. The old paint has chipped away notably, but casual viewers don’t know this. A layer of temporary water-based paint has been applied by the restorers of the Mauritshuis Museum where the painting is housed, in an attempt to present what Vermeer intended. This is fantasy, and maybe also time travel. A little bit of make believe. Photos of an event taken the day after the event.

The century-old statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen’s harbor, perhaps the most frequently victimized artwork in the world, has been vandalized, beheaded, dismembered, painted, blown up, and otherwise damaged and then repaired so many times that almost nothing remains of the statue’s original materials. Is it still the same statue? Like the cells of a human body replacing themselves over the years, and the changing seasons of our ideas of self and world, across the span of a lifetime we are the same, and also not. It is the story that makes the individual, and the work of art. The Mona Lisa was not a famous painting until it was stolen and recovered.

***

Where else do we store our complex feelings of hope and belonging but in a place, or our image of a place? Of course, whole cities have been razed by war, fire and earthquake, and then rebuilt throughout history: Chicago, San Francisco, Warsaw, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Beirut, among others, have all been knocked down and built back up again just in the past 150 years. Sometimes we rebuild lost monuments in as close an approximation as we can manage. The Frauenkirche church in Dresden was firebombed so totally by the Allies in 1945 that only a few wall fragments were left standing, pillars glowing red amidst the ash. It stood in this state of total ruin for 45 years until, like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, it was entirely rebuilt, using the original architectural plans; an 18th century church, recreated and completed in 2005.

France, though once cavalier about knocking down grand or ancient buildings it no longer had a use for, is now quite dedicated to giving life back to endangered monuments. The cathedral at Reims, another French Gothic church, was almost totally destroyed by bombing in the First World War, after it was converted into a temporary hospital and filled with straw — a seven-hundred-year-old tinderbox. It was very similar to Notre Dame in look and age, and after several decades was rebuilt and restored completely. Just last month, some of the statues that decorate Notre Dame were beheaded once again — this time by restoration workers, not revolutionaries — in order to safely remove them for long-needed repairs, just days before the fire. But what is lost in such a fire, be it by war or by accident, are the individual touches — the chiseling styles of particular masons visible in the stone, the names of workers over centuries etched into wooden beams that went up like kindling. A replica loses these things.

Churches, belonging, as they do to the folks in the eternity business, have a particular way of promoting expectations of immortality — and of evoking its opposite when they prove as mortal and susceptible to injury as the rest of us. And some of those following the conflagration on the news and social media could not help but conflate this particular building with the sins or sanctity of the religion it was consecrated to, seeing the fire as either an act of justice or injustice, depending on one’s view of Catholicism. They found metaphor in the gleaming cross rising above the charred and fallen beams, or in the fire as avenger, or in the fact that amidst the destruction, sunlight was streaming into the old church for the first time in close to a thousand years. The cathedral had been wounded, but not mortally. The vast majority of its recognizable structure still stands.

But Notre Dame de Paris is the property of the secular state of France, not the Church — both culturally and legally. Like the work of art that it’s been hailed as, it has come to mean different things to many of its viewers and visitors than may have ever been explicitly intended by its makers. For the religious it is a place of worship, consecrated to the Virgin Mary, but its name means Our Lady of Paris, invoking for some a veneration of the divine feminine. It has been beloved by pilgrims, but also by artists like Henri Matisse, who lived in view of it for most of his adult life and painted it repeatedly, in the straw-colored tones of morning, and the blue of evening, and the chiaroscuro of night.

Notre Dame has stood watch as the city and its inhabitants have suffered plagues, burnings, hangings, revolutions, and terrorism.

Most of all, Notre Dame — itself built on the site of several previous churches — has been a witness. It was begun even before the original fortress castle of the Louvre that now only remains in the form of turret ruins in an in-situ archeological exhibit beneath the storied museum. Notre Dame had been standing completed for 100 years before Joan of Arc tried unsuccessfully to liberate Paris in 1429, and it was in its stone interior that Joan’s mother, Isabelle Romée, pleaded successfully to reverse her daughter’s excommunication.

Unlike some other European cities, modern Paris has never been totally destroyed by violence. Even the Nazi occupation did relatively little damage to the city’s face. But plenty of blood has run through its streets regardless. Notre Dame has stood watch as the city and its inhabitants have suffered plagues, burnings, hangings, revolutions, and terrorism. The leader of the Knights Templar was burned at the stake on Île de la Cité in sight of Notre Dame, not far from what is now a well known market where shoppers come on Saturdays to buy flowers, and on Sundays to buy birds. Behind the church is a memorial honoring the 200,000 Parisians who were sent away to die in concentration camps, and in front of it, on a building across the great square is a plaque commemorating the spot where a member of the French resistance was killed. It reads:

Here fell

for

the Liberation

TERNARD Marcel

Guardian of the Peace

21 August 1944

One wonders, was Monsieur Ternard facing the cathedral in his last moments, or was he forced to face the wall? Either way, Our Lady of Paris faced towards him.

