As Lévi-Strauss might have said, ‘the dead are good to think with.’ But the thoughts they give rise to are seldom as reassuring as one might hope. The dead, and memories of the dead, as both these books suggest, are disruptive, unruly and unpredictable.
In his erudite study, Avner Ben-Amos has three cracks at analysing the way French society from the Revolution to the present has tried to come to terms with its most illustrious bodies. First, he considers the longue durée of political regimes: how the liberal and then the radical Revolution, the Thermidorian reaction and Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, the short-lived Second Republic, followed by the Second Empire, the Commune, and finally the Third Republic and its successors served the interests of the living through the rituals with which they buried their politically important dead. Each regime sought to represent itself and the relationship of the people to the state in a particular way. The dead, in short, were recruited for a succession of narratives which sought to clarify fundamental political questions.
Ben-Amos then focuses on the discussions that were involved in the organisation of each of more than a hundred state funerals. A prospective funeral went through an elaborate legislative and executive process (at one of three possible honorific levels) from first mooting to final staging, and in that sense these ceremonies were political events. There was wide-ranging debate within government, in the press and among interested parties about arrangements and what they were, or were not, meant to signify. State funerals, whatever else they might have been, were affairs of state.
Finally, Ben-Amos turns to the événement, the ceremony itself with its attendant performers and public, the movement of the body through the streets to a – not always final – resting place. His focus here is on the ritual event, the sacral moment, in which the heavy political and cultural work was accomplished. The book moves from the outside in: from the dead as a policy problem to the ‘political persona of the deceased’, and finally to the dead body as the object of a complex of rituals intended to take it safely from the world that it inhabited to some new status in worlds beyond.
Ben-Amos begins with the republican funerals of Athens – Pericles’ famous funeral oration is the case in point – because he thinks that there is a genre of public death ritual particular to republican regimes. But the book’s real starting point is the French Revolution, when a form of political theatre in which the audience bore witness to, and affirmed, the divinely grounded truth that the monarchy enjoyed eternal life even as the dead body of the king passed, gave way to a new theatre of death. Born of the Enlightenment, it was secular; it honoured merit not birth; it celebrated individual greatness, which, in turn, represented an imagined contract between fatherland and people; it emphasised the proximity – not the distance – between the distinguished dead and those who witnessed their funerals. The Panthéon, opened in 1791, came to serve the Nation, on and off until the present, as the site for the most glorious of the new death rituals.
This magnificently domed Neoclassical building was designed, in the reign of Louis XVI, by the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot. (It sits at the head of the eponymous rue Soufflot, which runs from the Place du Panthéon to the Luxembourg Gardens.) It was intended to be a church dedicated to Ste Geneviève, but it wasn’t consecrated as planned. Events intervened; Louis set out on a collision course with the Revolution that ended with him losing his crown and then his head. Meanwhile, all the signs of the building’s original religious function were removed; the grammatically odd phrase ‘To the Great Men – the Grateful Fatherland’ was chiselled over the portico; and, on 4 April 1791, the body of the first officially recognised Great Man of the new order, the first hero of the Revolution, Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, Comte de Mirabeau, made its way through throngs of the Great Man’s fellow citizens to the national shrine that had been prepared for him and his like.
Mirabeau set another precedent as well. First in, he was also first out. Political bodies did not rest easy in Revolutionary France. (They are even now subject to successive burials as their fortunes grow, although their recent peregrinations have been better regulated and not since the Revolution has a body, once in, been ejected.) The problem is that greatness is not so easily gauged without the hindsight of history; judgments are always subjective and subject to the vagaries of time. Mirabeau’s secret dealings with the King were exposed after the attackon the Tuileries in August 1792. Louis’s ‘iron chest’ was seized and letters found which proved that the Panthéon’s first and exemplary occupant was a closet counter-revolutionary. The Great Man was not actually dumped, however, until 21 September 1794, the day the body of the martyred radical Jean-Paul Marat entered. In 1797 the relatively conservative regime wanted to bring Mirabeau back, but his body was nowhere to be found. (This was not the only lost body: the hero of Verdun in 1792, General Nicolas-Joseph Beaurepaire, was supposedly sent to the Panthéon, but according to the official guidebook, no trace of his body can be found there today. Similarly lost is Auguste-Marie-Henri Picot Dampierre, a hero at Valmy, who was killed at Valenciennes in 1793.)
