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 Paris morgue?

Well… partly.


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…


18 Responses to “Promenade to the Paris Morgue”

  1. That does not sound like the sort of thing that I would at all like to do.

  2. Such an interesting, er, field trip, yes? A little insight to options before reality TV. Gather the family ’round!

  3. cool post – I don’t think all that much has changed in our impulses and attraction to seeing the gray bodies in the morgue, it’s just that now we don’t have to leave our homes to see them, we don’t even really have to acknowledge our desire to see them consciously before we see a dead body on a screen somewhere. This allows us to keep our social impulses hidden from each other, we can all be afraid that we are the only ones with a desire to see such a thing. Though I think being in the morgue is considerably more intense because of all the other senses, i imagine it would be very quiet, cold, and there would be an overwhelming sterile smell. So this is what we are lacking I suppose in the 21st century – interesting though that in the 18th century there were also paid visits to insane asylums where the mad were contained, this type of voyeurism was popular and a good business. Now theres a film about the insane every other week, and tv show scenes inside a morgue out the whaz. dead bodies, the mentally insane – the normal are sick puppies – but perhaps we are beings that need a constant reminder that we are conscious, and that we are mortal, otherwise we’d allow ourselves to float up to the clouds and live without practice.

    • Here’s indeed a pertinent point of view with which I completely agree! Yes, our propensity for morbid things is as humane as it can get: we bear it in our DNA and whether consciously or not, admittedly or secretly, it invariably exerts its power. I find it perfectly normal. It’s in our nature to, as you say, be reminded of death and gaze at its effect sagaciously. We need to keep a real contact with, ultimately, our final state, that of a cadaver. What I feel is truly different and the chief reason why Parisian’s promenade to the morgue impressed me rests in the following idea: ok, we now watch tv to replace the actual trip to dead people places, etc., but we’re almost not at all involved. Tv and our relationship with it is a broad subject to discuss and however I may try to condense it here is mission impossible, so I’m just going to summarize, hoping it can still make sense: having been raised with it, tv has become a source less of cruel reality than of realistic fiction. We are quite detached when watching it. So no matter the horrific scenes it displays, we are not that disturbed. All shows itself dressed in objectivity (or smth. near it). Staying just a few steps apart from a corpse is fundamentally dissimilar: your mind cannot be tricked into believing you face a work of fiction and thus objectivity or detachment become impossible…
      Hmmm…. This has turned out to be such a lengthy explanation I suppose I should’ve introduced it in the post…

      • yeah, i think what you say about the detachment is true, and dangerous – the danger is not necessarily being detached from the images on screen, but becoming detached from our own ideas of self and life – which seems like the next step in the process of digestion. The lack of involvement that we experience as consumers of images transfers to a lack of involvement with our own internal development – often I feel we run the risk of being molded simply because we detach ourselves in the wrong ways, or have been trained to detach ourselves from our own development. So, i think what I’m trying to get at here – is, just how we don’t seem to be that disturbed when observing what occurs on screen, we don’t seem to be that disturbed when all of a sudden we find ourselves being shipped off to college, getting a degree, acquiring debt, looking for a career, getting married, having kids – not that there is anything wrong with the isolated cases of these things – just that its such a predesigned formula that we all swallow with so little resistance just because we’ve been practicing how to detach ourselves since we first fell in love with a tv character – what it causes though is generations of people who have no idea how to resist a tide, and no idea what they would want to do if there wasn’t a tide – we simultaneously resent the structure we live in, but wouldn’t know what to do without it, like some sort of addiction.

        So, how we got here from a trip to the morgue is a bit of a puzzle – the idea i think that we are agreeing on is that the visceral quality of a dead body up close puts us in touch with our own mortality in a way that can’t be replaced – and perhaps may even be necessary for our existence as human beings in the world. Attempting to replace this experience puts us at risk of entering a detachment to our own sense of life and vitality. Our consciousness hasn’t evolved beyond the point of primitive understandings. I think part of the reason there is a wake when someone dies is to register on a primitive level that the loved one is in fact dead. Seeing the body unrecognizable in a casket all put together by some nice man with clean hands is disturbing, but the fact that you can’t recognize the person registers in your brain that they are dead on a level that can’t be intellectualized into reality. there is something necessary about it. ok, sorry about the length here, glad to have an exchange though you provided a nice spark for discussion with the post.

      • always glad to have this type of thoughts-exchange so there’s not excuse necessary for a lengthy reply.
        as i previously said, I fully agree with your statement. I even remember hearing a theory about human consciousness, its role as a border beyond which all animals can become humane and, invariably, its apparition, related (guess what?) to our perception of death… It seems the homo sapiens actually conquered the “sapiens” part upon first being in contact with a corpse and realizing he’s going to end up in a similar state. True or not one cannot tell, yet for me this bears the density of an enlightening idea.

  4. It is the Best of Places and the Worst of Places.

    Excellent Entry, Madame! … as Ever.


    • A lovely feedback: as ever.
      Thank you knotty!

      • Thank YOU, Madame. And I’m not only a Francophile (to go with my Grecophilia), I’m also an EXTREME Lover of Everything DICKENS. The man was incredible. I don’t know if you ever get to Cambridge, Mass., but my lovely Wife & I caught a play at the American Repertory Theatre called “Heads Will Roll” … a semi-comedic parody centering on Marie Antoinette’s last days and digging lightly into the philosophical underpinnings of the French Revolution. Pretty good, but could have done more with such a potent subject.

        My Best,

      • Grecophile, you say? My, my, it seems our tastes are incredibly similar, fellow-lover of Pericles-land!

  5. mestreseo Says:

    i am impressed by your work.

  6. 86Johnsey Says:

    awesome blog over here! Thanks for posting…

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  8. swabby429 Says:

    This is offbeat enough for me. It looks like a good time.

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