As I have pointed out, Winters considered Baudelaire to be one of the greatest poets because he saw in many of his best poems, those found in the book-long sequence Les Fleur du Mal, the work of a poetic thinker who had met the metaphysical and moral horrors of human experience and human existence with the calm control, rational steadiness, and spiritual insight of an exemplary stoic. Richard Wolin’s piece mostly concerns itself with Walter Benjamin, the utopian Marxist of the early 20th century who found a kindred spirit in Baudelaire, and only touches on Benjamin’s studies of the French poet. Drawing special attention to an intensely personal memoir of Benjamin's Berlin childhood, which has also been republished recently, Wolin claims that Benjamin sought to bring "to bear on the German capital the same lyrical sensibility that had served Baudelaire so well with regard to Paris in Les Fleurs du Mal.” That seems a rather odd comment, since Benjamin had considered the Berlin of his childhood to be an Eden, to which he longed to return, while Baudelaire felt something close to revulsion at what nascent capitalism had turned the dear city of Paris into.
In regard to Baudelaire’s poetry, Wolin makes a basic mistake often made concerning Baudelaire:
In poems like "A Corpse" and "The Litanies of Satan," Baudelaire formulated one of the key ideas of art for art's sake: An object can be of keen aesthetic interest not only despite being ugly or grotesque but because it is ugly or grotesque.This has been the typical take on Baudelaire’s ostensible subject matter over more than a century, but a study of Yvor Winters’s writings on Baudelaire -- and on many other poets and authors (such as his brief but insightful discussion of Dante’s religious beliefs in the essay on John Crowe Ransom [which can be found in In Defense of Reason]) -- quickly shows this take to be a mistake and enables us to set such critical confusions aside. According to Winters, Baudelaire was not seeking in “A Corpse” to portray a rotting, stinking corpse as beautiful in itself, as though it were the equivalent of a rose in bloom. Nor was he lauding the intrinsic beauties of Satan or Evil in “The Litanies of Satan.” Rather, Baudelaire was seeking to understand, in the first poem describing a corpse, the meaning of the human experience of a world that has putrifying corpses in it and, in the second poem invoking Satan, the human experience of a world torn by terrifying powers of darkness and Evil that continue to prowl our streets and alleys. The “beauty” of Baudelaire’s poetry resides not in the description of the surface subject matter, but in the controlled, rational treatment of that subject matter. Baudelaire uses his great intelligence to seek to understand -- and most crucially, to properly adjust our emotions to -- a world with corpses and a world with forces of Evil so powerful and massive that they require that capital “E” to name them.
Wolin later discusses Baudelaire’s use of drugs in relation to Benjamin’s own drug use, matters which seem pertinent to our study of Winters in this blog:
It was Baudelaire, too, who inspired Benjamin's experiments with drugs. Benjamin had long been fascinated by the "alternative experiences" championed by turn-of-the-century spiritualists -- among them Chinese ancestor worship cults, hallucinations, delirium, mystical visions. In a sense, these "profane illuminations," as he called them, were gateway drugs for a man seeking inner-worldly transcendence, for liberation from a modern world that stood under the sign of natural science. At the age of 27, [Benjamin] discovered Baudelaire's Artificial Paradise, "an attempt," as he put it in a letter to Ernst Schoen, "to monitor the 'psychological' phenomena that manifest themselves in hashish or opium intoxication for what they have to teach us philosophically." He added: "It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently of this book."It is mostly true that Baudelaire used drugs in hopes of reaching some higher knowledge of life and death. But his crazed, neurotic use of drugs, whatever its motivations, seems to have accomplished little more than the hastening of his destruction. Oddly, Winters pays little attention to the dissolution in Baudelaire’s life, in contrast to his deep thinking upon Hart Crane’s dissolution and suicide in relation to Crane’s poetry (which I have discussed several times in the past few months on this blog). What did Winters think of the life that Baudelaire continued to live despite the poetry? We cannot know, even though it appears to be as relevant to Baudelaire’s poetry as Crane’s behavior was to his own work. If I were to make a quick guess, I would say that Winters probably believed that Baudelaire’s art and thought shows that he was trying to master the forces that were ushering him toward destruction, while Crane’s art and thought show that he had sided with those forces.
