Sex and drugs – Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire Gustave_Courbet_033
Portrait of Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet (1848)

Charles Baudelaire  (1821-1867) was a French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil], published in 1857, which was undoubtedly the most important and influential poetry collection to appear in Europe in the 19th century. When it was first printed, the book was prosecuted for alleged obscenity.

Addicted to sex and drugs, Baudelaire eventually succumbed to syphilis, but in his famous preface to Les Fleurs du mal entitled “Au lecteur” [To the reader] he listed all manner of vice and accused his contemporary society of monstrous hypocrisy, stating in effect ‘none of you are any better than me, my brothers.’. A number of versions of this scathing text can be read at: http://fleursdumal.org/poem/099, but here are the first two verses in a translation by the American poet, Robert Lowell:

To the Reader

Folly and error, sin and avarice, 

Labor our minds and bodies in their course, 

Blithely we nourish pleasurable remorse 

As beggars feed their parasitic lice.

Our sins are stubborn, our repentance faint, 

We sell our weak confessions at high price, 

Returning gaily to the bogs of vice, 

Thinking base tears can cleanse our every taint.

The prose poem I have translated below is taken from the posthumously published Petits poèmes en prose (1869): the most successful and innovative early experiment in prose poetry of the time. Here the mood is that of world-weariness, ennui, or spleen and the title is borrowed from a poem by the English poet, Thomas Hood.


Anywhere Out of the World

This life’s a hospital in which every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds; one would like to suffer in front of the stove, and another believes he’d recover his health by the window.

It always seems to me that I’d feel well wherever I am not, and this question of displacement is one I’m forever discussing with my soul.

« Tell me, my soul, my poor frozen soul, what do you think of going to live in Lisbon? Must be warm there, and there you’d liven up like a lizard. That city’s on the coast; they say that it’s built of marble and that the people there so hate vegetation that they tear down all the trees. There you have a landscape to your taste! a landscape made of light and mineral, and liquid to reflect them! »

My soul says nothing.

« Since you’re so fond of taking it easy, while observing the bustle, would you like to live in Holland, that beatifying country? Maybe you’d have some fun in that land the image of which you’ve so often admired in the art galleries. What do you think of Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships moored at the foot of houses? »

My soul remains silent.

« Perhaps Batavia would appeal more? There, of course, we’d find the spirit of Europe married to tropical beauty. »

Not a word. « Could my soul be dead ? »

« Have you reached such a degree of lethargy that you’re only content to be ill? If so, let’s flee to those countries that are analogues of Death. I know what we need, my poor soul! We’ll pack our trunks for Tornio. Let’s go farther still to the far end of the Baltic; or farther still from life, if that’s possible; let’s settle at the Pole. There the sun only grazes the earth obliquely, and the slow alternation of light and darkness suppresses variety and increases monotony, that semi-nothingness. There we’ll be able to take long baths of darkness, while to amuse us, the aurora borealis will from time to time send us its pink sprays, like a display of fireworks from Hell! »

Finally, my soul blows it top, and wisely cries out to me: « Anywhere! anywhere! as long as it’s out of the world! »

Translation by John Lyons


A Good Man is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor

Robert-lowell
Robert Lowell

In a letter dated 10 August 1964, the American poet Robert Lowell wrote to his great friend, Elizabeth Bishop, another very distinguished American poet, about the death of Flannery O’Connor. Bishop was living in Brazil at the time.

“Did you read about Flannery O’Connor’s death? I gather she must have died of the bone disease, lupus, that plagued her all these years. It seems such a short time ago that I met her at Yaddo, 23 or 24, always in a blue jean suit, working on the last chapters of Wise Blood, suffering from undiagnosed pains, a face formless at times, then very strong and young and right. She had already really mastered and found her themes and style, knew she wouldn’t marry, would be Southern, shocking and disciplined. In a blunt, disdainful yet somehow very unpretentious and modest way, I think she knew how good she was. I suppose she knew dimly about the future, the pain, the brevity, the peacocks, the life with her mother. She was 38 when she died, and I think always had the character of a commanding, grim, witty child, who knew she was destined to live painfully and in earnest, a hero, rather like a nun or Catholic saint with tough innocence, well able to take on her brief, hardworking, hard, steady, splendid and inconspicuous life. I think the cards seemed heavily stacked against her, and her fates must have felt that they had so thoroughly hemmed her in that they could forget, and all would have happened as planned, but really she did what she had decided on and was less passive and dependent than anyone I can think of.”

In her reply to Lowell, Bishop wrote: “I feel awe in front of that girl’s courage and discipline.


Flannery-O'Connor_1947
Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1935, and was diagnosed with the debilitating disease of lupus in 1951. At the time she was only expected to live for another five years: however, she managed to survive fourteen years and in that period she wrote two novels and dozens of short stories. Her stories are among the very best short fictions written anywhere in the world, and the generosity of Lowell’s appraisal of her character is well-founded. She worked as hard as her illness permitted, and by all accounts she never complained or wallowed in self-pity.

The extract below is taken from the title story of the 1955 collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Flannery O’Connor, I would encourage you to find this collection and discover what happens when the family run into The Misfit, and if you are not blown away by her writing, I would suggest that you probably need to lose weight (if you know what I mean)!


A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)

THE GRANDMOTHER didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”

Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. “The children have been to Florida before,” the old lady said. “You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee.”

The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.

“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.

“Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.

“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.

“She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”