Since distant times, Notre Dame has borne witness to the rituals of Paris; its markets, its protest and revolutions, its lovers. The cyclops gaze of its rose windows — miraculously spared through this latest disaster — have observed as the days and decades and centuries pass through the hands of the city like prayer beads. Be it magic or art that most animates such a place for you, each share the power to conjure. We are all, sometimes, in need of sanctuary.

* * *

Summer Brennan is the author most recently of High Heel, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series in partnership with The Atlantic. Her next book, The Parisian Sphinx, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Editor: Sari Botton
Fact-checker: Matt Giles

from Longreads http://bit.ly/2XoFV8B

Summer Brennan | Longreads | Month 2019 | 11 minutes (2,685 words)

 

As flames erupted from the roof of Notre Dame cathedral, snapping their bright orange tongues against the blue of a darkening springtime sky, people the world over felt the scorch of its destruction lick the walls of our internal picture galleries. We patted down our memories, as one does when fearing the loss of a wallet, making sure they were still there: the year we lived on the Left Bank, the semester abroad, the summer vacation or backpacking trip when, after what felt like an eternity standing in line, we climbed up to the bell towers for a view of Paris among the gargoyles. Jutting stone of an ancient river island, lapped by eight centuries of the city’s shifting tides of politics and light.

If we had never set foot in Notre Dame, or even in France, our vault of association was no less full. Novels, paintings, photographs, postcards, and films both old and new rushed in to provide romantic context: Audrey Hepburn spilling ice cream on Cary Grant on the quai opposite the famous cathedral in Charade; Jesse telling Celine in Linklater’s Before Sunset about the Nazi who defied orders by refusing to blow it up; Quasimodo swinging down on a rope to save Esmeralda from the mob, and shouting from the symbolic protection of the church his stirring claim of “Sanctuary!” If we do not have our own Paris to recall, there is the fabled city of Victor Hugo, Colette, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin. As Notre Dame burned and we found ourselves, despite our representations and our memories, still pickpocketed by loss, I was reminded of the ways in which Paris has been repeatedly damaged, demolished, rebuilt and reimagined.

***

I’ve been visiting Paris for work for the past three years. When last I was there, in September, I enacted what has become an informal ritual. After dinner on my final night, I walk down to the Seine from the apartment where I am staying — most recently, on a little street in the 9th that houses artists and young families in limestone buildings, a good café, and a few discreet brothels. I make my way along the water to Shakespeare & Co bookstore by way of the medieval bridges of the Île de la Cité, over which Notre Dame cathedral presides. Even at night there is often a crowd gathered in its great square. Street performers juggle or make music. Senegalese men sell miniature Eiffel towers to American tourists. Young people gather in couples and small groups along the water, drinking openly from bottles of wine. The bright flood lights on the nighttime façade spill over the quais and the people and the souvenir stalls, and fall molten into the black river as shards of liquid gold.

As Notre Dame burned and we found ourselves, despite our representations and our memories, still pickpocketed by loss, I was reminded of the ways in which Paris has been repeatedly damaged, demolished, rebuilt and reimagined.

In front of the cathedral is a round plaque set into the cobblestones indicating that this is both the center of the capital and of the country as a whole. Books bought at Shakespeare & Co too can, if you choose, be stamped to commemorate their purchase at this same locality; the navel of a great city; France’s kilometer zero. I liked the idea of ending my trip in the place where Paris began.

As the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in an essay in 1935, since prehistoric times the work of art has been, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. “We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual,” he writes, “first the magical, then the religious kind.” A work of art has always been reproducible — at least in principle. But even the best and most accurate reproductions, whether they are created for study, profit, or preservation, lack one fundamental element: the unique existence of the object in time and space. The beingness of a work of art, he argued, is not just the impact to the eye, but the damage it has suffered and the stories it has accrued. They are individual and irreplaceable, like a person, not in spite of hardships weathered, but because of them.

