Tag Archives: Emil Cioran

Paris Wanderlust: A Museum of Memento Mori in Montparnasse Cemetery

A Museum of Memento Mori in Montparnasse Cemetery

Poets & philosophers

Baudelaire’s cenotaph

Twenty-five years after the death of Charles Baudelaire, the literati of Paris decided in 1892 to erect a cenotaph dedicated to the poète maudit.

Rodin was commissioned to sculpt the monument, but he only got as far as the head of Baudelaire before funding lagged. Rodin would later state:

What’s a statue, in fact? A body, arms and legs covered in ordinary clothes? What use are they to Baudelaire, who lived only through his mind? His head is all that matters.

Enter José de Charmoy, a relatively unknown French sculptor. Having already designed a sculpture dedicated to the poet, Charmoy offered it to the committee. His cenotaph now stands at the end of a path, against a wall.

Cenotaph of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

More than just a head, Charmoy’s monument to the poète maudit consists of three figures. A shrouded corpse lies rigid and insensate:

An elongated, skeletal bat clings to the vertical monolith. So Baudelaire.

And at the pinnacle, a square-jawed thinker leans forward, chin on fists, sunken eyes gazing into nothingness with acute . . . ennui.

A lifesaver for Robert Desnos

Poet Robert Desnos, an active member of the French Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. After being sent to three different Nazi concentration camps, he ended up in Theresienstadt, a camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He died of typhoid at age 44, a month after the camp was liberated.

At the end of one of his poems, Desnos writes:

You’ll put a life saver on my grave. Because one never knows.

His devotees have obliged.

Robert Desnos (1900-1945)

A mailbox for Cioran

On the grave of Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran sits a mailbox. When I was there, several messages had been deposited.

Emile Cioran (1911-1995)

To conceive the act of thought as a poison bath, the pastime of an elegiac viper.

Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations

Parma violets for Tristan Tzara

Has Dada ever spoke to you about Parma violets

NEVER NEVER NEVER

Tristan Tzara (1896-1963)

Here we are dropping our anchor in fertile ground.

“Life is a gift that is lost . . .”

La vie est un don perdu pour celui qui ne l’a pas vécu comme il aurait voulu.

Life is a gift that is lost to those who haven’t lived the way they would have liked.

This adage by 19th-century Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu has a whiff of impossibility. Can a person really arrive at the end of life and have no regrets? It would require predicting what the future you would deem to have been a squandered gift of life.

But loosely interpreted as a memento mori — follow your passions before it’s too late — I can live with that.

Le Musée Montparnasse

The Enlightened Centaur

I first met Baldaccini’s iconic Centaur at a busy intersection in Paris. Baldaccini used scrap metal to create the bricolaged man-horse.

The Centaur by César Baldaccini (1921-1998), at Place Michel-Debré (6e)

Yes, garden tools and a violin scroll protrude from the centaur’s anus. Even so, he radiates extraordinary dignity. His front leg and arm are poised as if he were about to impart reason.

Perhaps this centaur is more related to the Houyhnhnms, the tribe of intelligent horses in Gulliver’s Travels, than to the concupiscent man-beasts of ancient Greek myth.

The same sculpture poses on the grave of Baldaccini:

The Pilgrim by Baltasar Lobo

Le Pèlerin is exhibited on the tomb of its creator, Spanish-French artist Baltasar Lobo.

Baltasar Lobo (1910-1993)

The Prophet

On the grave of Polish-French artist Léopold Kretz stands his sculpture Le prophète:

Léopold Kretz (1907-1990), Le prophète

Images of women

Alien Venus

Philippe Hiquily was a sculptor whose wide-hipped female forms de-emphasizing limbs and heads recall prehistoric Venus sculptures, which magnify childbearing potential. Hiquily sometimes gives his metallic women spindly limbs and oddly shaped heads, lending an insectile humour to their provocative eroticism.

Here lies one such enigma, in her otherworldly glory, on Hiquily’s tomb:

Philippe Hiquily (1925-2013)

Some hybrids & metamorphoses

Fish boobs? Huh?
Alex Berdal (b. 1945), Poisson Sirène

The secret of the bronze Fish Siren? The breasts on one side.

Inscription on the other side of the female fish:

Il fait son choix d’anchois et dine d’une sardine.
Essentially, if less elegantly: He chose anchovy but got sardine.

Mystery pelican

On the grave of painter Gérard Barthélémy stands a bushy pelican that seems to be morphing into a plant.

Pelican by Denis Mondineu (1942-2019) on the grave of Gérard Barthélémy (1938-2002)

The pelican emerges from a tree stump; its legs and toes resemble the roots:

The pelican’s feathers appear like leaves:

And the pelican’s body sprouts flora:

Perhaps an Ovidian metamorphosis is happening?

A bejeweled turtle for Huysmans

Novelist Karl-Joris Huysmans turned Zola’s naturalism on its head in À rebours, the novel championed by a generation of writers embracing Decadence as an aesthetic.

