No Ideas but in Crowds: Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen

No Ideas but in Crowds: Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen

No Ideas but in Crowds: Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen

In Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire crystallized a new feeling: the private life of the public turn.

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SIGLIO PRESSCollage by Keith Waldrop included in his Several Gravities (2009)

“I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation–or, more accurately, the history of their feelings.” So wrote Gustave Flaubert about his novel Sentimental Education, which concerns the years 1840-67. As it happens, this period spans Charles Baudelaire’s life as an artist, from the publication of his first poem in Le Corsaire to his death in 1867 at 46. But it is not simply a coincidence of years that is signal here. Consider Flaubert’s smooth and instantaneous leap from “moral history” into “feelings.” This elision offers an unintended but eloquent verdict on what is great and strange about Baudelaire’s poetry: its unmatched capacity to transmute public existence into private torments and then return them to the public sphere, through the symbolic medium of his famed “correspondences.” Had Baudelaire not existed, Flaubert might have had to invent him.

The generation in question is the workshop wherein modernity was assembled, Baudelaire its glowering emissary. This is true, in part, for his ambiguous participation in the century’s central political episode, from the February Revolution of 1848 to Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’état. As the winds turn from tragic to farcical, the poet is the weather vane of the century of revolutions–switching from the Republican barricades to the side of reaction in a single gust. If Baudelaire is a missing character in Sentimental Education, he is equally an absent presence in the other great moral history of midcentury France, Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

Even as he haunts the margins of these master texts, Baudelaire promenades center stage in others, and writes his own. He would take the role as advance man for the modern era even if some of its most powerful thinkers had not explicitly made the case on his behalf. These include Jean-Paul Sartre’s bravura psychoanalytic study and Walter Benjamin’s two epic essays, recently repackaged by Harvard University Press under the decisive title The Writer of Modern Life.

But a surprise awaits those who, knowing the book was condemned instantly on its 1857 publication, open Baudelaire’s canonical The Flowers of Evil expecting the scandalous shock of the new. That book is largely composed in traditional style, its rhythms stiff and regular, its rhymes rich and repetitive. The poem most explicitly about the matter of modernity, “The Swan,” proceeds in strict alexandrines, the twelve-syllable lines that had held sway in French poetry since the seventeenth century:

Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N’a bougé! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs.

Paris changes! But nothing in my melancholy
Has moved! New mansions, scaffoldings, city blocks,
Old outskirts, all for me turn to allegory
And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.

English can scarcely capture the formal feeling, though generations of translators have tried; at the same time, no one misses the cry for, and against, the sudden remaking of the material world. This mismatch is unsettling but critical. It expresses the social antagonisms of the age more than any well-harmonized verse: on the one hand, the waning but inescapable power of the aristocracy, observing the old forms behind the stolid facades of western Paris. On the other, the mercurial bustle of the marketplace, that perpetual parade with its confetti made from a million receipts. By the end of the nineteenth century this confrontation has largely been settled; in The Flowers of Evil it is a mythic drama, voluptuary and awful, one way of life arriving as another passes away.

This is the book that Keith Waldrop translated three years ago. Waldrop has translated some of the lions of recent French poetry, including Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet-Journoud and Jacques Roubaud, in addition to Edmond Jabès. At Brown University, Waldrop has worked with an extraordinary and seemingly endless stream of exciting young poets. He edits the press Burning Deck with his wife, the invaluable poet, teacher and translator Rosmarie Waldrop. But in the main he is a poet, with more than a dozen titles to his credit, including the estimable new selection Transcendental Studies. In translating The Flowers of Evil, Waldrop made a poet’s choice.

This choice was to modulate that book’s now mannered-sounding French by rendering it into versets: each stanza captured as a burst of poetic prose. It was an intransigent decision, almost as curious as the original’s arch archaism, but curiously effective because of this. In adding another degree of parallax to the poetics, it reanimates the original’s discomfiting misalignment.

One must now also suspect Waldrop was playing the long game. The verset form, it turns out, is ideally suited for his new translation of Baudelaire’s posthumously assembled (and titled) collection, Paris Spleen. The fifty surviving pieces are, as Baudelaire at one point called the incomplete sheaf, “Little Poems in Prose” (Waldrop has dropped the verse “Epilogue” sometimes appended to the collection). They were not the first prose poems; as Baudelaire concedes in the volume’s dedicatory letter “For Arsène Houssaye,” Aloysius Bertrand pioneered the form in French. But it was surely Baudelaire, less famous than infamous by the 1869 publication of Spleen, who brought the style to the broader republic of poetry. Rimbaud’s two celebrated prose series, A Season in Hell and Illuminations, followed within five years; the form has persevered since then and gained increasing purchase on these shores. As Waldrop notes in the wryly instructive Translator’s Introduction, “American poets, in recent years, seem to have gotten the idea.”

But what is the idea, aside from a form that wasn’t popular and then was? Waldrop’s account, admirable for its straightforward clarity and command of the tradition, largely concerns aesthetic genealogies, both of French poetry and of Baudelaire; it rests on the appeal of variation, of expanding the palette, perhaps cocking a snoot at tradition along the way. Some readers may find this leaves open the question, Why just then? That is to say, what is the form’s history–the situation for which the prose poem offered a language where none had existed before, and thus took hold?

Baudelaire names this himself, in a passage of such inarguable clarity that it has become an axiom of modern art: “Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamt the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and striking enough to suit lyrical movements of the soul, undulations of reverie, the flip-flops of consciousness.” He continues:

Above all, it’s from being in crowded towns, from the criss-cross of their innumerable ways, that this obsessive ideal is born.

