In France, it is even possible to remain a writer without writing, as Rimbaud did, living in the consciousness of his contemporaries after his premature creative death, or Valery during his seventeen year silence. So passionately does France hold literature to be humankind’s highest achievement and justification that she can interpret its abandonment by a great practitioner as a sacrificial act which enhances it all the more.
In February, 1934, a day of extreme political tension in France, with a general strike underway and tempers rising, it was reported in the newspaper that the country, in these troubled times, needed a “real” leader like Andre Gide. The incident illustrates as nothing else, the exceptional position the French writer has occupied in the minds of his co-citizens. That Andre Gide, of all literary men perhaps least suited to the barricades, should have been honored in this way simply adds an ironic note to an otherwise earnest situation. To appreciate how very different we are from the French in this respect, is to imagine blue collar workers suggesting William Faulkner for the White House during the Great Depression, Bob Dylan during Vietnam, or Margaret Atwood in the House of Commons during the October crisis.
It would seem that Shelly’s remark about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of mankind does not apply to the French. Among the poet, as well as the novelist, the playwright, the critic, and, most French of occupations, the man of letters, is not only acknowledged as a lawgiver but esteemed to a degree that professional politicians have always envied. One result of the high value set on writing in France is that it is difficult to find a French political leader since the Revolution without at least one book to his credit, if only their memoirs, or any who would not prefer, at least secretly, to be known to history for their style rather than for their boulevards, penal code, or tax reforms. Even Charles De Gaulle, despite other accomplishments, will always be remembered for his exemplary prose. With Sarkozy however, it remains to be seen.
Victor Hugo was given a huge funeral in 1885; that of a master leader and demi-god. Two million people are said to have followed the hearse to the Pantheon, where the poet’s remains were interred among generals, statesmen, and a good many of his fellow writers. Hugo, partly because France had not yet had a Shakespeare and partly because of the special political considerations of his era, carried a greater symbolic weight than has any French writer since his death. But the apotheosis he received has its minor counterparts in all periods of French history.
At a performance of his play “Irene” the 84-year-old Voltaire watched from a box while his bust was solemnly crowned with a laurel on the stage. When Paul Valery, a notably aloof and austere poet, died in 1945, he was given a state funeral and was mourned by immense crowds very few of whose members had ever read a line he wrote. Ten years later the death of Paul Claudel, another poet who had placed his hopes of reward somewhat further along in eternity, was the occasion for impressive services at Notre Dame and a nation grieving for its great dead son.
The latest installment of the Dead Poet Society involves Sarkozy promoting the re-burial of Albert Camus’ remains in the Pantheon . The Pantheon, to some degree is a French version of the Hollywood walk of fame and part Westminster Abbey.Camus did once say, “the absurd is the essential concept and first truth”. The issue defies an easy categorization, much in keeping with the Camus legacy. Clearly, the Pantheon is a big rock even for the myth of Sisyphus to haul around.
It has to be asked if in re-burying Camus, the author resembles “The Trial”, by Kafka; in this ending it is Albert K. and polite well dressed gentlemen put his head to rest on a stone and kill him a second time. A second sacrifice in a conjunction of Kafkaesque reasoning where everyday life meets supernatural anxiety. The absurdity is defined by the inherent “logic” of moving him, sideswiping what kafka would term the tragedy of the everyday. The Pantheon, is a symbol, and Camus did not write in the language of symbols. The Pantheon being a symbol that is beyond and above the human condition, and removed conceptually from Camus’ understanding of the human condition as a basic absurdity in intimate relation with an implacable nobility.
“The French chattering classes are reacting to the news that Sarkozy wishes to move the body of Albert Camus from his grave in Lourmarin in southern France where he was buried after the car crash which killed the then recently Nobel Laureated writer and his publisher to the Pantheon in Paris where France has collected over 70 “illustrious dead men” and one “radioactive woman”. Camus will be
second individual claimed by anarchism to be given a place in the Pantheon following the pacifist and anarchosyndicalist opposer to WW1, Jean Jaures moved there in 1924). Camus would be the first Pantheon resident to have been born in Algeria. His kids don’t want him moved at all. However, I see in this a consistent concern I have articulated over the years at how contemporary regimes and society abuse the memory of the dead and use their legacy…
…Over 70 of the “illustrious dead” of France are to be found in the Pantheon a neo-classical building in the 5th arrondisement of Paris. The last notable to be upped out of his grave and moved in a splendid bodybag in 2002 was Alexander Dumas the author of “the three musketeers” and “the count of monte cristo”. Presumedly the then president of France, Chirac had wanted to make a statement about the contribution of French literature to Disney movie franchises. For in truth no body gets moved to the Pantheon without a little political point being made & as is often the way with petty political points the presumped honour granted the dead body ages badly with time. There is only one woman in the Pantheon. Madame Curie was given her slot in 1995 alongside her husband. Their papers and lab equipment are still too radioactive to be be handled by researchers & so this couple who lost more than one laboratory technician in an age without worker safety guidelines or union representatives to the perils of hazardous materials were given extra lead lining once they were moved to the Pantheon….”
This exalted position of the writer in France has sometimes led to the temptation on their part to grasp power at its material root. Poets and novelists, along with historians, philosophers, naturalists, and authors on treatsies on cooking and millinery, have continually tried their hand at politics. Not many have been elected, and few of these have distinguished themselves in office. They have tended to ignore the realities of public business in favor of exercises in grandiloquence or visionary schemes for national regeneration. Still, the point is that no one in France finds it disconcerting for a writer to stand for deputy or senator or to accept appointive office.