You could say that Paris is the capital city of France, and of our imagination. It’s a kind of mental meme that stands for adventure, romance and escape. We’ve all visited it in our dreams and in films as much as we have on school trips and holidays. We might have gone to actual Paris and trudged through the rain, fought with our families, and eaten disappointing sandwiches – but most of our Parisian memories are stolen and sewn together. We’ve been Carrie in ripped Oscar de la Renta. We’ve been Audrey, up all night with the beats in smoky basement bars. I suspect this is partly what has triggered the very public outpouring of grief online, following the tragic fire at Notre Dame this week. Everyone felt that their emotional castles in the air were burning down. Everyone has a version of Paris that belongs to them.
When we’re overwhelmed by shock and sadness, we often try to put those feelings into perspective by sharing them. Social media provides a space for us to do this – and if our friends and family aren’t as understanding as we’d like them to be, there’s a chance that we’ll find solace by reaching an audience of like minded strangers. On Monday night, every platform I use – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp – was filled with emotional posts about the tragedy. There was a strangely soothing sense that the world was enduring pain together.
However, I felt uncomfortable looking at some of the images that people were choosing to post, and I couldn’t quite work out why. The influencer @alannasunny shared an old photograph in which she posed outside the building, captioned “it took 200 years to build, and just hours to burn down 😢”. @Ifilmyoga posted a picture of a woman in the middle of a yoga pose outside the building. Other influencers shared photos of the fire, and pictures taken of the internal damage. Was this a genuine expression of sadness and compassion, or a way of inserting a personal brand into the narrative and capitalising on a tragedy? More pertinently, does this matter? Do we have anything to gain from policing the way in which other people choose to express themselves, or comparing expressions of grief?
The behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings says that regardless of the content of our social media posts, the impulse to share our feelings of sadness online is a natural one. “Expressing grief on social media is now so acceptable and normal, that it's not a surprise that we come together in collective grief. In the way that we do with much loved celebrities, there is a need to put our own individual stamp on the tragedy, with a memory or a momentary recollection that made that celebrity - or in this case building - so significant to us.” Travel writer Lizzy Pook adds “When we look at social media and see people saying ‘I’ve visited this spot; I’ve experienced what it feels like to be here’, it’s only natural to chime in and say ‘me too!’ It’s part of the human condition. We make our connections through shared experiences and in cases like this we just want to make ours heard. “
Jo’s words make me think of the writer EM Forster’s phrase, “Only connect”. Perhaps we can only make sense of the global by making it personal. Arguably, if you can say that a building has a soul, or any kind of emotional resonance, it’s made out of everything that its users and visitors bring to it. You don’t necessarily need to be religious in order to find spiritual comfort and connection in a cathedral.
Jo adds “the Notre Dame is iconic. It’s a symbol of the heart of Paris, possibly France. However, even more than that, at a fragile time in life politically, it’s an anchor, a place that we knew from history, school or personally. When we think we might be about to lose an anchor, we feel lost and vulnerable.” It’s interesting that Jo refers to the complicated political landscape and suggests that might have an impact on our response. For many of us, Paris is emblematic of Europe in the way that the Notre Dame symbolises Paris. For those of us who are deeply anxious about Brexit, and identify strongly as European, I suspect that the fire is especially upsetting. Responding to it on social media and expressing our sadness publically is a way of shoring up a shaky sense of identity. It can be a way of saying that whatever our government does, we feel European.
Ultimately, while social media means that we have a relatively new way to participate in the global news cycle, our urge to get involved is a timeless, human one. Lizzy explains “We take a sort of emotional ownership over the places we’ve visited. They’re etched into us. We carry the experience of them around with us. So when they crumble we can feel like a part of us is crumbling too.”
After the desecration of Notre Dame during the French Revolution, it was the public who campaigned for its restoration in the nineteenth century. Big businesses and major fashion houses are funding its repair today because it inspires so much love – it’s not just made of wood, stone and glass, but of selfies, holidays, proposals and memories. The desire to make ourselves part of the narrative might suggest that we’re all a little more self involved than we’d like to admit, but this is the desire that’s preserving the building, and ensuring future generations can fall in love with it, and beside it