A Fortnightly Review.
Yale University Press, 2022 | 440pp | $24.49 £20.00
Invitation to the Voyage
By Charles Baudelaire, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic
By ALAN WALL.
POOR OLD GENERAL Aupick. He’s had a bad press. But it’s hard to see how anybody could ever have had a good press from being Charles Baudelaire’s stepfather. Now how are you planning on spending this inheritance of yours, son? On dope, fallen women, and being a flâneur. Ah. Don’t fancy a spell of military service, do you? But then, given the singularly unpleasant disease you’ve already acquired, courtesy of Lorette de Louchette (which will kill you — give it time), you’d never get in anyway.
How precisely do you finance a poet? Do you say, ‘Yo, here’s another couple of hundred francs, just in case you need to generate a few more rhymes before the weekend?’ The conseil judiciaire that ended up deciding his financial fate for the rest of his life couldn’t possibly have got it right. Had they given him all his money, as he craved, he would have blown the lot, without doubt. Baudelaire wasn’t merely a financial wastrel; he was an aggressive financial wastrel. When he did occasionally have lots of money to spend, he spent it imprudently, buying worthless paintings which sold for nothing later.
As we know, Baudelaire did in fact manage some great poems. In fact, he became the founding poet of modernity. And his poetry, looking back, simply gets better and better. He was our last great allegorist. He made poetry out of the same ruins from which capitalism was manufacturing modernity. As Haussmann constructed those massive Parisian boulevards, in order to prevent another 1789 or 1848, Baudelaire noticed the rickety old city that was consequently biting the dust, and constructed elegiac verse allegories out of it. As the dust rose from those condemned arrondissements, the poet saw Trojan widows weeping into the Seine. Antiquity and modernity became interchangeable; what connected them was ruin, and the witness to that ruin was the poet. He was simultaneously antique and modern. He was a singular coin whose obverse was modern France with its wrecking ball and demolitions, and whose reverse were the tragic figures of antiquity. It is this doubleness of perception that is so splendidly there in Baudelaire’s ‘Le Cygne’ and is not there at all in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’.
He spent a fair amount of his early years (as did any devout Roman Catholic) in that vertical wooden coffin known as the confessional. There, you were taught to be the inquisitor to your own soul. You had to demand of yourself what sins you committed. Should you leave them unconfessed, then you departed from that Gothic edifice unshriven — in fact, you might have even added another mortal sin to your tally. This made the matter far more grave than a session of psychoanalysis, where the analysand is free to lie, and frequently does so, if only by omission. Who is there to know, except the analyst, assuming he or she is paying full attention, and is smart enough to fully fathom the situation anyway? Well, the person(?) who’ll know in the confessional is God. Get round that one, fellah…That’s the only other presence in that box, apart from your good self. The priest is merely instrumental. This confessional obligation pervades all Baudelaire’s poetry. He is always interrogating, always confessing. But to whom? Well, remember, it could be to the Almighty, so you’d better tell the truth, just in case. On the other hand, you could be jabbering away to ‘le gouffre’, that abyss whose marriage with mathematics so appalled him.
It was T. S. Eliot who first connected up Dante and Baudelaire – both sons of orthodoxy, both unrelentingly formal poets of precision. Mon Coeur Mis à Nu makes plain what so appealed to Eliot: Baudelaire’s detestation of nineteenth-century liberalism. Baudelaire believed in hell. As Eliot put it, he was man enough to be damned. He didn’t want to be let off the ultimate hook. One’s ability to be saved or damned guaranteed the final validity of things. He didn’t want a comfy liberal God who said, ‘Oh, not to worry, it’s so hard for you humans to understand…’ We might note in passing that while Baudelaire was insisting one way, at the same cultural moment, over the Channel, Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dodgson, was insisting the other. It seemed to him inconceivable that a being of infinite mercy could institute a state of eternal punishment. This might well be part of the reason why Dodgson never progressed from the diaconate to full orders at Christ Church, Oxford. And perhaps why he gave us a version of hell without the full force of divine fury in Alice in Wonderland. If there is a deity in the Alice books, He’s lost his taste for capital punishment. He’s a loopy headmaster who’s taken to smoking a hookah in his study.
Some of T.S. Eliot’s chums thought it inappropriate that a fine upstanding churchman like himself should champion a self-confessed ne’er-do-well brothel creeper and dopehead like Baudelaire. But Eliot heard the authentic clang of the bells of damnation and salvation in Baudelaire’s verse, and he was right to do so. Baudelaire made it his business to walk amongst the damned. He had a keen eye for spotting the unproductive members of the capital of the nineteenth century – rag pickers, midnight sousers, prostitutes. None of them make anything. None of them contribute to the grand productive society. They deal in refuse, human and otherwise. Respectability for such reprobates is impossible. General Aupick would embrace none of this lot; none of them would ever receive the Legion d’Honneur, or end up encased in marble close to their glorious Napoleon.
