Monday, August 11, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


This is one of those rather self-indulgent things I do every so often. I speak to you of some personal peccadillo and hope you won’t notice that it is not really a universal trait or worth your time of day.
Today’s peccadillo is the way I sometimes like to hang around cemeteries, or graveyards as I prefer to call them.
I do not think I am a particularly morbid person. I am not always spotting the skull beneath the skin, stressing over how the years move swift as the weaver’s shuttle or how soon you and I will meet the Grim Reaper, or “the Distinguished Thing” as Henry James more touchingly called it. Okay, so we will all die some day; but that does not make me don daily sackcloth or fail to register the joys of life.
So I am not morbid and I am not visiting graveyards as some sort of self-flagellatory memento mori.
Nor am I a Romantic who associates graveyards with moonlight and spectres and the sound of the Danse Macabre. Of course it’s fun to look at an old black-and-white horror film and see Frankenstein and his assistant going to a very convincing Hollywood studio graveyard and digging up a fresh corpse for resuscitation. Of course graveyard poetry and epitaphs and funeral scenes in novels and movies are enjoyable in the way good ghost stories are enjoyable. Long live Sheridan Le Fanu and Gothick fiction for all the harmless diversion it brings. But my preferred time for a graveyard visit is not by the light of the moon. It is in daylight or (preferably) near sunset when I can work up a Thomas Gray or William Collins sort of mood.
So why do I like graveyards?
Partly because they are so quiet – places for reflection and also places to consider the dead and give thanks for them and (without donning the sackcloth) getting a perspective on my own life. My life is, after all, no more important than that of these people who are now only bones, dust and worms’ excrement that might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
It is no less important either.
Partly, too, it is the attraction of real folk art, for what are all those gravestones and monuments and inscriptions if not the art of ordinary people who thought such things important? Folk art.
I had early training in the appreciation of graveyards, and here I will cannibalise myself. Four years ago, I wrote a commissioned history of the Catholic diocese of Auckland called Founders and Keepers. I chose to begin it on a personal note by explaining that I grew up in a house in the east Auckland suburb of Panmure. The house was equidistant between two churches. However, I wrote:
More important to my growing sense of history… were graveyards. The Anglican church of St Matthias had a neat little cemetery overlooking the part of the Tamaki Estuary that was bridged. As a moody teenager, I found it the perfect place to sit and think or look at the stars on evening mooches. The Catholic cemetery was between St Patrick’s church and the part of the convent school attended by older boys and girls (the infant classes were on ‘our’ side of the church). It sprawled down towards the Panmure shopping centre. From the late nineteenth century, it had become the custom to bury diocesan clergy and religious in this cemetery. So, after its earliest years, it stored the mortal remains of very few laypeople, although my good friend the craft-printer Ronald Holloway, and some members of his family, did manage to get buried there. Rows of crosses commemorated priests, brothers, sisters and nuns.
            We would walk cheerfully through the graveyard, on our way between home and school. Inevitably, as young schoolchildren, we developed our own folklore about some of the inmates. One grave had a cross with a photograph of the deceased priest on it, under a thick plastic covering. There was a small dark spot of mildew on the plastic, precisely over the priest’s left temple. I can still remember being young enough to believe my brother’s tall story that the priest had been martyred and that this spot showed the exact place where he had been shot.
            In the south-west corner of the cemetery, nearest the main church door, was the impressive grave of Bishop Cleary, laid to rest in 1929. We would often irreverently scramble over the top of it on our daily journeys to and from school – at least if we knew we were not being watched by one of the Mission Sisters who taught us. The top of Cleary’s monument was cruciform; that is, shaped like a cross lying down. Again, I can just remember believing somebody who told me that this cross was really the shape of an aeroplane, because Bishop Cleary often travelled by air. It must have been a garbled version of something a grown-up had said about Cleary being the pioneering ‘flying bishop’.
            Directly across the road from the Catholic cemetery lived a pious Anglican lady. Her father, long deceased, had not had much time for the Catholic Church, but she did tell us how greatly the same man admired Bishop Cleary for his charitable work during the lethal ‘influenza’ epidemic of 1918. For some years after Cleary’s death, she said, a cat with a white tail had haunted the cemetery. Whenever she looked across the road and saw the white tail bobbing between the crosses, her father would tell her that it was the ghost of Bishop Cleary.”
