Re­newed in­ter­est in Charles Baude­laire; dis­so­lute life, mag­nif­i­cent po­etry

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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