Is Baudelaire a romantic?

Dean Kyte recites his translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Les Bijoux” from his book Flowers Red and Black: Love Lyrics & Other Verses by Baudelaire.

In a recent post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I wrote that this period of ‘enforced leisure’ here in Melbourne has turned my flâneur’s eyes inwards to a remarkable degree: Unable, under pain of fine and police harassment, to walk the streets and seek in the world without the exteriorized symbols of my interior world, I have had to content myself with taking flâneries through old footage garnered in the course of my travels.

Scrounging around among my old footage for something to turn into a video, I chanced upon something I recorded more than two years ago, and which became the basis of the video above—an idle Friday night in Oakleigh, the Greek neighbourhood of Melbourne.

I was staying in an old California bungalow and the house had a beautiful study overlooking the quiet street, just perfect for a writer. It had a massive oak desk, glass-topped, with green leather blotter, and a beautiful antique office chair of stained wood, also upholstered in green leather. To cap it all, a gorgeous green-shaded banker’s lamp on the desk.

I decided to rotate the green shade of the lamp away from me and record myself reciting “The Jewels”, my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s erotic poem Les Bijoux, famous as one of the poems which caused M. Baudelaire to be hauled before a court on charges of obscenity when it was published in the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1857).

The poem, along with five others, was banned from publication in France until after World War II—some eighty years after the poet’s death.

The poem is almost like a short story. In just eight verses, Baudelaire takes us thoroughly inside his remembered experience of fooling around with his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, as they sport by firelight.

Under the druggy influence of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’ dancing in the lamplight, Baudelaire sees his ‘Black Venus’ undergo a series of metamorphoses, changing into different animals and allegorical figures as they play together beside the fire.

My translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem into English is very popular; having heard it once, it’s always the poem of Baudelaire’s that people ask me to read at poetry gatherings. I’ve recited it so many times by now that it’s practically committed to memory.

So I thought that beautiful old-fashioned study would be the perfect setting in which to commit my version permanently to pixels, a place similar in atmosphere to the muffled chambre evoked by M. Baudelaire.

The light of the banker’s lamp cast obliquely on me like a green fire evokes something of the hallucinatory, dream-like sense of the poem, and as I worked with the raw footage in post, I had l’idée géniale to try to use the green light to make myself appear progressively more ‘ghostly’—like the way the green neon sign outside Judy’s apartment in Vertigo (1958) gives her an eerie, uncanny air.

One of the foundations of Baudelaire’s æsthetic theory is his idea of ‘correspondances’—a kind of ‘poetic synæsthesia’ in which ‘[l]es parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent’ (‘sounds, scents and colours to one another correspond’).

In the second verse of “Les Bijoux”, Baudelaire expresses how he loves ‘à la fureur’ the experience of ‘hearing’ the colours of Jeanne’s jewels, and ‘seeing’ the sounds they make as they chime and clash with one another.

Similarly, there’s a correspondance, I think, between the green light, evocative of envy, a jealous craving, and of envie, a lustful yearning. But green is not just a colour which tells us to go ahead, to proceed without caution into love and lust. It is also a colour we associate with morbidity and putrefaction.

The obverse of Baudelaire’s lyrical elegy to Jeanne’s livingness in “Les Bijoux” is his imagining of her as a stinking corpse rotting in the sun in the poem Une Charogne. In that poem, he evokes her no less tenderly than in “Les Bijoux”, even as he flagellates her mercilessly with his scorn.

M. Baudelaire’s experience of love is necessarily a ‘sick’ and ‘decadent’ one in which sex and death, ‘les Deux Bonnes Sœurs’, twist and tryst.

The question, then, for this poet who (along with Ronsard) is the greatest lyricist of l’amour in the French language, and the greatest limner of women in French prosody, is whether Charles Baudelaire is a romantic?

Can one be as ineffably, as evanescently romantic as M. Baudelaire gives evidence of being in his highest raptures and still be as sadistically misogynistic as he also gives evidence of being in his most hellish fantasies?

The answer is mais ouievidemment.

If I wanted to give a statistical answer to support the contention, I would merely point out that I have had many more female purchasers of my book of Baudelaire translations, Flowers Red and Black, than male: the dames do grok a bad boy, and among men of letters, they get no more brooding than this bow-tied dandy.

