Horrible Dead Years

Christopher Prendergast

  • Baudelaire by Joanna Richardson
    Murray, 602 pp, £30.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 7195 4813 6

While Baudelaire, speech-bereft, lay on his sick-bed in Brussels, his mother, rummaging through his overcoat, came across some photographs of her son taken by Nadar. It was a strange but instructive find. Baudelaire detested photography (as a mere technology of mechanical reproduction, it was the emblem of modernity’s threat to art), and yet his own photographic image, notably the portraits left by Nadar, is in many ways a capital document for understanding the tormented, self-destructive trajectory of his ‘life’. Gaëtan Picon remarked that in the Nadar photograph of 1862 the 41-year-old Baudelaire looked as if he were a hundred (Baudelaire himself, in one of the ‘Spleen’ poems, made it a thousand). The face, above all the eyes with their look at once haunted and hunted, confirm the sentiment of overwhelming weariness expressed two years previously in a letter to his mother: ‘Oh how weary I am, how weary I’ve been for many years already, of this need to live twenty-four hours every day!’ He also wrote to his mother, in ghostly retrospect, as if he were the true author of the Mémoires d’ outre-tombe: ‘I gaze back over all the dead years, the horrible dead years.’ The photograph, too, suggests something of the ghost, akin to the spectral presences-absences that populate the street poems in the ‘Tableaux parisiens’ section of Les Fleurs du mal (the title for the collection as a whole was originally to have been Les Limbes).

Though death-haunted, this is also the face of a life lived in relation to an age, stamped with the nervous intensity of modernity’s rhythms and pressures. Verlaine captured the relation perfectly: ‘The profound originality of Charles Baudelaire is ... to represent modern man, powerfully and in his essence ... modern man, with his sharpened, vibrant senses, his painfully subtle mind, his brain saturated with tobacco, his blood burnt with alcohol.’ The ghost in the exhausted machine is one figure for this experience of excess and burn-out. Two others are those of the undertaker and the gambler. Baudelaire’s black garb echoes the undertaker’s habit, which in the Salon de 1846 he described as the uniform of his century. The poetry is like the rehearsal of a funeral, an extended act of mourning, though whether for himself or itself is not always clear (at Béranger’s funeral, Baudelaire said to Roger de Beauvoir: ‘Make no mistake, I am in mourning for Les Fleurs du mal’). Perhaps only Baudelaire could have imagined coffins at the sound of logs being unloaded on a winter’s afternoon. He compared his heart to ‘chambres d’éternel deuil’ and saw in his heart a file-past of hearses (‘Et de longs corbillards, sans tambour ni musique, défilent lentement dans mon âme’).

This is what for Baudelaire it is like to be king of the rainy country, ‘jeune et pourtant très-vieux’. It is the outcome of an experiment on the mind and the body designed to go wrong, a ceaseless dicing with danger. If the past is a cupboard full of skeletons and ghosts, Time is the avid gambler ‘qui gagne sane tricher’. But if Time wins hands down, this his in part because Baudelaire has loaded the dice in order to lose. ‘Vieille fin de partie perdue, finir de perdre’, is Hamm’s half-mumbled, enigmatic line in Beckett’s play. Baudelaire is Hamm’s brother, not just in playing to lose, willing an end to the losing game (to ‘this need to live twenty-four hours every day’), but also in having more than a touch of the ham actor, coming belatedly, via his beloved Edgar Allan Poe, to the repertoire of romantisme noir knowing it to be a repertoire. Irony always saves Baudelaire from sporting an off-the-peg undertaker’s uniform and parading an easy, gothicised melancholia.

