What is wanted is history, the man in the raincoat, wearing the loops of his ideas, the buttons of his period.
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Oh, God, what depressing places hotel bedrooms can be.
Jean Rhys, Quartet
The image on the front of Late Fragments is a portrait taken by the Belgian photographer Charles Neyt in 1864. Start with those eyes: distrustful, assessing, imperious. An art critic’s eyes. Rakish eyes. Pharmacopoeia eyes. His face is mask-like, giving little or nothing away. Bored, cigar-smoking, distrait. He could be lost in reverie, or just bored to tears. Charles Baudelaire might be one of the first great poseurs of our time – a not inconsiderable legacy. As with similar images of Baudelaire by Nadar and Étienne Carjat, I’m always reminded of W.C. Fields. The same odd motley of delicacy and debauchery. An arch and dissipated superiority, with tender spots. Dainty and crude; sensual and armoured. There is surely also something of the child who was once hurt so badly they’ve never quite recovered. A stained or spoiled innocence.
He said some awful things about photography. It is ‘the refuge of every would-be painter’, we’re warned in ‘The Salon of 1859’, ‘every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies … If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether.’ How did it play with him personally, this strange new experience of being photographed, disconcertingly intimate yet somehow flattening? Did he look at images of himself and see his disappointment and suffering etched there? Or was it all just a trick of the light? Photo-biography: we confidently think we spy the ghosts of a life in the fish-slab lines of the face. Phrenology at a distance. A séance for the ghosts of a long-gone epoch. Cameo souvenirs from an early modernity that feels so far away: all the monochrome boys made shooting stars by the camera. A daguerreotype of Poe, four months before his unreadable death. A maybe/maybe-not image of the lofty comte de Lautréamont. Satie in his silent-movie bowler hat and bottle-top glasses. Little Alfred Jarry on his big bicyclette. The birth of our world of ‘personal style’ and ‘iconic’ this and ‘optics’ that, had they but known it. All the doomed poets, dying young, or youngish: Rimbaud at 37, Poe at 40, Baudelaire at 46. If Baudelaire has never quite attained the hipster cachet of Rimbaud, it may be purely a matter of image. (Which is itself already quite modern.) Before Keith Richards, before punk, here is rock and roll animal Arthur Rimbaud with his anti-gravity shock of lightning strike hair. A queer Pan with italicised attitude, Rimbaud gets the Leonardo DiCaprio film and David Wojnarowicz mask. All Baudelaire’s best-known head shots are from his twilight years: grouchy, standoffish, a dissipated cleric. Ghosting everyone, ghosting poetry itself, Rimbaud stops writing aged nineteen and disappears like a magician’s assistant. He is flighty, in the wind; Baudelaire is unhappy anywhere outside Paris. Rimbaud is eternally young and puckish; Baudelaire looks seedy and prematurely middle-aged, sparse hair brushed forward, a dandy with water damage.
One of the late fragments included here, Baudelaire’s prose poem ‘Le Miroir’ (1864), features a man so ugly that he is tempted to avoid all mirrors. But instead he protests that the revolutionary principles of 1789 give him an equal right to love his own image. Baudelaire the double-faced man: lush poet and scuffling hack; sober critic and dissolute rake; would-be revolutionary and woeful narcissist. Is this a suitable role model, a portrait fit to be placed above a writer’s desk?
Baudelaire has been part of my life for nearly fifty years now. Not one of those figures worshipped madly in youth then later discarded as an embarrassment. He’ll seem to fade away like old ink, then all of a sudden he’s back again, holding forth. Some mesmeric staying power is obviously involved. In my adolescence, he was an obligatory read. I can still see the mid-1970s Penguin collection I carried around like a talisman: parallel English and French texts, the cover Carlos Schwabe’s painting Spleen et Idéal. OK, I confess: I fell hard for the Baudelaire mythos, while never quite getting the poetry. I remember being put off by all the ‘O, muse!’ stuff, which seemed more redolent of attic tallow than city neon. He was declared the first modernist, but he didn’t feel ‘modern’ in the way Rilke or Jarry or Apollinaire did. (Never mind other teen crushes like Charlie Parker and William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara and Andy Warhol.) He felt like a poet with a capital P, writhing in the coils of Church and Satan, Evil and Beauty, Sin and Damnation. Which, God knows, all held plenty of allure for a sulky, half-Catholic male adolescent. But Baudelaire the poet seemed to belong more to the era of Napoleon astride a horse than futurists in aeroplanes or bluesmen catching Greyhound buses. It was only quite recently, thanks to the chansonnier Léo Ferré (who devoted three albums to Baudelaire settings), that the poetry finally made sense, as something declaimed out loud. Read as a dry English crib on the page it struggles to come alive. Heard as a disturbance in the air, it is seductive and dizzying. The voluptuous song of a sour romantic.
