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

The Passionate Philosopher

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Man Ray-Hommage to D.A.F De Sade
Once the grave has been filled in it shall be sown over with acorns so that afterwards the ground of the said grave having been replanted and the thicket being overgrown as it was before, the traces of my tomb will disappear from the  surface of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will be effaced from the minds of men, except none the less from those of the small number of people who have been pleased to love me up to the last moment, and of whom I carry into the grave a most tender recollection.

Marquis De Sade-Last Will and Testament

Regardless of your opinion of the Divine Marquis, it has to be admitted that he got it spectacularly wrong in his prediction that his memory would be effaced from the minds of men. Although he certainly didn’t invent the sexual pathology that bears his name, he does hold the world trademark rights. Rarely has a writer, and a writer so rarely read, achieved such lasting notoriety far beyond the narrow confines of literature and philosophy. Sadism is an important concept in psychology, jurisprudence and is a boon to journalists, not to mention has given rise to an increasingly visible sub-culture, of which Fifty Shades of Grey is the most prominent and commercially succesful.

The pioneering sexologist Krafft-Ebing introduced the term Sadism in 1890 based on the content of his works. In many ways De Sade anticipated both Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud by placing sexual desire and sexuality as the prime, motivating factor in human behaviour, and furthermore  categorising all the possible aberrations inherent in humanity.  It was another German psychiatrist Ewan Bloch who first published The 120 Days of Sodom, De Sade’s most extreme and surely the darkest book ever to be written, in 1904, further spurring interest in his work.

Although it was the psychiatrists who brought De Sade back to public attention in the 20th century, it was the poets who venerated him as the ultimate rebel . Apollinaire proclaimed him ‘the freest spirit to have ever lived’, and in the First Manifesto of Surrealism Andre Breton noted that ‘De Sade is surrealist in sadism.’ Georges Bataille entire oeuvre is a marriage of Sade and Nietzsche. Barthes and Foucault wrote extensively (and infuriatingly) about a figure they saw as an important post-modern predecessor.

Outside of France, Henry Miller was an early champion and a number of Beats either translated his work or produced Sadean erotica for the Olympia Press. In recent years biographies have proliferated (with good reason, De Sade’s life reads better than most novels, no matter how imaginative) and Penguin Classics just issued a new translation of The 120 Days of Sodom, the original manuscript of which was recently sold for 7 million euro at auction.

The Marquis or characters from his novels has made many a cameo in movies as well. In L’Age D’or by Luis Bunuel the coda contains the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus Christ was one of the libertines of the Chateau de Silling. Bunuel would later feature a vignette of De Sade in La Voie Lactee. A sardonic De Sade is the main character of Peter Weiss’s Brechtian film Marat/Sade, while more recently  the Philip Kaufman directed Quills  re-imagines the Marquis’s time in Charenton in gothic horror fashion. And one shouldn’t forget Pasolini’s highly controversial Salo or his influence upon the pornographic and sexploitation genres, especially Jesus De Franco.

Two centuries after his death it is safe to say that De Sade isn’t going away any time soon. Whether he is viewed as the destroyer of traditional values or the apostle of radical liberty, his vision of a total, impossible freedom will continue to haunt the imagination.

A Slice of Cake with the Marquis

Portrait of the Marquis De Sade Aged 19-Van Loos 1760
Portrait of the Marquis De Sade Aged 19-Van Loo 1760

I wish it to be a chocolate cake, and of chocolate so dense that it is black, like the devil’s ass is blackened by smoke.’ Marquis De Sade in a letter to his wife Renée-Pélagie from Vincennes prison, May 9, 1779.

During his many years of imprisonment, the Marquis De Sade would bombard his wife, Renée-Pélagie, a woman who expands the definition of long-suffering, with letters containing requests for books, clothes (De Sade was quite the dandy), prestiges (a code word for dildos, to avoid the prison censors redactions) and food. Especially sweets, all kind of sweets.

