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.
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.
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.
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).