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Expensive Eternity

Père-Lachaise: Elysium as Real Estate

text and photographs by Frederick Brown
Viking, 109 pp., $8.95

The cemetery of Père-Lachaise in Paris was the first garden cemetery of Europe, the first attempt to rid the bursting aisles and vaults of churches and the common burial pits of cities of their hoarded putrescence. But for Mr. Frederick Brown, in this brilliant mortuary sermon that runs only to fifty-seven pages, the place is the Versailles of the bourgeois. The book contains a large number of photographs, both handsome and bizarre. Brown opens with a text from Proust: “Here was still another consequence of the mind’s inability, when it ponders death, to picture something other than life.” To which he adds the gloss, “The city of the dead bespeaks the city of the living more eloquently than any of its other monuments, like an unconscious in which its profoundest self-image, its dreams and gods, or nightmares and want of gods, lie fossilized.”

To the French bourgeois ethic of the nineteenth century Père-Lachaise is a museum and monument. The cemetery was established in 1804 in the very week when Napoleon was proclaimed emperor, and on the rational yet hysterical principle that it should be the Elysium of the “génie de la race,” a spirit that would replace the doctrine that the soul and bones belonged to God and His Church. But the irony waited for the Revolution to come full circle and to produce its nouveaux riches who hankered after the past of the aristocracy from which they had been shut out. The Napoleonic planners were infatuated with ancient Rome and a pseudo-Latinity but, by some wile of the unconscious, they placed their necropolis on an estate whose most important resident a hundred years before had been Louis XIV’s Jesuit confessor, to whom the king had sent his landscape gardeners.

Thus la Gloire had forked roots, and money manured them: the lots were to be held in perpetuity. Eternity could be bought. Here the meditation on the bourgeois way of death expands: it can be matched in other countries but Mr. Brown sticks to France with a mixture of Marxist and Freudian ingenuity, wanders into the concepts of impersonality and formalism, connects these with Baudelaire’s essay on the dandy, with the reign of black cloth for office and mourning, the revenge of the prostitute and courtesan on the tomblike façade of the family system; and he concludes that, for all its sculptured rhetoric, Père-Lachaise ended as an elephantine temple to the ideal of Mallarmé’s “pure sentence” whose images and words reflected nothing but themselves. Terrified of dissolution, the bourgeois became stone.

Brown’s allusiveness is in the best traditions of the born essayist; it is absurd to object that he has it all rather much his own way. He complains that the French enthrone categories and are helpless without concept or formula, but he is imposing one of his own. I happen to think, as he does, that the French claim to individualism is inflated—Balzac constantly deplored individualism in the English and Anglo-Saxons, and thought it dull in itself. But it is to the great credit of the French that they like a joke when they stand on the edge of the precipice to which their regard for Order brings them. With pedestrian logique the cemetery was called the Cimetière de l’Est in the blueprint which proposed to bury Parisians neatly at the four cardinal points of the city; but it was at once popularly known by the name of the Jesuit father. He was at least a gardener and not a civil servant; perhaps there was a sly jog from the Church in this human touch, in times buzzing with anti-clericalism and pseudo-religions.

The story of Père-Lachaise, like all mortuary tales, is a mixture of the presumptuous and the comic. To offer land in perpetuity at a price was a bait to the rich. It offered real estate beyond the grave, assured status, and prolonged class-consciousness; it offered “absolute selfhood to those fearful of losing it.” For the self-made man loses an inner life as he “makes it.” Statues and bric-à-brac from the despoiled estates of the aristocracy were rushed from the museums, very much as the medieval Church had rescued or manufactured the relics of the saints. The supposed bones of Molière and La Fontaine were dug up—it turned out that they were not genuine. The tomb of the queen of Henri III was discovered in a demolished Capuchin convent that had become a public latrine, and was bagged for the new cemetery; a few years later the scandalized Louis XVIII had it removed to the Church of Saint-Denis.

Eighteen-seventeen was indeed a great year for the trading of corpses. It was as if the aristocracy, not so unmindful of the Hundred Days that they could feel completely “restored,” saw fit to haggle with the Napoleonic bourgeoisie. … For a Queen of France it gave two poets and included in the bargain what remained, after many posthumous misadventures, of Héloïse and Abélard. Six times torn asunder since the twelfth century and six times reunited, now consecrated, now desecrated, like rag dolls in the clutches of an erratic child, the lovers found a new incarnation as the prototypical bourgeois couple, old as Gothic yet rationalist, provocative but chaste, Catholic, and anti-clerical.

In Balzac’s time the cemetery was bosky. The vast view of Paris, as his Rastignac discovered, invited elation and greed. Jews and paupers were not admitted for a generation at least, though by a diplomatic bargain the Turks got in and built a mosque—later destroyed. The remembered Napoleonic colonial fantasies appeared among the formal rectangular hôtles particuliers of the best families. There were the fashionable pyramids and obelisks, ziggurats—Assyrian temples—Gothic cathedrals, the phallic menhir or dol of Britanny. In 1828 one Félix de Beaujour had himself buried in a lighthouse 300 feet high; there was a profusion of mass-produced owls, altars, urns, and sarcophagi, and—for Romanticism broke in upon what was pseudo—Roman and severe—naked females at the height of love’s erotic struggle with death.

The place filled up; the shrewd realtors bought up a flat, adjacent stretch of land where five-year leases were available to the more frugal subjects of Napoleon III. And then in 1876 the Communards broke in, turned the mausoleums into ammunition dumps, and were in the end slaughtered there: a sculptured wall commemorates the entry of the People to the privilege of life in stone after death.

Not until 1930—far later than in other countries—did the cult of impermeable life and the impermeable death in marble give place to crematories, and social hierarchy cease to be ossified. Brown now extends his purely social argument into aesthetic speculations: Napoleon played with the masks of greatness. He revived, in second-rate form, the theatrical, staged life of Versailles which had consciously turned the courtier into an actor. In making himself, the bourgeois was calculating a role, hardly brilliant but solemn and excluding in its rhetoric. (One remembers how in England the histrionic Pecksniff addressed himself to “the silent tomb” as if that were a surrogate for moral justification.)

The idea of Roman Order was itself disguise. The dandy was an actor-propagandist of the ideal of surface and exteriority. For Brown Père-Lachaise is a religious domain without religion; the artists after mid-century became the theologians—and so we travel from Haussmann’s totalitarian mania for marble to Mallarmé’s sonnet to the tomb of Poe—to the tomb, not the man: “Nothing in the Empire proved more symptomatic of its decline than a withdrawal into abstraction.” Brilliant Marxist theory—but one thinks of the common grave for the massacred, the hideous mass monuments and the alphabetical cemeteries of our wars, the impersonal column of smoke blowing over the suburban sky, and wonders about that argument. In our village in England during World War II the local policeman complained self-pityingly: “No one is willing to take a corpse off your hands.”

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