Thursday, 26 March 2009

Positivist Discrimination

Paris is made up of approximately 6200 places that are labelled by the city council, including streets, squares, passages, courtyards, bridges and swimming pools. The majority of these have been given the name of a prominent personality, but until recently only around 3% were named after women. In the period since 2001 it has been a deliberate policy to increase this percentage, with 53 out of a total of 171 new namings taking the patronym of a woman, but this is an inequlity that will long remain written large in the city.

Stand in front of the Pantheon and you will see the following inscription on the facade; “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE”. Inside, amongst the great men such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Emile Zola, lays just one woman; Marie Curie. The French state has indeed often recognised the contribution made by the great men of history, but what about the women? It was a question I asked myself when I stumbled across the tiny Rue Clotilde de Vaux.

The street is little more than a small square, a passageway and staircase that sees only pedestrians pass through on their way between the Boulevard Beaumarchais and the Rue Amélot. They may notice the street name or the statue placed on a bust in the garden, but do they know who this lady was? As I stood and took photos I can confess that the name and face meant nothing to me.

What had this lady achieved to be deemed worthy of the rare privilege of having a street in her name? Almost inevitably my trail of discovery into this character slowly led me towards a more well-known male figure. De Vaux is not famous for anything in particular she did or created in her own right, but is remembered more as a sufferer and an inspiration, a tragic character who led a man towards his destination. It seems that many females in the city are only celebrated if they are angel, madonna or muse.


A painting of Clotilde de Vaux which hangs on the wall of the Auguste Comte museum. The sculpture in the Rue Clotilde de Vaux seems to be based on this image.

Born Clotilde-Marie de Ficquelmont on the 3rd of April 1815, De Vaux has been condemned to be known throughout history by the name of her feckless husband. She married Amédée de Vaux, an adventurer when she turned 20, but after he was declared bankrupt following a series of gambling debts, he escaped to Belgium and left her alone and broke. As a divorce could not be declared, she was not able to remarry and thus was condemned to live as a spinster with no income. Her uncle gave her a pension which was just enough to pay for somewhere to live, whilst meals were mostly taken with her brother in his appartment.

She filled her days reading and writing, having several stories and poems published in magazines, but it was to be a meeting with her brother’s professor in October 1844 that would change two destinies. Auguste Comte was the teacher, a man who was working on a monumental thesis but was somewhat lacking in direction. The initial meeting was electric and the married Comte fell instantly in love. De Vaux rejected his approaches but a friendship developed and the two became regular correspondants.

Auguste Comte

The relationship lasted for just over a year until de Vaux’s untimely death from tuberculosis only two days after her 31st birthday in 1846. Over the year, Comte’s feelings became close to an obsession and each meeting and word from de Vaux took on almost a religious significance. De Vaux herself was a practising Catholic whilst Comte was a scientific athiest. He saw de Vaux as his moral superior and began to infuse his theories of the human condition with a more religious flavour. He concluded that cults and celebrations are indispensable for mankind although he still leaned away from Catholicism and the traditional church.

Comte’s initial theories were a kind of early Sociology. Indeed, he is credited as being the first person to use and describe the term. He studied the conditions of man in society and how he could develop, believing that science was the ultimate answer, with sociology being the most important science of all. After de Vaux’s death, he transformed this scientific positivism into a form of natural athiestic religion. This religious positivism described the principles by which the human society should organise itself, namely according to three notions; altruism, order and progress. Although Comte’s cult is almost dead today, the last two terms survive on the Brazlian flag, a fact which is not surprising as it was in this country that the theories of Comte were most popular.


The Chapelle de l'Humanite in Rue Payenne, featuring a bust of Comte and Brazilian and French flags.

