Tuesday, May 7, 2024

“Flowers of Evil” by Mark Dery


Of blood and beauty: a re-release of Baudelaire’s 1857 collection, translated by George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay. amazon

When Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) wasn’t busy being a dandy, a flâneur, a poète maudit, a hashish eater; a blasphemous Catholic who (in his poetry, at least) recited “the litanies of Satan” and officiated at Black Masses whose celebrants kissed the Devil’s “foul behind”; an enfant terrible who raged, “I want to vent my anger in terrifying books. I want to turn the whole human race against me”; a mama’s boy whose Oedipal grudge match with his beloved/beloathed mother made Norman Bates look well-adjusted, he was a world-class hater of “sanctified vegetables.”

“Vegetable” was Baudelaire’s contemptuous epithet for plant life of any kind and, by extension, all nature. “You know very well that the vegetable kingdom fails to move me,” he snapped in an 1853 letter to the critic and editor Fernand Desnoyers. The hapless Desnoyers had approached him about a contribution to what Baudelaire dismissed, with airy disdain, as a “little collection, poems on Nature, I believe? On woods, great oaks, greenery, insects—the sun, too, if I’m not mistaken?”

Hating Nature was on brand for Baudelaire, whose fascination with the subjective experience of the modern metropolis—epitomized by Paris, whose eddying crowds, cultural ferment, and political turbulence made it feel like a cross between a madhouse and a merry-go-round—put him at odds with the nature-worshipping Romantics, whose aesthetic still held sway on both sides of the Channel.

For Baudelaire, Nature was of interest only as a “forest of symbols”—things that, seen through the lens of a wandering consciousness, incandesce with meaning. “Imagination,” he wrote, “is an almost divine faculty that perceives immediately and without philosophical methods the inner and secret relations of things, the correspondences and the analogies.”

“Correspondences” was, in fact, the title of a poem in his notorious collection Les fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil). “Notorious” because, on its debut in 1857, the book was almost instantly branded “an outrage to public morals” and “an offense to religious morals”; six erotic poems, including “Lesbos,” “Femmes damnés,” and “Les métamorphoses du vampire,” were censored. This May, just in time for Mother’s Day, New York Review Books is rereleasing the 1936 translation by George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay with the expurgated poems restored. Order two for the Moms for Liberty crusader in your life: one for burning, one for sneaky peeking.

A mini-manifesto in verse form, “Correspondences” articulates Baudelaire’s aesthetic theory of lived experience as a Web of occult connections. Through the alchemy of the imagination, anything, no matter how mundane, can be infused with a hermetic significance known only to the individual. “In certain almost supernatural states of the soul,” he wrote, “the profundity of life reveals itself, completely in any spectacle, however ordinary it may be, upon which one gazes. It becomes its symbol.” Phenomenon becomes noumenon.

In art as in life, Baudelaire flouted the pieties of nineteenth-century society, most notably the article of bourgeois faith that art’s social role was a didactic one, providing moral instruction and refinement to the masses. Quite the opposite, Baudelaire declared in an 1857 essay: poetry “has no other goal than itself.” By that, he didn’t mean a poem can’t have moral consequences, merely that a poem makes a poor pulpit. “I say that if the poet has pursued a moral end, he has diminished his poetical power,” he went on. “It’s not risky to say that his work will be poor.”

But he was just warming up: Baudelaire’s most transgressive move was his decision to run up the black flag of “a poetics of evil,” to borrow the critic and poet Dana Gioia’s felicitous phrase. This shockingly radical aesthetic was guided partly by his conviction, put forward in “Correspondences,” that heightened states of consciousness have the power to transmute depravity, decay, and disease into a kind of gangrenous beauty—a pathological sublime. It’s the product, too, of what Gioia calls his “strange and inverted Catholicism,” which, standing the doctrine of Original Sin on its head, embraces the bipolarity of human nature, equal parts ape and angel. As well, it springs from Baudelaire’s proto-Decadent desire to quench his burning mind in experience, even—especially?—its most squalid, sordid, or horrifying aspects, in order to plumb the depths of the human condition:
Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up!—there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void!—hell? heaven?—what’s the odds?
We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!
We live in a moment of culture wars and moral panics, when left and right agree on one thing if nothing else: that it’s the business of art to be didactic, whether sermonizing on social justice or circling the wagons around cherished heartland traditions like white power and mob justice (“Try That in a Small Town,” by country singer Jason Aldean). And if it can’t be didactic, it should at least be therapeutic, doling out self-help homilies and trauma-culture confessionalism (anything by Rupi Kaur).

In such a climate, Fleurs du Mal goes down like a gulp of poison wine, mind-burning but bracing—even in the Dillon-Millay translation. As Millay notes in her introduction, she and her collaborator were adamant that Fleurs retain its verse form, and so translated Baudelaire’s alexandrines into meters more favorable to English rather than recast them as prose poems. While this preserves their lyric music, the rhyme schemes force word choices that rob some of my favorite lines of their incantatory power. The “oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” in Geoffrey Wagner’s 1974 rendering of “Le Voyage” becomes “in a dry / Desert of boredom, an oasis of despair”; Wagner’s “forest of symbols” (in “Correspondences”) becomes, out of who knows what perversity, “a cabalistic wood.”

Even so, the perfume of Baudelaire’s infernal flowers still wafts off the page, as powerful a deliriant as ever, 167 years on. In “Metamorphoses of the Vampire,” the narrator, having slept with a bloodsucking succubus so beautiful even “the impotent angels” would happily be damned for a night in her arms, awakes to find “there at my side . . . nothing but a hideous / Putrescent thing, all faceless and exuding pus.” In “The Fountain of Blood,” the poet imagines his blood “bubbling out” in a Niagara of gore: “It soaks the city, islanding the paving-stones; / Everything thirsty leans to lap it, with stretched head; / Trees suck it up; it stains their trunks and branches red.” But there is unearthly beauty, too, and smoldering eros:
The night would close around us like a dim blue wall,
And your eyes flashed within the darkness, and the sweet
Drug of your breath came over me. Do you recall
How I would love to lie for hours holding your feet?
The night would close around us like a dim blue wall.
(“The Balcony”)
The title says it all: Baudelaire forces us to hold opposing images, which is to say ideas, in our minds—a heavy lift in a country founded by stern moralizers, in an age ruled by black-or-white fundamentalisms. Our reflexive tendency, when confronted by irreconcilable moral or ideological contradictions, is to insist on one or the other, and so shirk the difficult work of grappling with both, simultaneously. Fleurs du Mal demands we do just that. ]] Mark Dery is a cultural critic, essayist, and the author of four books, most recently, the biography Born To Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey. He has taught journalism at NYU and “dark aesthetics” at the Yale School of Art; been a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at UC Irvine and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome; and published in a wide range of publications.

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