Here’s Charles Baudelaire in his younger, dandy days. This other, more famous, portrait of him was taken when he was much older, ill with syphilis, in pain, and really sick of life. Instead of just writing about being sick of it, that is. Just kidding…
Mal du siecle, mal de vie, fleur de mal, the city, Paris, ennui, alienation, disgust, such a positive guy this Charles. He and his symbolist, decadent, bohemian flaneur crew. Walking around a part of NYC the other night, a part that I was not familiar with and that retains the look of a much older city, I felt transported for a moment back into that time/mindset of Parisian spleen.
It was dark, damp, a bit foggy. The streets were cobblestoned. People rushed along now and then to their homes, their families, their dates. A woman’s heels clicked and echoed down the way. A man’s shoes made that pleasant gravelly grinding sound on the wet pavement that I have always loved so much. Fleeting laughter, blasts of music and light from a few cafes. I was alone, on my way to someplace, and late, and I felt the loneliness that I associate with being on my own in a foreign city. You can be alone in a very intense way when you are surrounded by thousands of people in a city who all have something to do and somewhere to go where they are expected, and you’re just wandering.
Is this how Baudelaire felt as he tramped about Paris? He was so sensitive to everything he saw and heard and smelled. He was alive to the fascinating texture of urban life, but you can’t say he celebrated it! Not that he could have lived anywhere else, no. He just complained, and wrote poems in which he begs to be released to “anywhere out of this world!”
Sad men, these brilliant poets I like so much. They would have scorned normal, middle-class (i.e. bourgeois) happiness. Were they capable of it? I wonder if they were capable of love at all. Was Charles’ problem that he couldn’t love a woman? Like Flaubert couldn’t. The Goncourts. Huysmans…so many others. Misogyny runs like a river at flood through the culture of the fin de siecle. Men, brought up at a time when the old structures of life, sex roles, expectations were crumbling away, but not yet replaced by something totally new. Their minds seem to have been about fifty years behind the times when it came to women, and the women were enough like their mothers to really confuse things. The fresh, independent Gibson Girls were still a generation and an ocean away. They were caught in the middle, and they couldn’t deal with it.