Tag Archives: French Literature

Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poetry of Charles Baudelaire

Beverly Bie Brahic is not only a talented poet, but she is also a gifted translator.  Her latest work, a series of Baudelaire’s poems selected and translated for this edition entitled Invitation to the Voyage, was chosen from the wide array of the French poet’s oeuvre.  Brahic describes her experience choosing, organizing and translating  of Baudelaire’s work in the introduction to this volume: “When I began to translate Baudelaire, it was as an exercise in reading, visceral, as translation always is. The sensuous poems—dreams of escape to an impossible, often tropical, elsewhere, visions of voluptuousness—drew me first for their descriptive and perceptual richness. But the sensual Baudelaire needs the bitter, compassionate, desolate Baudelaire…”

“I adore you like the starry night sky…” is a favorite from the collection and best illustrates Baudelaire’s tension between the passionate and the bitter:

I adore you like the starry night sky,
O vase of sorrows, taciturn beauty,
And love you all the more as you flee me,
As you appear, oh how ironically,
Rich jewel of my dreams, to increase the waste
Between my arms and the immense blue space.

I rise to the attack, mount the assault,
Like a choir of maggots after a vault,
And cherish, beast cruel and implacable,
Even the coldness that makes you more beautiful.

The beautiful coldness, the taciturn beauty—Baudelaire’s jarring descriptions are still perfect in Brahic’s translation.

My favorite in the collection is a poem entitled “The Cat” not only because of the juxtaposition of the sensual and the bitter but because of the unexpected twist in the poem. The title is almost deceptive:

Come, my fine cat, to my amorous heart;
Keep your claws sheathed,
And let me sink into your eyes that dart
Sparks of metal and agate mixed.

When my fingers can stroke at their leisure
Your head and your elastic
Back, and my hand gets drunk on the pleasure
Of your body electric,

It is my wife I conjure up. Her gaze,
Amiable beast, like yours,
Deep and cold as a spear, penetrates me,

And from her toes to her ebony hair,
A dangerous perfume, a subtle air,
Swims around her brown body.

And the most wonderful thing about the collection is that the prose poems and short essays are paired with the appropriate poems thematically. In “Invitation to the Voyage” he writes,

You now the fevers that assail us in our cold wretchedness, our nostalgia for the country we don’t know, the anguish of curiosity? There’s a land that resembles you, where everything is beautiful, rich, tranquil and honest, where the imagination has constructed and decorated a western China, where life is soft and sweet to breathe, where happiness is wedded to silence. We must go there to live, we must go there to die!

Yes this is where we must go to breathe, dream and while away the hours in an infinity of sensations. A musician has composed an Invitation to the Waltz; who will compose an Invitation to the Voyage, that we may offer it to the woman we love, the sister-elect?

Whether one is familiar with Baudelaire or not this is a lovely volume to have sitting on one’s shelves.  The poems also come with the original French facing the translation and since this published by Seagull Books the cover is a work of art.

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Dispelling our Fears: Aline and Valcour Volume 3 by Marquis de Sade

Contra Mundum chose wisely to publish the first complete English translation of Aline & Valcour in three volumes.  Each volume is distinctly different in tone and focus.  The first letters between Aline and Valcour, the eponymous lovers, are sweet and full of hope despite serious obstacles in the way of their union.  The middle part of the novel is a side story that also deals with two lovers—Sainville and Leonore, separated from one another, but who have greater control over their fate.  The final volume, which tells Leonore’s adventure and the tragedy of Aline and Valcour’s ending, is by far the darkest and most philosophical of the narrative.

Although not as graphic as Sade’s later novels, one will find among the pages of this narrative plenty of libertine behavior—incest, rape, necrophilia, and pedophilia.  But Sade uses these horrors, and both the perpetrators and victims, to philosophize about fate, religion, free-will, suicide, and capital punishment.  Sade reminds us in the story that he himself felt that he was a victim of a corrupt justice system.  Men in any position of power—both secular and religious—are the most depraved and hideous characters.  All males who hold a position of authority are sexually deviant and ready to attack any woman with whom they come into contact.  Aline’s father, Monsieur Blamont, the worst offender of them all and a judge for the courts of France, has a voracious sexual appetite and enjoys it more when he tortures his victims and they cry.  He keeps Aline apart from Valcour because he wants to marry her to his equally depraved friend, Dalbourg, so the two of them can share her.