Marat was himself booted out less than a year later but he was not, as legend had it, chucked into a sewer. His body made its way next door to the Church of St Etienne-du-Mont, from which his supporters, in a flurry of iconoclasm, had earlier removed the bones of Ste Geneviève to the Place de Grève, where they burned and pulverised them before tossing the ashes into the Seine. Marat stayed put and rests today with the dust of local parishioners, Pascal among them. What remained of Ste Geneviève – mostly the slab she rested on – enjoyed a fleeting sojourn in ‘her’ church, the Panthéon in one of its brief periods of consecration, under Napoleon III; and then found its way back to St Etienne-du-Mont. The shuffle of bodies seemed to echo the shuffle of crowds and armies, the dead providing a ghostly resonance to the strife of the living.
Ben-Amos does not tell these particular stories – modern versions of the familiar movement of relics in ages past – but he does recount the movement of bodies to the tune of political change as one regime followed another. First, the flood tide of Revolution. In the same year as Mirabeau’s came the apotheosis of Voltaire, dead since 1778 but an early proponent of a national shrine to Great Men. Several martyrs of the most radical phase of the Revolution followed – among them Joseph Bara, the prototypical dead youth who had sacrificed his life for the Nation. (His funeral was organised by David.) Then, after the fall of Robespierre, there was what Ben-Amos calls Rousseau’s more ‘integrative’ funeral, whose pastoral imagery soothed the crowds as the body made its way from its quiet grave on an island in a country lake to the national shrine in the centre of the capital. Marat’s transfer, three weeks before Rousseau’s, was the first Thermidorian state funeral: the two were staged close together, in Ben-Amos’s view, to draw in as many people as possible and to show that the Revolution had not really ended but merely taken a different, more agreeable course.
After the Mirabeau embarrassment both the Thermidorian and Directory regimes exercised caution; generals were given state funerals but no one made it into the Panthéon again until after Napoleon became Emperor in 1804. He played it safe, reserving enshrinement for worthy but boring types – great bureaucrats and military men – who represented institutional retrenchment and victory on the battlefield, the legacies that the Bonapartist regime wanted to leave for posterity. Today, only historians will thrill to their names and most visitors to the Panthéon will have to thumb through their guidebooks to learn what the Napoleonic bodies did to get there.
If the reasons some qualified for burial in the Panthéon and some didn’t were subtle, what the building represented was transparently clear, at any rate to opponents of the Revolution: it was a great church whose consecration had been aborted by godless secularists bent on creating a cult of the Nation, a replacement for what had been France’s most hallowed resting place, the Cathedral at St Denis, where monarchs had been crowned and buried for many centuries. The Panthéon was manifestly for the bodies of exemplary citizens, not kings; its place in the political spectrum was set firmly and for ever.
And so in 1815 the Restoration Government of Louis XVIII, not surprisingly, began to undo what had befallen the would-be Church of Ste Geneviève. It was consecrated; the dead honoured by state funerals were now all royals and went to St Denis as before. Only the Panthéon’s architect, Soufflot, dead since 1780, was actually buried there during the Restoration. His creation became, for the first time, the Catholic church he had designed it to be.
