Dec 22, 2006

A Winters Great, Charles Baudelaire, in the News

Harvard University Press has been reissuing some of Walter Benjamin’s essays and memoirs in various collections of late. This fall Harvard released a new edition of The Writer of Modern Life, a collection of Benjamin's essays on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. (Information on the book can be easily found by searching on google.) Yvor Winters was heavily influenced by Baudelaire both in his mature conception of poetry and his rational conception of metaphysics -- two subjects indissolubly blended in Winters's later rationalist theories and writings. In 2003 Michael Jennings, editor of the new collection of Benjamin's pieces on Baudelaire, wrote in boundary 2, a Duke literary journal, that Benjamin had come to see Baudelaire as a new sort of artist, one meeting the challenges of modern industry and mercantilism head on:

The classical studies that preceded Benjamin's text had highlighted the early Baudelaire: his ties to Romanticism, the Swedenborgian mysticism of the correspondances, the flights into reverie, elation, and the ideal. Benjamin's reading emphasizes for the first time the other element of the dualism Baudelaire evokes in the section of Les fleurs du mal titled "Spleen and Ideal": Baudelaire's melancholy, his self-understanding as flotsam and jetsam on the tides of modernity. Benjamin's text achieves this by revealing Baudelaire as the preeminent poet of the urban capitalist metropolis. He is the flaneur, strolling through the mercantile arcades at a pace dictated by a turtle on a leash, a ragpicker, collecting images of that which has been discarded by the denizens of the metropolitan jungle. And Benjamin relates these features to historical processes: the flaneur's pace protests against the accelerating tempo at which urban life must be experienced; the ragpicker's accumulation of unrelated detritus from all walks of Parisian life figures nothing else but the division of labor, a prime cause of the fragmentation of that human experience.

This aspect of Baudelaire's poetry, his exploration of changes, good and bad, to human nature in the new urban life, is one that Winters commented on very little in his criticism, though it has been the primary focus of much of the study of the French poet in our times. Winters, rather than contemplating and evaluating Baudelaire's literary study of the increasing degradation and decay of human life brought about in great part by new economic systems, studied closely -- and very highly praised -- Baudelaire's delineation of the calm spiritual control he had achieved in the face of the metaphysical predicament of humankind (and of each individual person, whether beggar or king). In Winters's judgment, Baudelaire described, rationally understood, and properly adjusted his emotions to his recognition of the metaphysical horrors of life, discovered most surely, starkly, and harrowingly in modern times. These horrors arise from our seeing that life utterly ends with human death, that all existence for each and every individual self is completely and irredeemably annihilated. Baudelaire, according to Winters, faced this predicament better than most every other thinker who had come before him, with the calm resolve of the stoic, the steady gaze of one who had perceived the true nature of human existence and yet had found the ancient and classical way to stand firm. For this reason, he chose poems such as "Le Mort Joyeux" as one Baudelaire's very greatest and one of the very greatest ever written in any language. This poem is a stoically, yet suggestively defiant, welcoming of the utter dissolution of death, a poem that conveys through its steady, controlled language and astute metrical control the profound emotional adjustment of its author to a horrfying vision of that dissolution:

Le Mort joyeux

Dans une terre grasse et pleine d'escargots
Je veux creuser moi-même une fosse profonde,
Où je puisse à loisir étaler mes vieux os
Et dormir dans l'oubli comme un requin dans l'onde.

Je hais les testaments et je hais les tombeaux;
Plutôt que d'implorer une larme du monde,
Vivant, j'aimerais mieux inviter les corbeaux
À saigner tous les bouts de ma carcasse immonde.

Ô vers! noirs compagnons sans oreille et sans yeux,
Voyez venir à vous un mort libre et joyeux;
Philosophes viveurs, fils de la pourriture,

À travers ma ruine allez donc sans remords,
Et dites-moi s'il est encor quelque torture
Pour ce vieux corps sans âme et mort parmi les morts!

Here's a translation of that poem that I memorized long ago and that I type out of memory. I do not remember the translator and am unsure of the punctuation at the time of this writing:

The Gladly Dead

In a soil rich with snails and thick as grease
I’ve longed to dig myself a good deep grave.
There to stretch my old bones at ease
And sleep in oblivion like a shark in wave.

Wills I detest and tombstones set in rows!
Before I’d beg a tear of anyone,
I rather go alive and lets the crows
Bleed the last scrap of this old carrion.

O worms, Black comrades without eye or ear,
Here comes a dead man for you, willing and gay.
Feasting philosophers, sons born of decay,

Come, burrow through my ruins, shed not a tear.
Only tell me if any terror is left to dread
For this old soulless body, dead as the dead.

And here's another translation I found on the web:

The Joyful Corpse

In a rich, heavy soil, infested with snails,
I wish to dig my own grave, wide and deep,
Where I can at leisure stretch out my old bones
And sleep in oblivion like a shark in the wave.

I have a hatred for testaments and for tombs;
Rather than implore a tear of the world,
I'd sooner, while alive, invite the crows
To drain the blood from my filthy carcass.

O worms! black companions with neither eyes nor ears,
See a dead man, joyous and free, approaching you;
Wanton philosophers, children of putrescence,

Go through my ruin then, without remorse,
And tell me if there still remains any torture
For this old soulless body, dead among the dead!

