highlights in criticism: erich auerbach’s great essay on baudelaire’s gray misery & “fleurs de mal”

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

 

SPLEEN

 

Quand le del has et lourd pèse comme un couvercle

Sur I’esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,

Et que de I’horizon embrassant tout le cercle

II nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;

 

Quand la terre est changee en un cachot humide,

Où I’Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,

S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide

Et se cognant la tête à des plafonds pourris;

 

Quand la pluie étalant ses immenses trainées

D’une vaste prison imite les barreaux,

Et qu’un peuple muet d’infâmes araignées

Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux,

 

Des cloches tout à coup sautent avec furie

Et lancent vers le del un affreux hurlement,

Ainsi que des esprits errants et sans patrie

Qui se mettent à geindre opinidtrement.

 

Et de longs corbillards, sans tambour ni musique,

Défilent lentement dans mon àme; I’Espoir,

Vaincu, pleure, et I’Angoisse atroce, despotique,

Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.

 

(When the low, heavy sky weighs like a lid

On a spirit moaning beneath endless troubles

And, blocking off the whole horizon,

Decants a day more dismal than night;

 

When the earth is changed into a damp dungeon

Where Hope like a timid bat

Flaps her wings against the walls

And dashes her head against the moldy ceiling;

 

When the long lines of rain

Are like the bars of a vast prison

And a silent swarm of loathsome spiders

Spin their nets at the bottom of my brain,

 

Suddenly the bells leap out in a fury

And fling a hideous howling at the heavens,

Like homeless wandering spirits

Whimpering disconsolately.

 

And a long line of hearses without drums or music,

Files slowly through my soul; Hope vanquished weeps

And vile despotic Dread

Plants her black flag over my bowed skull.)

 

This poem is all of one movement. Actually, despite the period after the fourth stanza, it seems to consist of a single sentence; made up of three temporal dependent clauses, each taking up a whole stanza, each beginning with quand, and of a main clause with several subdivisions, which unfolds in the last two stanzas. The alexandrine meter makes it clear that this is a serious poem, to be spoken slowly and gravely; it contains allegorical figures written in capital letters, Espérance, Espoir, Angoisse; and we also find epithets and other rhetorical figures in the classical style (de son aile timide). The syntactical unity, the grave rhythm, and the rhetorical figures; combine to lend the poem an atmosphere of somber sublimity, which is perfectly consonant with the deep despair it expresses.

 

The temporal clauses, describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds, are replete with metaphors: the sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon, leaving us without prospect in the darkness; the earth like a damp dungeon; Hope like a fluttering bat caught in the moldering masonry; the threads of rain like the bars of a prison; and inside us a mute swarm of loathsome spiders, spinning their nets. All these figures symbolize dull, deepening despair. And there is an insistence about them which, if you submit to their spell, seems to exclude any possibility of a happier life. The quand loses its temporal meaning and rings out like a threat; we begin with the poet to doubt whether a sunny day will ever dawn again; for Hope, the poor bat, is also imprisoned and has lost touch with the world beyond the clouds—is there any such world? Even a reader unfamiliar with Baudelaire’s other poems, who does not know how often he evokes the barred horizon, the damp and moldering dungeon of hell, who does not know how little use the sun is to him when it does happen to be shining, will grasp the irrevocable hopelessness of the situation from these three stanzas alone. Hopeless horror has its traditional place in literature; it is a special form of the sublime; we find it, for example, in some of the tragic poets and historians of antiquity, and of course we find it in Dante; it can lay claim to the highest dignity.

 

But in the first stanzas we already find things that seem hardly compatible with the dignity of the sublime. A modern reader barely notices them, he has long been accustomed to this style, established by Baudelaire, in which many poets, each in his own way, have subsequently made themselves at home. But Baudelaire’s contemporaries, even those who had grown used to the daring of the romantics, must have been startled if not horrified. In the very first line the sky is compared to a lid, the lid of a pot or perhaps of a coffin—the former is more likely, for in another poem, "Le Couvercle," Baudelaire writes:

 

Le Ciel! couvercle noir de la grande marmite

Où bout I’imperceptible et vaste Humanité.

