THE WRITER OF MODERN LIFE: ESSAYS ON CHARLES BAUDELAIRE
By Walter Benjamin
Edited by Michael W. Jennings
Belknap Press, $15.95, 307 pages
REVIEWED BY LESLIE H. WHITTEN JR.
What’s going on here? Why the sudden interest in Charles Baudelaire, a 19th-century French poet? Evidence of this fascination abounds. A 14-year-old kid goes to a reading of Baudelaire translations and starts memorizing them. The bestselling Lemony Snicket novels star “the Baudelaire orphans;” French-milled soaps, chic knitted socks, a record label, a t-shirt line and at least two hotels are also named after the eponymous Frenchman.
And, if you can believe it, Google by a recent count had more items on Baudelaire than on Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot combined. (Well, who would want Allen Ginsberg soap or a story about the “T. S. Eliot Orphans?”)
Now comes “The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire,” edited by Princeton University professor Michael Jennings, and based on the writings of Walter Benjamin, a long dead German genius. Benjamin dissects the author of “Les Fleurs du Mal” (“The Flowers of Evil”) with a Marxist scalpel, among other unusual literary procedures.
Why is all this happening? Maybe because in a unique way we fearful and confused souls recognize that Baudelaire’s mordant and yet often exquisitely beautiful poetry and screwed-up life are a kind of mirror noir of our own teetering times. The same violent deaths, political treacheries, religious confrontations — and yet brief Roman candle bursts of loveliness are there.
Or maybe Baudelaire, not even included in most American standard literature books, is a stealth fisherman who has hooked more and more of us as he has Mr. Jennings and Benjamin (and me). And watch out! It could happen to you.
For Baudelaire’s poems are dark jewels, magical, capable of changing one’s life much as psychotherapy can. I challenge you who have read this far to thoughtfully parse “The Voyage” (“Le Voyage”) with its profound words about love, death and God. By understanding what you have read, you honor not just Baudelaire’s disturbing truths, but your own perceptiveness.
From the engulfing mudslide of his life spring disciplined horrors and glories like diabolical flowers. They display by turns and sometimes in the same poem: Jesus and Satanism, conventional morality and gross iniquity, vileness and purity.
Benjamin writes acutely that Baudelaire lacked the humanitarian idealism of Victor Hugo, the emotional buoyancy of Musset, the pleasure of his times of Gautier, the refuge in devotions of Verlaine and the youthful vigor of Rimbaud. But for all this, Benjamin saw in Baudelaire a tragic magnificence that sets him above all of these great poets.
He points to Baudelaire’s yearning to be like a ship gently rocking in a harbor, and yet his feeling that instead he was an Icarus who falls from the sky when his wings, secured by wax, melt because he has flown too near the sun. He compares him to the albatross described in one of Baudelaire’s most famous poems who is brought down to the deck of a ship and drags his great wings there while vicious and stupid sailors torment him.
Baudelaire’s numerous biographers and critics have called him “a modern Dante” rivaled since the Greeks only by Shakespeare and Goethe — a fanatic, a failure, a triumphant success.
It is not just his poetry but his weird existence that possesses us. Shakespeare’s life is largely unknown; Eliot’s is as pedestrian as his poetry is brilliant. But Baudelaire, one of whose major prose works is entitled “My Heart Laid Bare,” and his contemporaries both left behind voluminous evidence of his self-destructive eccentricities and contradictions.
Born and raised in a prosperous middle-class family, we see him later, as Benjamin describes him: a volunteer in the French revolution of 1848 “brandishing a rifle … and shouting ‘down with General Aupick,’” his stepfather whom he loathed. The general had sent the young poet off to Calcutta. Instead he decamped at Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and came home.
Again in Paris, he misspent his inheritance on dandyish clothes, absinthe, opium and hashish for poet friends and on his whorish mistress who betrayed him even as he tried to nurse her back from her paralytic attacks. In another mode, we see him as the admired companion of France’s most esteemed literary and artistic figures (and the despair of many of them).
Plagued with debts, he fled France to Belgium which he came to scorn and hate along with almost everything else but his own perfect poetry. He returned to Paris to die of aphasia brought on by a venereal disease he had contracted in his mid-teens. At the end, he couldn’t even say his own name, although some contend he could still murmur “merde.” Just barely he did understand that his greatness was being widely recognized at last.
Benjamin throughout has extraordinary insights into all this but they are squeezed between details of economics, politics and buildings in 19th-century Paris. And editor Michael Jennings’ commentary is so worshipful toward Benjamin as to be tedious.
That said, there remains a poignant irony. As pointed out above, Baudelaire fled to Belgium before he was returned to a Parisian nursing home. Benjamin, a Jew, also fled: across the Vichy France border with Spain in 1940. But fearing he would be returned to Nazi Germany, he overdosed on morphine, probably a suicide. He was two years older than Baudelaire and was working on a book about him at the time of his death.
Leslie H. Whitten Jr., author of “The Rebel: Poems by Charles Baudelaire — American Versions,” is a Washington writer.