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How Baudelaire Revolutionized Modern Literature

Humiliation as a Way of Life

Around, let’s say, 1885 the young French poet Jules Laforgue was living in Berlin and scribbling observations in his notebooks. He was reading Charles Baudelaire’s notorious book of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal—a book that had been prosecuted, successfully, by the French state for obscenity—and as Laforgue read on, he jotted down small aphorisms, mini-observations. These phrases were of a private kind: “a distinguished wanderer in the line of Poe and Gérard de Nerval,” “sensual hypochondria shading into martyrdom . . . ”: that kind of thing. They were private notes for a future essay that Laforgue would never write, attempts to define the genius of Baudelaire—who had died in 1867, around twenty years earlier, at the age of only forty-six.

But quickly Laforgue’s scattered notes develop a miniature chime, a repeat: “The first talked about himself in a kind of confessional mode without an inspired style.” As he carried on with his randomly punctuated, semi-grammatical notes, Laforgue kept returning to that tiny phrase, the first: “the first [who] talked about Paris as an everyday damned being of the capital”; “the first who is not triumphant but accuses himself, shows his wounds, his laziness, his bored uselessness in the middle of this devout and industrious century”; “the first who brought into our literature boredom in the midst of pleasure and its bizarre setting the sad bedroom…”; “the first he broke with the public—Poets addressed themselves to the public—human repertoire—he the first said: poetry will be something for initiates.”

Let’s paint this silent Berlin scene as dramatically as possible: Laforgue was one of the most radical poets then writing, but his idol was a dead precursor. The reason for his slightly retro idolization was there in the first of Laforgue’s firsts: the giant shift in Baudelaire’s tone. Baudelaire was the first poet to write in his own voice without the alibi of outside inspiration. It’s true, I suppose, that elsewhere in Europe some earlier Romantic poets had tentatively experimented with this kind of diary form, like Coleridge in his conversation poems. But even Coleridge was never as open in his poetry as he was in the privacy of his notebooks. Whereas for Baudelaire, in a notebook or a poem, the investigation was the same. This, for Laforgue, was what made him unique. He was the first to so lavishly and openly submit his private dirt to the pressure of the most meticulous art.

Wikimedia Commons

That this basic procedure is still seen as one of art’s central procedures in no way means that we can do without him. Twenty years after Baudelaire’s death he had not been outmoded, and he has not been outmoded now. True, he might sometimes use in his poems a vocabulary of vampires and cat-women. He didn’t smoke hash in a joint but consumed it as a green jam. Sometimes he seems limited to a nineteenth-century vibe—the dark and theatrical Gothic. (Flaubert to Feydeau, while editing his novel Salammbô: “I am reaching rather dark tones. We are starting to wade through gore and to burn the dying. Baudelaire would be happy!”) But in fact Baudelaire is nowhere. He is still more modern than we are. And this, I think, is a problem that needs further definition.

Toward the opening of his new book—a series of overlapping, digressive essays on Baudelaire and his artistic entourage—Roberto Calasso begins with his definition of Baudelaire’s modern condition. “In Baudelaire’s time, thinkers were obliged to commit an ‘infinite sin’. . . : to interpret infinitely, without a primum and without an end, in unceasing, sudden, shattered, and recursive motion.” This infinite interpretation, he argues, was the new Parisian atmosphere—and it was Baudelaire’s personal territory: “The real modernity that takes shape in Baudelaire is this hunt for images, without beginning or end, goaded by the ‘demon of analogy.’ ” And the reason why interpretation is infinite, argues Calasso, why this hunt for images and analogies goes on forever, is that sometime in the nineteenth century in Paris it became apparent that there was now no canon against which interpretations could be defined. There was no orthodoxy. “And perhaps never as in Baudelaire, in the graphs of his nervous reactions, was that situation so manifest.” This, concludes Calasso, is the secret of Baudelaire’s continuing shock value: “It is not something that concerns the power or the perfection of form. It concerns sensibility.” Baudelaire was the most sensitive instrument for recording the modern condition of total semantic confusion.

