With Sade and Masoch the function of literature is not to describe the world, since this has already been done, but to define a counterpart world capable of containing its violence and excesses.
One of the great stumbling blocks for English speaking readers who come for the very first time to Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is the title itself, translated into English as The Flowers of Evil. It is the last little word which causes the whole problem, as it offers no real insight into the book at all, or at least only proffers a very superficial one which soon wears thin. Mal in French also refers to pain, and it was very much this theme which I wanted to accentuate in the transversions. For all too long the sadistic nature of Baudelaire’s poetry in English has been the subject of enquiry, and I wished to underline what I felt was his more essential masochism. Through this lens I think we get much closer to the essence of the poems, and so to the very heart of the man.
Fifteen years ago a girl who I had been going out with for over five years, split up with me. She was young, intelligent, beautiful and very French. It remains to this day the most painful experience I have ever been subjected to. I remember the day, all those years ago, when her sister’s boyfriend, mon beau frère, realising how much I was suffering, wrote me a letter in which he urged me to take heart, as this experience, he explained, would probably be the makings of me as a poet. And, in true French style, he urged me to consider the case of Baudelaire! I remember hating him for saying it at the time, as I knew in my heart that what he said was true. The muse, for Baudelaire, is a Dominatrix! All his poems are steeped in it – PAIN.
In Samuel Beckett’s final great attempt at the novel in French, Comment C’est, he presents the human paradigm in its most grotesque parody. Taking Plato’s famous myth of Ephialtes and Otus – the offspring of the moon -, Beckett uses their story and the idea of scissiparity, aligning it with Hegel’s master and servant dialectic, to create a kind of Dantesque parody of human sexuality. It is Baudelairean in the nature of its sado-masochism; torturer can just as easily turn to victim in the blinking of an eye. The poet, once so masterful standing contemptuously above his charge, is soon to be found, himself grovelling pathetically, addressing his beloved on his knees. All of the human comedy is laid bare for us the readers, who are also implicated.
The origins of Baudelaire’s profound masochism can be found in the first poem after the prologue in the collection, Benediction.
When, by a decree of supreme power,
The Poet appeared into this atrocious world,
His Mother, full of disgust and outrage,
Raised her fists skyward, and hurled the following:
“Ah! If only I had delivered a nest of vipers
Instead of having given birth to this abomination!
Cursed be the night of ephemeral pleasure
When my womb ever conceived of such an expiation.
And because you chose me, out of all women!
-to the utter disgust of his step-father-
And because I can’t just… delete him
Like some unwanted email (the stunted freak)
I will rekindle all of the hatred which overwhelmed me,
Through the medium of his accursed verse,
And destroy the miserable plant,
So that it might never itself be able to proliferate.
So here is the origin, according to the poet, of his original damnation. Baudelaire’s relationship with his mother, like Beckett’s, was a very difficult one. This was mainly due to the fact that the poet, rather like Hamlet, could never reconcile himself with the man his mother married after the death of his beloved father. And this tension with his mother he brings to all of his subsequent relationships with women; hence the sado-masochism. Perhaps nowhere can this be illustrated better than in the poem The Ideal, once again taken from the Spleen and Ideal section of Les Fleurs du Mal, and where all the poems in The Enemy come from.
Not for me those ‘beauties’ from Hello or Cosmo!
Those insect creatures, products of a Photoshop age.
Those brodequin limbs, n’ mantis stalking fingers
Could never satisfy a heart like mine.
I’ll leave them to the paparazzi, the poets of chlorosis,
To serve up the babbling troupe of surgically refined horrors.
For, I can’t for the life of me distinguish among those pale roses
A specimen who resembles the richer hues of my ideal carnations!
What it really craves, my abyssal heart, deep to its very core,
Is you Lady Macbeth, a soul powered too in crime,
A dream of Aeschylus, hatched from the climes of a mistral.