It’s a life that never quite coheres. At 24, in 1845, Baudelaire publishes his first poem and first piece of art criticism. A good year, then. But check the small print and you also find: ‘First known suicide attempt’. By the end of 1848, he’s climbed the barricades in the February Revolution and the June uprising, and started a radical newspaper. He announces a volume of ‘socialist’ poetry, but it never appears and he devotes his time instead to a new, more interior passion: translating Edgar Allan Poe. (From communal uprising to a neurasthenic ‘I’, steeped in opiate shadows.) He did have his golden years: money to spend, fashionable people to see, great paintings to promote. Influential critic, social observer, flâneur, boyfriend of the actress Jeanne Duval. In the 1840s he is painted by both Deroy and Courbet. But in the mid-1850s things start to slide. His family allowance is slashed. He flops from room to room, dodging his many creditors. Grand projects are announced but few see the light of day. His masterpiece, Les Fleurs du mal, finally appears in 1857. ‘It only remains for you to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the Cross,’ his pal Barbey d’Aurevilly tells him, anticipating Bad Lieutenant by more than a century. Nothing after the evil flowers is ever quite as good again. Willed exile from good sense – from all the old bluff, tight-pursed bourgeois values – isn’t necessarily a good career move. Baudelaire goes from spendthrift to scuffler. A functioning addict, chasing his various dragons, beset by syphilis and a jigger of other maladies. This is not a romantic life.
In myth, though, he shines, a bright point of clarity among murky shadows: the bad boy Symbolist who combines the delicacy of lyric poetry with a life of grime, the quote machine who defines modern life as something ‘transitory … fugitive … contingent’ and commands: ‘Be drunken, always!’ This wasn’t merely an incitement to alcoholic riot. It was a redemptive manifesto, urging life lived in a state of perpetual enthralment. Maybe ‘drunken’ (a great hook, admittedly, for teenage readers) isn’t even the best translation – ‘intoxicated’ might be better. Be always intoxicated, transported by your vice or virtue of choice, inspiration moving within you like a squirming eel. This may also have been the start of the authenticity con, the idea that to write it you had to live it, and preferably under a fang-like moon of malediction. Live fast, die young and have several lovers (and publishers) sniffling round your grave. Nietzsche, Lautréamont, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Kerouac, Camus: few of our Penguin Modern Classic pin-ups had long lives or happy deaths.
It used to be said that the French longed to be rock and rollers, while rock and rollers wanted to be poètes maudits. The French may have had Charles Baudelaire, but they wanted to be Chuck Berry or Johnny Thunders; Jim Morrison was worshipped as a rock god, but wanted to drop out and be Baudelaire. A few years further back, the Beats saw something of themselves in scurvy exemplars like Verlaine and Rimbaud: a yen for intoxicants, an awe before Black culture, a certain sexual fluidity, a fizzing sense of alienation. In an article from 1957 titled ‘The Commercialisation of the Image of Revolt’, Kenneth Rexroth compared the new bohemia unfavourably with the old: ‘There’s hardly … a fad taken up every five years by a new bohemian generation which Baudelaire didn’t push to its limits.’ In my own time, punk and its aftermath saw a blizzard of French namedrops: Thomas Miller – the frontman of Television, who died recently – became Tom Verlaine, while his sometime girlfriend Patti Smith hollered ‘Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud!’ and his pal Richard Hell traded Huysmans lines with Lester Bangs. One of the founding members of the anarchist outfit Crass changed his name by deed poll in 1977 to Penny Rimbaud. Here were the Fall, and the Cure’s ‘Killing an Arab’. Nurse with Wound quoted Lautréamont’s ‘Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella’; Magazine put a lithograph by the Symbolist Odilon Redon on the sleeve of ‘Shot by Both Sides’.
