“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
Well, looks like this thing is still alive after a full year. And I still don’t know how to write about books. The editors used to tell me that these are blogs and not English essays. I’m still trying.
When I first started this blog I wanted to talk about works that aren’t necessarily on the radar of East students. However, they are amazing, timeless works of art that need to be appreciated, especially by a new generation. I wanted to contribute at least a little in helping to keep those works alive and “safe from larvae and rust” – not forgotten and disregarded.
I’m by no means a literary scholar. I don’t have deep insights, and I don’t try to analyze, but instead hope to convey even a tiny portion of the pleasure and passion that they spark in me. I hope I can in turn persuade others to read and enjoy them as much as I do.
That is the purpose of this blog, and I think I especially need to be reminded of that. Last year I missed a lot of entries. This year I’ll probably miss even more, because senior year is tough. I’ll try the best I can.
So, let’s get into it! This week is dedicated to Charles Baudelaire and his two masterpieces, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) and Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen).
In my Arthur Rimbaud post from January, I said that I started learning French just so I could read Rimbaud. Well, I’m not proud to say that that hasn’t progressed very far at all. It’s exceedingly difficult to focus on learning a language when it’s not for a class, but I did make new headway in exploring more French poetry.
This summer, I turned to Charles Baudelaire, who was hailed by Rimbaud as “the king of poets, a true God.” After reading his works for myself, I couldn’t agree more. Wikipedia says that he started the Symbolist movement and pioneered the prose poem genre. The critics and scholars say that he introduced taboo subjects to French literature and documented 19th century Parisian life. BS aside, how about let’s call him a great artist, a magician, an immortal creator.
Baudelaire’s collection of 100-plus poems, The Flowers of Evil, starts off like this:
Folly, error, sin, avarice
Occupy our minds and labor our bodies,
And we feed our pleasant remorse
As beggars nourish their vermin.
Not only does this describe the general tone of the collection, but also Baudelaire’s bohemian lifestyle: drunken, sinful and full of prostitutes. He immersed himself in the city life of mid-19th century Paris, a period full of decadence and decay. And he drew inspiration from it. Unlike the Romantics, who indulged in the beauty of nature and essential human goodness, Baudelaire drew beauty from evil and deviancy. Images of femme fatales, death, poverty, feelings of remorse and ennui all pervade the poems. Indeed, Baudelaire refers to these poems as “unhealthy flowers” – beautiful, but sick and twisted.
But Baudelaire was also extremely dichotomous. In the other half of his work, he was deeply enthralled by pure, ideal beauty. In “The Balcony”, he is completely happy, utterly lost in a perfect memory.
In “Invitation to a Voyage” he invites his lover to voyage to a perfect land, where they can love at will and love till death. “There all is order and beauty,” he sighs in refrain, “Luxury, peace, pleasure.”
The whole collection contradicts itself, with poems of darkness and deep despair immediately followed by spiritual proclamations of purity and redemption. I think in Baudelaire’s world both polar opposites occur simultaneously in life. Often the line between the two is blurred: “Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss, /Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal,/Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime…”
In the section of the collection that’s dedicated to Parisian scenes, there’s a poem called “Le Cynge” (“The Swan”). Paris was going through massive renovation at the time, and the old Paris that Baudelaire once knew and loved was disappearing. In the poem, he conveys the image of a caged swan, deprived of his native lake, dipping his beak into the dry gutter of a pavement. Also the image of a negress, “wasted and consumptive,/Trudging through muddy streets, seeking with a fixed gaze/The absent coco-palms of splendid Africa…”
Through these images Baudelaire so poignantly laments his grief and sense of loss over the old Paris that he loved, which was his old habitat, the lake to his swan, the Africa to his negress. He compared himself to an exile who may never reach his home again, because old Paris has been demolished, replaced with identical buildings and chartered streets. Les Fleurs du Mal was able to immortalize the last of the old Paris along with the beginning of the reconstructed Paris, with its new evils and decadence.
Baudelaire’s other masterpiece, Le Spleen de Paris, takes the themes of Les Fleurs even further. “These are the flowers of evil again, but with more freedom, much more detail, and much more mockery,” he said of his work.
Part of the freedom comes from the form of the prose poem, which Baudelaire pioneered to break free of the strict alexandrine form that dominated French poetry at the time. He described it as “a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and choppy enough to fit the soul’s lyrical movements, the undulations of reverie, the jolts of consciousness…”
Baudelaire was now able to tell short stories and fables, in a much more casual and colloquial tone, all while maintaining a lyrical beauty and poetic language. His Paris is ever more immersive and detailed, with characters from Les Fleurs fully fleshed out and given personalities. Messages of good and evil, things sacred and profane again coexist and mix. Baudelaire is only an observer caught in the middle of it all, with no clear answers but only reactions.
Once again, I have to lament my lack of ability to penetrate the French language and enjoy Baudelaire in his full glory, with his inimitable style and rhythms. However, the entirety of Flowers of Evil, with the original French and multiple translations, is on the internet: http://fleursdumal.org/1861-table-of-contents. The only translation you should read is the un-rhyming William Aggeler one, which, unlike the other versions, accurately conveys the meaning and does not sacrifice literalness for rhymes. Definitely read “The Swan” and “The Voyage”. Those two are the best.