The news footage of Notre Dame in flames reminded me of 19th century illustrations depicting the burning of the Tuileries Palace in May of 1871. That fire, set during the Paris Commune, must have heaved a similar tempest of smoke and ember into the spring sky, while communard artists like Gustave Courbet are said to have scrambled to save the paintings in the connected wings of the Louvre. I thought also of the stately homes and warren-like Medieval slums alike that were torn down at the bidding of urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann during France’s Second Empire, to make way for the city’s now-famous Grand Boulevards and to disadvantage the use of barricades. Even the imposing glass-domed Grand Palais, visible from much of the city, was built on the site of a recently demolished, quite similar pavilion, which in turn had replaced another grand structure, all within the span of a century; France flexing its colonial wealth; reinvention for reinventions’ sake.

The cathedral of Notre Dame itself, as it stood before this latest interference by fire, had already been altered by time, revolution, repair, and artistic reinterpretation. The same month that Marie Antoinette was guillotined at Place de la Concorde, anti-royalist mobs stormed the cathedral, dragged the statues that they took for kings into the great square, and beheaded them, too. The spire that came crashing down so dramatically on Monday, April 15th had been installed, not in the 12th or 13th century, but in the 19th, when the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was running around France renovating castles and gothic buildings to better match his era’s idea of them, Notre Dame included. The past was itself rebuilt to replace the past.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


It reminds me, for some strange reason, too, of a time in my mid 20s when a man I was in love with and I shared a wonderful spring day together in Vermont, but took no pictures. Regretting that we had missed the opportunity to have a photographic record of those experiences, the next day we reenacted what we’d done and took photographs as if we were doing it all for the first time. We laughed as we tried, together, to remember and re-stage each moment: here was where he climbed up onto an old brick wall to pick some lilacs — click; here was where we embraced under falling apple blossoms — click, again. We wore the same clothes and performed, like a ritual, what we had first done spontaneously and without the worry of posterity. Over time, I often forgot that these photos were of a reenacted day and not the day itself. The homage stood in for the original. And what is an original?

Our concepts of originality and authenticity in a work of art depend on this specificity, this ritual — which is a kind of magic. A Manet is distinct from and worth infinitely more than a reproduction, no matter how skilled, because we want the breath in the brushstrokes, the present absence of the mood of the man himself; the blessing of a specific moment. But, as Walter Benjamin wrote, the act of reproduction also enables the original to meet the viewer halfway. He writes that via representation, “The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art.” With Notre Dame, here is a cathedral that has, at least in spirit, left its island and traveled all over the world.

***

As spectators the world over mourned the damages being inflicted before our very eyes, some were already thinking ahead to what repairs or revisions might be carried out this time. Their imaginations jumped ahead to the reimagining. If, as Victor Hugo wrote in his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral was “a vast symphony in stone,” now would be the start of a new orchestral movement. But what form will that take? Hugo’s symphony also included, by necessity, the bass notes produced by its rubble and disrepair, the beingness of its individual history. Some elements of this music — enduring as the names carved centuries ago into wooden oak beams, or fleeting as the birds’ nests built this spring among the rooftop statuary — are lost no matter what.

The greatest enemies to historic buildings are weather, accident, politics, and time. If left without interference, Hugo’s symphony in stone would already be nothing but the ruin of a melody, not unlike the way the ambient album of William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops, captures the death of musical phrases in real time. He does this by replaying a short loop of audio cassette over and over until the physical tape begins to degrade, the ends of notes falling off like bits of masonry from a crumbling church. The melody retreats until all that is left are the standing stones of its tonal rhythms. Finally, the dust that makes the sound has fallen completely away and the music is lost. People have repurposed these dying melodies to serve as requiems for everything from romantic relationships to buildings, like the Twin Towers.

Without intervention, so many of the treasures we’ve carried into the digital age from an antique world would be more like these loops — but we’ve gone and replaced the dust of music to their tape. In reality, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is missing parts of her earring and her face. The old paint has chipped away notably, but casual viewers don’t know this. A layer of temporary water-based paint has been applied by the restorers of the Mauritshuis Museum where the painting is housed, in an attempt to present what Vermeer intended. This is fantasy, and maybe also time travel. A little bit of make believe. Photos of an event taken the day after the event.

The century-old statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen’s harbor, perhaps the most frequently victimized artwork in the world, has been vandalized, beheaded, dismembered, painted, blown up, and otherwise damaged and then repaired so many times that almost nothing remains of the statue’s original materials. Is it still the same statue? Like the cells of a human body replacing themselves over the years, and the changing seasons of our ideas of self and world, across the span of a lifetime we are the same, and also not. It is the story that makes the individual, and the work of art. The Mona Lisa was not a famous painting until it was stolen and recovered.

