Baudelaire the Damned: A Biography
Baudelaire’s Literary Criticism
Les Fleurs du Mal
T.S. Eliot spoke of seeing Baudelaire as “something more than the author of the Fleurs du Mal.” “He is in fact a greater man than was imagined, though perhaps not such a perfect poet.” This is an odd view, but Eliot was, by 1930, tired of what he called Baudelaire’s machinery (“prostitutes, mulattoes, Jewesses, serpents, cats, corpses”) and anxious to register signs of spiritual struggle wherever he could find them. Baudelaire “attracted pain to himself,” was able to “study his suffering.”
Some seventeen years later Sartre made a passing reference to “Baudelaire’s greatness as a man” but generally saw him as something less than the author of the Fleurs du Mal, as someone who hid in the skirts of a religion he might have rejected, who chose not to choose his vertiginous freedom and converted his life into a lingering figurative suicide. “A hundred removals and not a single voyage”; “he elected to confuse the satisfaction of desire with its unsatisfied exasperation.”
Of course there is no great distance between these pictures of the poet. Only the evaluations differ. What is greatness for Eliot is evasion for Sartre. And the pictures are curiously alike in their unwillingness to focus on Baudelaire’s masterpiece. Les Fleurs du Mal is so disturbing a book, so spectacular and so patchy, so atrocious as Baudelaire himself said, that readers have always been tempted to avert their eyes from it—to prefer the prose poems, for example, or the intimate journals, or to bury themselves in the wretched, posturing letters in which Baudelaire, early and late, tried to persuade his mother that he really was the little boy she had always wanted, “that he was working hard,” as F. W. J. Hemmings nicely puts it, “and would shortly be at the top of the class.”
To give in to this temptation, though, whatever the charms or virtues of the work it leads to, is to miss the one thing that matters about Baudelaire. He was not a perfect poet—only lesser writers are that, and Les Fleurs du Mal is dedicated to one such “perfect magician,” Théophile Gautier—but a great one. He was not a great man, but a difficult and unhappy one, racked by disease and poverty and the sudden twists of his own temperament. He was neither more nor less than the author of Les Fleurs du Mal.
The three books under review—a biography, a study of Baudelaire’s literary criticism, and a deft and patient new translation of Les Fleurs du Mal—combine to bring out another aspect of the positions of Eliot and Sartre: their striking assurance, their certainty about who and what Baudelaire was. Hemmings has a fine sense of what Baudelaire was not—he was not, for example, a morbid reactionary or a despiser of the people; Rosemary Lloyd has an unusually quick eye for the note of pastiche in his writings, the almost imperceptible grin in the prose; and Richard Howard has sought, he says, “a certain private register.” The Baudelaire who emerges, or rather who hides, in these books, is a mysterious, sardonic figure who points us to the quieter moments in his poems, to the wheezing clock and whispering playing cards of “Spleen I,” say, rather than the grand romantic allegory of a funeral in the soul in “Spleen IV.” And when the poet, in “Carrion,” pulls out his machinery, shows to his love a hideous, stinking corpse, with an angry dog, disturbed by the visitors and waiting to get back to its meal, we may want to remember chiefly not the anecdote or the threat (“Yes, you will come to this, my queen”), but the poem’s promise of a weird fidelity to a “decomposed love.” This piece both outdoes Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in ferocity, and subtly inverts its meaning.
Surely Baudelaire is the most elusive, the most masked of poets, sarcastic when he seems sorrowful and tender even in his hatred. It was Proust who noted the cruelty in the beautiful line “Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige,” the trembling music derived from hurting someone; and it was Proust too who suggested that an affection for these “pitiful and human poems” was not necessarily a sign of great sensibility. They may even have a special appeal to the heartless. It is not that one doubts the depth of Baudelaire’s feelings, it is that one perceives the pressure he has put on them, the distance he has found, the work of concealment. He seems to try, Proust said, not to feel the emotions he names. “I understand,” Baudelaire once wrote, “how a man can desert a cause in order to experience the sensation of serving another,” and in Les Fleurs du Mal he deserts cause after cause, has always deserted by the time we catch up with him. This may have been what he had in mind when he welcomed the suggestion that the book had a “secret architecture.” The poems color each other with qualifications, whole sections retract what is offered in other parts of the volume.
Baudelaire prized in Poe, among other things, the element of mystification, the role of the joker. The supreme thing in art, Baudelaire said later, is “to remain glacial and closed, and to leave all the merit of indignation to the reader.” This is an expression of a widely held doctrine about the ideally impervious artist, echoed in Flaubert, Joyce, Gautier, and others, but Baudelaire’s tone gives it the flavor of a quiet prank. What he says is that the reader must think for himself; what he implies is a lightning sketch of the aesthete facing the spluttering rage of the bourgeois.
