The Flowers of Evil: Litanies Of Satan

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Eliphas Levi-Baphomet Goat-1856

As well as containing erotic poems that led to Baudelaire being prosecuted for insulting public decency, Les Fleurs du Mal contained the blasphemous Les Litanies de Satan (The Litanies of Satan). The English Pre-Raphaelite poet and pornographic writer Algernon Charles Swinburne cited it as the key to Les Fleurs du mal.

Ever since John Milton had cast Satan as the sombre, brooding, archetypal rebel in Paradise Lost, writers had begun to show more than a little sympathy for the devil. Blake had shrewdly remarked ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.’  Gothic novels and the Romantic writers, in particular Lord Byron, produced one Satanic hero after another to great popular demand. The apotheosis of this trend can be seen in the unforgettable character of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

What is remarkable in Baudelaire’s poem is the presentation of Satan as the Lord of the despised and oppressed, or to use Marx’s memorable phrase in The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848), ‘the wretched of the earth.’

The above illustration is from Dogme et Rituel la Haute Magic (Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic) by the French occultist Eliphas Levi, a contemporary of Baudelaire who is justifiably known as the father of modern occultism. It is not known, though it is often rumoured, whether they ever met. They certainly shared affinities and both would greatly influence the Symbolist and Decadent movements.

Litanies of Satan

Wisest of Angels, whom your fate betrays,
And, fairest of them all, deprives of praise,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

O Prince of exiles, who have suffered wrong,
Yet, vanquished, rise from every fall more strong,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

All-knowing lord of subterranean things,
Who remedy our human sufferings,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

To lepers and lost beggars full of lice,
You teach, through love, the taste of Paradise.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who on Death, your old and sturdy wife,
Engendered Hope — sweet folly of this life —

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You give to the doomed man that calm, unbaffled
Gaze that rebukes the mob around the scaffold,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You know in what closed corners of the earth
A jealous God has hidden gems of worth.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You know the deepest arsenals, where slumber
The breeds of buried metals without number.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You whose huge hand has hidden the abyss
From sleepwalkers that skirt the precipice,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who give suppleness to drunkards’ bones
When trampled down by horses on the stones,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who, to make his sufferings the lighter,
Taught man to mix the sulphur with the nitre,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You fix your mask, accomplice full of guile,
On rich men’s foreheads, pitiless and vile.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who fill the hearts and eyes of whores
With love of trifles and the cult of sores,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

The exile’s staff, inventor’s lamp, caresser
Of hanged men, and of plotters the confessor,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

Step-father of all those who, robbed of pardon,
God drove in anger out of Eden’s garden

Satan have pity on my long despair!

Prayer

Praise to you, Satan! in the heights you lit,
And also in the deeps where now you sit,
Vanquished, in Hell, and dream in hushed defiance
O that my soul, beneath the Tree of Science
Might rest near you, while shadowing your brows,
It spreads a second Temple with its boughs.

The Flowers of Evil: The Balcony

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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

Jupiter and Semele

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Jupiter et Semele-Gustave Moreau 1894-1895
A detail of Moreau’s stupendous and highly personal interpretation of the classical myth of Jupiter and Semele was used as the cover of Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece 2666, surely the greatest novel of the 21st century to date.

Showing the moment when Jupiter reveals himself in all his cosmic splendour to the mortal woman Semele, thus causing her death as she is penetrated by the divine effluence, Jupiter et Semele is, as critics have noted, ‘The most sumptuous expression imaginable of an orgasm.’ The crowded canvas with its startling contrasts of lush colour and deep shadow is populated by many mythological figures all seemingly unaware of what is happening in other parts of the painting. Although there is a frenzy of action Moreau has managed to create a frieze-like atmosphere; the awful stillness that happens before and after a cataclysmic event.

Moreau’s paintings are dense and hermetic dreamscapes. As Bolano notes only Moreau could convey, ‘A sense of terror, bedecked with jewels.’

Madonna

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Madonna-Edvard Munch 1894
A late and possibly the greatest of the Symbolists, the Norwegian Edvard Munch was a major precursor of Expressionism. Visiting the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo which houses a collection of his paintings is an unsettling experience. Munch’s work possesses an neurotic intensity unparalleled in Western art and seeing them side by side you become aware of his unhealthy fascination and dread of women.

This is best seen in his 1894 painting Madonna which is a very unusual devotional painting to say the least. The pose of the Madonna is sexually provocative, her halo is a dangerous shade of red and in addition to the virgin/whore dichotomy there is the suggestion that the Mother is also a vampire. All in all a stunning glorification of decadent love.

