Promenade to the Paris Morgue
January 16, 2013
From those titivated descendants of the sanguinary mob that had relentlessly witnessed the guillotine at work with victorious sneers and shouts of “death to the ancien regime!” what is to expect? After such macabre an episode as the one unleashed in the years after the 1789 revolution could we not suspect a massive change of mentality which would eventually give sense to why people enjoyed promenades to the morgue?
I couldn’t say for sure, giving the other explanations more entitled historians have for this grim pastime, but I bet there’s a bit of the Terror exerting its effect in the melange. Why else would professedly educated men and women, spruced, dandy (even snobbish) and often haughty, top-hatted and faultlessly dressed, feel the urge, or least the curiosity, to stare at the corpses exhibited for identification? Apparently, they’re doing it so persistently the very word “morgue” reveals it: in old French, “morguer” translates “to gaze”. Yet why?
A mid 19th century edition of the “Fraser’s Magazine” provides a fairly pertinent answer, glazed with poetic metaphors too:
“The Morgue possesses a constantly recurring and constantly varying story, involving equally new scenery, new actors and new passions; the dead play the leading parts in every drama of fear or guilt or suffering and the living are made subordinate accessories in the shifting panorama of horror with which every spectacle is wound up. The Morgue is the Omega of humanity, the grave without the coffin, the sleep without the shroud. Its interest is not the interest of this world, its scenes are not those out of which human ingenuity can weave” royal palaces, conventional art, et cetera.
Thus, the morgue is a resource of both cruel realism and the romantic mystery fashionable in the epoch, attiring, maintaining a vivid fascination Dickens himself (a foreigner, not an eccentric Parisian) experienced:
”Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly. One New Year’s Morning (by the same token, the sun was shining outside, and there was a mountebank balancing a feather on his nose, within a yard of the gate), I was pulled in again to look at a flaxen-haired boy of eighteen, with a heart hanging on his breast–’from his mother,’ was engraven on it–who had come into the net across the river, with a bullet wound in his fair forehead and his hands cut with a knife, but whence or how was a blank mystery. This time, I was forced into the same dread place, to see a large dark man whose disfigurement by water was in a frightful manner comic, and whose expression was that of a prize-fighter who had closed his eyelids under a heavy blow, but was going immediately to open them, shake his head, and ‘come up smiling.’ Oh what this large dark man cost me in that bright city!”
The account he gives in the “Uncommercial traveller” I feel is a veracious completion of the previous record, pretty much elucidating the psychological enigma behind the outstanding number of people who payed a visit to the anonymous dead per year:more than 1 million by 1892. Fancy that! Someone could’ve gotten exceedingly rich if the idea of introducing a fee ever occurred to them… Unfortunately for the empty wallets, nobody exploited the opportunity.
But what’s your opinion on the subject? and Would you try a delightful promenade to similar destinations?
I believe it’d be a gripping experience to register…