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Artillery Row Books

The stories of a cemetery

There is much to learn about human life in a graveyard

I first noticed contributions to various journals by Anthony Daniels many years ago, finding both those and others written under his pseudonym, Theodore Dalrymple, interesting for many reasons, not least their good sense, the obvious truth that they were written by an educated, urbane, civilised, well-travelled, and well-read individual, free from trendy attitudes and half-baked opinions, all well expressing concerns about the many madnesses engulfing a Western society in obvious decline, one wallowing in self-abasement, self-doubt, and self-immolation. In short, Daniels has always commented on the world as it is, and not as fantasists, dimwits, and the so-called politically correct insist on imposing on the rest of us. 

Daniels and his wife have an apartment in Paris near the entrance to the Cimetière de l’Est, known as Père-Lachaise, and he has declared that he loves cemeteries, finding them “almost as irresistible as bookshops”. I agree: one can learn a great deal about any culture from the way in which it treats its dead, and I have hugely enjoyed cemeteries in Germany, Austria, Italy, the United States of America, and France, with many forays into the great urban cemeteries of what is now known in certain circles as “The Atlantic Archipelago”.

During the celebrations of Berlin’s 750th anniversary, I was involved in an exhibition of the cemeteries of Berlin, and contributed to the Catalogue called, in Berlin dialect, O ewich is so Lanck, edited by Christoph Fischer and Renate Schein, published in 1987 by Nicolaische Verlagsbuchhandlung, Berlin. Those cemeteries are oases of peace, calm, and beauty within a bustling, lively city, though they were once in the country, beyond the suburbs: they are fascinating and lovely places, deserving of study, for they are not only full of delights, but imbued with historical references, and the names of many of their silent inhabitants can still speak to us today. Great cemeteries, such as the Staglieno, Genoa, are treasure-troves of splendid sculpture associated with the architecture of death, while vast garden-cemeteries, such as Greenwood, New York, are beautiful, extraordinary places, well worth several hours of diligent exploration. As Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) wrote, in his Wreath of Immortelles, “there is a certain frame of mind to which a cemetery is, if not an antidote, at least an alleviation. If you are in a fit of the blues, go nowhere else”.

An as essayist, Daniels can be compared with many distinguished men of letters whose writings can still enchant today, for his wit, judgements, and wisdom shine through everything he composes. This book is based on a brilliant idea: its author has studied the monuments in the great Cemetery of Père-Lachaise (opened 1804), and has identified and illustrated the graves of a selection of authors who today are almost forgotten or otherwise neglected. This book is about them and their works. Père-Lachaise, a place of great beauty (which I have often visited, marvelling at the many fascinating and handsome mausolea and small tombs and monuments with which it is stuffed), was the prototype of the large metropolitan necropoleis no 19th-century city could afford to be without: it was indeed the begetter of large urban garden-cemeteries such as the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, London (1833), the Glasgow Necropolis (1832), and Mount Auburn, Boston, MA (1831), although there had been an earlier, very impressive cemetery established by the British in India: this was South Park Street Cemetery, Calcutta (1767), so pre-dates Père-Lachaise by almost four decades, something often ignored by commentators. 

In this marvellous series of essays, as erudite and as interesting as one could ever wish, Daniels investigates the contributions of eight writers entombed or interred in Père-Lachaise Cemetery whose names are relatively unknown compared with some of the more celebrated denizens of that remarkable city of the dead such as Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Jacques Delille (1738-1813), Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95), and Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, called Molière (1622-73): the last two were translated to the new cemetery in 1815 to give it a degree of secular approval and attract customers, just as it had once been desirable to be buried in churches near the relics of Saints.

I particularly enjoyed Daniels’s essay on Émile Souvestre (1806-1854), as many of the points raised therein accord with some of my own observations and beliefs gained in a long and interesting life. A character suggests that language influences habits, and that too great a familiarity in terms of address ends in becoming a lack of regard. I believe this to be very true, for “when there is no formality, there can be no distinctions, and no special regard for anyone”. Indeed, this absence of formal structure in address “heightens social tensions rather than reduces them, for distinctions will be made one way or another, and when we live in a soup of informal and supposedly friendly equality, we find other less socially lubricating methods of imposing them”. As Daniels says, when his local MP in England addressed him in a letter by his first name, he was absolutely wrong to do so: I agree, as my MP also indulges in this unwelcome familiarity, which I deeply resent. In those NHS hell-holes ludicrously called hospitals, nurses and doctors are taught to address patients using first names, which I regard as wholly uncivilised and presumptuous. Although this deplorable familiarity is thought by bean-counters and wet virtue-signallers to be “friendly”, this “default informality towards strangers already in a vulnerable and often humiliating position vis-à-vis others is an exercise in power” rather than an expression of friendliness. Daniels used to tell the medical students he taught that not only were they not to call or address elderly patients by their first names, but they were not even to think of them in such terms. 

Souvestre noted that the study of German philosophers led to a sort of “providential fatalism” which made history seem like a great poem whose scenes were written in advance without anybody being able to do anything other than accept the rôles allotted to them. I have always regarded that hoary old Germanic concept of the Zeitgeist as a horror, not only from the Hegelian view, but because it has been accepted by people like Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83) to justify architectural abominations all around us. It does seem that Souvestre really understood and was able to summarise a view of history that, though essentially Hegelian, was adopted by Marxists to condone some of the most frightful massacres in all history with the excuse that the atrocities could be brushed aside because they were in accordance with providential laws, and so it was not Marxists who committed the atrocities, but History. 