A typical letter asks for the following in the fortnightly care package sent by Renée-Pélagie, ‘…four dozen meringues, two dozen sponge cakes (large); four dozen chocolate pastille candies-with vanilla-and not that infamous rubbish you sent me in the way of sweets last time.’  Locked in his prison cell and unable to satisfy his numerous passions, De Sade was very specific indeed when it came to the delicacies he could enjoy, as another letter from Vincennes shows, ‘Please send me: fifteen biscuits made at the Palais-Royal, the finest possible, six inches long by four inches wide and two inches high, very light and delicate.’ Frequently, however, the items sent by Renée-Pélagie failed to meet the exacting standards of the Marquis; yet more infamous rubbish, provoking a torrent of scorn and invective from the perpetually outraged prisoner.

In De Sade’s fiction, the pleasures of the table are inexorably linked to the pleasures of the flesh. His libertines are invariably gluttons that indulge in fantastical meals in preparation for their orgies. As Noirceuil explains to Juliette, ‘Our cocks are never as stiff as when we’ve just completed a sumptuous feast.’ Examples abound in his libertine novels of such repasts, which he obviously planned with some care, as the following extract from La Nouvelle Justine of a meal consisting of eighty-nine dishes shows:

They were served two soups: one Italian pasta with saffron, the other a bisque au coulis de jambon, and between them a sirloin of beef à l’anglaise. there were twelve hors d’oeurves, six cooked and six raw. then twelve entrées – four of meat, four of game and four of patisseries. A boar’s head was served in the middle of twelve dishes of roast meat, which were accompanied by two courses of side dishes, twelve of vegetables, six of different creams, and six of patisseries. There followed twenty fruit dishes or compotes, an assortment of six ice creams, eight different wines, six liqueurs, rum, punch, cinnamon liqueur, chocolate and coffee. Gernande got stuck into all of them. some of them he polished off on his own. He drank twelve bottles of wine, starting with four Volneys, before moving onto four Ais with the roast meat. He downed a Tokay,  a Paphos, a Madeira and a Falernian with the fruit and finished off with two bottles of liqueurs des Iles, a pint of rum, two bowls of punch and ten cups of coffee.’

In De Sade’s most notorious and darkest novel, 120 Days In Sodom, the only characters to escape the four libertines murderous frenzy are the cooks, because they are a protected guild who are indispensable in maintaining the libertine’s lusts.

Yet, as always with De Sade, one must be wary of his intentions: do they serve as the delirious wish-fulfilment of a jailed aristocrat or do they indeed possess a satirical edge? After all the ancien regime was the great age of the gourmand, where the tables of the rich groaned beneath the weight of  absurdly baroque and decadent meals while the price of staples such as bread would fluctuate wildly. However the menus De Sade’s sent the chef of the Bastille, where he was also locked up, show a surprising frugality:

TUESDAY

DINNER
-Soup
-A mouthwatering half chicken
-Two little vanilla custards
-Two cooked apples

SUPPER
-Soup
-A small hash of the morning’s leftover chicken

SATURDAY

DINNER
-Soup
-Two delectable mutton cutlets
-A coffee custard
-Two cooked Pears

SUPPER
-Soup
-a little sweetened omelette made of just two eggs and extremely fresh butter

De Sade was also only a moderate drinker. Yet it is safe to say that his inability to resist a slice of chocolate cake, as black as the devil’s ass, combined with the sedentary life lived behind bars contributed to him becoming enormously fat in later life.

Art, Pleasure and Gardening

Max Ernst Convolvulus 1941
Max Ernst Convolvulus! Convolvulus! 1941

While Surrealism is usually associated with the visual arts, in particular painting, photography, collage and films, the initial impetus was literary. As well as the many manifestos and polemics, Surrealists also produced poetry (translations of which can be found on this site, see Free UnionThe Spectral AttitudesSleep Spaces, Serpent Sun and I Have So Often Dreamed Of You), and fiction. There are Surrealist novels, but as Andre Breton disapproved of the form as the medium of literary careerists the majority of Surrealist fiction tend to be in the short story format.

