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.

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