The game is nevertheless deadly serious and supplies the terms on which his death-in-life returns, like a ghost (the ‘revenant’ in the poem of that title), to haunt us, the terms on which we can call him our contemporary. The most compelling accounts we have of Baudelaire’s continuing relevance stress the image, and the implications, of Baudelaire the risk-taker. Harold Rosenberg described his whole artistic outlook as exemplary in so far as it was based on a ‘gamble’, a wager on individual sensibility without the backing of an authoritative or canonical vocabulary (Baudelaire himself called Madame Bovary a ‘wager, a real wager, a bet, like all works of art’). Baudelairean modernité, in this view, is an adventurous gamble on an inherently uncertain set of new possibilities. Shock to the ‘system’ (in all the relevant senses of the term) is one of the purposes of this high-risk play, and the gambling instinct, otherwise moralised as a Mephistophelean pact with the Devil, is also at the origin of a pioneering aesthetic associated with the temptations and perils of what we now call the ‘shock of the new’.

‘Shock’ here means many things. It includes of course the ‘shocking’, as understood by the prosecution at the trial of Les Fleurs du mal for blasphemy and obscenity. It also means a psychic openness to stimulus and sensation, shock to the nervous system, for which the modern city was the principal source. Its decisive formulation came with the notion of ‘l’homme de la foule’ sketched out in Le Peintre de la vie moderne, where the man who rushes frenziedly into the crowd is likened to someone plunging into a ‘reservoir of electricity’. Switched on, nerves jangling, he pursues sensation in a state of strangely detached cerebral excitement. The pursuit is sometimes compared to a quest for ‘communion’, a social equivalent of drug-induced intoxication. In the abstracted, anonymous spaces of the city, however, ‘community’ is what is never found. Baudelaire enters his city only to leave it (literally in the case of the late move to Brussels). He is often seen as the harbinger of the poet of the open road, always on the move (literally again in the unbelievably turbulent déménagements of his life in Paris; in two years he moved 30 times, mainly because he couldn’t pay his bills). This is then quickly generalised into the image of Baudelaire the poet of exile (the great theme of the poem, ‘Le Cygne’, as of the opening text of the prose poems, ‘L’Etranger’).

But the view of Baudelaire as incarnation of Lukács’s transcendentally homeless subject overlooks much in both the life and the work. Baudelaire, whose actual experience of homelessness might have made him wary of a fancy metaphysical metaphor, spoke of ‘the horror of domicile’ as a ‘malady of the century’. Similarly, contact with the electrical reservoir of modern life was as likely to electrocute as to electrify. The magnificent poem, ‘A une passante’, gives us some sense of this, with its dramatic image (brilliantly explicated by Walter Benjamin) of the body twitching in spasm, close to nervous breakdown (‘crispé comme un extravagant’). The greatest danger of risk-taking was psychic depletion, and Baudelaire’s gambler (in the poem, ‘Le Jeu’, for instance) more often than not falls into a state of pale-faced catatonia, his experience disintegrating into the unconnected moments that Benjamin called the ‘time of Hell’.

For the Baudelairean psyche, as it welcomed the shock of the new, also feared it and sought various defences. Accompanying the ghost, the gambler and the undertaker, Baudelaire’s private pantheon also includes the persona of the fencer, who uses his pen as a sword to parry the blows of the world. His conception of lyric poetry, as the creation of ‘harmony’ out of the discordant fragments of modern life, is largely conceived as a way of protecting the mind against unwanted stimulus. The theory and practice of ‘correspondances’, for example, with its dreams of exile abolished and paradise regained in the web of universal analogy, is openly regressive, an attempt, as Benjamin put it, to package experience ‘in a crisis-proof form’. Self-protection is also one of the functions of irony, of the many masks donned by Baudelaire the impassive clown, and of the sedulous formality of both his social manner and his literary manner: beneath the surface correctness there is a mind constantly on the edge (Baudelaire was much interested in the newly investigated syndrome of ‘hysteria’, and one of the sharpest critical descriptions of him was by his contemporary, Dusolier, who referred to him as ‘un Boileau hystérique’).