But Sade’s tale is not a black and white, the bad get punished and the good get rewarded, type of moral.  Throughout all of these episodes Monsieur Balmont holds true to the philosophy that pity, empathy, and human affection are worthless in this life and the only thing that matters is satisfying his pleasure.  It is longing, love, and feelings that cause so much grief for people like his wife, daughter, and her lover.  His arguments are cold and chilling:

…one must know how to lift one’s soul to a sort of stoicism that enables us to look upon everything that happens in life with indifference; that, for himself, far from letting anything afflict him, he took joy in everything; and that if we carefully examine what would seem at first to be an obligation—to be cruelly distressed, for example—we would quickly find a pleasant aspect to it.  It’s a question of seizing upon that and forgetting the other; by such a system we can succeed in turning aside all life’s darts. Sensitivity is only a weakness to be readily cured by the forcible repulsion of anything that too closely besets us, to immediately assuage with some voluptuous or comforting idea those barbs that sorrow would inflict.

Monsieur Blamont’s speech has elements of Epicurean philosophy in that sentimental love causes pain and ought to be avoided.  But is Blamont’s callous and cruel behavior really something to which we want to aspire?  The obsession with satisfying his physical desires brings him a certain state of contentedness throughout the novel and although he is never punished for the suffering he inflicts on others, his eroticism is the cause of what small distress he experiences.

In addition to love the other thing that causes distress in the character’s lives is religion.  Aline, her mother, and Valcour are all deeply pious people and no matter how much they pray or do good deeds, they are not better off than those who are atheists or deists in the narrative.  Aline becomes a Lucretia-like figure who sacrifices herself to her God rather than have her innocence ruined.  Her last letters are full of prayers and hopes for finding a more peaceful afterlife.  But who really knows what becomes of the soul in an afterlife?  Will she really be any better off by escaping a miserable existence?

In the end Sade is not truly didactic—he is not proposing we follow a specific religion or philosophy, but he lays out a serious of arguments and possibilities from which we can choose.  Leonore, after she is kidnapped by a deranged Italian Count, is helped by a poor and selfless man who argues that God is indifferent and prayer is useless: “Let us stop, in short, insisting on a God made from the same stuff as us, a God irritated by invective, fond of praise, and obliging of our prayers.  We forever want to see Him as a human monarch who must listen to us and judge.  In that way we diminish His views and his most celebrated worshiper becomes finally nothing but an idolater.”  This description of a distant and unconcerned deity recalls the same one described by Lucretius who, like Sade, is trying to dispel a fear of death and judgment in the afterlife.  It feels as if Sade is pressing towards atheism, but didn’t quite go that far either to retain some semblance of respectability against any religious censors or to cover himself just in case there is an afterlife.

The most remarkable piece of writing in the final volume is when Leonore’s friend puts forward a compelling argument against transubstantiation which also borrows ideas of materialism from Lucretius:

After corporal introduction, the host must be enlarged or, in the instance of a spiritual junction, it must be enlivened. Complete metamorphosis is absolutely impossible; no change of any kind operates by ideas alone; and any such mutation implies extinction of visible parts of the original body and a swift conjuncture of the elements of the second body in the decomposed parts of the first—a process that can only succeed through the force of atoms in the former operating upon those of the latter.

The Church and organized religion are a particular target of Sade’s philosophical diatribes throughout the novel.  In the end, what type of a life should we choose to live in this chaotic, painful, unjust, fucked up world?  Sade gives us the worst of humanity, he brings forward taboo subjects—as Lucretius—so we will be better prepared to face these circumstances in our own lives.  My thoughts go back to Sade’s epigram in which he quotes Lucretius; I see Aline and Valcour as the author’s attempt to dispel the fears of our mind—especially fears concerning love and religion—by encouraging us to use our own reason and nature.