William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

It is in the language, the connotations aroused by the choice of words and the metrical flow, that Winters sees Baudelaiore's stoic adjustment to the metaphysical horro so perfectly displayed. Here is Winters commenting on great poets who likewise accomplished this important work of facing the metaphysical horrors of modern times, the chief exemplar of whom was, for him, Charles Baudelaire:

The facts of life at best are disheartening: the vision of life which man has little by little constructed (or perhaps as one should say stripped bare) is all but crushing. To evade the facts and attempt bluff vigor, as Browing often seems to do, is not convincing to the man who has experienced the imaginative facts. The artist who is actually ignorant of the metaphysical horror of modern thought or who cannot tell it imaginatively -- and there are many such -- is of only a limited, a more or less decorative, value. But the artist who can feel the full horror, organize it into a dynamic attitude or state of mind, asserting by that very act his own life and the strength and value of his own life, and who can leave that state of mind completed behind him for others to enter, has performed the greatest spiritual service that can be performed. For it is only the superior man, the man capable of expercing art, who finds himself in any dilemma; but the emotional tone, whether of vigor or of decadence, felt by the superior man, will eventually, by whatever devious and subtle means, filter down infecting in one degree or another the entire structure of society.

Such Yvor Winters believed of the works of the very greatest poets, of which he judged the poetry of Charles Baudelaire as nearly the greatest, in this very important essay from early in his career. First published in 1929 and entitled "The Extension and Reintegration of the Human Spirit: Through the Poetry Mainly French and American Since Poe and Baudelaire," the essay was finally republished more than 40 years later in The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Yvor Winters. Baudelaire, as nowhere else in Winters's oeuvre, is a central focus of this essay.

Yet, since he discussed it so little, I cannot say what Winters might have thought of Baudelaire's study of the decay brought on by urbanization and the economic systems that gave rise to it. Baudelaire's description of the evils of urban life in his time has usually been interpreted by modern critics as an indictment of capitalism itself. Winters had little to say about this, and this lack, in my judgment, is one significant weakness of Winters's criticism, one of the weaknesses that Wintersians should begin to correct if we are to see his ideas develop and prosper. In my judgment, Winters did not focus often enough on those aspects of life and human experience that are only tangentially concerned with the loftiest metaphysical issues, the issues of the nature of human life and death. Winters clearly considered it much more important for the literary artist and his or her readers to contemplate and properly confront the spiritual horrors of existence than to understand the sorrows and sufferings of masses of people at the hands of whatever economic and social ideas, systems, and ideals that control their day-to-day lives.

But is this accurate or true, that reflecting on momentous philsophical issues is of vastly greater importance than comprehending, both intellectually and emotionally, the effects in human lives of economic and social ideas and systems and ideals -- and moving on, in some cases, to doing what we can and should, individually and collectively, to correct those evils and make lives better? I no longer think so, especially if the nature of existence is the horror that Winters believed it to be. For if this brief, horrifying life is all we have, and the brief lives of the indigent and the lost are all they have, then should we not seek to make our life and theirs better? And should not art play the part it can and should in that great mission, as much it seeks to enable us to confront properly the true metaphysical nature of our lives and deaths? I now believe it should, and I also believe that Wintersian artists must begin to dedicate the literary arts to this work, as much as Wintersian critics should work on discovering and studying the work that great literary artists have already done that can best aid us in such great and important tasks.

Jennings goes on to comment on Benjamin's focus on the criticism of capitalism inherent in Bauedlaire's great poetry:

[Benjamin's] book emphasizes, then, the same overriding concerns so evident in The Arcades Project: the rise of commodity fetishism in the big city and a concomitant dehumanization under capitalism. Baudelaire's lyric poetry, writes Benjamin, "breaks in its destructive energy not only... with the nature of poetic inspiration; it breaks — due to its evocation of the city — not only with the rural nature of the idyll, but it breaks — due to the heroic determination with which it makes poetry at home at the heart of reification — with the nature of the things. It stands at the place at which the nature of things is overpowered and transformed by human nature."

As I say, I think now that in contemplating such issues Winters's critical thought is shown to be weaker than it should be. He believed that poetry and literature at its best are concerned with higher issues, with the meaning of existence. But I believe that these other matters are highly important, too, what to do with widows and beggars, the lost and the ill, with the evil born by and in the streets, the ways in which we make and buy our bread and feed our families leaves so many in the ditches to rot and die. Such matters Wintersian literary artists can and should study and contemplate in their poetry and fiction, and these artists should do it more often, I think. Wintersians have yet to witness the coming of the the next critic who can build on Winters's critical work and theories in the area of metaphysics through the study and evaluation of poems and works of fiction that address such social and economic issues, with both rational soundness and emotional propriety.

Yet as Winters judged, Baudelaire is one of our greatest poets, well worth careful study throuhgout a lifetime. I will offer some further reflections on his work and Winters's relations to it in the weeks ahead on this blog.

1 comment:

saleh said...

i like the artice. though i am not sure about the ideas that is put forward (the way i understood the article is: as solution of a problem) a poet never offer a solution, he only discribe it. Baudlaiere did exactly that. he lived the live, he enjoyed it and he was a kind of an alcholic and an maybe an addict, yet at the same time as the moral casanova of teh modern life.
to be a poet is to live in contradiction!