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Baudelaire's Friday 13

A chance reading from Les Fleurs du Mal illuminates the Paris and the humanity that is being attacked.

Armand Séguin Fleurs du mal

Les Fleurs du Mal, 1892. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This morning over breakfast, at a hotel in Prague, I picked the Fleurs du Mal off my Kindle to immerse myself in the Paris of my dreams - Baudelaire's Paris. It opened by meaningful coincidence on L'Examen de Minuit: Baudelaire's account of his own Friday 13.

Baudelaire was immersed in religion - he knew it had formed him; his imagination fed on its images and concepts; he sacralised his life of flânerie through his poems. In L'Examen de Minuit, he describes this uniquely modern miracle of creation, this transubstantiation.

At midnight on Friday 13th, marked by the toll of the 12th bell, he embarks on a self-examination; a confessional. But the call of the confessional he tells us straight up is ironic: it has the weight of ritual, but the poet knows it is only a ritual and, to make sure we get what he's up to, he tells the reader the bell's call is ironic:

La pendule, sonnant minuit,

Ironiquement nous engage

À nous rappeler quel usage

Nous fîmes du jour qui s'enfuit

The clock now sounds its twelfth last stroke,

Ironically it bids us say

To what good use we put this day

Now vanished into vagrom smoke.

 

 Baudelaire plays the confessional hard: like so many city dwellers on a Friday night, be it back then or yesterday, by the standards of religion, he sorely needs absolution:

— Aujourd'hui, date fatidique,

Vendredi, treize, nous avons,

Malgré tout ce que nous savons,          

Mené le train d'un hérétique.

Today, a fateful dateline, sic,

Friday, thirteenth! in spite of all,

We have lived helpless in the thrall

Of sin, a stubborn heretic!

We have behaved as heretics and we can't plead ignorance. And what a night it must have been: 

Nous avons [...]

Baisé la stupide Matière

Avec grande dévotion,

Et de la putréfaction

Béni la blafarde lumière.              


We have with uttermost conviction

Kissed Matter in its vilest essence,

And we have lavished benediction

On the wan glimmer of putrescence.

And now the magic, the flower that blooms in this so-called evil:

Enfin, nous avons, pour noyer

Le vertige clans le délire,

Nous, prêtre orgueilleux de la Lyre,                  

Dont la gloire est de déployer

L'ivresse des choses funèbres,

Bu sans soif et mangé sans faim!...

Finally, drowning vertigo

In stark delirium, shamefully,

We, levites of the Lyre, lo! we

Whose glory was devised to show

Sorrow's brave rapture and grief's spark,

Have feasted without appetite!

The poet has found the short-circuit to the modern soul: he has drunk without thirst and eaten without hunger. He is free to have nourishment without need, intoxication without consequence. He is no longer animal and he did this without God. He has taken control of his humanity.

And what now? Must he go to hell? No ... he can just switch off the light and sleep it off: that is as bad as punishment gets.

— Vite soufflons la lampe, afin

De nous cacher dans les ténèbres!


— Quickly, let us snuff out the light

And hide in the indulgent dark!

The religious concept of evil may have formed him; daily - or at least after a good night out - he examines his soul as the god-fearer should; he knows the charge against him -  blasphemy and license. His Catholic upbringing runs deep. But here is what has liberated him, allowed him to have his cake - his drink - and eat it: the call to prayer was ironic. The exam was his to play with, to turn into glorious poetry. His soul is not God's to order about, it's his. That's how so-called evil blooms into flower.

The victims of Friday 13 in Paris were from Baudelaire's world: one where the human spirit is freeing itself and transforming the antique barbarisms.  

L'Examen de minuit

La pendule, sonnant minuit,

Ironiquement nous engage

À nous rappeler quel usage                                      

Nous fîmes du jour qui s'enfuit:

— Aujourd'hui, date fatidique,

Vendredi, treize, nous avons,

Malgré tout ce que nous savons,

Mené le train d'un hérétique.

Nous avons blasphémé Jésus,

Des Dieux le plus incontestable!

Comme un parasite à la table

De quelque monstrueux Crésus,                        

Nous avons, pour plaire à la brute,

Digne vassale des Démons,

Insulté ce que nous aimons

Et flatté ce qui nous rebute;

Contristé, servile bourreau,

Le faible qu'à tort on méprise;

Salué l'énorme Bêtise,

La Bêtise au front de taureau;

Baisé la stupide Matière

Avec grande dévotion,

Et de la putréfaction

Béni la blafarde lumière.

Enfin, nous avons, pour noyer

Le vertige clans le délire,

Nous, prêtre orgueilleux de la Lyre,

Dont la gloire est de déployer

L'ivresse des choses funèbres,

Bu sans soif et mangé sans faim!...

— Vite soufflons la lampe, afin

De nous cacher dans les ténèbres!

— Charles Baudelaire



Midnight Confessional

The clock now sounds its twelfth last stroke,

Ironically it bids us say

To what good use we put this day

Now vanished into vagrom smoke.

Today, a fateful dateline, sic,

Friday, thirteenth! in spite of all,

We have lived helpless in the thrall

Of sin, a stubborn heretic!

We have blasphemed, denying Jesus,

The one irrefutable Lord!

Sycophant at the groaning board

Of some fantastic monstrous Croesus,

We have, to please the brute, made one

With Demon hordes, and jesting of

The holy truths which we should love,

We have adored what we should shun.

Basely we have heaped melancholy

On the weak man wrongly decried,

We have saluted endless Folly

With its bull's brow and its ram's hide,

We have with uttermost conviction

Kissed Matter in its vilest essence,

And we have lavished benediction

On the wan glimmer of putrescence.

Finally, drowning vertigo

In stark delirium, shamefully,

We, levites of the Lyre, lo! we

Whose glory was devised to show

Sorrow's brave rapture and grief's spark,

Have feasted without appetite!

— Quickly, let us snuff out the light

And hide in the indulgent dark!

— Jacques LeClercq, Flowers of Evil (Mt Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1958)



About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com


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