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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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There is what there is, and there isn’t what there isn’t—so much for what; as for where, consider the things that are there, but not here. They are behind, or around the corner, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, imperceptible, inaccessible, ideal, suggested. How influential they may be! Democritean atoms (constitutive of the world); Platonic forms (casting a world of shadows); things in themselves (responsible for things natural); empty physical fields (space qualitative and quantitative). The past (gone, inescapable) and the future (not come, inevitable): what presses us behind, where we don’t see, or draws us ahead, where we’re not looking.  Whatever is under the surface, pictures for the mind’s eye, matter for intuition,….  “That which is properly thought, image, sentiment is always, in some way, a production of absent things.”

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