Daniels writes eloquently about Alice-René Brouillhet (1887-1960), described on her tomb as Écrivain rather than in the feminine form of the word. Certainly in The Atlantic Archipelago, pressures from feminist groups have pushed things one way: Daniels cites the banishment of actress in favour of actor when reference is made to female thespians in such organs as The Grauniad, suggesting to him that “the demand for change arises more from a desire to exercise power than because of any respect or disrespect inherent in the term formerly employed”. Personally, I find the thought of Marilyn Monroe being an actor faintly ludicrous. Brouillhet’s husband was a military doctor, who died in 1916, aged just under 23 years of age, which prompts Daniels to reflect on a “state of mind in which the preservation of the memory of a good, decent, and optimistic young man, his life cut cruelly and undeservedly short, would be an inescapable duty and constitute henceforth the main purpose of an existence”. Brouillhet’s mention of tattooing resonated with Daniels and with me: this widespread contemporary phenomenon, obvious everywhere one looks, suggests a “peculiar admixture of self-mutilation and downward cultural aspiration”. Amen to that. However, Brouillhet’s novels, Daniels notes, “have a strange atmosphere, a mixture of decadence and spirituality”. Her interest in travels within what was the French colonial empire conjures up for me that odd Gallic obsession with what was once called L’Empire Mussulman: indeed, beside me, as I write this, is the score of Les Roses d’Ispahan, composed in 1884 by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) with words by Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818-94). The whiff of tawdry Western pædophilia, spiritual Kitsch, and much else loosely associated with  French colonialism hangs low over the grave, although, in the end, Mort pour la France seems to pervade Brouillhet’s Les Héros sans Gloire (1927), the one work of hers that Daniels judges “deserves to live”.

The second essay in the book is on Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (1848-1910), once celebrated for his Le Roman Russe (1886), and even called the “Chateaubriand of the Third Republic”, who, taken prisoner during the Franco-Prussian war, was allowed out of chokey to attend the Opera in Magdeburg, and even allowed to visit Berlin, humane treatment that contrasted with the horrors of the Paris Commune he witnessed on being repatriated. His Syrie, Palestine, et Mont-Athos: Voyages aux pays du passé (1876) is a volume Daniels considers worth republishing today, not least for his account of Jerusalem written in 1872, and I would certainly agree with him on that. I smiled when I recalled Vogüé’s remark that northern European Protestant forms of Christianity made little impression on the Eastern mind, for I remembered some research I carried out many years ago on aspects of the Evangelical Conscience, which revealed the story of the first Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Michael Solomon Alexander (1799-1845), born of Jewish parents in Schönlanke, Grand Duchy of Posen, who had been ordained in 1827. His arrival in the Holy Land was more like a military triumph than a Churchman’s entry: he had travelled on a perhaps unfortunately named man-of-war, the Devastation, and was greeted with an artillery salute on his entry to Jerusalem. There is a very full biography of the Bishop by Johannes Friedrich Alexander de Le Roi (1835-1919), published in Gütersloh in 1897 as Michael Solomon Alexander, der erste evangelische Bischof in Jerusalem, which should satisfy the most voracious of literary/religious appetites.

I was very interested to read the chapter on François-Vincent Raspail (1796-1878), for not only does he have a Parisian Boulevard named after him, but that Boulevard was loathed by the odious Franco-Swiss Fascist architect, “Le Corbusier”, who, like many self-regarding totaliatrian destroyers, adopted a pseudonym, and argued for the obliteration of what was a handsome thoroughfare. Raspail advocated, well before Lister’s time, that hygiene was all-important to prevent infection after surgery, and at a time when the presence of pus was regarded as a symptom of health: he insisted that surgeons should actually clean the skin of a patient before any incision occurred, and that they should treat their instruments with alcohol between operations as a form of antiseptic. He was, in fact, an early advocate of the germ theory of disease some three decades before that theory became established. Raspail’s interest in poisoning, and especially in the case of Madame Lafarge, is chronicled by Daniels in this fascinating book.

Further chapters deal with Enrique Gómez Carrillo (1873-1927), Glasgow-born Charles Loudon (1801-44), Jules Cornély (1845-1907), and Jean-Richard Bloch (1884-1947). In these the spectres of the appalling Dreyfus affair, apologies for Marxism, medical experiments, virulent anti-Semitism, and much else are dissected with a detachment that is admirable, given that Daniels’s own mother was a refugee from National-Socialist Germany and his grandfather, a doctor, who won two Iron Crosses in the 1914-18 war, nevertheless had to save his life by leaving Germany for China, where he died in 1944. 

Daniels’s reproduction of Stalin’s remarks concerning the leaders of Britain’s Labour Party coaxed a wan smile out of me. The Soviet dictator observed that “these apologies for leaders are hangovers from the past and cannot measure up to the new conditions. It is certain that they will be compelled in time to give way to new leaders who do measure up to the militant spirit and heroism of the British proletariat”. Like Daniels, I would have liked to read what Stalin might have said about recent and present Labour leaders, at a time when the “British proletariat” seems to have been demoralised and even crushed into a state of apathy and hopeless resignation by the bullying commissars of political correctness, fashionable Wokeness, and “positive discrimination”, among many other destructive and nihilistic bludgeons that will most certainly lead to awful consequences.

I finished this thoughtful, wide ranging, and wise book with regret, for it is rich in humanity, learning, wisdom, experience, and much else that is admirable. I salute a great mind, cultured, humorous, and witty, and one that is not afraid of unpalatable facts, or of issuing warnings, drawing on a lifetime of detached observation, careful contemplation, and an astonishing ability to get to the kernel of the matter in hand without obfuscation.    

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