Even Lord Byron—mad, bad, and dangerous to know—has nothing on M. Baudelaire when it comes to being an homme fatal.

Baudelaire is fundamentally a romantic in both senses of the word—as a member of an intellectual and artistic movement that championed sublime passion and the heroism of the individual, and as a poet of erotic verse.

But to say firmly yes on both scores is not to overlook the fact that including M. Baudelaire positively in both definitions is not an unambiguous statement.

As regards Romanticism, M. Baudelaire emerges at the tail-end of the movement. Les Fleurs du mal, as I said above, was published in 1857, and it is not coincidental that Baudelaire was successfully prosecuted for obscenity at the same time that M. Flaubert successfully skirted the same charge for Madame Bovary.

We cannot properly call Flaubert a ‘naturalist’ or a ‘realist’: in his heart of hearts, he is as deeply and perversely a Romantic as Baudelaire. But with Madame Bovary, M. Flaubert inaugurates a new movement in French literature and art, one that is diametrically opposed to Romanticism, one that embraces and recuperates the scientific, industrial, capitalistic and consumeristic assumptions which the Romantics were reacting negatively to.

The naturalistic novel of Zola and de Maupassant is the logical (and humourless) extension of an ‘objective’ formal æsthetic which M. Flaubert employed in his ‘modern novels’ with a glacial irony. In his heart of hearts, M. Flaubert was as morbid and unbridled a creature of perverse passion as M. Baudelaire and would have preferred the erotic phantasms of St. Anthony to the moronic notions of romance entertained by Emma Bovary.

For here is the thing: in both these writers materializing on the scene at the end of the Romantic movement we see the tenets of Romanticism—a lust to experience intense emotion and transcendent sublimity; an earnest belief in the heroism of the individual artist; an equally fervent belief in ‘l’art pour l’art’; and a passion for nature which reacts negatively against the encroaching mechanical artifice of industrialism and the city—morbidly present and perverted.

Both M. Flaubert and M. Baudelaire are to Romanticism what the Mannerists were to the Renaissance. They are the Mannerists of Romanticism.

The key feature of mannerism as an artistic tendency which manifests itself late in the life of a movement is exaggeration: what has been deemed to be formally beautiful during the life of the movement in its high style is pushed to an æsthetic extreme.

One might say that Romanticism, in its advocacy of ‘l’art pour l’art’, was already a form of mannerism in its own right, even though it was not an æsthetic exaggeration of Neoclassicism, but a reaction to it. But the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ which underwrites Romanticism, when pushed to its æsthetic extreme, becomes grotesquerie.

We see this most vividly in Baudelaire, and in his visual ancestor, Goya, for whom the dream of reason brings forth monsters. The only other figure of late Romanticism I can think of who produces similarly grotesque imagery in which a high æsthetic style is pushed to a histrionic extreme is M. Baudelaire’s American twin, the brother of his soul, Edgar Allan Poe.

In the final chapter of his book La Folie Baudelaire (2008), Roberto Calasso cites the withering judgment of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most authoritative French literary critic of the nineteenth century, upon his contemporary Baudelaire.

M. Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve says, is like a little pavilion—what the French call a folie—on the extreme point of Kamchatka, that icy, volcanic Russian peninsula which juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk. From this inhospitable toehold of fire and ice, according to Sainte-Beuve, M. Baudelaire gazes avidly out upon Japan, the Orient, all that is weird and exotic to French prosody in the nineteenth century.

Baudelaire’s ‘Orient’ was the future. He makes a music in his rhymes (which are not without charm, Sainte-Beuve hedgingly admits), but the ear has not yet been born in the France of the nineteenth century which can make sense of this strange and foreign music, which apprehends a sublime and transcendent beauty in the fire and ice of Hell.

Which leads me to the perversity—the inversion, even—of Romanticism when pushed to this æsthetic extreme, the Baudelairean state of ‘Kamchatka’:—For Baudelaire’s natural abode is not merely an architectural folie in the sense of whimsy, nor even a folly to erect in such an unhospitable clime, but an uninsulated belvedere gazing out upon the frontier of madness—the madness of the modern world which will come after him.

As a very late Romantic to the scene, Baudelaire has no feeling for ‘nature’, as such. He would never, like Wordsworth, pen an elegy in praise of a flower: vegetables didn’t interest him.

