The Interview with Charles Baudelaire Page Two
an imagined conversation by Kevin MacLaughlin
KM: As it happens you have written one of my two favorite lines of poetry produced by the Western world. I am referring to “Don Juan in Hell.” No poem, in my opinion can equal in profundity the poem’s final two lines. Let me sum up the narrative of the poem for our BTS readers. In this epic, Don Juan has died and been sent down to the underworld. He pays his coins and is ferried by Charon to his eternal fate. Don Juan was a reprobate, the very definition of a womanizer who only kept his oaths when they aligned with his own interests. Don Luis, his father, joined the rest of the devils, hoping to hear his son cry out in pain. I love the last stanza and have written my own treatment of the final lines. Would you be kind enough to listen to my rendering?
CB: I would.
The fiends prepared their torture instruments,
While the virginal Elvira and her ladies gathered:
But the calm hero leaned on his sword,
And offered not a glance around.
CB: That is a blasphemy. Yet what could be more precious than a beautiful poem despoiled? I enjoy hatred and I glory in contempt. My friend you have stirred all of these emotions in me tonight.
(A small group of attractive women passed by where we sat, and shouted curses at Baudelaire. He called back imprecations of his own. A dandy he was, a fop . . . but a ferocious one. His handsome face reminded me of a green-eyed black cat with an intense gaze.)
KM: (Thinking to catch him off balance, I asked him a question that was almost a non-sequitur.)
If you hadn’t become a poet, what occupation would you have chosen?
CB: Mathematician. All poetry can really accomplish is to replicate the ineluctable, supremely logical world of the mathematician. Had I failed at numbers, I’d have been a musician. If that proved a foe beyond me, I would have turned my hand to gardening. Paris would soon have the most monstrous, hideous gardens in Europe.
KM: I mentioned Jean Paul Sartre earlier. He is something of a hero of mine. He wrote you never had the life you deserved. You didn’t deserve that semi-incestuous mother, Mademoiselle Louchette’s withered body, the harlots, the syphilis, and those soulless mortals who pretended to be your guardians. He asks why you buried yourself beneath the grave’s dirt of opium.
CB: Then why did I keep their company, according to your Monsieur Sartre?
KM: Because you are a recluse with a horror of solitude. While he analyzes you, he wonders if you are an extroverted introvert or an introverted extrovert.
CB: I take his point.
KM: “Baudelaire,” he writes, “was the man who chose to look upon himself as though he were another person; his life is simply the story of the failure of this attempt.” You wrote in a letter about your intention to commit suicide because you considered yourself useless.
CB: Ho, ho, in this he reveals the flaws of his own thinking. Can there be a man or a woman who has not seriously considered suicide? Everyone but an idiot has this ideation. Ah, to not exist. To be freed from mental and physical pain. Even a hedonist will ponder suicide as an option to life. No one who hasn’t deeply considered this act could appreciate my poetry.
KM: You wrote in a letter to your mother, “. . . what I feel is immense discouragement, a sense of unbearable isolation, a complete absence of desires, an impossibility of finding any sort of amusement.” But enough about your mother and the thoughts of a French philosopher.
What poet or writer do you enjoy reading?
CB: Edgar Allan Poe, only Edgar Allan Poe. In 1856 I published a book of Poe’s translations into French. Poe was my twin soul. In his writings I found pieces of myself that I had not been able to fit together. He wrote the literature I wish I had written myself.
KM: Let me get back to your poems. In “Allegory,” you relate what I take to be your vision of a Goddess. She is beautiful, enough so to make the Angels jealous, debauched, and believes she will be feted in an afterlife. You have a fault in this piece. Yes, I have the audacity to rewrite the immortal Baudelaire! Facing Death, you describe her face as forlorn, a major contradiction. Here is my treatment of those final lines:
Of Hell she knows not, and to other states oblivious;
And when the final moments approach,
She will look in Death’s face joyously,
As one about to receive an auspicious reincarnation.
Such a female’s face could never be forlorn.
CB: Well done, my new friend. You really do read my work with subtlety. But, sadly, your rendering is but a reliquary filled with suet.
Shall we take a break from such serious talk, repair to my rooms, where two particularly loathsome hookers await us, and enjoy some opium?
(I felt the tugging of gravity upon my body’s molecules. Too soon, I was being stretched, preparatory to my return through the wormhole, back to 2019. I found myself in my kayak, pressed by the tide into red mangrove prop roots. I noticed my dive knife had gone missing.)
Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821 and would die in Paris in 1867. Much would happen in the intervening years.
Baudelaire ordered an absinthe, I a sparkling water. Not sure of the amount of time I would spend in 19th century France, I launched right into the interview.
KM: In 1857 Les Fleurs du mal brought you to trial for committing obscenity. Six of the poems were banned. I have read The Flowers of Evil twice and have never encountered what I consider obscenity. Is your trial representative of this era’s moral climate?
CB: I have been hounded through the streets and physically beaten several times. France is undergoing a time of the greatest vulgarity. I do acknowledge deliberately inserting some easily recognizable filth in my poems as a means of pleasing the press and the art critics. They express their appreciation by heaping vitriol and allegations of devil worship upon me. I am chaste. They make of me a slattern. I am pure. They make of me a mound of dung. Allow me to quote from the short volume’s opening stanzas:
Folly and error, avarice and vice,
Employ our souls and waste our bodies’ force.
As mangy beggars incubate their lice,
We nourish our innocuous remorse.
Our sins are stubborn, craven our repentance.
For our weak vows we ask excessive prices.
Trusting our tears will wash away their sentence,
We sneak off where the muddy road entices.
(translated by Roy Campbell)
CB: This piece sets the tone for “Flowers,” and expresses my adulation for Mankind. We are mangy beggars. We live, covered with lice, in a snake pit. Earth is not a planet; it is a penal colony, and we are all serving a life sentence. Is there anything sadder or more disgusting than a baby, born in excruciating pain to its mother, at the Baptismal Font? I don’t believe so.
(At this point in the interview a waiter, unbidden, brought Monsieur Baudelaire another absinthe. When he looked to me, I waved him away.)
KM: Those are beautiful lines, and set up the verses following. What, honored poet, are the responsibilities of a poet?
CB: Honored poet?
KM: Yes. In future generations your work will be venerated and taught in Universities at the highest levels. I am from the year 2019 and know whereof I speak.
CB: (snorting) Then I truly am damned. My verse will endure the Ages, endure longer than the ordure of my critics. Let me attempt to answer your question. The responsibility of a poet is to be understood by other poets. Those without the gift of poetry may understand snatches of a verse, may even fathom entire works of the minor poets. The first noteworthy poem was the Christian/Hebraic Bible. It was meant to be read in a state of irony, but, unfortunately, few are capable of reading words written by nomads who were inspired by an omniscient spirit before it transmogrified into an indifferent God and an active, malevolent devil spirit. Over the centuries, these two entities have become unreliable, impulsive, maybe even interchangeable. I believe I convey this truth in the final verses of “The Irremediable.”
The dialogue is dark and clear
When a heart becomes a mirror!
Black well of truth, but none is clearer,
Where that livid star appears,
KM: (interrupting) Never was a book more aptly titled. Excuse me.
CB: May I continue? Good.
That ironic and primeval
Beacon, torch of Satan’s grace,
Our sole glory and our solace—
Consciousness in doing evil!
(translated by Henry Curwen)
KM: Given what you have written, is it even remotely possible that some fragments of Mankind might attain redemption? Does reading pure poetry elevate the consciousness?
CB: I am grateful for your swift knife fighting skills back in that alley. Technically, you prolonged my life. But you are a blockhead! All poets are already redeemed. I provide the Secret of Life to the masses: Consciousness in doing evil. Be aware of your every decision. When you choose, you are legislating for all of humanity. Our existence precedes our essence.
KM: Interesting. Your thoughts are not unlike a great 20th century French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. He wrote commentary on your work and attempted to provide a landscape of your mind. I will be quoting Sartre to you a bit later.
CB: (laughing) Then this Sartre of yours must himself be a poet . . . and a brave man if he rooted around in my brain. Graciously allow me to quote a few more verses from Flowers, these from “The Little Old Women.”
They crawl: a vicious wind their carrion rides:
From the deep roar of traffic see them cower,
Pressing like precious relics to their sides
Some satchel stitched with mottoes or a flower.
The coffins of old women very often
Are near as small as those of children are,
Wise Death, who makes a symbol of a coffin
Displays a taste both charming and bizarre.
(translated by Roy Campbell)
As you can see Kevin McLaughlin from the future, I have a genuine fondness, maybe even a lust for old women. Their shriveled loins, their shrunken breasts askew, arms and legs pumping, heading determinedly for the charnel house. Oh, note I dedicated that poem to Victor Hugo.
Portrait of Charles Baudelaire 1848–1849 by Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)