madame sabatier’s bust, and the rest of auerbach’s “the aesthetic dignity of the ‘fleurs du mal'”

The second half of Eric Auerbach, "The Aesthetic Dignity Of The ‘Fleurs Du Mal’"

Baudelaire -- PQ 2191 .Z5 A315 1952a SMRS
Madame Sabatier’s "bust"

 

There seem to be isolated exceptions. Among the poems known or presumed to have been addressed to Madame Sabatier,4 there are some in which health and untarnished beauty are praised; at first sight they seem to belong to a freer and happier order of poetry. But if we consider these poems in context, we soon begin to question our first impression. First of all we find that exuberant carnal health is strangely equated with sanctity and power to redeem. We begin to interpret the beautiful but very strange line Sa chair spirituelle a le parfum des Anges (from "Que diras-tu ce soir . . .") with the help of certain other lines, such as

 

Le passant chagrin que tu frôles

Est ébloui par ta santé

Qui jaillit comme une clarté

De tes bras et de tes épaules,

(‘A celle qui est trop gaie")

 

(The downcast passer-by

Is dazzled by your health

 

Which springs like a radiance

From your arms and your shoulders.)

 

or

 

David mourant aurait demandé la santé

Aux émanations de ton corps enchanté

("Réversibilite")

 

(King David on his deathbed would have sought

Health in the aura of your enchanted flesh.)

 

There is something startling and incongruous about this spiritualization and worship of so blatantly carnal a magic (L’Ange gardien, La Muse et la Madone, or Chère Déesse, Etre lucide et pur). And as a matter of fact the picture is false. All this health and vitality is intolerable to the poet; as we have said before, the sunshine is of little use to him; hatred and lust for destruction spring up side by side with admiration and worship:

 

Folle dont je suis affolé,

Je te hais autant que je t’aime!

 

Quelquefois dans un beau jardin

Où je traînais mon atonie,

J’ai senti, comme une ironie,

Le soleil déchirer mon sein;

 

Et le printemps et la verdure

Out tant humilié mon cozur,

Que j’ai puni sur une fleur

L’insolence de la Nature.

 

(Madcap who maddens me

I hate you as much as I love you!

 

Sometimes in a bright garden

Whither I dragged by atony,

 

I have felt the sun like an irony

Tearing my heart.

 

And the spring with its verdure

So humbled my heart

That I punished Nature’s insolence

By trampling a flower.)

 

These lines5 are from "A celle qui est trop gaie" one of the poems condemned by the court as immoral; it ends with an outburst of destructive frenzy (Ainsi je voudrais, une nuit . . . pour châtier ta chair joyeuse . . . t’infuser mon venin, ma sceur!).

 

The hatred and torment contained in these poems would have struck the taste of an earlier period as intolerable; no one would have looked at and treated the torments of love (and is one justified in speaking of love?) in this way; there is nothing comparable in the romantics, not at least in their poetry. Many poets since the Provencal troubadours have been prevented by their heavy hearts from enjoying the springtime. This may be called an almost traditional theme. One need only read Petrarch’s 42nd Sonnet, "In morte di Madonna Laura" (Zefiro tornd), to realize what a breach of style Baudelaire had committed.

 

One cannot but conclude that all those poems in Les Fleurs du mal which deal with erotic subjects are either filled with the harsh and painful disharmony that we have been trying to describe—or else are visions in which the poet strives to conjure up torpor, forgetfulness, the absolute Somewhere-Else.6 Almost everywhere we find degradation and humiliation. The desirer becomes a slave, conscious but without will; the object of desire is without humanity and dignity, unfeeling, made cruel by her power and by ennui, barren, destructive; quotations and analyses are superfluous—all this is well-known to the readers of Les Fleurs du mal. Still, we should like to cite a few particularly glaring and magnificent examples of breach of style.7 In the "Hymne à la Beautéé," we have the line:

 

Tu répands des parfums comme un soir orageux

(You scatter perfume like a stormy evening)

 

and a few lines further on the power of beauty is praised as follows:

 

Le Destin charmé suit tes jupons comme un chien

(Destiny spellbound follows your petticoats like a dog)

 

and this is how the lover looks to him:

 

L’amoureux pantelant incliné sur sa belle

A I’air d’un moribond caressant son tombeau.

 

(The panting lover bending over his fair one

Looks like a dying man caressing his grave.)

 

Among the portrayals of desire we have chosen two; the reader is invited to savor their rhythm and content:

 

Je m’avance à l’attaque, et je grimpe aux assauts,

Comme après un cadavre un chceur de vermisseaux

(‘Je t’adore")

 

(I spring to the attack, I mount to the assault

Like a chorus of maggots besetting a corpse)

 

and

 

Je frissonne de peur quand tu me dis: "Mon ange!"

