The Panthéon and France's Collective Memory

François Blumenfeld-Kouchner

As "Temple of the Nation," the French Panthéon is, first and foremost, the focal point of conflicting memories and identities. The monument's history not only tells the story of France's national divisions, but it also points to discrepancies between public and private identities of the 'great men' whose mortal remains it holds in its crypt. Thus, it is the entire drama of the individual's place in society which is staged in the Panthéon.

First built as a Catholic church, then converted by the Revolutionaries into a civic temple, the monument sums up in its intricate architecture and artistic furnishings, a national community's capacity, whether religious or political, to appropriate to itself an individual's memory. The delayed decision to bestow the honour of the Panthéon upon one's remains or memory  for one, with very few exceptions, is not admitted to the temple immediately after one's death- betrays, on the one hand, the politics of memory of an administration, and thus its moral conceptions. For the revered dead, at least until the Twentieth century, are to be seen as models of citizenship. On the other hand, the decision reveals the true leader of the country: while the first "Pantheonisations," that is, translations of remains to the Panthéon were ordered by the Parliament, later decisions were made by individuals, such as Napoleon, François Mitterrand, or Jacques Chirac. Biography, then, is shaped by politics and by a necessarily politicised history.

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This conflict between public and private spheres leads to specific questions regarding the function of the funerary monument such as it is exemplified in the Panthéon. What may the visitor grasp when strolling in the crypt's corridors? What particular type of memory is being displayed here, and how is this 'memory of the dead', this mixture of historic knowledge, of political influence and of poetic fiction brought across to the spectator? What, indeed, is being displayed by a funerary monument or by a monumental tomb? Three related types of questions will be asked in this paper, with particular regard to the Panthéon: first, what is the purpose of the funerary monument? Secondly, how does the monument connect with the defunct's life, that is, what is a monumental remembrance  what or whose memory is brought up in a commemoration? Is memory recalled or created? Thirdly, what does the tomb designate or represent? Is there another referent than itself for the funerary monument?

The Panthéon was built as a church dedicated to Saint Geneviève, patron saint of Paris. Louis XV decides in 1744 to rebuild and extend the modest abbey in thanks for prayers to the saint that had been fulfilled. In 1755, the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot is chosen to oversee the works. Around 1790, the new Sainte-Geneviève church is completed. Soufflot also designed the two buildings that now face the monument; he thus enshrines his masterpiece in its own locus. Therefore not only did Soufflot create a monument, he more importantly created a monumental space. While the city was not as dense at that time as it is now, Soufflot's perspective still holds. Indeed, the street leading to the Panthéon was renamed after the architect in 1807.

In the 1790s, the Revolutionaries reclaim the church and in April 1791, the constituent assembly issues a decree converting Sainte-Geneviève into the Panthéon. The motto "Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante," ("To its Great Men, the Grateful Country") is adopted for the monument, and Quatremère de Quincy is chosen to direct works to render the monument suitable for its new purpose. The second architect of the Panthéon therefore closed off Soufflot's large windows in order to give solemnity to the building, and obliterated every sign of a religious function (bell-towers, sculptures, etc.). A new bas-relief is carved by Moitte to replace Coustou's Adoration of the Cross on the front of the building.

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While this conversion is taking place, Mirabeau's coffin is brought to the Panthéon. Count Mirabeau, glorified for his role in the Revolution, in establishing the freedom of press and in participating in the redaction of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, proponent of the appropriation of the clergy's riches by the Assembly, will be a few years after his death and admission to the Panthéon the object of a controversy. As it appears that he has abused the people in order to satisfy his ambitions and appetites, the decision is made to take his remains out of the Panthéon in late 1794, while Marat's, the "Friend of the People," sepulchre is being granted the honour of the monument  only to be taken out in its own turn a few months later. With the exceptions of Voltaire and Rousseau, eighteenth century Pantheonisations tend to follow this scheme: one enters the Panthéon only to be replaced by another a few months or years later.

