Saturday, 2 July 2011

Macabre speculations

I recently mentioned Andrew Miller's new novel Pure, which in the meantime I have read. It certainly is a macabre tale, but also a gripping story of the people involved in the destruction of the Les Innocents cemetery a couple of years before the French Revolution. Most of the characters are fictional, but some historical persons crop up, in particular the well-known physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who in the novel is studies the various stages of human decomposition that are found during the unpleasant exhumation of thousands of bodies in the cemetery. The novel provides entertainment as well as an interesting view of the period. That the story of a young engineer destroying an ancient church and its cemetery can be interpreted as a metaphor for a major change in society is lost neither on the reader nor the engineer himself.

A paper from 1997 on Deadly Fears: Dom Augustin Calmet's Vampires and the Rule Over Death by Marie-Hélène Huet, published in Eighteenth-Century Life Vol. 21 (May 1997), p. 222-232, speculates on  both Calmet's work on vampires and the move of cemeteries from central Paris to its outskirts. Personally, I think Huet overinterpretes this conjunction, but she provides some interesting information on e.g. the cemeteries:

'Toward the end of the century, when new legislation finally authorized the closing of overcrowded cemeteries and new locations were chosen, one of the primary concerns was to find a soil where the bodies would decompose quickly. Long before the Cemetery of the Innocents was closed, officials complained that "the soil has difficulty absorbing the bodies buried there" (qtd. in Thibaut-Payen, p. 211). A similar anxiety would spread through Paris during the Revolution, with endless complaints that the guillotined bodies failed to decompose and were rejected by the clay of the Madeleine cemetery where they were first buried.

In the second half of the century, one notices a growing repulsion toward and dread of the dead as the sacred respect due them seemed to be superseded by a rising fear of their nefarious powers. Michel Vovelle quotes a 1781 Lettre du Baron de *** à son ami sur l'affaires des cimetières, from an anonymous author protesting a proposed "lieu de dépôts" or "temporary storage" of the dead in Paris:

"A sick person dies and is kept at home twenty four, sometimes forty eight hours: shall we have to keep it uncovered for another twelve hours? ... Here is a corpse that casts its most dangerous infection into the air; the many moves one will be obliged to make, to take it to church, onto the cart, moving and emptying the cart, will increase this infection, letting it escape into the air. What will be the scope of this infection, already so dangerous when it comes from a single body, when it is multiplied by all the corpses of Paris and air temperatures? ... All of Paris, at all times and in all its quarters, will be filled with cadaverous and pestilential putrefaction." (pp. 202-3)

A growing antipollution movement brought together village priests and villagers, as well as members of the Academy of Medicine and of the Academy of Sciences, all of whom were anxious to relocate cemeteries outside the cities, far from the living. The famous decision in 1785 to close the Cemetery of the Innocents testifies to several concerns, writes Thibaut-Payen, chief among them, "the dangers of insalubrity presented by the presence of a necropolis inside the city limits" (p. 221).' 

Particularly far-fetching are in my opinion Huet's comments on the 'deep Christianity' of the 1732 story of 'Arnold Paul', Calmet being her prime source:

'Undoubtedly, most of the elements of the classical vampire story are here. But the most striking part of the story lies in its deep Christianity, in its hardly disguised evocation of Christ's life: the forty days reminiscent of the days spent fasting in the desert, fighting the devil's temptations, the ressurection from the dead. But at the same time, everything is reversed: the vampire's public life starts after his death, and, instead of fasting and resisting temptation, he indulges in blood feasts that cannot be stopped until forty days after his life as a vampire has started. Like an inverted image of Christ, the vampire wins disciples who will, in turn, make their victims into new converts. Vampirism is not just a plague, it is a false religion. The sacrificial burning of vampires cannot fail to evoke the burning at the stake of heretics and devil worshippers.'

I object to this analysis, because I cannot recall reading any contemporary 18th century speculations along these lines. For more or less the same reason, I also find her thoughts regarding the name of 'Arnold Paul' speculative:

'Moreover, the name of the deadly vampire, Arnold Paul (which Calmet remarked himself was a most unlikely name for a Hungarian vampire), must have immediately reminded readers of the great Jansenist Arnauld. Certainly, vampire stories, articulated on countless episodes of grave profanation and extraordinary attacks on Jansenists, provided the Benedictine monk with a thinly disguised religious parable.'

1 comment:

Philippe Roy said...

Very intersting. You're blog is a mine of information I couldn't found antwhere else.

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