 

(The sky! black lid of the great kettle

Where humanity simmers, vast and imperceptible.)

 

To be sure, Victor Hugo had proclaimed years before that the difference between noble and common words was done away with, but he had not gone so far, and much less had Alfred de Vigny, who of all the romantics was perhaps the most given to the tone of sublime horror. Of course damp moldering dungeons, bats and spiders, are perfectly in keeping with the romantic style, but only as properties in historical novels and plays, not in the sharp immediate present, not right beside or even inside the poet, and yet symbols for all that. The last word is cerveaux, a medical term. Clearly no realistic imitation is intended; on the contrary, the image of spiders in the brain is unrealistic and symbolic; but that makes it all the more degrading, for with spiders in his brain the suffering, despairing poet is denied the inward dignity conferred by such words as âme or pensée.

 

The three stanzas introduced by quand present a heavy silence. The fourth, which begins the main clause, brings in a sudden clamor: furious bells leap out and fling a hideous howling at the sky. Bells that leap furiously and howl at the sky! Anything more violent and outrageous is scarcely imaginable; such a combination offends against every traditional notion of the dignity of the sublime. True, hurler had been employed by the romantics in an orgiastic sense;1 it seems to have been fashionable with certain literary circles in the forties; but combinations of this sort occur nowhere else. Church bells that howl and leap with fury: seventy years later such an image would have been termed surrealistic. And, it must be remembered, we are not on the style-level of satire, where one might speak lightly of "clattering bells," but in an atmosphere of profound seriousness and bitter torment, and therefore on the style-level of the tragic and sublime. In the next lines the bells proceed to emit sounds that might be characterized as a persistent blubbering whimper; geindre is a childish blubbering, furious, meaningless, and ignored; no one hears the homeless spirits. And while this absurd hubbub is still raging, the last stanza begins. Once again there seems to be utter silence, the procession of hearses, sans tambour ni musique, draws slowly through the poet’s soul—this time it is the soul, mon âme, whose last strength is exhausted by the sight (a procession of memories, a wasted life laden with guilt). Hope has given up looking for a way out; she is weeping; hideous Dread hoists her black flag over the bowed skull, and so this magnificent poem ends. As a picture in the grand style of total abjection and collapse, the last stanza, especially the last line, outdoes all the rest. For the rhythm and the images—the procession of hearses, the victor hoisting a flag over the enemy’s captured citadel—all these are in the grand style; but the victor is Dread, of the poet nothing remains, no soul, no brow, not even a head; what has bowed down beneath the black flag is only a skull, mon crâne incliné. He has lost all dignity, not before God, for there is no God, but before Dread.

 

In our analysis we have tried to bring out two ideas, both of which take the form of antitheses. First the antithesis between symbolism and realism. Obviously the poet’s aim is not to give an accurate, realistic description of rain and a damp moldering dungeon, of bats and spiders, the ringing of bells, and a bowed human skull. It makes no difference whether or not he ever actually heard bells ringing on a rainy day. The whole is a vision of despair, and the expository statements are purely symbolic. The data are of so little importance that the symbols can be changed without loss; Hope first appears as a bat, but the end, where she weeps in defeat, suggests the image of an infant or child, certainly not of a bat. Thus the poem cannot be called realistic if by realism we mean an attempt to reproduce outward reality. But since in the nineteenth century the word "realism" was associated chiefly with the crass representation of ugly, sordid, and horrifying aspects of life; since this was what constituted the novelty and significance of realism, the word was applicable to ugly, gruesome images, regardless of whether they were intended as concrete description or as symbolic metaphors. What mattered was the vividness of the evocation, and in this respect Baudelaire’s poem is extremely realistic. Though the images evoked are wholly symbolic in intention, they forcefully concretize a hideous and terrible reality—even when reason tells us that such symbols can have no empirical reality. Obviously, there is no one by the name of Angoisse who can plant a black flag over a bowed skull: but the image of the crâne incliné is so overpowering that we see the gruesome portrait. The same is true of the spiders in the brain or the leaping, whimpering bells. These images strike with a realistic force that no one can escape; nor does the poet want anyone to escape them.