Sartre speaks solemnly of the “fundamental impossibility of taking oneself completely seriously which usually goes with bad faith.” This makes me want to talk in return about the fundamental falsehood involved in the notion of complete seriousness, but I don’t doubt that Baudelaire’s elusiveness was the tactic of a desperate man, or that his wit was the weapon of a person who can laugh, as he says in one poem, but no longer smile. Certainly the following statement, fictive or otherwise, suggests a habit bordering on the pathological: “I boasted (why?) of several ugly things that I have never done, and weakly denied a few other misdeeds that I thoroughly enjoyed doing.” Hemmings records a real-life instance of similar behavior. Sent on a sea voyage at the age of twenty, Baudelaire came back with various tall tales about his erotic adventures, but made no mention of his actual heroism during a typhoon.
Disguise was a reflex with him, then, but we need to add that it was a reflex that became a wonderful, shifting style, a language full of reticences. Pace Sartre, Baudelaire seems to have taken himself very seriously, although not in a way most serious people would commend. He saw the seriousness of apparent frivolity—this was part of what he meant by his praise of the dandy. He was faithful to the truths of change, “avid,” as he put it in less complimentary terms, for “the obscure and the uncertain.” He made himself, to use a figure much in fashion these days, into a text, a set of signs strung over a series of secrets, and this was how contemporaries saw him. “One could almost hear,” Gautier said, “the italics and capital letters in the modulations of his voice.” His politeness, Hemmings says, was always slightly overdone, possibly a delicate form of insult.
Hemmings takes his title and some of its implications from a remark by Baudelaire and a gloss by Sartre. “I believe that my life has been damned from the beginning,” the poet wrote to his mother, “and that it is damned for ever.” Yet in spite of the for ever this damnation, as Sartre said, “was of this world and it was never final.” Or as Hemmings even more succinctly puts it, “Baudelaire does not call himself damned, but only his life.” Hemmings takes a far more lenient line than Sartre, seeing Baudelaire’s eager diagnosis of his doom not as an abdication but as a cruel, possibly enabling fiction. Damnation for Baudelaire was at times simply bad luck seen romantically; at others it was the very name of his vocation.
If Hemmings’s biography is not powerful or probing, it is subtle, intelligent, and admirably balanced. We see the alert, troublesome child, expelled from school because his “disposition” was said to have “a deleterious effect” on the discipline of the place, turn into the debt-ridden dandy. He has love affairs, acrid and lengthy or illusory and short, he writes art criticism, fights in the February Revolution of 1848. Les Fleurs du Mal is published and prosecuted, partly, rumor has it, because the government had failed to obtain a judgment against Madame Bovary earlier in the year. Baudelaire acquires a sort of shabby fame, and is overtaken by the consequences of syphilis contracted in youth. “Today, 23rd of January, 1862,” he writes, “I have received a singular warning, I have felt the wind of the wing of madness pass over me.” Four years later he is paralyzed, and five years later he is dead, at forty-six.
Baudelaire’s mother was a major ingredient in his damnation, and it is one of Hemmings’s chief virtues that he brings their distressing relationship into sharp and accurate focus. Caroline Baudelaire’s second husband, Captain, and then General Aupick, whom she married when Charles was seven, was not an ogre, not “a kind of military Mr. Murdstone,” as Hemmings wryly phrases it, and even Baudelaire didn’t think he was. Baudelaire later made Aupick into an ogre, when the story of his damnation called for such casting. Caroline on the other hand, in her quiet, respectable way, does seem to have been a monster of cowardice and thrift, measuring out her stilted affection in tiny, qualified doses. “My mother is a fanciful creature,” Baudelaire wrote in the last years of his life, “to be feared and to be courted.” And Caroline herself, less than two years before the poet’s end, could write:
I cling stupidly, obstinately to the idea that I am surely owed a little satisfaction from him before I die…. He has very little time to give me the satisfaction I want, and I fear I shall never have it. It would have been some consolation if he had attained great literary celebrity….
It wouldn’t; it wasn’t.
Rosemary Lloyd has undertaken a thoroughgoing reexamination of Baudelaire’s literary essays, which she sees as neglected or undervalued in comparison with his art criticism. This is not an adventurous or theoretical book, does not pursue very far the implications of Baudelaire’s critical practice, and it occasionally strikes a faintly schoolmistressy note: “he conveys his central points with increasing conviction and skill.” But the work has the great merit of situating Baudelaire precisely in his literary setting, and of shrewdly understanding what censorship, of the kind exercised in the France of Napoleon III, may do to style.