This idea has a pre-history in Calasso’s work. In a series of elegant, passionate, erudite books, Calasso has attempted to map out an esoteric terrain: the metaphysical in literature. This study of Baudelaire and his era therefore represents a new stage in his project, developing from one of the essays in his Oxford lecture series, published as Literature and the Gods: an attempt to show how the metaphysical is still present, if in an occluded and buried form, even at the point when modernist literature begins. For, he writes, “Baudelaire possessed something that was lacking in his Parisian contemporaries . . . : a metaphysical antenna.” He had “the stunning capacity to perceive that which is.” Baudelaire was the original dharma beatnik. “Prior to all thought, what is metaphysical in Baudelaire is the sensation, the pure comprehension of the moment.”

This is Calasso’s theme—the mystery of nineteenth-century appearances, as described by Baudelaire. It was Baudelaire, after all, who invented the phrase “the painter of modern life” to describe his beloved artist Constantin Guys, and this phrase is the hidden center of Calasso’s book—which is attentive not just to Baudelaire’s poems but also, especially, to the lavish suite of Baudelaire’s writings on art. Baudelaire was not just a great poet. His complete works are dominated by a mass of prose: letters, journals, literary essays, reviews, and, above all, his salons. He “allows himself to be perceived,” as Calasso writes, “through scraps of verses, fragments of phrases dispersed in the prose.” From this central point Calasso strolls, as through some luminous aquarium.

His book is baroque in its construction: its argument does not proceed from point to point but through a sequence of slow drifts and sudden aphoristic shocks. It is a gorgeous, willful, and convincing re-staging of Baudelaire’s style. But as Calasso performed his intricate investigation I kept being haunted by this idea of Baudelaire’s modernity, the problem of his uniqueness. And it was prompted, I think, by the problem of quotation. Baudelaire’s writing is a deeply unstable element, like plutonium. What, for instance, is one meant to make of this shocking sentence from Baudelaire’s late notes—“A fine conspiracy could be organized to exterminate the Jewish Race”? Or of this, from one of his earliest works, the preface to his Salon of 1846—“And so it is to you, bourgeois, that this book is naturally dedicated; for any book that does not appeal to the majority, in numbers and intelligence, is a stupid book”? In both cases, separated by the zigzag of Baudelaire’s career, it is impossible to determine the precise dosage of irony. All the usual ways in which texts meant anything, in Baudelaire’s writing, could be casually, methodically upended.

What does it really mean, for a writer to abandon the inspired style? Or to be a painter of modern life? Baudelaire loved to make it sound exuberant. When he wrote the words “new,” or “modern,” he often emphasized them in jazzy italics, to show how new the category of the new could be. But the deeper tone to this new confessional mode, in the end, was much more wounded, more melancholy. It was gruesome. And the gruesome is what you need to investigate, if you want to think about Baudelaire’s new style.

Gustave Courbet/Wikimedia Commons

At this point the reader deserves  a very brief life. For history came up with two specific plot devices for Baudelaire’s biography—the hidden backstory to Baudelaire’s grand invention. He was born in Paris in 1821, into the upper bourgeois world of the Bourbon Restoration. In 1830 there followed a fake revolution, replacing the Bourbons with the Orléanist King Louis-Philippe; and then a true revolution, in 1848, which inaugurated the short life of the Second Republic. That briefly utopian Republic was within three years co-opted by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and transformed into the stagnant reign of the Second Empire, under which Baudelaire would live for the rest of his life. This, then, was the first plot element: the crucial years of Baudelaire’s writing life, after 1848, took place under the sign of political disappointment, in the aftermath of a failed revolution.