The closest Baudelaire gets to the Romantic feeling for nature are a few lyrical poems about the sea and foreign ports, as he remembers an abortive voyage to India he was forced to take by his hated stepfather, General Aupick. Baudelaire never saw Calcutta. Taking grateful advantage of a shipwreck in Mauritius, he returned to Paris.

This is instructive. Baudelaire is thoroughly a man of the city, the first poet to write about it, and he does so glowingly, feeling none of the repulsion for its multitudinous horrors which drove his Romantic predecessors back to the countryside so as to escape ‘the dark Satanic Mills’ of industrial modernity.

Nothing is ‘grown’ in the city. It is a place of pure artifice—un paradis artificiel, to paraphrase the title of Baudelaire’s treatise on drugs.

And because nothing can grow in an artificial environment, everything must be manufactured in the city, or imported there from the countryside. The city, therefore, is the place of consumption, where everything can be bought.

Including love.

Where Ronsard emulates the Dantesque and Petrarchan model of glorifying tony dames like Cassandre and Hélène, Baudelaire is the lyricist of bought amour, venerating the venal souls of Parisian prostitutes in all the protean manifestations that the Belle Époque gave to the world’s oldest profession—actresses, dancers, singers, syphilitic little bitches, mewling Jewesses, regal African orchids transplanted to colder climes, widows fallen on hard times.

Baudelaire loves the soiled feminine face of Paris, that paradise of decadent luxury, as sterile and useless as a rented womb.

Paris, as Walter Benjamin stated, is the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. It is the pre-eminent paradis artificiel. It is the triumph of scientific industry and commerce over nature, a purely artificial environment, an utter repudiation of the humanistic spirit of Romanticism.

And yet the place is ineffably romantic—and was so in Baudelaire’s time.

But something happens to the nature of a man or a woman who lives in the purely artificial environment of a city. It rapidly becomes ‘decadent’, and Baudelaire, the total man of the city, the poet of the city who lauds Paris’s transcendent beauty in her hellish, whorish ugliness, marks the critical juncture where Romanticism curdles, turns perverse and inverted.

What M. Baudelaire said to his friend and fellow flâneur, M. Manet, he might have equally said of himself: ‘Vous n’êtes que le premier dans la décrépitude de votre art’—‘You are merely the first in the decadence of your art-form.’

Both artists are Kamchatkas of their kind—the pinnacle of European artistic evolution, the æsthetic distillation of the wisdom and skill of the Old Masters which reaches its finest point in the peculiar persons and sensibilities of M. Baudelaire and M. Manet—only then, with the next generation, to collapse under its own weight headlong into degeneracy.

These gentlemen still had the classical education in the craftsmanship of their respective art-forms necessary to make radical yet intellectually rigorous innovations based on an intensely personal vision and acute sensibility.

M. Manet could spray the canvas with paint and not wind up with a meaningless chromo à la Pollock. Likewise, M. Baudelaire could lavish elegies upon ugliness without degenerating into the ‘prose broken into lines’ which the grunting Beats called ‘free verse’.

In La Folie Baudelaire, Calasso invokes Max Nordau, a nineteenth-century essayist in that cradle of Romanticism which would become, in the next century, the sink of horror—Germany. Contemporary with Freud and Krafft-Ebing, Nordau published a two-volume tome in 1892 called Degeneration—a kind of Psychopathia Sexualis of art.

Calasso writes: ‘In Nordau’s view, the forerunner of all degeneration was Baudelaire. All the others—such as Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Barbey d’Aurevilly—were instantly recognized by a certain “family resemblance” to him. These were the numerous insidious and indomitable crests of the Baudelaire wave.’

Though Nordau was probably not familiar with him, I cannot help but think, in tracing the lineage of artistic degeneration down from the pinnacle of Baudelaire and across the Channel, how impossible the most decadent of the English Decadents, Ernest Dowson, would have been without the forerunner of Baudelaire.

That young man who would take the bitterness and perversity of love as his only theme in poetry and in prose, who had such a French sense of its diabolical nature that he would translate Les Liaisons dangereuses, and who would pursue ‘madder music and stronger wine’ until they hustled him into an early grave, had Baudelaire’s syphilitic example of a life lived at Kamchatka’s dagger point—a life lived only for love and art—before him as his perversely heroic example.

