Why do people go to Notre-Dame de Paris? Why did I go to Notre-Dame de Paris? Why do we wait in a sunbaked courtyard, ringing with the clamour of tourists and street vendors and beggars, slowly winding our way to the entrance, so that we may take a glimpse inside? What is it about this place that so allures?
A few weeks ago I had similar thoughts as we explored three chateaus in the Loire Valley, and I remarked, rather flippantly, that such colossal monuments are a way we humans reckon with our impermanence. Despite the casual way I tossed out the statement, there was a truth beneath it that I believed, that, from generation to generation, from architect to builder to pilgrim, all the way down to we tourists today, we are all, as humans, reckoning with the same thing.
So today in Notre-Dame, all these questions returned and some of my earlier thoughts crystallized. Here, now, without flippancy, I want to deal with the reality of our impermanence and our reckoning with it.
In France, old, stone buildings are everywhere. There is a church on every corner in Paris, it seems, or some other hulking construction. In the Loire Valley one can visit over a hundred different chateaus. Across Europe, from what I’ve seen and heard, this remains consistent. Buildings dating back to the Middle Ages are commonplace, and even ruins from the Greco-Roman period can be found with relative ease. Only yesterday, walking down the street, we stopped and turned into the Arènes de Lutèce, the ruins of a Greco-Roman amphitheatre nestled in the 5th Arrondissement. Gladiators once fought to the death there, and now children kick soccer balls around in the dust. The remains of those passed are everywhere, transformed and assimilated into the lives, the cities, the cultures of the living. But certain of these exhibit a far more powerful draw. The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame—these are places that draw people from all over the world. Why? First, a bypath.
In ancient Greek there are two words, two concepts, for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos, as one might guess, is chronological time, the sort of time measured by the International Telecommunication Union, upon whom the responsibility of defining Coordinated Universal Time, the global time standard, falls. Chronos is the 86400 seconds in a day, the 365 (or so days in a year, the 67.2 years that an average human will live. Chronos is absolute, objective, quantifiable time.
Kairos is the converse. Kairos, literally, is an “opportune moment,” and, conceptually, “signifies a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens.”1 Kairos is the sort of time one experiences in a state of flow, when lost in a favourite song, eating a delicious meal, or embracing one’s beloved. It can also be the sort of time one experiences in a tedious meeting, an uncomfortable party, or a trip to the emergency room. Kairos is flexible, malleable time, it is time all at once, histories and chronologies condensed into a point and ingested like a pill, planted like seed, loaded like a bullet in the chamber of a gun. In short, kairos is human time.
Another detour: with Einstein’s theory of general relativity the notion of spacetime, a model extending the three-dimensional geometry of Euclidean space into four-dimensional Minkowski space (three spatial dimensions plus time) becomes necessary for an accurate understanding of the universe. Prior to Einstein and Minkowski, philosophers and other thinkers had conceived of such a four-dimensional reality,2 but with Einstein, the idea is fully, mathematically verified. From Einstein and other mathematicians’ and physicists’ thinking about spacetime we have the classic illustration of gravity in spacetime, that of the grid upon which a ball (a planet or other massive body) rests, weighing the grid down like a sheet or net in which something heavy is caught. Spacetime is distorted, and in the distortion, time itself is changed. Thus, the twin paradox, for example, is no paradox at all, as Einstein suggests:
“If we placed a living organism in a box … one could arrange that the organism, after any arbitrary lengthy flight, could be returned to its original spot in a scarcely altered condition, while corresponding organisms which had remained in their original positions had already long since given way to new generations. For the moving organism, the lengthy time of the journey was a mere instant, provided the motion took place with approximately the speed of light.”
The Euclidean understanding of time as “universal with a constant rate of passage that is independent of the state of motion of an observer” no longer holds. Time, it would seem, is closer to kairos than one would think.
Given the advent of relativity and of spaceflight, and now with talk of a Mars mission in the next ten to twenty years, discussions around space travel and, particularly, faster-than-light travel, have resulted in some fascinating theories. One such theory for faster-than-light travel is the Alcubierre drive, which, through the production of a negative mass,3 could effectively contract the spacetime in front of a vessel, reducing the distance to a destination and so reducing the amount of time required to traverse said distance, making interplanetary or interstellar travel far more efficient. Because it is impossible to exceed the speed of light, let alone come near it, one must instead toy with the speed itself. Or so the theory goes…
All this said, I will now return to, and close with, an application, in five points, of these concepts to the reality of we earthbound, touring humans.
Such colossal monuments as Notre-Dame de Paris, though small in comparison to stars or planets, are nevertheless materially substantial, and further, with such monuments, invested as they are with so many years of history, and specifically, affective, spiritual history, the human weight, the human substance therein, is, indeed, monumental. They are gravitational objects.
We then, as tourists, fall into the gravitational pull of the monument like tiny motes of dust careening through space, trapped in the celestial embrace of some architectural sun.
In these places of flux and warp, time bends and changes, and the illusion of chronology shimmers, mirage-like, before our eyes. We become a layer, an instance, superimposed on millions of other layers and instances, a part of the resolute existence of the place-in-time, across time, beyond time. These monuments, in their enduring quality, lift we ephemeral beings beyond ourselves.
These monuments by which we achieve (a glimmer, a moment, of) transcendence were envisioned and built by other ephemeral beings, now gone, but like us, human. Perhaps there is some quality in us that apprehends the beyond in these monuments, in the vision of them, and so we endeavor to erect them. It is an old story, reaching back to the beginning of things, humans building ever higher, seeking a glimpse, a touch, of heaven. No wonder that so many of these monuments are churches, dedicated to the transcendence of their congregations, their parishes, their nations.
If we, then, are the builders of spaces so thoroughly rooted in kairological time (as it were), perhaps these spaces are the manifestation of something deeper within ourselves. Perhaps we contain within us a sort of Alcubierre engine, an existential capacity for the modulation and manipulation of time, that has become lost to us. Perhaps the chronological is not, in fact, the purest or truest or most reliable time available to us. Perhaps the chronological is, rather, a cage in which we have become trapped.
The beyond calls. All one must do is look.
As much as Wikipedia is derided, it’s a wonderful resource for making quick, often surprising discoveries and connections. On the point indicated: Arthur Schopenhauer: “[T]he representation of coexistence is impossible in Time alone; it depends, for its completion, upon the representation of Space; because, in mere Time, all things follow one another, and in mere Space all things are side by side; it is accordingly only by the combination of Time and Space that the representation of coexistence arises”; Edgar Allan Poe: “Space and duration are one”; H. G. Wells: ”There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it", and that “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and Duration”; Marcel Proust: ”describes the village church of his childhood’s Combray as ‘a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space—the name of the fourth being Time.’” ↩