Baudelaire was a bit more niche, worked at a lower temperature. More jazz than rock. His reflections on the dandy in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) outline an early version of ‘cool’, in the sense later developed in Black American culture. When he speaks of ‘that cold exterior resulting from the unshakeable determination to remain unmoved … a latent fire, whose existence is merely suspected’, it sounds uncannily like the aesthetic of postwar jazz. You can just see Miles Davis’s face, hear the fluid tone of his trumpet. Baudelaire’s essay starts as a defence, then deepens into a kind of ethic, both consoling and peremptory: ‘A dandy may be blasé, he may even suffer pain, but … he will keep smiling, like the Spartan under the bite of the fox.’ An aristocracy of style and taste over privilege, breeding or money – a state ‘close to spirituality and to stoicism’.
Yet there is in the end something quite forlorn about Baudelaire’s ‘fastidious’ dandy. An utterly self-involved figure, unwilling to be ruffled or possessed, wary of ever spilling over the sides of his every choreographed response. ‘As concerns the sense of touch, he studiously avoids … any tactile contact with the other, unless it be in anger or irritation.’ Entanglements are for les autres. We see here, as in a fever dream, Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï: glacial poise, imperturbable calm – but also something brittle, congealed, mechanical. A ghost in daylight on a crowded street. A set of eyes without a sex. Baudelaire brags of his distaste for the natural, his love of the artificial: make-up, mirrors, lighting, drugs. Artificial paradise is the only paradise! But the side wager on such a life is that you end up all alone, impatient with human imperfection. An ashy taste on the tongue. Nothing but your own reflection for company. Emotions in a vacuum. Is it possible to grow old living this way? Can you remain a dandy for ever?
Baudelaire’s own season in hell involved a long stay in a nice hotel room. For nearly two years, between 1864 and 1866, he holed up at the Hôtel du Grand Miroir in Brussels, anxious, his bill steadily climbing. In exile, but not far, just a border crossing away. And here is his border lair, the sick room of a voluptuary. Prone on his day bed, endlessly self-medicating: a phoenix reborn as a crow. He had swapped his beloved Paris for Belgium partly to flee creditors; partly in hope of reselling already sold book rights to fresh, unwary publishers; partly to give a series of lectures to drum up interest in what we would now call his brand. The lectures were a bit of a farce, sparsely attended, and he died on his arse. His opium use intensified, and he began to drink more aggressively. He was suffering the horrors of late-stage syphilis, and was barely getting by on a severely reduced monthly pittance from his trust fund and small sums wheedled out of his mother. In early 1866, while visiting the Baroque Church of Saint-Loup in Namur, he had a massive cerebral stroke; he sank into aphasia, then a coma. In less than eighteen months he would be dead.
It’s easy to see why Baudelaire lit out for Belgium, but why did he stay so long? It’s a puzzle fit for Maigret, one of those cloud-drift plots played out on the border between France and Belgium. A grand hotel is visited by a mysterious stranger, surly and incommunicative, who seldom leaves his room. (When he does go out, he returns in an even fouler mood.) His clothes are expensive, but look a bit worn. No one can put their finger on it, but something isn’t quite right. Baudelaire’s only real crime may have been all the time he killed. One of his closest friends, Théophile Gautier, exclaimed in baffled irritation: ‘This Baudelaire is astonishing. How to explain this mania of his – extending his stay in a country that only causes him to suffer! … Baudelaire just remains on in Brussels, where he’s bored stiff, for the sheer pleasure of telling all of us just how bored he’s been.’ Another friend, Malassis, spoke of his ‘tendency to radoter (or just rattle on and on) when it came to all things Belgian’.
