The Life and Intimate Memoirs of Baudelaire, Page 8|
by Théophile Gautier (1868), translated by Guy Thorne (1915).
Baudelaire had a perfect horror of philantropists, progressionists, utlitarians, humanitarians, Utopians, and of all those who pretend to reform things, contrary to nature and the universal laws of society. He desired neither the suppression of hell nor the guillotine for the disposal of sinners and assassins. He did not believe that men were born good, and he admitted original perversity as an element to be found in the depths of the purest souls—perversity, that evil counsellor who leads a man on to do what is fatal to himself, precisely because it is fatal and for the pleasure of acting contrary to law, without other attraction than disobedience, outside of sensuality, profit, or charm. This perversity he believes to be in others as in himself; therefore, when he finds a servant in fault he refrains from scolding him, for he regards it as an irremediable curse. It is, then, very wrong of short-sighted critics to have accused Baudelaire of immorality, an easy form of evil-speaking for the mediocre and the jealous, and always well taken up by the Pharisees and J. Prudhommes. No one has professed greater disgust for baseness of mind or unseemliness of subject.
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He hated evil as a mathematical deviation, and, in his quality of a perfect gentleman, he scorned it as unseemly, ridiculous, bourgeois and squalid. If he has often treated of hideous, repugnant, and unhealthy subjects, it is from that horror and fascination which makes the magnetised bird go down into the unclean mouth of the serpent; but more than once, with a vigorous flap of his wings, he breaks the charm and flies upwards to bluer and more spiritual regions. He should have engraved on his seal as a device the words "Spleen et Idéal," which form the title of the first part of his book of verse.
If his bouquet is composed of strange flowers, of metallic colourings and exotic perfumes, the calyx of which, instead of joy, contains bitter tears and drops of aqua-tofana, he can reply that he planted but a few into the black soil, saturating them in putrefaction, as the soil of a cemetery dissolves the corpses of preceding centuries among mephitic miasmas. Undoubtedly roses, marguerites, violets, are the more agreeable spring flowers; but he thinks little of them in the black mud with which the pavements of the town are covered. And, moreover, Baudelaire, if he understands the great tropical landscapes where, as in dreams, trees burst forth in strange and gigantic elegance, is only little touched by the small rural sites on the outskirts; and it is not he who will frolic like the Philistines of Heinrich Heine before the romantic efflorescence of spring and faint away at the song of the sparrows. He likes to follow the pale, shrivelled, contorted man, convulsed by passions, and actual modern ennui, through the sinuosities of that great madrepore of Paris—to surprise him in his difficulties, agonies, miseries, prostrations, and excitements, his nervousness and despair.
He watches the budding of evil instincts, the ignoble habits idly acquired in degradation. And, from this sight which attracts and repels him, he becomes incurably melancholy; for he thinks himself no better than others, and allows the pure arc of the heavens and the brilliancy of the stars to be veiled by impure mists.
With these ideas one can well understand that Baudelaire believed in the absolute self-government of Art, and that he would not admit that poetry should have any end outside itself, or any mission to fulfil other than that of exciting in the soul of the reader the sensation of supreme beauty—beauty in the absolute sense of the term. To this sensation he liked to add a certain effect of surprise, astonishment, and rarity. As much as possible he banished from poetry a too realistic imitation of eloquence, passion and a too exact truth. As in statuary one does not mould forms directly after Nature, so he wished that, before entering the sphere of Art, each object should be subjected to a metamorphosis that would adapt it to this subtle medium, idealising it and abstracting it from trivial reality.
Such principles are apt to astonish us, when we read certain of the poems of Baudelaire in which horror seems to be sought like pleasure; but that we should not be deceived, this horror is always transfigured by character and effect, by a ray of Rembrandt, or a trait of Velasquez, who portrayed the race under sordid deformity. In stirring up in his cauldron all sorts of fantastically odd and enormous ingredients, Baudelaire can say, with the witches of Macbeth, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." This sort of intentional ugliness is not, then, in contradiction to the supreme aim of Art; and the poems, such as the "Sept Vieillards" and the "Petits Vieilles," have snatched from the poetical Saint John who dreams in Patmos this phrase, which characterises so well the author of the "Flowers of Evil": "You have endowed the sky of Art with one knows not what macabre ray; you have created a new frisson."
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