NOTES ON CHARLES BAUDELAIRE
Charles Baudelaire. From Flowers of Evil (Vol. E, 1380-98).
Introductory: General Notes on Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life
We can use impressionism to draw out Baudelaire. It’s only the roughness of the eye that makes two things look identical. It’s getting harder to perceive anything in a fresh, accurate way. The artist must defend that capacity without rejecting modernity. To lose this ability is to lose your soul — Baudelaire borrows from Christianity (original sin, fallenness of perception, etc.) Seeing is itself a moral act. He’s one of the forebears of aestheticism. Aisthanomai means “I perceive for myself” (not as others try to make me perceive or understand). Expressive poetics aside, this is what the romantics argued when they said it was vital to strip away the “film of familiarity” and see things anew.
But Baudelaire doesn’t tell us to desert the urban site of spiritual corruption. Rather, we begin by seeing our cityscapes clearly. Artists should wrest from Parisian boulevards with their businesslike evanescence something of permanent value, something that will make us see rightly rather than accept stale, conventional perceptions. Denaturalization: art denaturalizes us to our surroundings, makes us see them like intelligent children with expressive capacity.
Baudelaire offers a few different categories for the artist and perceiver: the dandy, a haughty aristocratic pose (Brummel) that remains aloof. And there’s the flâneur, who is a figure for the poet-observer; the aim is to obtain clarity for an instant and to make art register that clarity in a crisp thought or image. Photography would be a good contemporary model: not romanticism—not individuals with their own “passions and volitions” coloring the world with subjectivity or rejecting it stormily. Rather, it is closer to the model of a roving, voracious photographer—the camera as “eye,” taking in everything as it is, this instant. To photograph is not simply to copy.
So Baudelaire captures the way modern art is of two minds about its relationship to the era. On the one hand, there’s immersion with a little still in reserve; on the other, there’s aloofness or ekstasis. In neither case is there simple realism. Even the flâneur as artist treats life as raw material. It is a point of honor to create or capture beauty in the evanescent cityscape. It seems that Baudelaire’s “doubleness” would be a good way to describe modern art, its two tendencies: and literary modernism involves both of them.
Notes on the Poems
"To the Reader"
I find Lowell's translation very broad, preserving the rhyme scheme at the expense of precision of meaning. But we should look at the translation before us. There's much in this proem of the luxury of self-reproach, homage to the search for novelty, anything, anything at all, to break out of the unbearable stupidity of everyday life and conventional morality. But the worst "sin" of all, it would appear, is boredom, which in French is ennui (from Old French enuier, modern French ennuyer, to annoy), which involves both boredom and depression, apathy, listlessness. It's similar to the spiritual sin of acedia (akedía, Greek, spiritual sloth). So what does this ennui make possible? I think it's vital to recognize that the state of soul or mind here is as much an opportunity as a curse, at least for Baudelaire and the décadents who followed him. There's a constant movement towards the voluptuous and the sensuous in Baudelaire, but also a reflux of disgust upon giving in to such states or objects. I don't think a philosophy like Baudelaire's, which is more or less the basis of the Decadent Movement, can be adopted straight-up, I mean without some irony and a sense of humor: it's morbid, obsessed with the seamy side of things and with strange novelties. Well, the author's theoretical writings openly reject merely natural things and effects as too limited, too base: as he writes in The Painter of Modern Life, "nature counsels nothing but crime." The glib way of putting this is of course Oscar Wilde's wonderful judgment on natural sunsets: all we get from mother nature, said Oscar, is second-rate copies of Turner's magnificent painted sunsets. Nature has no imagination, it seems.
But on nature, "wait, there's more!" Specifically, there's symbolism. The poem "Correspondances" gives us a more respectful view of nature's value to us: "nature is a temple" and we wander in its symbolic power and evocations. It's as if our gaze is met by nature's towards us. The editors mention Baudelaire's interest in synesthesia, or the blending of the senses as though they all harmonize, all come together to give us a unified experience of some "mystic unity" (the Norton editors mention this aptly on 1383). This is an odd relationship with nature, isn't it? It's hardly the one you'd get from, say, Wordsworth, where the natural world is said to be the source of our moral being, of healthy and universal sensations that connect each person to all others, at least potentially.