To see the life and the work simply as an economy for managing hysteria and trauma would be excessively reductive. But it places us on the edge in addressing the question of the terms in which Baudelaire continues to speak to us, to be our contemporary. If in one incarnation he is the gambler, chancing his arm (in fact his whole body) in a life-consuming encounter with modernity, in another incarnation he is all withdrawal and retreat. There is, for example, the vexed question of Baudelaire’s ‘politics’. There was some agitated involvement with the Left in 1848, but the valiant attempts by certain commentators to argue that his basic commitments remained provocatively radical throughout are not sustained by the evidence. Or rather his commitments were radical but arguably of an entirely different stripe. Baudelaire claimed that Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état and the forms of modernisation ushered in during the Second Empire left his generation ‘physiquement dépolitiqué’. Since ‘dépolitiqué’ does not naturally translate as ‘depoliticised’, what this means is very much open to interpretation. There is a recoil and a retreat, but they take the form of a violent denunciation of democracy, commercial society, republicanism, ‘Americanisation’ (the essays on Poe), along with punitive fantasies issuing from his infatuation with the works of the truly alarming Joseph de Maistre, abominable observations about women as an abomination (‘latrines’, he once said). And then what do we make of the terrifyingly poker-faced imagining of ‘une belle conspiration à organiser pour l’extermination de la Race Juive’ (in Mon coeur mis à nu). Is this a dark prophecy? A piece of hysterical lunacy? It may be a sort of ‘joke’, but the vacillating character of Baudelaire’s irony allows us no means of telling. But if the Baudelaire of the 1850s and 1860s is ‘radical’, he is more plausibly seen as belonging, for better or worse, to the tradition of radical-right cultural critique that runs from de Maistre through Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to Heidegger. We make of this what we may.

Joanna Richardson’s new book makes nothing of it at all (the notorious remark about the Jews is not even mentioned). Whatever questions engage her, the question about this book is what exactly it has to offer, other than yet more fodder from that branch of the culture-industry catering to the seemingly insatiable appetite for anecdotal biography. Minimally, we might have expected some significant advance on the standard biography in English by Enid Starkie (it is one of the more curious features of this work that, apart from a terse listing in the bibliography, it manages to avoid all reference to its illustrious predecessor, despite the fact that in her own book Starkie handsomely thanked Ms Richardson for her assistance with matters of research). Richardson gives us more ‘data’, but that’s about it. It is, I suppose, part of the culture of biotrash that questions about what it now means to write a biography, and in particular a biography of Baudelaire, are simply not raised. But post-Sartre and post-Benjamin, it would surely mean some effort to interpret the ‘life’ in terms of a wider history, understood as having something to do with the larger forces and configurations of the 19th-century world.

One would have thought, for example, that, after Edward Said’s Orientalism and the important work of Christopher Miller on Baudelairean ‘exoticism’, the youthful trip to the Ile de la Réunion would have produced something more analytically strenuous than references to ‘his Oriental odyssey’, ‘negresses with shadowy hair, the smell of musk and tar’ and so on, as experiences which were ‘to make him think and write like a man’. Again, the account of Baudelaire’s unrelenting difficulties over money would require not just the story of the abjectly humiliating arrangement of the Conseil judiciaire, but also, in the narrative of his dealings with editors and publishers, some deeper engagement with what it meant for a writer like Baudelaire to operate in the modern literary marketplace.

And then there is the question of what to do with Baudelaire’s ‘religion’. Here Richardson does follow in the footsteps of her predecessor. Starkie’s capacities for imaginative involvement with la bohème and the life of the poète maudit were severely constrained by some very curious assumptions. They include the dismissal of the suggestion that Baudelaire’s feelings about his mother were in any way ‘Oedipal’, on the grounds that he was far too nice a young man to have been caught up in anything so ‘abnormal’. On the wilder shores of speculation, they also include that astonishing exercise in counterfactuals to the effect that, had Baudelaire been born and raised in England, he would have gone up to Oxford, become a Balliol man, where, appropriately tutored, nurtured and socialised, he would not have been Baudelaire at all.

