TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Paul Bourget (1852–1935) played a crucial role in the intellectual and literary scene in France at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth as a novelist, poet, and literary critic; he was elected to the Académie française at the age of forty-two (in the same year Émile Zola received not a single a vote). A number of Bourget’s contemporaries credited him with “discovering” Stendhal and Baudelaire, whose works had not received wide recognition during their author’s lifetimes; deeply interested in psychology, he similarly helped to introduce Freud to his contemporaries. Early in his career Bourget was a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals devoted to literature and the arts, including La Revue des deux mondes, Le Globe, L’Illustration, and La Nouvelle Revue. Having abandoned literary criticism for the psychological novel and novella, he had a determinative influence on an entire generation of young writers and readers, who eagerly awaited each of his books; many critics felt that he was destined to be remembered as one of the great novelists of the turn of the last century. His return to Catholicism in 1901 contributed to an increasingly moralizing tone in his writing and nascent reactionary views that did not always sit well with his erstwhile admirers, and his sympathies late in life with the emerging Action Française further discredited him. Today Paul Bourget is remembered, if at all, as a critic and theorist, and in particular for the Essais de psychologie contemporaine (1883–85), in which he defines and analyzes the influence of the authors and literary movements that marked his generation, while drawing attention to the precursors of modernity and the mal du siècle to be found in romanticism, and to the profound pessimism that asserts itself in the writings of the seventeenth-century moralists. Also of possible interest to American readers today is Outre-Mer, journals of his 1893 visit to the United States, a work derided in inimitable fashion by Mark Twain.
The ten essays that make up the Essais de psychologie contemporaine first appeared in La Nouvelle Revue between 1881 and 1885 as “Psychologie contemporaine—Notes et portraits.” A first volume—containing this study of Baudelaire, as well as essays on Renan, Flaubert, Taine, and Stendhal—was published in 1883 (Paris, Lemerre); the second, containing studies of Alexandre Dumas fils, Leconte de Lisle, the Goncourt brothers, Turgenev, and Amiel, appeared in 1885 as Nouveaux Essais de psychologie contemporaine (Paris, Lemerre). Bourget’s piece on Baudelaire is remarkable for its analysis of the psychological origins of the spleen to which the poet gives expression in Les Fleurs du mal, and for the critic’s compelling definition of decadence, a literary movement which had yet to be codified. As will soon become clear, for Bourget neither social nor personal corruption excludes the possibility of the highest aesthetic achievement.
Included below, in addition to the pages on Baudelaire, is a study of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, first appended to the essay in the 1899 edition of Bourget’s Œuvres complètes (Paris, Plon), that sheds light on what Bourget characterizes as Baudelaire’s “moral malady." —Nancy O'Connor
The Example of Baudelaire
To read Les Fleurs du mal when one is seventeen, when one cannot recognize the element of mystification that transforms ideas in and of themselves merely exceptional into provocative paradoxes, is to enter a world of impressions previously unknown. There are spiritual guides more precise in their teachings than Baudelaire: Taine, for instance, and Henri Beyle [Stendhal]. There is none more suggestive or more fascinating.
And your eyes as alluring as those of a portrait . . . he wrote of one of those guilty women whose magic seduced him. Something of that magnetism and of that gaze permeates his verse, caressing and mysterious, half-ironic, half-plaintive. His stanzas haunt the imagination, nag at it with an almost painful persistency. He excels at beginning a piece with words at once tragically and sentimentally solemn, words one will not forget:
What matters it to me if you be good!
Be beautiful and be sad . . .
You who, like the stab of a knife,
Entered my plaintive heart . . .
And yet elsewhere:
Like pensive cattle stretched out on the sand
They turn their gaze toward the infinite seas . . .
Through temperament and rhetoric, Charles Baudelaire floats a hazy halo of strangeness about his poems, convinced as he is, like the aesthete of “The Raven,” that beauty is always singular, and that surprise is the condition of the poetic spell. And a spell it is, for those not put off by this art’s complexities. The effect is comparable to what one feels in the presence of faces painted by Leonardo, owing to the relief and shading of the tones that cast a veil of mystery over the shape of a smile. A dangerous curiosity requires one’s attention and invites one to endless daydreams before the enigmas of this painter or poet. In time, the enigma gives up its secret, and Baudelaire’s is a secret shared by more than one of us. There is a good chance it will become that of any young man who revels in these texts, so ripe with revelations.
1. LOVE AND THE ANALYTICAL MIND
In Baudelaire there is first of all a particular conception of love. It might be characterized fairly precisely with three adjectives, as disparate as our society: Baudelaire, in his love poetry, is at one and the same time mystical, libertine, and analytical. He is mystical, and a face as ideal as that of a Madonna constantly pervades the dark or bright hours of his days, recalling the presence, in some other universe of which ours would be only a rough and tattered sketch, of a woman’s spirit, “lucid and pure,” of an ever-desirable and ever-beneficent soul:
She suffuses my life
Like salt-fragrant air,
And into my parched soul
She pours the taste of the Eternal . . .