Baudelaire’s final project looks like something W.C. Fields might have conceived during a more than usually pestilential hangover. In a letter from 1864 he refers to it as ‘Belgian Letters’, whose ‘fragments’ he hopes to sell to Le Figaro. It becomes ‘Pauvre Belgique’, then finally La Belgique déshabillée. Three publishers turned it down at an early stage for fear of alienating – well, almost everyone. If an entire nation could bring a class-action suit for defamation, this nearly-book would be the occasion. Yet Baudelaire continued to think it would turn things around for him. Richard Sieburth – who has collected Belgium Disrobed along with numerous other scraps, notes and half-abandoned projects as Late Fragments – sees in this self-kidology a perfectly achieved vicious circle: Baudelaire was ‘writing a book so offensive and so repellent that it could never be officially published in Belgium, yet … he was too broke to return to Paris to see it into print’.
It’s impossible to know if any of Baudelaire’s Belgian ‘observations’ are at all accurate or true. They might equally be the result of too many drugs, or the wrong drugs, or plain bad humour. It’s as if he’s looking for things to be annoyed by – a bent flic, trying to find someone to fit up. His irritation rises to such a ridiculous pitch you either have to laugh or turn your face away. He is repelled by everything Belgian: men, women, children (‘filthy, snot-nosed little vermin, repulsive’), priests, prostitutes, voters, dogs, you name it. He calls Belgians ‘simian’ and ‘gaping latrines of imbecility’ and compares them to the ‘cannibal tribes of South America’ (a nice two for one put-down there). His prejudice is entirely without humour or discrimination. He’s made up his mind: nothing can possibly compare to Paris. He can’t take his usual stroll, because he doesn’t like all the Belgian hills and Belgian cobbles and Belgian pavements. We move on to annoying Belgian whistlers (‘What they whistle are not tunes’), Belgian canals, Belgians’ bandy legs, the annoying Belgian pince-nez they all wear, their awful Belgian laughter, their bland Belgian cigars, their lazy Belgian pronunciation, their inferior Belgian bread and black Belgian butter and finally ‘even the vegetables’. That last remark made me spit out my mid-afternoon frites in disbelieving laughter. But it’s not actually that amusing. There’s something quite sad about it, like seeing someone you know having an alcoholic breakdown in the street, spitting and swearing at everyone and everything around them. Sieburth would have us believe it’s a grand satire, comparable to Swift. For me it’s nearer to Derek and Clive.
This is Baudelaire with his dandy’s mask off, and it isn’t pleasant. There’s an awful strain of misogyny, and a weird fixation on bodies relieving themselves. It’s all rather excremental. ‘There are only two places where one pays for the right to spend: public toilets and women.’ ‘Everywhere else childhood is a pretty thing; here it is hideous, scabby, mangy, grimy, smeared with shit.’ It’s less diaristic than diuretic, less like pointed satire than the howl of someone who has lost control. Why is he so angry? Does he really hate Belgium that much? Or could it be his own sick body’s rebellion against him that is causing this apocalyptically bad mood? Everything is diseased, crumbling, repugnant, horrific. ‘Spleen’ may be the apt word here, carrying as it does not just a freight of anger and intolerance and ill will, but a murky undercurrent of physical malady. He was, after all, a very sick man: ‘Fits of suffocation. Horrible headaches. Heaviness; congestion; total dizziness. If standing, I fall; if sitting, I fall … After regaining consciousness, the need to vomit. Head heating up. Cold sweats.’
