In Baudelaire’s Dream Brothel

La Folie Baudelaire

by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 337 pp., $35.00
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Édouard Manet: Olympia, 1863–1865

Il faut être absolument moderne,” wrote Rimbaud, but for Baudelaire, his immediate predecessor in the dissenting chair of French poetry, the matter was considerably more fraught. Roberto Calasso remarks that he “abhorred the new that the world was throwing up in abundance all around him, yet the new was both the host and demon indispensable to what he wrote.” After all, “the modern was everything Baudelaire had come across.”

Jules Laforgue, another of his heirs, drew up an impressive list of his firsts:

He was the first to tell his tale in the moderate tones of the confessional and without assuming an inspired air…. The first to speak of Paris like an everyday damned soul of the capital…. The first who was not triumphant but accused himself…. He was the first to break with the public….

In his notes Laforgue listed Baudelaire’s attributes: “cat, Hindu, Yankee, Episcopal alchemist”—“Yankee” to mean “excessive.” And yet, Calasso points out, “All his poetry seems translated from Latin. Or sometimes a variation on a draft by Racine.”

The “folly” that gives Calasso’s book its title is a double-edged image derived from the double-edged and rather reptilian Sainte-Beuve:

M. Baudelaire has found a way to construct, at the extremities of a strip of land held to be uninhabitable and beyond the confines of known Romanticism, a bizarre pavilion, a folly, highly decorated, highly tormented, but graceful and mysterious….

Its denizens read Poe, “recite exquisite sonnets,” ingest hashish and opium, and so on. “The author is content to have done something impossible, in a place where it was thought that no one could go.” Sainte-Beuve was a master at undermining praise in the very act of dispensing it. His lyrical description of the folly—“its marquetry inlays, of a planned and composite originality”—was actually intended to blackball Baudelaire from being nominated to the Académie Française; needless to say, it worked.

Calasso finds Sainte-Beuve’s conceit oddly prefigured in a dream Baudelaire recounted to his friend and eventual biographer Charles Asselineau. In the dream the poet finds himself going to offer a copy of his book to “the madam of a great house of prostitution” and, by the way, get laid. After experiencing a number of typical dream-humiliations (his penis is hanging out of his pants; he is barefoot, or has on only one shoe), he notices “immense galleries” in which, among “obscene,” architectural, and Egyptian figures, he sees a series of small frames containing pictures of

colorful birds with the most brilliant plumage, birds with lively eyes. At times, there are only halves of birds. Sometimes they portray images of bizarre, monstrous, almost amorphous beings, like so many aerolites. In the corner of each drawing there is a note. The girl such and such, aged…brought forth this fetus in the year such and such….

Baudelaire speculates that this combination of a…

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