Baudelaire’s writings on art, literature and music could have been salvaged as a cultural relic, but the anthology reads like an ironic address to our times. It is surprising to see that the 150 years that have elapsed since its publication in different newspapers and magazines have not made the cursed poet’s admonitions expire and support his strange and burning news. An immobile, identical, paralyzed present, indifferent to the scarecrows of progress and evolution.
Then, outside of the clock (“terrible, sinister and impassive God”), Baudelaire will take the reader by the hand of our days through the salons, printing houses and theaters of old Paris and also through the passages of a mentality encysted in itself and trapped in the happy indulgence of his arrogant stupidity.
His knowledge of Manet, Delacroix, Balzac or Flaubert authorized him to behave like an inclement critic.
Baudelaire tells us in his diatribe against the pagan school that every overexcited child who hears talk incessantly of glory and joy, whose senses are caressed daily, irritated, frightened, turned on or satisfied, will become the most unfortunate of men.
In his apology for Victor Hugo, celebrating the hyperbolic density of his characters, Baudelaire regrets that the preachy, pedantic, and didactic tendency of novels is growing in the shadow of these giants.
In celebrating the article that Saint-Beuve dedicated to the Academie Française, he renews his contempt for the intriguing people who govern it and for the politicians who shamefully come to steal the chair that is due to a poor man of letters.
Baudelaire warns that the poet is not due to the republic, nor to the absolute monarchy nor to the constitutional monarchy. He denounces the adulterous alliance established between the literary school and politics and claims for art the intemperate power of genius that gives no account to anyone. He does not waste the opportunity to allude to Heine and his rotten literature of materialistic sentimentality.
Portrait of the intractable artist
Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821 and died in the same city at the age of 46. After the monarchical restorations and the revolutionary barricades that shook the French XIX, appear ‘The flowers of Evil’ (1857), ‘The artificial paradises’ (1860), ‘The spoils’ (1866) and ‘The spleen of Paris’ (1869 ). A contemporary of Balzac, Flaubert and Victor Hugo, his poetics shook literary conventions and moral presumptions at the same time. In reality, his obscenity, which provoked accusations, trials and censorship and consecrated the figure of the intractable artist, was the enervated allegory of the incipient modernity.
This brief balance will suffice –adulted children (no iPhone yet!) and deranged men, servile poets, rigged institutions and puritanical novels– to recognize in Baudelaire’s voice the sound of contemporary moaning.
The reader will remember that Baudelaire’s writings collected in this volume were published without the aura that posterity bestowed on the author of The flowers of Evil and that his acid judgments brought him the consequent hatred of his adversaries. Pointing out the stupidity of the crowd, the verbiage of the orators, or the pompous ridiculousness of the literati did not exactly endear him to affection.
His knowledge of Manet and Delacroix, of Flaubert, Balzac, and Victor Hugo, so shrewdly penetrated and understood in this volume, authorized him to behave like a merciless critic, enervated by mediocrity, imposture, and the falsification of aesthetic values.
Anticipating Charles de Gaulle, Baudelaire was already able to see that the cruel and inexorable tyranny of opinion ruled in the United States and that its citizens suffered from that vain and naive faith in the omnipotence of industry. He could also foresee the figure of the “zoocratic philosophers” who have Americanized the docile little European man.
His commendation of Edgar Allan Poe, as translator and foreword to his work, allows him to share the forceful refutation of the “great heresy of modern times” and to celebrate with veneration this visionary writer, “scourged mercilessly by the blind Angel of the expiation”, poet, narrator and philosopher, enlightened and wise. “Why not confess,” says Baudelaire, “the pleasure of introducing you to a man who looks a little like me?”
Our author’s writings traverse the books and paintings of his century with meticulous lucidity, revealing the depth of his artistic achievements and enshrining his aesthetic integrity. Baudelaire, free from the invisible coercion and voluntary obedience that modernity has grafted onto the citizenry, heir to an intelligence that does not allow itself to be hypnotized by the footlights of the show, never cultivated the cloying adulation of the reader.
At different moments in the anthology, his insistent evocation is heard as an omen: “I hope that religion and philosophy can come one day, as if forced by the cry of a desperate man!”.
Writings on art, literature and music (1845-1866)
Translation by JR Monreal.
Cliff. 1,040 pages. 49 euros