I haven’t discussed Baudelaire for a while now, which is nothing short of a travesty. Here is another of his infamous banned poems, condemned for being far too explicit at the initial publication of Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857. It’s called ‘The metamorphosis of the vampire’, and it’s fraught with sexual guilt and religious allegory.
Les Métamorphoses du vampire
La femme cependant, de sa bouche de fraise,
En se tordant ainsi qu’un serpent sur la braise,
Et pétrissant ses seins sur le fer de son busc,
Laissait couler ces mots tout imprégnés de musc:
— «Moi, j’ai la lèvre humide, et je sais la science
De perdre au fond d’un lit l’antique conscience.
Je sèche tous les pleurs sur mes seins triomphants,
Et fais rire les vieux du rire des enfants.
Je remplace, pour qui me voit nue et sans voiles,
La lune, le soleil, le ciel et les étoiles!
Je suis, mon cher savant, si docte aux voluptés,
Lorsque j’étouffe un homme en mes bras redoutés,
Ou lorsque j’abandonne aux morsures mon buste,
Timide et libertine, et fragile et robuste,
Que sur ces matelas qui se pâment d’émoi,
Les anges impuissants se damneraient pour moi!»
Quand elle eut de mes os sucé toute la moelle,
Et que languissamment je me tournai vers elle
Pour lui rendre un baiser d’amour, je ne vis plus
Qu’une outre aux flancs gluants, toute pleine de pus!
Je fermai les deux yeux, dans ma froide épouvante,
Et quand je les rouvris à la clarté vivante,
À mes côtés, au lieu du mannequin puissant
Qui semblait avoir fait provision de sang,
Tremblaient confusément des débris de squelette,
Qui d’eux-mêmes rendaient le cri d’une girouette
Ou d’une enseigne, au bout d’une tringle de fer,
Que balance le vent pendant les nuits d’hiver.
The Metamorphoses of the Vampire
Then the woman with the strawberry mouth,
Squirming like a snake upon the coals,
Kneading her breasts against the iron of her corset,
Let flow these words scented with musk:
— “I have wet lips, and I know the art
Of losing old conscience in the depths of a bed.
I dry all tears on my triumphing breasts
And I make old men laugh with the laughter of children.
For those who see me naked, without any covering,
I am the moon and the sun and the sky and the stars!
I am so dexterous in voluptuous love, my dear, my wise one,
When I strangle a man in my dreadful arms,
Or abandon my breast to his biting,
So shy and lascivious, so frail and vigorous,
That on these cushions that swoon with passion
The powerless angels damn their souls for me!”
When she had sucked the pith from my bones
And, drooping, I turned towards her
To give her the kiss of love, I saw only
An old leather bottle with sticky sides and full of pus!
I shut both eyes in cold dismay
And when I opened them both to clear reality,
By my side, instead of that powerful puppet
Which seemed to have taken some lease of blood,
There shook vaguely the remains of a skeleton,
Which itself gave the cry of a weathercock
Or of a sign-board, at the end of a rod of iron,
Which the wind swings in winter nights.
trans. Geoffrey Wagner, 1974
As we know, the femme fatale was one of the staples of Decadent literature. Carnality and sexual desire are aligned with the demonic, and acting on desire produces only destruction and loathing. Once again, a predatory female preys on a passive man. It is interesting to compare this with ‘Allegory’ another of Baudelaire’s poems about a prostitute, but one where the woman remains somehow pure and good in spite of her profession.
I recently finished reading a collection of essays on narcotics by Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, Hashish, Wine, Opium (trans. Maurice Stang). It was an interesting read, not only because it provided insight into the experimentations made by members of the Decadent movement with certain drugs, but also because it provided a wonderful contrast between the attitudes and literary styles of the two French masters.
In his introduction, Derek Stanford writes about how drug use heavily influenced the use of ‘synaesthesia’ – a blending of the senses – frequently used in Decadent writing. Smells are seen in colour and music has a taste. He also comments on the different ways the subject matter is approached by the two writers – Gautier as a poet, Baudelaire as a scientist. These differing attitudes become even clearer upon reading the essays.
Gautier emphasises the fantastical, spiritual elements of drug consumption in his three essays (which are really more semi-autobiographical works of fiction), ‘The Opium Pipe’, ‘The Club of Assassins’ and ‘Hashish’. He dwells on the wonderful – and sometimes terrifying – visions that the consumption of narcotics provides, and indicates that they can be a source of artistic inspiration.
“I could hear the very sounds of the colours. Sounds which were green, red, blue or yellow, reached my ears in perfectly distinct waves” (p.59).
Baudelaire, on the other hand, was clearly not an admirer of narcotic drugs, preferring the ‘consoling’ influence of wine. Gautier witnessed Baudelaire’s attendance at a couple of the drug parties he attended, but wrote that his fellow poet was often only there as an observer: “This happiness, bought at the chemists, was repugnant to him.” Indeed, Baudelaire’s essay ‘Wine and Hashish’ (which can be seen as a prelude to his book Les Paradis Artificiels), is particularly damning of the use of narcotics. Written in the acerbic style which initially attracted me to Baudelaire, the essay is often highly amusing in its criticism of aspects of humanity that the poet found especially distasteful. On the use of narcotics, he writes:
“Hashish is not favourable to action. It does not console like wine; it merely develops to an immoderate degree the human personality in the circumstances in which it finds itself at a given place and time” (p.89).
I enjoyed the book. The use of drugs in the 19th century and its influence on art and literature is a topic I find very compelling, and it’s interesting to examine the attitudes of two of the great frontrunners in the Decadent movement towards the subject.