Friday, 17 October 2014

The life, death and afterlife of Auguste Comte

One of the most lastingly popular posts on this blog* - to my continual surprise - concerns Auguste Comte, the 19th century French philosopher behind the doctrine of positivism. Five years after making that post, I finally got around to visiting his Paris apartment and the secular chapel that was opened in his honour nearly 50 years after his death. Take a look inside both here.
It was the recent Journées du patrimoine that gave me the opportunity to visit these two locations, although both can be freely visited year round. For a more authentic appreciation of the sites without the floating heritage hunters - in fact without anybody at all - it would probably be better to visit at any other time.

Even surrounded by a crowd (particularly at the chapel), the two sites tell an interesting story. It's a tale of mumification, morbid melancholia and myth making. Staying on an 'm' theme, it also centres around money...from Brazil**.

This post will not be an investigation of Auguste Comte's theories and writings (you can find other resources online for that). It is probably sufficient to say here that he went from respected philospher and promoter of social sciences to a quasi-mystical founder of the religion of humanity after meeting Clotilde de Vaux, the sister of one of his students (but you will have learnt about this story in my previous post). 

It is this later period that is of interest here. He remains a respected - although largely forgotten - figure for his early writings and teachings, but the more controversial development of these theories towards a secular religion ensured that his influence lived on. His followers have dwindled since the end of the First World War, but he does retain enough importance today to sustain a small museum and a chapel in Paris.

The Museum

Auguste Comte's final Paris home at 10 Rue Monsieur Le Prince in the 6th Arrondissement is now nominally a museum (and home to his archives), but also operates as something akin to a shrine to positivism and the Comtean cult. Comte initially moved into this apartment in 1841 and stayed until his death in 1857, but the apartment - and his life - changed radically shortly after he moved in.

Comte got married in 1825 to Caroline Massin - who was probably a prostitute when Comte met her - but the marriage was never a happy one (in fact, happiness was probably a rather alien emotion to Comte). A year after his marriage he was confined to a mental hospital, leaving later only with a 'not cured' note from the doctor. A further year after that he attempted to kill himself by jumping into the Seine.

Massin eventually left Comte in 1842, and there is absolutely no trace that she ever lived in the apartment in today's museum. Judging by the apartment - preserved almost exactly as it was when he died - Comte was a simple, rather austere man. The furnishings are extremely minimal - a few simple wooden tables and chairs, a writing desk propped up in front of a mirror and between two windows (which look out onto the street below) and a curious little bed behind curtains that would be more suited to a ship.

If Caroline Massin is not visible here, the ghost of Clotilde de Vaux is ever-present. After his wife left, Comte began a platonic (but extremely obsessive) relationship with de Vaux, and she regularly visited the apartment. This relationship was as intense as it was brief, with de Vaux dying of tuberculosis only a year after they first met. Continuing what became a propensity for sanctification and sacralisation by Comte and his followers, the chair that she always sat in was declared a quasi-religious relic in the apartment, and something never to be touched.  

Such rituals continued following Comte's death - in the strange bed - in this apartment in 1857. Despite it only being rented accommodation (which Comte's followers helped pay for) the apartment was appropriated by his adherents soon after the announcement of his passing. The apartment became a sacred site, and a decision was taken to preserve everything and freeze the apartment in time. 

At the end of the 19th century, the positivists expanded their reach beyond the apartment itself by acquiring the entire building - to better ensure the integrity of the Comtean myth. Following a decline in the number of followers - and therefore subscriptions - after the First World War, the apartment fell into disrepair, until a a Brazilian, Paulo Carneiro, dedicated much of his life (and his family's money) to renovating all of the fixtures and fittings. He also ensured that it opened as a museum (in 1968). The apartment is maintained today by the Association internationale Auguste Comte.
This attention to detail and level of preservation has made the apartment a natural location for a museum, but it is also arguably the least visited in Paris (although to be fair it is only open for 3 hours a week). Somewhat incredibly, around half of all annual visits to the apartment take place during the two 'Journées du patrimoine' in September each year, with an average of only around 10 visitors a day (each Wednesday afternoon) the rest of the year.

