Michael Dirda, in praise of Charles Baudelaire

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In his recent superb essay on the paintings of Philip Guston – with justly scathing comments on their cautious and unenthusiastic display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts – my colleague Sebastian Smee observed how often 20th-century artists were drawn to “fragments, rubble and ruin”. .” More broadly, numerous incomplete forms—the preliminary sketch, the outline, the abandoned draft, the catch-all notebook—seem to offer an entry into the true nature of the artist, guaranteeing him (perhaps artificially) sincerity and authenticity. Lacking in finish and sophistication, such works expose what Yeats memorably called “the dastardly store of rags and bones of the heart.”

This frantic, sometimes shocking opening explains in part the appeal of “Charles Baudelaire: Late Fragments”, as translator Richard Sieburth titles this beautiful new book. Not only does it reprint the scribbles, random observations, inventories and disjecta membra of France’s second greatest poet – the greatest being, as André Gide remarked, “Victor Hugo, alas” – all this incomplete material is put into context by Sieburth’s scholarly and elegantly written handwriting. remark. He is the perfect guide to these “fractured, almost Cubist shards of a self-portrait, presented in notations that often barely rise to the level of completed sentences”.

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Sieburth, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at New York Universitylimits its attention to the last six years of Baudelaire’s short life, beginning in 1861 when the former dandy and Parisian stroller ditched the highly polished, tightly controlled verse of “Les Fleurs du Mal” (“Flowers of Evil”) for wild, half-mad journaling. At 40, Baudelaire was a shadow of his former self, crushed by irrecoverable debts, suffering the aftermath of a seemingly minor stroke, and facing the onset of syphilitic debility. In 1866, he even had trouble standing. “Repeated dizziness and vomiting for three days,” he noted. “I was forced to lie on my back…because even crouched on the ground, I kept falling, head first.” He maintained himself on a diet of opium, digitalis, belladonna and brandy.

He also draws up lists – recourse of the procrastinator – of dreamlike projects that he will never begin (including a translation of “Satyricon” by Petronius), describes the dark nights of the soul or records the grotesques of life in Belgium, where he had rented room 39 in Brussels. Grand Mirror Hotel. Somehow Baudelaire managed to snatch up a handful of late prose poems, the best-known of which, titled “Anywhere Out of the World”, begins abruptly: “Life is a hospital where every patient is driven by the desire to change beds.”

Such as thought is part of the French moralist tradition of Montaigne, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, but Baudelaire always considered Edgar Allan Poe, whom he translated, as his spiritual brother. Thus, the most famous section of his diaries is labeled My heart laid bare — “My heart laid bare.” The expression derives directly from Poe’s “Marginalia”:

“If an ambitious man takes it into his head to revolutionize, with a single effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human feeling…all he has to do is write and publish a very small book. Its title should be simple – a few clear words – “My heart laid bare”. “But – This little book should live up to its title… But to write it – the is the catch. No one dares to write it. No man will ever dare to write it. Nobody could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and flame with each touch of the fiery pen.

Taking up Poe’s challenge, Baudelaire’s notes are frankly honest, usually provocative, often ugly and misogynistic. Whippings alternate with self-help cliches. He practically displays his divided soul, torn between sin and redemption. Here is a sample of his brief observations:

“The Dandy must constantly aspire to the sublime; he should live and sleep in front of a mirror.

“The act of love is very much like torture or surgery.”

“I say that the only end and the supreme pleasure of making love is the certainty that we make evil. “And man and woman know from birth that it is in evil that all sensual pleasure resides.

“I cultivated my hysteria with joy and terror. Now I am continually dizzy, and today, January 23, 1862, I was given a special warning: I felt the wing wind of imbecility pass over me.

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Baudelaire closes “My Heart Exposed” with a vision of the end of the world, caused by “the degradation of the human heart”, an “assault of generalized animality” and governments preserving their power by “methods that would make one shudder people today”. .” Since Antiquity, poets have also been seers.

In “Belgium Disrobed”, the second half of “Late Fragments”, Baudelaire – self-exiled in Brussels – collects hundreds of acid observations about the inhabitants of this country, whom he regularly compares to monkeys and molluscs. As wild as Swift or Céline, somewhat reminiscent of Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Ideas”, these dazzling pages accuse a bourgeois culture of selfishness and mediocrity. “A Belgian never gives way to a woman on a sidewalk.” Given the overall tone of pure disgust, it’s no wonder that a sick and insane Baudelaire concludes, “Shall we say the world has become uninhabitable for me?

In March 1866 he suffered a second stroke, which soon led to partial paralysis and aphasia. After his mother took him back to France, Baudelaire endured a final year virtually unable to speak, dying at age 46 in 1867. In Brussels, nuns had his former hospital room exorcised.

A final note: If you’ve never read this great poet, the first to record the shocks and horrors of metropolitan civilisation, pick up a copy of “Les Fleurs du Mal”. There are many translations, including a very recent one by Aaron Poochigian, but I remain particularly fond of the National Book Award-winning version by Richard Howard, who died in March. I once opened an essay on its translation with a phrase that also matches Sieburth’s “Late Fragments”: “No one surpasses Baudelaire in the description of spiritual desolation.”

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

Flares, my heart laid bare, prose poems, Belgium undressed

Translated by Richard Sieburth

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