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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
sante_1-032113.jpg
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 brothel and “a kind of museum of medicine” could only have been financed by Le Siècle, a liberal newspaper with a

mania for progress, science, and the spread of enlightenment. Then I reflect that modern stupidity and arrogance have their mysterious usefulness, and that often, by virtue of a spiritual mechanics, what was done for ill turns into good.

Finally he meets an inmate, “a monster born in the house,” who stands on a pedestal all day as a museum exhibit, and has “something blackish wound several times around his body and his limbs, like a large snake,” which emerges from his head and makes it difficult for him to move around. “He gives me all this information without bitterness. I dare not touch him—but I’m interested in him.”

Calasso proceeds to explicate the dream. The new book of Baudelaire’s then, in 1856, was his translation of Poe’s Extraordinary Tales, than which nothing could be less obscene; the first recipient of a presentation copy could hardly be the madam of a great brothel. Therefore “we may plausibly suppose that [the dream] already saw the book as Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, due to be published a year later and immediately confiscated and condemned for obscenity.” That the brothel is also a museum evokes Baudelaire’s rhapsody in his Salon of 1846, wishing for

a museum of love, where everything would have its place, from the tenderness of Saint Theresa to the serious depravations of the centuries that were bored with everything. No doubt an immense gap separates the Embarkation for Cythera [by Watteau] from the wretched colored prints one finds in the rooms occupied by the whores…but in a matter of such importance nothing must be overlooked.

Calasso notes that “the brothel-museum and the ‘museum of love’ were almost identical, yet basically divergent and incompatible.”

The clue to their difference is the underwriting of the brothel-museum by Le Siècle, a newspaper that was once the leading monarchist tribune (and the venue for a number of Balzac’s serialized novels). Now, in 1856, it is republican and progressive and, as such, the temple of the bêtise, which is to say of commonplace bourgeois idiocy elevated to the level of resounding truth—Le Siècle was the “ideal paper” of Bouvard and Pécuchet. The word bêtise, though, is nuanced. “Great poetry is essentially bête, it believes, and this is what makes its glory and strength,” wrote Baudelaire in a review in 1846; while Flaubert, in a letter of 1852, wrote: “Masterpieces are bêtes. They have a tranquil air like the very productions of nature, such as big animals and mountains.” As a noun, bête means “beast”; it is more than a simple slur, instead suggesting something primal, nonreductively animalistic. Hence, “the great brothel that is also a museum of medicine presupposes that we have reached a very high level, perhaps a dizzying one, of bêtise.” But if “what was done for ill turns into good,” which is which? Is the brothel justified because it hosts a museum, or is the museum justified because it is housed in a brothel? Which of the two is less bête? Baudelaire is untroubled by the problem: “I admire in myself the rightness of my philosophical spirit.”

Calasso makes a persuasive case for the dream’s monster being Baudelaire himself—grotesque, tormented, constantly on public display, subject to erotic humiliation. “He had always felt keenly extraneous to himself, willing to look at himself as an other.” But Calasso does not wrap up anything too neatly. The brothel-museum may be Sainte-Beuve’s folly, but it is also “a huge, boundless mnemotechnical edifice,” and in some ways it is Paris, the Paris of the passages; it is a world and a counterworld. Here as elsewhere, Calasso is pointing his flashlight down dusty corridors, making suggestive connections, free-associating in such densely upholstered fashion that “free association” seems far too undisciplined as a label for what he does. The brothel-museum stands literally as well as figuratively at the center of his book, so that the book might be said to radiate from it (the folly, on the other hand, does not appear until nearly the end), but that does not mean that the structure necessarily constitutes an argument, let alone one shaped like a secret society.

Calasso’s subject is Baudelaire’s sensibility. He makes the point that Baudelaire has undergone every “kind of psychological dissection, all of them clumsy and inopportune.” Not only did he go “beyond literature,” he came to incarnate “a psychic climate…a certain way of feeling alive.” Baudelaire’s sensibility therefore continued on, as a sort of autonomous drift, after his death. At its root is his famous pursuit of correspondences—“his Muse, whose name was Analogy.” The concept derived from the Renaissance Neoplatonists—Bruno, Paracelsus, Kircher—and had been revived in Germany, by Goethe for one, but Baudelaire absorbed it primarily from his century’s great eccentric creators of systems, Charles Fourier and Emanuel Swedenborg.

Appropriating Swedenborg’s idea of “correspondences,” Baudelaire fashioned a sort of notional map, as loosely defined as it was telling, in which internal emotional states and manifestations in the external world mirrored one another through synesthesia—aromas, tastes, and colors mingling and exchanging properties, all of them subject to mediation by words. Baudelaire, however, was not one to traffic in systems of any sort, “so there was nothing else to do but proceed through a multiplicity of levels, signs, images, without any guarantee either of the starting point, always arbitrary, or the end point, which, in the absence of a canon, one was never sure had been reached.” Baudelaire’s metaphysics are intuitive, unconscious, forever suggestive of method, always elusive.

Whatever they were, they propelled him on an obsessive quest for images, and that is in large part what Calasso is concerned with. He is building up a panorama of “modernity,” which Baudelaire himself defined in The Painter of Modern Life as “the fleeting, the transitory, the contingent; it is one half of art, of which the other half is the eternal and unchanging.” He is depicting the landscape Baudelaire walked in even as he altered it, and accordingly, he focuses on painters, among others Ingres, Delacroix, Degas, and Manet, not forgetting Constantin Guys, Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life.” Degas and Manet are the surprise insertions: they entered the scene after his death and never met him, but in many ways they were formed by him. Calasso has more to say about some of these than others—Delacroix rates a bare ten pages, but then Baudelaire’s sympathy with him is well known. He took the side of Delacroix in the great polarity that dominated early-nineteenth-century painting, where Ingres stood for line and Delacroix for color, Ingres for drawing and Delacroix for direct painting, Ingres for classical order and Delacroix for wild untamed modern sensibility.

Calasso is more interested in pursuing Ingres: “one of those extremely rare people who are nothing but geniuses.” Ingres was crass, unreflective, inarticulate, “impervious to culture.” He was a boorish bourgeois down to his appearance, which one of his own supporters wrote “had everything that might clash with the elegance of his thoughts and the beauty of his female figures.” One of his enemies, Théophile Silvestre, wrote:

It’s difficult to remain serious in the presence of this coarse majesty whose brow is girt with a triple crown: the nightcap, the laurel wreath and the halo…. M. Ingres comes to establish the cult of form through the abolition of thought itself.

But then, he couldn’t help himself. His drawing was instinctive, compulsive, somewhere between a religion and a tic. The only time he spoke to Degas he urged him to “make lines, lots of lines.” He was, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote of Picasso, “a line-drawing critter.”

Ingres’s contemporary reputation as a paragon of classical order disguised his strangeness, his quite unconscious radicalism. His “world was made of metal, gem stones, fabrics, enamels.” His sense of color, for all that the Académie des Beaux-Arts, appraising his Jupiter and Thetis, called it “feeble or unvarying,” was, “if anything,…irritating because of its ostentatious excess.” Baudelaire may have been rallying to Delacroix when he wrote that “M. Ingres adores color, like a haberdasher,” but he could see the merits of Jupiter quite clearly: “Open your eyes, O foolish nation, and say if ever you saw more dazzling and more sumptuous painting, as well as a greater exploration of tones?” And unlike his peers, who took photography as a base mechanical process and a threat not only to their profession but to their view of the world, Ingres “incorporated photography into his painting long before it was invented”—as early as 1806 his drawing seems to anticipate the conventions of the snapshot.

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