As most Surrealist short stories tend to be hidden away in hard to find collections and obscure periodicals, this facet of the Surrealist imagination has been unjustly ignored. 

In an effort to remedy this situation, I am pleased to post Alain Joubert’s delightful fable Art, Pleasure and Gardening, one of several Surrealist short stories to be found here (see The Debutante, AxolotlThe Garden of Time, Kafka, Or “The Secret Society” and Rapa Nui. In Art, Pleasure and Gardening, Joubert shows how desire, passion and pleasure can transform the world.

Art, Pleasure and Gardening

He was sick of living within four walls grey with dust in the tiny two-roomed flat with kitchen washbasin and toilet on the landing in the tenth district which a lucky (?) chance (and a little help from his sister) had provided him with the opportunity to invest in a couple of years earlier. While lying in a more or less collapsed spring mattress which was set out on a level with the floor, he let his gaze linger on those miserable grey walls with torn wallpaper on which it was still possible to discern, here and there, a few bunch of grapes trying vainly to serve as decoration, but which had been definitively devoured. In this way the minutes were drawn out and by degrees were turned into hours without the slightest desire having passed through his mind. But suddenly , when twilight had ceased eating away what little light appeared to him through the dirty windows that opened onto another wall without windows (it was six in the evening and February had never been the most cheerful month) he decided that what he would do would be to buy a plant. That was the first day.

*

On the second day, he went to the flower market on the Ile de la Cite. After some dreadful hesitations and a titanic internal struggle, he finally chose a Monstera deliciosa of the Araceae family, whose leaves, twelve inches long and ten inches across, stretched out in the form of a heart and deeply cut between the secondary veins, threw many strange shadows on his walls when he installed lateral lighting.

Passion then overcame him. an Aechmea fascianta, some Bromeliaceae, a Cissus antartica, some Vitaceae, Diffenbachia,Fatshedera, a Peperomia together made their appearance in the flat and something tropical began to rise up from between their foliage. That was the the third day.

*

On the fourth day, as he scrutinised the hothouse at the Botanical Gardens seeking new species, he had an encounter. In front of a Sciandapus Aursus, which originally came from the Solomon Islands and whose heart-shaped leaves very much intrigued him, his gaze met that of a charming young woman, whose long hair lightly flowed and who appeared to be – like him- fascinated by the plant world. Later, as they lay on the spring mattress, which as discreetly as possible had accompanied their amorous journey, they decided to turn the two-roomed apartment into an enchanted place in which the plants would occupy pride of place in the room as they already did in their lives.

*

No sooner said than done. They bought a quantity of peat and wood hummus and spread it far and wide over the floor and took the plants they had already brought out of their pots and, after unpotting them, planted them in open ground, together with a good dozen newcomers they had spent the day collecting in more or less the usual way. in the evening, exhausted but happy, they slept together, naked, on a bed of palm leaves after having refreshed themselves with fruits. That was the fifth day.

*

On the sixth day, they were surprised to see that the plants had sprung up in a way that had nothing natural about it. From morning, a tangle of branches, leaves and liana prevented them from moving about the flat easily and by noon they had to become resigned to tracing out a route with a machete if they wanted to get from one room to the other. They found this extremely poetic and were pleased with the astonishing humid heat which reigned in the rooms, something which encouraged them to dispense with the slightest clothing on their radiant bodies. Water streamed down the walls, serving to complete the illusion but completely ruining the wallpaper! Dozens of birds came in through the window and mingled their songs with the sighs of our two young savages, who were more in love than ever!

*

The next day passed as if in a dream. Strange and succulent fruits had appeared on some of the plants – which soon turned into trees – and they even saw an iguana, which sprang up from who knows where and took a trip around the room before vanishing into the undergrowth. They spent their time savouring its flow, caressing one another and re-discovering the pleasures of forgotten senses – or the meaning of forgotten pleasures. In short, they weren’t bored! That was the seventh day.

