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PARIS — We rarely experience the oceanic sensation of our bodies as continuous and equal with all other humans. But such a pseudo-sense of anguished continuum is available to those with a smidgen of imagination at Place Denfert-Rochereau in the Parisian Catacombs.
Enough people had died in Paris by the 17th century that its cemeteries were brimming with graves, so much so that corpses at times protruded from the ground. So, in 1785, following the decision to excavate all of the overflowing cemeteries (some dating back to Gallo-Roman times), the city began moving skeletal remains to one central location, an abandoned 13th century limestone quarry from which the stones that built Paris were dug. Cemeteries began to be emptied in 1786, beginning with the Cimetière des Innocents, but it took two years to move all the bones. This practice continued until 1860, when the city stopped sending bones into the ossuary. By then, about six million skeletons had been transferred, disassembled, and stacked systematically according to body part against the walls.
Long a popular attraction with the public, this (seemingly endlessly) undulating ossuary is a fascinating, if somewhat squirrelly, work of walk-in art. When people come to Paris they often ask me what art they should see first: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre? The modern art collection at the Pompidou? Notre Dame? I always tell them the same thing, though few do it. I tell them first to go to the honey-colored Catacombs and, after experiencing its purification ritual, follow it up with a magnificently long meal.
What I find artistically important about the Catacombs is that they are both visually compelling and conceptually enthralling. Visually, the studied, logical arrangement of the bones provides a tone and spirit of unity. There is a loving, musical cadence and an order here that provide a quasi-Baroque musical meter as you travel through the teeming, harmonious, and entangled passages. Snaking and surging through the chilly and lopsided footpath, one passes through a sequence of monotone ochre panoramas bereft of motion, a psychic no-go zone just as forbidding as a seething wall of curled barbwire.
Conceptually, the Catacombs offer a rebuttal to both racial profiling and to the left’s over-zealous (at times self-damaging) obsession with identity politics. Its rippling, brackish-yellow walls display an intimidating vanitas wit that dissolves diversity into general correspondence. Sure, a walk down the Catacombs path has a macabre grandeur about it that occasions reflection on our own boney insignificance. But the general likenesses of its inhabitants may also provide a mental retort to the skullduggery that dehumanizes us by reducing us to a demographic profile that shrinks us to our gender, race, sexual preference, or skin tone. Walking with an open mind through the Catacombs is an immersion into profound equality incapable of maintaining racial or sexual difference, and as such animates the crumbling of human indifference. It’s a seething, dark walkway where everybody is treated equally (and with loving dignity). Or, seen in a different light, it reveals an essential unity under all semblances of difference. Here we can walk the walk on the thin line where immanence and transcendence briefly commingle.
Every bone is delightful in itself and as part of the whole, and thus yields intellectual fruit for meditation on our refined commonality. Though racked together by type, each bone has a sweet agony and unknown history that extends itself beyond its contours. The experience evokes Prince Hamlet’s moralizing on Yorick’s skull, musing about the commonness of death and the vanity of life. Hamlet not only remembers the jester Yorick, but also considers what’s become of the body that belonged to Alexander the Great. Both men, he concludes, are essentially alike in the end.
One passes through the Catacombs in very small simpatico groups. But you can lag behind a bit and experience private pools of sensation where you might stroke the quivering surface of a row of skulls or smell their earthy, agitated odor, experiencing a pinnacle of somber imagination akin to literally looking death in the face. Grief or rapture may be roused in you, and stir you, to the point where you may find a string of tears on your cheeks.
Besides Paris, there are many other ossuaries throughout Europe, including the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome; the Martyrs of Otranto in southern Italy; the Fontanelle cemetery and Purgatorio ad Arco in Naples ; the San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan; the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic; the Skull Chapel in Czermna in Lower Silesia, Poland; and the Capela dos Ossos in Évora, Portugal. Dizzying to peruse, they are grim and genius works of morbidity that pertain to us all. But nothing is like the Parisian Catacombs’ bone-lined promenade in how it grinds against the completing, reassuring representations of identity ideology.
By the massive size and rigorous logic, the Paris Catacombs invite thoughts of our ultimate integration, complete with prolonged washes of feelings based in the realization of our ultimate dissolution. There, immersed in the space’s trance-like and boney repetitions that hauntingly flow and resonate, we are part of those from the Cimetière des Innocents. This trembling concession to ego loss provides consciousness with an elaborate, experiential shock. We find ourselves in the midst of a quantitative artistic space of great quality, one that may transform our opinion of the value of distinctiveness.
The Paris Catacombs (1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 14th arrondissement, Paris) are open to the public Tuesday through Sunday.
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