Baudelaire bent beneath his lamp intently. I quote him:
The title of my intensest work, Flowers of Evil, says everything. I am all declared in this paradox. It was gestated with the patience of an elephant’s child, which labors 14 months in the womb before its gigantic birth, the size of a black coup caught in a rain of elemental perfumes. I am positive it is worth all the lies I have told to see it to print; it is also, I may mention, almost worth all the truths I have had to suffer to bring it off in rage and patience. People… their faces go up in flame when they read it. And yet, they deny me everything. All the glory that they were so willing to load down Satan with, they leave me bereft of, although they declare me his disciple. Hypocrites! I am tired, even, of seeing through their terrible, tepid hearts—pale as the starved spit of a saint! Willess imbeciles. The virtue of my trepanned treatise lies exactly in its faults, and these may all be summed up in one singular, monstrous phrase: it is honest!
So my friend commented to his maman in 1849, writing under a shaky lamp on trembling parchment, in an absolute livid fury the night before he was to stand trial in front of the justice of France on charges of what were, in retrospect, irrefutable immorality. His brow was like an egg, with a caricature of hatred drawn in shadowed lines above the black, bleak coals of his eyes.
“Let my poems revenge me after my death!”
In his agitation, Charles had knocked his bottle of squid ink to the floor.
“Yes! stain the globe with death!”
He smiled at the wicked thought.
“Yes, after all, why not? Why not the death of all of France for this effrontery? How can they be so prodigal of their good credit in the eyes of posterity? What credit have they accrued through just acts? None! I witness it! I have staked my life on my poems, so why shouldn’t they?”
He laughed and sent the black bottle sailing at a cat, his Jeanne’s Chuchu, with the toe of his shoe.
And to think, the other day I heard de Banville, waiting for his mistress by the theater stagedoor, in the mode of the poete mal, attest to me that, “of all the young poets of today… it is Baudelaire alone who lives, although he is dead!” I was livid at his insolence. What right had he to speak of Baudelaire at all, now that the great man was dead–this peon who had hated him so much in life? That I did not strike him is to me an eternal shame. And yet, I confess, I was such a coward, so much of a hollow spirit, so empty of heart, that I merely concurred when he went on or averr, “he, he is the one one looks to, the one I read at midnight for dark consolation when I find my trivial life too hateful.”
How many hours have I spent turning the honored pages of that sacred book of his myself, seeking just such pardon of the passing hours! In that heavy binding always on my table were the impeccable sonnets and chansons of Hell, written in blood by the Prince Himself.
Time and again, Charles had railed at me about how the poet is the most debauched and blessed of men. A sinner with the conscience of a saint: a god with a velvet hide in incessant need of stroking. ‘It would not be a vice, if it were not attractive.’ Indeed, and we would be liars to say that at all times we stayed away from its low, red, embracing light that stains our features in a supple glow, as if we could witness the birth of our own souls from the mass confusion of sensations life bombards us with. Charles would shudder at his own feelings of attraction, at the strange enchantment fervent prayers might throw over a murder to make it more… delicious. On such subjects, such sensations of the innermost man, he could discourse for hours, and time with him would pass away like a dream until only the dawn and exhaustion would put an end to his explorations. I would then excuse myself and search feebly for the door out of his apartments, with only the vaguest sense of which planet I was on, while at my back, he would laugh like an infernal incarnation, instructing me still:
“Sleep is death, Bonadventure. Let the absinthe uncurl your nerves into this faultless blue sky, the same one that will shine down on you in your tomb when your friends gather to tell spiteful tales about your existence one last time to your insensate face!”