The connoisseur Des Esseintes, in his mania to fashion ever-refined sensory experiences, decides that he needs a living creature moving about an oriental carpet in order to set off its colours and texture. He purchases a turtle, whose shell he plates in gold and encrusts with precious stones.

Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907)

However, the embedded jewels weigh down the animal until it expires. The doomed turtle is one of the most arresting images from Huysmans’ novel — a sort of Faustian demise by proxy.

A Porcelain Cat for Ricardo Menon

Sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle created a colourful cat for the grave of her close friend Ricardo Menon, who died of AIDS in 1989.

Inscription: “For our close friend Ricardo, who died too soon, young, loved, and handsome. 10 June 1952 – 21 Sept 1989”

Aside: Another work in Paris by Niki de Saint Phalle is the Stravinsky Fountain at Centre Pompidou (with co-creator Jean Tinguely). Below is her fantastical Firebird from that fountain:

A delicate mantid

The shiny blue-and-red creature by Agathon suggests a praying mantis’ delicate structure and pose.

Sculpture by Agathon (b. 1979) on the grave of Ginette Cohen Salmon née Olek (1943-1997)

Agathon’s sculpture, with its bright colours and fantastical shape, recalls the sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle.

Biomorphisms

Stained glass & mosaics

A medievalist in the Belle Époque

Bellery-Henri Desfontaines was a decorative artist of the late 19th century. As the mosaic on his tombstone suggests, he embraced the Belle Époque interest in Medieval art and tapestry.

Bellery-Henri Desfontaines (1867-1909)
Simple blue stars — unpretentiously notable . . .
Tomb of Théodore Dauphin (1848-1917)

Numerology

The intriguing sculpture on this Jewish-Christian tomb is the opposite of simple:

Perhaps the numbers, counting down from 12 to 1 and starting over at 12, represent a clock or sundial?

A planet for Urbain le Verrier

French astronomer and mathematician Urbain le Verrier specialized in the motions of bodies in outer space. Using only mathematics, he played a key role in predicting the existence and position of Neptune.

Urbain Le Verrier (1811-1877)

An ammonite for Caillois

I assumed (incorrectly) that a scientist was buried at a tombstone embedded with an ammonite fossil:

Roger Caillois (1913-1978)

The grave is unmarked, but a bit of research reveals that it belongs to Roger Caillois, a sociologist and literary critic who wrote classic works on the sociology of the sacred and of play. Good to know. But why the ammonite?

Caillois was fascinated by mineralogy, and in The Writing of Stones he speaks of precious stones and fossils with an odd mixture of poetry and science. He views the patterns created by fossils inside stones as if they were inscriptions in the book of evolution:

Meanwhile the tree of life goes on putting out branches. A multitude of new inscriptions is added to the writing in stones. Images of fishes swim among dendrites of manganese as though among clumps of moss. A sea lily sways on its stem in the heart of a piece of slate. A phantom shrimp can no longer feel the air with its broken antennae. The scrolls and laces of ferns are imprinted in coal. Ammonites of all sizes, from a lentil to a millwheel, flaunt their cosmic spirals everywhere

from L’écriture des pierres, tr. Barbara Bray

A curious episode in the history of 20th-century poetry involves a debate between Caillois and chief Surrealist André Breton about the inner workings of the Mexican jumping bean. Caillois, whose poetic prose reflects on the patterns and colours inside jasper and petrified wood, proposed cutting open the “bean” to understand it. Breton, however, adamantly preferred to keep the object intact and to delve into its mystery solely through the power of his imagination.

Such are the debates of poets. The upshot? Breton excommunicated Caillois from his (very) exclusive club of Surrealists. Caillois is in good company in Montparnasse Cemetery — other poets ejected from Breton’s club include Robert Desnos and Tristan Tzara.

Just a couple more tombstones before the guard walks through the cemetery ringing his bell to signal the closing of the gates . . .

Famille Crestinu

Keep smiling . . .

De notre sourire gardez le souvenir. Souriez-vous pour nous!
Remember our smile, and smile for us!

Next: Romanizing the Parisii

Camille Martin

Traveling with Pessoa: “The universe isn’t mine: it’s me.”


         My travel companion for my train trip to St. Catharines to read at the Grey Borders Series was, it turns out, allergic to travel. Looking out of train windows gave him an overwhelming feeling of ennui, though he expressed his neurasthenic tedium with poetic melancholy. He was Fernando Pessoa (or rather, one of his many heteronyms, Bernardo Soares) in the form of The Book of Disquiet, a series of short, introspective prose pieces. I had thumbed through it at Nicholas Hoare Books, and Pessoa’s sensibility in these fleeting but often brilliant meditations reminded me of Emil Cioran’s existential darkness in A Short History of Decay. Even though travel, which I love, was anathema to Pessoa’s Soares, I decided the book would be ideal train reading: something I could dip into, put down, ruminate on, and pick up again. Flashes of philosophical introspection and train travel were made for each other.
         There’s a visceral poetry to the experience of riding a train, which Blaise Cendrars understood so beautifully in his long poem “Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France.” And my journey with The Book of Disquiet was the richer that Pessoa’s poetic prose harmonized with the rhythmic sways and bumps of the train:

                           The idea of travelling nauseates me.
                           I’ve already seen what I’ve never seen.
                           I’ve already seen what I have yet to see.
                  . . .
                           Landscapes are repetitions. On a simple train ride
                  I uselessly and restlessly waver between my inattention
                  to the landscape and my inattention to the book
                  that would amuse me if I were someone else. Life
                  makes me feel a vague nausea, and any kind of
                  movement aggravates it.
                           Only landscapes that don’t exist and books I’ll
                  never read aren’t tedious. Life, for me, is a
                  drowsiness that never reaches the brain. This
                  I keep free, so that I can be sad there.

