Voltaire, the Runaway Corpse

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Voltaire, the Runaway Corpse, by Michael wynn

A moonlit night i 1778, two carriages role out of Paris. In one of them sits the corpse of enlightenment philosopher Voltaire dressed in a nightgown. The crusader who spooked the clergy while he was alive, could find no rest in death.

Voltaire, the Runaway Corpse, by Michael wynn

A moonlit night i 1778, two carriages role out of Paris. In one of them sits the corpse of enlightenment philosopher Voltaire dressed in a nightgown. The crusader who spooked the clergy while he was alive, could find no rest in death.

It is an incredible end for wandering humorist, almost a macabre confirmation of the realism in his work. Voltaire could not have written the story better himself. Through his long life he had ridiculed his opponents in the struggle against intolerance, and often this had forced him to seek refuge abroad. Sometimes he benefited from courtly intrigues, like when he visited Bolingbroke, Swift and Pope in England and flattered himself into finer circles. Other times, such as when he courted Fredrick of Prussia, his return was became impossible. He said he felt like «a hare hounded by a greyhound».

Even so, he did feel a need to reconcile with his native France. Paris beckoned. It was this need, along with the wishes of his niece, that brought the 83 year old Voltaire from his exile home in Ferney to Paris. Now a living legend, he took the crowd by storm. He complained that «some one is trying to kill me. This is too much happiness for one man.»Voltaire, who had been a hysterical hypochondriac all his life, was finally correct in his predictions.

Voltaire fools the Clergy

When Voltaire realized that his time had come, he took a series of practical decisions. He was no atheist, but he never forgot the prejudices of the clergy in connection with the execution of the protestant Calas. «But in good faith,» he stated, «should our religion, because it is sacred, rule through hatred, violence, exile, confiscation of property, imprisonment, torture, murder and gratitude for these murders?» Just like Calas, who had never been given the chance of seeing his own acquittal, Voltaire now feared that he never would influence his own final verdict. What would happen to his body after he died? Would he be buried alongside his family? Would his relatives suffer because of his long career as a watchdog? After a 60 year career in which he had much fun at the expense of others, his enemies now circled like vultures about him.

He was convinced into writing a letter in which he stated that he was religious and that he forgave his enemies. When this didn't satisfy the priests, he shut them out and asked to die in peace. Since then Voltaire's death has become the stuff of legend. According to one of the doctors, he uttered sarcastic remarks almost to his last breath, something the priests disliked. A priest who was present even stated that the devil himself had been observed by Voltaire's death bed, and that he naturally suffered great pains.

Voltaire looses heart and brain

Voltaire now risked burial in unconsecrated ground, or at worst, in the gutter. This was too much for two of his younger relatives, the abbot of Mignot and Monsieur D'Hornay, who were elected to the parliament in Paris. Aided by the doctor Try, the chemist Mithouart and Brizard, they moved Voltaire's body to a safe house. Here the great thinker was subjected to an autopsy, his brain and heart were removed after the cause of the death was confirmed. He was then patched up again. Voltaire paid for the operation the only way he could: his brain was put on display in Mithouart's shop, while his heart was given to an old friend. (The family later had it gilded and placed in a box with the inscription «Voltaire's heart lies here, but his spirit is everywhere»)

Bandages now transformed Voltaire into a mummy, but disguised in coat and hat, and shielded by dusk, he relatives hoped that he would be able to escape. Voltaire was placed in a carriage with a terrified servant, while his relatives followed in another wagon. His death was still a secret, and the guards waved enthusiastically to him at the Paris gates.

His relatives steal the corpse

The abbot of Mignot, who fled with the corpse under cover of darkness, headed straight for his abbey in Scielllieres in Champagne. As Voltaire's relative he was an easy ally. The church cadre, however, had little pity for the greatest dissenter of the age. With unmatched arrogance Voltaire had approached the religious conflicts that had divided France since the great Wars of Religion. Voltaire had been persecuted and condemned by the archbishop of Paris and the bishops of Troy and Cologne.

When the archbishop of Paris heard of the plans to burry the heretic, he wrote immediately to the local bishop. But the message did not reach him until after Voltaire had been safely buried under the church floor. It would probably have been best if Voltaire had been buried in Ferney, a small village of Swiss watchmakers that he helped found himself. The distance to Ferney seemed to great, however, and Voltaire's old enemy, the bishop of Annecy, controlled the local clergy. Voltaire was therefore buried in a nameless grave at the abbey in Champagne where neither the clergy nor his fanatical followers could get to him. In the meantime, his gilded heart was brought home to Ferney where it became a shrine to his followers.

Triumph after 13 year in the grave

Voltaire had barely begun to decompose before a series of complex events turned things on their head. The french revolution ended serfdom and the power of the clergy. Times were changing and soon Voltaire's old enemies had to worry about their own body parts. It became a public demand that the notorious blasphemer should be resurrected, his honor restored and his remains be buried with the pomp and circumstance befitting a famous corpse. The biographer Jean Orieux noted how ironic it was that Voltaire should return to Paris the same day the king was arrested «Imagine what a meeting it would have been! King Louis XVI in his closed wagon surrounded by the army, while the king Voltaire, dead but triumphant, made his return in an open carriage surrounded by royal splendor to a Paris where the monarchy was banned.»

Not long after, the king, the clergy and the nobility paid for the poverty of the people with their lives. Thousands of heads rolled all over France. The authorities in Paris declared that «terror was on the agenda, and rightly should be, for the heartless rich, for the dishonest opportunists, for the shameless manipulators, for the unpatriotic cowards and for everyone who didn't feel the dignity of being free people» While the Jacobin terror raged, Voltaire's home Ferney was-oddly- a place of refuge.

Consuming your own

July 11 1791 the remains of Voltaire were buried in the Pantheon after a long procession through the city. Voltaire, formally the devil's disciple, was now a saint, and the crowd carried him with revolutionary fervor. The crowd happily concluded that Voltaire was still largely intact «except for one foot» Several of Voltaire's teeth disappeared in the chaos. These were sold and made into jewelry. The text on one of them reads «The clergy will not harm me because Voltaire's tooth guards me». There was nothing remarkable about this Jean Oriex explains, because Descartes head was sold for 100 franc in 1829, and a century later Newton's tooth achieved the pleasant sum of 16595 franc. Voltaire understood more than any one what it mean to be cannibalized by your own time. His own posthumous experience illustrates how literally such a statement could be interpreted. As for Voltaire's brain, it has not been seen since 1812.


Submitted: April 23, 2009

© Copyright 2021 Michael Wynn. All rights reserved.

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Comments

willisdc2

Great article, I truly enjoyed it.

Just as with Thomas Paine there were many rumors after his death because of the Deistic approach he took to religion. Most Unfortunate.

Again, great article. Thank you

Fri, February 10th, 2012 6:24pm

Author
Reply

Thanks, I was trying hard to make it entertaining:)

Fri, February 10th, 2012 1:14pm

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