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17 March 2010

Baudelaire (3) - sadism

Well, durr, no prizes to me for spotting a sadistic strain in Les Fleurs du Mal. I'm going to look at two poems which are both too long to quote in full: "A celle qui est trop gaie" and "Une martyre".

The first is in "Spleen et idéal", while the second is in the second part of the collection, "Les Fleurs du mal".

"A celle qui est trop gaie" was one of the poems condemned by the legal process against the 1857 edition for offence to public morality. Baudelaire's note suggests that the judges thought it had a reference to syphilis. Initially the poem is a basic love/hate lament: the loved one is too happy; why can't she share the poet's misery? Just like a bright garden can lead him to crush a flower underfoot, so her beauty can lead him to cruelty and violence, albeit only imagined. But how imagined! These are the last three quatrains (of nine).
Ainsi je voudrais, une nuit,
Quand l'heure des voluptés sonne,
Vers les trésors de ta personne,
Comme un lâche, ramper sans bruit,

Pour châtier ta chair joyeuse,
Pour meurtrir ton sein pardonné,
Et faire à ton flanc étonné
Une blessure large et creuse,

Et, vertigineuse douceur!
À travers ces lèvres nouvelles,
Plus éclatantes et plus belles,
T'infuser mon venin, ma soeur!

Thus I should like, some night,
When the hour for pleasure sounds,
To creep softly, like a coward,
Toward the treasures of your body,

To whip your joyous flesh
And bruise your pardoned breast,
To make in your astonished flank
A wide and gaping wound,

And, intoxicating sweetness!
Through those new lips,
More bright, more beautiful,
To infuse my venom, my sister!
Again, that's the straight translation by William Aggeler.

It's hard to read and hard to translate. The basic meaning is blatantly sadistic, and even if we say that everyone has violent thoughts, the expression of them here is detailed. It's worth looking at some of the other translations.
And so, one night, I'd like to sneak,
When night has tolled the hour of pleasure,
A craven thief, towards the treasure
Which is your person, plump and sleek.

To punish your bombastic flesh,
To bruise your breast immune to pain,
To farrow down your flank a lane
Of gaping crimson, deep and fresh.

And, most vertiginous delight!
Into those lips, so freshly striking
And daily lovelier to my liking —
Infuse the venom of my sprite.
(Roy Campbell)
Likewise, some evening, I would creep,
When midnight sounds, and everywhere
The sighing of lovers fills the air,
To the hushed alcove where you sleep,

And waken you by violent storm,
And beat you coldly till you swooned,
And carve upon your perfect form,
With care, a deep seductive wound —

And (joy delirious and complete!)
Through those bright novel lips, through this
Gaudy and virgin orifice,
Infuse you with my venom, sweet.
(George Dillon)
Thus I would wish, one night,
When the voluptuary's hour sounds,
To crawl like a coward, noiselessly,
Towards the treasures of your body,

In order to correct your gay flesh
And beat your unbegrudging breast,
To make upon your starting thigh
A long and biting weal,

And, sweet giddiness,
Along those newly-gaping lips
More vivid and more beautiful,
Inject my venom, O my sister!
(Geoffrey Wagner)
I think there's a general squeamishness about "Une blessure large et creuse", which Aggeler translates quite straightforwardly as "A wide and gaping wound". Actually "deep" would be better than "gaping", but nonetheless, at least he depicts it with the same kind of forensic accuracy that the original has. Compare it with "a lane of / Gaping crimson, deep and fresh" or "a deep seductive wound".

"Une martyre" purports to (and perhaps does) describe a drawing by an old master, depicting a corpse lying on a bed, its head removed and placed on a "table de nuit". Reading this the first time I didn't notice that the gender of the body isn't explicitly revealed until late in the poem. Before then there have been suggestions, growing in strength, but I'm sure you can already guess that it turns out to be a woman. A young, beautiful woman, at that. And I didn't deliberately try to guess, but I knew well before the explicit revelation ("Elle est bien jeune encor!").

So, the woman in the painting has been killed. The poet ponders how she died:

L'homme vindicatif que tu n'as pu, vivante,
Malgré tant d'amour, assouvir,
Combla-t-il sur ta chair inerte et complaisante
L'immensité de son désir?

Réponds, cadavre impur! et par tes tresses roides
Te soulevant d'un bras fiévreux,
Dis-moi, tête effrayante, a-t-il sur tes dents froides
Collé les suprêmes adieux?
The vengeful man whom you could not with all your love
Satisfy when you were alive,
Did he use your inert, complacent flesh to fill
The immensity of his lust?

Reply, impure cadaver! and by your stiffened tresses
Raising you with a fevered arm,
Tell me, ghastly head, did he glue on your cold teeth
The kisses of the last farewell?
(Aggeler's translation)
Again, there's the notion that love finally expresses itself in extreme violence.

It's disturbing obviously, but unlike some of the translations we have to look at it straight on. I don't think you can avoid the conclusion that in both these poems women's bodies are seen as capable of giving pleasure but that may need to be at the cost of their lives. I think, on the whole, it's better to be dehumanised by being seen as a mountain, than by being killed or wounded. In all cases, however, there is a move to deny the independence and will of the woman; they are troublesome.

Good grief, I'm liking Baudelaire the person less and less the more I read of Baudelaire the poet.

1 comment:

Xamyul of Florin said...

well I think he is opening a window into the deep abysses of his heart, rather than plotting an assault