My Heart Laid Bare by Charles Baudelaire

Rainer Hanshe, in his informative and engaging introduction to his translation of My Heart Laid Bare, describes Baudelaire’s purpose in writing this odd journal of sorts:

As an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note and extended reflection, it is the arc of thought, the play of a mind in its everything breadth that is bared. It contains Baudelaire’s exhortations on work, faith, religion and politics, excoriating sociological analyses, diatribes on literature…, the arts, love (women, prostitution, sadomasochism, erotics en generale), and adumbrations of his concepts of the Dandy and the Poet.

This edition contains, in addition to a translation of My Heart Laid Bare, a selection of Baudelaire’s other scattered writings, ideas, fragments and aphorisms. The selections range in size from single sentences, to pieces that are two or three pages . Sometimes Baudelaire just writes a list, such as this one (I especially liked Baudelaire’s colorful use of Latin in this entry):

Portrait of the Literary Rabble
Doctor Estaminetus Crapulosus Pedantissimus. (Estaminetus, a crappy little, very pedantic doctor= my translation) His portrait made in the manner of Praxiteles.
His pipe.
His opinions.
His Hegelianism.
His filth.
His ideas on art.
His bile.
His jealous.
A pretty picture of modern youth.

Similar to someone keeping a journal or a diary, Baudelaire writes about whatever is on his mind on any particular day so there is no particular order or progression to the writer’s thoughts. Certain recurring patterns of topics that weigh on his mind, however, do emerge from the text. On a personal level, he writes about money and the stress of not having enough income to support himself. There is a sense of loneliness that also pervades his entries with many brief comments like this one: “Feeling of solitude, since my childhood. Despite the family,—and among my comrades, above all,—feeling of an eternally solitary destiny. However, a very keen taste for life & for pleasure.”

Another common thread that is related to his sense of loneliness is his struggle with his work as a poet and a translator. He is happy when he mentions Edgar Allen Poe, from whom he takes his title My Heart Laid Bare. There are countless passages in which he talks about the value and honor of work. But Baudelaire, who was always poor and liked to engage in various debaucheries, was not known for his work ethic. These entries felt to me more like he was trying to convince himself rather than his reader that hard work is important in a man’s life: “Do every day what duty and prudence want. If you work every day, life will be more bearable. Work six days without relent.”

As Hanshe mentions in his introduction, one of Baudelaire’s greatest struggles—if not his greatest—is with women and by extension love and relationships. He often equates the opposite sex with images of Hell and Satan and even a female writer like George Sand he doesn’t consider very smart or worthy of the title of author. There is an array of what I found to be amusing sections of his thoughts on the fairer sex. For example, “Woman does not know how to distinguish the soul from the body. She is simplistic, like animals.—A satirist would say that it is because she has nothing but a body.”

And:

Woman is the opposite of the Dandy.
Therefore she must inspire horror.
Woman is hungry and she wants to eat. Thirsty and she wants to drink.
She is rutting and she wants to be fucked.
Beautiful merit!
Woman is natural, that is abominable.
Thus, she is always vulgar, that is, the opposite of the Dandy.

As a result of a woman’s nature, love is oftentimes described as a torment. In one of his longer entries he writes:

I believe that I have already written in my notes that love has a strong resemblance to an act of torture or to a surgical operation. But this idea can be developed in the muost bitter manner. Even if two lovers enamor one another very much and are full of reciprocal desires, one of them will always be calmer or less possessed than the other. He or she is the surgeon or the executioner; the other is the subject, the victim. Do you hear those sighs, the preludes of a tragedy of dishonor, those groans, those cries, those rales? Who has not uttered them, who has not irresistibly extorted them?

He also equates love with prostitution in more than one entry:

What is love?
The need for self-abandoment.
Man is a worshipping animal.
To worship is to sacrifice and prostitute oneself.
Therefore all love is prostitution.

