As a reader who still feels, somewhat sheepishly, that the greatness of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry is something we non-readers of French have to take on faith, I’ll admit I was relieved when Roberto Calasso immediately makes it clear his new book isn’t going to be another study of Le fleurs du mal. On the second page, Calasso writes:
“For those who are enveloped in and almost numbed by desolation and weariness, it’s hard to do better than to open a page of Baudelaire. Prose, poetry, prose poems, letters, fragments: it’s all fine. But, if possible, prose, and preferably his writings on painters.”
La Folie Baudelaire, then, will be in large part a book about art and artists, with Baudelaire’s famous critiques of the Salon exhibitions serving as the launch pad for Calasso’s absorbing examinations of individual works by Ingres, Delacroix, Manet and Degas, supplemented by frequently droll biographical anecdotes, taking us all the way into the 20th century.
Don’t expect anything so obvious as a thesis; what we get instead is a companionable guided tour of mid- and late 19th century Paris, loosely organized around Baudelaire, his associates and enthusiasms, and the idea—familiar to anyone who has read Walter Benjamin’s studies of the poet—that what we like to think of as the modern sensibility (urban, alienated, etc.) first recognized itself in that time and place.
Perhaps not surprisingly, more than a touch of the flaneur hovers over the proceedings. Rambling across decades and art forms, Calasso—a polymathic one-man genre whose previous books have soared in the loftiest realms where culture intersects with ritual and myth—finds room, this time around, for jokes about Belgium and digressions on mistresses and breasts. Some readers may lose patience with this discursive mode, but most of Calasso’s vignettes are so entertaining that I didn’t mind the absence of a more cohesive argument.
Expect plenty of idiosyncrasies, however. With regard to Manet and Degas, for instance, Calasso —as though mindful of how museum gift shops around the world later turned Impressionism into an anodyne form of interior décor—has an amusing tendency to want to smuggle his exemplars out of the movement altogether. “Degas,” he tells us, “abhorred the ideology of plein air and found something awkward about this kind of painter’s claim to get closer to nature by setting up an easel in a meadow.” In a different vein, an affecting and persuasive consideration of Berthe Morisot, still regarded condescendingly by some critics today, keeps the book from being the hifalutin boys’ club it might have been without her. (See “Paris Review” by John Simon, The New York Times , 16 November 2012) Special praise is due to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, by the way, for the many stunning reproductions of the artworks under review, highlights of an exceptionally handsome volume.
Certain provocations along the way suggest a shorter, more pointed essay waiting to emerge from La Folie Baudelaire. Perhaps unavoidably for a writer in his 70s, Signor Roberto can’t help contrasting the birth of modernity with where we find ourselves now, more than 150 years later. Yet typically, these thoughts take form in a series of enjoyable rapier thrusts that couldn’t be more different from the ponderous narratives of decline that so often drag down critics and cultural historians of a certain age.
He cites approvingly Degas’s exasperation with “the progressive aestheticization of everything,” which is food for thought the next time a Crate & Barrel catalogue arrives in the mail, and avant-garde is defined as “a word that for a few decades of the twentieth century was beguiling and that in the twenty-first century sounds like a bad joke.” Then there’s Rimbaud’s famous dictum “It is necessary to be absolutely modern,” given tough scrutiny here for its effect on generations of “middling artists and writers who would stop at nothing provided they lived up to the motto that had dazzled them.”
If Calasso chooses not to expand on these darting jabs, that’s his prerogative: his sensibility is too fastidious for him to lapse into anything like a polemic. (This kind of elegant tease has the welcome effect of leading the reader to think for herself, as well.) But a more serious issue with La Folie Baudelaire are the signs of a crepuscular late style stealing into Calasso’s prose. An increasingly baroque vocabulary is one thing—unless words like hesychastic, archons and psychopomp don’t send you scrambling for the dictionary—but more worrisome is the occasional passage like the following, which brings back woeful memories of assigned reading in college:
“For centuries, since the first success of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, one may say that European culture was divided between the poles of substitution (perceivable in the stubborn determination to decipher) and of analogy (perceivable in the search for correspondences, and hence for a symbolic chain that made it possible, by way of resemblance, to move from image to image, without ever abandoning the cosmic play of figures). “
Huh? A sentence like that is its own parody, and should never have made it into the final draft. But this raises an almost epistemological question: Who edits Calasso? It’s possible that by now the author, who also happens to be head of Adelphi, Italy’s most prestigious publishing house, just doesn’t have anyone to pull him back down to earth whenever he threatens to float off into the ether, as in the passage above. (Here I note with trepidation that his next work after La Folie, already published in Italy, is a 500-page exegesis of Vedic texts.)
If La Folie Baudelaire doesn’t quite rise to the level of major Calasso like The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Literature and the Gods (works that really do seem to manifest that spark of the divine that they are also about), and lacks the cumulative force of The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck’s classic study of the pre-WWI Parisian avant-garde, it manages to pack a lot of rarefied fun between two covers all the same. It’s cheaper than a flight to Paree, and you have one of the world’s most civilized minds on hand as your tour guide, so take the trip and amusez-vous.