Art, Books

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

The displays at the Musée de l”Homme in Paris are organised around these three questions from Gauguin’s famous painting. The museum has reopened this week after a six year closure and a 92 million-euro renovation. One of the key exhibits in the museum is the skull of the French philosopher René Descartes.

Descartes is considered the founder of modern philosophy. Two of his contributions are of great philosophical importance:

– His formulation of an analytic method of critical doubt which sought firm foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge (it brought him into conflict with religious authorities), and

-His work on the dualism of mind and body. (He had a curious notion that the soul is located in the pineal gland.)

Descartes died of pneumonia in Stockholm in 1650 during the coldest Swedish winter for 60 years. He had been summoned to the city by Queen Christina to give her lessons in philosophy every morning at 5am. He would rise an hour earlier and travel in freezing darkness through the snow to her castle. Just before he lost consciousness during his last illness he is recorded as saying “My soul, you have been held captive a long time. This is the time for you to leave your prison and to relinquish the burden of this body. You must suffer this rupture with joy and courage”.

Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?

After death his body was buried in the yard of Adolf Friedriks Church in central Stockholm, a place of religious ambiguity (it was a cemetery for unbaptised children). None of the Lutheran churches in the city would have him. By 1666 the French wanted their native son back as the reputation of Cartesianism was on the rise. The captain of the squad of soldiers, Isaak Planström, ordered to guard Descartes’ remains on exhumation in Stockholm, severed the skull from the rest of the skeleton before the body was prepared for sending to Paris. The French ambassador to Sweden, Hugues de Terlon, then took an opportunity to purloin the right index finger before the journey. What remained of the remains of the remains received a hero’s welcome in Paris and was interred in the vault of the Church of Sainté-Geneviève-du Mont. The Abbé of this religious settlement in the eighteenth century removed and carved some of Descartes’ bones into rings and then presented them to various “friends of the good philosophy”. In the 1790s, after the Revolution, there were several aborted attempts to place Descartes in the Panthéon. He was by now regarded now as the greatest Frenchman on account of his contribution to the advancement of human reason. But the disinterment party was astonished to find all that was left of France’s national philosopher was a small bag of bone fragments and dust.


This rationalist’s body suffered the fate of some of the holy relics of saints.

He was a wanderer in life, on account of hostility from both the Roman Church and Protestants. He changed home at least 38 times and hid and worked in Holland for many years. His original grave bore the inscription: “Bene qui latuit, bene visit” (He who hid well, lived well). An itinerant in life, he was a wandering corpse in death.

Picasso and Derain and Brancusi came to the Musée de l”Homme (in its pre-war home) to study the carved masks. African art was regarded by them as a foundation on which to construct their edifices. Picasso’s sculptures, Derain’s Dance and Brancusi’s totemic columns were some of the consequences. Picasso stole an African mask from the museum and displayed it in his room at the Bateau Lavoir.

Descartes’ skull, currently on display in the Musée de l”Homme Paris, should therefore be carefully guarded. It has to be said however that there are four rival skulls around the world that various phrenologists claim is Descartes’. The museum’s skull has inscriptions upon it in both Latin and Swedish. The whole situation falls somewhat short of Cartesian certainty.

His soul seems to be about the only thing never to have been pilfered. Except no one has seen it since it left his pineal gland.

I do have a copies of his masterpieces Discourse on Method (1637) and Meditations (1642), which will have to do.


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