When I first discovered Baudelaire, he immediately became my favorite poet. He was about as twisted and disturbing as they come. So this morning, as I tried to clear my brain of the media onslaught regarding Miley Cyrus, I thought of Baudelaire’s great poem that addresses ennui, or boredom, which he sees as the most insidious root of human evil.
It had been a while since I read this poem and as I opened my copy of The Flowers of Evil I remembered that the text has two translations of the poem, both good but different. I read them both and decided to focus this post on Robert Lowell’s translation, mainly because I find it a more visceral rendering of the poem, using words that I suspect more accurately reflect what Baudelaire was conveying. I’m including Lowell’s translation here so that we all are thinking about the same version.
Infatuation, sadism, lust, avarice
possess our souls and drain the body’s force;
we spoonfeed our adorable remorse,
like whores or beggars nourishing their lice.
Our sins are mulish, our confessions lies;
we play to the grandstand with our promises,
we pray for tears to wash our filthiness;
importantly pissing hogwash through our sties.
The devil, watching by our sickbeds, hissed
old smut and folk-songs to our soul, until
the soft and precious metal of our will
boiled off in vapor for this scientist.
Each day his flattery makes us eat a toad,
and each step forward is a step to hell,
unmoved, through previous corpses and their smell
asphyxiate our progress on this road.
Like the poor lush who cannot satisfy,
we try to force our sex with counterfeits,
die drooling on the deliquescent tits,
mouthing the rotten orange we suck dry.
Gangs of demons are boozing in our brain —
ranked, swarming, like a million warrior-ants,
they drown and choke the cistern of our wants;
each time we breathe, we tear our lungs with pain.
If poison, arson, sex, narcotics, knives
have not yet ruined us and stitched their quick,
loud patterns on the canvas of our lives,
it is because our souls are still too sick.
Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice,
gorillas and tarantulas that suck
and snatch and scratch and defecate and fuck
in the disorderly circus of our vice,
there’s one more ugly and abortive birth.
It makes no gestures, never beats its breast,
yet it would murder for a moment’s rest,
and willingly annihilate the earth.
It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine —
you — hypocrite Reader — my double — my brother!
Ennui is the word which Lowell translates as BOREDOM. Baudelaire sees ennui as the root of all decadence and decay, and the structure of the poem reflects this idea. Consider the title of the book: The Flowers of Evil. The visible blossoms are what break through the surface, but they stem from an evil root, which is boredom. The poem’s structure symbolizes this, with the beginning stanzas being the flower, the various forms of decadence being the petals. The middle stanzas are the stem, which feed and nourish our sickness. Finally, the closing stanzas are the root, the hidden part of ourselves from which all our vices originate.
I find the closing line to be the most interesting. Baudelaire essentially points his finger at us, his readers, in a very accusatory manner. He accuses us of being hypocrites, and I suspect this is because erudite readers would probably consider themselves above this vice and decadence. But the truth is, many of us have turned to literature and drowned ourselves in books as a way to quench the boredom that wells within us, and while it is still a better way to deal with our ennui than drugs or sadism, it is still an escape. We all have the same evil root within us. We’re all Baudelaire’s doubles, eagerly seeking distractions from the boredom which threatens to devour our souls.
We’ve all heard the phrase: money is the root of all evil. I disagree, and I think Baudelaire would concur. Money just allows one to explore more elaborate forms of vice and sin as a way of dealing with boredom. You provide a bored person with unlimited funds and it is just a matter of time before that person discovers some creatively exquisite forms of decadence.