Paris Spleen: Baudelaire (1869)

“Wickedness can never be excused, but there is merit in knowing we are wicked; the one vice beyond redemption is to do bad things out of stupidity.”

Paris Spleen had sat on my shelf for some years, and while it’s ostensibly Baudelaire writing about Paris and various aspects of all levels of French life, it’s also a look inside Baudelaire’s head. This was published posthumously in 1869 and it includes prose pieces on a wide range of topics from being drunk to an observation of two children playing.

Paris spleen

On the first page, Baudelaire had my attention; he addressed Arsène Houssaye, arguing for the merit of the prose pieces, that  “each survives on its own.”

We can break off where we choose, I my reverie, you the manuscript, the reader his reading; for I have not tied his reluctant  will to the interminable thread of some pointless plot.

Some of the pieces are very short–less than a page; some are observations of human behaviour while others are centered on nature.

In The Double Room, just over two pages long, Baudelaire describes a bedroom, and the languid, sensual description begins with the bedroom as a pleasant place, but that soon changes:

And that fragrance of another world, which sent my seasoned sensibility reeling, has been displaced, alas, by the rank odour of tobacco mixed with god knows what stomach-turning damp. Now lungs breathe rancid desolation.

In this reduced world, so full of disgust, just one familiar object consoles me: the phial of laudanum, old and frightful mistress–and like all lovers, alas abundant with caresses and betrayals.

Ah indeed, Time is back, and reigns supreme now; and that hideous old personage has brought all his fiendish retinue of Memories, Regrets, Fits, Phobias. Anguish, Nightmares, Rage and Neuroses.

I could quote a lot from this book. There are times I liked Baudelaire and I agreed with him and there were times I thought it was hard being Baudelaire. Ultimately however, this is a thinker who analyses his feelings for us, his fortunate audience. Anyway, there’s a lot to chew over here; a friend who died insane, the beauty of nature, whether or not humans possess “innate goodness,”  why people do horrible things, and the sadness and tortures of life. Yes, it’s Paris and Parisian life, but it’s also a glimpse into the mind of Baudelaire. This is best dipped into rather than read at one sitting. I read at night and Baudelaire gave me a lot to think about as I drifted off to sleep.

Vauvenargues says that in public gardens there are walks haunted mainly by failed ambition, ill-starred inventors, unachieved fame, broken hearts, all those wild, barricaded souls in the last throes of a storm and who retreat far from the insolent gaze of laughing wasters. 

Translated by Martin Sorell




Filed under Baudelaire Charles, Non Fiction

5 responses to “Paris Spleen: Baudelaire (1869)

  1. I’m curious: what’s the title in French?

  2. PS I just looked it up via Goodreads: Google Translate says Le Spleen de Paris means The Spleen of Paris, and our C21st meaning of ‘spleen’ is bad temper or ill humour (as in ‘vent your spleen’, get your bad temper off your chest).
    But my French dictionary tells me that ‘spleen’ means ‘melancholy’, which sounds much more like what you have talked about in your review…

  3. Looked in intro and the translator says “The French text of Le Spleen de Paris on which my translations are based is that of C. Pichois in his 1975 edition of the complete works or Baudelaire.”
    Apparently B. toyed with the title Le Rodeur Parisien or Prowler around Paris.

  4. Thanks for this! I have a long love-hate relationship to CB. i still have my French edition of Spleen that I bought in Paris 40 years ago.

    It’s so hard to get a handle on him. We know his portrait, from when he was old, bald, and dying of syphilis, but we rarely see his photo from when he was a young dandy. He could be…silly…as with his looong tribute to Constantin Guys (who?), but then, he was writing a new sort of criticism. He wrote about modern life in the city, as you point out so well, but he could be a real whining pain. He was a sexist and misogynist, but what literary man of his time was not? And he changed the way poetry and prose were written.

    Was he ever happy? Did he even understand the possibility of happiness..? And finally, he introduced E.A. Poe to France, and brought about the many illustrated editions of Poe that I now collect! Whaataguy!

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