Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library
  PREVIOUSNEXT  

CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · QUICK INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHIES
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · PORTRAITS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Paris Morgue
By Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven (1807–1873)
 
Translation of William Morton Payne

IN its manifold depiction of human life, recent French literature bears the stamp of a freshness and truth before unattained. Nowhere else may we find experience and the study of life raised so far above the unsafe methods of a priori construction. After so many storms, life itself is freer here; and its every shoot buds and blossoms in its true character, forced by neither the espalier of a system nor the artificial temperature of a hot-house. The public places, squares, and streets are here the academies for the painter of souls; who might be taken for an indolent dandy, did we not know him to be a philosopher, a modern peripatetic. Many human relations elsewhere coyly or fearfully concealed, many scenes that seem to belong to the fireside nook, come here to public view, and make their impression of joy or of despair. A crowd of people are viewing from the Pont Louis XIV. the rising flood of the Seine. A lady dressed in black pushes through the crowd, and throws herself into the stream in full view of everybody. This is but one of many examples of the French exaltation that feeds upon showing its wounds to the public gaze, and ending the play with a dazzling or startling exit.  1
  Where life lies upon all sides so unveiled, many of the limitations of art must give way. The tragic pathos of the old school was as a whole merely declamatory, and only upon cothurns might it display itself with propriety. Its sentimentality was as mannered and bloodless as the Arcadian shepherd race that thought itself to hold tenancy of the Eden of poetry, when people still believed that the bird of paradise had no feet and only hovered in the blue. Things are different now: sentimentality has taken hold of the flesh, and the bird of paradise perches on many a roof. Tragedy goes about comfortably in socks; and this merciless unbaring of the frightful, this natural and painstaking depiction of circumstances that often stiffen the sympathies with terror, affects us with doubled force, because it clings close to conditions with which every beholder is acquainted.  2
  Louis the Eighteenth once remarked of Chateaubriand’s ‘René’ that it bore a resemblance to ‘Werther’; and when asked if a parallel might indeed be drawn between those two works, he replied: “Yes, without doubt; and I give the preference to ‘Werther,’ on account of its simple naturalness. The hero is placed amid quite ordinary circumstances, which is an important matter. These every-day details attract us all the more to Werther’s violent passion. On the other hand, we feel little or no sympathy for René, who is a mere figure of romantic fiction.” This observation, which was remarkable for a prince trained in the old dogmatic school, was looked upon for some score of years as an example of tasteless criticism. But in the present period, an enormous amount has been done to spread abroad the discovery that the world of poetry is at bottom just the same as that which is usually called “the prosaic world.” No Parisian doubts this at the present time. Even in the abnormal growths of French literature, in the monstrous sensational pieces wherewith many a theatre seeks to gain the attention of a restless public, forcing it to listen, there are traces of this reformation. These pictures have many lifelike details; and herein they resemble the Greek fabulous combinations of plant and animal forms, which are monstrous as wholes, but whose separate parts are worked out with the most exact truth.  3
  Whoever closely views the various pictures of life that throng upon the observation in the French capital, will easily recognize them as mirrored in the productions of art; either seen in their full potency as in a concave mirror, or viewed as sparks and colors through some many-sided prism. The strange figures and bizarre delineations of a Balzac are to be found here in living reality. We read in the newspapers the bare account of some wonderful domestic drama which seems to belong to the dream world; yet it has been enacted in palpable form at our very door. We go to the Théâtre de la Porte St. Martin, and view with repulsion and terror scenes from ‘La Tour de Nesle,’ that harrowing painting with all its ice-cold corpses; and we reject the idea that life could have furnished forth the composition with matter and models. Yet the original lies close at hand: it is the corpse-house on the Seine,—La Morgue! The poet of the ‘Tour de Nesle’ has been there. He has gazed himself sick upon these mystical shapes; the death smell has crept into all of his pleasures; he has been forced to visit the morgue again and again, and the shadows have haunted him until he freed himself from them with his work. La Morgue is the black crater beneath the Parisian people’s grapevines of joy; it is the cry of woe in the midst of the triumph; it is the dark writing on Belshazzar’s wall. The joys of life have no such focus, for they culminate in a thousand places at once.  4
  La Morgue is a police institution: it supplements the bureau of found articles. This frightful find of the suicides and the slain must fall into the right hands. People go there to seek out in the collection the bodies of friends or relatives. No one doubts it to be a wise arrangement. A body is a small thing, of less account than hay or dry brushwood. But we know that it sometimes is inestimable as measured by affection, and sometimes has a deep hieroglyphic significance. Consequently, for the convenience of observers, the morgue is situated in the centre of the city. Were it perhaps better that it should stand apart in some solitary place, shaded by the cypress and the weeping willow? The forsaken one might then be alone with his unrest and his fear when he went to seek, and alone with his sorrow when he had found. Alas! this is only a secondary consideration. La Morgue is a public exhibition, a museum of the day’s history. These bodies still belong to the public; therefore their place is in the midst of the crowd. The pit would see the tragic hero on the boards, and pass judgment upon him before turning homewards.  5
