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The Sensualities of Surrealism

The Sensualities of Surrealism

Charles Baudelaire is for everyone; his sibilant decadence, his sultriness, his eroticism. In the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin dedicated a book to Baudelaire’s vision in the emergence of modernity. Baudelaire crystalized a frenetic lyricism, in ardor, in tumult. He wrote, “the splenetic cupola of the sky,” and “the boisterous sun beating a tattoo upon his windowpane.”

Baudelaire was equally suited to a life in solitary refuge or on a busy thoroughfare, carousing and translating Poe. And he remains the archetype for modernity. The surrealists named him a forebear. And Sophie Calle draws on his streetwalking for her feminist performances. Baudelaire epitomizes what Emerson called, “the rhapsodic.” And James Schuyler’s Morning of the Poem begins with the image of Baudelaire’s skull, “which stands for strength and fierceness, the dedication of the artist.”

The new translation of Charles Baudelaire, Invitation to the Voyage, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic is a welcome reminder of the poet’s fierceness and strangeness.

The sensual coexists alongside a strange attraction to the schematic. Across his majors works, “The Spleen of Paris,” and “Invitation to the Voyage,” Baudelaire develops axiomatic allegories. There are recurring visions: time, the sea, the crowd, love, fate. In Man and the Sea, he evokes the oceanic submission, “Free men, you will always cherish the sea/ It is your mirror; in its endless roll/ you contemplate your soul/ and regard yourself no less bitterly./ …Both of you are circumspect/ Man, no one has sounded your abysses; Ocean, no one knows your inmost riches,/ Intent as you are on keeping your secrets.”

And draws a parallel in the modernist city crowd, “Not eveyone has the gift of losing themselves in a throng of people: loving crowds is an art; and only someone whose good fairy bestowed on him a taste for travesty and masks, a hatred for domesticity and the love of travel, can, at the expense of humankind, feast on a crowd’s vitality.”

He sings the song of intoxication, in “The Soul of Wine,” “For I feel an immense joy when I glide/ Down the gullet of some work-worn fellow,/ And his warm breast for me a soft bed/ I much prefer to my clammy cellar.”

And in the contemporary translation “Get Drunk!” “If you don’t want to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; never stop getting drunk! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue as you like.” And he captured the eroticism of certain gloomy gothic traditions, so beloved by the surrealists. In “A Phantom,” he writes about the smells of seduction and musk:

“Reader, tell me, have you ever at dusk

Slowly, avidly, dragged on the crumb

Of incense that fills a church, or some

Old sachet of the inveterate musk?

A deep cham, magical: spellbindingly

In the present the past to us is restored!

So the lover from a body adored

Picks the exquisite flower of memory.

From the resilent, dense mass of her hair,

A living sachet, the boudoir’s censer,

Rose a fragrance, savage and animal,

And, muslin or velvet, her dresses all

Were drench with a youth so pure

Even they gave off a scent of fur.”


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The poet of modern times still drags us through the streets and voyages of revery. But there’s more, a sadness and existential terror, or “an oasis of horror in a desert of ennui,” as Baudelaire states.

In her translator’s introduction, Brahic writes: “But the sensual Baudelaire needs the bitter, compassionate, desolate Baudelaire.”

Before this, I was most familiar with the Wallace Fowlie translations of Baudelaire. And that writing feels a little stiff, compared with Beverley Bie Brahic’s work.

In the canonical, “Invitation to the Voyage,” Brahic updates Fowlie. She writes, “Love then expire/ In a land as fair as you are!/ The damp suns that rise/ In those misty skies.”

This feels fluid and energetic compared with the Fowlie, “Loving and dying/ In the land that bears your resemblance!/ The wet suns/ Of those disheveled skies.”

Some of the updates might cause nostalgia pangs. Brahic replaces, “You must always be intoxicated.” with “Get drunk.” Simple and direct.

But her work is masterly. Her “Autumn Song,” is a revelation, “Winter is going to repossess my soul–/ Anger, hate frissons, horror, drudgery,/ And like the sun caught in its polar hell/ A red frozen lump’s what my heart will be.”

This is significantly clearer and more fluid than Fowlie’s, “All of winter will gather in my being:anger,/Hate, chills, horror, hard and forced labor,/ And, like the sun in its polar hell,/ My heart will be only a red icy block.”

Baudelaire is our modern imagination, and Brahic’s work does a service expanding his vision in a contemporary voice.

Invitation to the Voyage
By Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic
Seagull Books
Published Jan. 1, 2020

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