Et cependant je sens ma bouche alter vers toi.s8

("Femmes damnees")

 

(I tremble with fear when you say: "My angel!"

And yet my lips move toward you.)

 

Now the degradation of the flesh, and particularly the equations of woman-sin and desire-death-putrefaction belong to a Christian tradition that was particularly strong toward the end of the Middle Ages. It was inevitable that certain critics should have related Baudelaire to this tradition, especially since he was sharply opposed to the tendencies of the Enlightenment and since prayers or something very close to it already make their appearance in Les Fleurs du mal. It is certainly true that like the romantics before him, he was influenced by Christian-medieval images and ideas. It is also true that Baudelaire had the mind of a mystic; in the world of the senses he looked for the supernatural, and found a second sensory world that was supernatural, demonic, and hostile to nature. Finally it may be said—and indeed it has been said—that the view of sensory reality that we find in Les Fleurs du mal would have been inconceivable in the pagan world. But that is as far as one may go. We owe it to the Christian tradition to point out that although the central trend of Les Fleurs du mal would have been unthinkable without the Christian tradition, it is fundamentally different from the Christian tradition, and incompatible with it. Here we shall sum up the essential points of difference:

 

1. What the poet of Les Fleurs du mal is looking for is not grace and eternal beatitude but either nothingness, le Nèant9 or a kind of sensory fulfillment, the vision of a sterile, but sensuous artificiality (volupté calme; ordre et beauté; luxe, calme et volupté; cf. also the vision contained in "Rêve parisien"). His spiritualization of memory and his synesthetic symbolism are also sensory, and behind them stands not any hope of redemption through God’s grace, but nothingness, the absolute Somewhere-Else.

 

2. In any Christian interpretation of life, redemption by the Incarnation and Passion of Christ is the cardinal point of universal history and the source of all hope. There is no place for Christ in Les Fleurs du mal. He appears but once, in "Le Reniement de Saint-Pierre ," and here he is at odds with God. This notion occurs earlier in some of the romantics; but to the mind of a believer no greater confusion or error is conceivable. Even from a historical point of view it is a dilettantish misunderstanding of the Christian tradition. This second point is not basically different from the first, but complements it and gives a still clearer picture of Baudelaire’s situation.

 

3. The corruption of the flesh means something very different in Les Fleurs du mal and in the Christianity of the late Middle Ages. In Les Fleurs du mal the desire that is damned is most often a desire for the physically corrupt or misshapen; the enjoyment of young, healthy flesh is never held up as a sin. In the warnings and castigations of the Christian moralists, on the other hand, the object of carnal temptation may have been represented as the creature of an hour, but for the present she was endowed with youth and full-blown earthly health. There was nothing decrepit about Eve with the apple; her apparent soundness is what made the temptation so insidious, and in Christian morality it is condemned. The poet of Les Fleurs du mal knows youth, vitality, health, only as objects of yearning and admiration—or else of malignant envy. Sometimes he wants to destroy them, but in the main he tends to spiritualize, admire, and worship them.10

 

4. In Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire is not striving for humility, but for pride. To be sure, he degrades himself and all earthly life, but in the midst of his degradation he does his best to sustain his pride. In this connection we might mention the lines of prayer in "Bénédiction" (Soyez béni, mon Dieu, qui donnez la souffrance . . .). They are very moving, but the idea that fills them is that of the poet’s own apotheosis; singling himself out from the contemptible race of men, he appears before the face of God. Such verses could scarcely have been written before Rousseau’s famous apostrophe to God at the beginning of the Confessions. Neither writer is innocent of self-aggrandizement.11

 

What I am saying here refers solely to Les Fleurs du mal. We have no wish to speak of the salvation of Baudelaire’s soul, and it would be beyond our means to do so. It is easy to understand that important Catholic critics should have concerned themselves not only with Baudelaire but also with other desperate rebels of the nineteenth century, and attempted to interpret them as exemplary vehicles of the struggle for faith and witnesses to the triumph of Grace. Souls such as Baudelaire’s are the âmes choisies of our time or at least of a time that is not too far in the past.12 But that is not our concern; we are speaking not of the history of Baudelaire’s soul but of Les Fleurs du mal. It is a work of despair and of the bitter pleasures of despair. Its world is a prison; sometimes the pain is deadened or appeased, and sometimes, too, there is the ecstatic pleasure of artistic self-exaltation; but escape from the prison there is none. Nor can there be. Jean-Paul Sartre, an acute and concrete thinker though his designs obtrude too much, has shown brilliantly13 how Baudelaire the man consciously ran himself into a dead end and how he himself blocked off every exit or retreat. In order to determine the historical position of Les Fleurs du mal, it is important to observe that in the middle of the nineteenth century a man was able to fashion this character and this biography and that this kind of man was able to achieve full expression at just this time, so that he disclosed something that was latent in his age, which many men gradually came to perceive through him. The periods of human history prepare their prospective representatives; they seek them out, shape them, bring them to light, and through them make themselves known.