         I also brought along my new video camera, which became an extension of my fascination with the constantly-shifting scenery from train windows. There’s something infinitely expansive about the poetic, otherworldly, and metaphorical possibilities of the view from a train window. Visually, views within and outside trains are multi-layered. The view outside is a palimpsest of successive layers moving at different speeds depending on their distance: the blur of rails and gravel, the telephone poles flowing by and their wires complexly crisscrossing against the sky, the foreground (slagheaps, warehouses, rows of trucks or crops, houses, other trains), and the horizon (greenery, water). Then there’s the window itself, which might be streaked with rain but which always reflects a ghostly veneer of the interior scene: the ceiling lights, the young woman reading a book opposite me, the frames of windows on the other side of the train.
         And there’s a difference between watching the scenery rush toward you and watching it get sucked away from you, and that difference translates into contrasting psychological states, at least for me. Since our cognitive metaphors shape our experience of time (the future approaches us and the past recedes into the distance), the head-on perspective creates the optimism of moving into the future and the other, the melancholy of watching the present frittering away from you and your ability to change it.
         I think what I love so much about train travel is its artifice, its literary qualities. And it’s the metaphorical and philosophical dimensions of travel where Pessoa and I find common ground. A passage I found myself returning to during my trip:

                  Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no
                  landscape but what we are. We possess nothing,
                  for we don’t even possess ourselves. We have
                  nothing because we are nothing. What hand
                  will I reach out, and to what universe? The
                  universe isn’t mine: it’s me.

         Like Borges and his insistent refrain that “There is no whole self,” Pessoa set about dissolving the notion of a unitary Cartesian identity. And like the ephemeral scenery from a train, the self relentlessly renews itself and enters the present with continually shifting points of reference.
         The video below is a short film I made from scenes between Toronto and St. Catharines. As I edited the film I found that I was creating a somewhat artificial narrative of the trip: the departure, the stops along the way, the rain followed by blue skies. The film doesn’t have an arrival; it ends with a long view of puffy clouds. And the final scene reminds me of a passage in The Book of Disquiet describing Soares’ business trip:

                  The train slows down, we’re at Cais do Sodré.
                  I’ve arrived at Lisbon, but not at a conclusion.


Camille Martin

Emil Cioran: “Unconscious Dogmas”


“Unconscious Dogmas”
from A Short History of Decay by Emil Cioran

          We are in a position to penetrate someone’s mistake, to show him the inanity of his plans and intensions; but how wrest him from his persistence in time, when he conceals a fanaticism as inveterate as his instincts, as old as his prejudices? We bear within us—like an unchallengeable treasure—an amalgam of unworthy beliefs and certitudes. And even the man who manages to rid himself of them, to vanquish them, remains—in the desert of his lucidity—a fanatic still: a fanatic of himself, of his own existence; he has scoured all his obsessions, except for the terrain where they flourish; he has lost all his fixed points, except for the fixity from which they proceed. Life has dogmas more immutable than theology, each existence being anchored in infallibilities which exceed all the lucubrations of madness or of faith. Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par exellence, and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them.
          We all believe in many more things than we think, we harbor intolerances, we cherish bloody prejudices, and, defending our ideas with extreme means, we travel the world like ambulatory and irrefragable fortresses. Each of us is a supreme dogma to himself, no theology protects its god as we protect our self; and if we assail this self with doubts and call it into question we do so only by a pseudo-elegance of our pride: the case is already won.
          How escape the absolute of oneself? One would have to imagine a being without instincts, without a name, and to whom his own image would be unknown. But everything in the world gives us back our own features; night itself is never dark enough to keep us from being reflected in it. Too present to ourselves, our non-existence before birth and after death influences us only as a notion and only for a few moments, we experience the fever of our duration as an eternity, which falters but which nonetheless remains inexhaustible in its principle.
          The man who does no adore himself is yet to be born. Everything that lives loves itself; if not, what would be the source of the dread which breaks out in the depths and on the surfaces of life? Each of us is, for himself, the one fixed point in the universe. And if someone dies for an idea, it is because it is his idea, and his idea is his life.
          No critique of any kind of reason will waken man from his “dogmatic sleep.” It may shake the unconscious certitudes which abound in his philosophy and substitute more flexible propositions for his rigid affirmations, but how, by a rational procedure, will it manage to shake the creature, huddled over its own dogmas, without bringing about its very death?