The Nineteenth century sees frequent reversals of fortune for the monument. In 1805, Napoleon decides to "split" the building between its higher parts, given back to the church as a gesture towards the Catholics, and its crypt, which keeps the role given to it by the Assembly. The crypt, however, will now serve as a burial place for dignitaries of Napoleon's Empire. A third part of the Imperial project for the monument was to make of the Panthéon a museum holding the tombs of churches destroyed during the Revolutionary period. Though this project was never carried out, it is interesting to note how Napoleon envisaged a museum of tombs: the sepulchres would have been there for the interest of the general public, not for commemoration or mourning. It would also be interesting to decide whether the present-day Panthéon has itself become a museum of famous tombs. Museum exhibits are constantly held in the monument, juxtaposing contemporary art and historical narratives, furthermore pressing the claim that the Panthéon is now a museum, rather than a civic temple.

In 1816, Louis XVIII, restored to power, decided to return the Panthéon to Sainte-Geneviève church. The "Great Men's tombs" are locked away safely in a hidden part of the crypt. Louis-Philippe succeeds to Louis XVIII in 1830 after a mini-revolution. He decides to turn back the church of Sainte-Geneviève into the Panthéon. A new bas-relief for the front of the building is designed by David d'Angers, which still stands to this day. In 1851, Foucault's pendulum, proving the Earth's rotation, is installed in the Panthéon. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the former Emperor's nephew, decides after his coup d'état to return the Panthéon, yet again, to the church. It is not before Victor Hugo's death and his grandiose funerals in 1885 that the Panthéon will be reclaimed, definitively, to its function as temple of the nation and vault of its great men.

The Panthéon has therefore been changing identity between its two opposite functions for a century. Architectural and decorative modifications have been associated to those changes. The Panthéon as we experience it today is very much a diachronic collective production.

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While enough can be conjectured regarding the debates between Catholics and Republicans through this brief summary of the Panthéon's history, it is necessary to quickly point out a difficulty which appeared to the Revolutionaries themselves. What is a great man? In order to convert the Panthéon into a national temple, it was necessary to decide who was eligible to be considered as a great man and worthy of national honours. Mona Ozouf shows forcefully how this debate took place, and how the conception of 'great man' as opposed mostly to that of the 'hero' is mostly a product of the Enlightenment. While Hugo appears as an archetypal 'great man' according to this conception: productive in more than one domain, virtuous through a life rather than a single event, Napoleon's dignitaries, often soldiers distinguished in battle, can appear quite contrary to this norm. The frequent dismissals from the Panthéon also prove the near impossibility of deciding of a man's worth, even after his death. Indeed, those problems lead the Assembly in 1795 to a decree authorising "Pantheonisation" no earlier than ten years after a person's death.

The biographical knowledge required to decide whether one can be considered a 'great' is also needed by the artist in charge of building the individual funerary monument. However, while the great man's qualities have been displayed through an entire life, the artist only has a visual moment to sum them up. In the Panthéon's naves, some large sculptural monuments represent some of the great episodes of French history  still somewhat mixed up with remaining representations from the religious times of the building. Two monuments are dedicated respectively to the nameless soldiers fallen for the country and to the artists whose name has been forgotten. Personal memories, that is the memory of specific individuals, is kept in two ways which contrast somewhat with this imposing arrangement. On the one hand, names of 'great men' who are not buried in the Panthéon are found engraved in the walls of the edifice, both in its upper parts and in its crypt. Some of those names are regrouped with others, under categories such as "writers fallen for France" (figure: above), further subdivided into those who were killed in action and those who died in service  whether active or not. Other names, such as the philosopher Bergson's, benefit from their own paraphernalia (figure: "A Henri Bergson...," below). On the other hand, tombs in the crypt can be either isolated, such as Voltaire's and Rousseau's, facing each other in a Revolutionary post-mortem reconciliation, or set among other graves in cell-like vaults (figure: vault).