 

There is no way out, nor can there be. The poet of Les Fleurs du mal hated the reality of the time in which he lived; he despised its trends, progress and prosperity, freedom and equality; he recoiled from its pleasures; he hated the living, surging forces of nature;14 he hated love insofar as it is "natural." And his contempt for all these things was only increased by his awareness that he had never experienced or ventured seriously to approach a good many of them. He invoked the forces of faith and transcendence only insofar as they could be used as weapons against life, or as symbols of escape; or insofar as they could serve his jealous, exclusive worship of what he really loved and pursued with all the strength that was left him after so much hopeless resistance: absolute poetic creation, absolute artifice, and himself as the artificial creator. Here it is worth our while to take up a text, "La Mort des artistes," the poem with which he concluded the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal. In its final form (1861)15 it runs as follows:

 

Combien faut-il de fois secouer mes grelots

Et baiser ton front bas, morne caricature?

Pour piquer dans le but, de mystique nature,

Combien, ô mon carquois, perdre de javelots?

 

Nous userons notre âme en de subtils complots,

Et nous démolirons mainte lourde armature,

Avant de contempler la grande Créature

Dont I’infernal désir nous remplit de sanglots!

 

II en est qui jamais n’ont connu leur Idole,

Et ces sculpteurs damnés et marqués d’un affront,

Qui vont se martelant la poitrine et le front,

 

N’ont qu’un espoir, étrange et sombre Capitole!

C’est que la Mort, planant comme un soleil nouveau,

Fera s’epanouir les fleurs de leur cerveau!

 

(How many times more shall I have to shake my bells

And kiss your low forehead, dismal caricature?

Before I hit the mystic target

How many arrows shall I lose from my quiver?

 

We shall waste our souls in subtle schemes,

And shatter many a heavy armature

Before we behold the great Creature

Who has damned us to heartbreaking desire.

 

There are some who have never known their idol,

And these accursed sculptors marked by an affront,

Who chisel out their own chests and foreheads,

 

Have but one hope, o strange and somber Capitol!

It is that Death, soaring like a new sun

Will bring the flowers of their brain to blossoming.)

 

There can be little doubt that he is speaking of the artist’s struggle for something absolute; a striving, warped by bitter hopelessness, for the idea or archetype in the Platonic or Neoplatonic sense. The morne caricature, before which the artist humiliates himself like a clown, can be nothing other than the debased earthly appearance; the poet expends his powers trying to pass through it to the mystic archetype. Thus far the poem, despite the extreme sharpness with which it expresses the indignity of the earthly appearance, is still compatible with the traditional idea of an ascent to the vision of the archetype. But what is quite incompatible with this long tradition is the way in which Baudelaire speaks of the archetype itself. First it is called la grande Créature, which has a sensual, pejorative ring, and which in readers familiar with Les Fleurs du mal evokes demonic insensibility and sterile lust for power (cf. "Hymne à la Beauté," "La Beauté"); and a little later, with evident scorn, he calls it leur Idole. Still more shocking is what he says of the striving for the archetype. In the whole of mystical and visionary literature this striving, however arduous and vain, was never represented as anything other than great and noble; it was held to be the highest form of endeavor and activity that a man could elect. But the author of our verses calls it infernal désir, as though it were a vice. The methods it employs are subtils complots, which wear out the soul. Those who never get to see their idole are accursed and degraded (damnés et marqués d’un affront). In the twentieth essay of his first book, Montaigne says: L’entreprise se sent de la qualité de la chose qu’elle regarde; car c’est une bonne partie de l’effect, et consubstantielle. ("The undertaking smacks of the quality of what it has in view; for the striving is a good part of the result, and consubstantial with it.") If this is true, and it is true, the degradation of the striving will degrade the goal. At the end of the poem, to be sure, there is a sudden rise; a hope seems to appear; its name is Death, planant comme un soleil nouveau, and it will "bring the flowers of their brain to blossoming." This again might fit in with the tradition. Beyond the vision which is sometimes granted a living man in excessus mentis, stands the sight of God in his glory, and this can never be taken away from the soul that has been saved. But here, in Baudelaire’s poem, death is not eternal beatitude; this is made clear by the words étrange et somber Capitole, which also exclude any other form of pure fulfillment in transcendence; there is a raucous note, a veiled mockery in the whole tercet whose rhythm seems to mount so abruptly. But what then of the hope? How can  othingness be a new sun that will bring flowers to unfolding? I know no answer. There is none to be found in Les Fleurs du mal.16 Instead we find, immediately after our poem, a description of death in "Le Rêve d’un curieux"; it ends with the following words:

 

J’étais mort sans surprise, et la terrible aurore

M’enveloppait. Eh quoi! n’est-ce done que cela?