One could say that to call nature a temple is to transform nature into something that signifies in the human realm; but then, the obverse is also true: it's to suggest that the human realm of language and symbol and image corresponds to nature. This is how Baudelaire offers a sense of idealism, of the possibility of transcendence, if we want to call it that. This poem is vital to the symbolistes in that language itself takes center stage along with the mind's power: the point here isn't to imitate an objective, unchanging external reality, it's to assert a mystical correspondence between spiritual or mental states and the realm of external nature. There's a tendency in modern times to replace any notion of objective reality with an emphasis on the power of language as a realm in its own right, one that shapes and perhaps even constitutes our sense of reality, and later symbolist poets such as Mallarmé will take this idea very far indeed.
For me, the key to this poem is its sensual intensity, which is almost like that of John Donne, he of the "she is all states, all princes I" rhetoric that we can find in "The Sunne Rising" and other poems. But aside from the gesture towards annihilating time and space, what about the speaker's wish to know "a measure / Of fertile idleness and fragrant leisure"? As so often, Baudelaire explores the strange delights of indolence, of ennui.
This poem follows the ideational structure of a Shakespearean sonnet: "If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved." That is, the poem's conclusion reasserts the same ideal that the rest of it tore down, with all those images of decay and references to the ugliness and stench of death: putrefaction, morbidity, horror. Consider, too, Hamlet's mocking muse while beholding the skull of Yorick in 5.1: "Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let / her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must / come; make her laugh at that." This is the embrace of opposites that the Norton editors mention in connection with Baudelaire's poetics: life and death, beauty and decay, the material and the ideal. His poetry has something of William Blake's intensity in this regard.
"Invitation to the Voyage" (51st poem of les Fleurs du Mal)
Is the speaker in fact offering us an idealistic, otherworldly vision? Maybe, maybe not – the poem revels in eroticism, which isn't the same thing as emphasizing or gesturing towards some grand abstract ideal realm. Will the lover accept the invitation? That's not so certain: the poet says her eyes (windows to the soul) are treacherous, not to be trusted, though by no means to be left behind or rejected and despised. And of course consider the poem "Voyage," where the passage seems to be anything but towards an otherworldly ideal.
NOTES ON STEPHANE MALLARME
Intro: Notes on Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Crisis of Poetry”
Mallarmé is anti-utilitarian and anti-instrumentalist: poetry is an encounter with language as language. We might, of course, ask whether or not this Mallarméan scheme takes anti-instrumentalism and impersonalism too far. It amounts to a complete divorce between ordinary language and poetic language, and perhaps therefore repeats on the level of pure language the isolation of the romantic poets from their society. At least, that’s one way of looking at the matter.
Music, for Mallarmé, is orderly and yet liberatory. We align ourselves as listeners with its successive notes, with its unfolding, and we should experience music as pure play. We should not reaffirm our personal or “tribal” power over nature, but instead connect by means of music and poetry with something beyond ourselves. Mallarmé refers to this realm as “impersonal,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is devoid of passion. Poetry is a supplement—it supplies a lack in the ordinary.
The “French Revolution II” is the movement from the Alexandrine verse of Racine and Corneille to free verse, vers libre. This change is no doubt allied with a shift in social and political arrangements from monarchical, semi-feudal to modern, parliamentary, commercialist nineteenth-century society. Mallarmé isn’t in favor of middle-class vulgarity and self-satisfaction, but the breakup of the Alexandrine is an opportunity not to be missed. It’s an opportunity for poetry to become what it ought to be—both sensuous and ideal, an order that liberates all who come to it. It ought to be personal and yet lead us beyond personality.