He is libertine, and images depraved to the point of sadism disturb the same man who has just worshiped his Madonna’s raised finger. The dreary intoxication of the ordinary Venus, the heady ardors of the black Venus, the refined pleasures of the wise Venus, the criminal daring of the bloodthirsty Venus, have left their mark on his most spiritual poems. A squalid hovel’s nauseous fumes seep from these two lines of the magnificent “Crépuscule du matin”:
The ladies of the night, livid of lid,
Open-mouthed, slept their unthinking sleep . . .
The burnished ebony face of a friend with teeth of ivory and wiry hair, appears to have inspired this tender litany:
I worship you as I worship night’s canopy,
Oh fount of sadness, oh silent one . . .
Pagan priestesses would have recognized a follower of their clandestine festivities in the description of the bedchamber—shut down by the authorities—where Hippolyte wearily rests:
In the livid light of the dwindling lamp,
On the deep redolent cushions . . .
And the most powerful poem in the collection—in my opinion, at least—“Une Martyre,” could carry as its epigraph the sinister sentence with which the author of La Philosophie dans le boudoir proposed to label one of the rooms of his little dream-house: Here there is torture! . . .
Alive, in spite of all your love,
You could not satisfy the vindictive one;
Did he then sate his immense desire
On your inert and acquiescing flesh?
Throughout such madness, in which the thirst for an infinite purity mingles with the all-consuming hunger for the most voluptuous carnal pleasure, the analyst’s intellect is still cruelly in control. He is an Adolphe, as incapable of forgetfulness as his model. His mind encodes both mysticism and debauchery into formulae, breaking down its sensations with the precision of a prism separating light. His thought process remains unimpaired, affected neither by the fever that burns in the blood nor the ecstasy that spawns demons. Three men live as one in him, combining their feelings better to express from the heart the last drop of red-hot lymph. These three men are very modern, and more modern yet is their union. The crisis of religious faith, Parisian life, and the scientific mind of the period combined to fashion, then to meld, these three types of sensitivity, long thought to be so distinct as to have nothing whatsoever in common. Yet here they are, linked to the point of seeming inseparable, at least in this unprecedented creature that was Baudelaire.
The origins, or rather the successive layers, that made up this soul are therefore easy to determine, simply by looking around us. Can one not still find, in our impious century, enough Catholicism for a child’s soul to become imbued with mystical love of an unforgettable intensity? Faith will fade, but mysticism, even once expelled from the conscious mind, will persist in sensation. The trappings of the sacred surge up for Baudelaire in dusk’s obscure moments, with a subtlety that shows how deeply the first tremor of prayer had taken possession of his heart.* The memory never disappeared. For him the fragrance of flowers very naturally dissipates as “incense.” A beautiful sky is an “altar.” The setting sun is a “monstrance.” If man no longer feels the same intellectual need to believe, he has kept the need to feel as he did when he believed. Doctors of mysticism had remarked on this persistence of religious sensibility in the midst of the collapse of religious thought. They termed this the cult of latria—idololatry, whence idolatry—identifying the passionate surge by which man transfers to some creature or other, to some object or other, the exalted ardor that he has turned away from God. One can find in Baudelaire strange examples of this cult; thus the usage of liturgical terminology to address a mistress and celebrate a voluptuous pleasure:
I wish to build for you Madonna, my mistress,
An underground altar in the depths of my misery . . .
Or yet again that curious “prose,” wrought in the style of the Latin decadence, that he called “Franciscae meae laudes,” and dedicated to “an erudite and devout fashion designer.” What would for anyone else be blasphemy, or exploitation, is in Baudelaire an operation that I would term instinctive, if the word “instinctive” could be applied to subtleties apparently so far removed from instinct. But is not complexity innate in certain beings, just as simplicity is in others?
His libertine tastes, on the other hand, were developed in Paris. One finds all the accoutrements of Parisian vice in most of his poems, just as one finds all the accoutrements of Catholic ritual. One can see that he frequented some of the most sordid lairs in the shameless city, one can only guess in pursuit of what risky adventures. He supped with painted women, their mouths scarlet gashes in ceruse masks. He slept in brothels, and knew the rancor of broad daylight that revealed the faded curtains and the even more faded face of the bought woman. In search of the most intense sensations, with a lubricious ruthlessness that verges on mania, he pursued the visceral, mindless spasm that rises from the nerve endings to the brain and, for a brief moment, relieves the pain of thought. And at the same time he engaged in conversations on every street corner in this intellectual and depraved city. He led the life of the literary figure who is always observing, and he kept—but what am I saying?—he honed the edge of his mind where others would have dulled theirs forever. Out of this triple effort was born, along with the conception of a love at once mystical, sensual, and supremely intelligent, the bitterest and most corrosive surge of spleen to have sprung from a human soul in a very long time.
