Monday, July 22, 2013

The Dead of Paris

Skulls and bones in the Paris Catacombs, a popular tourist spot

     After their visit to Notre Dame, Twain and the Quaker City crew head off for a visit to the Paris Morgue.  In a way, that seems like a natural progression, going from a place for those claimed by God in life to one for those claimed by nobody after death.  It was also a natural logistical progression, since the Paris Morgue was on the Ile de la Cite, a bone's throw from the cathedral.  Still, it might seem an odd tourist destination.  In the nineteenth century, however, it was all the rage, with crowds from Paris and beyond--such as Twain's--coming every day to see the corpses of those who'd died, as he put it, "mysteriously." Many apparently were suicides but no doubt there were other causes of death as well.  For a good description of the history and appeal of the Paris Morgue, take a look at Evangeline Holland's post, "The Morbidity of the Paris Morgue," on her blog, Edwardian Promendade: La Belle Epoch in Our Modern World.
     Twain's comments on the Paris Morgue are brief but gruesome, which is only to be expected given the locale.  He talks about looking into a room full of the clothes of the dead: of men, women, and children rich and poor, clothes "hacked and stabbed and stained with red, a hat that was crushed and bloody."  Then he goes on to describe the "naked, swollen, purple body" of a drowned man on a slab, still clutching a broken twig from a bush.  "Mute witness," he calls it, "of the last despairing effort to save the life that was doomed beyond all help."  Death was all around on a regular basis for people in the nineteenth century--Twain himself by then had lost four siblings and his father--so people didn't shy away from it the way so many of us do now.  In fact, as the popularity of the Paris Morgue shows, they often stared death staight in the face.
     Which is also what Twain does, in a short but moving meditation on the drowned man:
     A stream of water trickled ceaselessly over the hideous face.  We knew that the body and the clothing was there for identification by friends, but still we wondered if anybody could love that repulsive object or grieve for its loss.  We grew meditative and wondered if, some forty years ago, when the mother of that ghastly thing was dandling it upon her knee, and kissing and petting it and displaying it with satisified pride to the passerby, a prophetic vision of this dread ending ever flitted though her brain.  I half feared that the mother or the wife or a brother of the dead man might come while we stood there, but nothing of the kind occurred.
      It's hard to read those words, written before Twain had even met his wife, and not think of the tragedy that awaited them with the death of their daughter Susy of meningitis at 24.  If I believed in the "gift" of foresight--which I don't and neither did Twain--this would have the ring of prophesy and be as sad as any I could imagine.
     But Twain, knowing nothing of what lay ahead, simply goes on to comment about those who "attend the exhibitions of the Morgue regularly, just as other people go to see theatrical spectacles every night."  When one of them seems disappointed, he remarks, "Now this don't afford you any satifaction--a party with his head shot off is what you need."
     This passage is a curious one, I think, not because the Paris Morgue was on the Quaker City's itinerary of tourist sights--as I've said, it was popular--but because Twain misses an opportunity to diss the French.  Or at least to comment tongue-in-cheek about something like their "lively" culture.  I find his absence of franco-crit here especially hard to understand because I for one can't think of an equivalently ghoulish American tourist spot.  We like a good depiction of violent death but we generally prefer not to stand too close to the real thing.
     Why we're different from the French in this way seems hard to say.  You could argue it's because France has a much older culture that's faced so many more plagues, epidemics, conflicts, and wars. But the U.S. has had its share of those too: the Civil War and once high infant mortality for example--two things that touched not only Twain but virtually every American of his day.  Still, the French did have to learn to live side-by-side with death before the U.S. was even a country.
     But I have to say I find something qualitatively different in the French attitude toward death, something that is distinctly, well, un-American.  Tourists--French and otherwise--may no longer flock to see the Morgue.  It closed in 1907, partly because not a single person identified a dead body, which was the putative reason for opening it in the first place.   But tourists from France and beyond do still troop down into the Paris Catacombs for a close-up look at two kilometers of human bones stacked up like cord wood.  I've been there myself and it's quite a place.  
     For starters, there's the history: at the end of the eighteenth century, the city began to close its cemeteries for what the Catacombs brochure politely calls "public health reasons."  
That is, there were so many bodies buried on top of each other at Paris's largest cemetery, Cimitiere des Saints-Innocents in what is now the Les Halles district near the Centre Pompidou or Beaubourg, that they were falling through flimsy walls into the cellars of nearby residents.  (For a fine fictional account, read English writer Andrew Miller's book, Pure.) The stench was constant and the risk of disease was rampant.  So the government ordered that human remains in Paris cemeteries be systematically dug up and moved to a network of disused limestone quarries under the city.  All this happened between 1780 and 1860, with our friend Baron Haussmann playing a big role again as urban redeveloper par excellence.  His boss, the very same Napoleon III praised by Twain, even went down for a look-see with his son in 1860.  The Catacombs opened to the public in the early nineteenth century, so Twain could have gone there on the Quaker City trip but didn't.  He went to the Morgue instead, maybe because it was so close to that other must-see site, Notre Dame.  
    When I went to the Catacombs with my husband and teenage sons I was ready to see some bones.   But just how many and how perfectly arranged, I had no idea.  The bones are stacked like groceries on shelves and with a method: bodies on the bottom, skulls on top. There's a separate area for each cemetery, telling where those particular bones came from and when, each with its own plaque of course.  The effect is curatorial--an installation/ exhibition of human bones--and my favorite piece of art is the Port-Mahon corridor, where a quarryman named Decure sculpted a replica of an eponymous fort on the island of Minorca. 
The Port-Mahon sculpture in the Paris Catacombs.

    There's also a crystal-clear pool that workers used to mix cement, a fountain with walls made of bones from Cimitiere des Innocents, and a chapel marking where the first bones were put in 1786.  You can't help but think about what will one day become of all of us--death--and in an intense, artistic way that seems to me peculiarly French.
     I don't know why Twain didn't compare the French attitude toward death to the American, with the French coming out on the losing end.  But I find the opposite myself.  Maybe at the Morgue Twain was just going along on the tour, in France doing as the French do, looking the dead in the face.  As the sign over the entrance to the Catacombs says: Arrete!  C'est ici l'empire de la mort.  
     Stop!  You're entering the land of the dead.
Pictures from a Catacomb.

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