Charles Baudelaire; His Dissolute Life, Magnificent Poetry

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 17, 2006 | Go to article overview

Charles Baudelaire; His Dissolute Life, Magnificent Poetry


Byline: Leslie H. Whitten Jr., SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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