***

Where else do we store our complex feelings of hope and belonging but in a place, or our image of a place? Of course, whole cities have been razed by war, fire and earthquake, and then rebuilt throughout history: Chicago, San Francisco, Warsaw, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Beirut, among others, have all been knocked down and built back up again just in the past 150 years. Sometimes we rebuild lost monuments in as close an approximation as we can manage. The Frauenkirche church in Dresden was firebombed so totally by the Allies in 1945 that only a few wall fragments were left standing, pillars glowing red amidst the ash. It stood in this state of total ruin for 45 years until, like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, it was entirely rebuilt, using the original architectural plans; an 18th century church, recreated and completed in 2005.

France, though once cavalier about knocking down grand or ancient buildings it no longer had a use for, is now quite dedicated to giving life back to endangered monuments. The cathedral at Reims, another French Gothic church, was almost totally destroyed by bombing in the First World War, after it was converted into a temporary hospital and filled with straw — a seven-hundred-year-old tinderbox. It was very similar to Notre Dame in look and age, and after several decades was rebuilt and restored completely. Just last month, some of the statues that decorate Notre Dame were beheaded once again — this time by restoration workers, not revolutionaries — in order to safely remove them for long-needed repairs, just days before the fire. But what is lost in such a fire, be it by war or by accident, are the individual touches — the chiseling styles of particular masons visible in the stone, the names of workers over centuries etched into wooden beams that went up like kindling. A replica loses these things.

Churches, belonging, as they do to the folks in the eternity business, have a particular way of promoting expectations of immortality — and of evoking its opposite when they prove as mortal and susceptible to injury as the rest of us. And some of those following the conflagration on the news and social media could not help but conflate this particular building with the sins or sanctity of the religion it was consecrated to, seeing the fire as either an act of justice or injustice, depending on one’s view of Catholicism. They found metaphor in the gleaming cross rising above the charred and fallen beams, or in the fire as avenger, or in the fact that amidst the destruction, sunlight was streaming into the old church for the first time in close to a thousand years. The cathedral had been wounded, but not mortally. The vast majority of its recognizable structure still stands.

But Notre Dame de Paris is the property of the secular state of France, not the Church — both culturally and legally. Like the work of art that it’s been hailed as, it has come to mean different things to many of its viewers and visitors than may have ever been explicitly intended by its makers. For the religious it is a place of worship, consecrated to the Virgin Mary, but its name means Our Lady of Paris, invoking for some a veneration of the divine feminine. It has been beloved by pilgrims, but also by artists like Henri Matisse, who lived in view of it for most of his adult life and painted it repeatedly, in the straw-colored tones of morning, and the blue of evening, and the chiaroscuro of night.

Notre Dame has stood watch as the city and its inhabitants have suffered plagues, burnings, hangings, revolutions, and terrorism.

Most of all, Notre Dame — itself built on the site of several previous churches — has been a witness. It was begun even before the original fortress castle of the Louvre that now only remains in the form of turret ruins in an in-situ archeological exhibit beneath the storied museum. Notre Dame had been standing completed for 100 years before Joan of Arc tried unsuccessfully to liberate Paris in 1429, and it was in its stone interior that Joan’s mother, Isabelle Romée, pleaded successfully to reverse her daughter’s excommunication.

Unlike some other European cities, modern Paris has never been totally destroyed by violence. Even the Nazi occupation did relatively little damage to the city’s face. But plenty of blood has run through its streets regardless. Notre Dame has stood watch as the city and its inhabitants have suffered plagues, burnings, hangings, revolutions, and terrorism. The leader of the Knights Templar was burned at the stake on Île de la Cité in sight of Notre Dame, not far from what is now a well known market where shoppers come on Saturdays to buy flowers, and on Sundays to buy birds. Behind the church is a memorial honoring the 200,000 Parisians who were sent away to die in concentration camps, and in front of it, on a building across the great square is a plaque commemorating the spot where a member of the French resistance was killed. It reads:

Here fell

for

the Liberation

TERNARD Marcel

Guardian of the Peace

21 August 1944

One wonders, was Monsieur Ternard facing the cathedral in his last moments, or was he forced to face the wall? Either way, Our Lady of Paris faced towards him.

Since distant times, Notre Dame has borne witness to the rituals of Paris; its markets, its protest and revolutions, its lovers. The cyclops gaze of its rose windows — miraculously spared through this latest disaster — have observed as the days and decades and centuries pass through the hands of the city like prayer beads. Be it magic or art that most animates such a place for you, each share the power to conjure. We are all, sometimes, in need of sanctuary.

* * *

Summer Brennan is the author most recently of High Heel, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series in partnership with The Atlantic. Her next book, The Parisian Sphinx, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Editor: Sari Botton
Fact-checker: Matt Giles


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