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Figure: A Henri Bergson

Figure: vault

It was Quatremère de Quincy's idea that the pedagogical destination of the building would be best served by having the nave as a civic temple, and the crypt as the actual burying place. The Panthéon, Quatremère suggested, could be used to hold great national events. He furthermore proposed that the building be used as a place to swear in those destined to high offices. Though Quatremère's ambitions for the Panthéon were never fulfilled, they show how much the design of the building was made under the auspices of Enlightened reason. This is not to say that sensibility had not its place in the Panthéon. On the contrary, transposing the mysteries of religion into a republican cult implied a translation of sensibility of which the Panthéon bears witness. As art was a vehicle for religious emotion, it will be a catalyst of moral sensitivity. Mona Ozouf maintains that in this lies the Panthéon's failure, for visual representation can no longer act as a moral tutor. Notwithstanding this claim, it appears that the civic function of the monument hijacked the private identity of the 'great men' it houses. For if biographical details found out at a date posterior to the Pantheonisation justified the expulsion of some, the time they spent in the crypt had their memory honoured. In other words, the post-mortem election to the Panthéon makes one's memory honourable, at least in appearance  appearance meaning here the display of fame in the monument- while one's biography may not be so. Visual presentation in the Panthéon literally creates a positive memory of the dead, which may not be conform with whom he truly was. To sum up this process: a political decision gets someone into the Panthéon; a monumental identity is thus created which differs from one's real identity. It is important to distinguish here between three kinds of identities. First, what I have called a 'monumental identity', which is shaped both by the politics and the poetics of the monument. Second, a public identity, in the sense of an identity acknowledged by the wider public. As such, Victor Hugo's identity during his lifetime was a glorious public identity. In this case, his monumental identity was simply a derivative of his public identity. Others may have lacked this kind of large-public identity while enjoying a wide monumental identity after their death, the most striking example of which is that of the commemoration of nameless soldiers. Third, personal identity inasmuch as it is described as a social identity. One can think, as Clément Rosset suggests, that one's personal identity is nothing but a social identity, and in this sense, personal identity is public, but still distinct from the two types previously defined.

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What is displayed by the funerary monument in the Panthéon, therefore, is a monumental identity which is reflects only the details of one's life suitable for the national monument's purpose. While this means that finer psychological details, or even general interests and actions of the dead may not be considered, the aforementioned definition of a 'great man', that is, one whose entire life was virtuous, gives the monumental biographer a monumental task in itself: summing up an entire life in a monument's space. Two different methods can be used for this purpose. One, through synthesis, creates a monument which represents as a whole the distinct parts of a life. The other, through analysis, takes a representative episode of a person's life to make it representative of the whole of this life. The second method is most useful for the monumental depiction of people who illustrated themselves through a particular historical event, as soldiers for example. When attempting to represent the enduring virtues of a "great man," however, synthesis works best.

How is it possible to show what an entire life was in a single monument? The first decision the artist has to make is whether to create a narrative or to present a symbol. Narratives are not present very often in the Panthéon. This is due, I would like to suggest, to the pedagogical ideas of the Enlightenment which lead to its production. If moral is to be a sense, if man is to be educated by practical examples rather than by theory, it is necessary to turn the Panthéon into a place of experience. The visitor, through the monument's solemnity, should feel engaged in ethics. The ongoing parliamentary debate regarding the rightfulness of the dead to be buried in the Panthéon must remain away from the inside of the building. What one should find once the doors of the Panthéon are passed, is the pure, naked experience of moral. The moral example exists from the mere fact that those in the Panthéon are decreed to be morally exemplary, and it is the sight of the ideal representations of those men which should be an example to the visitor. There is no need for explanation, then, as Pantheonisation itself serves that purpose. Once Pantheonised, one becomes an example, and it is this example which is to be seen in the funerary monument. While the alliance of word and image is productive in this respect, text other than names in the Panthéon is not narrative text, but rather maxim-like idealistic description (figure: Rousseau's grave, side view: "Ici repose l'homme de la nature et de la vérité").

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The use of symbols, however, is reinforced in funerary sculpture, as a monument can be made of a combination of symbolic elements. Thus, a supposed benevolent character is represented on the statue of Voltaire (figure) by a smiling face, while his work as a writer is represented by his holding a quill. There is an opposition between the upward-looking, content face of Voltaire, and the rest of his body, stepping forward, as it were, of its own accord. Whether this is interpreted as a dissociation between happiness and a writer's work or as the writer's work inducing happiness, in an 'ascendant' reading of the sculpture, the different parts of the same statue seem to offer symbols of different orders. In other words, each detailed symbolic element sums up a part of the subject's biography. A combination of symbols in a visual presentation both brings forth ideas tied to the subject's life and confuse the viewer as to the order of those ideas. Voltaire's statue thus exemplifies what has been noted as the Panthéon's design: to present the 'great man' not by a discursive biography but by an immediate moral atmosphere. If more conventional techniques to summarise can be described as synecdochic, an element of the life standing for the life itself, this creation of a seemingly living character (further reinforced by placing a statue of the dead man walking before his grave) through associations of symbols, is much closer to a metaphoric work. One could even say that there is a metaphor of representation itself here, as the statue represents that which cannot be represented anymore. The metaphor's vehicle stands in its own right, the tenor having literally disappeared. This most efficient way to summarise a life thus appears to lie in the creation of a fake life, that is: a work of art.