II. BAUDELAIRE'S PESSIMISM
It was Lamennais who exclaimed one day: “My soul was born wounded.” Baudelaire could have applied the observation to himself: he belonged to a race condemned to misfortune. He is perhaps the author to whose name the term “unhealthy” has most often been attached. The term is appropriate, if by it one means that passions of the kind we have just mentioned are hard-put to find circumstances matching their extreme demands: there is a dissonance between the man and his setting, a dissonance that produces a moral crisis and a tortured heart. But the term “unhealthy” is inaccurate and becomes unjustified if it implies a total and irrevocable condemnation of the poet. His sensitivity was unfortunate, but it was not the arbitrary and willful complacency in the presence of corruption that his enemies have claimed to recognize. Baudelaire endures his temperament, he does not choose it. It is appropriate here to quote Faust’s compelling remark “even Hell has its laws,” understood in its fundamental Goethean sense: that the greatest revolts against nature are bound up in nature. They have causes that determine them, they have an evolution, they have a limit. In this sense, every anomaly has its norm, every artifice its spontaneous aspect. The simple intoxications of Daphnis and Chloe in their vale were no more natural to them than his dreams of love were to Baudelaire, as we have defined and situated him, in the boudoir he describes as furnished with such a need for melancholy sensuality:
The ornate ceilings,
The deep mirrors,
All would speak
Secretly to the soul
Its sweet native tongue . . .
It can be said that in the psychological as in the physiological order sickness is as logical, as necessary, and consequently as natural as is health. It is different in that it leads to suffering and to instability as inevitably as health leads to harmony and to joy. But it can also be said—so as not to make well-being the ultimate test in matters of the soul—that there is sometimes more idealism in such suffering than in happiness. In all likelihood combinations of complex ideas will not encounter the circumstances favorable to their complication, but does that prove that circumstances are always right? One whose habits have led to a dream of happiness made up of many excluded possibilities suffers from a reality he cannot shape to his liking: “The force whereby a man persists in existing is limited, it is infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes.” This proposition from the Ethics certainly does not justify the aberrations of the senses to which Baudelaire was impelled, like so many others, by the desire to achieve his inner dream. It does, on the other hand, explain the poet’s sadness and his intrinsic humanity. He himself was all too conscious of it, since he called an entire section of his book “Spleen et Idéal.” He knew all too well that a highly civilized creature must not ask that things be as his heart wishes them to be, a concurrence all the rarer when the heart is unusually refined. If he did not attempt to struggle to cure himself, it is because he saw in his misery an irresistible and universal order of things; and in the face of such evidence he sank into what the Ancients had already termed taedium vitae.
Of course this taedium vitae—?this ennui, to give it its modern name—in its tragic sense, has always been the secret maggot of fulfilled lives. But how is it that this “delicate monster”* has never howled its woe more forcefully than in the literature of our century, when there are so many improvements to living conditions, unless those very improvements, as they add complexity to our souls, make us incapable of happiness? Those who believe in progress have been unwilling to take note of the terrible price we pay for our greater security and our better education. They have thought they detected in the darkening of our literature a passing effect of our age’s social upheavals, as if other, more severe upheavals in our private destinies had not, for all our generation’s leaders, resulted in the same inability to attain happiness. Did not Baudelaire see things more clearly when he considered a certain brand of melancholy the inevitable product of a divide between our needs as civilized beings and the reality of external causes and conditions? Proof that he did is that, from one end of Europe to the other, contemporary society exhibits the same symptoms, varying according to race, of this melancholy and this dissonance. A universal nausea provoked by the world’s inadequacies affects the heart of Slavs, Germans, and Latins. It takes the form of nihilism in the first, of pessimism in the second, of solitary and unaccountable neuroses in ourselves. Do not the murderous rage of the Saint Petersburg conspirators, the works of Schopenhauer, the wrathful fires of the Commune, and the driven misanthropy of naturalist novelists—I have purposely chosen the most disparate examples—share the same negative attitude towards life that each day casts more darkness over Western civilization? Granted, we are far from the planet’s suicide, that fondest desire of doomsayers. But slowly, surely, the conviction is growing that nature is bankrupt, a conviction that threatens to become the sinister faith of the twentieth century if no renewal comes about to save over-thinking humanity from its own thought—a renewal that could only take the form of a religious upsurge.
