Thanks to my Coursera (I should really write about that site) course The Modern and the Postmodern from Wesleyan University, I’ve had the good fortune of reading some fantastic texts from Immanuel Kant, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Darwin, Charles Baudelaire and right now Friedrich Nietzsche (I’ll be posting on his work soon). Yesterday I read the amazing Paris Spleen from Charles Baudelaire, a collection of prose poetry, short anecdotes, and bursts of phantasmagoric imagery. Here’s the preface to put the context for the reader:
For Arsène Houssaye
My dear friend, I am sending you a small work that cannot, without injustice, be said to have neither head nor tail, for all in it is, on the contrary, at one and the same time head and tail, alternately and reciprocally. Consider, I beg of you, what admirable conveniences this combination offers to all of us — to you, to me, and to the reader. We can cut things off wherever we wish: myself, my revery; you, the manuscript; the reader, his reading, for I do not suspend his stubborn will upon the interminable thread of a superfluous intrigue. Take away one vertebra and the two ends of this twisted fantasia will rejoin themselves without any trouble. Chop it up into many fragments, and you will see that each one can exist in isolation. In the hope that a few of the pieces will be lively enough to please and amuse you, I dare to dedicate the entire serpent to you.
I have a little confession to make to you. It was as I was thumbing through, for at least the twentieth time, Aloysius Bertrand’s famous Gaspard de la Nuit (doesn’t a book that is known to you, me, and some of our friends have the right to be called “famous”?) that I was struck by the idea of trying something analogous, and of applying to the description of modern life, or rather of a modern and more abstract life, the approach he applied to the painting of life in the past, so strangely picturesque.
Who among us has not, in his more ambitious days, dreamed of the miracle of a poetic and musical prose, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and abrupt enough to adapt itself to lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to sudden leaps of conscience?
This obsessive idea owes its birth above all else to the frequenting of enormous cities, to the criss-crossing of their innumerable relations. Did you yourself, my dear friend, not attempt to translate into song the strident patter of the street-seller of glass, and to express in a lyrical prose all of the distressing suggestions that his cry sends up through the street’s highest fogs, to the very garrets?
But, to tell the truth, I am afraid that my envious desire has not brought me good fortune. As soon as I began this work, I realized that not only had I remained very distant from my mysterious and brilliant model, but also that I was doing something (if it can be called “something”) singularly different, an accident that might make anyone else but me proud, undoubtedly, but that can only profoundly humiliate a mind that considers it the greatest honor of the poet to accomplish exactly what he set out to do.
Your very affectionate,
Since the work in this collection is perfectly suited for the kind of reader that prefers quick bite-sized pieces of art rather than longform writing, here are a couple of excerpts from Paris Spleen:
1. The Stranger
— Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love the best? Your father, or your mother, or your sister, or your brother? — I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.
— Your friends?
— You are using a word whose meaning remains unknown to me to this very day.
— Your country?
— I do not know under what latitude it lies.
— I would love her gladly, goddess and immortal.
— I hate it as much as you hate God.
— Well then! What do you love, extraordinary stranger?
— I love the clouds … the passing clouds … over there … over there … the marvelous clouds!
33. Get Drunk
You must always be drunk. That is everything: it is the only question. To not feel the horrible burden of Time breaking your shoulders and bowing you towards the earth, you must get drunk without cease. But on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you like. But get drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy solitude of your room, you wake up, your drunkenness already diminished or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that flees, that moans, that rolls, that sings, that speaks, ask what time it is: and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will answer: “It’s time to get drunk! Not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk without cease! On wine, on poetry, on virtue, as you like.”
8. The Dog And The Perfume Bottle
“– My beautiful dog, my good dog, my dear little doggie, come over and smell this excellent perfume, purchased from the best perfumer in the city.”
And the dog, wagging his tail, which in these poor beasts, I believe, corresponds to laughter and a smile, approaches and sets his moist nose curiously on the opened perfume bottle; then, fearfully recoiling all of a sudden, he barks at me, in the manner of a reproach.
“– Oh! Miserable dog, if I had offered you a package of excrement, you would have sniffed it with delight and perhaps even devoured it. Thus you, unworthy companion of my sad life, you yourself resemble the public, to which one must never present the delicate perfumes that infuriate it, but rather carefully chosen filth.”
I highly recommend that you read all the other stories because they have the refreshing potency of descriptive writing mixed with the surrealism of a tortured Frenchman. You can find Paris Spleen in its totality here.