If the funerary monument, summarising the dead man's life, replaces an absence with art's warm death, what is it the tomb does? As many critics, such as Georges Didi-Huberman or Michel Serres have pointed out, the tomb hides something. In a materialistic sense, it hides what cannot be seen, as Didi-Huberman put it, what looks at me and what concerns me. The corpse's decomposition, which I can suppose, has to be hidden. At the same time, though, the tomb hides what cannot be seen as it cannot be experienced: death itself. Didi-Huberman shows forcefully how some can then deny reality by saying that what they see is precisely what the tomb is: a rectangle of marble, of such and such dimensions. For the critic, 'the religious man will always see something else beyond what he is seeing, when he finds himself face-to-face with a tomb.' And it is an evidence that we cannot be faced with what the tomb holds. The grave hides what it designates. There is a referential ambiguity here that can be exacerbated by the observation that from time to time, tombs do not hold bodies, even when we suppose them to do so. I would like to give two brief examples here: first, that of Aberdeen's monument to Bishop Elphinstone (figure). Elphinstone's grave is inside Aberdeen University's chapel, under a stone on the ground. This monument was ordered to be placed next to the grave. Unfortunately, when it was brought to its destination from its making place, it was realised that the monument was too large to fit through the chapel's doors, and it was decided to leave it outside the chapel. This cenotaph is very often confused for an actual grave. The second example is that of another Scottish University founder, Bishop Kennedy. Bishop Kennedy's grave in St Andrews is richly adorned and seems grand and solid. Nevertheless, works in the chapel in 1929 lead to the discovery of a corpse under the ground just next to the grave, which was identified as Kennedy's. Probably out of fear of profanation, the Bishop had decided not to be buried in his grave. There again, the spectator is faced with a tomb which he may wrongly think holds a body.

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Graves, it seems, can be empty as well as full of a developing emptiness, without losing any of their functional efficiency. Meanwhile, funerary monuments seem to create a memory or an identity of the dead man that has more to do with poetics than with actual biography. So what's in a grave? No more, but perhaps no less, than a name. For the grave's referent is in fact the name of someone who died. Whether this person's corpse lies in the grave or not is in the end irrelevant: what happens to a corpse, as Daniel Dayan noted, has to do with medical knowledge, not with the knowledge of someone's death. I can know that someone is dead without seeing his dead body. The name of the dead person, then, carries the whole memories and identities, either imagined or real, borne by the spectator's own memory. The pedagogical function of the Panthéon can only reside in this diminutive part of commemoration. The inscription of the name upon the monument's wall, nonetheless, gives another kind of knowledge. For a name to be written on a commemorative wall means that the bearer of that name is dead. A poetics of the name can be made out of this  for example by lining up thousands of names, which do not mean anything in particular to the spectator, as the extent of the event cannot be conceived of, but which in fact may give the spectator a tragic impression, that is a tragic recognition: a poetic effect. However, I would like to suggest that remembrance does not truly pass through this poetics. While funerary art points to itself as a representation of something which is no more, the names of the dead primarily do not point to anything other than their own event. In other words, proper names placed in a funerary context, such as a monument to the dead, point to the disappearance of their own referent. Works of art are quick to become their own referent. The emptiness towards which they point is filled up by their own presence. By contrast, the echo of a proper name in the emptiness of death  the calling of a name when there is no-one to answer it- the name without its face, presents us with the real absence that death is. As Martin Rueff writes, "Poetry is the memory of a presence which remained presence." Poetry is not commemorating a death, it is perpetuating an absent presence. Realising someone's death, and keeping alive the knowledge of this death, cannot be achieved through poetic means. It must be the object of a politics of memory, of a politics of the name.


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