It would make a most interesting and unprecedented chapter in comparative psychology to trace, stage by stage, the course taken by the various European races towards this definitive negation of all human effort over the centuries. One would have to believe that from the half-Asiatic blood of the Slavs a deadly vapor rises to their brain that impels them towards destruction, as towards a kind of sacred orgy. Turgenev said of militant nihilists: “They believe in nothing, but they seek martyrdom . . .” Germans, in spite of their practical positivism, need a long series of metaphysical speculations on the unconscious causes of phenomena to articulate the sorry inanity of the totality of these same phenomena. For the French—and this in spite of the extraordinary change in our national temperament in the last one hundred years—pessimism is but a painful exception, in truth more and more frequent, but always arising from the sense of an exceptional destiny. Only individual reflection leads some of us, in spite of our hereditary optimism, to the highest level of negativity; Baudelaire is one of the most outstanding cases of this individual endeavor: he can be cited as the perfect exemplar of the Parisian pessimist, two terms that would at one time have seemed strangely mismatched. Critics today link them together constantly.
To begin with, he is a pessimist, which distinguishes him sharply from sensitive skeptics such as Alfred de Vigny. He has the deadly thrust, the satanic lightning-bolt, as Christians would say: a horror of Being, and a taste—indeed a voracious appetite—for Nothingness. One finds in Baudelaire the Hindu Nirvana, rediscovered at the root of modern neuroses and then summoned forth, with the bursts of irritability of one whose ancestors were men of action, instead of being contemplated with the solemn serenity of a son of the torrid sun:
Unhappy soul, once so fond of battle,
Hope, whose spur once urged you on,
Will no longer mount you. Lie down without shame,
Old horse who stumbles at every obstruction.
Resign yourself, my heart, give in to brutish sleep . . .
One must most particularly read, and closely, the pieces in the Fleurs du mal numbered lxxviii [I have more memories than if I were a thousand . . .], lxxix [I am like the king of a rainy land . . .], lxxx [When the lowering sky weighs down like a lid . . .], and all entitled “Spleen”; the penultimate stanza of the piece numbered xc entitled “Madrigal triste”; and the whole of the text that appears at the end of the collection, “Le Voyage”:
Lest we forget the most important thing,
We have seen everywhere, and without searching,
From the top to the bottom of the fateful scale,
The tedious spectacle of immortal sin . . .
From these lines no longer emanate the rueful plaint that mourns happiness lost, nor desire’s lament for a happiness that is unattainable, but the bitter and definitive imprecation the vanquished spirit spits out at existence as he sinks into irrevocable nihilism, here in the French sense of the term. And one need only revisit one by one the psychological elements we have identified as having influenced the poet’s concept of love to retrace the history of the “will to nothingness” of the rebellious Catholic, who has become an analyzing libertine.
Baudelaire was raised a Catholic, and the world of spiritual truths was revealed to him. For many, this revelation is of no consequence. They believed in God in their youth, but superficially. They did not know Him as a personal and living God. For them, intellectual faith is sufficient, an abstract faith that lends itself to all sorts of transformations. They need a set of beliefs, not a vision. For the initial belief in God they substitute a belief in Liberty, or Revolution, or Socialism, or Science. Every day each one of us can recognize this kind of transformation in himself and in others. Such is not the case for the mystical soul—and Baudelaire’s was one of these. For this soul, when it believed, was not satisfied with faith in an idea. It saw God. God was, for Baudelaire, not a word, not a symbol, not an abstraction, but a Being in whose company the soul lived as we live with a loving father who knows us, who understands us. This emotion was so precious and so strong that when it vanished it left no room for lesser substitutes. When one has known the intoxication of opium, that of wine seems nauseating and trivial. Disappearing in contact with the times, faith left in souls like these a breach through which all pleasures escaped. Such was Baudelaire’s fate. Only consider the contempt with which he treats the second-rank faithful, those who make Humanity or Progress their God. What could be more natural than his feeling of emptiness in the face of a world where he searches in vain for a concrete Ideal that corresponds to what is left of his dream of transcendence? A frantic quest for stimulants is then the only means to fill or to deceive this emptiness. Stimulants such as the writings, exalting and fanciful as hashish, of authors such as Proclus, Swedenborg, Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas de Quincey, all those who have celebrated the flight of the soul “anywhere, out of this world”; stimulants such as hashish, with the exalting effect of such writings. One who thirsts for lost infinity needs an “artificial paradise” for lack of faith in a real one; or, in his darkest hours, he endeavors to return to the mystical world by way of horror. But the unbelieving soul comes back drained from these excursions, more persuaded than ever that religion is nothing but the individual and misleading dream of one who contemplates his own desire in nature’s void. No anxiety is greater for a mystic than to arrive at the recognition that his need to believe is entirely subjective, that his long-ago faith arose from within him and was of his own making! And against the sky’s empty backdrop appears the fearsome and consoling figure that will free him of all forms of servitude and deliver him from all doubts: Death,
Who wanders, like a prince inspecting his dwelling,
The immense, cold, endless graveyard,
Where lie, in the light of a wan, dull sun,
The denizens of ancient and modern times.