Richardson is also drawn to normalising and respectabilising flights of fancy, principally around the question of religion. One of the recurring claims of her book is that, beyond all the sound and fury, Baudelaire was a good Catholic boy. T.S. Eliot gave some plausible reasons for taking Baudelaire’s tortured relation with Catholicism seriously, but, though Richardson cites Eliot, she does not emulate him. Indeed her own counterpart to Starkie is the truly demented hypothesis that Baudelaire perhaps chose a debilitatingly miserable life because he was a good Catholic, in order to demonstrate the validity of the doctrine of original sin and the wages thereof (‘Perhaps this conduct had owed something to his religious creed’). If you believe that, you’ll believe anything. If there is a privately constructed telos to the life, it is not because Baudelaire wished to prove a theological point or to instantiate some bien-pensant cliché about the wages of sin; it was to act out the self-destructive nature of human desire. ‘The body would be well, if the soul were well,’ he wrote, adding: ‘The soul will never be well.’

There were, however, consolations for and resistances to this self-inflicted catastrophe. The former were mainly the consolations of memory; the ruins of the past (the faded flowers, as Baudelaire often described them), if they produced melancholy and mourning, could also generate the ecstasy of what Freud called the ‘oceanic’ feeling (he would surely have enjoyed the ambiguities of Freud’s musings about memory and desire in Civilisation and Its Discontents). The spontaneous resurgence of souvenir is one of the great themes of the more euphoric poems. The resistances bring us back to both Nadar’s photograph and the sick-bed. For another feature of the face in the photograph is the mouth and its tight-lipped defiance. It is therefore entirely characteristic that the last book seen in Baudelaire’s hands as he went into terminal decline was Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, once again dicing with danger, as the nuns around him in the Brussels hospice complained to their Mother Superior about his lack of religion.

This refusal to throw in the towel has something to do with what Baudelaire called ‘the heroism of modern life’. In this connection there are three moments in his last months which, in more upbeat mood, we might wish to take away with us. Richardson supplies them all, in these, the best pages of her book (were they not so thoroughly blemished by the determination to get Baudelaire back into the fold of orthodoxy). The first concerns tobacco. Baudelaire’s tobacco consumption was prodigious and had to be abandoned when he finally collapsed. But in a brief period of respite, as he convalesced in Paris after the move from Brussels (the Mother Superior gave up on him), a friend found him in a corridor ‘smoking a cigar, and smoking it with evident relish’ and then added the remark that would have made both him and Baudelaire good friends of Italo Svevo: ‘This may seem a futile remark, but it is a diagnosis which is rarely mistaken; when smokers and snufftakers no longer ask for tobacco, it is a bad sign; when they come back to it one is entitled to augur for the best.’ Alas, in the case of Baudelaire, one was not so entitled. But, as he fell apart, his brain rotted with tertiary syphilis and his speech destroyed by aphasia, there was one remarkable reprieve. By now all Baudelaire could say was: ‘Ah non, crénom, non!’ Nadar and Manet were regular visitors to the Paris nursing-home. One afternoon Nadar came alone: Baudelaire was visibly disappointed at Manet’s absence and, on Nadar’s departure, was heard, as if from some miraculous reaching beyond his wrecked condition, to call out, instead of the all-purpose ‘crénom’: ‘Manet! Manet!’

Finally there was Baudelaire’s laugh (he wrote an essay on laughter). Asselineau recalls him arriving in Paris from the Brussels hospice: ‘It broke my heart and the tears rose to my eyes.’ Asselineau’s tears were, however, met with Baudelaire’s laughter: ‘He caught sight of me, and let out a burst of laughter, long, loud and persistent, which froze me.’ Baudelaire’s enigmatic laugh can be taken in many ways; for example, as close in spirit to ‘ce rire amer/de l’homme vaincu, plein de sanglots et d’insultes’ evoked in the poem ‘L’Irréparable’. But it can also send us in another direction, back to the beginning, Baudelaire on the threshold of his literary career (if it could be called that). One day he met that other Promethean character, Balzac, on the quais. Prarond records the meeting as follows: ‘Baudelaire stopped in front of Balzac, and began to laugh as if he had known him for ten years. Balzac also stopped and answered with wholehearted laughter, as if he had rediscovered an old friend. And, having recognised each other at a glance, and greeted each other, these two spirits went on their way together, chatting, discussing, enchanting one another.’