The blue-white beam of a flashlight bounces off the sarcophagi of the illustrious dead. The light stabs from side to side, probing Neoclassical niches, confirming that each tomb remains closed and that the dead are still and silent.
Rubber soles squeak against cold stone as the guard enters the last chamber nearest the stairs, marble treads that offer him a route of escape. The vestibule troubles him and he hates it. The old man’s statue sends cold chills down his spine. He feels those stone eyes staring at him, admonishing him in the darkness.
Merde, I am only a poor guard. Leave me be! The words are only in his head, but the statue seems to relent. He slips past the half-smiling figure, his light receding as he climbs the spiral stairs of stone. Darkness fills the arched chamber, darkness broken by a low chuckle. The chuckle rises to quiet laughter, fills the still air, and becomes a voice.
“Poor mortal man, he has the soul and spirit of a rabbit. His fear sees what his eyes cannot. Well, he is gone now, fled to the safety above the crypts. Jean-Jacques, mon ami, are you there?”
A second, younger voice fills the darkness.
“Of course I am here. Where else would I be? Has the guard gone?”
“Yes, he has scampered off, back to his little desk, his thermos of bad coffee, and his pornography. We are quite alone, old friend.”
The older voice trails off into a wistful sigh, quite intentional and not unnoticed by his companion.
“François-Marie, you are completely transparent. What is troubling you, my old companion?”
“I am a phantom, thus I am transparent as a matter of course. It is in my nature, or lack thereof. Ha! But jests aside, I have been experiencing the most explicit longing.”
“Of course, it is always so, remembering the wine, the salons, the theater. Ah, Paree!”
“No, no, no, you young dolt. I am not pining for the culture of old Paris, although I miss that as well. I am talking about the winsome tourist girls in their mini-skirts.”
“It is always desire with you, you old lecher. You were ever a slave to your passions, and sordid lusts they were. Well, you will just have to go on pining. This new plague of the moderns has closed the Pantheon. Quarantine and all of that. Some new form of the grippe. There will be no more tourists, only our sullen guard.”
“What a terrible pity it is. Those long, bare legs, so… visible. Did I tell you of the new trick I have taught myself? If I concentrate all of my willpower, I can purse my lips and blow a phantom breath. Using this technique, through much practice, I have managed to ruffle the hems of a few of those lovely short skirts. Oh, Jean-Jacques, those divinely naked thighs! Tell me, why were there not mini-skirts in our own times?”
“Because, François-Marie, the clergy would have had you arrested. You are an old satyr, even as a ghost. The cardinals did not share your enlightened notions on the separation of church and state. Just think what they would have done to you if you paraded down the street with a half-naked fillette. It would have been the Bastille for you, and that in the blink of an eye.”
“But what a sight it would have been, eh mon ami? I have had two long centuries to ponder my views on the Church, and my conviction is now stronger than ever. The clergy were charlatans, of course. They had no business dipping their unctuous hands into the currents of government. And these modern religious charlatans are even worse, with the loudest fanatics clamoring for the most attention.”
“You would not change your view, even if recanting brought about the return of the miniskirts?”
“No, mon ami, the separation of church and state is a given that we both agreed on all those ages ago. You and I may have disagreed over trivialities, but not fundamentals. That separation is far more important than a naked thigh or two.”
There is no reply, and the silence grows deafening. It is the older of the two shades who breaks it.
“What is it, Jean-Jacques? Have I offended you in some way?”
There comes a long sigh, theatrical and well-practiced.
“Not offended, and yet… and yet. This talk of Paris, and of our being in agreement on the fundamentals. That may have been true, but you were often unkind to me, François-Marie. You remember this, do you not?”
“Yes, yes, but that is water long gone under the bridge, my dear friend. Besides, it was always for your own good. Or, at the very least, to help me sell a pamphlet or two. Selling pamphlets was how we earned our bread, not to mention our wine.”
“Your second reason is the more believable. I am glad you admit it at long last.”
“At long last? My dear Rousseau, I have admitted my fault a thousand times at the very least, here in our shared solitude. I repeat it merely as a salve for your tender wounds. You were always easily offended, but what reason have you now? Your legacy has eclipsed my own, and put the lie to my criticisms, as you very well know.”
“Perhaps, but you called my Julie a silly book. I believe you said that I had written the first half in a brothel and the second half in an asylum.”
“I may have said that, but your little novel went on to secure a place for Romanticism in modern fiction. History has proved you right. I am remembered only for my quarrel with the Church and for Candide.”