The July Monarchy, born in 1830 out of a revolution of its own, rededicated the Panthéon to the memory of Great Men, restored the motto, and ordered the frieze to be built which still adorns the building. It did not, however, bury anyone there. Ben-Amos says that the new regime wanted to avoid the disturbances that new transfers of bodies might cause, but this isn’t a convincing explanation. The Government of Louis-Philippe put on a great ceremony for the rededication of the building. And more to the point, it created two new sacro-secular political sites of its own in extremely well-attended public ceremonies: the Invalides and the Place de la Bastille. The bodies of 14 people who died as the result of an attempt on the life of Louis-Philippe in 1835 stopped at the Place de la Bastille en route to the Invalides. And in 1840, on the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution, 504 bodies of citizens who had fought to topple the Restoration Government were permanently reinterred under the Bastille column. An already potent site was thus freighted with the political glory of the dead. More spectacularly, the repatriated body of Napoleon went to the Invalides in 1840, binding the Orleanist Monarchy to the glories of the Bonapartist Empire.
The Revolution of 1848 began with a parade of corpses – demonstrators killed in the celebratory riots that followed the resignation of Guizot, the hated Prime Minister. The short-lived new regime did not have time to establish its own relationship to burial spaces and public funerals, but Napoleon III, who came to power in 1851, was quick to put his stamp on the machinery and geography of honoured death. Within four days of his coup the Panthéon was reconsecrated and the motto removed. Following the example of Napoleon I, the Second Empire was more likely to honour dignitaries than exemplary citizens – 21 out of 36 state funerals were of military men. And they went to the Invalides not the Panthéon. Only at the end, when the regime was in crisis and republicans began to flex their political muscle, did other sorts come to receive the honour of a state funeral. No one, of course, went to the national shrine: it was still in its second round of being a church.
The Commune, too, paraded its corpses, but it comes into Ben-Amos’s story largely because the conservative republic which succeeded it gave state funerals to the Communards’ victims. Between 1871 and 1877 the new regime largely followed the practices of the Second Empire. The citizens were not so dozy, however: in direct opposition to the Church, they staged enormous civil funerals for a number of artists, politicians and theatre people of the Left. The de-Catholicisation of funeral ritual was underway before the big official assault that came with 1878 and the start of the avowedly anti-clerical, secular Third Republic.
Radical deputies had already sought to reopen the Panthéon in 1876; four years later, deputies tried to link its rebirth as a resting place for Great Men with the first official celebration of Bastille Day on 14 July. Success was delayed for a further five years, but then the cross came off for good and the motto went back: the Panthéon would now be the place where Great Men were memorialised and instruction in civic virtue took place. Funerals such as Gambetta’s in 1882 would become, as he himself once said of such events, ‘the most propitious occasion for the education of the people’. For Ben-Amos the Panthéon and the state funerals which took place there represent the final triumph of the republic. Battles would continue to be fought over who was to be honoured, but the existence of a great secular place of official memory would never again be questioned nor would the state funeral which marked the passing of the most worthy citizens into this, or some other, memorial realm.
Having established the pattern of the longue durée, regime by regime, Ben-Amos turns to the Third Republic and the matter of public discussion about individual funerals. His claim in this section – ‘Politics’ – is that while opposition from the extreme Left and from the Catholic Right turned most other civic festivals into controversial celebrations, death demanded respect and the state funeral had the potential to become an occasion exempt from partisan politics: a ‘ceremony of integration’, a time when differences were erased. But as the multi-layered, detailed, often funny evidence he provides for different categories of the dead – politicians, military men, scientists, writers, musicians – clearly shows, this potential was seldom realised.
Public funerals were a sub-genre of the bitter contests over public space that characterised the era. The 19th century was the age of statue mania, when parks, squares and even junctions were fought over as sites where the Great Men of different political and cultural persuasions might be memorialised. (Before the Revolution only nobility and saints merited statues.) The Place Vendôme is only the most famous such disputed site: Louis XIV stood over it from 1686 until he was toppled, in image and in person, by the Revolution; then Napoleon had a column built there to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz with brass from 1200 cannons and himself on top in his Caesar mode; down he went after the Restoration and up went Henri IV. Courbet’s arrest and fine for organising the famous Communard toppling of the column with its new statue of Napoleon put up by the July Monarchy marks the last battle for this spot.