ELIOT RECKONED WE needed the prose works to see what Baudelaire really believed. We can see in them that he couldn’t fathom why women went to church, since their spirits were indistinguishable from their bodies. They represented a spiritual vastation into which the soul of man might fall. Poor old Jeanne Duval. Poor old Madame Aupick, if it came to that. Nineteenth-century France does appear to be full of fellows slagging off their old mums at every opportunity, and having tea with them the following day. Oedipus reconciled, eh. Baudelaire’s trial for obscenity took place in 1857; Flaubert’s in 1859. One of the last significant things that Baudelaire did was to write a long letter to his mother explaining that he’d had syphilis all his life. Madame Aupick is perhaps a little more complex than she is sometimes painted. The General (before he was a general, and before they were married) impregnated her, but the child was stillborn. Baudelaire gave her one of the later editions of the complete Fleurs du Mal. She promptly gave it to her parish priest to check out. He even more promptly burnt it. Baudelaire is the first modern poet to notice all the detritus in the modern city, and he is the first modern poet to become fascinated by the human detritus too. He registers the physiognomy of the metropolis and a fair amount of that is waste. As a species we are inefficient when it comes to disposing of our spoor.
You don’t necessarily register all this dark material unless you stay up all night. Baudelaire stayed up all night. Waste disposal is nocturnal. There is a reason it is called nightsoil. Druggies and dipsos lean towards the hours of darkness too. They’re more comfortable when people can’t see them falling over. Shakespeare called them ‘the School of Night’, those whose occult studies require candles rather than sunlight.
Jeanne Duval was mixed race, and partly descended from Haiti. She cut a striking figure, and Baudelaire was evidently taken with her the first time he saw her on stage. Tall and dark-skinned, she beguiled him. She sails in and out of his verse like a mighty craft from a foreign port. He gazes upon her with a mixture of love and lust but she looks straight back with a look which is not always distinguishable from indifference. As the poem ‘Sed Non Satiata’ makes plain, he could never satisfy her. If one wanted a colonial emblem, it is not hard to find. The woman is possessed, accommodated and furnished – all at Madame Aupick’s expense – but she never repays him even with the satisfaction of a loving look. One thinks of those paintings by Gauguin where the Tahitian women all look back with a question-mark fixed firmly into their faces. In ‘Le Balcon’ Baudelaire sums up his life : ‘Mère des souvenirs, maitresses des maitresses…’ Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses. Between Madame Aupick and Jeanne he lived his life, taking whatever comfort life afforded him, between versifying his mighty bellyaches.
Baudelaire was not merely a dandy; he was the dandy’s dandy. He spent a startling amount of money on clothes. He had to look the part. What is it exactly that a dandy does? Well, nothing really. He goes about looking, and being looked at. He is a spectacle. He is the observed of all observers. He is an ornament of the boulevards and the arcades. He is designed not so much for romance as for show. Romance sounds a bit grubby – you might end up with Madame Bovary clinging needily to you on a chaise longue. And a dandy needs a city, a big one. No point being a dandy in the middle of a field, after all. Dandies do not milk cows.
Baudelaire was an allegorist at a time when the mode of allegory was dying. He was aware of his uniqueness. In ‘Le Cygne’ he writes:
Paris change! Mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N’a bouge! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie,
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs.
We could say: Paris changes, but nothing in my melancholy moves. New palaces. Scaffolding and blocks, old neighbourhoods, all for me becoming allegory, and my dear memories are heavier than rocks.
That which is being destroyed becomes allegorical. Not symbolic, for there is no organic connection between what is symbolised and what is doing the symbolising, but allegoric. Baudelaire the midnight walker, encountering demi-mondaines and rag-pickers, as he strolled the conduits of the modern metropolis, constructed the allegory through which he moved. He then wrote it down when he got back to his latest domicile. He had a lot of domiciles.
Les Fleurs du Mal was published in 1857. the first great Exposition was in 1855, following London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. At the end of ‘Le Voyage’ Baudelaire effectively discards everything and sets sail for ‘le Nouveau’ – the new. That, oddly enough, is precisely what the Great Expositions were in favour of too: the display and manufacture of the new. Capitalism is ceaselessly bored with itself; that’s why it’s so relentlessly inventive. That’s why the old Paris was tumbling around Baudelaire’s ears. Maybe he was a more exemplary poet of his time than he imagined. Maybe the capital of the Second Empire produced precisely the poet it needed.
Invitation to the Voyage is a selection of verse by Baudelaire, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic. The style tends towards the vernacular, and the manner is affable, making the versions highly readable. So in ‘The Ragpickers’ Wine’ the line ‘De tous ces viex maudits qui meurent en silence’ is rendered ‘Of these poor sods who expire in silence’, though die would surely be more natural than expire, except for the maintenance of the metre.
Late Fragments, translated and edited by Richard Sieburth is a superb production from Yale. Brilliantly translated, with a faultless editorial machinery, this book is a joy to read, though its contents are hardly joyous. Baudelaire cultivated his misery the way P. G. Wodehouse cultivated whimsy. Only found one tiny mistake: miniscule instead of minuscule.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His bookEndtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.