The Flowers of Evil: The Balcony

800px-bazille_la_toilette1
Frederic Bazille-La Toilette 1870
It is impossible to overestimate the influence  of Charles Baudelaire upon modernity. The entire Symbolism/Decadent movement that so dominated the 19th Century fin-de-siecle in Europe owed its very existence to Baudelaire.

Baudelaire’s importance extends  far deeper that the creation of one transitory artistic school however. Although he didn’t invent the concept of dandyism (that honour belongs to Beau Brummel), his example gave it a wider cultural currency that eventually resulted in the carefully constructed persona of the ultimate aesthete and wit, Oscar Wilde. His wanderings around the Parisian streets led to Walter Benjamin formulating a new type of man, the flaneur. The figure of the flaneur  recurs frequently in Benjamin’s massive, unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project. The spirit of the Baudelairean flaneur guided the Surrealists in their impromptu flea-market jaunts and nocturnal adventuring. The Situationist International (see Moving Images) took the flaneur a step further and the central tenets of the SI, Unitary Urbanism and psycho-geography are based upon the needs of this recently evolved city-dweller.

Beyond shaping some of the major artistic and intellectual currents of the 19th and 20th Century, Baudelaire presence can be felt in Punk (with his dried green hair and urgent provocations) and dominated Goth (Dreams of Desire 5 (That Look).

His influential art criticism (and the inspiration he provided to visual artists, see The Sleepers) and his re-definition of the poet as cultural agitator and arbitrator paved the way for Guillaume Apollinaire (In The Zone) and Andre Breton (The Pope of Surrealism).

Baudelaire’s fame largely rests upon his volume of poetry, Le Fleurs Du Mal. First published in 1857 it immediately caused a scandal. Baudelaire’s originality lay not in the versification (which is traditional) but in the explicit, morbid subject matter.

Below is a translation of one of his finest love poems, Le Balcon, inspired by his muse and mistress of twenty years, the ‘Venus Noire’, Jeanne Duval (she was a Creole of Haitian-French heritage).

The Balcony

Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
you who are all my pleasures and all my duties,
you will remember the beauty of our caresses,
the sweetness of the hearth, the charm of the evenings,
mother of memories, mistress of mistresses.

On evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire
and evenings on the balcony, veiled with pink mist,
how soft your breast was,
how kind to me was your heart!
Often we said imperishable things
on evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire.

How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!
How deep is space! How powerful the human heart!
As I leant over you, oh queen of all adored ones,
I thought I was breathing the fragrance of your blood.
How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!

The night would thicken like a wall around us,
and in the dark my eyes would make out yours,
and I would drink your breath, oh sweetness, oh poison!
And your feet would fall asleep in my brotherly hands.
The night would thicken like a wall around us.

I know how to evoke the moments of happiness,
I relive my past, nestling my head on your lap.
For why would I seek your languid beauties anywhere
except in your dear body and your oh-so-gentle heart?
I know how to evoke the moments of happiness!

Will those sweet words, those perfumes, those infinite kisses
be reborn from a chasm deeper than we may fathom
like suns that rise rejuvenated into the sky
after cleansing themselves in the oceans’ depths?
Oh sweet words, oh perfumes, oh infinite kisses!

 

Translation Peter Low 2001

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49 thoughts on “The Flowers of Evil: The Balcony

  1. This is a sweetly romantic poem. This doesn’t strike me as ‘mal’ at all. Le Fin de Siecle is my favorite restaurant in Brussels, you know. And well anyone who paved the way for O Wilde is ace in my hand. A really well written introduction, Night Manager.

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      1. Well they both died of it eventually. I didn’t mention it because there was some much to mention in his influence but the whole starving artist in the garret cliche was refined by Baudelaire. By the way I think I upset someone by disagreeing with their post regarding this matter.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Actually they just didn’t reply, so maybe I am going a bit overboard. It was a worthy post about writers should be positive and about how writers in the past committed suicide because nobody knew about depression. Just very… worthy.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. It is mental clutter in my barn of a brain. A flanuer is basically an urban observer, walking around and taking in the scene. I am always pleased to educate Vic, though it probably is just unnecessary information. I have read way too much.

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  2. Baudelaire and Apollinaire: two of my favorite French poets. There are some drawings by Baudelaire in the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, incidentally. Or there were, last time I went there. I find Baudelaire rather overwhelming while Apollinaire seems so much easier to memorize and to recite. The words and rhythms just flow.

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      1. I attend to do a series of posts on Baudelaire, the next one should be a bit provocative. I think he is immensely important in the development of modernism but you know me Roger, I always try to make it entertaining as well informative.

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  3. You would enjoy Mike Featherstone’s Consumer Culture & Postmodernism, chapter 5 ‘The aestheticization of everyday life’. Much like you have, it sets the flaneur within its related and subsequent uses, but places Baudelaire within modernity, and especially postmodernity. I thought you might appreciate one of the Baudrillard passages used by Featherstone (here in its fuller length) in which Baudrillard contends that the surreal has been supplanted by an illusion of reality:
    ‘It is reality itself today that is hyperrealist. Surrealism’s secret already was that the most banal reality could become surreal, but only in certain privileged moments that nevertheless are still connected with art and the imaginary. Today it is quotidian reality in its entirety-political, social historical and economic-that from now on incorporates the simulatory dimension of hyperrealism. We live everywhere already in an ‘esthetic’ hallucination of reality. The old slogan ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ that still corresponded to the surrealist phase of this estheticization of life, is obsolete. There is no more fiction that life could possibly confront, even victoriously-it is reality itself that disappears utterly in the game of reality-radical disenchantment, the cool and cybernetic phase following the hot stage of fantasy.’

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    1. Thank you for the tip and the very interesting quote, which is it very disagree with. I am a big fan of J G Ballard and in The Atrocity Exhibition he says the same thing while also noting how Surrealism had contributed to the media landscape. I would recommend Annie Le Brun The reality overload which argues from a late Surrealists prospective that in fact reality has overwhelmed the imagination.

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  4. It is a great post with many worthy detours included. I like that you said he paved the way for Oscar Wilde. I often think that the French tend to be forgotten compared to the British simply because of the language barrier, and never mind translations. The Americans will read Wilde but not so much Baudelaire. Scandal in one’s life, as well as genius helps with notoriety after death of course but it’s not as if Baudelaire didn’t have plenty of both, just as Oscar Wilde did (of which I’m a great fan btw)

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    1. Thank you very much. He did certainly pave the way for Oscar who was of course a huge Francophile, Salome was originally written in French. I intend to write at some point about the cross cultural influences on Baudelaire, namely Poe and De Quincey, especially Poe as he was a much bigger influence on French literature than either American or English thanks to Baudelaire.

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