But there was another layer to Baudelaire’s biography that meant he was more embroiled in this stagnation than other people. Personally, Baudelaire was at this empire’s center. He had been born to a young mother but an old father—and his father died early, a little before Baudelaire’s sixth birthday. Eighteen months later, his mother re-married.1 His stepfather was a man called Aupick, a high-ranking officer in the French army, who became Louis-Napoléon’s ambassador to Constantinople and Madrid, eventually finishing his career as a senator. Baudelaire’s mother’s re-marriage placed him at the center of the Empire’s military and diplomatic machine.

It meant that he could have been like his friend Gustave Flaubert. “Flaubert was smarter than us,” wrote the poet Théophile Gautier. “He had the intelligence to come into the world with some inheritance, a thing which is absolutely indispensable to anyone who wants to make art.” Flaubert lived happily and neatly at home with his mother. Baudelaire, however, spent so much money as a young law student in Paris that in 1841, when he was twenty, his stepfather Aupick sent him away on a long voyage. It was meant to make him see, as they say, the error of his ways. A year later Baudelaire was back in Paris, and no less into the idea of extravagance. By 1844, when he was twenty-three, what remained of his inheritance was removed from him and placed under the care of the family lawyer, Ancelle—legally enforced by a conseil judiciaire. For the rest of Baudelaire’s life, his money was doled out to him by Ancelle. If he needed more, and he always needed more, he had to beg for it from his mother or from literary acquaintances. He was, in other words, institutionally infantilized.

But he was institutionally infantilized by choice. What else, I suppose, is an enfant terrible? Baudelaire could have done the bourgeois thing, and found himself a job; or still done the bohemian thing but lived within his means. But he was intent on a larger experiment. There was a grandeur to his double decision: to live by his writing, but in a state of extravagant debt. He cultivated humiliation as a way of life—so often begging for money, so often letting it be known that if the sum asked for couldn’t be given, he would accept anything, “any sum WHATEVER.”

The public political humiliation, the private financial humiliation: this is the backstory to Baudelaire’s style. Humiliation was his studio. It was the medium in which he lived. His journals contain an entire section that was to be called “Hygiene”—notes where Baudelaire berated himself for his procrastination, his everyday laziness. He was the bohemian always appalled by his bohemian style. Utopia was a place where the riches of one’s genius would be matched by the riches of one’s earnings.

For humiliation, after all, was one effect of literature’s new commercial liberation. Baudelaire was one of the first writers to try to exist free from family inheritance, or aristocratic patronage, or government grants. But he discovered that this only leaves you alone with the market. And as soon as the market enters the picture, writing becomes a bleak strategy for reconciling sincerity to oneself with an appeal to other people. It leads to the writer performing pirouettes of self-definition and self-hatred. You never, in the words of Groucho Marx, want to belong to the club that will have you as a member. And its final effect can be seen in this proud, battered, manic sentence from a letter Baudelaire wrote toward the end of 1865: “no one has ever paid me, in esteem no more than in money, what I am DUE.”

And of course he was right. Humiliation was endless. So his true investigation into humiliation was the miniature theater of his writing. For if you write from life, if you write in this new confessional mode, then you very quickly discover how much it is possible to be humiliated. When Les Fleurs du Mal was on trial for obscenity, the prosecutor Pinard lamented, “[T]his unhealthy fever which induces writers to portray everything, to describe everything, to say everything.” If he hadn’t meant it as an insult, it would have been a neat description of Baudelaire’s new project. No humiliation would be too shameful to be documented.

But the fact that humiliation comes so naturally is therefore also a problem. It’s very easy for masochism in writing to deflate, and become only charming. It led Baudelaire into theatrics of exaggerated malice, of self-inculpation, like the repeated story of him praising the food in a restaurant as as tender as the brains of a little child. He knew that there is nothing cuter than the display of one’s wounds. But the reason for his continuing value is that he also came up with a solution to this problem. For true self-exposure can never be in the choice of what one observes. It can never be in the things confessed. It is easy, in the end, to describe something that no one else has described before. No, Baudelaire’s example is so toxic and so intoxicating because he shows that the greater courage is in the risk a writer takes with tone.

