Saturday, January 22, 2011

Immortality - Popular, Official and Real

“Devenir immortal, et puis, Mourir”

“Become immortal, and then, die.” - was the answer by the writer/philosopher character in Godard’s À bout de souffle, to the question of plus grande ambition dans la vie, or, the biggest ambition in life.

Everyone dies, but only a few die after becoming immortal. Governments have formalized this notion since long, for example, in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, there is a guide map at the entrance with the list of graves of some 100 odd people, and the information to locate them amongst the few thousand unimportant ones. Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Jim Morrison make the official cut, Joseph Fourier, Gertrude Stein, JRD Tata and several former French presidents and several thousand commoners do not. However, in spite of the official accreditation, there were some who were more immortal than others - to which I will come in about three paragraphs.

Pere Lachaise is a world famous cemetery, supposedly most visited cemetery in the world. Several of the most famous statesmen, generals, musicians, painters, philosophers, scientists and writers that lived in the last 200 years are buried here. A cemetery that is in the must see lists, and I was there in the peak tourist season, in the summer.

For a map of the cemetery one needs to pay a euro or something, which appeared weired to me because wherever one goes in France, even if he doesn't get drinking water, he will get free brochures and leaflets, printed in the most beautiful colours. I suddenly felt like not buying the map, might have been the result of reading Kerouac’s On the Road on the way to the museum. So I went through the list and selected about 10 people whose graves I felt like visiting, and noted their location in my diary.

Like most cemeteries, this one was also extremely calm, the most visited cemetery status might not have made it the noisiest cemetery. It was full of beautiful structures and paved ways lined with old trees and lush green foliage. I spent the next few hours walking around and looking at tombs, and thinking.

Among the graves, Jim Morrison’s - the alcoholic lead singer of “The Doors”, who died in a car crash - had the most visitors. I was looking for it myself when a French lady came and asked me the way to it. We asked the lady who was coming behind us, who turned out to be lost too(both said “Morrison” and not “Jim Morrison”). After walking here and there, traversing more generals, musicians and Presidents de la Republic, we reached Morrison’s. There were more than ten people surrounding the grave, which was separated from the crowd with metallic frames. Among them, a Morrison lookalike kid, with a grave, sad expression, stringing his guitar aimlessly. Another - an American - asked me to take pictures of him smoking weed passionately while standing in front of the grave. I overheard another American - an elderly one - saying “So I finally drank with Morrison”.

Another popular one was Chopin’s. But Chopin is not Morrison. I heard there a young wife asking her husband who Chopin was, he replied - some composer.

Marcel Proust’s was surrounded by no one. Philosophers and intellectuals are not normally celebrities, but Proust is supposedly very popular among intellectuals and very relevant now and all that, yet, no one. Another granite grave glistening in the summer sun like several hundred others.

So were the graves of n number of Generals, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Resistance leaders - people like Felix Faure whose names are immortalized by being the names of bus stops in most cities of France - were surrounded by no one. Same about the memorials for those killed by Nazis, and the French soldiers that died for Imperialism in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

But I felt that the soldiers’ who died fighting in the colonies were in an even worse state - they came from a past which any liberal country would have to accept as brutal and unjust, and hence cannot be considered heroic, and eventually have to be forgotten. No one would care about them except may be their families. Military men - however bravely and skillfully they fight and however lucky they are - run the risk of shifting from being heroic martyrs to those who must be forgotten.

As an Engineer, I have been hearing about Joseph Fourier for a long time. He was there in Physics in school, in Heat when I studied Mechanical Engineering, and everywhere in Image and Signal processing now when I am studying Computer Science. Heck, my University’s name is Universite Joseph Fourier. But since he was not there in the original official map, I had to find his grave by mere luck when I was sipping my bottle of water out of sheer exhaustion from the summer heat. It was just another petty grave, with no beauty, nothing written, nothing special, no one watching it, except random people drinking water from their bottles.

Oscar Wilde’s was most surprising. It was full of lipstick marks of kisses, heart signs in red and rave comments. Sample: “Dorian Gray made me love literature, thanks for that”. Another: “real beauty, ends where intellectual expression begins” - a quote from Dorian Gray. Like Morrison’s, there were about ten people around the grave.

The Americans left their mark here too, there’s a note from a someone saying she would be writing about visiting Wilde’s in her diary on her way back home.

What makes a tourist visit Morrison’s, Wilde’s and Chopin’s while not Proust’s and Fourier’s, and all those Presidents and Generals and Resistance heros? Morrison is a pop hero, but what about Wilde and Chopin? Chopin might have been a fluke, may be its position was conveniently near to some other famous ones or some silly reason like that, but clearly Wilde’s was being visited by people who kind of knew who he was. I left the cemetery for the nearest kebab shop, musing about what makes a person really immortal.

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