Dreams of Desire 58 (Egon Schiele)

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Egon Schiele-Woman in Black Stockings 1913
In 1907 the seventeen year old Egon Schiele met the artist who he idolised and would continue to venerate to his death, Gustav Klimt (see Dreams of Desire 57 (Gustav Klimt)Dreams of Desire 53 (Judith) and The Succubus). Klimt was known to be supportive of inspiring artists, however he recognised the talent inherent in Schiele and he took a particular interest in his protege’s career, generously buying and exchanging his own works with Schiele’s drawings, organising meetings with potential patrons and arranging models to sit for Schiele.

Although Klimt’s influence is evident in Schiele’s early work, he soon found his own distinctive style. The heavily decorative elements of Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Jugendstil are gone and in its place is raw, naked Expressionism. Schiele’s females nudes, often featured in provocative poses are emaciated and sickly looking with a distorted line that renders the figures close to grotesque. It is true that after his marriage in 1915 to Edith Hams that the models are more fully fleshed, however the doll-like appearance of these later studies makes them even more disconcerting.

In 1918 after a brief, tumultuous life which had included being imprisoned for exhibiting erotic drawings and considerable controversy for his use of teenage models (who tended to be juvenile delinquents) Schiele died in the Spanish Influenza outbreak that was gripping Vienna at that time, just three days after his pregnant wife Edith had died and only 8 months after the death of his mentor Gustav Klimt.

 

Dreams of Desire 57 (Gustav Klimt)

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Gustav Klimt-Danae 1907
In the 2013 movie La Vie d’Adele-Chapitres 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour), a masterful  study of love, sexuality but above all else class, there is a particularly telling scene during the party at the beginning of Chapter 2.  Invited to sit down in the home she shares with Emma, Adele is asked what she does by Emma’s friends. Her response that she is a teacher barely elicits acknowledgement and soon the conversation has turned to the Austrian artist Egon Schiele who the friend is studying for her thesis. Emma counters that though she likes Schiele she finds him too tortured, too dark and too obscure and she prefers Klimt. Klimt is dismissed by the art historian as ‘florid and decorative’. Adele looks lost and returns to her hostess duties.

Although it could be argued that the above exchange sets Klimt and Schiele in a needless competition when in real life they shared a mentor-pupil relationship (Klimt was 30 years older than Schiele), a close, long lasting friendship, muses (most infamously Wally Neuzil, who went from Klimt to Schiele and then back to Klimt again), and themes, most notably the female nude in overtly erotic situations, their art is markedly contrasting. Schiele gaze is uncompromisingly morbid, rawer and decidedly more edgy. Whereas Klimt, at least in the major paintings, is resplendent with gorgeous semi-abstract decorative motifs borrowed for Byzantine, Greek, Celtic and Egyptian art, leading it to be easily assimilated with bourgeois ideals of beauty. Regardless of this, Klimt’s work is undeniably sexy.

Klimt’s studio was populated day and night by cats and naked models. He never married and was rumoured to have fathered seventeen children on various lovers. His promiscuity resulted in syphilis which undoubtedly coloured his lush, decadent vision. He died in 1918 from complications arising from contracting influenza in the worldwide epidemic of that year that killed up to 50 to 100 million people.

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Idle A-While

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We came out here
To this desolate beach
To idle a-while;
Escape the tyranny
Of ticking clocks
And forget the world
Forget the people
Close your eyes
Go insane
Disappear here
Into the prismatic
Of fading rainbows.

Well what you wish for,
What you dream of
I studied the signs
The seventh symbol
The ninth star
The nth degree
The cruciform sun
That radiates no light
Leeching colour away
While you cried
Over all the waifs
And wayward souls.

Over the centuries
We slowly ossified
While the world
Changed rapidly
Beyond recognition
And now out of touch
And out of time
I stand on the balcony
As the retreating figure
Waves goodbye
Even though she
Never said hello.

As Above, So Below

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Tabula Smaragdina-Matthew Merian 1612
In her post on Hermes (► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️.-,) the wonderful Aquileana mentions the syncretic figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great, on account of being the greatest priest, the greatest philosopher and the greatest king). This figure who at various periods has been considered divine, semi-divine or legendary is nowadays shrouded in obscurity yet it once was a name to conjure with. As Aquileana has outlined the Greek-Egyptian deity in her post I will dealing exclusively with the Hermes Trismegistus who was the purported author of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet.

In 1463 the great Florentine banker, power broker and patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici heard from his agent Leonardo de Pistoia that he had recently acquired the Corpus Hermeticum, part of the treasures rescued before the sack of Constantinople (previously Byzantium and now Istanbul). At 74 Cosimo was an elderly man for the time and he didn’t hesitate in instructing his brilliant scribe Marsilio Ficino to stop translating the Complete Works of Plato and start work on the Corpus immediately so that he could read it before his death. Ficino immediately agreed and only returned to Plato after he had completed translating the Corpus. It may seem amazing to ourselves that such cultivated  and learned men as de Medici and Ficino sidelined Plato, the philosopher whose immeasurable influence upon Western thought has led to the suggestion that the entire history of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to his works, but they were believers in the prisca theologia. Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be of immense antiquary, a contemporary of Moses and was therefore closer to the source of divine inspiration than Plato.

