Roberto Calasso

from la folie

baudelaire was a lover of depth, understood in the strictly spatial sense. He waited, like some marvel always ready to flare into being, for certain moments in which space eluded its customary flatness and began to reveal itself in a potentially inexhaustible succession of stage wings. Then things—every single negligible object—suddenly took on an unexpected significance. In those moments, he wrote, “the exterior world offers itself with a powerful emphasis, a clearness of outline, a wealth of exquisite colors.” As if to say that thought was possible only when the world presented itself in this way. These were also “the moments of existence in which time and extension are more profound, and the sentiment of existence has grown enormously.” So, in Western terms, Baudelaire was getting close to describing what for Vedic seers, and later for Buddha, was bodhi, the “awakening.” And in an equally literal Western spirit, he made this coincide with physiological awakening, with the moment in which “the eyelids have just been unburdened of the sleep that sealed them.” This is what drugs are for: opium makes space deep (“Space is deepened by opium”), while hashish “spreads over the whole of life like a magic varnish” (perhaps similar to Vauvenargues’s comment “clarity is the vernis des maîtres”?). Yet Baudelaire also pointed out that drugs are only a surrogate for physiology, since “every man carries within himself the right dose of natural opium, which he unceasingly secretes and renews.”

But why should the opening up of the depths of space be such a precious phenomenon for thought? Baudelaire reveals this in passing: “the depth of space, an allegory of the depth of time.” An illuminating example of the use of analogy. Only when space opens up in a succession of planes where single figures stand out with an inebriating and almost painful sharpness, only then does thought manage to seize, albeit fleetingly, something of that which is its first and last object: time, Father Time who eludes and watches over all things. Allegory is the artifice that serves to effect this delicate transition. And it is this that may reveal to us what Baudelaire was talking about when he spoke of “the deep of years.” An expression at once evident and mysterious, it also appears in decisive passages in his work. It presupposed the existence—also perhaps allegorical—of a character who, faced with the “monstrous increase of time and space,” was able to contemplate it “without sadness and without fear.” Of this character one might have said, “He looks with a certain melancholy delight through the deep of years.”

In days in which his major concern was to redeem from the pawn-shop some items of clothing that had been resold in the meantime— except for the garment he considered “the most indispensable, a pair of pants”—Baudelaire received from Fernand Desnoyers an invitation to send him “some verses on Nature” for a slim volume he was producing. Baudelaire did not try to get out of this; in fact, in the end he contributed to the book—which was a tribute to Claude-François Denecourt, known as le Sylvain, the discoverer and tutelary spirit of the forest of Fontainebleau—two poems and two small prose poems. But he accompanied the poems with a letter of uproarious persiflage, which seemed aimed not so much at poor Desnoyers, an exponent of the bohème chantante, as at a vast assembly of future worlds. What was he supposed to write about? asks Baudelaire. “About the woods, the great oaks, the greenery, the insects—and, I imagine, the sun?” Now the tone is insolent. Baudelaire moves on to a statement of principle: “You are well aware that I am incapable of waxing emotional over plants and that my spirit is impervious to this singular new religion, which will always have, I believe, a certain hint of the shocking about it for every spiritual being.” Here his divinatory powers are manifest, behind the sardonic phrasing. Already we glimpse naturism, the form of intellectual handicap that emerged in the terrain of the sensibilities stretching from Rousseau to Senancour and later spread out in successive waves until it finally became a powerful economic enterprise. Baudelaire knew perfectly well that he was not talking about a harmless fashion of the Parisian bohème, but a “singular new religion.” He anticipated the cult of the vacances, the deferential tone with which the word was to be uttered one hundred and fifty years later, and the blinkered reverence for “sanctified vegetables.” Baudelaire was not one to encourage this cult. And obviously nature had nothing to do with it. If there was a poet who knew how to name nature, on those rare occasions when he was permitted to see it—and this right from the overpowering sight of that lake in the Pyrenees to which he dedicated one of the poems of his youth—that poet was Baudelaire. But the idea that Nature, once it had donned the capital N and was accompanied by a retinue of noble emotions, returned to spread itself over everything like the very image of Good was not for him, who so often found himself out of phase with even the commonest atmospheric manifestations—so much so that he wrote, “I have always thought, moreover, that in Nature, flourishing and rejuvenated, there was something impudent and distressing.”

But Baudelaire’s excesses with regard to Nature conceal something else—the golden thread of the poetry that was to be called modern, a thread interwoven with baser stuff into a luxuriant skein, but that sometimes disentangles itself from all the rest and resounds on its own. This happened in another letter, written eighty-two years after Baudelaire’s, by another poet (Gottfried Benn to his friend Friedrich Oelze). With the same apparatus of harmonics and dissonances, with the same sovereign indifference and insolence: “Herr Oelze, once again the great fraud of nature is clear to me. Snow, even when it does not melt, offers little in the way of either linguistic or emotional ideas; all its undoubted monotony can easily be mentally liquidated from home. Nature is empty, deserted; only the petits bourgeois see something in it, poor dolts who must constantly go for a stroll in it... Flee from nature, it ruins the thoughts and is notoriously harmful to style! Nature—feminine in gender, obviously! Ever ready to squeeze out seed and use man for coitus, to exhaust him. But is nature natural?”

The “Nature” that Baudelaire talks about in “Correspondances,” the one woven from analogies like an immense spider web, is that sacred, secret nature whose presence most people never even notice. Whereas the “Nature” (still capitalized but in italics) that Baudelaire rejects sarcastically in his letter to Desnoyers was the recent belief that embraced “the actions and desires of the pure natural man”—and it could not be other than “horrendous,” even though the epoch tended to paint it in idyllic hues. That there may be a contradiction between venerating the first and execrating the second of these two Natures could become a torment only for Benjamin, still burdened by an Enlightenment inheritance that obliged him to see in sacred, secret nature—that of myth—only a Verblendungszusammenhang, a “context of delusion,” as Adorno would have defined it, employing to the utmost the potential of the German language. So the case was not that Benjamin discovered an invincible contradiction in Baudelaire. It was that Baudelaire invited Benjamin to explore a territory that otherwise aroused in him an arcane terror. Like a child singing in the dark, Benjamin then wrote that precisely in that zone it was necessary to “penetrate, with the sharp ax of reason, and without looking to left or right, in order to avoid falling victim to the horror, which draws one from the depths of the forest.” That exploration was never brought to a conclusion—and no “sharp ax” would have served against what Benjamin described as “the brushwood of delirium and myth.”

That there is no contradiction between Nature strewn with “forests of symbols” and Nature as man’s fundamentally tainted constitution— insofar as the latter is only one of the many parts of the former— emerges with complete clarity in the ending of the letter to Toussenel, where Baudelaire hints at how, in the animal kingdom, “baleful and loathsome beasts” could be none other than “the vitalization, the materialization, the blooming of man’s wicked thoughts” into material life. And here the circle closed, bringing Swedenborg and Joseph de Maistre together: “In this way all of nature takes part in original sin.” If nature is born permeated by sin, man’s privilege cannot be that of introducing sin into the world, but only of elaborating upon it. To give it form—and this was already a first definition of literature. And so Baudelaire’s covert metaphysics reconnected to the Vedic theory of sacrifice, which he could not have known about (very few of these texts were available at the time). For this reason, too, Baudelaire was the most archaic of the moderns.