Oh well, I suppose a little bit of romanticism about graveyards did creep into those childhood impressions.
Now when I am in a foreign city, once I have exhausted the museums and art galleries, I do like to visit the more illustrious graveyards. Here, there is the added attraction of spotting the graves of the famous. A couple of times in Rome a decade ago, I of course visited the Protestant Cemetery (“Protestant” here meaning anybody not buried according to Catholic rites – including Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jews and freethinkers) so that I could enjoy the cypresses and look at the white pyramid outside the cemetery walls and hover around John Keats’ (unnamed) grave with its epitaph to “one whose name was writ in water”.
And this year, more by accident than design, I visited the Montmartre cemetery in Paris. My wife and I were heading, in a long trek on foot, across Paris from St Germain des Pres to the peak of Montmartre in order to visit the Sacre Coeur basilica. And en route we stumbled across the Montmartre cemetery. I know that when you are in Paris, the cemetery you are supposed to visit is the vast Pere Lachaise, but we had far from exhausted the city’s other attractions. Graveyards were not yet on our agenda. Yet here one was right in front of us, and we couldn’t forebear to go in and indulge ourselves.
It is much smaller than the Pere Lachaise yet still huge by the standards of New Zealand graveyards. Family vaults and tall monuments are organised into what amount to the city blocks of a necropolis. A motor overpass (built about twenty years ago) goes over one end of the graveyard, but it has disturbed none of the graves and there are acres and acres to walk with just the sky above. And of course there are stray cats slinking about, sunning themselves or waiting to kill sparrows and cadge food.
When we entered the graveyard, I could think of only one person who was buried there – Alphonsine Plessis, who styled herself “Marie du Plessis”, the kept woman, or prostitute to the carriage trade, who died at the age of 23 after having inspired Alexandre Dumas fils to write La Dame aux Camelias. I knew she was buried at Montmartre because I had just been researching, for Opera New Zealand, a programme note on Plessis for their production of Verdi’s La Traviata, which was based on Dumas’ novel. So of course we found out where Plessis’ monument was and made our way there and photographed it. We bumped into a middle-aged Frenchman who insisted on telling us who he thought the most illustrious corpses were. He talked up the nouvelle vague film actor Jean-Claude Brialy, who is buried near Plessis. To humour him I took a photograph of Brialy’s inscription and hoped the gentleman would go away. But instead he launched into a long account of the Egyptian-French pop singer who styled herself “Dalida”, also buried at Montmrtre. He seemed shocked that we had never heard of her. He gave us complicated directions on how to find her grave. We thanked him and mercifully at this point he went away.
We ignored his directions as we were in search of better game.
A directory at the cemetery’s entrance has told us how we could find the graves of the film directors Francois Truffaut and Henri-Georges Clouzot. We searched diligently and failed to find them. Only when we were leaving, some hours later, did we realize we had misread the directions and were looking in the wrong city block of the necropolis. But, serendipity,
as we wandered about without any plan, we did find even more notable scalps. The grave of the novelist Henri Beyle who styled himself “Stendhal”, with inscriptions in both French and Italian. The incredibly ostentatious grave of Emile Zola, made of red marble and with a bust of the author framed by an arch. The grave of Germany’s greatest nineteenth century poet Heinrich Heine, with a conventional poet’s lyre on the gravestone. And, from my point of view at any rate, the most illustrious of the lot, the grave of Hector Berlioz, whose Symphonie Fantastique and whose Military Requiem do each, in their own ways, draw on the tradition of rattling skeletons. Oh yes, and a couple of oddities – the grave of the family of the stage and screen farceur Sacha Guitry. And the grave of “La Goulue”, the fat blonde woman who, according to the inscription, originated the cancan,
but who is probably best known for having been painted many times by Toulouse Lautrec.
Dearie me. This hasn’t been a very edifying tour, has it? I began by saying I would tell you why I find graveyards attractive, and I end up giving you a list of names like any head-hunter. I do also note one thing this Parisian graveyard has in common with the Protestant cemetery in Rome. The largest and most eye-arresting monuments – especially the family vaults – tend to belong to people who are forgotten by history, mainly the families of wealthy businesspeople, capitalists and property owners. 

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