Why the Catacombs Are Unamerican
and other thoughts on art in the underworld
For a long time, I’ve wanted to see the catacombs in Paris. I think my interest in the catacombs probably even pre-dates the professional, philosophical, interests that led me to write a whole book about death. I wanted to see the catacombs before I even understood what they were, or how they were formed.
I finally had the chance to see them, when I was in France earlier this month.
I have to admit that, on an aesthetic level, the arrangement of bones in the Parisian catacombs did not impress me nearly as much as the Capuchin Crypt, in Rome. And I also have to admit that I was left feeling pretty exhausted by my visit, despite the fact that I sometimes pride myself on being a person with enough stamina to really confront mortality.
The passages of the Parisian catacombs are long, and winding. At some point it felt as if the underworld journey would never end. I found myself morbidly (and claustrophobically) wondering what it would feel like if our visit just happened to coincide with the collapse of the tunnels. And I never really got over the chill that I had the moment I realized that I was standing so close to the bones of millions of now anonymous people who died centuries ago. It was a humbling, and haunting, feeling. I knew that, somewhere in there, I’d passed the bones of Blaise Pascal. But his could have been any cracked skull, or worn femur. The bones themselves remained anonymous.
As I walked among the bones of the dead, I kept thinking about how rough and disturbing it must have been, in the 18th and 19th centuries, as these bones were disinterred from urban cemeteries all over Paris in order to make room for the living, for tunnels, for progress, for development. For months, perhaps even years, the bones of the dead were transported across the city all night long en route to a new necropolis, no doubt ghosting the dreams of the people who slept along their path.
The bones ended up in the artful formations that characterize the necropolis we now call the catacombs precisely because of this rough history. It was determined that this underworld of the dead should be given some sort of funereal decoration, some sense of ceremony, to keep it from descending into a disreputable pit of chaos. The act of placing the bones into intricate, decorative arrangements was an attempt to bring some general order to the chaos of urbanization that had so unsettled the remains of the dead.
The catacombs are a fearful and exhausting place to be in. But it’s also a space with a particular sort of beauty: the rough or disturbing beauty that seems to associate itself naturally with the domains of the dead.
I was also struck by the fact that it illuminates such a Christian way of death. The preservation of the remains of dead—with the expectation of Jesus’s return, and resurrection of the dead—is such an ancient dimension of the Christian narrative that most American Christians, today, have completely forgotten why it is that their tradition has tended to bury the bodies of the dead rather than burn them. This is why cremation doesn’t seem taboo, for so many American Christians today. The ancient deathways that demand preservation of the corpse are so old that they’ve lost their meaning, for many Christians today.
I don’t mean to suggest that Christians “should” bury their dead, rather than cremate them (it’s not my business, of course). Nor do I mean to suggest that Christianity is the only tradition to practice burial; of course it’s not. But the preservation of these remains, and the need to make a particular sort of home for them (even long after their flesh has decayed) seems to reveal elements of that old resurrection hope.
Was it that resurrection hope that made it possible for the workers, and the planners who facilitated this decorative arrangement to stomach the undoubtedly difficult ritual work of rearrangement? Is this why there are so many little reminders, along the walls of the catacombs, that death is not the end? Was it that resurrection hope that made Christians, at so many different points in history, want to get so disturbingly close to death and the dead, as we do in the catacombs? That made Christianity, as Kyle Smith argues it is, a death cult? Was this desire to draw close to death, and the dead, a spiritual performance that Christians used to prove that death was (for them, at least) a mere illusion?
I don’t know. But it does seem as if there’s got to be some innoculating power in that Christian hope machine that made a visual phenomenon like the catacombs a little easier for generations of people to stomach.
Or, who knows, perhaps—instead—the long history of close encounters with mortality (with artful arrangements of the bones of the dead, with the image of a dead god, stretched across a cross) simply made the people who inherited these relics better at understanding the powerful and fragile beauty of the human body, in its mortal and animal form. Maybe this is what drew people close to the bones of the dead, not some sense of triumph over death itself?