La toile était levee et j’attendais encore.

 

(I had died unawares, and the terrible dawn

Enveloped me. —What, is it only this?

The curtain had risen, and still I was waiting.)

 

The archetype, la grande Créature, is for the poet an object of desperate desire and at the same time of contemptuous mockery. As transcendent reality it is nothing, or worse than nothing: a nothing which by its nothingness mocks and humiliates those who strive for it.

 

But here he is unjust to himself. It is his unswerving despair which gave him the dignity and weight that he has for us. The unswerving honesty that made it impossible for him to worship the Baalim for even one moment in a time without gods, is his greatness. His dandyism and his poses were merely a deformation imposed by the desperate struggle. Anyone who reads him feels after the very first lines that his aesthetic dandyism has nothing in common with the pre-Parnassian and Parnassian aesthetes, with Gautier or Leconte de Lisle. Baudelaire’s poetry has a much wider range. And he cannot hide himself behind his work. Degraded, deformed, and sublime, he is right in the middle of it. It is a book consubstantial with its author, to cite Montaigne again. Paradigmatic for the whole age, it gave this age a new poetic style: a mixture of the base and contemptible with the sublime, a symbolic use of realistic horror, which was unprecedented in lyric poetry and had never been carried to such lengths in any genre. In him for the first time we find fully developed those surprising and seemingly incoherent combinations that Royère calls catachrèses, and which led Brunetiere to accredit Baudelaire with the génie de l’impropriété. We have quoted a few of them in the course of this study. Des cloches tout à coup sautent avec furie, La Mori, planant comme un soleil nouveau, etc. The visionary power of such combinations exerted a crucial influence on later poetry; they seemed the most authentic expression both of the inner anarchy of the age and of a still hidden order that was just beginning to dawn. In an entirely new and consummate style, this poet, whose character and life were so strange, expressed the naked, concrete existence of an epoch. For his style was not based on his personal situation and his personal needs; it became apparent that his extreme personality embodied a far more universal situation and a far more universal need. Now that the crisis of our civilizations (which at Baudelaire’s time was still latent, presaged by only a few)—now that the crisis is approaching a decision, we may perhaps expect a decline in Baudelaire’s influence; in a totally changed world that is perhaps moving toward a new order, the coming generations may lose contact with his problems and his attitude.17 But the historic importance of Les Fleurs du mal can never be shaken. The human structure that appears in these poems is just as significant for the transformation, or perhaps one should say the destruction, of the European tradition as the human structure of Ivan Karamazov. The form, not only of modern poetry but also of the other literary genres of the century that has elapsed since then, is scarcely thinkable without Les Fleurs du mal; the trace of Baudelaire’s influence can be followed in Gide, Proust, Joyce, and Thomas Mann as well as Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Rilke, and Eliot. Baudelaire’s style, the mixture we have attempted to describe, is as much alive as ever.

 

And yet I do not wish this paper to end with the praise of Baudelaire’s literary achievement, but rather on the note with which it began, the horror of Les Fleurs du mal. It is a book of gruesome hopelessness, of futile and absurd attempts to escape by inebriation and narcosis. Accordingly, a word should be said in defense of certain critics who have resolutely rejected the book. Not all of them, but a few, had a better understanding of it than many contemporary and subsequent admirers. A statement of horror is better understood by those who feel the horror in their bones, even if they react against it, than by those who express nothing but their rapture over the artistic achievement. Those who are seized with horror do not speak about frisson nouveau; they do not cry bravo and congratulate the poet on his originality. Even Flaubert’s admiration, though excellently formulated, is too aesthetic.18 Most later critics took it for granted that the book could only be considered from an aesthetic standpoint and scornfully rejected any other possibility from the outset. It seems to us that aesthetic criticism alone is unequal to the task, though Baudelaire would scarcely have shared our opinion: he was contaminated by the idolatry of art that is still with us. What a strange phenomenon: a prophet of doom who expects nothing of his readers but admiration for his artistic achievement. Ponete mente almen com’ to son bella ("consider at least how beautiful I am")—with these words Dante concludes his canzone to the movers of the third heaven. But can such words be applied to poems whose meaning is so actual and urgent, whose beauty is as bitter as that of Les Fleurs du mal?

—from Erich Auerbach, Scenes From the Drama of European Literature (1959). "The Aesthetic Dignity of the ‘Fleurs du Mal’": Translated by Ralph Manheim from the original German text in Vier Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der französischen Bildung (Bern, 1951), pp. 107-27.

Auerbach’s notes to "The Aesthetic Dignity of the ‘Fleurs du Mal’" appear in the post immediately below.

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