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Paris, Poetry and Power of Symbols

Published: 12th Sep 2021 12:15 am

By Pramod K Nayar

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Poetry has often had to engage with the horrors of industrialisation or imperialism. The English Romantics’ antipathy towards railway lines is well known. As industrial modernity continued on its unstoppable way, cities like Paris and London were transformed from the inside out. Alongside machines, industrial complexes and urbanisation, poets also observed poverty, delinquency and exploitation. The novels of Charles Dickens come to mind here for their devastating portraits of London. Arthur Conan Doyle in A Study in Scarlet (1887) would describe London as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”. A similar account may be found in the opening passage of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Well before all these, from across the Channel, a poet would describe the Parisian landscape thus:

“My garret view, perused attentively,
reveals the workshops and their singing slaves,
the city’s masts — steeples and chimneypots —
and above that fleet, a blue eternity …”

The images of city-slavery, skyscapes and the freedom embodied in the blue sky constitute some of the most powerful symbolic representations of industrial modernity. 

2021 marks the bicentennial of this poet’s birthday, one who remorselessly but with anguish, mapped a declining Paris, and created a corpus of work that inspired poets and critics alike, from Edgar Allan Poe to Walter Benjamin: Charles Baudelaire.

The erosion of the city, in its pursuit of style, fashion and comfort, provides Baudelaire with the source of his best-known volume, Flowers of Evil

A Tormented Life

Born in Paris in 1821, Baudelaire grew up alienated from his mother (who had married again after the death of his father) and studied law. Whatever he received as an inheritance, he spent quickly. Leading a debt-ridden, dissolute life, mixing with artists, prostitutes and dilettantes in equal measure, Baudelaire began publishing art reviews under a pseudonym, in addition to writing for newspapers. A novel followed, and a volume of poems in 1857 which immediately generated interest and controversy. Through the later years, a steady output of poetry, plays, reviews and essays established his reputation, although he battled poor health (and debt) constantly. Baudelaire died in 1867, after a paralytic attack that left him bed-ridden for about two years. Joanna Richardson’s Baudelaire (1994) is a treasure trove of anecdotes and serves as a detailed chronology of Baudelaire’s literary production.

Richardson’s summary of his life more or less sets the tone for interpreting his work: “He recorded, time and time again, the misery of Parisian life, the longing for escape, for the unknown, even for annihilation. He was contemptuous of himself, of his own imperfect body, his own tormented soul; and yet he felt obscurely that his torment was his spiritual capital, his wealth, which was to fructify.”

Baudelaire’s oeuvre has been studied by some of the best known names in literary and cultural criticism: Roland Barthes, Andre Gide, Walter Benjamin, TS Eliot, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, Erich Auerbach,Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Valery. It would seem that in order to provide an address for oneself, to establish oneself, the critic had to mark the route as “via Baudelaire”.

Dark Blossoms

Baudelaire wishes to explore, and render into poetry, the seamy underbelly of Paris. Walking the streets, and thus introducing for posterity the trope and character of the flâneur (“one who observes society”), Baudelaire immortalised the city’s sins and sinners. Flowers of Evil appeared in 1857, and shocked, amused and impressed his contemporaries, including the English Tennyson. As one of the earliest recipients of the volume put it, “You have chosen Hell, you have made yourself a devil. You have tried to tear their secrets from the demons of the night”.

Baudelaire is interested in the seamy, smelly and sordid aspects of Paris, and its demented inhabitants in their pursuit of pleasure

Baudelaire was above all else repulsed by boredom, or ennui, as it was called then. The ennui of conversations, of the city’s so-called civilisation, the banality of the everyday could only be redeemed through something outstandingly evil, devilish or at least impish (the first section, which sets the tone, is titled “Spleen and Ideal”). In his prefatory poem to the volume, Baudelaire would address the reader:

“I speak of Boredom which with ready tears

dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.
Reader, you know this squeamish monster well,

hypocrite reader, my alias, — my twin!”

Elsewhere in “I Prize the Memory”, he would speak of the “the charm of listlessness” that seduces the Parisian.

Corruption, of the flesh and of the soul, are Baudelaire’s obsessions, although he sees the suffering as a method reaching heaven. Consequently, his poetry is full of lush, visceral, affective images, often bordering on the repulsively corporeal reminiscent of Rabelais. Sensuality, which accompanies the sensory, is Baudelaire’s realm as he speaks of “odors succulent as young flesh”. Because of such images Baudelaire is often treated as the propagandist of sensual poetry (paralleled in a different fashion in the Pre-Raphaelite movement in the late Victorian era, in the work of the Rossettis, for example).

The city’s demise is captured in this same theme of corruption:

“Old Paris is gone (no human heart

changes half so fast as a city’s face)

a swan that had broken out of its cage,

webbed feet clumsy on the cobblestones,

white feathers dragging in the uneven ruts,

and obstinately pecking at the drains,”

Paris’ “secrets run in these defiled canals”, and one constant image in Baudelaire’s volume is the city’s “filth” (the word occurs numerous times). The people who traverse the city are dirty, immoral and uncouth:

“The dens that specialize in gambling fill

with trollops and their vague confederates,

and thieves untroubled by a second thought

will soon be hard at work (they also serve)

softly forcing doors and secret drawers

to dress their sluts and live a few days more.”

