A supreme and unnerving lack of sentimentality, that was his gift. Dull, regular and virtuous as a tax-clerk in that respect. But, ah! How he yearned to find something of goodness in his constitution… but he wouldn’t lie about the fact that he didn’t! A tiger looking in a mirror sees a tiger. A dandy staring into that silver abyss, sees the dwarfish agglomeration of all of humanity’s shortcomings. He might stare for hours, telling me, or, more likely, his priviledged self, “I am the only object of my own affections, my love stains only myself…” And then, perhaps after a pause of ten minutes or more, having undergone some disturbing revolution in his thoughts, with a ragged breath, he would annunciate in a harsh whisper, “beast, fauve!”
“Gautier! Is it better to gaze with a pitiless eye at a scab, or to tell yourself you are in the best of health?”
“Please, Charles, it is a disgusting thought. Would you care to see my new verse romance? Dangers, thrills! A real cliffhanger.”
Then, as though I were not there, as if his voice issued from the throne of God in imperishable rectitude:
“This man searches for his vices away from home.”
“By the deity, what do you mean?”
“In my heart are Abyssinias and lions, terrors, and the thief-cheats of virtues, exchanging, by their exact machinations, curses across the burning churchyard of my soiled veins.”
You see the sort of frustrating friend he could be. And this sort of abuse, or insight (I could never keep straight which it was, not even to myself!) was interrupted only by bouts of the most desolate, creaking sobriety, absolute dustbowls of interior work, when not so much as a sigh would escape the man. And that, after you had traveled all day to be in his company, at his express invitation!
The distractions and miseries of Paris afforded him his only outlet at such times. His sadness, which made the grand chandelier in his rooms project black beams at noon, was greater, and perhaps nobler, than the crepes and sorrows of his contemporaries. He was sad for all men by being sad for himself alone, the imperfections of his coarse body, the ‘smashed assets of my rotten soul.’ Yes, here on the Rue Voltaire, lived a martyr of all mankind! It is true, my friends.
Sainte-Beauve, that constipated critic, declared that he had discovered in the sadness that spurted from Baudelaire’s pages, ‘the final symptom of a sick generation.’
If only we could all bear our portion of that sickness as incandescently as did Baudelaire, perhaps we would be free today of this deadweight of guilt that pulls our tired skeletons into the slough of despond, while still no less animated by the muscles that sink us, and yet cry out to be transformed into wax feathers and transcendent wings!