- Some Collections of Mortality:Dickens, the Paris Morgue, and the Material Corpse
The Paris Morgue, with which Dickens was familiar, stood on the bank of the Seine from 1830 to 1864. Its practical purpose was the identification of unknown bodies, many of which were fished out of the river. To this end, the dead were placed on slanted tables with whatever clothes they were found in hung on pegs behind them. To retard decomposition, cold water dripped constantly over them from taps. The bodies faced a glass panel that enabled people who were missing relatives to identify and claim the bodies. But the morgue soon developed a less pragmatic function; it became a place of entertainment for curious locals and foreigners. Indeed, the morgue became so popular that it was listed in several British guidebooks as one of the tourist attractions of Paris.
It is impossible to know how often Dickens went to the morgue, but in "Railway Dreaming," he describes the morgue as a "strange sight, which I have contemplated many a time during the last dozen years" (174), and in "Some Recollections of Mortality," he calls it his "old acquaintance" (102). It is difficult for us to understand the popularity of the morgue, but we can get closer to comprehension if we see it as part of larger nineteenth-century attitudes toward death. Though it has come under attack of late, especially for such legitimate issues as class assumptions, the definitive work on the development of Western attitudes toward death remains Philippe Ariés's The Hour of Our Death. In it, Ariés claims that attitudes toward death had "for centuries ... remained almost fixed .... And suddenly, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, within one or two generations, there is a new sensibility that is different from everything that has preceded it" (442). He labels the nineteenth century the "age of the beautiful death" (409), writing that
A visit to a house in which someone has died is a little like a visit to a museum .... But this ... should not blind us to the contradiction ... for this death is no longer death, it is an illusion of art. Death has started to hide. In spite of the apparent publicity that surrounds it in mourning, at the cemetery, in life as well as in art and literature, death is concealing itself under the mask of beauty.(473) [End Page 72]
What he means is that for all the nineteenth century's well-charted obsession with grandiose funerals and elaborate mourning rituals, it is an era oddly more distanced from death than its predecessors. In earlier centuries, the dead were not so metaphorized; they were dealt with more literally as real corpses subject to decay (though, of course, the soul could survive elsewhere). The nineteenth century, however, came to fear the dead body for reasons that include more doubt about whether there is a soul to survive the body. Critics often build on Ariés in their examination of Dickens's morgue articles, attempting to make sense of how the morgue's popularity jibes with Ariés's view that death is less directly visible in the nineteenth century. Vanessa Schwartz argues that the apparent contradiction is solved by understanding that morgue visitors reread the dead: "Aided by the growth of the mass-circulated press and organized tourism, the spectacle of the corpse in the morgue's display window transformed the formerly eternal corpse into something ephemeral: current events" (49). The morgue did not prompt a real engagement with "anonymous corpses," Schwartz argues, but a recontextualizing of the dead as "spectacularized reality; one whose reality-effect was bolstered by the spectacle's representation of other sights with which the morgue's crowd was no doubt familiar—from mass-circulated newspapers, police memoirs written for a popular audience, and even wax museums" (87). This slippage from corpse to corpse-effect indicates the elision of the real body by the spectacle encompassing it.
Going one step further, Paul Vita contends that reactions to the morgue, far from subverting Ariés's claim, actually exceed it, "anticipating" the twentieth century's move "to deny [death] entirely." This denial is...