One final note, the Contra Mundum books also include nice  copies of the illustrations from the original publication.

 

 

 

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Aline & Valcour Volume 2 by Marquis de Sade

In a letter written from prison to his wife in 1784, Marquis de Sade complains about his discomfort and what he perceives as his ill treatment:

You are also well aware that my dizzy spells and my frequent nosebleeds, both of which I have when I’m not lying down with my head perched extremely high, had obliged me to have an oversized pillow. When I tried to take this wretched pillow with me, you would have thought I was trying to steal the list of those who had conspired against the State; barbarically, they tore it from my hands and declared that matters of such magnitude had never been tolerated.  And indeed I realized that some secret rule or regulation of government doubtless stipulated that a prisoner’s head should be kept lowered, for when to remedy that situation owning to the fact that my oversized pillow had been denied me I humbly requested four planks of wood, they took me for a madman. A swarm of commissioners descended upon me, who, having verified that I was indeed most uncomfortable in bed, in their infinite wisdom concluded that the rules were the rules and ’twas impossible to change them. Verily I say unto you that that you have to see it to believe it, and were we to learn that such things were taking place in China, our tender and compassionate Frenchmen would wast not a moment shouting to the high heavens: Oh! those barbarians!

Marquis de Sade wrote Aline & Valcour during this same period of time while locked up in the Bastille, one of the many incarcerations he would suffer through in his life.  The second volume of this book, as it is published by Contra Mundum Press, becomes more deeply introspective and philosophical as Sade’s incarceration is obviously wearing on him.  The eponymous characters of the story are completely absent from this long interlude.  Instead it involves the story of Sainville and Leonore, two lovers that are similarly kept apart by their parents and a series of terrible accidents.  The pair, just recently reunited, spend the night at Aline’s family’s home and tell their long, sad tale.

Sainville and Leonore elope and are spending their honeymoon in Venice when Leonore is kidnapped by a crazy Italian count who wants to keep her as his sex slave.  Sainville travels to Africa and parts of the south seas in the hopes of finding her and he visits two very different countries, one a savage, barbaric tyranny and the other a beautiful, peaceful utopia.  These two very different places allow Sade to reflect on political philosophy, religion, the treatment of women, and the nature and rights of man.  In Africa, King Maacoro of Butua is a tyrant who uses women for sex, domestic work and heavy labor.  He eats the flesh of his captured enemies as well as women who are sacrificed to the country’s savage deities.  Sarmiento, a servant of the King explains the horrible conditions under which women live in this place:

It is impossible to describe, my friend, the subjugation of women in this country. To possess many of them is a luxury but made little use of. Whether rich or poor, men think as one on the matter. Females are worked here like our beasts of burden in Europe. They sow and plow the fields and harvest the crops; in the house they clean and serve and, in addition, they are offered up to the gods and immolated. They are perpetually faced with the men’s ferocity and barbarism and become victims of their ugly moods, intemperance and tyranny.

We are meant to be horrified, I think, at the barbarism of the men in this place and particularly at the way in which women are used as chattel.  I was surprised, given Sade’s reputation and his other writings, to find that he thinks women should be treated properly and respectfully by men.  In his own letters he is abusive and angry towards his own wife, but apparently he doesn’t feel that it is appropriate for all women to be treated so harshly.

By contrast, in the kingdom of Zame, where Sainville lands next, women are treated as equals among men.  In this utopia, all worked together to produce goods and services to that all citizens are happy and get what they need.  The description of this kingdom is very Marxist and Socialist in nature. And it is Zame who Sade uses at his mouthpiece for condoning unnecessarily harsh laws and prison sentences:

Don’t you know that prison, the worst and most dangerous of punishments, is nothing but an ancient abuse of justice, and that despotism and tyranny follow in its wake? The necessity to keep in custody one who shall be judged led naturally first to the invention of irons, maintained under barbarism. That atrocity, like any act of severe rigor, was born of ignorance and blindness. Inept judges, daring neither to condemn nor absolve, would often prefer to keep the accused in prison, conscience clear because they don’t take the life of the man but neither do they return him to society.

