Friday, November 28, 2008


28/29  November

                "Car c'est vraiment, Seigneur, le meilleur témoignage
 Que nous puissions donner de notre dignité
    Que cet ardent sanglot qui roule d'âge en âge
 Et vient mourir au bord de votre éternité!"

                 --lines from Baudelaire's "Les Phares" inscribed on his                            statue in the Luxembourg gardens

It was really thanks to my friend Steve that I got back to Baudelaire. I had brought along a cheap copy of "Les fleurs du mal," but hadn't spent much time with it. But the text Steve sent me of Roy Campbell's lurid and convincing translation of "Au Lecteur" got me going, and I've been pulling out my little paperback late at night, on the métro, waiting in ticket lines, even lying in bed first thing in the morning. It becomes atmospheric, that world peopled by demons and saturated with a powerful nostalgia for what never existed except in the imagination. 

I also gradually began to take special notice of this statue of Baudelaire as I ran around the Luxembourg gardens. I hadn't noticed him at all the first few times--I was getting my second wind at that point, not sight-seeing--but now I make a point of greeting him, and he me. I take photos of the statue when I walk past it--I have an extensive, all-weather set. I also drop by his grave now and then, here in Montparnasse, and that single faded red rose on his tombstone is the one I put there. 

I had never paid much attention to his poem "Les Phares"--"The Beacons"--but I went back to it after I found its final quatrain inscribed on the base of his statue. In it the poet makes a strange and uncanny visit to his art museum of the mind, starting with the "amnesiac river" that is "Rubens" ("Rubens, fleuve d'oubli"), and continuing on through singular descriptions of Rembrandt, Leonardo, Goya. Eventually he arrives at "Delacroix, bloody lake haunted by evil angels" ("lac de sang hanté des mauvais anges"). I have to admit that I don't for the most part recognize these Old Masters in his phrases. Perhaps scholarship could help me, but I doubt it. These are paintings as seen by the poet and no one else--a visionary gallery. Not even paintings, they are signals, pointing outward, sounding the alarm, or drawing us back, if like the "hunters" he goes on to mention, we should lose our way. 

I don't exactly identify with these iconic figures from art history, either in Baudelaire's poet's vision of them, or my own. But at the end of the poem they become generalized into the outcry of "a thousand sentinels," or better yet, "a thousand loud-speakers" ("porte-voix," if you'll pardon the anachronism). Here I begin to see myself: could I be one of these loud-speakers, these "signal-fires lit in a thousand citadels"? Not that I could claim the singularity of vision the poet ascribes to his artist-beacons, or by implication to himself. But I do hope that these scattered observations of a place, Montparnasse, of Paris, and of a movement to build a better, more equitable society, might like Baudelaire's phares "bear a higher witness," as the poet says, "to our human dignity." 

But for now it's au revoir to all that, or better, à la prochaine.  

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home