Topography matters. The Sacré Coeur, which looms over Paris from Montmartre, was built to wipe away the sins of the Commune and – from the point of view of the religious Right – the whole sorry post-Revolutionary history of anti-Catholicism. It represented a cultural victory of sorts. Defeated Communards were executed at the cemetery wall of Père-Lachaise in the heart of working-class eastern Paris – the Mur des Fédérés, as it would be called, soon became a shrine of the Left. The question of whether or not a state funeral would stop at Notre-Dame was critical because religion was so divisive. And even when there wasn’t a quarrel over whether a ceremony should be civil or religious, the route the procession took still mattered. President Sadi Carnot’s body stopped at Notre-Dame, to be sure, but it started at the Presidential Palace and ended at the Panthéon. Memory had been secularised, however unpleasant some French people found this to be.
It’s true that some funerals – especially those of cultural figures – seemed to bring the nation together, as Ben-Amos suggests. The Pantheonisation in 1885 of Victor Hugo, the first burial there for over half a century, was a spectacular public ritual attended by many hundreds of thousands. The various stopping places were elaborately staged; there was media attention galore and later a civically appropriate spin in schoolbooks. Hugo’s became the gold standard for all future state funerals, the ne plus ultra of the genre. So yes, the burial of this great man of letters, himself an inveterate participant in state funerals, did, for a moment, seem to create a memory for a nation unified in its culture if not in its politics. There were other moments of apparent reconciliation: the burial of Pasteur at his Institute, for example, and of Claude Bernard at Père-Lachaise, both after state funerals, both after religious services, seemed to suggest that science and religion could be reconciled.
Even Hugo’s funeral was not without controversy in its planning, however, and much of what Ben-Amos has to say in his ‘Politics’ section is about the struggles that surrounded the death of almost every citizen prominent enough to warrant state attention. Divisiveness was the order of the day even if the ceremony managed to paper it over. In 1899, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, the President of the Republic, Félix Faure, died in the arms of his mistress, probably after taking too many stimulants. This, in itself, made him less than Panthéon material. Though a non-believer, he took the sacraments on his deathbed, which set the stage for a major quarrel in the Assembly on the degree of clerical participation in his burial. And finally, the funeral became the occasion for a failed coup attempt.
The first Pantheonisation after Hugo’s was of three victorious generals from the Revolutionary Year II – part of the centenary celebrations in 1889 – whose apotheosis was meant to provide the rightist General Boulanger and the public at large with models of a loyal republican army. Ceremonial pedagogy. But the lesson was hard to learn. The Army, whose feelings toward the regime were never warm, refused to have anything to do with the Panthéon after its arch enemy, Zola, was reburied there in 1908. The Unknown Soldier would go instead to the Arc de Triomphe, on the same day that the heart of Gambetta was reburied in the Panthéon and less than two weeks before the assassinated Socialist Prime Minister Jean Jaurès was transferred there too. Not surprisingly, the state funeral, like war, was politics by other means and has remained so.
Good feelings generated by a popular burial did not last very long. Transferring René Cassin – the author of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, a Jew, a Résistant, a colleague of de Gaulle’s and a member of the interwar Radical party – to the Panthéon in 1987 may have pleased a broad political spectrum, but hard and less appealing choices followed. In 1989, Marie Curie was rejected as a bicentennial transfer in favour of three Revolutionaries who supposedly represented civil liberty because President Mitterrand did not want to muddy the political waters with a gesture to feminism. When she finally got there in 1995 she was the first woman so honoured, but there were rumblings in the press: her children were Communists. The supposedly safe bets that Mitterrand had chosen in her place in 1989 also created controversy. For example, the transfer of the Abbé Grégoire was opposed both by the Archbishop of Paris, because of his role in formulating the Civil Constitution of 1792, and by Orthodox Jews, who believed his advocacy of emancipation had led to assimilation and a weakening of community.