Calasso rightly quotes this confessional paragraph as a pure example of Baudelaire’s style: “Condemned constantly to the humiliation of a new conversion, I have made a great decision. To flee from the horror of these philosophical apostasies, I have proudly resigned myself to modesty: I have contented myself with feeling; I have returned to seek shelter in impeccable naivety.” But what is sincere in this statement, and what is ironic? There seems nothing more ironic than to state one’s impeccable naïveté—and yet there is also no reason to doubt him. His horror of apostasy was real. This mobility of emphasis is everywhere in Baudelaire. He somehow invented an ironic method of not being ironic at all. And this is what explains the strange rhythm of his writing, where the most poignant truths are smuggled into footnotes, or improvised essays. The ultimate secret of his apparently flippant digressions and arabesques is that everywhere he is totally exposed.

But this requires a slow-motion replay. Zoom in, say, on 1865, around the same time as his desolate letter complaining of his neglect. Baudelaire was forty-four. It sounds young, but in fact he had only two more years to live. Harassed by the French state, banned, censored, nearly bankrupt, he was trying out new options in a new city. In Brussels he sat down and wrote a series of short texts in prose, one of which has a title that could roughly be translated as: “Let’s Batter the Poor!” This miniature begins with Baudelaire describing how, around sixteen or seventeen years ago—around 1848, the year of revolution in Paris—he holed up for a fortnight, reading fashionable books of utopian political theory: both the ones that advise the poor to make themselves into slaves, he writes, and the ones that persuade the poor that they are all dethroned kings. Then he went out, with a deep desire for drink, “because a passionate taste for bad reading matter creates a proportionate need for open air and refreshment.” As he was about to go into a bar, a sixty-year-old beggar held out his hat, looking piteously at Baudelaire. So he paused there, hearing his good Angel or Demon whisper: “The only man who is the equal of another, is the one who can prove it, and the only man who is worthy of liberty, is the one who knows how to conquer it.” And with this revelation, Baudelaire began to savage the old beggar. He punched him in the eye, strangled him, beat his head against a wall; then he kicked him to the ground and began whipping him with a large branch: “and I beat him with the obstinate energy of a cook tenderizing a steak.”

But suddenly—“what a miracle! what delight for the philosopher who verifies the excellence of his theory!”—the old beggar stood up and “with a look of hatred that seemed to me to be a good sign” punched Baudelaire in both eyes, broke four of his teeth, and beat him with the very same tree-branch into pulp. When he was done, Baudelaire delightedly indicated that he considered their discussion to be over: “Monsieur, you are my equal! Please do me the honor of sharing my wallet; and remember, if you are truly philanthropic, that you must apply to every one of your comrades, when they demand money from you, the same theory which I have had the distress of trying out on your back.” And in his text’s last line, or punchline, Baudelaire writes: “He indeed promised that he had understood my theory, and that he would obey my advice.”

In this miniature text, with its wide-eyed look of being just a simple memoir from an earlier era, everything is dismantled. It is a text from a pre-communist revolution that is also a statement of fascist repression; an exposé of Baudelaire’s gruesome love of violence, as well as of his gruesome theoretical idealism. Nothing in this text is spared. And it is this wild tone, I think, rather than the obvious depiction of violence, that is the reason for the text’s enduring scandal. Not the attack on conventions of content, but the attack on conventions of tone. But then, this apparent inversion is perhaps not so unusual. Back in Paris, in the same year as Baudelaire probably wrote this text in Brussels, his younger friend Édouard Manet exhibited his famous painting Olympia. Once again, the scandal the painting caused was ostensibly the scandal of the content: that Manet should have chosen for his great nude to depict a prostitute.2 But it’s also possible to argue, I think, that the Parisian public’s anxiety over the painting’s content was a mask for a deeper anxiety—an anxiety about Manet’s dismantling of artistic conventions: the flatness of his vision, the brazenness of his brushstrokes. Conventions of tone, in the end, are more tenacious than conventions of content.