The argument is as simple as it is radical. The city is not a thing, not even a stage (as it appears in lesser accounts of Baudelaire and of modernity in general). It is a set of relations, shifting and elusive but for all that the base circumstance from which others arise, including objects, events, people. It is a bit like saying that the solar system isn’t made of planets but of gravity–a gravity that is modifiable, historically specific and can reveal itself only through moments and instants. Thoughts, politics, poetry might rail against this situation, but this cannot gainsay the fact that they arise from it as well.

This gets at the contradiction that charges Paris Spleen, distinct from the The Flowers of Evil‘s formal antagonisms. The individual is endlessly threatened by the gravity of the social whorl, by the maw of the masses and the tinsel seductions of the marketplace. And yet he is an individual only insofar as he is part of this new configuration, the very grounds for this new sort of person. He has no being beyond it. “A room resembling a reverie,” Baudelaire begins the poem “Double Bedroom”–but it is not a reverie into which he can fall. He cannot resist the awful lure of the street, with its “chaos of mud and snow, criss-crossed by a thousand carriages, sparkling with toys and toffee, crawling with greed and despair, standard delirium of a metropolis, made to disturb the brain of the sturdiest solitary.” One exists only in the darkly shining parade within which one disappears. No ideas but in crowds–this is the book’s axiom.

Even the allegories and parables that occupy much of the collection’s latter portion must bend themselves to this new scenario: the demiurges and demons, moons that speak and the Dionysian staff of the thyrsus. These figures don’t open a channel to some universal story but exactly the reverse; they underscore the breaking of tradition. Like the angel of “Lost Halo,” they are debauched in an instant. The modern seduces effortlessly, and its promises are not mistaken.

This ambivalent motion cannot come to rest. Again and again the poet struggles to step outside: “Finally! Alone!” he cries out in “One A.M.” “Finally! the tyranny of the human face has disappeared and from now on my sufferings will be my own.” At one point he reaches back to The Flowers of Evil for a dream of escape, repeating a title from that volume: “Invitation to the Voyage.” The earlier version is a triple sonnet of sensual longing, a last vestige of aristocratic ease that still might endure somewhere. Returning here as a prose block, the similar language seems out of place, a vitriolic travesty: “A true land of milk and honey, where all is beautiful, opulent, tranquil, honest; where luxury prides its orderliness; where life is rich, easy-going, altogether excluding disorder, turbulence, the unforeseen.”

If such a scenario was once a hopeless hope, now it is pure inversion, a way to name the latest “true land” in negative. “In that atmosphere we could build the good life–there where slower time yields more thought,” he says. We don’t believe him for an instant. His thought is timed to the vexed and anxious urban drift, even if–especially if–he can never be at home in it. There is no meditative, calm Baudelaire who would be believable; here, after all, is the poet whose bravura opening bid in “The Eyes of the Poor” is, “Ah, so you’d like to know why, today, I hate you.”

For all his hate, it is the mass of people, each more unfortunate than the last, to whom he keeps returning. In “Solitude,” perhaps the book’s most paradoxical poem, he seems to renounce any rapprochement with the crowd. “The unfortunate inability to be alone,” he bemoans, and “practically all our mishaps come from not staying in our room”–summoning the exhausted wisdom of La Bruyère and Pascal. By the end he has in his sights “all the fools searching for happiness in movement and in a prostitution I would call fraternalistic, if I wanted to speak in my century’s uppity tone.”

These last two words are an unconventional translation of “belle langue” (poetry’s virtue is that it is both necessary and pleasurable to linger over the phrase, the word). The common phrasing has long been “the beautiful language of my century”–this provides the title for a recent scholarly book by Tom McDonough about the emergence of détournement in postwar France as well as the last words of Guy Debord’s Mémoires. Waldrop’s willingness to alienate the language, to make it dance again, cannot help but be striking to any reader of Baudelaire. It now suggests something of the poet’s contempt for the honeyed talk of the bourgeoisie and its new cadre of captive intellectuals, and Waldrop gets this exactly right.

What slips away in this rendering, however, is the extent to which Baudelaire did wish to speak the beautiful language of his century, to wrest it from the salon and the Académie. Again and again he goes looking for it; the secret he knows is that it is to be found exactly “in movement and in a prostitution.” This passage is the stroll of the flâneur, that jaundiced inspector of modernity, walking through the market but imagining himself not quite of it: the private citizen invented by public existence. This is the daily or nightly course for which Paris Spleen‘s lyrical movements and undulations find form.

“The interior is passing away. Life turns back to become public,” wrote the Goncourt brothers, incomparable chroniclers of Paris, in 1860. This is incontestable. Baudelaire’s grasp is nonetheless subtler, more dialectically refined: the interior will now be itself a public fact. Otherwise it is finally unsatisfactory, intolerable. Thus his greatest poem, “The Crowd”: “It is not given to everyone to blend into the multitude: enjoying the crowd is an art.” Granted, it is an art that will require “a taste for travesty and masque, along with hatred of home and passion for travel.” Here he does not mean the escape fantasy of “Invitation.” Rather, it is the tormented excursion into modernity.

And it is in this admission of necessity that he is able to uncover the secret of the situation, the contradiction at the heart of things: “Who walks alone with his thoughts draws a singular intoxication from this universal communion.” This is Baudelaire at the limit, having uncovered a new feeling that does indeed appear as a moral history, the private life of the public turn.

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