It is Emile Durkheim, the greatest sociologist of the Third Republic, who keeps Ben-Amos from fully acknowledging that the death and burial of Great Men – and lesser folk as well – constitutes a political force which is just as likely to be disruptive and agonistic as it is to be integrative and reassuring. In fact, Durkheim is mentioned only twice, but his spirit dominates the third section of Ben-Amos’s book – ‘Culture’ – in which the thesis of funerals as a sacred integrative ritual is developed.
Society, in Durkheim’s view, had replaced God as the locus of the sacred. New civic rituals increasingly supplanted older ones as the means of creating and making manifest the sacrality of what, stripped of its frills, was merely an assemblage of institutions and individuals. New holidays such as Bastille Day that celebrated the creation of the State were added to religious holidays that celebrated sacred days of the Church calendar. A community of the illustrious dead dwelling under the Arc de Triomphe, in the Panthéon, Père-Lachaise, or some such place of memory took over from the community of saints. And, as Ben-Amos suggests, a new type of eternity, the eternity of memory, came to replace the Christian kind. (Pasteur was said to be ‘immortal while still alive’, proleptically enshrined in the memory of his countrymen.) State funerals, in this context, separated the particularly meritorious from all others, as the Day of Judgment would once have done; they constituted a sort of pilgrimage route which replaced the topography of holy wells with a new round of sites whose meaning resided in the history of a social, not a transcendental order. The sacred remained; it did the same work of creating unity; only its content was different.
Two of Durkheim’s followers, the anthropologists Robert Hertz and Arnold Van Gennep, provide Ben-Amos with the narrative for the ‘Culture’ section. Hertz argued that the death of an individual was the death of a social being and thus a blow to the social order. The community healed this wound by means of the rituals with which it buried the corpse and cared for the soul of the departed. Van Gennep set Hertz’s death rituals within a general framework of rites of passage, occasions on which the potential dangers of change and disruption were managed through a series of carefully orchestrated stages: separation from the former status (the deathbed and lying in state); transition to the new state (the procession through the city or the countryside of the body in its coffin); and the incorporation of the dead person into his new status (the funeral service and the burial). In this way, a Great Man becomes an ancestor.
These are the ritual stages for laying the dead to rest that anthropologists have abstracted from their observations of tribal societies, and Ben-Amos follows them chapter by chapter. First, separation: stories of the good and bad deaths of various protagonists, or more precisely, spin doctors’ accounts of their deathbeds. In the Third Republic, and after, it mattered a great deal if a former non-believer suddenly accepted the ministrations of a priest. (The surprising last-minute conversion of Edouard Herriot after a lifetime of anti-clericalism made his funeral in 1957 less of a celebration of the glories of the French Left than it might otherwise have been. Old Enlightenment turns – one thinks of the eager watch kept at Voltaire’s and Hume’s deathbeds to see if they would break – still had life in them two centuries later.)
Then transition, the liminal stage: debates about whether there should be a state funeral; about where the body should lie in state and about the route it should take from stage to stage. It was important, for example, that the funeral of a politician include in its route one of the sites of power – the Palais Bourbon, the Palais du Luxembourg, the Élysée Palace. This stage can also be cast as a pilgrimage with souvenirs, sacred stopping places and, of course, pilgrims – the citizens who marched, watched, or paid their respects at a lying in state.
Finally, incorporation into the world of the ancestors: the funeral oration which ‘improved on’ the Great Man’s life and served as the grist for future pedagogical use; the staging of mourners and onlookers; the arrangement of various rites. A spatial division between religious and secular ceremonies emphasised the fact that, in the final analysis, death was to the glory of society.
Durkheim and his anthropological descendants offered a template for translating the old world of sacred kingship into the new world of society and disenchantment. Secular culture, in their view and Ben-Amos’s, now does what God used to do. Or more specifically, the death rituals of a post-Revolutionary state do what the death rituals of Pacific Islanders do in quite other contexts. The sacred is fungible.
