Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
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In the Panthéon



The metropolitan jungle breeds strange animals, none stranger perhaps than the UX in Paris, a group dedicated to preserving culture in subterranean fashion. For several years, members of the secretive organization ran clandestine cinemas and held parties in catacombs and disused Metro stations, but their crowning glory was a feat of “guerilla restoration.” Without the knowledge of authorities, a guerilla team called Untergunther expertly gained access to the Panthéon, one of the most important monuments of the French capital, and during hundreds of hours of nocturnal work, restored the nineteenth-century Wagner clock—which had not functioned for four decades. When the repairs were completed in 2006, they notified the Panthéon’s dumbfounded administrator.

The Panthéon is sacred ground in Paris—not because it was built as a place to worship the Almighty, but because the French revolutionaries turned it into a site for the burial and commemoration of, as the facade proclaims, the grands hommes of the nation. Rising high above the Latin Quarter and illuminated at night by fiery orange lights, the building with its imposing cupola stands also as an object lesson in the pitfalls of national memory and the challenges of writing history.

The Panthéon was built originally as the church of St. Geneviève after Louis XV had sworn to honor her should he recover from a grave illness. Because of the exorbitant costs of financing the monarch’s will and whim, construction was finished only in 1791. Meanwhile, the Revolution happened. The church was designated a mausoleum for the nation’s great men, the first of which, the count of Mirabeau, was admitted in 1791, only to be excluded three years later, when political allegiances had changed. History also is subject to changing administrations.

Since then the Panthéon has been the theater of many ideological battles, the center of consecration of the French sense of self and its many permutations. Félix Éboué, a member of the colonial administration, became the first black Frenchman to enter into the hallowed ground, in 1949; the first woman, Marie Curie, in 1995. The tomb listing reads like the greatest hits of French intellectual history—Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, André Maulraux, Émile Zola. The most famous philosophers interred in the crypt are two stars of Enlightenment thought: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who were thus honored already during the eighteenth century—despite the fact that the former spent his adult life in exile and the latter was not even French. Tourists often pose for photographs in front of their sarcophagi.

As with any compilation, it is as interesting to learn who did not make the cut as those who did. Denis Diderot, a contemporary of Rousseau, was repeatedly denied the honor—last in 1913, when the French Parliament voted against his panthéonization (you have to love the French for having words like this). As editor of the Encyclopédie and author of fiction, plays, and essays, Diderot was crucial to the spreading of the Enlightenment and the ideas that would lead to the Revolution. He is recognized as a great writer, but the nation’s highest elected body nevertheless cold-shouldered him. He was, and still is, thought to be ideologically unreliable, a little too risqué—too interested in philosophical ideas for a great literary man, too literary for a true philosopher.

His friend Baron Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, a pioneer of secularism with many works to his name, welcomed into his salon the most brilliant minds of his age. Writing under pseudonyms, d’Holbach published book after book—among them Christianity Unveiled (1761) and The System of Nature (1770)—in which he spread the message of a radical Enlightenment and the possibility of a just and democratic world, despite the fact that the expression of such opinions was still subject to years of imprisonment or public execution. Diderot and d’Holbach showed courage as well as intellectual acuity. They are model citizens. Their bones, however, lie scattered and unidentified, in the ossuary of a little-known church on the Right Bank, the Church of Saint-Roch, in a parish that specialized at the time in burying men of doubtful reputation.

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About the Author

Philipp Blom is a historian and novelist living in Vienna. His books include Enlightening the World: Encyclopédie, the Book That Changed the Course of History, The Vertigo Years, and Luxor. His most recent work, A Wicked Company, was published in 2010.

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