And the dog, wagging his tail, which in these poor beasts, I believe, corresponds to laughter and a smile, approaches and sets his moist nose curiously on the opened perfume bottle; then, fearfully recoiling all of a sudden, he barks at me, in the manner of a reproach.
‘Oh! Miserable dog, if I had offered you a package of excrement, you would have sniffed it with delight and perhaps even devoured it. Thus you, unworthy companion of my sad life, you yourself resemble the public, to which one must never present the delicate perfumes that infuriate it, but rather carefully chosen filth.'”
(“The Dog and the Perfume Bottle”)
“carefully chosen filth” I’ve seen also translated as “meticulously selected garbage” – and this gives us another lens thru which to read “Le Spleen” – illuminating the tastes of the times, a remnant Gothic sensibility finding modern forms – my addiction to CSI and Law & Order (and Poe and Dostoevsky) a further tribute to this.
“What bizarre things does one not find in a great city, when one knows how to walk around and look? Life is swarming with innocent monsteres. — Lord my God! You, the Creator; you, the Master; you, who made Law and Liberty; you, the sovereign who lets things come to pass, you, the judge who pardons; you who are so full of motives and causes, and who perhaps put in my spirit a taste for horror in order to convert my heart, as the cure is found at the tip of the blade; Lord, have mercy, have pity on madmen and madwomen! Oh Creator! Can there exist monsters in the eyes of He who alone knows why they exist, how they were made, and how they might not have been made?” (“Miss Scalpel”)
Here the poet does not have a documentarian empathetic agenda, but instead the poet becomes a “collector” of garbage and catastrophic “curio” – the modern city as a fetish playground. This is not to say that this side of B. negates any ethic, they “twain” thruout – moments when the collector asks “Que Faire?” – the fetish emptied for that moment.
In the poem, “The Generous Gambler,” the narrator has a pleasant evening with the Devil (Dostoevsky style):
“We also talked about the universe, about its creation and about its future destruction; about the great idea of this century, that is to say, of progress and perfectability; and, in general, about all of the forms of human infatuation. […]
He explained to me the absurdity of the different philosophies which had, up to the present, taken possession of the human mind, and even deigned to confide to me several fundamental principles whose benefits and propriety it would not be appropriate for me to share with anyone. He did not complain in any way about the bad reputation he enjoyed all over the world, assured me that he himself was the person the most interested in the destruction of superstition, and admitted to me that he had only been afraid for his own power one time, and that was the day when he had heard a preacher, more subtle than his colleagues, shout out from the pulpit:
‘My dear brothers, never forget, when you hear the progress of enlightenment vaunted, that the devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist!'”
“Le Spleen” pivots now as a project against the great idea of “progress and perfectability” – these prose poems act as evidence against progress, against the “crystal palace.” In this, there is an embedded social critique – a collaboration with the devil to prove that he does exist, that he cannot not exist in the modern carnival.
So then what is the poet’s role? documentarian? fetish collector? heretic? what is personally at stake for the poet?
In the poem “Crowds”, B. articulates another stance:
“Not everyone can take a bath in the crowd: enjoying the crowd is an art — and he alone can go on a drunken spree at the expense of the human race who has been visited by a fairy in his cradle and had breathed into him a taste for disguises and masks, a hatred of home, and a passion for travel.
Multitude, solitude: two equal and exchangeable terms for the active and fertile poet. He who does not know how to people his solitude, also does not know how to be alone in a busy crowd.
The poet enjoys this incomparable privilege: that he can, as he chooses, be himself and another. Like souls that wander in search of a body, he enters, whenever he wishes, into the person of others. For him alone, all is vacant; and if certain places appear closed to him, this is only because in his eyes they are not worth the trouble of visiting.
The solitary and pensive stroller derives a singular drunkenness from this universal communion. He who easily marries the crowd knows feverish pleasures, of which the egoist — closed like a strongbox — and the lazy man — confined like a mollusk — will be eternally deprived. He adopts as his own all of the professions, all of the joys, and all of the miseries presented to him by circumstance.
What men call love is very small indeed, very restrained, and very weak, compared to that ineffable orgy, to that sacred prostitution of the soul that gives itself entirely — poetry and charity — to the person who appears unexpectedly, to the unknown passerby.
It is sometimes good to teach the happy people in this world, if only to humble for an instant their stupid pride, that there are happinesses superior to their own, happinesses more vast and more refined. Founders of colonies, shepherds of men, missionary priests exiled to the ends of the earth, all undoubtedly know something about these mysterious intoxications. And, in the heart of the vast family made by their genius, they must sometimes laugh at those who pity them for their so troubled destinies and their so chaste lives.”
What is at stake here is emerging from Ennui thru this intoxication. There is a lot of Whitman here – this idea of occupying the other to understand the other, of encompassing all through poetry – various scenes from Song of Myself come to mind and are perhaps not so different than these short prose pieces… this poem also highlights a particular response to globalization and modernization: how does one deal with the new crowds? the multitude(s)? COLONIZE THEM! imagine them as “vacant” and enter as you wish great poet! satisfy your passion for travel and people the empty other! “Je est un autre” is another way of saying that the other can be owned. That the Western all-seeing “I” can experience the intoxication of “universal communion” without worrying about the destruction of universal communion. The last paragraph of this poem proves the point: colonists, slave traders, missionaries as the experts on these “mysterious intoxications” as the authorities on how the poet should deal with the multitude(s) —
Meticulously selected garbage.