 

The other idea stressed in our analysis is the contradiction between the lofty tone and the indignity both of its subject as a whole and of many details. This contrast affected many contemporaries as an inconsistency of style; it was violently attacked at the time, though since then the "mixed style" has gained general acceptance. Modern critics, beginning in Baudelaire’s time but more persistently in later years, have attempted to deny the hierarchy of literary objects, maintaining that there is no such things as sublime and base objects, but only good and bad verses, good and bad images. However, the formulation is misleading; it obscures the significant thing that happened in the nineteenth century movement. In classical aesthetics, subject matter and the manner of its treatment came to be divided into three classes: there was the great, tragic, and sublime; then the middle, pleasing, and inoffensive; finally the ridiculous, base, and grotesque. Within each of the three categories there were many gradations and special cases. A classification of this sort corresponds to human feeling, in Europe at least; it cannot be argued away. What the nineteenth century accomplished—and the twentieth has carried the process still further—was to change the basis of correlation: it became possible to take subjects seriously that had hitherto belonged to the low or middle category, and to treat them tragically. The subject matter of Flaubert or Cezanne, Zola or Van Gogh, is not "neutral"; one cannot say that their originality consisted solely in the novelty or perfection of their techniques; there can be no significant new technique without new content. The truth is rather that the subject matter became serious and great through the intention of those who gave it form. The same may be said of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. On February 28, 1866, he wrote to Ancelle: Dans ce livre atroce, j’ai mis toute ma pensée, tout mon coeur, toute ma religion (travestie), toute ma haine. . . (Into this abominable book I have put all my thought, all my religion [travestied], all my hatred). He could not have written in this way if he had not seen all human tragedy, depth, and greatness in his subject matter and intended to express them in his poems. It is futile to ask to what extent he posed and exaggerated; posture and exaggeration were an inherent part of the man and his state of mind. All modern artists (since Petrarch at least), have tended to dramatize themselves. The artistic process requires a concentration on certain themes, a process of selection, which stresses certain aspects of the artist’s inner life and puts others aside. It was not easy for Baudelaire to live with himself and make himself work. He inclined to exaggerate his state and to make a display of what he rightly felt to be original and unique. But his concentration on certain themes that were distinctly his own and the force of his expression leave no room for doubt as to his fundamental authenticity.

 

He is authentic, and his conceptions are large; his poetry is in the grand style. But even among those whose intentions were similar, he is an extreme case; he is distinguished even from Rimbaud by his inner stagnation, his lack of development. He was the first to treat matters as sublime which seemed by nature unsuited to such treatment. The "spleen" of our poem is hopeless despair; it cannot be reduced to concrete causes or remedied in any way. A vulgarian would ridicule it; a moralist or a physician would suggest ways of curing it. But with Baudelaire their efforts would have been vain. He wrote in the grand style about paralyzing anxiety, panic at the hopeless entanglement of our lives, total collapse—a highly honorable undertaking, but also a negation of life. German slang has an apt term for this spleen: das graue Elend, the gray misery. Is the gray misery tragic? One should not be in too much of a hurry to dismiss as philistines the contemporary critics who rejected this form of poetry; what would Plato have thought of it? Baudelaire himself found a very similar term for his spleen, ma triste misère. It occurs in his poem "Le Mauvais Moine"; after a half ironic picture of the medieval monks, who painted pictures of death and the truths of religion to console them for the ascetic austerity of their lives, he concludes as follows:

 

Mon âme est un tombeau que, mauvais cénobite,

Depuis l’éternité je parcours et j’habite;

Rien n’embellit les murs de ce cloître odieux.

 

O moine fainéant! quand saurai-je done faire

Du spectacle vivant de ma triste misère

Le travail de mes mains et l’amour de mes yeux?

 

(My soul is a tomb which, miserable monk,

I have paced for all eternity. There I live

 

In a hateful cloister to which nothing lends beauty.

O idle monk! When shall I learn

 

To turn the living vision of my bitter misery

Into the work of my hands, the beloved of my eyes).