Sade also continues to be influenced by Lucretian and Epicurean philosophy.  As Sainville is looking for his wife and is constantly suffering shipwrecks and other horrible misfortunes, he invokes the name of Lucretius:

Here a philosopher might profit from the study of man, observing with what rapidity a change in atmosphere drives him from one state to another. An hour ago our sailors were drunk and cursing. Now they raised their hands to implore Heaven’s protection. Fear is truly the wellspring of religion and, as Lucretius said, the mother of all cults. Were man gifted with a better constitution and a nature less prone to disorder, we’d never hear talk of gods on earth.

It’s in the context of religion that Sade brings up Lucretian thoughts again, but this time it is curious that this speech comes from the mouth of his villain in the Kingdom of Butua.  The religious rites of these people are brutal and barbaric and they also believe in the materialism of the soul and the death of it once it is detached from the body—a major tenet of Lucretian philosophy.  Sarmiento once again explains to him, “Their notions concerning the fate of souls in the afterlife are quite confused. First of all, they don’t believe the soul is distinct from the body; they say it’s only the result of the way we are organized by Nature. Each type of organization necessitates a different soul and that is all that separates us from the animals. Their system seems to me quite philosophical.”

But why attribute this philosophy to those who live in the dystopia instead of the utopia?  The fate of the soul and the afterlife are never discussed with Zame.  Perhaps these are ideas that intrigued Sade, but ones that he couldn’t quite accept as his own personal belief system?  The second volume, although it veers from the main story, is just as, if not more, intriguing and thought-provoking as the first.

On to Volume III.

 

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Reading The Stranger via Camus’s Notebooks

The Stranger was one of those books I read at eighteen that left almost no impression on me.  I’ve had no desire to revisit any of Camus’s writing until recently when a friend, who is one of the most astute readers I know, recommended reading some of Camus’s other, less well-known, writing.  For the past week or so I have been captivated by Camus’s 400 pages of Notebooks that span the years 1939 through 1951.  He includes vivid descriptions of scenery, personal reflections, ideas for new novels and plays and his philosophical views on life, death, love and art.  In an entry from 1942, Camus writes a response to a negative review of The Stranger which he never sends.  It is the response to his critic which inspired me to reread The Stranger this week alongside the Notebooks. 

Of course a lot has been written about Meursault’s taciturn nature and the fact that he only speaks when answering direct questions.  On this reread what stood out to me most was Meursault’s inner strength, especially when settling into life in a small prison cell.  Typical for anyone incarcerated he misses his freedom, seeing and interacting with nature, and women.  But he settles into a routine that gives him comfort and he remembers an important bit of advice his mother gives him (trans. Matthew Ward):

I waited for the daily walk, which I took in the courtyard, or for a visit from my lawyer. The rest of the time I managed pretty well. At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it.  I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything.

Camus often writes about death in his Notebooks and believes that the only way to attain true liberty in this life is to free oneself from a fear of death.  His protagonist hopes for a stay of execution but eventually accepts his fate, without the help of the prison Chaplain who is utterly annoyed with the prisoner’s disinterest in God.  In one final speech at the end Meursault reflects on his argument with the Chaplain and the absurdity of life:

It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising towards me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living.  What did other people’s deaths or a mothers’ love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter tome when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also call themselves my brothers?

Camus’s own description of Meursault in the Notebooks (1942) are enlightening, to say the least, and completely changed the way I view Camus and his most famous novel (trans. Philip Thody):

It’s a very studied book and the tone…is intentional. The tone is heightened four or five times, to be sure, but this is to avoid monotony and to provide composition. With the Chaplain, my Stranger does not justify himself. He gets angry, and that’s quite different. I’m the one to explain then, you say? Yes, and I thought about that considerably. I made up my mind to this because I wanted my character to be led to the single great problem by way of the daily and the natural. The great moment had to stand out.

One final side note, I am also reading Sade and thinking about Lucretius and Epicureanism.  I see some of these same thoughts and threads in Camus—dispelling the fear of death, deity as a distant figure that cares nothing for humans, the random absurdity of the universe. Camus writes about Lucretius and Sade in his Notebooks.  A wonderful reading coincidence for me.