“When the priests denounced you, I defended you, and this when I still drew living breath. One of my own circle mocked your being honored by the Théâtre-Francais and still I defended you.”
“You did, Jean-Jacques, you did, and I will never forget it. This is why we are the best of friends in this long night of death. And in the end, though you died too young, you accomplished more than I.”
“You refer to my ideas with regard to the social contract?”
“But of course, mon ami. Your work on the social contract became the basis of modern political theory.”
“Bah, for all the good it has done anyone, anywhere. These modern lunatics have destroyed the very idea of a society bound by mutual agreement.”
“Then is your theory no longer valid?”
“The concept is still valid, of course, just as much as your concept of separating church and state. A society must have an agreement if it is to function. Within the social contract, each citizen is free because they all forfeit the same number of rights and the same duties are imposed on all.”
“But this is exactly what these modern imbeciles have forgotten. They scream for their selfish individual rights without taking on the duties of a good citizen. Many do not even cast a ballot when they have the opportunity! Yet there must be a contract, binding to all and willingly entered, else there is only anarchy. You need only look to our own bloody revolution for your answer.”
“But how would we rewrite the contract today, my dear Rousseau? There are new players on the stage, forces that did not exist when you drew up your original ideas.”
“Exactly François-Marie! Who could have anticipated a new class, yes, a new monster rising from the bowels of the bourgeoisie? Corporations are becoming the new nobility, and far more predatory than the princes of old. Soulless, without social responsibility, they are a new Estate, taking the place of the moribund nobility.”
“Yes, Jean-Jacques, and this new estate is undoubtedly cast as the villain upon our stage. But I do not believe this tells the entire story. A state has no right to enslave a conquered people, as you yourself so eloquently wrote. Quite right, quite true. But what do you say to a people who enslave themselves? Is that not what we see in this present day and age? They have forfeited their duties along with their freedoms. It is as if they wish the monarchy to return.”
“Just so, I am afraid. They have forgotten the lash, the perils of enforced servitude. Perhaps a taste of Louis XVI would do them good, a bitter reminder of the folly of allowing royal rule.”
“My dear Jean-Jacques, isn’t that exactly what they are doing in the Americas? It is more than a taste, I fear. I hear the people are toying with a new monarchy.”
“Let them swallow deeply then. The sour bile will serve them well. Remember when that pitiful Louis was jailed here in this very temple? Louis the Sixteenth, as if fifteen French kings named Louis were not enough. Oh, how he whined and carped about the two of us, claiming that it was we who had destroyed France and not his own royal imbecility. Ah, that was a delicious moment, and he not knowing that we could hear his every word.”
“How could I forget that? It was an irony far beyond his meager intellect, but so wonderful. When they led him to the waiting blade, he was a king no longer. It was only Citizen Louis Capet who lost his head to the guillotine, and without a number.”
“Yes, and so monarchy fell to revolution, then revolution dissolved to an empire. And to think, François-Marie, that this pitiful little king blamed me for the French Revolution! It is preposterous.”
“I believe history gives you credit for the revolution, not blame. The Jacobins did, at any rate. But no matter, if we had lived long enough, we would both have been fodder for the Guillotine. Robespierre would have turned on us as quickly as he did all the others, and as they finally did to him.”
“But we did not live long enough, my dear Voltaire, or at least I did not. A strange fate that we two should die mere months apart.”
“All fates seem strange to me from our current vantage. Action has been removed from us. We can only watch as the moderns move ever further from your ideal state of primitivism.”
“An ideal state? Perhaps it was so once. Still, what you say is true. We are reduced to eternal observers as the living wrestle with what they have wrought. Or perhaps more with what they, in their folly, have unwrought. Our words are our legacy, and there is nothing more to be done.”
“Not nothing, mon ami! Are you forgetting that the hour for the story draws nigh?”
“Mon Dieu, our conversation drove it from my mind.”
Ghostly laughter fills the vestibule.
“Ha! You say mon Dieu to me, of all persons? You remain a jester down through the centuries. But come, we must adjourn. ’Tis the best thing about being a phantom! I believe Monsieur Dumas is reading this night.”
“Très bien, I do so love his stories. I am so very glad they saw fit to move him here to the Pantheon. Better late than never.”
“And late is what we will be if we tarry. Come, Jean-Jacques, let us away.”
Soft phantom footsteps echo in the passageway, leaving the vestibule in a stony silence. A last fragment of conversation drifts through the great circle beneath the rotunda.
“I do hope Alexandre will read from the Musketeers. It is a favorite of mine, such a thrilling tale.”
“There is always hope, my dear Rousseau, if nothing else.”