 

These verses present a new problem, though one implied in what has been said above. It is characteristic of the gray misery that it incapacitates one for all activity. Even those who cope with such depressions more successfully than Baudelaire, force themselves at best to carry on some routine activity; most of these are helped by their milieu or by an occupation that obliges them to do certain things at certain hours. In many cases this kind of activity has relieved or overcome the gray misery. But Baudelaire had no milieu or occupation requiring regular activity. Instead, he demanded of himself something far more difficult, something well-nigh impossible, and he succeeded: he managed to form his triste misère into poetry, to leap directly from his misery into the sublime, to fashion it into the work of his hands, the beloved of his eyes. His passion for expressing himself drove him into an unremitting struggle with his gray misery, a battle in which he was sometimes victorious; not often, and never completely enough to cast it off; for strange to say, the gray misery was not merely the enemy, but also the beginning and object of his activity. What could be more paradoxical? The misery that paralyzed and degraded him was the source of a poetry that seems endowed with the highest dignity; it was the source both of the sublime tone produced by the fact of working under such desperate conditions and of the breaches of style that sprang directly from the subject matter.

 

The poet’s misery had still other aspects, the most painful being his sexuality. Sexuality was a hell for him, a hell of degrading desire (Lusthölle; I believe that Thomas Mann uses the expression in Doctor Faustus). Here again we shall stick to the texts and begin with a poem without any concretely erotic content:

 

Je te donne ces vers afin que si mon nom

Aborde heureusement aux époques lointaines,

Et fait rêver un soir les cervelles humaines,

Vaisseau favorisé par un grand aquilon,

 

Ta mémoire, pareille aux fables incertaines,

Fatigue le lecteur ainsi qu’un tympanon,

Et par un fraternel et mystique chainon

Reste comme pendue à mes rimes hautaines;

 

Eire maudit à qui, de l’abîme profond

Jusqu’au plus haut du del, rien, hors moi, ne répond!

O toi qui, comme une ombre à la trace éphémère,

 

Foules d’un pied léger et d’un regard serein

Les stupides mortels qui t’ont jugee amère,

Statue aux yeux de jais, grand ange au front d’airain!

 

(I give you these verses, hoping that if my name,

Like a vessel favored by a stout north wind,

Should happily accost in epochs now remote

And stir a dream one night in human minds,

 

Your memory like a dubious fable

Will clang in the reader’s ears and torment him,

Your memory suspended by an intimate

And mystic chain from my lofty rhymes;

 

Accursed one, whom from deepest depths to highest

Heights, no one will answer for but me!

You who like an ephemeral shadow

 

Pass light-footed and serene

Over the stupid mortals who have judged you vile,

Statue with eyes of jet, towering angel with head of

brass.)

 

Syntactically, this poem too consists of a single sweeping movement: the simple and solemn main clause (Je te donne ces vers); dependent on it a long and intricate purpose clause, the subject of which appears only at the start of the second quatrain (Ta mémoire); followed, in the concluding tercets, by the apostrophe in three parts (Etre maudit à qui. . . ; O toi qui. . . ; Statue. . .). No less lofty seems the content: a poem is solemnly dedicated to the loved one, in order that she may, at some time in the distant future, partake of his fame. The reader is reminded of similar passages in which earlier poets, Horace, Dante, Petrarch, Ronsard, or Shakespeare (some critics haveeven mentioned Corneille and Byron) have spoken in lofty style of their future fame, sometimes in connection with a beloved. The words je te donne ces vers, with the ensuing image of a ship putting into port after a long voyage, seem quite consonant with this sublime tradition. And the singling out of a particular moment (un soir) when the poet’s fame will go into effect, recalls a famous sonnet by Ronsard. But then the reader, prepared for grandeur and dignity, is shocked by the word cervelles (in the first version the line read Fit travailler un soir les cervelles humaines) the value of the poet’s enduring fame becomes strangely dubious. The reader dimly suspects what becomes a certainty in the next stanza: the fame of which the poet is going to speak will not enrich future generations and gladden their hearts; it will irritate and torment them (ta mémoire . . . fatigue le lecteur ainsi qu’un tympanon), drawing the future reader into a noxious entanglement. The distasteful memory of the beloved to whom the poem is solemnly dedicated will remain attached to the poet’s proud verses par un fraternel et mystique chaînon—in other words, the memory is not proud or lofty, but base and unpleasant, and it will be drummed into the reader’s mind with a perverse insistence. The whole poem is a piece of bitter malice, not only against the beloved (we employ the word only because no other is available), but also against the future reader; for now, retroactively, the afin que of the first line takes on an insidious meaning: the poet’s purpose in his rimes hautaines is malignant: to tyrannize the future reader and avenge himself against the beloved. In the final apostrophe the latter theme is explicitly developed; for the apostrophe—in three parts—is a curse; the beloved is described first in relation to the poet, then in relation to the rest of mankind, and finally for herself. Here we shall not go into the separate themes—the poet at the mercy of an outcast; her indifference; the mysterious presence of this unmoving statue, this angel of evil. Yet in the end something akin to admiration and adoration enters into the curse, expressed in a last haughty gibe, this one at the stupides mortels qui t’ont jugée amère. This poem, so rich in contradictions, sustains its lofty tone from the first to the last word. The curse ends with something in the nature of an apotheosis.

