Tag Archives: decadence

Thoughts on “Don Juan in Hell” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Carlos Schwabe

The night Don Juan came to pay his fees
To Charon, by the caverned water’s shore,
A beggar, proud-eyed as Antisthenes,
Stretched out his knotted fingers on the oar.

Mournful, with drooping breasts and robes unsewn
The shapes of women swayed in ebon skies,
Trailing behind him with a restless moan
Like cattle herded for a sacrifice.

Here, grinning for his wage, stood Sganarelle,
And here Don Luis pointed, bent and dim,
To show the dead who lined the holes of Hell,
This was that impious son who mocked at him.

The hollow-eyed, the chaste Elvira came,
Trembling and veiled, to view her traitor spouse.
Was it one last bright smile she thought to claim,
Such as made sweet the morning of his vows?

A great stone man rose like a tower on board,
Stood at the helm and cleft the flood profound:
But the calm hero, leaning on his sword,
Gazed back, and would not offer one look round.

(translation by James Elroy Flecker)

So I read this poem through a couple times, and had no sense on what Baudelaire was expressing. Mainly, because I did not understand all the references within the text. So I systematically went through and looked up all the references, and then the meaning became clear. So before I provide my interpretation of the poem as a whole, let me quickly share what I found regarding all the names mentioned in the text.

Charon was easy enough—the ferryman who brings the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. Antisthenes, I discovered, was a pupil of Socrates and was known for being very ethical and “advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue.” (Source) Sganarelle is a one-act play by Moliere, also coined “The Imaginary Cuckold.” “The story deals with the consequences of jealously and hasty assumptions in a farcical series of quarrels and misunderstandings involving Sganarelle (the imagined cuckold of the title), his wife, and the young lovers, Célie and Lélie.” (Source) Don Luis had a bet with Don Juan to see who could “conquer more women and kill more men than the other,” a bet which Don Juan won. (Source) And finally, Elvira is a reference to Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera. (Source)

So, now that all the references are cleared up, we can look at the poem as a whole.

Don Juan is the antithesis of Antisthenes. He is an unrepentant womanizer and someone ruled by his baser desires. On his journey into Hell, he looks around at the souls of those he destroyed and used, and feels no remorse whatsoever. In fact, one gets the sense that he almost feels a sense of pride in regard to his past exploits.

So how does Baudelaire feel about Don Juan? This is less clear. I suspect that Baudelaire wishes he could be more like Don Juan, trampling through life ruled solely by his passions and not caring about people who he may use and hurt along the way. But my impression is that Baudelaire is not as void of feelings for others as he may appear. While it may make things easier for him to not harbor emotions for others, he does, and even though he is prone to giving in to his desires, he feels remorse, unlike his anti-hero Don Juan.

These are just my thoughts on the poem. If you have other thoughts or insights, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share in the comments section. Cheers!

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“Man and the Sea” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Always, unfettered man, you will cherish the sea!
The sea your mirror, you look into your mind
In its eternal billows surging without end
And its gulfs are bitter, so must your spirit be.

You plunge with joy into this image of your own:
You hug it with your eyes and arms; your heart
Forgets for a time its noisy beat, becomes a part
Of a greater, more savage and less tameable moan.

In your own ways, you both are brooding and discreet:
Man, no one has mapped your chasm’s hidden floor,
Oh sea, no one knows your inmost riches, for
Your jealousy hides secrets none can repeat.

As the uncounted swarm of centuries gathers
You two have fought without pity or remorse, both
From sheer love of the slaughter and of death,
Oh, eternal wrestlers, oh, relentless brothers!

(translation by Ruthven Todd)

The use of the sea as a metaphor for the subconscious mind is not unusual in literature, but this may be one of the most clear examples of it. Right in the first stanza, Baudelaire describes the sea as a mirror that allows you to “look into your mind.”

The second stanza intrigues me. The idea that is expressed is that once a person connects with his or her subconscious mind, then that person loses awareness of his conscious self. One’s ordinary awareness is replaced by something primordial, something that exists in the deepest recesses of the psyche.

In the third stanza, we are faced with the mystery of consciousness. The subconscious mind is something that cannot be fathomed or comprehended by our normal state of awareness. Like the divine spirit, it is ineffable.

This brings us to the fourth and final stanza. We have here a struggle, between the rational and the emotional, between the physical and the spiritual, between our inner good and our inner decadence. But what Baudelaire does so eloquently is that he ties these personal internal struggles in with the greater cosmic struggles. The “eternal wrestlers” and “relentless brothers” conjure images Jacob wrestling the angel, as well as Jacob’s struggle with Esau.