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We Mislead, but Sweetly: Aline & Valcour, Volume I by Marquis de Sade

This is the first English translation, expertly and smoothly rendered from the French by Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons,  of Marquis de Sade’s epistolary novel.  Written in 1786 while he was locked in the Bastille, this book is very different from Sade’s later, more pornographic, writings.  Contra Mundum Press has, wisely, decided to break up the novel into three volumes—easier to carry and nicely displayed on one’s shelves.  My impressions of the first volume are ones of astonishment—at the riveting adventure story, the slowly unraveling mystery, and a philosophical statement on Epicurean/Lucretian philosophy.

Aline and Valcour are young lovers kept apart by Aline’s vicious and depraved father, President Blamont,  who wants to pawn her off to his equally sadistic friend, Monsieur Dolbourg.  Blamont and Dolbourg take extreme pleasure in keeping young women as sex slaves and doing unspeakable things to them—although, as I mentioned, Sade’s descriptions of these debaucheries is minimal compared to his later writing.   The mental and physical pain that Blamont causes for his wife, daughter, and victims is a theme that occurs constantly in the letters and his choice of epistolary style allows Sade to struggle with the concepts of pain and pleasure on a philosophical level.  Madame Blamont writes to Valcour :

Can I justly pretend to some perfect happiness?  Does it exist anywhere beneath the heavens above? To be put on earth to suffer is the simplest thing in the world.  Are we not here as gamblers around the table? Does Dame Fortune favor everybody seated there? By what right dare they accuse her of squandering their gold instead of winning it?  The hand of the Eternal One suspends above our heads good and evil in equal portions and they spill indifferently upon us.  I might have been happy just as, so it happens, I’m miserable—a question of chance.  And the greatest fault of all is to complain.  Moreover, can’t we imagine taking pleasure even in extreme unhappiness? But dint of sharpening our soul, unhappiness intensifies sensitivity; its impressions, by developing in a more vigorous way all manner of feeling, bring about pleasure unknown to those who are cold-hearted and unfortunate enough to have experience only tranquility and prosperity.

Sade’s vision of a deity is Epicurean in the sense that this being is indifferent to our fmisortunes.  Pain and pleasure for Sade are very closely related and one cannot experience happiness without first being exposed to extreme forms of pain.  Does Sade see his novel as didactic, as a way of teaching us this lesson?  Is he trying to dispel our fears of pain and death?  The epigram that Sade writes at the beginning of Aline & Valcour in which he quotes Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 2.55-61 gives us a a small clue (this translation is my own; in the Contra Mundum version, the authors use R.C. Trevelyan’s 1937 translation):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

 

Lucretius sees poetry as a way of tricking people into dispelling their fear of pain and death.  In his most famous metaphor, poetry is the honey we rub on the edge of a bowl in order to coax a child into  taking his bitter medicine.  One other, quite obvious allusion, to Lucretius in Aline & Valcour also gives us a clue as to Sade’s philosophical motivations with his writings.  Once again, it is Madame Blamont that writes to Valcour on behalf of herself and her daughter:

I ought not to have allowed you to come to know Aline or her unfortunate mother; today, we would certainly all have less pain; and for the pain we inflict upon others we can never be consoled.  But all is not lost—no, Valcour, not all. My barbaric husband, who torments you so, might yet reconsider, so too the ridiculous monster who trails his every step. It might dawn on him that he’ll reap non of the hoped-for pleasure from she who hates him so. That much, at least, I can only hope and believe, though I know illusion is to unhappiness as honey rubbed round the rim of a glass of absinthe, offered to a child in pain: we mislead, but sweetly.

Sade, however, has a more sinister view of this deception.  How much is an author or philosopher really fooling anyone with this “honey?”

Will the lovers eventually be together?  Will Blamont’s victims escape his torments?  And who are the mysterious house guests that appear at Madame Blamont’s at the end of Volume I?  These plot considerations as well as Sade’s philosophical threads have me eagerly reading Volume II.

 

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