The effect of this mobile tone in Baudelaire’s work is that everywhere in his writing the surface is instantly porous. You read through his journals, and discover this isolated joke: “On the day when a young writer corrects his first proof-sheet he is as proud as a schoolboy who has just got his first dose of pox.” And you realize that the essence of this apparently casual joke is that both the schoolboy and the writer are proud of an imperfection that confirms their loss of innocence, their natural state of everyday corruption. This is not an isolated moment. This kind of fall happens constantly in Baudelaire’s writing. The investigation of tone in Baudelaire is an investigation into humiliation; and this humiliation, in Baudelaire’s theory, is the result of his conviction—to us, perhaps, counter-intuitive—that everything natural is corrupt.

Édouard Manet/Wikimedia Commons

Sometime around the end of 1853, for example, Baudelaire wrote a letter to a friend. He had been asked to contribute poems to a volume celebrating the poetry of Denecourt, whose writing was famous for praising the forest of Fontainebleau. “My dear Desnoyers, if I’m right, you want some poems for your little book, poems on Nature? on woods, great oaks, greenery, insects,—and presumably the sun?” This was how Baudelaire began, and then he embroidered a paragraph of pure tonal extravagance:

But, you know that I’m totally incapable of swooning over vegetal matter and that my soul is a rebel to this singular new religion, which will always have, I think, for every spiritual being something shocking. I will never believe that the soul of the Gods lives in plants, and even if it did reside there, I would hardly care, and would class my own soul at a much higher value than the soul of sanctified vegetables. In fact I have always thought that there was in Nature, flourishing and reborn, something impudent and distressing.

All of Baudelaire’s writing is based on this refusal of Nature as natural. Instead, what is really natural is melancholy, and perversion. A year before this letter, he had applied the same argument to love. He had fallen for a society woman called Madame Sabatier,3 who ran an elegant literary salon. Anonymously, he sent her a poem called “To She Who Is Too Gay.” This poem was included in the original edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, but was one of the poems ordered to be removed following the book’s prosecution for obscenity. Its opening is not obscene at all: “Your head, your movement, your bearing / Are beautiful like a beautiful landscape.” But soon, the elegance of the sentiment ends: “I hate you as much as I love you!” For just as nature humiliates him with its luxuriant joy, and makes him want to destroy it, so, writes Baudelaire, he would like one night to climb silently and cowardly up into her room, and

. . . make in your astonished side

A large and open wound,

And, vertiginous sweetness!

Through these new lips,

More striking and more beautiful,

Infuse in you my poison, my sister!

This is a love poem promising rape, a love poem promising syphilis—the syphilis that Baudelaire knew was poisoning him, and from which he would die around ten years later. It was the reference to the “poison” of syphilis in the poem’s last line that caused the poem to be excised by the prosecutors. But the reason why this poem is still so grotesquely upsetting now is not its reference to syphilis: it is the poem’s shockingly murderous tenderness. This poem is the most sinister love poem in world literature. Like all of Baudelaire’s writing, it is a pure agent of corruption.

Baudelaire begins his famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life” with a general theory of Beauty. His idea is that Beauty has two elements: one is “eternal and invariable,” and the other is “a relative circumstantial element”—an element that goes by a series of aliases: “contemporaneity, fashion, morality, passion.” As a theory, it does not amaze you immediately with its cool. But with this theory Baudelaire is doing something berserk to the history of aesthetics. The shift is in how he sketches the relationship between the two elements of beauty. It used to be that they happily existed beside each other, the eternal and the everyday. But no, he argues. If you want the eternal at all then the only route to it will be through the banal and ubiquitous quotidian, through the everyday dresses and make-up and sex lives of one’s era. This is the source of his strange uniqueness: this assertion that the only metaphysical art is a sketched picture of modern manners, as in the engravings of Constantin Guys, or in his own writing: all paintings of “the fleeting moment and of all that it suggests of the eternal.” There is nothing more profound, in Baudelaire’s revolution, than surfaces. And the closest surface is the map of one’s own feelings. Humiliation, in other words, is the point at which Baudelaire discovers his own portal into the eternal.

