Père-Lachaise: Elysium as Real Estate
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…
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