There is no “Nature”, only the denuded, deluded and degraded nature of the city. Baudelaire’s urban Gothic imagery goes from strength to strength in the volume, as he describes vampirish scenarios, death and decay.

“Sometimes I feel my blood is spilling out
in sobs, the way a fountain overflows.
I know I hear it, sighing as it goes,
and search my flesh, but cannot find the wound;

it turns the stones to archipelagoes,

as if the city were a battleground,

slaking the thirst of every living thing

and dyeing all the world of nature red.”

Baudelaire would symbolise the humans seeking pleasure as blind, unable to see what they have descended into:

“Consider them, my soul: how hideousI

Eerie as sleepwalkers, vaguely absurd
as dummies are — dummies that can walk,

blinking their useless lids at nothingness.

Their eyes are quenched, and yet they seem to stare

at something, somewhere, questioning the sky

and never bending their benighted heads

in reverie toward the cobblestones.

What difference between their infinite dark

and the eternal silence? Round us all,
meanwhile, the city sings, and laughs, and screams,

mad in pursuit of pleasure…”

For this city, the devil is the presiding deity. In “Satan’s Litanies”, Baudelaire would express a Miltonic reverence for Satan, and seeks absolution from him:

“Who sets your sign, in sly complicity, upon the rich man’s unrelenting brow…

Who lights in women’s greedy hearts and eyes worship of wounds, rapacity for rags…

The outlaw’s staff and the inventor’s lamp, confessor to the traitor, hanged man’s priest…”

He then pleads with Satan: “Satan, take pity on my sore distress!” – which is the refrain throughout the poem.

Undoubtedly, much of this splenetic imagery and description is driven by a nostalgia for a Paris of old, which would be, in contrast with today’s, an innocent city. 

Powerful Symbolism

Known for some extraordinarily powerful symbolism, and some charming ones (see for example, his description of cats: “Dozing, all cats assume the svelte design/of desert sphinxes sprawled in solitude/apparently transfixed by endless dreams”), Baudelaire inspired Edgar Allan Poe, the French and English symbolists (including TS Eliot, who would not only bring cats into the Prufrock picture in his famous poem, but also write an entire volume on “Practical Cats”).

The power of symbols was unleashed to its utmost in Baudelaire’s melancholic oeuvre – and was adopted by numerous poets in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

For the distinguished critic Walter Benjamin, seeking to study the rise of modernity, Baudelaire was the quintessential “modern” writer. Benjamin, grounded in Marxist thought, treated Baudelaire’s criticism of commodities, the “phantasmagoria” — illusions produced by the shiny settings, but also photography that alienates and deludes the viewers, in Benjamin’s view — of the fashionable arcades and markets (Benjamin was working on his unfinished study of Paris, titled The Arcades Project). Benjamin would write about Paris: “The world exhibitions glorified the exchange-value of commodities. They created a framework in which their use-value receded into the background. They opened up a phantasmagoria into which people entered in order to be distracted. The entertainment industry made that easier for them by lifting them to the level of the commodity. They yielded to its manipulations while savouring their alienation from themselves and from others.”

For Benjamin, Baudelaire refusing to be misled by such phantasmagoria, instead allowing Paris’s horrors to inscribe themselves on his senses. The resultant gloom is almost spiritual. He writes in his essay: “Doesn’t the title [“Spleen and Ideal”] mean that it above all whose gaze is fixed on. the Ideal, and that it is the Images of melancholy that kindle the spiritual most brightly?”

Describing Baudelaire as the flâneur, Benjamin argued that Baudelaire was mapping the death of the city: “It is the unique provision of Baudelaire’s poetry that the image of woman and the image of death intermingle in a third: that of Paris. The Paris of his poems is a sunken city, and more submarine than subterranean. The chthonic elements of the city —  its topographic formations, the old abandoned bed of the Seine-have evidently found in him a mould. Decisive for Baudelaire in the “death-fraught idyll” of the city…”

The city’s obsession with the “new” — of visuals, fashion — says Benjamin, produces the “ever recurrent”, infinitely replicating without a solid, authentic substrate. And it is the mad pursuit of this illusion of newness that Baudelaire despaired of.

For some commentators, such as Patrick Greaney, the urban poor in texts like Baudelaire’s or Benjamin’s, represent power too — both productive and destructive, in terms of the potential for revolution. As social commentator, Baudelaire exposes the horror behind the gaiety and the wealth. The celebrity critic Susan Sontag wrote about Baudelaire: “The flâneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations — an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life that the photographer “apprehends”, as a detective apprehends a criminal.”

Haunting, cruel, deeply disturbing, and with echoes of the predecessor chronicler of the metropolis (William Blake in “London”), Baudelaire’s work has never ceased to amaze and repel. To return to the sordidness he mapped is to discover that poetry is not about beautiful sunsets, colourful rainbows and daffodils dancing in the breeze. Poetry is about disquieting revelations, speaking truth to power, about putting together portraits of the dispossessed, the deluded and the denied. Later, TS Eliot, WH Auden, Ezra Pound and numerous moderns would walk along the Baudelairean path to describe the “wasteland” of contemporary life.

Charles Baudelaire’s tragic life, his encounters — at a huge price — with the disaffected and the demented, produced one of the most significant works of poetry in modern times. As Flowers of Evil continues to haunt readers, on the occasion of his 200th birth anniversary, the only possible praise for this melancholic chronicler of urban modernity, is to appropriate what TS Eliot said of William Blake: “his poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry”.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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