This same nihilism is the final stage in Baudelaire’s particular form of analytical dissolution. A handful of poets, Musset first and foremost, have recounted how destructive of love debauchery is. Baudelaire delved further into the darkness of the human soul when he exposed how destructive debauchery is of pleasure. Granted, painful and distressing pleas for an unachievable sentimental emotion rise up from the core of any creature born for nobility and who has misused his senses: In the sated beast an angel awakes . . .
There is, moreover, the ominous inability to procure for those overwrought senses even a single complete throb of pleasure. An indescribable nuance of spleen, here a physical spleen, as if stemming from blood’s exhaustion, settles over the libertine who is no longer capable of arousal. His imagination grows febrile, he dreams of pain, and of causing pain, to obtain that intimate tremor that would be absolute and total ecstasy. The strange madness that produced Nero and Heliogabalus tears at his heart. “Destruction’s bloody machine”* is all that can briefly revive the fever of a sensuality that will never be sated. This is the man of decadence, who has held fast to an incurable nostalgia for his ancestors’ beautiful dreams, and who by precocious excesses has destroyed in himself the roots of life. And because we see the world only through the prism of our own secret needs, he casts a still-lucid eye on the incurable misery of his destiny, and so judges all destinies to be incurably miserable.
III. A THEORY OF DECADENCE
If a very particular shade of love, if a new manner of articulating pessimism, makes Baudelaire’s mind a rare psychological instrument, what sets him apart in the literature of our own time is that he fully perceived that particularity and that newness and daringly exaggerated them. He realized that he had come late to a senescent civilization, and, instead of bemoaning his belatedness, as did La Bruyère and Musset*, he reveled in it—I was about to say he wore it as a badge of honor. He was a man of decadence; he chose to become a theorist of decadence. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this troubling being, and the aspect that has proven to be perhaps the most disturbingly seductive for the spirit.**
The word “decadence” is often used to designate the state of a society that produces too few individuals suited to the labors of communal life. A society is comparable to a living organism: like an organism, it consists of a collection of lesser organisms, which in turn consist of a collection of cells. The individual is the social cell. For the whole organism to function energetically, the lesser organisms must function energetically, but with a lesser energy; and, for these lesser organisms to function energetically, their component cells must function energetically, but with a lesser energy. If the cells’ energy becomes independent, the organisms that make up the total organism similarly cease subordinating their energy to the total energy, and the subsequent anarchy leads to the decadence of the whole. The social organism does not escape this law: it succumbs to decadence as soon as the individual has begun to thrive under the influence of acquired well-being and heredity. The very same rule governs the development and the decadence of another organism, language. A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book falls apart, replaced by the independence of the page, where the page decomposes to make way for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence makes way for the word. There are innumerable examples in current literature to corroborate this hypothesis and justify this analogy.
In order to evaluate decadence, the critic can adopt two perspectives, so different as to be antithetical. In the presence of a society that is disintegrating—the Roman Empire, for instance—he can, from the first of these perspectives, consider the social effort as a whole and bear witness to its inadequacy. A society can subsist only provided it remains capable of struggling vigorously for survival in the rivalry among the races. It must produce many sturdy children and muster many brave soldiers. If analyzed, these two formulae encompass all virtues, both private and public. Roman society produced few children; consequently it could no longer muster soldiers for the nation. Citizens had little use for the vexations of paternity, and they hated the crudeness of military life. Linking effects to causes, the critic who examines this society from a general point of view concludes that a discriminating pursuit of pleasure, a subtle skepticism, the exacerbation of the senses, the inconstancy of dilettantism, were the social wounds of the Roman Empire, and will in any other circumstance be the social wounds destined to destroy the entire organism. So reason politicians and moralists, who take an interest in the amount of energy the social machine can produce. The point of view of the pure psychologist will be different, for he will consider the machine in detail, and not in its overall operation. He will find that this individual independence rewards his curiosity with more interesting examples and more strikingly singular “cases.” His line of reasoning will be approximately the following: “If the citizens of decadence are inferior contributors to the greatness of the country, are they not, on the other hand, very superior artists within their own souls? If they are ill-suited to private or public action, is that not owing to their being too accomplished as solitary thinkers? If they are poor procreators of future generations, is it not because the abundance of delicate sensations and exquisitely rare sentiments have made of them sterile but refined masters of voluptuousness and pain? If they are incapable of the sacrifices of deep faith, is it not because their overly-cultivated intelligence has rid them of prejudices, and that after having reviewed all ideas they have attained that supreme equity that legitimates all doctrines by excluding all fanaticisms? Certainly, an eleventh-century Germanic leader was more capable of invading the Empire than a Roman patrician was of defending it; but the erudite and perceptive Roman, curious and without illusions—someone like the emperor Hadrian, for instance, the Caesar who loved Tibur—represented a richer treasure of human accomplishment. The great argument against decadences is that they have no future, and that barbarity crushes them. But is it not the inevitable fate of what is exquisite and rare to succumb to brutality? One might well prize such a failing, and prefer the defeat of decadent Athens to the triumph of the sanguinary Macedonian.”