On Hashish contains transcriptions of Benjamin's various drug-induced experiences -- with hashish, mescaline and morphine -- from the late 1920s and the '30s. He was introduced to narcotics by an old university classmate, Ernst Jöel, who had become a physician and needed subjects for his clinical research on the medical effects of hallucinogens. Benjamin eagerly volunteered, joining an illustrious list of writers -- Baudelaire, Thomas de Quincey and Aldous Huxley -- who tried to enhance their creative powers and expand their mental horizons via the magic of intoxicants. His drug experiences show once again how singularly committed he was to the program of the avant-garde: overcoming the limitations of the self by subjecting it to an array of pulverizing, Dionysian, ego-transcending influences.
Leslie Whitten, in that other review of Benjamin’s essays from the Washington Times, also discusses Baudelaire’s questionable behavior and his drug abuse. Whitten suggests that such misdeeds sprang from Baudelaire’s deep abhorrence at the odious conditions of his times and of human existence in general:
...in Paris, [Baudelaire] misspent his inheritance on dandyish clothes, absinthe, opium and hashish for poet friends and on his whorish mistress who betrayed him even as he tried to nurse her back from her paralytic attacks. In another mode, we see him as the admired companion of France's most esteemed literary and artistic figures (and the despair of many of them). Plagued with debts, he fled France to Belgium which he came to scorn and hate along with almost everything else but his own perfect poetry.It would seem clear that Baudelaire’s mind, as great as Winters believed it is shown to have been through his art, didn’t succeed in saving him from dissolution, depravity, and destruction.
Whitten’s review is much less concerned with Benjamin than with Baudelaire. Overall, his main purpose seems to be to fathom why people of late have taken a renewed interest in his poetry and life:
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.Yet such is the character, more or less, of every discernible period of modern history (if not every period of history from its beginnings) between Baudelaire’s day and our own, no? Haven’t there almost always been prophets of doom rising up and declaring that society and culture have become degraded and are heading to destruction? Sheesh, didn’t it happen just a few short decades before in Baudelaire’s own country and city, during the wild times of the Revolution? Have seers not regularly arisen to proclaim that the final days are upon us? In my opinion, the up-tick in interest in Baudelaire is probably nothing all that significant, just the usual random turning of the wheels of culture. Still, Whitten has a few insightful points to make and offers one great poem for your review:
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.Whitten never explains these comments or gives an example of how he interprets one of the poems of Les Fleur du Mal in such a way that we can see how they can change a life, whatever that phrase might mean exactly. But he does suggest an excellent poem to turn to if you would like to discover what might be important in Baudelaire on your own. “The Voyage” is a poem that Winters never mentioned in his published criticism or letters, that I am aware, but I have long considered it one of the finest in Baudelaire, which makes it, in my judgment, one of the greatest poems in the history of literature. I would propose this poem for the Winters Canon, but I will save my case for a future blog entry.
In closing, I must say that a study of Winters’s views on and interests in Charles Baudelaire can only be pursued so far, strangely, for though it is clear that Winters considered Baudelaire one of the very greatest literary artists throughout his career, he did not write extensively about him. It would seem that he would have condemned most of these aspects of Baudelaire’s life, but that he still saw greatness in much of the poetry. I believe the matter requires further study for Wintersians, especially in relation to the work and life of Hart Crane.
To get you started on your consideration of the achievement and value of what I consider a great poem, I offer here Robert Lowell’s interesting and rather unbridled translation, typically so for Lowell, of Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage,” from Marthiel & Jackson Matthews, eds., The Flowers of Evil (NY: New Directions, 1963):
For the boy playing with his globe and stamps,
the world is equal to his appetite —
how grand the world in the blaze of the lamps,
how petty in tomorrow's small dry light!
One morning we lift anchor, full of brave
prejudices, prospects, ingenuity —
we swing with the velvet swell of the wave,
our infinite is rocked by the fixed sea.
Some wish to fly a cheapness they detest,
others, their cradles' terror — other stand
with their binoculars on a woman's breast,
reptilian Circe with her junk and wand.
Not to be turned to reptiles, such men daze
themselves with spaces, light, the burning sky;
cold toughens them, they bronze in the sun's blaze
and dry the sores of their debauchery.
But the true voyagers are those who move
simply to move — like lost balloons! Their heart
is some old motor thudding in one groove.
It says its single phrase, "Let us depart!"
They are like conscripts lusting for the guns;
our sciences have never learned to tag
their projects and designs — enormous, vague
hopes grease the wheels of these automatons!
We imitate, oh horror! tops and bowls
in their eternal waltzing marathon;
even in sleep, our fever whips and rolls —
like a black angel flogging the brute sun.
Strange sport! where destination has no place
or name, and may be anywhere we choose —
where man, committed to his endless race,
runs like a madman diving for repose!
