Auguste Comte’s only night with Clotilde de Vaux will be the one spent at the dying woman’s bedside, while her parents watch in the next room, furious at the philosopher’s presence. She suffocates, there is the death rattle, and at Dawn, she murmurs to him:
“You will not have had me for companion very long.”
The next day, a scene erupts between a haggard Auguste Comte and Clotilde’s parents, supported by her brother, a Comte disciple, who loses his temper with his master. Auguste Comte wants to forbid the family to enter “this sacred home”. He demands to be left alone with the dying Clotilde:
“Your sister belongs to me, to Humanity!”
He is uplifted by a mystical exaltation:
“Through me, she will be more illustrious than any other woman!”
He is ordered to leave. He falls to his knees, sobbing. The father asks him to go, giving him his word that he will call him back before it is too late. He is called on Palm Sunday. He holds the hand that is growing cold and flees without a word.
He decides that his love, which has not vanquished a living woman, will vanquish death. He resolves to immortalise her, and to impose this immortality on the whole world. He builds her a temple at the bottom of his heart. This philosopher of Reason and Progress, for whom the mind needs to empty itself of all metaphysics, conceives the crazy ambition of placing Clotilde on the altars of a new religion. In the eyes of the world, he is only a poor professor, unhappy in love, unconsolable about the death of a young woman who had accorded him nothing. But, in the domains of superior realities, there will be a love greater than life, capable of raising a little literary bourgeoise who dies of tuberculosis, to the rank of supreme figure of Humanity. Of course, for the positivist, who believes only in palpable and visible matter, the disincarnated soul of Clotilde has no objective reality. But it will have a subjective surreality: Clotilde will live eternally, upheld by a philosopher’s powerful brain, and men will worship in Clotilde, the mental construction raised by Auguste Comte to the memory of a being who is identified with the Being of the whole of Humanity.
There is something desperate, absurd, sublime and deeply touching here.
On Good Friday 1846, the year of Clotilde’s death, he organises the sanctuary and the ritual. The sanctuary: the red armchair in which she had sat, surrounded by her relics: bouquets of dried flowers, letters, gloves, handkerchief. The ritual… kneeling, acts of faith, meditations, re-lecture of the correspondance.
Morning prayer must take place from half past five to half past six, on the knees, before Clotilde’s altar. The believer begins by saying these words:
“It is better to love than to be loved. The only real thing in the world is to love.”
A special commemoration of fifteen minutes follows. Then comes a general commemoration of twenty minutes. The priest, Auguste Comte, passes in review all his souvenirs. He evokes fragments of his correspondance with Clotilde, in chronological order:
He: “My direct flight of Universal Love is accomplished with the continual stimulation of our pure attachment.”
She: “This is my life’s plan: affection and thought.”
He: “Let us love each other deeply, each in his own way, and we will still be able to be truly happy one through the other.”
She : “You are the best of men, you have been for me an incomparable friend and I am honoured as much as I am happy by your attachment.”
He: “It is therefore only to you, my Clotilde, that I will owe not leaving this life without having worthily felt the best of human nature’s emotions.”
She: “I am not beautiful, I have only a little expression”, etc.
The officiant then kneels for twenty minutes before Clotilde’s flowers, and says:
“Dead or alive, my saint, you must always remain the centre of the second life for which I am essentially in your debt. Your painful transformation from a sad existence to a glorious eternity must never alter the motto that I have had you approve: ‘Eternal love and respect’.”
There are other prayers which must be said standing, near the altar. Here are a few lines:
“Universal Love, assisted by demonstrable Faith directs pacific activity.”
“Goodbye my chaste eternal companion! Goodbye my beloved! Goodbye my cherished pupil!…”
The conclusion is pronounced kneeling, the relics once more covered. Then, in an oration, the priest venerates the three highest figures of salvational Femininity: Clotilde; her elderly mother Rosalie (who has never liked him much, and, a fervent Catholic, holds his thoughts to be heretical); and her servant, an indifferent, decent woman, whom he wants to consider as his own daughter. The three saints of his religion: a fantomatic spouse, a not very maternal mother, a servant transfigured into an adopted daughter.
There is a prayer that the officiant must say seated in his bed, then a prayer lying down. There is a prayer for the middle of the day, another which is said while kissing a lock of Clotilde’s hair. The final oration ends with these heartrending words:
“Bad people are often more in need of pity than the good.”
From then on, he lives like a priest. On 11 February 1852, he proclaims the apotheosis: the identification of Clotilde with the myth of the Virgin Mother of Humanity. He has finished one of his great works: La Politique positive, preceded by this solemn dedication:
“To the holy memory of my eternal friend, Clotilde de Vaux, who died before my eyes on 5 April 1846, at the beginning of her thirty-second year. Goodbye, my holy Clotilde, you who were for me a wife, a sister and a daughter! Your angelic inspiration will dominate all the rest of my life and preside my unending perfectionment, by purifying my sentiments, increasing my thoughts, and ennobling my behaviour. May this solemn assimilation to the whole of my existence worthily reveal your still unknown superiority! As the principal reward for the noble works which I am still to accomplish through your powerful invocation, I shall perhaps obtain that your name becomes inseparable from mine in the most distant memories of grateful Humanity.”
To be continued.