Renewed interest in Charles Baudelaire; dissolute life, magnificent poetry
What’s going on here? Why the sudden interest in Charles Baudelaire, a 19th-century French poet? Evidence of this fascination abounds. A 14-year-old kid goes to a reading of Baudelaire translations and starts memorizing them. The bestselling Lemony Snicket novels star “the Baudelaire orphans;” French-milled soaps, chic knitted socks,arecordlabel,at-shirtlineand at least two hotels are also named after the eponymous Frenchman.
And,ifyoucanbelieveit,Googleby a recent count had more items on Baudelaire than on Allen Ginsberg, RobertFrostandT.S.Eliotcombined. (Well, who would want Allen Ginsberg soap or a story about the “T. S. Eliot Orphans?”)
Nowcomes“TheWriterofModern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire,” edited by Princeton University professor Michael Jennings, and based onthewritingsofWalterBenjamin,a longdeadGermangenius.Benjamin dissects the author of “Les Fleurs du Mal” (“The Flowers of Evil”) with a Marxistscalpel,amongotherunusual literary procedures.
Whyisallthishappening?Maybe because in a unique way we fearful and confused souls recognize that Baudelaire’s mordant and yet often exquisitely beautiful poetry and screwed-up life are a kind of mirror noir of our own teetering times. The sameviolentdeaths,politicaltreacheries, religious confrontations — and yet brief Roman candle bursts of loveliness are there.
OrmaybeBaudelaire,notevenincludedinmostAmericanstandardliterature books, is a stealth fisherman whohashookedmoreandmoreofus ashehasMr.JenningsandBenjamin (and me). And watch out! It could happen to you.
For Baudelaire’s poems are dark jewels,magical,capableofchanging one’s life much as psychotherapy can. I challenge you who have read this far to thoughtfully parse “The Voyage” (“Le Voyage”) with its profound words about love, death and God. By understanding what you haveread,youhonornotjustBaudelaire’s disturbing truths, but your own perceptiveness.
Fromtheengulfingmudslideofhis life spring disciplined horrors and glories like diabolical flowers. They displaybyturnsandsometimesinthe samepoem:JesusandSatanism,conventionalmoralityandgrossiniquity, vileness and purity.
Benjamin writes acutely that Baudelaire lacked the humanitarian idealism of Victor Hugo, the emo- tional buoyancy of Musset, the pleasureofhistimesofGautier,therefuge indevotionsofVerlaineandtheyouthful vigor of Rimbaud. But for all this, Benjamin saw in Baudelaire a tragic magnificence that sets him above all of these great poets.
HepointstoBaudelaire’syearning to be like a ship gently rocking in a harbor,andyethisfeelingthatinstead he was an Icarus who falls from the sky when his wings, secured by wax, meltbecausehehasflowntoonearthe sun.Hecompareshimtothealbatross describedinoneofBaudelaire’smost famous poems who is brought down to the deck of a ship and drags his great wings there while vicious and stupid sailors torment him.
Baudelaire’s numerous biographers and critics have called him “a modern Dante” rivaled since the Greeks only by Shakespeare and Goethe — a fanatic, a failure, a triumphant success.
It is not just his poetry but his weird existence that possesses us. Shakespeare’slifeislargelyunknown; Eliot’s is as pedestrian as his poetry is brilliant. But Baudelaire, one of whose major prose works is entitled “My Heart Laid Bare,” and his contemporariesbothleftbehindvoluminous evidence of his self-destructive eccentricities and contradictions.
Born and raised in a prosperous middle-classfamily,weseehimlater, as Benjamin describes him: a volunteer in the French revolution of 1848 “brandishing a rifle . . . and shouting ‘downwithGeneralAupick,’”hisstepfatherwhomheloathed.Thegeneral hadsenttheyoungpoetofftoCalcutta. InsteadhedecampedatMauritiusin the Indian Ocean and came home.
Again in Paris, he misspent his inheritance on dandyish clothes, absinthe, opium and hashish for poet friends and on his whorish mistress whobetrayedhimevenashetriedto nurseherbackfromherparalyticattacks.Inanothermode,weseehimas the admired companion of France’s most esteemed literary and artistic figures (and the despair of many of them).
Plagued with debts, he fled France to Belgium which he came to scorn and hate along with almost everything else but his own perfect poetry. He returned to Paris to die of aphasia brought on by a venereal disease he had contracted in his mid-teens. At the end, he couldn’t even say his own name, although somecontendhecouldstillmurmur “merde.” Just barely he did understand that his greatness was being widely recognized at last.
Benjamin throughout has extraordinary insights into all this but theyaresqueezedbetweendetailsof economics, politics and buildings in 19th-century Paris. And editor MichaelJennings’commentaryisso worshipfultowardBenjaminastobe tedious.
That said, there remains a poignantirony.Aspointedoutabove, BaudelairefledtoBelgiumbeforehe was returned to a Parisian nursing home. Benjamin, a Jew, also fled: acrosstheVichyFranceborderwith Spain in 1940. But fearing he would be returned to Nazi Germany, he overdosed on morphine, probably a suicide.Hewastwoyearsolderthan Baudelaire and was working on a book about him at the time of his death.
Leslie H. Whitten Jr., author of “The Rebel: Poems by Charles Baudelaire — American Versions,” is a Washington, D.C. writer.