Our soul is a three-master seeking port:
a voice from starboard shouts, "We're at the dock!"
Another, more elated, cries from port,
"Here's dancing, gin and girls!" Balls! it's a rock!
The islands sighted by the lookout seem
the El Dorados promised us last night;
imagination wakes from its drugged dream,
sees only ledges in the morning light.
Poor lovers of exotic Indias,
shall we throw you in chains or in the sea?
Sailors discovering new Americas,
who drown in a mirage of agony!
The worn-out sponge, who scuffles through our slums
sees whiskey, paradise and liberty
wherever oil-lamps shine in furnished rooms —
we see Blue Grottoes, Caesar and Capri.
Stunningly simple Tourists, your pursuit
is written in the tear-drops in your eyes!
Spread out the packing cases of your loot,
your azure sapphires made of seas and skies!
We want to break the boredom of our jails
and cross the oceans without oars or steam —
give us visions to stretch our minds like sails,
the blue, exotic shoreline of your dream!
Tell us, what have you seen?
"We've seen the stars,
a wave or two — we've also seen some sand;
although we peer through telescopes and spars,
we're often deadly bored as you on land.
The shine of sunlight on the violet sea,
the roar of cities when the sun goes down;
these stir our hearts with restless energy;
we worship the Indian Ocean where we drown!
No old chateau or shrine besieged by crowds
of crippled pilgrims sets our souls on fire,
as these chance countries gathered from the clouds.
Our hearts are always anxious with desire.
(Desire, that great elm fertilized by lust,
gives its old body, when the heaven warms
its bark that winters and old age encrust;
green branches draw the sun into its arms.
Why are you always growing taller, Tree —
Oh longer-lived than cypress!) Yet we took
one or two sketches for your picture-book,
Brothers who sell your souls for novelty!
We have salaamed to pagan gods with horns,
entered shrines peopled by a galaxy
of Buddhas, Slavic saints, and unicorns,
so rich Rothschild must dream of bankruptcy!
Priests' robes that scattered solid golden flakes,
dancers with tattooed bellies and behinds,
charmers supported by braziers of snakes..."
Yes, and what else?
Oh trivial, childish minds!
You've missed the more important things that we
were forced to learn against our will. We've been
from top to bottom of the ladder, and see
only the pageant of immortal sin:
there women, servile, peacock-tailed, and coarse,
marry for money, and love without disgust
horny, pot-bellied tyrants stuffed on lust,
slaves' slaves — the sewer in which their gutter pours!
old maids who weep, playboys who live each hour,
state banquets loaded with hot sauces, blood and trash,
ministers sterilized by dreams of power,
workers who love their brutalizing lash;
and everywhere religions like our own
all storming heaven, propped by saints who reign
like sybarites on beds of nails and frown —
all searching for some orgiastic pain!
Many, self-drunk, are lying in the mud —
mad now, as they have always been, they roll
in torment screaming to the throne of God:
"My image and my lord, I hate your soul!"
And others, dedicated without hope,
flee the dull herd — each locked in his own world
hides in his ivory-tower of art and dope —
this is the daily news from the whole world!
How sour the knowledge travellers bring away!
The world's monotonous and small; we see
ourselves today, tomorrow, yesterday,
an oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!
Shall we move or rest? Rest, if you can rest;
move if you must. One runs, but others drop
and trick their vigilant antagonist.
Time is a runner who can never stop,
the Wandering Jew or Christ's Apostles. Yet
nothing's enough; no knife goes through the ribs
of this retarius throwing out his net;
others can kill and never leave their cribs.
And even when Time's heel is on our throat
we still can hope, still cry, "On, on, let's go!"
Just as we once took passage on the boat
for China, shivering as we felt the blow,
so we now set our sails for the Dead Sea,
light-hearted as the youngest voyager.
If you look seaward, Traveller, you will see
a spectre rise and hear it sing, "Stop, here,
and eat my lotus-flowers, here's where they're sold.
Here are the fabulous fruits; look, my boughs bend;
eat yourself sick on knowledge. Here we hold
time in our hands, it never has to end."
We know the accents of this ghost by heart;
our comrade spreads his arms across the seas;
"On, on, Orestes. Sail and feast your heart —
here's Clytemnestra." Once we kissed her knees.
It's time, Old Captain, lift anchor, sink!
The land rots; we shall sail into the night;
if now the sky and sea are black as ink
our hearts, as you must know, are filled with light.
Only when we drink poison are we well —
we want, this fire so burns our brain tissue,
to drown in the abyss — heaven or hell,
who cares? Through the unknown, we'll find the new.