Such a soul deformed by intimate infatuation with the artificial paradise of the city has a different experience of romance than the Romantics of the high period.

For M. Baudelaire, the sublimity of love, sex and eroticism is inseparably conjoined with the sublime, transcendent horror of decadence and death. Woman is a ‘Black Venus’ like Jeanne Duval, a murderous goddess whose womb is a tomb we want to plunge the dagger of ourselves into—like a bee who commits suicide by availing itself of its sting.

Given the deformity of M. Baudelaire’s soul and the perversity of his sense of romanticism, you might wonder why I have such a feeling for Baudelaire, why I have translated so many of his love poems—and why I find I can’t stop.

I really don’t know, except that he speaks to me, and that I find, in my translations of Charles Baudelaire into English, I am able to speak for him to people very far removed in place and time from the Paris of the Second Empire.

I’ve been told by readers of Flowers Red and Black, or by listeners who have heard me read some of the poems in that volume, that it seems as though I am ‘channelling’ M. Baudelaire. His lofty, distant voice, spewing offence in the most elegant and eloquent terms, is utterly unique in French literature and very difficult to convey in modern English without falling into pastiche.

The delicate feeling one must have for him can only really come, I think, from a sense of life like his own—a sense of ruthless desperation lived at the edge of Kamchatka—the mad desire to either transcend oneself or slay oneself in the sublime realization of one’s art.

‘Lis-moi, pour apprendre à m’aimer’—‘Read me, so as to learn to love me,’ he writes in Épigraphe pour un livre condamné. If you’re a curious soul who suffers like Baudelaire, you must learn to read him with a sympathetic spirit, letting your eye plunge into Hell without being charmed by the vertigo induced by the Abyss.

I invite you to purchase one of few remaining copies of the first edition of Flowers Red and Black. In fact, I’ve done a complete renovation of the Dean Kyte Bookstore (check out the groovy comic book-style links to the various product categories!), with dedicated pages for all my books, DVD and Blu-ray Discs.

I have also been amusing myself in my cell during lockdown by creating some handmade gift tags, like those in the picture below. In addition to being signed and wax-sealed as a mark of artistic authenticity, any physical product you purchase from me will come gift-wrapped and garnished with an autographed gift tag featuring your Melbourne Flâneur’s logo!

Experience the ultimate book unboxing with new Dean Kyte gift tags, handmade and signed by the author!

I can also do custom orders for you. There is a contact form on each product page, so if you’re thinking of purchasing some original Christmas gifts, you can make a direct inquiry with me. I can negotiate a deal with you in terms of cost and delivery time frames; I can write a thoughtful personalised message on your behalf to the recipients; and I can even handle gift-wrapping and postage on your behalf—to multiple recipients, even.

And if you would like to buy your Melbourne Flâneur half a java and have his dulcet tones seducing you with his rendition of “The Jewels”, I’ve released the soundtrack of the video above on my Bandcamp profile. For two Australian shekels, you can lube someone into the amorous mood with my vocals.

I’m not Barry White, but it does work. Just click the link below, bo.

“The Jewels” (2020), by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Dean Kyte.

2 Comments

  1. that was educational for me dean,,,thanks….
    maybe the beauty of the city lies in it being a temporary experience. before the decadence becomes too much of a poison.
    too much of a good thing…an easy thing….an essentially….irresponsible thing. for the city that was being born 150 years ago, and is now beginning to senesce, is a parasitic thing…as you have described….a glorious and artificial menagerie,,,but yes something of a vampire also.
    i would be interested to hear your thoughts on rimbaud in this context also….

    Like

    1. I’m so glad you found some valuable sinfo in it, Gav. Thanks for appending your thoughts.

      Rimbaud is more of a ‘nature boy’, in my view. I don’t quite grok him, find myself a little bit in awe of him, and yet also quite underwhelmed by him—which is perhaps surprising, since there’s many things that he and I are mucho, mucho simpático on.

      Being a lustful decadent myself, an unreconstructable dandy, a complete creature of that most artificial human invention, ‘fashion’, my sympathy is entirely with M. Baudelaire, as one homme de la ville to another. I think it might have been either you or Michael who was one of the first people to observe to me that I seem to have a preternatural affinity for him.

      Thanks again for your contribution, my friend, and I hope you find some relief in Kingaroy.

      Like

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