Who has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch of consciousness?
It is above all in the habit of huge cities, the endless meeting of their ways, that this obsessive ideal originates. you have yourself wished to put into song the glazier’s grating cry, and render in lyrical prose its heartbreaking resonances, carried up to attic rooms higher than the mist in the street. (3)
— 26 August, 1862
I first read that quote reading Walter Benjamin, and I loved it. There is something about the city that I long to capture, to express, to give voice.
Last night I sat in Westminster Abbey listening to Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of 1610’ and almost cried knowing my words could never do what that music does, nor even capture what that soaring stone vaulting speaks (and god forbid my writing stay trapped in the side aisles growing full of ponderous stone monuments to vanity festooned with putti too fat to fly). Baudelaire, I wondered, what else do we share since we share this ambition? I had read Les Fleurs de Mal a long time ago, I think I struggled through it in French which is why I remember nothing.
Though there was indeed an absence of love in that absence of memory.
There are even so a few things in here I love. Baudelaire wasn’t talking about pulp perhaps, but I adore this quote:
And I quit my room raging with thirst, because wild addiction to bad literature had instilled in me a proportionate want of clear air and refreshment. (96)
And this? Though Baudelaire and I in fact share little to nothing, I do know this well:
10. One a.m.
Alone at last!…At last, the tyranny of the human face has gone, and my only source of suffering will be myself.
Horrible life! Horrible city! (18)
Still, it goes deeper, this tyranny of the human face. Something in this early book prepared me for Nadja, for so many of the great men who write cities, write women, write themselves over and over again onto the page.
It is not given to all to crowd-bathe: the enjoyment of crowds is an art; and only he can go, at the expense of mankind, on a reinvigorating spree whom in his cot a fairy wand has left the taste for masks and travesty, a loathing of home and a passion for travel.
Multitude, solitude: equivalent terms for the active and prolific poet. (22)
Why should this be ‘at the expense of mankind’? Yet it is, it is set up this way — artist v mankind. Artist alone and above and born to it, looking out but always looking down. The essence of this:
27. The Old Acrobat
There was no point in asking the poor fellow what marvels or curiosities he would conjure in the stinking gloom behind his ragged curtain. In truth I did not dare; and even though you might find the reason for my caution risible, I confess it came from a reluctance to humiliate him. (28)
The reluctance to humiliate being risible. To whom is he talking that compassion for an old man should be something of which he is ashamed? This is the nutshell I think, the point at which ‘art’ goes where I no longer wish to follow, yet it seems to be a masculine ideal belonging to many a writer and observer who care nothing for others.
Even when it has to do with cake. As in:
Oh glorious title! But so sad:
Before me stood a little human creature, ragged and blackened, with wild, deep-set, supplicant eyes that were devouring my bread. And I heard him moan in a hoarse, low voice the single word: cake! I could not hold back my laughter at the title he wanted to give my off-white bread… (29)
He doesn’t worry about humiliating a foreign child (it could even be little Dicky Perrot, and my heart breaks), only throws him a piece of bread and wonders at a country where two children will fight to the death for it and call it cake.
There are poems of equal callousness musing on mistresses, misogyny regarding wives, tropical fantasies of opium and women that still contain glorious lines like:
beyond the veranda the noise of birds drunk on light… (48)
The piece I have seen most quoted, describing Baudelaire and his mistress sitting in a new cafe on one of Haussman’s new boulevards and watching a family of people too poor to partake stare at them, drinking in the lights and the warmth and the food.
26. The Eyes of the Poor
As I turned my gaze to yours, my love, to read my own thoughts; as I immersed myself in your eyes…you said to me: “I cannot bear those people with their eyes out on stalks! Tell the waiter to get rid of them.” (53)
Baudelaire has such eyes, does he not? An intensity to them. Yet I am angered that he seeks only to read his own thoughts in the eyes of a woman. Conflicted when I hate her response as much as he does.
Still, serves him right perhaps, what better woman would care to be with someone so self-centered? Reflect this, mother fucker, is one phrase that might come to mind, here and in another musing that mingles the profound with the sad with the profoundly self-obsessed:
An open window never reveals as much as one closed. There is nothing more profound, mysterious, fertile, shadowy, than a window lit by a candle. What is seen in sunlight is always less interesting than whatever occurs on the far side of a glass sheet. Within that cave, dark or illuminated, life lives, life dreams, life hurts.
Across undulating roofs, I perceive a mature woman, already wrinkled, poor, permanently stooping over something; a life spent indoors. With her face, her clothes, her movements, with almost nothing, I have recreated that woman’s story, her myth rather, and sometimes I weep as I tell it to myself.
Had it been a poor old man, I would have reconstructed his story as easily.
And I retreat to my bed, pleased I have lived and suffered not in myself but in someone else.
Perhaps you will ask me: “Are you sure you have the right myth?” But why should I care what the reality is outside myself, so long as it helped me to live, to feel that I am, to feel what I am? (76)
‘…pleased I have lived and suffered not in myself but in someone else.’ Profanity seems by far the best response since he cannot be slapped. But I will end with one of my favourite ones, as I favour asking things of wind, waves, stars and birds (but not clocks)…
33. Be Drunk
be drunk always. Nothing else matters; there are no other subjects. Not to feel the grim weight of Time breaking your backs and bending you double, you must get drunk and stay drunk.
But drunk on what? Wine, poetry, virtue — the choice is yours. Just be drunk.
And if sometimes, on a palace staircase, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy isolation of your chamber, you wake sober or just a little tipsy, ask the wind, waves, stars, birds, clocks, ask anything that flies, moans, moves, sings, speaks, ask it the time. And the wind, wave, star, bird, clock will reply: “Time to get drunk! To avoid the enslaved martyrdom of Time, get drunk and stay drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, the choice is yours!” (73)