What should happen to an author’s corpse? These days, bodies are usually cremated and most of us have no idea where a writer’s ashes have been scattered. However, the French are currently involved in a contretemps over whether or not the remains of one of their greatest playwrights, Molière, should be moved into the Panthéon.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière, was born in 1622 and went on to write some of the greatest comedies in the French language – Tartuffe, The Misanthrope and The Imaginary Invalid. He died on stage during a production of The Imaginary Invalid, a play about a man who fakes his own death (a joke Molière would surely have enjoyed!). The church disapproved of actors and playwrights and he was buried quietly in a Paris churchyard. During the Revolution, the coffin was dug up and paraded through the city, as a public rebuke of the church which had persecuted him.
This year saw Molière’s 400th birthday in January, and President Macron and the Mayor of Paris think he should be moved into the building which is the resting place of most great Frenchmen (women were finally admitted in 1995). Dissenters argue that the Panthéon, built well after Molière’s time, is a monument that should honour people who came after the 18th century Enlightenment and the Revolution. Because this great playwright was born too early, the French Government has decided he will not be reinterred. From a PC point of view, Molière also fails as a candidate – his world is strongly patriarchal, and he married his mistress’s daughter who had grown up with him as a father-figure. But his plays have many messages which are still relevant today – he preaches against fanaticism, he begs for common sense, he exposes hypocrisy.
In an excellent article in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes: “Molière to the Panthéon? Sure. But he is already inside the only pantheon that matters, the interior of our minds and manners.”
So … Molière will not be on the move, which I think is a pity – the Panthéon would be a fitting resting place for such a great writer. Alexandre Dumas was moved so that he could rest there (his African heritage and skin colour kept him out originally), there has recently been debate over whether poet Arthur Rimbaud should be buried there next to his lover Paul Verlaine (they were lovers until Verlaine tried to shoot Rimbaud, but that’s another story!) but that campaign failed because Rimbaud’s family wanted his remains to remain in the town of his birth, Charleville-Mézières.
Are there other French writers who you feel should be resting in that historic building? Or do you feel that authors, once buried, should be allowed to rest in peace? Tell me by leaving a comment.