  How busily Parisian life stirs about this grewsome little house! There is nothing sad in the neighborhood, except the wan stream and the towers of Notre Dame. It is but a few steps to the morgue from the flower-market. A light zephyr is enough to waft the fragrance of roses over the low roof. Close by the walls there is a busy traffic in fruits and vegetables. The heralds of life’s stir, the restless omnibuses, rumble by over the bridge. When the morgue is full of bodies, there are speculators on hand, drawn by the throng,—mountebank tricksters, placards announcing new inventions, harp-players and organ-grinders!  6
  One might think that the sense of the people had become blunted to the sights in the morgue. But this is not so: it has offered too many heart-rending spectacles; they know that it is a cave of Avernus, which may at any moment reveal the most frightful things. The dusk of life hovers over that house, and it throws a deep shadow. We often see some gloomy, motionless figure in the midst of the noisy crowd; he casts a spell upon our eyes, and we see him alone thereafter. His whole nature presents the picture of a dark and brooding soul, and we say to ourselves: He is lost,—the shadow of the morgue is within him.  7
  The arrangement of the morgue is very simple. The bodies lie in a light-yellow hall, on dark inclined planes, and a stream of cold water falls upon each of them. They are naked save for a fig-leaf of dark leather. Over the couch hangs the clothing of the corpse. Light falls from above. This hall is separated by a grating from the anteroom, which is always open to the public. Here we find placards displayed, describing persons who have disappeared, and asking for information about them. At the grating may be seen many indifferent, but also many feverishly agitated faces. Now and then an outcry is heard, as “C’est affreux!” and “Pauvre homme!”  8
  How mysterious these bodies are! We stare at them, and would read their history in their discomposed features: we picture them in the silent oppressive gambler’s den, in the dark squalid street where a dull gleam from the mansards is the only light; we follow them to the Seine; we hear the awful spash of the water: and before we know it, we have clothed these dumb shapes with life, full of horror and despair.  9
  I was once with a friend who lived close to the morgue. I saw the crowd stream in, but I saw no one come out, and concluded with a shudder that the corpse-house must be unusually rich. I could not resist the powerful impulse that drove me to view the image of terror close by. The house was full, and most of the bodies were set forth in horrible display; one of them had been hanged, and still had the rope about his neck. High up lay an old colossal warrior. There was a great scar on his forehead; his coat hung wet and muddy behind him, and was decorated with the Legion of Honor. What proud memories must not have dwelt in that broad breast! But they were shadowy ranks, and could bring no booty to his airy bivouac. This warrior had been at Beresina. Perhaps with the fury of a tiger he hewed a path for this body through the dense mass of men on the breaking bridge, or fought for his life among the ice floes of the wild stream. And now it was all a fairy tale. It rushed into his head when he stood alone on the Pont-Neuf; but the bridge would not break under him, and he had to cast himself into these quiet waters, which mirror the trophies of his valor. The last body in this company was that of a young girl: her hair was of glistening black and extraordinarily long; one hand was clenched convulsively, the other limp and outspread. “Du armes Kind, was hat man Dir gethan?” A soldier stood at my side: he was a handsome man, and could not have been over eighteen. The sweat pearled on his forehead, and he pressed his face hard against the grating. I could not tire of watching him, but he did not notice,—he stared incessantly at the last body.  10
  La Morgue is an instructive institution, and has brought many misdeeds to light. But a true feeling for the high seriousness of death, for the deep significance of silent grief, may not be reconciled with this sort of exhibition. The mechanism of the State is skillfully constructed,—it goes and goes, and its workings correspond more and more closely to calculation,—but how many a delicate nerve in the human organism must it bruise or divide before it shall become an entirely safe and trustworthy machine! Death is a mystery; a corpse is sacred. We must take heed not to offend the sanctity that invests a body from which the soul has fled. The thought of suicide is fearful; but it does not lose its poison through the desecration of God’s image in human form. The sad and prayerful moods that attend the dead, and preserve his memory, shun the body in the morgue. Repulsion and terror alone seize upon us at the sight of these shapes. We have the same uncomfortable feeling as when we read in old chronicles of those sorceries whereby the body was robbed of its repose by horrible runes placed under the tongue. The warm heart, that would bleed itself to death, and desired naught but rest, must now be anatomized by cold hands! Those secret sorrows that made its fibres quiver must now be displayed to stimulate and amuse a light-hearted mob! Here in the French corpse-house, I could but think of our Norse tale of the wounded bird, that, stricken to death, dives to the bottom and bites fast in the sea-weed.  11
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.