I don’t think it’s possible to answer this question. I think, in essence, this is the problem of death as it exists in Christianity. There are any number of possible approaches to death (ways to think about or conceptualize it). But what I have just described are the two most common standpoints or positions. On the one hand (in the first instance), Christians get close to death and begin to make it look like a death cult because they harbor a deep faith that death isn’t actually real. They get close to death, to show it they’re not afraid. On the other hand, it’s also possible to read the Christian story as one that makes it look like a death cult because it reveals the mortal fragility that bonds us all like glue. They get close to death because it’s what makes us love each other. It’s impossible to know what any given person, at any given point in history, was “really” thinking, or feeling, about death.
Art, more than religion (in its institutional guises), has preserved this latter form of wisdom. Art is better at illuminating our mortal fragility as it is. And some believe that it’s the art world’s courage to accept this form of wisdom (rather than clinging to the resurrection hope) that makes art “secular.” I’m not so sure. I’m just too skeptical, I suppose, of dominant narratives about both religion and secularism. At any rate, I was I was reminded of the art world’s fixation on mortality immediately after my visit to the catacombs, when I visited the Fondation Cartier (right down the road) to see the Ron Mueck exhibit.
I hadn’t heard of the exhibit before arriving in Paris. But it was impossible to miss the exhibition of Mass (2017), even from the street. I can’t be the only one to find it deeply resonant with the catacombs that are merely steps away. Was that the reason for selecting this location?
I don’t know much about Mueck’s background, although I do know that he has a professional background in puppetry and was the voice of Ludo, in “Labyrinth.” But like many professional artists working today, there were certainly aspects of Mueck’s work that struck me as stripped down, or borrowed somehow, from relics of the Christian tradition. His piece Mass felt like the catacombs, sterilized and on steroids. His piece Baby is apparently the image of a little baby just pulled from the womb. But the way that the body is splayed on the wall looks, to me, like a pseudo-crucifixion. The face of the baby looks irritated, as if to say, “why would you deify me?” His larger sculpture, A Girl, which is quite shocking to behold (you can clearly see the little follicles where the fine hair is growing) also looks quite dismayed.
It’s difficult for me not to read these angry infantile faces as backward condemnations of a culture that has, for so long, so glorified the holy infant that it’s now engrossed in a great battle to subject women to forced reproduction in order to produce more of this sacred cultural treasure. What if these babies are a critical reading of this story of the holy infant, so tender and mild?
On the other hand, I also can’t help but see things this way because my own imagination and intellect have been deeply shaped by my education, and my acute awareness of the cultural weight of Christianity in America and Europe. I see how much the Christian story has been sedimented into things that are so basic, like a human skull or the body of an infant. But my sense of the weight of this sediment also leads me to read it back onto things, which can become its own problem to solve!
Mueck’s piece Untitled (Three Dogs), which was created for this exhibit and was on display for the first time is a hauntingly gorgeous, larger than life work of art that would seem not to apply to my earlier argument. In no obvious way does it look like an element of the Christian story, stripped down. And yet, if you were to ask me to read it that way, I surely could. I will spare you the speculation for the time being. Just know that my powers of interpretation are great! I accept any feat of interpretation that you throw at me.
In the end, perhaps, what most struck me about the catacombs is not actually how Christian it is, but how unamerican it is! The people, and government, of the United States worked so tirelessly to erase the traces of anything so old as the catacombs. Ancient and sacred remains of the dead, in America, are not artfully arranged but instead have (for the most part) been either destroyed or hoarded and stored away. They have been made intentionally anonymous so that not even as much as a tribal affiliation can be discerned for many of them. Remains of the dead have become part of a tragic, rather than a sacred, story in America.
Perhaps it’s because of this tragic rupture between the living and the dead that American deathways have become so sterile, sanitized, and lifeless. American burial practices have become about erasure. Cemeteries have become lawns manicured in accordance with the American dream. Remains of the dead are so well-hidden that you can’t legally bury someone, in most American cemeteries, without sealing the coffin in a cement vault. This ensures that the land won’t ripple as the coffin settles, and the land maintains its lawn-like manicured orderliness. And cremations occur not in open pyre ceremonies where you can see your loved transition from life into death, from the material into the spiritual, but in industrial ovens. Nothing about the corpse of embalmed bodies, or the gravestones of the American dead, bear any whiff of mortality but instead seem to reassert the enduring life of even the recently deceased. The American take on Christianity is the one that has most fervently clung to the resurrection hope, we might say, and has sought to erase even the traces of death from it, so that it’s become pure life itself, never to pass through the shadows of death that the old world, or the old ways, once had to deal with.
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