 

What all this means is known to us from other poems that deal directly with love or desire. Rhythm, form, and attitude place nearly all of them in the lofty style. But the traditional themes of sublime love poetry are almost wholly lacking; the accent is on naked sexuality, particularly in its terrible, abysmal aspects. If we are fully to understand the profound significance of Baudelaire we must recall the place of such things in the European literary tradition. Traditionally, physical love was treated in the light style.2 In the older poetry the perverse or abject aspect is scarcely mentioned in any category of style.3 In Baudelaire it is dominant. Traditional echoes are not wholly absent, such as the theme of the worshipped beloved (Muse, Madonna), but they ring false; sometimes they sound ironic and always strangely disfigured. The intimate tenderness that had gained a place beside the sublime in the love poetry of the early romantics also appears here and there in Baudelaire (Mon enfant, ma sceur . . .); but it is not the same idyllic intimacy as in the romantics, which would have been quite incompatible with Baudelaire’s temperament; in him it has a new and strange aftertaste.

 

Almost everywhere in Baudelaire the relation between lovers—or more accurately between those bound by sexual attraction—is represented as an obsession mingled with hatred and contempt, an addiction which loses none of its degrading, tormenting force for being experienced in full (yet defenseless) awareness. Love is a torment, at best a numbing of the senses; true, it is also the source of inspiration, the actual source of the mystical intuition of the supernatural; nevertheless it is torture and degradation. Sometimes the loved one is sick and no longer young, more often she is a kind of bestial idol, soulless, barren, and morally indifferent. Baudelaire’s masterly rendition of synesthetic impressions, in which the sense of smell is dominant (respirer le parfum de ton sang; des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants; forêt aromatique of the hair) helps to create a unique impression, at once sensuous, cold, bestial, painful, demonic, and sublime. All this is sufficiently known.

—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.


The second half of Auerbach’s "The Aesthetic Dignity of the ‘Fleurs du Mal" appears in the post immediately below; his notes appear two posts down.

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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.

the notes to auerbach’s “the aesthetic dignity of the ‘fleurs du mal'”

Flowers of Evil -- PQ 2191 .F62 E5 1958b SMRS


Illustration by Jeff Hill for Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil
(Jacques Leclerq translation). Mount Vernon, New York: 
Peter Pauper Press, 1958.  


Erich Auerbach, "The Aesthetic Dignity of the ‘Fleurs du mal’" 

 

NOTES

 

 

1In E. Raynaud, Charles Baudelaire (Paris, 1922), p. 105, we find the following quotation from a play written in the 1840’s:

 

Quel plaisir de tordre

Nos bras amoureux,

Et puis de nous mordre

En hurlant tous deux.

 

One is also reminded of Leconte de Lisle’s poem about the wild dogs, "Les Hurleurs."