The connection with Brazil continued in a bizarre manner after Comte’s death. His cult had been moderately successful and in 1903 a group of followers in Brazil wanted Comte’s creation to be recognised and celebrated in his homeland. They believed that the ideal place for a chapel would be in the house where Clotilde de Vaux had lived and died, but for some reason they bought the wrong house. The chapel still exists today, the only Positivist temple remaining in Western Europe, at 5 Rue Payenne, whereas Clotilde de Vaux had lived at number 7 (today demolished and rebuilt).

A museum also exists which celebrates the life of Auguste Comte and is situated in his old home at 10 Rue Monsieur Le Prince in the 6th Arrondissement. The museum is curiously only open for 3 hours a week, on Wednesdays between 2 and 5, but admission is free. There is also a statue of Auguste Comte in front of the Sorbonne, something which caused controversy recently when a Minister of Education tried to have it removed. Finally it was only moved 90°, something that Comte himself had done after meeting Clotilde de Vaux.

Note: Both Clotilde de Vaux and Auguste Comte are buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. If you visit their tombs you may notice messages from Brazil. Comte still has followers there whilst de Vaux was revered as the spiritual mother of the religion (it is probably also her face which is featured on the alter in the Positivist chapel in the Rue Payenne).

8 comments:

Nathalie said...

Mmmm, what would have happened to Clotilde had she lived longer I wonder.

I'm glad Comte brought some excitement to her very bare life but according to your image he didn't seem that physically attractive so I can't blame her for not falling for him.
Amazing that she can still be remembered as a motherly figure in Brasil.

Nathalie said...

And a belated thumbs up for your previous post about the wall painting and sculpture tree. It made you angry? I would have had the same reaction I think. Contemporary art does that sometimes, doesn't it? It isn't art at all.

Cergie said...

Cette question des femmes au Panthéon, je l'ai abordée chez Peter ; ensuite je lui avais envoyé un lien que je ne retrouve plus. En voici un autre des plus sérieux :

Journal officiel

Il me semble que Sophie Berthelot est morte dans la foulée de son mari.
J'avais noté que s'il y avait peu de femmes au Panthéon, il y en avait toutefois une (c'était avant l'entrée de Marie Curie)

Bien des femmes on eut un rôle prépondérant. Il a été méconnu.
L'épouse d'Einstein par exemple, cela a été reconnu, dans la découverte de sa théorie de la relativité.
Dans le domaine de l'écriture, Colette a tout d'abord tout simplement dû signer du seul nom de son mari, Willy, qui s'est approprié son oeuvre sans vergogne.
George Sand a eu un peu le même parcours adoptant le pseudo J.Sand à cause de son amant Jules Sandeau.

Gina V said...

Rue Payenne is one of my hang-out streets! I love the little park [Square Georges Cain] across from the Centre Culturel Suedois [now renamed Institut Suedois] where I take lunch sometimes. [I recently wrote about the adjacent Square Léopold Achille on my Parigigi site.] But great to know more about the lovely Clothilde!
I have been researching the early feminist-anarchist-socialist-activist Nathalie Lemel [1826-1921] who recently has a place named after her in front of the Carreau du Temple [at rue Dupetit-Thouars and rue de la Corderie]...I will write about her soon along with my other favourite rebel queen Radegonde!

Peter said...

Sincere thanks for this post where I got answer to two questions. I had also noted the statue on the Boulevards, but neglected to make further research. The same for the building, neighbour to l'Institut Suédois (which I visit occasionally).

I remember Cergie's intervention when I made a post about the Pantheon. Actually, there is a second women there, Sophie Berthelot, but not in her "own right", just to accompany her husband (Marcellin Berthelot).

Unfortunatley, what we see at the Pantheon only reflects what the society is, especially has been!

Starman said...

Another in-depth exposé, merci monsieur.

margaret said...

Thank you for another thoroughly fascinating post. Poor Clotilde, what a hand she was dealt ... her story is just so "19th century". It would be interesting to see what kind of response you'd get if you asked Paris residents what they know about Clotilde de Vaux.

math said...

Thank you. You just inspired me to visit that church, although I am not religious or comtean.

M.

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