As flames consumed its spire, I thought of Notre Dame as a pyre.
What greater destruction could have been construed, so deeply embedded in the symbolic soul of Paris? What more sumptuous a sacrifice could be offered? What more deeply marked Easter, with resurrection now the talk of the town? And on the third day, she rose again.
The historic immensity was met with emotional intensity.
The world wept. Those overly-suspicious stirred up hostilities. Within hours, France’s greatest fortunes pledged hundreds of millions of Euros to reconstruct the monument, while the nation’s proletariat railed that such funds should be used to better their miserable lives.
Bernard Arnault, head of the LVMH luxury empire, raffled the giving game with his promise of 200 million Euros. Blessed be that democracy that allows free men to give freely even when the mob manifests discontent.
Mr. Arnault reminds me of an old friend named Harno (the French would pronounce it just like “Arnault”).
He is a very old friend indeed...paleolithic in fact, but faithful over the years. I call him to memory after all these eons because there was something surprisingly contemporary about him.
Harno was a tribal chief of the Kwakiatl people. On one of those stone age special occasions, I remember Harno ordering the preparation of a great pyre, on which he would burn the most precious objects known to his people. There were elaborate costumes, coral chains, large animal horns, copper ornaments, and essential oils from rare herbs.
Harno had invited the entire tribe, along with neighboring tribes and their chiefs. There would be a sumptuous offering of food and drink for all, and once the feast was over, no reserves would remain.
Born and raised in a frugal family and a conservative country where such practices are anathema, I questioned Harno about why he would destroy all his most precious belongings and expose his tribe to hunger.
Harno recognized himself as the most magnificent of chiefs, and he explained that this ritual served to establish himself as such in the eyes of all. You’d have to be magnificent, fearless, and confidently in tune with the magical powers that sustain all things, to dispense with your wealth so extravagantly.
In consort with the magical powers that be, Harno believed that he would be able to conjure even greater abundance from what was sacrificed.
In turn, I attempted to explain to Harno that the most admired men of a future epoch would accumulate unprecedented sums of wealth and seek to protect and expand that wealth. Unfortunately, Harno didn’t have a conceptual framework for understanding ownership and capital. Trying to make the monetary unit something tangible for him, I suggested that each unit would procure him one small fish. I added that his distant progeny, Arnault, would accumulate 94 billion of these.
Trying his best to imagine why someone would stock such bounty, he simply replied :
“A pile of fish stinks after three days. I like to catch my fish fresh from the sea, where there are always plenty...maybe even more than 94 billion. Ha, so I’m still the most magnificent with nothing!”
The festival I described above was not the only kind that characterized the extravagance of chiefs like Harno. On other occasions, he invited rival chiefs and bestowed upon them the most sumptuous gifts. Such generosity warded off war by making strangers seem and feel like friends. We could label this “gift-oriented foreign policy,” the stone-age subtleties of which will escape certain contemporary world leaders, Neanderthals as they are.
We have conveniently concluded that our modern western society has made life so much better for so many. This thesis is most eloquently developed by Stephen Pinker in “The Better Angels of our Nature”, a favorite of billionaire Bill Gates. But Pinker never talked to my old friend Harno, who would have told him that the meaning of life was to be found in awe, not in material well-being. Harno’s life was not brutish and short. He felt divine. Long before luxury, he encountered something of lux. Though he perished in pain, he did not live in vain.
This ecstatic, mystical quest for the divine within man is the origin of what we have come to refer to as luxury. It often appears to us as an unreasonable, even immoral, search to fulfill seemingly superfluous desires. The consumption of “luxury products” may indeed be vacuous and illusory, but luxury at its essence embodies exquisiteness, perfection, abundance, vitality, and joy.
Before Luxury became conspicuously materialistic, Lux was profoundly spiritual.
This brings us full-circle back to Mr. Arnault, whose wealth is derived from man’s enduring desire to experience luxury. When Mr. Arnault pledges 200 million euros to resurrect the most emblematic of Paris monuments, it’s not just about advertising. He is invoking the power of myth.
Mr. Arnault’s lavish gesture brought to memory yet another very old (and very dead) friend, from the more recent period we call ancient Rome. His name was Maximus. Not only does he bear a certain physical resemblance to the finely-chiseled Arnault, he too was a patron of public magnificence. Euergetism was a cardinal value for the notables of Rome, and private displays of extravagant wealth were forbidden by sumptuary laws.
Unfortunately, the grandiose edifices that bore witness to Maximus mostly perished in the pyre of Pompeii. Just as French culture derives from the Latin language and a Roman idea of law, Mr. Arnault is a direct descendant of Maximus. His contribution to the resurrection of an eternal edifice is also a matter of honor.
With such prestigious albeit forgotten friends, you might wonder if I’m not also friends with Bernard Arnault in person. I’ve yet to have a conversation with him, but I did once fill an ephemeral executive position within his empire of the exquisite.
I, therefore, owe him one, when it comes to my appreciation of luxury.
Perhaps this is why, when I hear the plebeians decry the hypocrisy of his generosity, I make it a point to publically protest. It is not some fluke that Mr. Arnault heads a financial empire founded on luxury, instead of oil or arms. Luxury requires particular sensitivity and a certain state of mind.
I do believe that Mr. Arnault was deeply moved by the destruction of Notre Dame. Its marvels of masonry require a level of dedication and craft that we can compare to hand-stitched haute-couture, one of the many expressions of excellence over which he presides.
We should recognize and admire this human quality rather than judge him for not feeding the
We may not readily associate Notre Dame with luxury, yet it is as superfluous to spirituality as champagne is to thirst. The restoration of this timeless cathedral recognizes awe-inspiring beauty. As such, it need not denigrate the indigent.
To open our eyes to the beauty and bounty of the world does not imply that we close our eyes on human misery.
When the disgruntled gilets jaunes at last rise to the level of material ease (the ultimate goal of our social progress), their next likely aspiration will be to acquire one of the iconic brands presided by Mr. Arnault. Those who despised him will enrich him further. As it is written: "To the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But to the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."
This was one of Jesus’ more provocative paraboles. He who also said: “man shall not live by bread alone…” (qu’ils mangent de la brioche !) Radical freedom will always terrify and outrage those who prefer a secure supply of crumbs and hormone-fed smoked salmon. The worst of the French is an enthralling pair to the best of them.
France can boast a model democracy, world-class civil servants, superb scientists, and excellent engineers, but the enduring fame and flair of the French will always be for aesthetics. With a panache that has yet to be surpassed, Paris has embodied and defined our modern conception of luxury, standing as a millennial apotheosis in the human quest to sublimate the senses.
Seen in this light (the lux of luxury), the much-contested president of the Republic is of lesser stature than Mr. Arnault, the uncontested symbolic king of France.
From the pyre must rise again a lofty spire. By this noble aim, the destiny of France is defined.