 

2 Sum levis, et mecum levis est, mea cura, Cupido, says Ovid, Amores, 3, 1, 41. But all that is finished since Baudelaire; light love in poetry has become Kitsch or pornography. As late as the eighteenth century, in Chaulieu or Voltaire, for example, it was very different. In this connection it is interesting to read Baudelaire’s instructions to his lawyer when Les Fleurs du mal was prosecuted for immorality; they may be found in a number of critical editions and biographies. He stresses the serious character of his poetry over against the polissonnerie of some of the "light" poems of Beranger and Musset, at which the authorities had taken no umbrage. We need only read these poems to see how incredibly vulgar this erotic poetry in the "light style" had become.

 

3 Even in prose such matters were seldom treated. A few mild allusions occur in Montaigne. Crepet, in his critical edition (Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal: Edition critique établie par Jacques Crépet et Georges Blin [Paris, 1942], p. 431; cited in the following as FdM, Crépet-Blin), expresses the belief that Baudelaire had read these passages in Montaigne and refers to Essais, II, Chap. XV. This is perfectly possible, but it is certain that Baudelaire learned nothing from Montaigne.

 

4"Semper eadem," "Tout entière" "Que diras-tu," "Le Flambeau vivant," "A celle qui est trap gaie" "Réversibilité," "Confession," "L’Aube spirituelle," "Harmonie du soir," "Le Flacon," "Hymne."

 

5 Baudelaire made many such statements. One of the most characteristic occurs in a letter to Fernand Desnoyers. It has often been cited, e.g., in FdM, Crépet-Blin, p. 463.

 

6 "The tender, beautiful "Je n’ai pas oublié" refers to a happy period in his early youth, spent with his mother before her second marriage. Apart from this, wherever we find a gentler, more tender sentiment in Les Fleurs du mal, it usually proves to be deceptive. It is genuine when, in speaking to the beloved, he argues flight, renunciation, repose, or a numbing of the senses; then we find phrases such as Mon enfant, ma sceur, or O ma si blanche, ô ma si froide Marguerite.

 

7 Jean Royère (Poèmes d’amour de Baudelaire [Paris, 1927]) calls these breaches of style catachrèses, and gives an excellent description of them. Royère regards Baudelaire as a Catholic mystic; on the lines from "Hymne à la Beauté" of which we have quoted a part (L’Amoureux pantelant . . .) he writes (p. 123): "I decline to comment more directly on such verses. I content myself with reciting them every day like a Pater and an Ave." There are many such exaggerations in his book and almost all his ideas strike me as arbitrary and dilettantish. But even so it is a beautiful book.

 

8 This line is a good example of the romantic three-part alexandrine, with a caesura not after the sixth, but after the fourth and eighth syllables. It should be read and savored accordingly

 

9 There is a passage in which even le Néant does not seem to be nothing enough for him. It occurs in the Projets de preface pour une édition nouvelle, toward the end in the paragraph beginning with the words D’ailleurs, telle n’est pas . . . (FdM, Crépet-Blin, p. 214).

 

10 Cf. the lines to Mme Sabatier (Ta chair spirituelle a le parfum des anges); or the following from "Sonnet d’automne":

 

. . . Mon cceur, que tout irrite,

Excepté la candeur de l’antique animal

 

"J’aime le souvenir des ces époques nues" is another example of this, although the apotheosis of youth at the end (A la sainte jeunesse . . .) is very startling in Baudelaire. Cf. the note in FdM, Crépet-Blin, p. 303.

 

11 Royère,loc. cit., p. 58, writes: Baudelaire . . . ne serait peut-être pas éloigné d’une théologie qui mettrait l’homme, en quelque manière, au niveau de Dieu. But that would be the Devil’s own theology. In this passage, to be sure, Royère is speaking more of the male than of humankind, but that scarcely makes a difference.

 

12 Ames choisies is from the Mémoires of Saint-Simon, but may have been used earlier in the seventeenth century. The principle of selection has changed since then.