The Chapel

If Comte's apartment gives an insight into how the man lived and worked, the humanist chapel built after his death demonstrates how his teachings were appropriated. Its creation in 1903 - following plans drawn out by Comte - was also down to financial contributions from Brazil.

The very location of the chapel - at 5 rue Payenne in the 3rd arrondisement - tells us much about its purpose. Although the building itself dates back to the middle of the 17th century and was once home to the architect François Mansart, there is only one reason for the existence of a secular chapel here - Clothilde de Vaux.

Clothilde de Vaux lived - and died - in this apartment building, renting a small room on the third floor after her husband had left her. Comte visited her in the apartment, making it another sacred site for followers of the positivist doctrine. At the beginning of the 20th century, most of these were based in Brazil. 

One of these followers - Raymundo Teixeira-Mendes, a key figure in the Brazilian positivist church - bought the entire building in 1903 and immediately set out to build the chapel. Although Comte had written the doctrine for the church, had described all of its ceremonies, and even what it should look like, he had never been able to construct a physical building for the religion in his own lifetime.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Comte's simple tastes, the 'church' is rather drab, with just a touch of kitsch. It is just a single room in the apartment block, with plastic chairs that can be freely positioned to face the altar - which of course features an idolised portrait of Clothilde de Vaux. 

The principal feature of the chapel - alongside the altar - are the thirteen panels on either side that represent the thirteen months of the Comtean calendar. Like most other new religions, the positivist church has its own calendar, which began on May 16th 1845, the day Comte truly fell under the charm of Clothilde de Vaux, and contains thirteen months, each of 28 days. Each month is named after a great thinker, scientist, statesman or artist, with all the days of the year also taking the names of (lesser) figures from the past. 

It has to be pointed out though that these portraits are not actually very good, with William Shakespeare looking particularly unrecognisable. In fact he looks like someone has sat him down on the end of a broomstick.  

In addition to the portrait of Clothilde de Vaux and the bust of Auguste Comte on the exterior of the building, the cult to these two figures is visible on another curious feature in the chapel. Once again, the freezing of time becomes a theme, with two maps of Paris on either side of the altar, capturing the city in 1846 when de Vaux died, and in 1857 when Comte died.

Although the positivist church does still exist, it is not clear how often this chapel is now used by local followers. The chapel and Comte's apartment offer a window to another time, but both seem completely lifeless today. Perhaps this should not be surprising when considering that a cornerstone of Comte's doctrine for the church was love without sex and life without any alcohol! 

*You can see the list of the Top 10 most popular Invisible Paris posts in the right-hand column.

**Brazil's national motto, Ordem e Progresso ("Order and Progress") was taken from the positivism motto, "Love as principle, order as the basis, progress as the goal". For more information on the development of postivism in Brazil, read this essay.


Cergie said...

Attends, attends, Adam ! Un curieux lit ? Mais c'est un "lit bateau" comme c'était la mode au 19ème siècle, j'ai donné à ma fille pour ses filles les deux lits bateaux (dont un lit d'enfant) qui me venaient de mon grand'père ; dans lesquels il a dormi, puis après lui mon père ensuite mes frères puis mon plus jeune fils...
Il est toujours possible d'en acheter de ce type de nos jours....

Terry said...

Thank you for another fascinating blog post! I agree with Cergie, this is not such an unusual bed - it has always (since my childhood) been, to me, a typical Scandinavian bed because the early 20th century-late 19th century illustrated books my Danish grandmother had showed several of them. I always wanted one, but alas, it was not to be.

Adam said...

Thanks for the clarifications on the bed. Obviously not so strange then!

Et ravi de te voir ici à nouveau Lucie!

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