Michael Derda in praise of Charles Baudelaire

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In his recent and fascinating essay on Philip Guston’s paintings—with truly scathing comments about their cautious and lukewarm exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—my colleague Sebastian Smy notes how often twentieth-century artists were drawn to “fragments, ruins, and ruin.” On a larger scale, the many unfinished forms—primary sketch, rough outline, deserted draft, overall notepad—seem to offer entry into the artist’s true self, to ensure (perhaps artificial) honesty and authenticity. Such works lack finish and sophistication. , exposing what Yeats memorably called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.

This unreserved, and sometimes shocking, openness explains the allure of “Charles Baudelaire: Late Fragments,” as translator Richard Seaworth launched this handsome new book. It not only reprints the scribbles and random notes and inventories and truncated films of France’s second greatest poet–the greatest being, as André Gide said, “Victor Hugo, alas”–all of this incomplete material is contextualized by Sieburth’s learning, elegantly written commentary . It’s the perfect guide to these “broken, almost cubist pieces of the self-portrait, rendered in symbols that hardly rise to the level of fulfilled sentences.”

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Seapworth, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at New York University, limits his focus to the last six years of Baudelaire’s short life, beginning in 1861 when a former Dandy and Parisian flâneur He abandoned the highly polished, tightly watched passage of “Les Fleurs du Mal” (“Flowers of Evil”) in order to diary a wild and half-crazy. At forty, Baudelaire was a shadow of his former self, crushed by unpaid debts, suffering the effects of an apparently minor stroke, and facing the onset of debilitating syphilis. By 1866, he found it difficult to stand up. He noted that “vertigo and frequent vomiting for three days.” “I had to lie on my back…even when I was sitting on the floor, I kept falling headlong.” Continue on a diet of opium, digitalis, belladonna and brandy.

He also made lists – a procrastinator’s haven – of dream projects he’d never start (including a translation of Petronius’ “Satiricon”), descriptions of the soul’s dark nights or a record of life’s inquiries in Belgium, renting Room 39 in Brussels. Hotel du Grand Mirror. Somehow, Baudelaire manages to compose a collection of definitive prose poems, most famously, Nowhere Out in the World, which begins starkly: “Life is a hospital where every patient is driven by the desire to change the family.”

like that pensee Fitting into the French moral tradition of Montaigne, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, however, Baudelaire always considered Edgar Allan Poe, who translated him, his spiritual brother. Thus, the most famous section of his intimate journals was named Mon coeur mis `a nu – “My heart is bare.” This phrase is directly derived from “Marginalia” for Poe:

“If any ambitious man has a whim to revolutionize, in one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment… all he has to do is write and publish a very small book. Its title should be simple—a few simple words—” my heart Naked.” “But – This little book should be true to its title… But to write it – there She rub. Nobody dares to write it. No one would dare write it. There is no human can Write it down, even if you dare. The paper was wilting and glowing at every touch of the fiery pen.”

In the face of Poe’s challenge, Baudelaire’s remarks were quite honest, usually provocative, often ugly and misogynistic. Self-flagellation alternates with self-help cliches. He practically flaunts his divided soul, torn between sin and redemption. Here is a sample of his brief notes:

“The Dandy must aspire unceasingly towards transcendence; he must live and sleep in front of the mirror.”

“The act of love is a lot like torture or a surgical procedure.”

“For me, I say, that the only purpose and the ultimate pleasure of making love lies in the certainty one makes.” evil. Both man and woman know from birth that it is evil that all sensual pleasure is present.

“You sowed my hysteria with joy and horror. Now, I am constantly dizzy, and today, January 23, 1862, I received a special warning: I felt idiocy wing wind overtake me.

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Baudelaire concludes “My Heart Is Bare” with a vision of the end of the world, due to “the deterioration of the human heart,” “an onslaught of large-scale aggressiveness” and governments that maintain their power through “methods that would make the men of today tremble.” Since ancient times, poets have been Also fortune-tellers.

In “Belgium Disrobed,” the second half of “Late Parts,” Baudelaire – self-exiled in Brussels – collects hundreds of acid notes. About the inhabitants of that country, whom he regularly compares with apes and mollusks. Brutal as Swift or Céline, somewhat reminiscent of Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Ideas,” these gritty pages condemn the bourgeois culture of selfishness and mediocrity. “The Belgian does not give the right of way to a woman on the sidewalk.” Given the general tone of sheer disgust, it is no wonder that the ailing and alienated Baudelaire concludes, “Shall we say the world has become uninhabitable for me?”

In March 1866, he suffered a second stroke, which soon resulted in partial paralysis and aphasia. After his mother brought him back to France, Baudelaire suffered a final year almost unable to speak, and died at the age of 46 in 1867. In Brussels, his former hospital room for nuns was expelled.

One final note: if you have not read this great poet before, the first to record the shocks and horrors of the metropolitan civilization, pick up a copy of “Les Fleurs du Mal”. There are many translations, including a very recent one by Aaron Poochigian, but I remain particularly fond of the National Book Award-winning version of Richard Howard, who died in March. I once opened an article about his translation with a sentence that also fits with Siberth’s “late parts”: “No one beats Baudelaire in depicting spiritual ruin.”

Michael Derda reviews Style Books every Thursday.

Flashlights, my heart is bare, prose poems, Belgium take off a robe

Translated by Richard Seaworth

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