And one effect of this movement, finally, will be a refusal to stay in one genre. In a letter to his mother, on August 30, 1851, Baudelaire mentions Balzac, whom Baudelaire had slightly known: “the only things I have in common with him are debts and projects.” It is a passing remark, but as usual in Baudelaire’s writing a throwaway moment contains a sudden steep and all-telling drop. Debts and projects, after all, are for Baudelaire the same thing. They are the twin forms humiliation takes. If this is what he had in common with Balzac, therefore, then he and Balzac were very close. And it was true. Balzac was one of Baudelaire’s nearest precursors in the lavish description of surfaces. 

In other words, it is not impossible to imagine Baudelaire as a novelist. Even he did, too. In his long and unsuccessful attempt to earn money, there were many projects that Baudelaire proposed and never completed. There was a literary magazine called The Philosophical Owl, then various plays and various short stories, and also at one point a proposal to manage a whole theater: the man was inspired with schemes for getting rich slowly. His vocation was for career failure. And one of his incomplete projects was a novel. In 1852, writing to his editor Auguste Poulet-Malassis, he declared: “I am decided from now on to remain apart from all human polemic, and decided more than ever to pursue the superior dream of the application of metaphysics to the novel.” The metaphysical novel! It sounds surprising, but his dream of the novel was real—like Rimbaud’s reported opinion in Africa, having abandoned poetry and Paris, that all the interesting work was now being done in the novel. For both Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the novel was the natural successor to their inventions in the art of poetry. Two years later, in 1854, Baudelaire admonished his friend, the novelist Champfleury, that “the Novel is an art more subtle and more beautiful than the others, it is not a belief, no more than Art itself.”

I like to imagine what the history of the novel would look like if its nineteenth century had Baudelaire at its center, and not Flaubert; if it included, say, the sequence of texts in prose that Baudelaire was writing toward the end of his life, which were published as Le Spleen de Paris. (And which includes “Let’s Batter The Poor!”) These short texts, or poems in prose, may be his masterpiece—for the local brilliancies of each sentence, and also for the strange overlapping form of the whole book: “everything in it is both head and tail, one or the other or both at once, each way. . . . Take out a vertebra and the two halves of my tortuous fantasy will join together again quite easily. Slice it into any number of chunks and you will find that each has its independent existence.” The history of the novel, from this Baudelairean standpoint, would have a much more amorphous, unstable model.

But again: how much was serious, and how much was ironic? This is the genetic complication of Baudelaire’s writing, and toward the end of his book Calasso offers a final definition of his style: “an audacity that came naturally to Baudelaire no less than did a certain wavelike motion of verse. And it is precisely the alternation between those two tempos—the prestissimo of provocation and the sforzato of the Alexandrine—that separates him from all those who came before him and those who were to follow him.” Or, to put this another way, he was revolutionary, sure—and yet, as Calasso observes beautifully, “all his poetry seems translated from Latin.” Baudelaire was a classicist in his investigation of corruption. He was a constant double agent.

Of course Laforgue was right to idolize him! What else can you do? All his paradoxes are still here. The metaphysical is still a problem for the novel, and so is the investigation into the limits of humiliation. They may even be the same thing. For the deep problem is still the problem of writing a kind of confession, a kind of truth. And the question is, how do you do this better than Baudelaire? 

  1. His feelings about his mother's remarriage can perhaps be summed up in the fact that one of Baudelaire's prized possessions was a set of prints by Delacroix whose subject was Hamlet.

  2. In May, Baudelaire wrote to cheer Manet up: "Do you think you're the first person to be in such a position? Do you have more genius than Chateaubriand or Wagner? But people still laughed at them? They didn't die of it."

  3. She was said to be the model for Clésinger's orgasmically suggestive statue "Woman Bitten By A Serpent."