Last Friday night, I went along with a friend to a cello recital in the Marais, an arty area of Paris. We missed the right door three times in the dark, but finally found our way upstairs, through an ordinary old apartment building complete with post boxes, lights on a timer, little old ladies and exhortations to keep the door shut, to the last remaining temple in Europe of Comte’s humanist religion, the Chapel of Humanity.
Of course we didn’t know that at the time. We just knew that we had finally found 5, rue Payenne, there was no heating, and the cellist had been involved in a traffic accident on the wrong side of the Peripherique. So we sat down with about six others to wait and see if he’d show.
The chapel could have seated about thirty people and had a Madonna and Child at the front, and a series of paintings of what seemed to be saints on each wall. It was too decorated for a Quaker meeting room, but too downright odd (to me) to be anything Christian. And, I thought, if it was a Masonic temple they’d have never let us in. On closer inspection, I saw the Madonna wasn’t enclosed by any walled gardens testifying to her virginity, and the ‘saints’ included Shakespeare, Descartes, Gutenberg, Heloise, Aristotle, Archimedes, Homer and Dante. The statue of Comte and the inscription that he had been inspired by Clotilde de Vaux was the final proof. The chapel was a place of positivist worship.
I’d read about Comte’s nutty-sounding invented religion, with its prayers, sacraments, and priesthood all based on Catholic ritals on the grounds that while rational people might worship sweet reason, no one knows how to put on a show like us Papists. I’d also heard that the only place the religion of humanity had really taken off was in Brazil, where there are said to be several thousand adherents still practising today. But what really surprised me was that this chapel didn’t date from Comte’s time (he died in the mid-nineteenth century) but was built by Brazilians in 1880 to honour their founder/prophet. And it’s in the actual house where Comte’s beloved Clotilde had lived.
The only really odd thing about the place was how old-fashioned it all seemed. I’d have thought that positivism might seem really scientific and go-ahead as religions go. But the words inscribed over the altar were ‘famille, patrie, humanite’; family, homeland, humanity. Comte seemed to have taken more from traditional religion than just the trappings. Then again, it’s probably anachronistic of me to associate individualism and all its freedoms with Comte’s brand of positivism.
The chapel is nothing really special on the face of it, and the paintings themselves aren’t nearly the best of their kind. But I think the place is worth a visit for more than its status as a unique little oddity. There’s something melancholy about it – perhaps partly because of the sad and unfulfilled lives Comte and Clotilde led. But there’s also something spunky and unbowed about it that’s hard to put my finger on. One of the mottoes on the wall says ‘Connais toi pour t’ameliorer.’ (‘Know yourself to improve yourself.’), which seems like a good start to me. I’m sure that, as with certain other religions, besides the funny dresses and the silly walks, there are a few gems of truth to be uncovered. Anyway, La Chapelle de l’Humanite (Maison de Clotilde de Vaux / Centre culturel franco-bresilien) is to be found at 5, rue Payenne, 75003 Paris, and visitors are allowed from 3pm to 6pm each day except Mondays.
The cellist did eventually show, no obviously worse for the wear, and played an absolute cracker.