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“The Sick Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

The Green Muse - Albert Maignan

The Green Muse – Albert Maignan

Poor Muse, alas, what ails thee, then, today?
Thy hollow eyes with midnight visions burn,
Upon thy brow in alternation play,
Madness and Horror, cold and taciturn.

Have the green lemure and the goblin red
Poured on thee love and terror from their urn?
Or with despotic hand the nightmare dread
Deep plunged thee in some fabulous Minturne?

Would that thy breast, where so deep thoughts arise,
Breathed forth a healthful perfume with thy sighs;
Would that thy Christian blood ran wave by wave

In rhythmic sounds the antique numbers gave,
When Phoebus shared his alternating reign
With mighty Pan, lord of the ripening grain.

(F. P. Sturm translation)

In this sonnet, Baudelaire offers praise to his muse: alcohol. The main metaphors are all references to different types of alcoholic drinks. Lemure is spirit, so the “green lemure” is a reference to absinthe. Likewise, the “goblin red” is red wine. These drinks inspire both love and terror in the poet.

I had to do a little searching online to find the meaning for “Minturne.” I discovered that this is the name of a swamp. So the implication here is that although alcohol provides inspiration, there is also the real possibility that it will trap the poet in a mire of darkness and nightmare.

In the third stanza, the mention of perfumes is a reference to the vapors given off from the various drinks, and “Christian blood” is another symbol for wine.

In the final stanza, Baudelaire evokes the old pagan gods. Apollo and Pan are both gods associated with music (hence poetry). I get the sense that Baudelaire is also using alcohol as an offering, a libation, to the old gods of artistic expression.

While I cannot deny the inspirational power of alcohol, I have also witnessed its destructive power. Too many of our great artistic souls have departed us too early due to alcohol abuse. But I suppose that is a sacrifice that some must make to advance artistic expression.

Cheers.

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“I Love the Thought of Those Old Naked Days” by Charles Baudelaire

VenusDiMilo

Venus di Milo

I love the thought of those old naked days
When Phoebus gilded torsos with his rays,
When men and women sported, strong and fleet,
Without anxiety or base deceit,
And heaven caressed them, amorously keen
To prove the health of each superb machine.
Cybele then was lavish of her guerdon
And did not find her sons too gross a burden:
But, like a she-wolf, in her love great-hearted,
Her full brown teats to all the world imparted.
Bold, handsome, strong, Man, rightly, might evince
Pride in the glories that proclaimed him prince —
Fruits pure of outrage, by the blight unsmitten,
With firm, smooth flesh that cried out to be bitten.

Today the Poet, when he would assess
Those native splendours in the nakedness
Of man or woman, feels a sombre chill
Enveloping his spirit and his will.
He meets a gloomy picture, which be loathes,
Wherein deformity cries out for clothes.
Oh comic runts! Oh horror of burlesque!
Lank, flabby, skewed, pot-bellied, and grotesque!
Whom their smug god, Utility (poor brats!)
Has swaddled in his brazen clouts “ersatz”
As with cheap tinsel. Women tallow-pale,
Both gnawed and nourished by debauch, who trail
The heavy burden of maternal vice,
Or of fecundity the hideous price.

We have (corrupted nations) it is true
Beauties the ancient people never knew —
Sad faces gnawed by cancers of the heart
And charms which morbid lassitudes impart.
But these inventions of our tardy muse
Can’t force our ailing peoples to refuse
Just tribute to the holiness of youth
With its straightforward mien, its forehead couth,
The limpid gaze, like running water bright,
Diffusing, careless, through all things, like the light
Of azure skies, the birds, the winds, the flowers,
The songs, and perfumes, and heart-warming powers.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

This is a poem of contrasts. In the opening stanza, Baudelaire describes classical Greek and Roman statuary. These statues depict the human form as it truly is—a work of divine art. These cultures believed that there is nothing obscene about the naked human form. The human body is such a thing of beauty that the ancients used it as the ideal for depicting their gods and goddesses.

In the second stanza, we are assaulted with the contrast to the human body as art. Here we are shown the exploitation of human beauty in the form of pornography and prostitution. Baudelaire presents us with a vision of a society that fails to see the beauty of the naked body from a divine perspective, but instead uses the naked human form as a focus for our baser desires. It could also be argued that in addition to this stanza being a critique on the sex trade, it is a statement about inner corruption. Our bodies often reflect our inner health and happiness. In a society plagued with vice, decadence, and ennui, it stands to reason that our physical bodies would reflect the decay that festers within us.

