Baudelaire as a Literary Critic
The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays
While writing his classic criticism of the tyranny of the majority and the disappearance of genius in America, Tocqueville nevertheless went out of his way in 1830 to compose a lyric passage about “how the Americans inject a kind of heroism into their way of engaging in commerce.” Baudelaire hated the creed of progress and the commercial spirit of his age with a deep-seated spleen that Tocqueville never tasted. Yet in his first published articles fifteen years later, Baudelaire declares his faith in “the heroism of modern life.” Did that sprawling century of materialism really achieve anything akin to heroism? Tocqueville meant the energy and resourcefulness of Atlantic coast merchants; Baudelaire meant the elegance, crime, and vice of Parisian boulevardiers and voyous. By the time he died he had become the first major French poet since Villon to have discovered the secret of attracting by repelling. But Baudelaire the critic concerns us here, in whom it is still surprising to run across terms like “americanize” and “magic realism” carrying the very meanings we know today. I shall have to come back to the matter of heroism.
Clean-shaven in a century of hirsutes, Baudelaire made his debut as an art critic, added to his fame as a translator, and earned his reputation as a poet only in his mid-thirties. Today the ruling position of his poetry at the source of modern sensibility interferes with his importance as a critic. An excellent book in English on his criticism published twenty years ago by Margaret Gilman provoked more mutterings about his impressionistic method and lack of formal analysis than about the nature and scope of his achievement. The French have been equally reluctant. To some extent the standard text-book version of Baudelaire’s thought makes it difficult to reach his criticism. All too frequently his ideas are reduced to a semi-diabolic catholicism redeemed by the doctrine of correspondences, the latter conveniently set down in a famous sonnet of the same name. Because of his classic prosody and “evil” themes, one can easily miss the essential value of modernity in Baudelaire’s verse. And his bold use of analogy that detects connections everywhere obscures the rigor with which he dissociates certain ideas like Beauty, Truth, and Good, or Art and Morality. The prose helps correct our vision, and Baudelaire is simply too good a critic to lose sight of. His leaps and balks show us a mind able to generate real excitement in performance.
Except in the two superb essays on Poe, and in a few minor pieces, he was not primarily a literary critic. Yet his work remains consistently one, and every significant text on the arts (On the Essence of Laughter, The Salon of 1859, The Painter of Modern Life, Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris, and The Life and Work of Eugène Delacroix) devotes considerable space to literature and develops ideas as pertinent to literature as to art. Any Baudelaire scholar worth his salt has insisted on the unity of Baudelaire’s critical writings; yet publishers and editors have consistently tried to saw them apart into literary and art criticism in order to serve them up in conveniently sized volumes. We are dealing with a critic who followed no rigid system, who evolved enough in the fifteen years of his career to have contradicted himself often, and who conceived his task as that of describing his experience of a work of art and transforming the experience into knowledge—knowledge of that work, of art in general, of himself, of life. “Je résolus de m’ informer du pourquoi, et de transformer ma volupté en connaissance,” he states in the essay on Wagner. “To be just, that is to be justifiable, criticism should be biased, impassioned, partisan….”
We often hear that the point of view Baudelaire strove to defend with this partisan spirit was Art for Art’s Sake, and it is true that, even though he scoffed at the expression, he insisted that art embodies its own justification and cannot be subordinated to moral teaching. The disturbing doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake still stands in need of long stirring and shaking before we have adopted it to our era. But two other observations tell us just as much about Baudelaire’s critical practice. First, “All great poets naturally and fatally become critics.” That is to say, a poet’s criticism springs from the poet’s sensibility, not from some other faculty popping out from behind to snipe at his competitors. Second, he wrote almost exclusively about contemporary artists and took chances where fellow critics like Sainte-Beuve trod softly. Though he never comes to grips with Stendhal and Manet in his critical articles, he writes of them at some length in his correspondence.
If it is possible to single out one word or idea around which his critical thought clusters, it must be imagination. A good case can be made for attributing to him in France Coleridge’s English role of distinguishing creative imagination from decorative and playful fancy. A faculty barely distinguishable from individual temperament and originality, the imagination fuses passion and method, energy and will in confronting the materials with which it must work. The Ideal offers it a permanent stock of models to strive for; Nature offers it a vast dictionary of appearances to react to. The artist, whose imagination has the particular capacity to perceive correspondences between and within these two domains, creates a Beauty that partakes of both spheres, thus incorporating an eternal element and a relative element. Or call the latter element “evil” if you wish for Nature is by definition fallen and the “natural” part of man is forever tainted with original sin. Removed from Baudelaire’s sturdy championing of certain preferred artists like Poe and Delacroix and from his restless, almost conversational style, this concept of the imagination sounds prosaic. And well it might, because this portion of his thought, adequately handled by many teachers and commentators, stops short of entering the area where Baudelaire can be truly disturbing. Let me try to come at him again.
