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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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