Ben-Amos’s use of this social scientific tradition leads him to downplay the fact that the funerals he recounts seldom lived up to the solemnity and good order which anthropology would have predicted. A Government fell as a result of the Army’s refusal to attend the state funeral of the freethinking composer Felicien David when it realised that the ceremony would be civil and not religious. (The Catholic press was especially vehement on this occasion because the wives and daughters of right-thinking citizens actually played the music of the infidel musician in their parlours.) Students tried to hijack the body of Benjamin Constant and force its entrance into the newly reopened Panthéon; then police intervened; there was a fight during which the coffin fell to the ground; finally it continued on its way, as planned, to Père-Lachaise. André Breton wanted to bury Anatole France in a bouquiniste’s box to mock his antiquarianism. Sometimes there were family squabbles between former wives and children over where a body should go. And there was usually tension between the various groups of participants – workers, students, officials. Modern societies do not function with the unanimity ascribed to tribal ones by anthropology.
Hertz noted that those who were not permanently buried – like almost all the inhabitants of the Panthéon, whose bodies and lives remained in play after their deaths – were still very much part of the world they had left. Everything might not be right with these bodies; they may, as he says, ‘remember all the wrongs’ they have ‘suffered in life’. The world is busy today laying such bodies to rest – those of the victims of torture and murder in the Argentine or Central America, of the disappeared, of those lost in gulags, concentration camps, prisons – and while such an enterprise may ultimately prove integrative it is, as yet, as deeply political as any cultural gesture is likely to get. When the heart of Gambetta was transferred to the Panthéon in 1920, 38 years after his death, the debate over the meaning of his life was almost as intense as it had been in 1883, when the extreme Right and the extreme Left objected to the giant funeral he was given. Bodies, in short, do not so easily smooth over the disruption of death.
Even a body well settled in its grave can be caught up in the cultural politics of the living. Jim Morrison’s grave at Père-Lachaise has become a major cult site, with droves of well-behaved tourists paying their respects (some even look in on Chopin on their way). But ten years ago, on the 20th anniversary of his death, things were not so peaceful. Police locked out devotees, who tried to ram the cemetery gates; there was a fight and the fans were dispersed with tear gas.
Ben-Amos’s commitment to a particular anthropology of death keeps him from considering how powerful an engine of change death has been since the Enlightenment. The striking thing about so much of what he recounts is that culture, and most particularly the culture of death, is so much more than the glue of society, or the representation in another register of political reality. It is the means by which one kind of world is transformed into another. The closing of the old cemeteries and the founding of Père-Lachaise, the creation of new sites of memory, the struggle against the clerical monopoly on burials, the civil registration not just of birth and marriage but of death all played their part in creating the modern secular order.
Jean Baffier, the obscure Fin-de-Siècle sculptor whom Neil McWilliam resurrects in his superb study of art and lost causes, understood this power. Baffier was not a long forgotten, would-be rival of Rodin’s, although during his life the amount of public attention he received was probably second only to Rodin; he is not a figure whose genius has been wrongly ignored. McWilliam has no interest in adding to the canon. Baffier was, by any standard, a nut, an ultra-nationalist, a man of extremes and a bit of a whiner. His self-presentation as the emasculated primal peasant Frenchman is not attractive. He was a man of modest talent, if fierce beliefs, who represents the virulence of art as it engages with the politics of its time.
His career, as McWilliam argues, is exemplary of a tradition within Modernism which sought to re-create through art an earlier, more organic, quasi-feudal world of peasants and craftsmen. His was an aesthetic Modernism in the service of pre-Modernism: a medievalism which, unlike its English counterparts, was decidedly of the Right, a medievalism which stretched back before the age of faith to a pagan community of men rooted in the French soil. Baffier’s alter ego, and the subject of one of his best known works, was the virile, muscular Jacques Bonhomme – the prototypical peasant – who was figuratively unmanned by modernity and specifically by the politicians of the Third Republic. Culture – that is, his craft, plastic arts of various sorts – was, for Baffier, politics by other means. Perhaps it was nearer to guerrilla warfare.
