Baudelaire’s Last Words
“Jhe great events I was looking for did not meet my expectations,” wrote Alfred de Vigny, a friend of the French poet Charles Baudelaire. vain triumph of what Baudelaire called “the cult of images”.
When Baudelaire said to himself satanist, it wasn’t just for fun. The absolutist aesthetic doctrine, art for art’s sake, was all that remained. He gave himself body and soul there and died of syphilis in 1867, at the age of 46. A trunk containing his literary effects was sent to his mother. These loose leaf (“loose-leaf”) included brief ideas for books and poems, an unfinished collection of epigrams from the 1850s called “Fusées” (“Rockets”), some philosophical and autobiographical notes and some “prose poems”, My Heart Exposed (“My Heart Laid Bare”), the essay on the personal and societal catastrophe that shaped Nietzsche’s later writings, and a lengthy diatribe on the horror of Belgium.
One of Baudelaire’s editors selected and ordered “Rockets”, My Heart Exposed, and some thoughts on “Hygiene”. These were published in 1887 under the title diaries (private journals)and translated into English by Christopher Isherwood in 1930. The rest of the material in Late fragments has never appeared in English before. Belgian hardware alone makes it essential reading. It’s obnoxiously, apocalyptically funny, a Idiocracy from the 1800s.
“To successfully translate an imperfect sequence of notes and notes like the diaries is a more difficult task than all the formal prose of Baudelaire,” writes TS Eliot in his introduction to the Isherwood edition. The journals are full of repetitions and “short sentences and simple words that seem like reflective notes”, and it would take “extensive annotations” to bring out their meaning. Sieburth does a commendable job. It presents each section of Late fragments with biographical and scholarly essays, and its footnotes trace recurring themes and characters, in particular Baudelaire’s morbid admiration for Joseph de Maistre, the monarchist philosopher who pioneered the Catholic reaction against democracy and modernity. Sieburth translates “Rockets” as “Flares”. Baudelaire, who described his last poems as “a gas explosion in a glassworks”, sends phosphorescent distress signals towards the future.
“Spiritual and physical delights stirred up by storms, electricity, lightning – warning signals of all those dark and loving memories of days gone by.”
Eliot felt that despite the difficulty of piecing the fragments together, “the most important passages are also the most comprehensible”. The glory of Baudelaire’s late style is his epigrams. As with his invention of the “prose poem,” he made a virtue of his diminished abilities. But the clarity of his prose doesn’t always mean we can understand what he means. As Baudelaire said, “The style is all the more suitable as the ideas are less so”.
Some of Baudelaire’s notes are titles in search of substance: Cholera at the Opera, The Philosopher at the Carnival, and (a gift to Eliot) Ash Wednesday. Some are provocations: the blue-eyed negress, the self-cuckold or incest, and the seductive undertaker. But sometimes Baudelaire’s untangling spirit achieves a terrifying prophetic aspect. As with his syphilitic colleague and esthete Nietzsche, Baudelaire’s “symptoms of ruin” are those of Europe itself.
Ruined by his pursuit of the collapse of morals and the spirit, Baudelaire the fallen angel can no longer sustain the “vengeful impermeability” of the Dandy’s pose nor the correspondence between dream and reality. The Dandy should “live in front of the mirror” in the eyes of society, but now the Dandy sees into society and beyond: “Is my brain a witch’s mirror?” The deteriorated poet, who sees “such terrible things in my dreams that there are times when I prefer to stop sleeping altogether”, gazes into the abyss of Europe’s future: “a beautiful conspiracy for the extermination of the Jewish race”.
Who was this strange philosopher of modern madness, this poet of beauty and hate? Born in 1821, Baudelaire lost his father at age 7 and never forgave his mother for remarrying. He hated his soldier stepfather, who returned the compliment by sending the boy, first to boarding school and then to India. Baudelaire jumped ship at Réunion, returned to Paris, and began writing poems. When he came of age, he blew his inheritance on drink, drugs, clothes, and his Haitian-born mistress Jeanne Duval, the “Black Venus” who lived on rue de la Femme-sans- tête, the “rue of the headless woman. .” Appalled, his mother and stepfather retaliated by obtaining a court order giving them control of his estate. Condemned to beg for a simple bourgeois pension, he was not even a well-fed trustafar. There was no money in poetry, and anyway, Baudelaire’s “Dandy” routine forced him to squander any funds that came in.
generation of Baudelaire, wrote Anita Brookner in The genius of the future (1971), searched for meaning through nostalgia and “the search for forms of compensation”. They substituted literary stardom for military glory, aesthetic outrage for political revolt, domestic drug epic for historical purposes, occultist fantasy for church obedience, and prostitutes and idleness to bourgeois productivity. Baudelaire’s supreme compensation is his image of himself as a dandy, the essence of all that is elegant, graceful, decadent and superfluous: the antithesis of mass production modernitywhere everything has a price and a purpose.
In The evil flowers, the collection published in 1857, Baudelaire schematizes these substitutions in quasi-Catholic terms. The intoxicated soul wanders the fallen world of Missedhaunted by the desire for union with the transcendent realm of Idealexcited and tormented by matchesglimpses of the sacred in the erotic.
It could have been worse – and then it was. Addicted to opiates, Baudelaire struggles to convert the scandal of The evil flowers cash. In 1859, he moved in with his mother in Honfleur, in Normandy, not far from Flaubert, who lived with his mother in Croisset. Baudelaire rallied, returned to Paris in time to attend Wagner’s first concerts in France, then settled in Brussels in 1864. Brussels was perfect for Baudelaire. It was cheaper, it was closer to Mom and her money, and he hated it with a passion.
Baudelaire’s generation was too late for the democratic dream of the French Revolution and the military glory of Napoleon Bonaparte and too late to feel politics in romantic literature. It is surprising that Baudelaire’s later writings have not been fully translated into English until now. Too bad too: they would have lightened the lengths to wait for what comes next modernity.
Dominic Green’s latest book is The religious revolution: the birth of modern spirituality, 1848-1898.