My imaginary psychologist would reason similarly concerning decadent literature. He would say: “These literatures have no future either. They lead to alterations of vocabulary, and subtleties of terminology, that will make this style unintelligible to coming generations. In fifty years the language of the Goncourt brothers, for instance, will be incomprehensible to anyone but experts. What matter? Is the aim of the writer to be a perpetual candidate for the universal suffrage of the ages? We delight in what you call our corrupt style, and we delight all those who belong to our refined race and to our time. It remains to be seen whether our exceptionality is not a form of aristocracy, and whether, in matters of esthetics, the plurality of voices represents anything but a victory of ignorance. Besides the fact that it seems ingenuous to believe in immortality, when the time is drawing near that man’s memory, overburdened by the prodigious number of books, will no longer honor glory, it is a fraud not to have the courage of one’s intellectual pleasure. Let us therefore indulge our peculiarities of ideal and of form, though they become our solitary prison, shunned by visitors. Those who are drawn to us will truly be our brothers, and what use is it to sacrifice to others what is most intimate, most special, most personal to us?”
Both points of view, as one can see, have their logic, at least at first glance, for the study of history and life’s experience teach us that there is a reciprocal action of society on the individual, and that when we isolate our energy we deprive ourselves of the benefit of that action. Family, not the individual, is the real social cell. For the individual, to subordinate his needs is not only to serve society, it is to serve himself. This is the great truth discovered and put into practice by Goethe. A young artist rarely grasps it; ordinarily he will hesitate between the revolt of his individuality and adaptation to his surroundings—but in this very hesitation one can foresee the prudence of future renunciations. Yet some have the courage to adhere resolutely to the second of the perspectives we have set forth, even though they might regret it later. As for Baudelaire, he had the courage in his youth to adopt this attitude, and the temerity to hold to it until the end. He declared himself decadent, he sought out—and with what swaggering determination!—everything in life and in art that seems morbid and artificial to simpler souls. His favorite sensations are those aroused by smells, because more than any other they stir up that sensually gloomy and sorrowful je ne sais quoi we all carry within us. His preferred season is the end of autumn, when a melancholy charm casts its spell on the muddled sky and the anxious heart. The hours of his predilection are the evening hours, when the sky, like the background in Lombard paintings, takes on tints of faded pink and dying green. A woman is beautiful to him only when immature and almost repellently thin, as elegant as a skeleton revealed beneath adolescent flesh, or else overripe and sinking into a raddled maturity:
And your heart, like a bruised peach,
Is ripe, as is your body, for skillful love.
Caressing and languid music, unusual furnishings, singular paintings, are the necessary accompaniment to his dejected or harshly illuminating thoughts, “morbid or petulant,” as he puts it. His bedside readings are the authors I cited earlier, exceptional writers who, like Edgar Poe, placed such demands on their nerves that they became demented, declaimers of a shadow-filled life, their tongue “already marbled with the iridescences of decomposition.”* Wherever there shimmers what he terms, with an unavoidable strangeness, “the phosphorescence of decay,” he feels himself drawn by an irresistible attraction. At the same time, his intense contempt for the plebeian explodes in outrageous paradoxes and far-fetched mystifications. In this latter connection, those who knew him tell extraordinary stories. All allowances made for myth, still it is undeniable that this superior individual had something disturbing and enigmatic about him, even for his closest friends. His painful irony excoriated stupidity and naïveté, the foolishness of innocence and the folly of sin, with the same scorn. A hint of this irony is detectable in some of the finest pieces in Les Fleurs du mal; and for many readers, even the shrewdest, the fear of being duped by a charlatan of Satanism prevents whole-hearted admiration.
Nevertheless, and in spite of the difficulties that make his work virtually inaccessible to many, Baudelaire remains one of the favorite guides of the coming generation. It is not enough to deplore his influence, as some critics, including luminaries like Edmond Scherer, have done. One must acknowledge that influence, and explain it. It is not as easily recognizable as that of a Balzac or a Musset, because it acts on a small group. But the members of that group are highly distinguished minds: poets of tomorrow, novelists already dreaming of glory, promising essayists. Indirectly and through them some of the psychological singularities that we have tried to identify here penetrate to a wider public; and is the moral atmosphere of a period not made up of just such penetrations as these?
