Michael Dirda, in praise of Charles Baudelaire

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In his recent, and superb, essay on Philip Guston’s paintings — with rightly scathing comments about their cautious, halfhearted exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts — my colleague Sebastian Smee observed how often 20th-century artists were drawn to “fragments, rubble and ruin .” More broadly speaking, many incomplete forms — the preliminary sketch, the rough outline, the abandoned draft, the catchall notebook — seem to offer entry into an artist’s true self, to guarantee (a perhaps factitious) sincerity and authenticity. Lacking finish and sophistication, such works expose what Yeats memorably called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

That unguarded, sometimes shocking openness partly explains the appeal of “Charles Baudelaire: Late Fragments,” as the translator Richard Sieburth titles this handsome new book. Not only does it reprint the scribblings, random observations, inventories and disjecta membra of France’s second greatest poet — the greatest being, as Andre Gide remarked, “Victor Hugo, alas” — all this inchoate material is given context by Sieburth’s learned, elegantly written commentary. He is the perfect guide to these “fractured, almost cubist shards of a self-portrait, presented in notations that often barely rise to the level of achieved sentences.”

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Sieburth, an emeritus professor of comparative literature at New York University, restricts his focus to the last six years of Baudelaire’s short life, starting in 1861 when the former dandy and Parisian flâneur abandoned the highly buffed, tightly controlled verse of “Les Fleurs du Mal” (“Flowers of Evil”) for wild, half-mad journalizing. At 40, Baudelaire was a shadow of his former self, crushed by unrepayable debts, suffering the aftereffects of a seemingly minor stroke, and facing the onset of syphilitic debility. By 1866, he even found it hard to stand. “Vertigos and repeated vomiting for three days,” he noted. “I was obliged to lie on my back… for even when crouching on the floor, I kept falling over, headlong.” He kept himself going on a diet of opium, digitalis, belladonna and brandy.

He also made lists — the procrastinator’s recourse — of dream projects he would never start (including a translation of Petronius’s “Satyricon”), described dark nights of the soul or recorded the grotesqueries of life in Belgium, where he had rented room 39 in Brussel’s Hotel du Grand Miroir. Somehow, Baudelaire did manage to eke out a handful of final prose poems, the best-known of which, titled “Anywhere out of the world,” starkly begins: “Life is a hospital where each patient is driven by the desire to change beds .”

such a I thought fits with the French moralist tradition of Montaigne, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, yet Baudelaire always regarded Edgar Allan Poe, whom he translated, as his spiritual brother. Thus, the most famous section of his intimate journals by him is labeled Mon coeur mis`a nu — “My Heart Laid Bare.” The phrase derives directly from Poe’s “Marginalia”:

“If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment… all that he has to do is write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple — a few plain words — ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’” But — this little book must be true to its title … But to write it— there is the rub. No man dare write it. No man will dare ever write it. no man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.”

Taking up Poe’s challenge, Baudelaire’s jottings are bluntly honest, usually provocative, frequently ugly and misogynistic. Self-lashings alternate with self-help cliches. He practically flaunts his divided soul from him, torn between Sin and Redemption. Here’s a sampling of his briefer observations of him:

“The Dandy should ceaselessly aspire toward sublimity; he should live and sleep before a mirror.”

“The act of love greatly resembles torture or a surgical procedure.”

“As for me, I say that the sole end and supreme pleasure of making love lies in the certainty that one is doing evil. — And both man and woman know from birth that it is in evil that all sensual pleasure resides.”

“I have cultivated my hysteria with joy and terror. Now, I am continually overcome by vertigo, and today, Jan. 23, 1862, I was given a special warning: I felt the wind of the wing of imbecility pass over me.”

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Baudelaire closes “My Heart Laid Bare” with a vision of the world’s end, caused by “the degradation of the human heart,” an “onslaught of widespread animality” and governments preserving their power through “methods that would cause men of today to shudder .” Since ancient times, poets have also been seers.

In “Belgium Disrobed,” the second half of “Late Fragments,” Baudelaire — self-exiled in Brussels — assembles hundreds of acid observations about that country’s inhabitants, whom he regularly compares to apes and mollusks. As savage as Swift or Céline, somewhat reminiscent of Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Ideas,” these blistering pages indict a bourgeois culture of selfishness and mediocrity. “A Belgian never yields the right of way to a woman on a sidewalk.” Given the overall tone of sheer disgust, it’s little wonder that the ailing, alienated Baudelaire would conclude, “Shall we say that the world has become uninhabitable for me?”

In March 1866 he suffered a second stroke, which soon led to partial paralysis and aphasia. After his mother moved him back to France, Baudelaire endured a final year virtually incapable of speech, dying at age 46 in 1867. Over in Brussels, nuns had his former hospital room exorcised.

A final note: If you’ve never read this great poet, the first to register the shocks and horrors of metropolitan civilization, pick up a copy of “Les Fleurs du Mal.” There are numerous translations, including a very recent one from Aaron Poochigian, but I remain particularly fond of the National Book Award-winning version by Richard Howard, who died in March. I once opened an essay on his translation of him with a sentence that also fits Sieburth’s “Late Fragments”: “No one surpasses Baudelaire in portraying spiritual desolation.”

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

Flares, My Heart Laid Bare, Prose Poems, Belgium Disrobed

Translated by Richard Sieburth

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