 

13 Charles Baudelaire, Ecrits intimes; introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre (Paris, 1946).

 

14 His hatred of nature often sounds Christian (la femme est naturelle, c’est-à-dire abominable; or le commerce est naturel, done il est infâme: both from "Mon cceur mis à nu"). But it is so absurdly exaggerated (j’aime mieux une boîte à musique qu’un rossignol, as he is quoted as saying in Schaunard’s Souvenirs), that it all seems to boil down to revolt. On the Apocalypse as the source of his visions of landscapes without vegetation (e.g., "Réve parisien" cf. Apoc. 21-2) see J. Pommier, La Mystique de Baudelaire (Paris, 1932), p. 39.

 

15 The first version, which appeared in 1851 in Le Messager de l’Assemblee, is quite different, much weaker and milder; in the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du mal the poem already has its definitive form, with the exception of the third line which runs: Pour piquer dans le but, mystique quadrature . . .

 

16 Crépet (FdM, Crépet-Blin, p. 518) calls "La Mart des artistes" la plus mallarméenne peut-être des Fleurs du mal. This is incontestable. But perhaps one may equally well say that there is no better indication of the profoundly different character of the two poets.

 

17 Un état d’esprit auquel Baudelaire aura cessé" de correspondre, says E. Raynaud, loc. cit., p. 307.

 

18 Like Taine after him, he called Baudelaire’s style âpre, and wrote: Vous chantez la chair sans l’aimer. Aside from Ange Pechméja’s letter, this is no doubt the most outstanding of contemporary judgments; J. J. Weiss should be mentioned as one of the contemporary adversaries. These and other critical remarks may be found in Eugène Crépet, Charles Baudelaire: Etude biographique, revue et mise à jour par Jacques Crépet (Paris, 1906), Flaubert, p. 359; Pechméja’s letter, p. 414; Taine, p. 432. But the action against Les Fleurs du mal and the contemporary reaction to the book are treated at length in the other biographies. The most complete compilation of opinions is probably that of Vergniol in La Revue de Paris, August 1917.

  
Flowers of Evil -- PQ 2191 .F62 E5 1958b SMRS

Flowers of Evil -- PQ 2191 .F62 E5 1958b SMRS


—from Erich Auerbach, ScenesFrom 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.

baudelaire’s famous poem to the hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!

The Flowers of Evil av Charles Baudelaire
This must be one of the most arresting openings in all of literature.
Richard Howard’s translation seems to be the one for English-only
readers to consult first, with its rhythm and alliteration, concision
of imagery and relatively contemporary diction.
 
To The Reader
 
Stupidity, delusion, selfishness and lust
torment our bodies and possess our minds,
and we sustain our affable remorse
the way a beggar nourishes his lice.
 
Our sins are stubborn, our contrition lame;
we want our scruples to be worth our while—
how cheerfully we crawl back to the mire:
a few cheap tears will wash our stains away!
 
Satan Trismegistus subtly rocks
our ravished spirits on his wicked bed
until the precious metal of our will
is leached out by this cunning alchemist:
 
the Devil’s hand directs our every move—
the things we loathed become the things we love;
day by day we drop through stinking shades
quite undeterred on our descent to Hell.
 
Like a poor profligate who sucks and bites
the withered breast of some well-seasoned trull,
we snatch in passing at clandestine joys
and squeeze the oldest orange harder yet.
 
Wriggling in our brains like a million worms,
a demon demos holds its revels there,
and when we breathe, the Lethe in our lungs
trickles sighing on its secret course.
 
If rape and arson, poison and the knife
have not yet stitched their ludicrous designs
onto the banal buckram of our fates,
it is because our souls lack enterprise!
 
But here among the scorpions and the hounds,
the jackals, apes and vultures, snakes and wolves,
monsters that howl and growl and squeal and crawl,
in all the squalid zoo of vices, one
 
is even uglier and fouler than the rest,
although the least flamboyant of the lot;
this beast would gladly undermine the earth
and swallow all creation in a yawn;
 
I speak of Boredom which with ready teats
dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.
Reader, you know this squeamish monster well,
—hypocrite reader, —my alias, —my twin!
 
— Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil (1857)

René Magritte, Flowers of Evil (1946)