In the third stanza, I sense that Baudelaire is seeking to reconcile these two opposites. He concedes that modern society provides “Beauties the ancient people never knew.” It seems that Baudelaire is seeking a merging between the wonders of the modern world and the appreciation for human beauty that was the ideal of the ancient Greeks.

The last thing I want to say is that this poem stirs the emotion I felt as I watched the video clips of ISIS members destroying artwork. Throughout history, fanatics have destroyed art because it was deemed obscene or heretical. My feelings are that any work of art that portrays humanity, in any of its diverse forms, should be appreciated and preserved.

I hope you have a wonderful and artistically inspired day.

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“Destruction” by Charles Baudelaire

Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

At my side the Demon writhes forever,
Swimming around me like impalpable air;
As I breathe, he burns my lungs like fever
And fills me with an eternal guilty desire.

Knowing my love of Art, he snares my senses,
Appearing in woman’s most seductive forms,
And, under the sneak’s plausible pretenses,
Lips grow accustomed to his lewd love-charms.

He leads me thus, far from the sight of God,
Panting and broken with fatigue into
The wilderness of Ennui, deserted and broad,

And into my bewildered eyes he throws
Visions of festering wounds and filthy clothes,
And all Destruction’s bloody retinue.

(Translated by C. F. MacIntyre)

This sonnet describes Baudelaire’s source of inspiration in the decadent and decayed. In the first stanza, he addresses his artistic desire as a demon, something that haunts him and lures him down dark pathways in search of inspiration. He continues in the second stanza, acknowledging that his love for artistic expression is what tempts him to succumb to his physical desires, seeking to capture that carnal feeling in his poetry.

In the third stanza, he describes himself as entering the “wilderness of Ennui.” I love this metaphor. Through the lens of ennui, the world around him seems bleak and deserted, void of beauty and lacking spirituality. I also see the wilderness as a symbol of our subconscious mind, or the shadow part of ourselves. Baudelaire is probing the darker regions of his psyche in search of inspiration. And he finds this in the images of decay and destruction in the final stanza.

It’s important to note that the horrific visions that Baudelaire describes are sources of beauty. Just like the Phoenix rises from the ashes, as life grows from the dead and decaying, and as the old must be destroyed to create the new, so the destruction he sees is the first stage in the birth of new artistic expression.

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“Beacons” by Charles Baudelaire

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya

This is a great poem that pays homage to the painters who inspired Baudelaire. It’s fairly long, so I am going to include a link to the poem rather than include it in this post.

http://fleursdumal.org/poem/105

Each of the first eight stanzas is dedicated to an artist and describes their artistic styles and works. The eight artists are Rubens, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix. All of these artists are described as drawing inspiration from darker sources, or “Deducing beauty from crime, vice and terror.” Just as Baudelaire was able to use the sick, evil, and decayed as fertilizer to grow his Flowers of Evil, so these artists managed to take the grotesque and perverse and create stunning works of beauty.

After acknowledging these artists, Baudelaire addresses the divine, and in a way, offers thanks for the pain, suffering, insanity, and decadence that sparked the artistic flame, igniting the beacons to shine through the darkness which is the human condition.

These curses, blasphemies, and lamentations,
These ecstasies, tears, cries and soaring psalms —
Through endless mazes, their reverberations
Bring, to our mortal hearts, divinest balms.

A thousand sentinels repeat the cry.
A thousand trumpets echo. Beacon-tossed
A thousand summits flare it through the sky,
A call of hunters in the jungle lost.

And certainly this is the most sublime
Proof of our worth and value, Oh Divinity,
That this great sob rolls on through ageless time
To die upon the shores of your infinity.

In these final stanzas, the hunter is a symbol for the artist, who is pursuing the muse. The jumgle is like the wilderness. It represents the darker and primal aspect of the artist’s subconscious mind. It is here where one must venture in order to find the most powerful sources of creative inspiration. The artist must then share the vision, acting as a beacon and a source of inspiration to other artists and humanity as a whole.

Baudelaire’s work never ceases to amaze and inspire me. He is truly one of the most original and stirring poets that I have encountered. I hope you enjoyed the post. Have an inspired day!

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“To The Reader” by Charles Baudelaire

BaudelaireWhen 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.

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