If Baudelaire’s excoriation had been aimed at some other race or people, would it still be treated with such respect? (Think of Céline, whom no one wants to know these days.) The argument – academic, in both senses – seems to be: if it’s Baudelaire it must possess a higher signification; it is gold to be panned, set, admired. Sieburth tries to talk up these ‘late fragments’ as deliberately splintered, a daring hybrid; Baudelaire is compared to Agamben, Bergson, Blanchot, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari. But mostly these bits and pieces just feel tired, the motivation all too clear: exigent payment. In My Heart Laid Bare (originally translated in 1887 as Intimate Journals), Baudelaire gets down to basics: ‘What is art? Prostitution.’ Is this a poke at meekly hypocritical salon art, or glum (and banal) self-reflection? Did he feel he had insulted his muse to earn a daily crust? Young Baudelaire might have enjoyed the idea of art as paid vice; middle-aged Baudelaire just sounds grouchy and sniping. Genuine outsiders inhabit a different world, existentially speaking: prostitutes, gamblers, pickpockets, drunks, ragpickers, beggars. It’s the other side of modernity, where the flâneur may visit, but doesn’t want to end up. The poète maudit is supposedly ‘outside of society’, an elective orphan. Baudelaire’s attitude to life on the margins was ambivalent. He wanted to shock and dismay, but also longed for the praise and acceptance of his contemporaries. If he laboured under any curse, it was largely his own doing. In this, he sets a nice precedent for the avant-garde: always wanting to be out on the risky perimeter of things, but able to return home to a nice feather bed at the end of the night. When things went wrong for him, he always went back to his mother’s house in Honfleur, on the Normandy coast. This kind of double-entry bookkeeping anticipates another consistent trait of the avant-garde: posing as radical in public while privately cushioned by family money or a spouse’s quiet labour.
Walter Benjamin thought one key to understanding Baudelaire was to see him as someone who had to sell his wares in the marketplace. Why was it Benjamin who spotted this? Perhaps he saw his own reflection reproduced there – ‘mon semblable, mon frère’. There was family money in both cases, but it was never enough. Neither ever had any kind of safe harbour in academia; they always had to live on their wits, and by their pens. Late Fragments gives a sense of Baudelaire’s woeful finances. Always the same tightrope: is there enough money to make it through till tomorrow? What must I do today to ensure next month isn’t a wasteland? And what about next year? Is there any way I can repurpose past work for present gain? Marvel at Baudelaire’s barefaced assurance to one editor that he has set up a helpful new form – a kind of combinatory feuilleton-poem, which can be cut into individual lines and run in any order, an infinite number of times. The freelance dream! Micro-increments of recyclable word count! Was he serious? Sieburth seems to think so, and I suppose it’s just about possible to see it as some kind of Oulipo jest avant la lettre, a hundred years before Raymond Queneau actually did it. But speaking as a freelancer myself, I detect a high note of low desperation.
Baudelaire’s fragments frequently look less like serious literature and more like the delusive autofiction of a long-time drug addict: a superficial busyness of plans, schedules and endless to-do lists. There are self-admonitions (‘Wisdom, in a nutshell: personal hygiene, prayer, work’) and some palpably in-yer-dreams commandments: ‘Observe the strictest principles of sobriety, the first of which is the elimination of all stimulants, whatever they may be.’ There are numberless one-line or one-word ‘ideas’, as if the mere act of setting them down rendered the work all but realised: stoned reverie in which dreamed achievement takes the place of daily slog. Sieburth notes that by 1858 Baudelaire was already using ether and opium ‘to treat his various physical afflictions’. But how many of his physical afflictions were caused in the first place by drink and drugs? I spy a vicious circle: getting wasted leads to wasted time and wastefulness, which leads to regret, which leads to further consoling draughts and pipes and potions. Things reach a point of complete absurdity with ‘an inventory of all the various associated short stories and novels that he had failed to write through his career’. Sieburth calls Baudelaire’s sad little notes on them ‘reliquiae’ of ‘phantom works in progress’. He had surely slipped beyond melancholy into a form of self-mourning.
It’s almost heroic how he refuses to give up the ghost, churning out unconvincing ideas for articles, poems, books, memoirs. It’s a young man’s game, this: hustling, hustling from behind. He can never get far enough ahead of himself to feel safe. Another deadline always looming. The money never quite enough, nor the acclaim. ‘The man of letters is the enemy of the world,’ he snarls. He presumably meant not his own knife-edge calling, but the gilded world of the gentleman scholar, the gifted amateur, the dilettante: airy, respectable, snooty. Baudelaire remained a working stiff to the end, destined never to become a venerable member of the Académie française.
