Post-Mortem

Michael Burns

  • Death and the After-Life in Modern France by Thomas Kselman
    Princeton, 413 pp, £40.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 691 00889 2

Nineteenth-century demographers tried to take the measure of death. Years before Emile Durkheim, they counted suicide rates as barometers of social dissolution, and their rage for mathematical precision extended into all corners of ‘mortal knowledge’. Reflecting contemporary anxieties over urban growth, urban squalor, industrial accidents, the persistence of cholera, and, later in the century, the declining birthrate and the spread of tuberculosis, the new ranks of social scientists calculated the consequences of a rapidly changing French society. Thomas Kselman, in this superb new book, notes the paradox: hard facts about deadly disorders both heightened fears and raised hopes that solutions would follow. Government officials tackled problems of public hygiene, doctors formed professional organisations and vied with midwives and priests as bedside ministers; and hospitals, long rejected as sink-holes of contagion where the poor went to die, improved their practices, polished their image, and increased their clientele. The change was gradual, but the trend was clear: the 19th century marked ‘the medicalisation of sickness and death’. We live – or we are kept alive – by its legacy.

The century also marked, for some, the most celebrated fatality of the modern age. But if God was dead so too were heaven and hell, which raised thorny questions about immortality and the real estate of the after-life. Freemasons and other spiritualists clung to 18th-century notions of a distant watchmaker deity who honours no warranties, while new societies of ‘spiritists’, particularly strong in America, Britain and France, studied reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Amateur chemists of the immortal, they analysed ethereal matter and conjured up elements like the périsprit, which, as Kselman observes, seems to have drifted across generations and into the minds of today’s New Agers. But 19th-century spiritists were not all fogbound crackpots. Napoleon III and Victor Hugo, enemies in politics, were both ‘comforted by mediums who brought spirits back into their homes’: the philosopher Henri Bergson lectured on the topic (and believed in it); and when Captain Dreyfus’s brother, a man of high culture and Voltairian reason, wanted news of the prisoner’s fate on Devil’s Island, he turned to a semi-literate peasant woman whose skills of clairvoyance also attracted the attention of the British Society for Psychical Research.

Strict positivists, on the other hand, rejected all metaphysical speculation about the after-life – or tried to until death beckoned. Tracing the branches of human knowledge through three ‘conditions’ – from the Theological, or fictitious, to the Metaphysical, or abstract, and on to the crowning achievement of the Scientific, or positive – Auguste Comte, building on the materialist ideas of Claude Henri Saint-Simon, fashioned a philosophy that rooted paradise on earth. While the moral system of Christianity relied on promises and threats of the after-life, positivism relied on individual participation in the temporal work of human progress; deifying Science, it proclaimed the liberation of morality from the superstitions of religious orthodoxy. No modern philosophy did more to shape the political and social reforms of the early Third Republic, and none had a harder time with life’s final moment.

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