The effect of Ficino’s translation galvanised the nascent humanist Renaissance movement. Hermeticism and Gnosticism share many similarities, however Hermeticism’s emphasis on the inherent divinity of mankind and its descriptions of the soul’s ascent through the heavens make it a fundamentally more optimistic and positive philosophy than the rather austere and ascetic doctrines of Gnosticism and would have held a particular appeal in the hothouse atmosphere of the Renaissance. One of the high watermarks of that giddy epoch,  Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, is clearly indebted to Hermetic thought.

The Corpus, was well as influencing astrology, alchemy and magic also spurred the developing field of the natural sciences as has been shown in a series of books by the truly exceptional Renaissance scholar Dame Frances Yates, including Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. This spirit of scientific empiricism that Hermeticism had in part engendered caused the eventual demise of the Hermetic Revival. In 1614 the distinguished Swiss philologist Isaac Casaubon published his philological study of the text. The Corpus was not the product of a single author of an antiquary predating Plato and Christ but was actually written by multiple differing authors from Alexandria in the 3rd or 4th Century AD. This revelation would weaken the intellectual appeal of Hermeticism during the 17th Century, although certain esotericists, notably Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher kept the faith in the historical veracity of Hermes Trismegistus.

Below is The Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus in a translation by the scientist and the discoverer of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton. A key text in alchemy it also contains the doctrine of as above, so below, the central tenet of Western Esotericism. I have chosen the Newton translation as it shows how magic and science were once closely allied and not mortal enemies.

The Emerald Tablet

1.) Tis true without error, certain & most true.
2.) That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
3.) And as all things have been & arose from one by the [meditation] of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
4.) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
5.) The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
6.) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
7.) Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
8.) It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
9.) By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
10.) & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
11.) Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
12.) So was the world created.
13.) From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
14.) That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.

 

 

The Process of Perfection

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Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz  D’Eclairage-Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)
After WWII the enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, arch avant-gardist and art world provocateur was widely have believed to have turned his back on art to dedicate himself to competitive chess. However for the next twenty years  Duchamp would work in secret on his tableau Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz D’Eclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall 2 The Illuminating Gas), it was to be his final work. The tableau was only installed after Duchamp’s death in 1968 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It immediately caused a sensation. The tableau is only visible through two tiny peep holes which presents a mysterious scene whose meaning remains elusive. In the foreground against the painted sylvan landscape is a naked female (comprised of parchment, hair, glass, paint, cloths-pegs, and lights). Her head is hidden, all that is visible above the torso is strands of blonde hair. The posture of the body is extremely disturbing, the immediate impression is of violence against the supine figure. The model for most of the figure was Duchamp’s lover from 1946 to 1951, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. After meeting Martins Duchamp increasingly introduced the erotic into his previously cerebral art and he would obsessively draw her voluptuous figure. Duchamp’s second wife Alexina (Teeny) was the model for the arm. Duchamp consulted extensively with both women during the artistic process.

A work as opaque as Etant Donnes invites all manner of interpretations. For me several features are highly suggestive of alchemy and Hermeticism. The oil lamp could be alluding to the alchemical fire that accelerates the process of perfection in the Great Work. The headless women was a frequent symbol of Mother Nature in early cultures and her position could be taken as someone ready for either childbirth or sexual intercourse. If this is the case then the spring would refer to the womb where new life is formed and nourished. Is Etant Donnes an alchemical allegory on artistic creation?

Bring On The Night

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Bring on the Night
For the Night is the time
The only time there is
For the likes of you and me
Only in the Night
With its compulsions
And its repetitions
Of obsessive desires
Can we be truly ourselves
Because in the vulgar glare
Of the censorious daylight
We are exposed to the
Prying eyes of simulacra
Of cold unfeeling automata
Bring on the Night
Let the black Sun
That absorbs all radiance
Stay high in the sky
And never set again
So that I can play
My bizarre childish games
While you work away
At your women’s work
For during the night
Magic and Alchemy
Are living realities
First the Alchemy
Of the holy word,
Word into deed,
Deed into actuality
Then the Alchemy of
Our bodies as we turn
Each other inside
Out to transmute
Our base natures into
The stuff of spiritual gold
With the admixture
Of saliva and blood
We will greedily swallow
Each other’s essence
The elixir necessary
To achieve the intensity
Required to slow
This shit right down
So that the sacred
Unholy night never ends.