“The great events I went in search of failed to reach my expectations," wrote Alfred de Vigny, a friend of the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Richard Sieburth’s translations of Baudelaire’s last writings arrive over a century late, so they are just in time for the empty triumph of what Baudelaire called “the cult of images.”
When Baudelaire called himself a sataniste, it was not just for the hell of it. The absolutist aesthetic doctrine, art for art’s sake, was all that remained. He gave himself to it body and soul and died of syphilis in 1867, age 46. A trunk containing his literary effects was sent to his mother. These feuilles volantes (“loose leaves”) included brief ideas for books and poems, an unfinished epigram collection from the 1850s called “Fusées” (“Rockets”), some philosophical and autobiographical notes and some “prose poems,” Mon Coeur Mis a Nu (“My Heart Laid Bare”), the essay on personal and societal catastrophe that shaped Nietzsche’s last writings, and an extended rant about the awfulness of Belgium.
One of Baudelaire’s publishers selected and ordered “Fusées,” Mon Coeur Mis a Nu, and some reflections on “Hygiene.” These were published in 1887 as Journaux Intimes (Private Journals), and translated into English by Christopher Isherwood in 1930. The rest of the material in Late Fragments has never appeared in English before. The Belgian material alone makes it essential reading. It is obnoxiously, apocalyptically funny, an Idiocracy of the 1800s.
“To translate successfully an imperfect series of notes and jottings like the Journaux Intimes is a more difficult task than the whole of Baudelaire’s formal prose,” T.S. Eliot wrote in his introduction to Isherwood’s edition. The journals are full of repetitions and “short phrases and single words which seem to be memoranda for thoughts,” and it would take “vast annotation” to bring out their sense. Sieburth does a commendable job. He introduces each section of Late Fragments with biographical and scholarly essays, and his footnotes trace the recurring themes and characters, especially Baudelaire’s morbid admiration for Joseph de Maistre, the monarchist philosopher who pioneered the Catholic reaction against democracy and modernité. Sieburth translates “Fusées” as “Flares.” Baudelaire, who called his last poems a “gas explosion in a glass factory,” sends phosphorescent distress signals to the future.
“Spiritual and physical delights aroused by storms, electricity, lightning — alarm signals of all those shadowy, lovelorn memories of bygone days.”
Eliot reckoned that despite the difficulty of piecing together the fragments, “the most important passages are also the most comprehensible.” The glory of Baudelaire’s late style is his epigrams. As with his invention of the “prose poem,” he made a virtue of his reduced capacities. But the clarity of his prose does not always mean we can comprehend what he means. As Baudelaire said, “The style all the more decorous as the ideas become less so.”
Some of Baudelaire’s notes are titles in search of substance: Cholera at the Opera, the Philosopher at the Carnival, and (a gift to Eliot) An Ash Wednesday. Some are provocations: The Blue-Eyed Negress, Self-Cuckoldry or Incest, and the Seductive Undertaker. But sometimes Baudelaire’s unraveling mind attains a terrifying prophetic aspect. As in his fellow syphilite and aesthete Nietzsche, Baudelaire’s “symptoms of ruin” are those of Europe itself.
Ruined by his pursuit of collapse in morals and mind, Baudelaire the fallen angel could no longer sustain the “vengeful imperviousness” of the Dandy’s pose or the correspondence between dreams and reality. The Dandy should “live in front of the mirror” in the eyes of society, but now the Dandy sees into society and beyond: “Is my brain a witch’s mirror?” The deteriorating poet, who sees “such terrible things in my dreams that there are times when I would rather stop sleeping altogether,” looks into the abyss of Europe’s future: “a fine conspiracy for the extermination of the Jewish race.”
Who was this strange philosopher of modern madness, this poet of beauty and hate? Born in 1821, Baudelaire lost his father at 7 and never forgave his mother for remarrying. He hated his soldier stepfather, who returned the compliment by shipping the boy off, first to boarding school and then to India. Baudelaire jumped ship in Réunion, returned to Paris, and started writing poems. When he came of age, he blew his inheritance on drink, drugs, clothes, and his Haitian-born mistress Jeanne Duval, the “black Venus” who lived on Rue de la Femme-sans-tete, the “Street of the Headless Woman.” Suitably appalled, his mother and stepfather retaliated by securing a court order that gave them control over his estate. Doomed to beg for a mere bourgeois’s allowance, he was not even a well-fed trustafarian. There was no money in poetry, and anyway, Baudelaire’s “Dandy” routine obliged him to squander any funds that did come in.
Baudelaire’s generation, Anita Brookner wrote in The Genius of the Future (1971), sought meaning through nostalgia and “the search for forms of compensation.” They substituted literary celebrity for military glory, aesthetic outrage for political revolt, the inner epic of drug-taking for historical purpose, occultist fantasy for obedience to the church, and prostitutes and idleness for bourgeois productivity. Baudelaire’s supreme compensation is his self-image as a Dandy, the essence of everything elegant, graceful, decadent, and superfluous: the antithesis of mass-produced modernité, where everything has a price and a purpose.
In Les Fleurs du Mal, the collection that appeared in 1857, Baudelaire schematized these substitutions in quasi-Catholic terms. The intoxicated soul wanders the fallen world of Spleen, haunted by desire for union with the transcendent realm of Idéal, aroused and tormented by correspondances, glimpses of the sacred in the erotic.
It could have been worse — and then it was. Addicted to opiates, Baudelaire struggled to convert the scandal of Les Fleurs du Mal into cash. In 1859, he moved into his mother’s home at Honfleur, Normandy, not far from Flaubert, who lived with his mother at Croisset. Baudelaire rallied, returned to Paris in time to catch Wagner’s first concerts in France, then moved up to Brussels in 1864. Brussels was perfect for Baudelaire. It was cheaper, it was closer to mother and her money, and he hated it with a passion.
Baudelaire’s generation was too late for the democratic dream of the French Revolution and the military glory of Napoleon Bonaparte and too late to feel the politics in Romantic literature. It is surprising that Baudelaire’s last writings have not been fully translated into English until now. A pity, too: They would have eased the longeurs of waiting for whatever comes after modernité.
Dominic Green’s latest book is The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898.