Maître Mussard’s Bequest, by Patrick Süskind

Maitre Mussard

[Spoilers]

In 1753 Maître Jean-Jacques Mussard, as he nears death, writes with extreme difficulty a testament to unknown future readers.  He had been a wealthy French jeweller who had hobnobbed with the Parisian haute monde and participated in its glittering intellectual life, friends with philosophes of the calibre of Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau, Condillac (the text calls him Dondillac), and Voltaire; the story is prefaced by a reference to him supposedly extracted from Rousseau’s Confessions.  He has reached the pinnacle of success in becoming Court Jeweller to the Duke of Orléans.

Having lost his wife and feeling jaded despite his commercial achievements, however, he decides to retire to an estate at Passy, then outside Paris.  But one day, while digging a border in his garden, he comes across a hard white stone layer in which are large quantities of petrified shells.  He experiments and finds that stone and shells consist of the same material, so that each when pulverised is identical.  He extends his excavations and finds the same not only in his garden but everywhere else he digs.  This chance event becomes an obsession as he ponders the implications of his discovery.

From these samples he intuits that the shells are everywhere, just below the surface, being nourished and expanding in number at the expense of the thin crust above.  If his theory is true, it has apocalyptic consequences for the earth, with an Age of Shells surely not far off; and not just consequences for the earth, as he is convinced that the same principle holds throughout the solar system, and perhaps the entire universe.

He concludes therefore that petrification must be the governing force of existence.  Thus while his doctors have diagnosed his aliment to be something called ‘Paralysis stomachosa’, he knows that really he is undergoing a process of petrification as a result of his discovery, the shells somehow having divined that he has uncovered – literally and metaphorically – their secret.

It’s a slim book, more a short story even than a novella, but it definitely lingers, and the mental state of M. Mussard excites compassion.  As the name-checks of his friends suggest, this was a time of enormous intellectual ferment, an exciting time to be exchanging ideas when science was developing into the discipline we recognise today.  The problem with Mussard is that he takes his theory to an extreme that tips it over the edge of plausibility, hypothesis running far beyond the evidence.

That ‘quotation’ from Rousseau suggests that he considered Mussard to be going insane, yet the rigor that sets in after death and does not pass off suggests that there is something in Mussard’s ideas.  And while ‘the power of the Shell’ sounds risible, the accelerating degradation of the ecosystem in our own day means that Mussard’s pessimism for the continuation of life on the earth’s fragile skin is still relevant, even if it is caused not by shells under our feet but by our own folly.

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