allegorical distancing

“Academic muse get away! I don’t need that old prude. I invoke the familiar muse, the city muse, the lively muse, so that she will help me sing of good dogs, pitiful dogs, muddied dogs, those everyone shuns, as striken with plague and vermin, except the pauper whose colleagues they are, and the poet, who considers them with a fraternal eye […]

I sing of catastrophic dogs, of those who wander, alone, in the sinuous ravines of huge cities, and of those who tell abandoned people, with winks and witty eyes, “take me along, and out of our two miseries perhaps we’ll create a kind of happiness.” (“The Good Dogs”)

Finally read Baudelaire’s The Spleen of Paris. His translations of Poe permeates this collection, and further established the almost suffocating influence that Whitman and Poe had on French Modernism…one could trace the conflicting strains: on one hand Baudelaire, Mallarme, Reverdy, Michaux — on the other Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Cendrars, Saint-John Perse (and of course various intersections).

Anyways, The Spleen takes us through the “sinuous ravines” of the modern city, capturing modernization’s “catastrophic dogs” – many of the pieces attain to the condition of fable/allegory as opposed to documentary (although sometimes the line blurs):

“The little, shrivelled old woman rejoiced to see the pretty child over whom everyone was fussing, whom everyone wanted to please — this pretty being, like the little old woman so fragile, and also like her, toothless and hairless.

And she approached him, trying to simper and make pleasant faces at him.

But the terrified child struggled against the caresses of the good, decrepit woman, and filled the house with his howling.

The good old woman then retired into her eternal solitude, and she cried in a corner, saying to herself: — ‘Ah! We unfortunate old females are past the age to please, even the innocent; and we horrify the little children whom we wish to love!'” (“the old woman’s despair”)

There is just enough reality to support the fable…which is where the poems are most convincing and powerful to me. At other times, the fable overpowers:

“Under a huge gray sky, on a huge dusty plain, without paths, without grass, without a thistle, without a nettle, I came upon several men walking along bent over.

Each of them was carrying an enormous Chimera on his back […] Yet the monstrous beast was not an inert weight. On the contrary, she enwrapped and subjugated the man with flexible and powerful muscles; with her two huge claws she hooked onto the breast of her mount; and her fabled head topped the mans’s forehead […]” (“To each his Chimera”)

It is clear what this has to do with city life…and frightening driving through downtown SF now and seeing invisible Chimeras and the backs of the homeless. it is in those moments that Baudelaire’s project comes into focus – where we can more clearly locate his fetish:

“Public gardens have pathways haunted mainly by disappointed ambition, unfortunate inventors, thwarted fame, shattered hearts, by all those tumultuous and secretive souls in whom a storm’s final sighs still rumble, and who retreat far from the insolent gaze of the joyous and the idle. These shady refuges are meeting places for those maimed by life.

Poets and philosophers love to direct their avid speculations especially toward those places. A guaranteed fodder is there […] they feel irresistibly swept toward everything that is weak, ruin, saddened, orphaned.

A practiced eye is never wrong. In those rigid or dejected features […] it immediately deciphers innumerable legends of love decieved, of unrecognized devotion, of unrewarded efforts, of hunger and cold humbly, silently, endured.” (“The Widow”)

Guaranteed fodder: “une pâture certaine.” innumerable legends: “les innombrables légendes.” do i make fun of Baudelaire too much for fetishizing (sp?) “le spleen” – for exoticising the “catatrosphic dogs” into legend.?.. perhaps there is some genuine concern with those “maimed by life” that these poems capture … they create empathy, which is most lacking in the city (althogh i’m not about to compare Baudelaire to Rukeyser or Reznikoff or Darwish).

From the poem “The Old Acrobat,” this strain between empathy and curiosity (emphasis on the CURIO) is powerfully enacted amidst a street carnival:

“All was light, dust, shouts, joy, tumult: some spent, others won, the former and the latter with equal joy. Children hung from their mothers’ skirts, begging for a candy-cane, or got up on their fathers’ shoulders, the better to see a juggler as dazzling as a god. And circulating everywhere, overwhelming all other scents, the odor of fried food, which is the very incense of this festivity.

At the end, at the very end of a long row of booths, as if — ashamed — he had exiled himself from all of these splendors, I saw a poor mountebank, stooped, decrepit, leaning his back against one of the posts of his hut, a hut more miserable than that of the most most brutalized savage, and whose poverty was illuminated yet all too well by two dripping, smoking candle butts.

Everywhere joy, success, debauchery; everywhere the certainty of bread for tomorrow; everywhere the frenetic explosion of vitality. Here, absolute misery, misery decked out — as a crowning horror — in comic rags, upon which need rather than art had introduced contrast. He didn’t laugh, this poor wretch! He didn’t cry, he didn’t dance, he didn’t gesture, he didn’t shout; he sang no song, either happy or sad; he didn’t plead. He was mute and immobile. He had renounced, he had abdicated. His fate was fixed.

But what a probing, unforgettable gaze he paraded upon the crowd and the lights, whose moving swell stopped just a few steps from his repulsive poverty! I felt my throat clutched by the terrible hand of hysteria, and it seemed to me that my sight was clouded by those rebellious tears that do not wish to fall.

What to do? What good would it do to ask this unfortunate man what curiosity, what marvel he had to show me in these stinking shadows, behind his torn curtain? In truth, I didn’t dare; and, even if the reason for my shyness should make you laugh, I must admit that I feared to humiliate him. Finally, I had just decided to place a few coins on one of his planks as I passed, hoping that he would divine my intentions, when a great crush of people, produced by some sort of commotion, dragged me far away from him.

And, turning back, obsessed by that vision, I sought to analyze my sudden sorrow, and I said to myself: I have just seen the very portrait of the old man of letters who has outlived his generation, which he had brilliantly amused, of the old poet without friends, without family, without children, degraded by his misery and by the ingratitude of the public, and into whose booth the forgetful world no longer wishes to enter!”

the question “What to do?” “Que faire?” is an important moment in this poem, in the entire project. it determines Baudelaire’s positionality in relation to the “catastrophic dog.” it also determines how the reader’s empathy will intimate the moment. Although B. dismisses the good it might do to enter the “stinking shadows” – I pose the question again… what good would it do? would a more embedded documentary further humanize the old acrobat? Is B.’s distance allegorical? is him being swept up in the crowd a social critique? the last paragraph attempts to make the moment allegorical…to create a distanced legend of the old acrobat as the “poet.” B’s “fraternal eye” for those maimed by life feels sincerely empathetic, but how much more powerful if he did enter the man’s shadows, and not out of curiosity, but out of a documentarian compassion. Do we still feel sorry for the old man after he is allegorized as the poet? …

This “allegorical distancing” is also present in the poem “Windows”:

“Over the billows of the roof tops, I see a mature woman, already wrinkled, poor, always bent over something, and who never goes out. Using her face, using her clothing, using almost nothing, I rewrote the story of this woman’s life, or rather her legend, and sometimes I recount it to myself and cry.

If it had been a poor old man, I would have rewritten his just as easily.

And I go to bed, proud of having lived and suffered in others than myself.

Perhaps you will say to me: ‘Are you sure that that legend is true?’ What does it matter what reality might be outside of myself, if it helps me to live, to feel that I am and what I am?”

[To Be Cont…]


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