APPENDIX: ON LOVE AND THE ANALYTICAL MIND: Adolphe
“In the midst of so much madness, the analyzer’s intelligence remains cruelly self-aware. . . .” This coexistence, in one and the same being, of the most ineffective lucidity of mind and the worst sensual disorder or disorder of feeling, is Baudelaire’s most distinctive trait. This deserves to be emphasized, and the best way to do so is to juxtapose with the author of Les Fleurs du mal an exemplar of the same moral sickness, albeit developed under entirely different conditions of milieu, circumstances, and temperament. And so, after having read Les Fleurs du mal, one will be well advised to reread Adolphe, and discover in their resemblances and their differences the distinctive set of symptoms and an identical diagnosis of this malady.
At the outset let us point out something that proves to what extent the abuse of the analytical mind, the very basis of Les Fleurs du mal, is indeed one of the characteristics of this period: of all the books of the beginning of the century, Adolphe continues to be the most vital, the most riveting, the most relevant. For my own part I read the slim volume with passionate interest when it fell into my hands, years ago now. Even today there is no book that moves me more, though I know by heart almost every sentence of this masterpiece of the genre; and I can name twenty others who share this feeling. The indestructible sense of contemporaneity of the brief work does not owe to its composition; the modern effects of style we value most are missing from this short narrative. Physical description, setting, dialogue, are almost totally lacking in this drama, so simple as to be bare, told so straightforwardly that it appears dry, so devoid of color that it is gray and gaunt. The contrast with Baudelaire’s skillful rhetoric could not be more striking. But the tone of human truth is so poignant, the accuracy of the psychological analysis so total, the mental suffering so real, so lifelike, that any aesthetic reservations seem contemptible quibbles, and there is nothing to modify, nothing to add to this Adolphe, whose very gracelessness and harshness are a necessary component.
Since the publication of Benjamin Constant’s Journal intime and his Lettres à sa famille we have known that the magic of the novel resides first and foremost in its being the most unusual and the most courageous of self-portraits. He is at one and the same time so sensitive that he cannot bear his mistress’s suffering, so anxious that he cannot trust her love, so selfish that he cannot conceal from her his most transient moods, so lucid that he cannot overlook a single one of his personal failings. This simultaneously superior and maimed creature, in whom the most appalling indecisiveness combines with the most mature self-knowledge, and who seems to have retained of sensitivity all that tortures while losing everything that is appealing, this arrogant young man with no illusions, this passionate being with no hope, this lover without joy, is Constant himself, as his diary and letters reveal him. There is not a sentence in his book that does not reveal a secret wound in his soul, one of the most tormented of our time. He pushed the candor of his confession so far as to deny his Adolphe every excuse that circumstances afford our worst failings, and sought the explanation for his sorry hero’s actions solely in a character that is none other than his own. It is worth noting that Ellénore is not described at all: Benjamin Constant, that gifted observer, refused systematically to give her any individual traits. She represents the pain of a woman in love, and that alone. The author wanted all of the light to fall on the face of the one who so resembles him, and whose deplorable story is contained in Mme de Beaumont’s analysis of Constant: “Even he cannot love himself.”
“I despise” says Adolphe’s author on the last page of the book, “I despise that kind of conceit that dwells on itself by recounting its misdeeds, that has the pretentiousness of soliciting our sympathy by describing itself, and that analyzes itself instead of feeling remorse as it hovers indestructibly over the ruins . . .” No one has ever uttered a harsher indictment of the abuse of self-analysis; and no one has ever abused self-analysis more than Constant. He even went so far in this dangerous undertaking as to become—as did Baudelaire, and Amiel—a type. That is why Adolphe, even as it represents the most distinctive of self-portraits, is also the most universal of portrayals. Yet in terms of excessive analysis the difference between Benjamin and his two modern brothers is great. The latter, totally lacking any ability to act, continue to be imprisoned in the sphere of pure thought. Their analysis functioned to no purpose, whereas Constant was a seducer and a duelist, a gambler and a politician. But all three had this in common, that all of life’s events provided them with an occasion for a dissection of their feelings, so delicate, so subtle, that those feelings vanished from their hearts to leave only a painful emptiness. Adolphe truly loves Ellénore when first he wins her. To convey the ecstasy he feels in possessing her this least lyrical of men becomes lyrical: “Woe to him who in the first moments of a love affair is not convinced that it will last forever! . . .” he exclaims. And “Who could describe love’s thrall? . . .” Yet ten lines further on—ten short lines—we find mention of the first flaws this soul so ingenious at self-dissection detects in his happiness. The consuming and liquescent joy of shared passion cannot dull the odious acuity of consciousness. One could even consider this the entire drama of Adolphe: the continual destruction of love by thought in the heart of this young man, and the mistress’s continual effort, by dint of passion and affection, to reconstruct the feelings she sees collapsing. When he is with her his love for her returns; when he is away from her he renews his efforts to extinguish that love, until Ellénore, at the end of this singular and, for her, nearly unintelligible struggle, succumbs to an infinite weariness that makes her long for death. She has spent years intoxicated by her own love, thinking all the while that it was theirs. Adolphe uses almost the same terms. She understands it, she feels it, and she writes her heart-breaking letter: “Why do you persecute me? What have I done? . . .” Alas! It is not she that the unfortunate Adolphe has persecuted, but himself; and so it will always be.