Marooned in Brussels, Baudelaire is alone and in pain and there is nothing he has any control over. He knew time was running out, and wanted to feel that his Complete Works were in safe hands. But he’d burned all his bridges; he was notorious, and not in a good way. What little energy he had left he was squandering on these scraps and squibs and half-hearted volleys of self-imitation. Sieburth claims that Baudelaire’s fragments belong to a specific aesthetic lineage of ‘late style’. They ‘seem especially to invite Adorno’s imagery of desiccation and discord … a bitter harvest of anger and outrage, prickly to the palate and virtually impossible to swallow’. Well, maybe. Do they belong in the company of such lapidary late stylists as Beckett, Beethoven, Blanchot? It doesn’t feel as if Baudelaire had located a twilight vein. These would-be aphorisms mostly read like shavings from an old workbook. None of them delight. There is no click of recognition as they tumble like a lock – they just sit there dead on the page, needing more work. An example: ‘I’ve always been astonished that women are allowed in churches. What kind of conversation could they possibly hold with God?’ Isn’t there a final line missing here? Something wicked or wise or offensive? None of his observations surprises us, because they didn’t surprise him to start with. He’s striking poses, just to keep himself upright. Perhaps if he’d written about his ailing health and low state of mind – a meditation on narrowing time – it might have been a small revelation, like Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain. A pillow book from a sick man’s room. ‘Baroque allegory sees the corpse only from the outside; Baudelaire sees it from within,’ Benjamin claimed. In Belgium, he was decomposing while still alive; if only he had given us his field notes.
There are occasional flashes of the lovely prose stylist he once was. One brief feuilleton on the lure of the docks – the view from the belvedere of the ‘mobile architecture of the clouds’, the ‘scintillation of the lighthouses’ – trails a genuine whiff of ozone. Back to the city, eyes on the horizon: a threshold place, teeming with detail. It’s like he’s summoning the memory of a painting he once loved. But it’s no more than an academic exercise – I think I’ll sketch this view, just to keep my hand in. This is also a Baudelaire absent politics. Baudelaire and Rimbaud and Ducasse all had their moment on the barricades, but the fervour and agitation of revolution seem very far away in these fragments. As does his eye for hidden aspects of the urban world. In Belgium Disrobed, the only things he seems impressed by are a few churches and cathedrals. One of the few dot-dash notes to lodge in my mind from Late Fragments was jotted down after a visit to a Jesuit church in Brussels: ‘The boudoir of Religion/Immense glorias./Mourning in marble’.
Back in his hotel room the curtains are drawn, the air stifling. The light fades on this severely truncated life. Baudelaire ends his days like a character in Poe: humbled, haunted, dispossessed. Wasting away in rooms lined with the velvet chatter of ghosts, a lonely man glaring at himself in a rented mirror. He started out ahead of his contemporaries, but is now falling slowly, haltingly behind. A once opulent chinoiserie, unravelling. ‘Between the two of us,’ he writes to his mother from Brussels, ‘everything is going very badly. I arrived too late.’
The problem with a certain sort of academic treatment, even when it’s sympathetic, is the way it takes something once scandalous and exorbitant and neuters it, flattens it, makes it utile. Sieburth is far less culpable in this regard than many, and happily low on what Baudelaire somewhere calls ‘that dangerous Parisian penchant for overgeneralisation’. His introductory essays here are marvels of compression, written in flowing, non-opaque prose; you can feel Baudelaire in the room, aggrieved and demanding. Sieburth is, however, a bit too fond of his florid academic shorthand; he tries to tint everything Baudelaire ever committed to paper, no matter how slapdash, with its own honorific: ‘pensées’, ‘maxims’, ‘salient objets trouvés’, ‘delirious satire’, ‘feuilles volantes’. Baudelaire is too gnarly to keep inside such chintzy boxes. Even the translation of La Belgique déshabillée as Belgium Disrobed feels like a bit of a fudge; Belgium Assaulted might have been better. Sieburth calls the book ‘something of a hybrid monster’ and swoons before ‘this immense montage whose citational strategies of mimetic satire and impersonation anticipate those of Flaubert … of Karl Kraus … of Walter Benjamin.’ There’s only one text I thought it might arguably anticipate, but it doesn’t get a namecheck: William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (a work also assembled in fragments by a sick and addicted man via a kind of performed ‘routine’). When Sieburth calls Belgium Disrobed a ‘great ruin – or construction site – of a book’ he’s nearer the mark. And his use of the word ‘debris’ may be nearest of all – far more apt than ‘fragments’.