Or you, also, great night, daughter of Michelangelo,
Set in the androgynous pose of the ignudi,
Yet whose tits are fashioned for only the mouth of a Titan.
As in the transversion of Benediction, with its reference to emails, in The Ideal I have updated certain references in the poem, which for purists perhaps will be a reprehensible affront! But this book was never conceived to be read by purists, rather it hopes to target English-speaking readers who do not have enough French in order to appreciate the original, but who would like to get some idea of the brooding menace which pervades the original poems in French. For this reason, I have replaced certain historic details, such as all mention of the fashionable painter and illustrator Paul Gavarni who appears in the original, replacing him with twenty first century equivalents, as the original reference today would simply be lost. This is Baudelaire for today’s Facebook and Twitter generation.
But to return to the subject at hand, Lady Macbeth, like some middle-aged Amazon in a photograph by Helmut Newton, is to be considered Baudelaire’s ideal muse. No sooner does the word Amazon cross our lips than we are in familiar modern territory. The Enemy is full of Amazon. There is even a poem Duellum depicting two fighting to the death. The idea of female strength, not weakness, is constantly underlined. In the poem The Dominatrix, which is originally titled La Géante, the poet’s perception is clearly likened to that of one under the influence of alcohol or very powerful drugs, his vision being so distorted, caught up in the funk of one of his many fantasies of female domination.
I wish to return to Vico’s first age,
When nature first produced her prodigious giants.
Then, like some voluptuous cat,
I would like to curl up at the feet of some sublime Dominatrix.
To be able to see both her magnificent body and her soul mature,
And to grow with her and her exquisite tortures;
To divine whether, or not, her heart instils the flame
Which governs her desires, and which hang also like smoke about her eyes.
To be allowed to explore every part of her topography,
Her knees an Everest and Matterhorn potentially!
And then, in the summer, when the evil sun
Sheds its light across her perilous crags,
To be allowed to sleep easily upon her sheltering breasts,
Like a peaceful Sherpa, happy in his tent.
Once again, the ‘great’ nudes of Helmut Newton spring to mind, the famous fashion photographer who, more than anyone, brought Baudelaire’s nineteenth century French aesthetic into the later half of the twentieth century, influencing so profoundly our notion of feminine beauty today. Perhaps nowhere can this newfound feminine aesthetic, based upon power rather than weakness, be illustrated better than in Hymn to Beauty, in which the poet’s fetishism and masochism come fully to the fore.
XXI. Hymn to Beauty
O Beauty, did you come from the sky profound,
Or from the abyss? Your look both infernal and divine,
Verse confusion, benevolence with crime,
So that we can compare your effect on men with that of wine.
Within your eye is contained both dusk and dawn,
Your perfume is atomised in the night storm,
Your kisses are a filter, your mouth a carafe
Which makes men weak, and children courageous.
Did you descend from some black hole, or from some comet?
Destiny, charmed by you, follows like a dog,
You sew, by chance, both joy and catastrophe,
And you govern everything, answering to none.
You walk over the dead, Beauty, whom you mock;
Among your many jewels Horror is not the least charming,
And Death is among your most valuable heirlooms,
Which I have seen you cavorting with on your belly.
Ephemeral marvels gravitate towards your candelabra,
Crackle, flame, and say; “Bless this fire!”
Panting the lover leans towards his beloved,
A mere mortal caressing his tomb.
From heaven or hell where do you come from,
O Beauty? Enormous monstrosity, hideous ingénue!
Can your eyes, your smile, your foot open a door
To the infinite that I have yet to know?
Angel or demon? Who cares which one you are
As long as you – elf with the velour eyes-
Rhythm, perfume, glimmer, my soul Queen;
Show me a universe less hideous and heavy as this.
Peter O’ Neill is the author of four previous collections of poetry: Antiope (Hammer & Anvil, 2013), The Elm Tree (Lapwing, 2014), The Dark Pool (mgv2>publishing) and Dublin Gothic (Kilmog Press, 2015). The Enemy, is available on Amazon.