*

At dawn on the eighth day, there was a knock on the door. an old man with a long white beard, flanked by a tipstaff and a policeman, read out a declaration printed on official paper that announced that they were being evicted forthwith, failing which they would suffer a severe penalty. And this is how they were ignominiously thrown out of Paradise Road for having tried to create it there again! Since then he has worked for the Social Security, while she became a teacher. As for the flat, they say no one has ever been able to get inside, so intensely has the vegetation grown. But then they say so many things.

Alain Joubert 1984

Translation: Michael Richardson

 

The Flight of the Cranes

Bernard Buffet-Les Chants de Maldoror
Bernard Buffet-Les Chants de Maldoror 1952

Although the nightmarish Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont (pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse) was first published in 1868/69, more than fifty years before Paris Dada began to re-form as Surrealism, it was such a major precursor and influence upon a number of Surrealist artists that it can be considered as the movement’s black Bible. Indeed the work’s most famous line, the bizarre and striking simile, ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’, is about as neat a summation of the Surrealists stated aim of juxtaposition and dislocation as you could possibly wish for.

As well as the stylistic innovation and the macabre subject matter, a visionary and sensationalist take on the already sensational Gothic novel, the utter anonymity of Ducasse must have appealed to the Surrealists. Facts and details regarding his life are scarce to say the least. We know that he was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846 and that he came to Paris at the age of twenty one to complete his education, though he soon dropped out to work on Chants de Maldoror. After its publication, under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont, chosen after a Satanic anti-hero in an Eugene Sue novel, Ducasse published under his own name a short volume entitled Poems in June 1870, though the material contained aren’t actually poems, rather re-worked maxims. In November of the same year, Ducasse was dead at the age of twenty-four, causes unknown. His passing went unnoticed, not surprising considering that Paris was under siege by the Prussians; food was very scarce and sickness and mortality was rampant.

He would be discovered by the modernists and Surrealists. Andre Gide said that reading  Lautréamont made him ashamed of his own work and Modigliani always carried a copy of Maldoror with him. Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte both illustrated the text, while Max Ernst, Man Ray, Victor Brauner, Roberto Matta,Oscar Dominguez and Joan Miro among others produced work inspired by Maldoror. 

The opening passages of the first canto addresses the reader a la Baudelaire before introducing a sustained simile involving the flight of cranes, remarkable for its ornithological accuracy and descriptive power.

Les Chants de Maldoror

First Canto

1,

May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened, and having for the time being become as  fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray,  find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-filled pages; for, unless he bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar. It is not right that everyone should read the pages which follow; only a few may savour this bitter fruit with impunity. Consequently, shrinking soul, turn on your heels and go back before penetrating further into such uncharted, perilous wastelands. Listen well to what I say: turn on your heels and go back, not forward, like the eyes of a son respectfully averted from the august contemplation of his mother’s face; or, rather, like a formation of very meditative cranes, stretching out of sight, whose sensitive bodies flee the chill of winter, when, their wings fully extended, they fly powerfully through silence to a precise point on the horizon, from which suddenly a strange strong wind blows, precursor to the storm. The oldest crane, flying on alone ahead of the others, shakes his head like a reasonable person on seeing this, making at the same time a clack with his beak, and he is troubled (as I, too, would be, if I were he); all the time his scrawny and featherless neck, which has seen three generations of cranes, is moving in irritated undulations which fore-token the quickly-gathering storm. Having calmly looked in all directions with his experienced eyes, the crane prudently (ahead of all the others, for he has the privilege of showing his tail-feathers to his less intelligent fellows) gyrates to change the direction of the geometric figure (perhaps it is a triangle, but one cannot see the third side which these curious birds of passage form in space) either to port or to starboard, like a skilled captain, uttering as he does so his vigilant cry, like that of a melancholy sentry, to repulse the common enemy. Then, manoeuvring with wings which seem no bigger than a startling’s, because he is no fool, he takes another philosophic and surer line of flight.