If the novel’s only quality were the rigorous character analysis it develops, and in that character a very contemporary malady, it would be admirable. But it would not have, as it does, the charm of a profoundly poetic work, as strange as the term may seem applied to a sort of literary anatomy—yes, poetic, to the same degree as the most beautiful sonnets in Les Fleurs du mal. In these pages one finds more than the withering flame of a mind tearing at an emotion. One finds the vast melancholy of the soul’s solitude. Ellénore loves Adolphe, he loves her; they are both free, close, in each other’s arms, yet separated by an abyss, an abyss whose depth they each plumb in their own way: he, by his inability to find happiness; she, by her inability to make him happy. Not only Baudelaire, in his finest pieces, but also Alfred de Vigny, in texts of transcendent beauty like “Éloa,” like “La Colère de Samson,” like “Moïse,” gave expression to the sadness of this moral solitude that reminds us of a forever incommunicable secret recess within us. How much more bitter Adolphe seems, deprived as he is of the distinction of verse, voluntarily deprived of eloquence, so near to us and to our everyday existence by the simplicity—I was going to say the ordinariness—of his story! Not enough attention has been drawn to how uncomplicated and almost down-to-earth is the plot of this famous novel. A young man from a good family falls in love with a kept woman older than he is and struggles with this impossible relationship: this is what Constant had to work with. And here resides the power of an art form long neglected in France, the psychological novel. Where a social novelist would of necessity have produced something pedestrian and common, the author of Adolphe, by distilling the psychological dimensions of the situation, has succeeded in revealing the tragic aspect of this run-of the-mill adventure. And those of us who read it today find a symbol of our most exquisite anguish in what is after all the most banal sentimental calamity. All of us who have felt our hearts chilled by a misunderstood confidence, those who have loved without being capable of revealing themselves entirely to their beloved, those who in their families, in their friendships, even in their camaraderie have confronted absolute, constant, insurmountable incomprehension, and who have nonetheless not lost their need to pour out their feelings, nor rid themselves of the imprudent spontaneity of attachment, all those—and their name is legion—can return to Adolphe time and time again. They will never tire of this book that lays bare their misery, without a single sentence, a single word, that betokens an author.
For it cannot be overemphasized that this unique masterpiece illustrates perfectly the appropriateness of Stendhal’s remark to the effect that “when one writes, one must find turns of style so precise, and so simple, that upon reflection they admit of no modification.” Had Benjamin Constant, like Stendhal, pondered the rules of literary composition? It is not likely, in his multifaceted career, that he attached much importance to the art of novel writing. But he had lived, he had experienced a great deal, and he harbored an instinctive distaste for the brand of virtuosity that displays the skill of the artist without revealing the heart of the man. He knew that a sincere emotion, expressed without overstatement, will always involve the reader—that is, the reader worthy of consideration—more than any ornaments of style or picturesque quirks. But to find those turns of phrase that no amount of reflection could modify one needs first to have reflected long and hard, and reflected without vanity, not in order to show off one’s strength of mind, but to learn the truth about oneself and others. This is so rare that there are very few works like this one, which contains not one iota of rhetoric. It was the immense virtue of Benjamin Constant’s nature—a nature otherwise so incoherent and so distressed—that he succeeded in remaining totally honest with others and, even more astonishingly, with himself. Baudelaire left in his papers a few singular notes, the poignant fragments of a book he wished to write with the title, borrowed from Poe’s Marginalia, Mon Cœur mis à nu. This painful title could very well be that of Benjamin’s masterpiece, and of his personal diary; that is why not a single one of its pages has aged. I wished to propose an example to illustrate a study of the sensitivity of a man who turned twenty more than a quarter century after Adolphe was written, and Adolphe came naturally to mind. As it will for all those who might be inspired to write about the psychological illness whose definitive monograph this novel is—a monograph as immortal as the human heart.
—translated from the French by Nancy O’Connor