The Alexandrine imposed a false decorum and order upon language, taming and imprisoning it. Language was therefore used to ratify conservative French values. Mallarmé’s poetics are anti-instrumentalist, just as he is anti-Cartesian more generally—against the preeminence of mind as opposed to matter, reason as opposed to passion. As for ordinary language, we “use” it to express our feelings and ideas (romanticism) and to refer to things in the external world (realism, everyday living). Both uses are instrumental, and they falsify experience and even the meaning of being human. Language thereby becomes a mere tool shed full of implements, not the House of Being. The point seems to be to get back to a moment before our senses and capacities were so ruthlessly sundered by social imperatives and philosophical constructs, back to a more genuine kind of experience.
But Mallarmé considers language more worthwhile than the fake “autonomous individual” who uses it to shore up a narrow sense of self and world, more worthwhile than the everyday business that can be transacted with it or within its sphere. This anti-middle-class sentiment makes language the new principle of aristocracy, the ennobling force, the power that lets us keep contact with mystery, with “play” (jouissance, as in Barthes and Derrida) and with the holy (Heidegger). Yet, the realm of Language isn’t an empty externality, a metaphysical far-away place we can command. The goal isn’t facilely to get there from here since that would be to commit the same error as instrumentalists commit.
As the Beckett character says, “what matter who is speaking?” Ordinary speech disappoints us because it doesn’t correspond to real-world qualities when we expect it to. We aren’t gods and cannot achieve a one-to-one correspondence between words and things. (Perhaps this is what Paul de Man refers to when he says that even Mallarmé leaves the supremacy of nature untouched.) But poetry liberates us from such selfish demands for pedestrian intelligibility; it’s an impersonal language where the Ideal is at play. It creates an order that we can enter, a sort of mystical realm. There is no need, as far as Mallarmé is concerned, to turn to the “author-function” (as Foucault calls it) as a principle of interpretive stability.
Evocation and suggestion are better than fact. In somewhat plain terms, we might say that they lead us to a better realm than the everyday one we usually inhabit. Mallarmé might be described as a Platonist, but again that would be rather misleading. He isn’t really pushing a movement from a deluded “here” to a metaphysical “there.” In his view, it seems, language itself is the realm of purity; language is a here-realm of pure play, not a beyond of the sort that philosophical realists posit. Even so, it seems that Mallarmé invests a great deal in this order of language. The Symbolists generally treat language as having magical incantatory power, and (following Schopenhauer), as a refuge from human will and strife. Yeats describes the city of Byzantium in this manner; the holy city disdains “All that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.”
Mallarmé suggests in his prose an interest in turning what Nietzsche calls the abstraction-making power of language (its tendency to lie about the referential world), to account as music, as suggestibility that creates its own order. Mallarmé is not out to shore up the triumphant individual ego, the narrow shopkeeper-self in us all. Instead, he wants to see the triumph of language with a capital “L,” language as its own order, one that liberates us into what Heidegger will later call “the light of Being.” Language isn’t a tool shed; it is the dwelling-place of genuine humanity.
Faune: Two levels or registers are often being pursued, as in the Faun poem – as the editors say, it’s an erotic poem rather like a classical idyll, and at the same time it makes sense to read it almost in the manner that one reads STC’s “Kubla Khan” -- as a poem about the creation and reality-status of poetic language itself. Did the Faun actually possess the nymphs? Even he isn’t certain either way, and one wonders how much it really matters, if language and imagination are realms all their own, with equal status. Or you can go all absolutist on us and ask, might this poem be about the pursuit of an absolute ideal (Venus?) that remains always out of reach? But again, how much, if at all, does it matter if we can’t get there from here, can’t attain the pure ideal? Don’t we need it anyway?
Poe’s Tomb: I suspect that what they like comes from Poe’s prose – his command over human emotions, his ability to summon up a mood and then construct a poem like “The Raven” to make it happen in his readers. The order of language and its effects takes precedence over the people who come to the poetry. Works like magic. At his best, Poe writes stories and a few poems that have a hypnotic effect on us. You go Poe!