Finally, my concentration for activities like reading is still not what it was since lockdown and transitioning to online teaching. But reading My Heart Laid Bare was the perfect book to take in and absorb a little bit at a time, in the same way that Baudelaire composed it. Speaking of pandemics, there are two final passages I would like to share that seem relevant to the current situation around the world. Baudelaire writes about politics and journalism. Both quotes I am sharing have no need of comment and I will let them stand on their own:

On Politics:

Need I say that what little remains of politics will struggle painfully in the clutches of general animality, and that those who govern will be forced, in order to maintain themselves & to create a phantom of order, to resort to means that would make our present-day humanity although so hardened, shudder?

On Journalism:

Every newspaper, from the first to the last line, is only a tissue of horrors. Wars, crimes, thefts, impudicities, tortures, crimes of princes, crimes of nations, crimes of individuals, an intoxication of universal atrocity. And it is with this disgusting aperitif that civilized man accompanies his every morning meal. Everything, in this world transudes crime: the newspaper, the wall, & the face of man. I do not understand how a pure hand can touch a newspaper without a convulsion of disgust.

7 Comments

Filed under French Literature

7 responses to “My Heart Laid Bare by Charles Baudelaire

  1. Him supporting his mother? Hmmm, methinks it was the other way round. He was constantly demanding money from her and others. Aside from that, this sounds like just the right kind of read for these times. Fragmented self-talk is about all I can take in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. He’s not wrong in those last two quotes, is he?

    And fragmented might be the way to go for me as I veer from intense bouts of reading to not being able to pick up a book…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your observations, Melissa, and I’m glad you found MHLB the perfect book to imbibe in the Year of the Plague. Such is the case with many fragmentary works.

    Regarding the mother question MarinaSofia points to, how you characterize that isn’t accurate. Baudelaire never speaks in the book of supporting his mother; in each of those passages you refer to, he is carefully enumerating *his* debts: to her, to his lover Jeanne, to others. Glory for Baudelaire in part consists in being able to pay those debts, and thus be free, and free of the threat of imprisonment, which was a real and serious threat during his time (but one of his many reasons for fleeing to Belgium). Imagine if Americans were imprisoned for debt — 90% of the country would be in jail. In any event, Baudelaire’s publisher, Poulet-Malassis, was incarcerated for the ‘crime,’ first in the Clichy debtors’ prison, than in the harsher Madelonnettes Prison, where De Sade and Chamfort were both confined during the French Revolution. Not a pleasant place to be, to say the least, especially for a Dandy. Take into consideration too that Devil’s Island was opened just then, and many of its original prisoners included republicans who opposed Napoléon’s coup d’état. Having friends who were imprisoned only made the possibility ever more palpable for the poet.

    Nonetheless, the economic situation is pitifully ironic, if not tragic. To say that Baudelaire was constantly begging for money from her is to neglect to realize that what he was ‘begging’ for was his own inheritance. Despite not being a minor, his inheritance was controlled and monitored by the family lawyer, Nacisse-Désiré, who doled out a mere 200 francs a month to Baudelaire, forcing him to have to plead for what was rightfully his.

    The terrible absurdity here is that, when he died, a total of 30,500 francs remained of his inheritance. Ergo, if he wasn’t infantilized by his family, he never would have had to have begged for money from anyone. And if he received his rightful due for his Poe translations, or other work (the poet’s work is just as valuable as the farmer’s), his situation would have been different as well. One could say more, but the point is clear enough.

    — Rainer

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah. I apologize for that. He was entering specific amounts of money which to me sounded like he was giving money to support them. I did know that he was constantly asking her for money so I was a bit puzzled by that. Thanks so much for the clarification.

      Like

    • Kent

      “Imagine if Americans were imprisoned for debt…” If Americans were imprisoned for debt instead of by debt we’d be much better off. Perhaps Pound was correct about usura after all (anti-semitism aside).

      Liked by 1 person

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