For the past few years, professor Sean D. Kelly, chair of Harvard’s Philosophy Department, has been searching for a copy of Blaise Pascal’s death mask that just might be lost in Harvard’s collection. After little success, he recently offered an automatic A to any student in his “Existentialism in Literature and Film” class who can find the mask.
When French mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal passed away in 1662 at the age of 39, a death mask was quickly made. “Within hours of his dying people came in and covered his face with plaster,” explains Professor Kelly. “They set an impression and made copies of it.”
Kelly first encountered this mystery while reading the letters of William James, whose works draw heavily on Pascal’s oeuvre. According to Kelly, James wrote a letter to his friend and fellow philosopher Émile Boutroux, “asking Boutroux—literally a few months before James dies—to send him this copy of the death mask of Pascal that he had purchased while in France.”
“And so, presumably, Boutroux did,” Kelly goes on, “because I then discovered that in the minutes of the Harvard University Corporation from March 1911 it’s announced that a gift was reported from the estate of William James—a death mask of Blaise Pascal—to the library of Philosophy in Emerson Hall.”
Things were coming together. Kelly went to the library and eagerly asked for the mask, but was told it couldn’t be found. He went to the Houghton Library—where an exhibition of James’s works had been held in 2010 (the centenary of his death)—and spoke to an archivist, but got a similar response.
He says he was told there was no record of the mask. “And so it seemed a mystery, a puzzle, and I wanted this death mask!” Kelly exclaims. “I wanted to take it before my class and say ‘This is the guy that we’re studying! And this mask has a relationship to our University!’”
Only slightly disillusioned, Kelly returned to the Robbins Library in Emerson Hall and spoke to its librarian, Eric Johnson-Debaufre. “He did some more searching, and he discovered that our records show that it was in the collection of our library until the 1980s or so,” Kelly says. “And then, at a certain point, it shows up as ‘missing from the collection.’”
Johnson-DeBaufre provides a slightly different timeline: “Actually, it was in our possession until 1915, at which point it was taken over by the Fogg [Museum] even though it was still ours, and then their records say that it’s recorded as missing after 1991.”
Regardless of the precise date, the mask had mysteriously disappeared. Bemused, Kelly ran through a list of missing objects provided by Johnson-DeBaufre, and noticed something strange. “I had just seen one of [the items] in our department office,” he laughs. “For 35 years it’s been listed as missing, but I happen to know that it was sitting on top of the filing cabinet—it’s just been there. I mean, nobody knew what to do with it.”
At this point the search took a decidedly mundane turn. Kelly began to speculate: “I thought, well, maybe the death mask is somewhere like that too, it’s in somebody’s filing cabinet—who knows? There have been renovations to the building, so maybe its behind some paneling, or—I don’t know.”
In his continued search for the mask, Kelly has only unearthed an extension of this nebulous history. Faced with a myriad of obstacles, and unsure of how to proceed, Kelly made the aforementioned offer to any student who can find the mask. But is this offer just a joke, considering the near impossibility of the task?
“Oh gosh, no!” Kelly laughs. “I mean, I think it’s hard, but I would love for it to happen.” He continues: “I certainly don’t know that it can’t happen—I still look once in a while, though I looked pretty hard and I couldn’t find it.”