Malraux's Mission

Malraux's Mission

Herman Lebovics

Official symposia and ceremonies marked France’s “Malraux autumn” last year. But they were not the end of interest in the writer who became his nation’s first minister of cultural affairs. His vision of the unifying power of national culture grows even more pertinent, to France and to other nations, in these contentious times.

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On November 23, 1996, amid elaborate and solemn ceremony, the remains of the writer, freedom fighter, and statesman André Malraux were transferred--translated is the medievally correct term--from the Verrieres cemetery outside Paris to France's highest place of honor, the Pantheon. President Jacques Chirac spoke on the occasion, though not so movingly as Malraux had himself in 1964, when, as minister of cultural affairs, he presided over the same rite for the Resistance hero Jean Moulin.

The tradition of translating the remains of France's secular heroes to the Pantheon (exclusively a men's club, until Marie Curie's recent arrival) extends to the rise of the First Republic in 1791. But even before that, the domed church that Louis XV built at the highest point in Paris's Latin Quarter, on the site of an even older abbey church, provided earthly shelter for the remains of Saint Genevieve and an assortment of sacred relics. These were unceremoniously tossed out in 1791, when the structure was given its classical Roman name, but scenes from the saint's life adorning the interior walls and a cross at the top of the dome suggest a religious legacy that three secularizing republics have been unable entirely to erase. 

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