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Chapter 6

The Artist as Sophist

There is another side to Odysseus, that of the wandering sophist. Beginning from this aspect of the hero, we can identify the characteristic by which Baudelaire is corrupted and undone, as once his ancestor Euripides too suffered condemnation at the hands of a judging god.

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Chapter 5

Comic Recovery of the Hero-Artist

In contrast to the tragic heroes of the last chapter, Homer’s Odysseus has the power to counter death-in-life, to recover from the compulsion of events and win through to life, thus surpassing even the deeds of Heracles.

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Part II

Fate of the Artist

 Chapter 4

Tragic Descent of Artist and Hero

The death-in-life imposed by necessity is contamination: of soul by body across the boundary marked by the neck; by prostitution in the wide sense, specifically that of the artist pandering to an audience. Pentheus and Achilles are performers destroyed by this.

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Chapter 3

Necessity Suffered and Overcome

As bondage to fate, necessity represents the intrusion of death into life, as in a procession of slaves or a Baudelairean cortège; this is the transgression at work in hysteria. Suffering the bondage and overcoming it, Heracles stands for virtue now gone.

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Chapter 2

The Dual Grip of Necessity

Baudelaire’s “terrible hand of hysteria” indicates that hysteria is driven by necessity. This is fitting, since the former is rooted in conflict, while the latter is dual, indeed in conflict with itself, inasmuch as it promotes life and death at once.

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This is the first of six posts constituting a single essay in six chapters, one per post. References are written according to the following scheme: §2.4 is the fourth section of chapter 2; footnotes are numbered afresh with each chapter, so within chapter 2, n. 5 refers to the fifth footnote of that chapter, while n. 3.5 refers to the fifth footnote of chapter 3.

 

Necessity and Hysteria: Ancient Light on Baudelaire

 τέχνη δ’ ἀνάγκης ἀσθενεστέρα μακρῶι.
Art is far weaker than necessity.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

Beholding a poor old saltimbanque at a street fair, the narrator of Baudelaire’s prose poem “Le Vieux Saltimbanque” perceives contrast and is moved to hysteria:[1]

     Partout la joie, le gain, la débauche; partout la certitude du pain pour les lendemains; partout l’explosion frénétique de la vitalité. Ici la misère absolue, la misère affublée, pour comble d’horreur, de haillons comiques, où la nécessité, bien plus que l’art, avait introduit le contraste. Il ne riait pas, le misérable! Il ne pleurait pas, il ne dansait pas, il ne gesticulait pas, il ne criait pas; il ne chantait aucune chanson, ni gaie ni lamentable, il n’implorait pas. Il était muet et immobile. Il avait renoncé, il avait abdiqué. Sa destinée était faite.
     Mais quel regard profond, inoubliable, il promenait sur la foule et les lumières, dont le flot mouvant s’arrêtait à quelques pas de sa répulsive misère! Je sentis ma gorge serrée par la main terrible de l’hystérie, et il me sembla que mes regards étaient offusqués par ces larmes rebelles qui ne veulent pas tomber.

     Everywhere joy, winning, debauchery; everywhere the certainty of bread for the days to come; every­where the frenzied explosion of vitality. Here absolute misery, misery rigged out, to top off the horror, with comical rags, in which necessity, much more than art, had introduced the contrast. He wasn’t laughing, the miserable creature! He wasn’t weeping, he wasn’t dancing, he wasn’t gesticulating, he wasn’t shouting; he sang no song, neither gay nor woeful, he did not implore. He was mute and motionless. He had renounced, he had abdicated. His fate was settled.
     But what a gaze, deep, unforgettable, he was passing over the crowd and the lights, whose moving flood stopped a few steps from his repulsive misery! I felt my throat gripped by the terrible hand of hysteria, and my gaze seemed obscured by those rebellious tears that do not want to fall. [2]

The present essay considers the connection between necessity, which crowns the height of horror in the figure of the saltimbanque, and hysteria, which the sight of him brings about. The first three chapters offer evidence to support a certain view of that connection, the fourth relates it to a modern theory of the poet as actor, the fifth examines a Homeric analogue, and the last finds in sophistry the poet’s downfall. The argument is laid out in the introductions to the several chapters. My chief aim is to bring some classical (Greek and Roman) writings to bear on this subject; there is no attempt to trace Baudelaire’s sources. For readers of Baudelaire who may be unfamiliar with the ancients, I have provided full citations to classical works.[3]

Part I

Hysteria and Necessity

Chapter 1

Hysteria as a Product of Conflict and Transgression

After a brief description of hysteria, it is explained in this chapter that the disorder can be characterized as the product of conflict resulting from the actual or potential transgression of a boundary—between life and death, speaking most generally.

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This post rests nowhere. Its only excuse is its theme.

The first extended simile in Paradise Lost compares Satan to

                                          that Sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumb’ring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Seamen tell,
With fixed Anchor in his scaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delays:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning Lake….

As first the passage deserves special attention. “Of Man’s First Disobedience,” the poem begins, and it aims to establish itself as first—before what Homer tells, before every classical myth. When we reach Leviathan there has already been speech (In the beginning was the Word), but action is now heralded by the incidental tale of the Pilot’s error; the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor commence with a like story. What does it signify here? It is obliquely cautionary: a reader seduced by the fallen angel will but repeat the experience of Eve; no stability is in Satan, the leviathan that the Lord will punish.[1]

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Finally, in this last part, the lame Meter.

It was on the 4th of Messidor in the year VII that the standard meter, and with it the standard kilogram, were presented to the legislature. —What, Messidor? VII? Yes, the Republic had been inaugurated on September 22, 1792, and on that day (it was eventually decided) began Year I. Years of the Republic had twelve months of 30 days each, plus some festival days; and the months, each beginning around the 20th of an English month, were Vendémiaire (Vintage-y), Brumaire (Misty), Frimaire (Frosty), Nivôse (Snowy), Pluviôse (Rainy), Ventôse (Windy), Germinal (Bud-y), Floréal (Flowery), Prairial (Meadowy), Messidor (Harvest-giver), Thermidor (Heat-giver), Fructidor (Fruit-giver). These names, bestowed by Fabre d’Églantine, whose head was cut off for his pains, were probably thought more dignified and poetical than those contrived by Sir Gregory Gander for the English calendar:

Snowy, Flowy, Blowy,
Showery, Flowery, Bowery,
Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy,
Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy.

But they were hardly more exact. Besides, Sir Gregory kept his head. —Messidor began on June 20th, so the big day must have been June 23, 1799.

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At the end of La Fontaine’s first fable, La Cigale et la fourmi [The Cicada and the Ant], the ant advises the cicada, who has sung all summer, “Eh bien! dansez maintenant.” [“Well! now dance.”].  Why dance?  To keep warm, of course; but (inasmuch as this is a death sentence) there is more: it is time for the cicada to enter the danse macabre, the procession led by Death—to dance her way into the grave.  Indeed, the word for “now” is main-tenant, which is “hand-holding.”