Maybe it’s best to think of Baudelaire as belonging to a moment just prior to the truly modern, before everyone started chipping away at literature’s indomitable ‘I’. Baudelaire doesn’t have enough doubt about such things to be truly modern. He died half a century before Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), before ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), before ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920). He takes his own dreams, nightmares, outbursts and reveries as manifestations of a natural perversity. Baudelaire and his kind inhabited what was a very snug masculine world: dandified aesthetes and their salons and exclusive drug clubs, their unhurried strolls, their assignations for money. These were guys who didn’t have kids to look after, meals to prepare, a clock to punch. In this time before Teenage, it was temptingly easy to remain an adolescent your whole life long.
Baudelaire was, long after his death, finally accepted into the academy – but would he like it there? Would he be glad to see these subpar late works so luxuriantly framed and reverently hosanna’d? Or would he secretly prefer more outré, unsanctioned takes? I think of the Belgian Surrealist Marcel Broodthaers, who commemorated Baudelaire in works from the 1970s such as Comédie and Pauvre Belgique de Charles Baudelaire. More recently, Roberto Calasso’s book-length essay La Folie Baudelaire (2008) uses Baudelaire as a screen on which to project a multi-voiced immersive drama about the pre-modernist period. Calasso’s Baudelaire isn’t a Great Man working in isolation, but a hub around which multitudes swarm. In Proverbs of a She-Dandy (2018), the poet Lisa Robertson pinpoints things lost in more theoretical treatments: the body, ageing, sensuality, gender. ‘Here then, in the luxury of my bath, permitting the Baudelairean correspondences between dandy and old woman to drift beyond the margins of his poems and essays, I will activate the figure of menopause as the new dandiacal body.’ Like Robertson, the late Scottish-Ghanaian artist Maud Sulter was fascinated by Baudelaire’s great love, the Haitian-born actress Jeanne Duval. In works like Les Bijoux and Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama I-IV, Duval is viewed as a ghost at the feast, a woman of colour erased yet at the same time troublingly, insistently, gloriously present.
Perhaps it’s this chimerical, boisterous afterlife that is the most modern thing about Baudelaire. Not just this or that text, well or badly translated, but the very fact of being available to a mass readership, his face known around the world, some of his great lines too. A persistent and unlikely idol to the young – it’s something Baudelaire (and even Benjamin) would have found hard to credit. This, too, is modern: the crazy notion that a mere critic might be considered heroic. A voice for unvoiced things, rapt and partial. New maps forming before his eyes, a notary of city pleasures, alone in the billowing seaweed of the crowd. One foot in a splendid Gothic cathedral, the other in a dingy afternoon hotel, he cultivates his own special urban horology. Under his pen, new forms of time spill out and begin to circulate. Idling time. Gazing time. Time dissolving like a drug on the tongue.
It might make most sense, in the end, to see Baudelaire as a staging post or bridge or border crossing: Checkpoint Charlie. One of those cusp figures we keep returning to – all the wraiths and strays, bachelors and battered autodidacts. The sturdier first team (Sartre, Camus et al) replaced by an altogether flakier, unhealthier bunch: Bataille, Benjamin, Cioran, Daumal, Pessoa, Walser. The between-the-cracks boys, the asexual weeds and meditative libertines and troubled voyants. In his long essay on Baudelaire from 1947, Sartre certainly found something off about him: not a proper ‘man of letters’ at all. A few years later, in the psychobiography Saint Genet, Sartre also tried to put Jean Genet in his proper place. Both Baudelaire and Genet were apostles of the artificial rather than the ‘authentic’. A world of mirrors, doubles, ghosts; of make-up, décor, drugs – contra the very idea of a ‘natural’ masculinity. Baudelaire saw masculinity for the artificial construct that it was, and obviated it with a new way of looking at things: arch, hothouse, wildly disreputable. Queer eye from the straight guy.
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