Though he must in some ways be classed as a romantic (he gave a convincing definition of Romanticism as “a manner of feeling”), Baudelaire spent his critical career enumerating and reiterating the values he ranged against Nature. Imagination does not imitate but transforms Nature. Mnemonic art liberates the artist from the model in Nature and works from recollected experience. Cosmetics transform the human form into something beautiful and, as the products of thought and artifice, need make no attempt to hide themselves. Nature, as Baudelaire tells us in the opening lines of The Flowers of Evil, can claim only crime and depravity as its gifts. What then, if anything, can save us from the horrors of the natural state? Is society the shelter that will take us in and protect our failing souls? No! An infinity of no’s hooted at us by all the ghoulish chimerae that swarm in a poet’s head. From this emphatic negative issues the explanation why Baudelaire’s criticism cannot be pulled asunder and why that unexpected bit about the heroism of modern life could take shape in his mocking mind.
The single force that resists the pervading corruption of Nature is the individual, for only an individual man can have sensibility, genius, originality. “Nature yields nothing absolute, nor even complete; I see only individuals.” “The first task of the artist is to substitute man for nature and to protest against nature.” And what transforms natural man into an individual? Not, as we might think, eccentricity or rebelliousness, not dedication or fame, not family or friendship. It is a singularly lonely land when one comes so far. “Thus an ideal has nothing to do with that vague entity, that boring dream that floats on the ceilings of academies. An ideal is the individual held erect by the individual.” These quotes from The Salon of 1846 reveal Baudelaire’s conviction when he was twenty-five. In a significant modification of traditional thinking, he was affirming that the Ideal is individual; spleen and the corruption of nature are universal. Do not confuse this with the romantic inflation of ego to fill the universe and sprinkle its seed in all directions. Baudelaire worked on the human scale. The individual, endowed with imagination and originality, is for him the sole moral agent and the only arena of feeling.
Hence the Dandy, the individual with the courage to apply his imagination to his own life, the walking work of art, the hero of modern life that appears at the key point of the argument in every essay, “a kind of religion,” “an unofficial institution.” The dandy’s aristocratic control of himself and the superiority of feeling he thus hides bear comparison with stoicism and spirituality. But there is one step more, as we might have expected of the syphilitic, frayed, and insolvent dandy Baudelaire became in middle age. Earlier in the superb essay on Constantin Guys in which Baudelaire paints his most complete portrait of the dandy, he puts forward another and opposed individual who appears to confound everything: the child-man. “The child sees everything forever afresh; he is always drunk.” And the conclusion follows. “Genius is only childhood retrieved at will.” Does that sophisticated man of many masks, the dandy, wear his childhood as the charm over his heart? Baudelaire’s entire work, poetry and prose, tells us it is so.
Sartre, in his counter-irritant essay on Baudelaire, tags along this far and then manages to say all the wrong things. The dandy and the child-man are not merely covers for the exhibitionist and the mother’s boy. They represent the hero and the poet, the two faces of the artist as we have cornered him in a world of progress and commerce and egalitarianism. The unity of Baudelaire’s criticism resides in the fact that while painting and music and literature provided his pretexts an his examples, he never ceased being a critic of life itself—that is, the individual act of being alive.
The two volumes listed above bring into English the bulk of Baudelaire’s critical writing. However they also set about, as we feared, to break him in two as literary critic and art critic. The foolishness of trying to do so can be measured in the extent of overlap (the two Poe essays and the Wagner article appear complete in both volumes) and in the fact that to read several important texts the English-speaking reader will have either to go to an earlier edition of Jonathan Mayne’s book or await the second volume of this edition. For the Journaux intimes and the extensive correspondence one simply has to go elsewhere—to the Isherwood translation of the Intimate Journals (Beacon, 1957) and to the Hyslops’ careful scissors-and-paste narrative based on the letters, Baudelaire: a Self-Portrait (Oxford, 1957). Or to the French.
Apart from this general criticism, the two books deserve recognition as competent compilations, though neither attains brilliance as a translation. After a terse and effective Introduction, Mayne includes in his volume only complete essays and illustrates them generously with reproductions of paintings and drawings by Guys, Delacroix, and a selection of caricaturists. When the second volume of this collection appears, Mayne will have assembled almost everything of importance in Baudelaire’s critical work. The translation is a little prone to expanding a lean original and to using familiar turns of phrase where they are uncalled for. But you can rely on his rendering of the key term.
I cannot say as much for the Hyslops. The child, cited in the passage above as drunk (“ivre“), comes out as “in rapture.” And the beauty Baudelaire calls “always bizarre”—probably after Poe—comes out as “strange.” Their muting of the original seems always to come at the place where it does the most damage. The version reads smoothly, and their modest, informative introduction picks out and compares Baudelaire’s principal themes. Still, the Hyslops’ choice of texts finally becomes exasperating in the extreme. Along with the small number of significant literary articles, they include snippets from the essays on painting and music and add sixty wasted pages of appendix that might have carried the Journaux intimes or some of the important letters. It was a mistake in the first place to try to squeeze a separate volume out of Baudelaire’s literary criticism. With less than a hundred pages of prose in deliberately literal translation, the recent Bantam Dual-Language Book (Flowers of Evil and Other Works, edited by Wallace Fowlie) convey a remarkably full impression of Baudelaire as critic. But why do we have so many substitutes for the real article? Why didn’t a discriminating editor see the opportunity years ago to publish the complete works of Baudelaire in two compact volumes plus a volume of letters? Indeed, why not today? Here is one individual we should see whole