The Heart of Voltaire

A quest through the streets of Paris to find the heart of Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire.

voltaire-statue.jpgTrue to the Coeur

Walking along the River Seine, it’s easy to get sucked into the Parisian quality of life—the used booksellers, the whizzing rollerbladers, the naked gay sunbathers. People sit in brassieres, enjoying a traditional breakfast of coffee and 37 cigarettes. French joie de vivre is nice and all, but I’m on the trail of something else—the heart of Voltaire.

I’ve just discovered that after the death of France’s foremost social critic, Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, his heart was removed from his body, and since 1864 it’s sat in the national library. The blackest of hearts, on public display—how cool is that? Wouldn’t you want to see it?

So who was Voltaire? Well, he was a great ironic wit, but the targets of his ridicule, the government and the church, didn’t think he was very funny, and made sure he was imprisoned twice in the Bastille. Paris eventually gave him a hero’s welcome just before his death in 1778. His last words, upon seeing a burning candle, were supposedly: “What, already in hell?” But Paris wasn’t done with him yet. In 1814, right-wing religious zealots broke into his tomb and stole his bones, then dumped them in a pit and covered them with lime. That’s when writing actually made a difference. Hard to see that happening with that lady who cranks out the Harry Potter books.

Besides his writings, Voltaire?s legacy includes a museum, boulevard, and Metro stop in Paris, a bookstore in Austin, Texas, the annoying 80s band Cabaret Voltaire, and a town in North Dakota named Voltaire (pop. 63). We can also thank him for the classic phrase: “If God did not exist, he would have to be invented.”

I wish someone had invented signs pointing to the Bibliot’e nationale, because the scenery is getting more and more unfamiliar. The Notre Dame Cathedral, with its crazy growling-weasel gargoyles, then cafes, industrial buildings, and now workmen in green chartreuse vests, tearing up an empty lot. I step over pools of standing water. A train roars overhead. After asking directions twice, I finally come upon the four glass towers of the Bibliot’e.
Inside the sparse main lobby, my companion, a voluptuous redhead who speaks remedial French, asks a clerk if we can see “la coeur de Voltaire” (the heart of Voltaire). The woman looks sickened, but an older clerk overhears the conversation, and explains flatly that we’re in the wrong library. This is the newer Fran’s-Mitterrand branch. We want the original Bibliot’e nationale, and that’s back across the river in the middle of the city. Ah, of course.

I walk through the same streets once strolled by Voltaire. Except now they’re filled with beeping taxis, tiny electric “smart” cars, necking couples, scruffy dogs. Did Voltaire have a dog? Was it as mangy as these mutts? What happened to the poodles?

The food and wine are magnificent at Chez Paul in the Bastille district—looking at my artery-clogging plate of escargot and foie gras, it’s amazing that the French don?t just die off from mass angina—but I can’t get the heart out of my mind. In the 17th century it was a common tribute to remove the heart of a great person, from Keats to Byron and Chopin. The brains of Stalin and Einstein have also been saved. But does Voltaire belong in this organ-removal club? That?s like the Smithsonian displaying the pancreas of Lenny Bruce.

After dinner, we waddle around the Marais, and end up in a bar/bookstore called La Belle Hortense. The place is smoky and packed with locals and ex-patriates: painters, a gallery owner, filmmakers, a psychologist. Everyone knows about Voltaire, of course. But not one person has heard about his heart. This is what journalists call a “scoop.”

The next morning, I approach the stone-grey Bibliot’e nationale (the right one, this time). A security guard doesn’t even blink when asked, as though the Voltaire Heart Tour Bus had just left an hour before, and points across a cobblestone courtyard to an information desk. We ask the clerk, who puts his hand on his chest, and sighs: “Ah oui, la coeur.” At last!

I imagine what it must look like. A 200-year-old shriveled black truffle, lying on folds of crushed green velvet. And now he’s telling us it’s—closed to the public? He gestures out the courtyard to a windowed wall.

No! I think. I’ve tromped your entire city to find this thing. I’ve dodged curb-hopping scooter freaks, overdosed on beautiful architecture, eaten snails. I’m not leaving Paris without the heart. I storm across the courtyard and peer in the windows. The elegant room sits empty except for a table and chairs, two stone busts of young Voltaire, and a statue of a balding old Voltaire, sitting in a chair with a sly smirk on his face. But no heart.

A smiling man polishing a black Renault in the courtyard asks what’s going on. My companion explains our mission. The man jabs at the statue and says that the heart is there, inside the base. He whips out some keys and ushers us into the sanctum de Voltaire. We take pictures, and I touch the statue, trembling. The blackest heart in France, inches from my fingers. Sounds crazy, but this was worth missing the Louvre.

(A version of this first appeared in Travelocity magazine)