We meet him in 1886 when he is on trial for the attempted assassination of a politically innocuous, if unprincipled deputy – Germain Casse – who had been the head of a commission to build a monument to Gambetta, a project on which Baffier had assisted but for which he was purportedly not paid. Casse’s ineffectiveness was his real offence: in Baffier’s eyes it represented the ineffectiveness of Republican Parliamentary politics against which the true Frenchman, the prototypical Jacques Bonhomme, was duty bound to fight.
The stabbing – for which Baffier was acquitted – makes sense only in the context of a life of bitter, quixotic cultural politics. In 1891, a right-wing senator discovered, to his horror, that a bronze statue of Marat had been erected in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris. (Marat, long the poster boy of republican excess, was much in the news at the time because of a bad but popular play called Thermidor, whose big draw seems to have been its anti-Jacobinism. The play so upset Clemenceau that the erstwhile defender of free speech demanded it be shut down: ‘La révolution est un bloc.’) The offending statue was not, however, the work of a left-wing artist: it was Baffier who had managed to construe Marat as an outlaw forced to lead a life of squalor as he fought the enemies of the people and to identify with Marat’s suspicion of the politicians of his day and his fear that the people would fall for their blandishments. (This Marat, which since 1942 has existed only in plaster form, leans forward aggressively, demandingly, from a dishevelled bed, one hand clutching a piece of paper, the other gesturing impatiently.)
It was an eccentric interpretation of the Revolution that informed the Marat statue. Baffier’s memorial to the dead of the Franco-Prussian War, which he built, on commission, in his native region of the Cher, was inspired by his vison of a racialised, ethnically pure France. A virulent anti-Protestantism motivated his sculpture of Servetus, who had fled the French Inquisition only to be burned in Calvinist Geneva. Martyred like himself by the enemies of France – the Protestants, whose latest betrayal had been their support of Dreyfus – Servetus has the sort of rough-hewn peasant look which Baffier affected. The statue, McWilliam points out, was unveiled in the midst of a controversy about a bust of Zola, Dreyfus’s defender, which was allegedly made from melted-down church bells.
Baffier fought on. He designed a fireplace in the Celtic tradition and formed a folk group, the Gas du Berry, as part of a regionalist cult in his native Bourges, which offended almost everyone. At a time when many turned to the study of folklore as a way of discovering an authentic France, Baffier, as was his wont, went to extremes. The Left objected because the Gas du Berry was so aggressively nationalistic, anti-democratic and more or less overtly anti-semitic; the Right was not pleased because it was also blatantly anti-monarchist. (Baffier harked back to the days before strong kings and a strong Church had ‘destroyed’ the peasant community.) Later in life he worked to protect French crafts against industrial products and railed against the various conspiracies which kept thwarting him, in particular the Judeo-Masonic oligarchy which was bent on subordinating the peasantry.
Here, then, was an artist who regarded his craft as a weapon in the fight for a France that was hopelessly lost (and had never existed). His aesthetic, which lacked the benign qualities of English medievalism, was increasingly marginal. Nor was he talented enough to be forgiven by posterity for the political unpleasantness that has excused, to some extent, other reactionary Modernists. Though he died in 1920, Vichy, as McWilliam suggests, was Baffier’s last cultural hurrah. After the war he sank into deep irrelevance.
There is much more that one wants to know about the political connections of such a political artist. Louis Marin, for example, was one of his great patrons and admirers but we never quite find out why. Marin was the leader of the largest Parliamentary party of the Right – not someone, on the face of it, who would have been sympathetic to Baffier’s anti-Parliamentarianism or to whom Baffier would himself be attracted. Before he entered politics Marin has been an anthropologist: perhaps that was what inclined him towards a modern sculptor who moulded Frenchmen to look like their rustic, even primitive earlier selves.
McWilliam, even more wholeheartedly than Ben-Amos, speaks to the importance of culture wars. Death, as Empson put it, ‘is the trigger to the literary man’s biggest gun’. It is also an active force in the forging of modernity. The dead in modern societies turn out to be as inherently unsettled as the social worlds from which they issued.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.