Une fleur
du mal

Beauty and oblivion

Luca Vidotto

Within The Beacons that enlighten Baudelaire’s passage, offering truces to his continuous regression, it is art that upholds his darkness with particular light paint brush strokes. Those of Rubens, where life, although immersed in the black lake of oblivion, moves and whirls incessantly [1]. Those of Leonardo, whose admirable eye managed to ensnare the true appearance of man, measuring it to his most ardent passions, making him sink into a dark unfathomable mirror. The Beacons are Rembrandt’s sad chiaroscuros where from rot and ordure rise tearful prayers, and the obsession with bodies – matter damned for eternity – which in Michelangelo, Hercules’ are seen mingling with Christs, torn at dusk. 

Praise thee, you who knew how to extract beauty from what rots and therefore fuller of life, more delighted, in exungulated flesh that devour the body! – And so, it seems to hear Baudelaire singing with his heart to those souls who knew how to leave a burr of light, a submerged trace of eternity in this alienating story of man. A mournful emperor of crooks, a boy of life, of violent life, can stand as a beacon – as it was for Goya – even if only for having shown us a nightmare full of things unguessed, of things that we always have in front of our eyes and that for this very reason we do not see nor feel.

A blossomed Baudelairian flower in a swap of evil – forgotten, abandoned to its darkness and chiaroscuros of envy and hypocrisy.

Lifted the veil of reality, of our ideas, we see back there, an ambiguous look, a choked scream, a smiling mystery – that gets us drunk, and offers us anguish. The Beacons enlighten us. But where is the light? Who is the light?

 Master of light and of shadows, one more than the others shared the same ideal shattered beauty with Baudelaire; only one truly despised the beauties that vignettes show, those damaged products of a good-for-nothing age [2]; or the prattling troop of consumptive beauties, nothing more than harmless and cold pale roses. The poet and the painter felt, from the depths of their guts, they both wanted a beauty capable of tearing their stomachs, of making them drunk until they fainted, until they died. Ecstasy and heartbreak are beauty, so capable of pushing it into the darkest darkness of their heart, profound as an abyss, and then blossoming into a flower of fire – for only from the abyss do the highest peaks appear vertiginous!

 A beautiful flower, blossoming in the swamp of evil, in the magma of its heart of darkness – but for hundreds of years forgotten, devoured by the amply shining Baroque. It was Caravaggio who was abandoned to his own darkness and to the chiaroscuros of envy and hypocrisy. Observing his paintings, linger on Death of the Virgin. And now taste these strange words:

 My love, do you recall the object which we saw, That fair, sweet, summer morn! At a turn in the path a foul carcass, On a gravel strewn bed,

Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman, Burning and dripping with poisons, Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way, Its belly, swollen with gases.

The sun shone down upon that putrescence, As if to roast it to a turn, And to give back a hundredfold to great Nature, The elements she had combined;

And the sky was watching that superb cadaver, Blossom like a flower… [3]

Can these words not be sewn on such a terrible image? Can’t poetry and painting, the ulcerous muse and the sick Bacchus meet in this intonation? Do they not seem designed for him and him alone; for his bodies, in which the songs of pain of the flesh resonate, and for his still life, rotting, whose stench we can almost smell? Is Mary’s not corpse, une charogne – just like the body of a prostitute drowned in the Tiber – soon to be left for worms to devour?

So why didn’t Baudelaire even mention Caravaggio in the list of his Beacons? How could it be? It seems that all these Beacons point out to him: Rubens descending from Antwerp to Rome to admire him. And where he bought the scandalous and rejected Death of the Virgin; Leonardo, in the years when the young painter’s master was studying in Lombardy, was the paradigm of all contemporary painting, with its focus and nuances. Rembrandt would never have exercised such art and mastery in the use of light if it had not existed; Michelangelo taught him the magnificence of the human body, its greatness and beauty – but it seems that Baudelaire only ever stopped at the finger, and never at the person indicated. Is that even possible?

 Like a poppy, Caravaggio was torn away by the wind of oblivion, leaving the room of memory of the centuries that followed his life – the life of the egregius in Urbe pictor – a wretched empty room: where his works were exhibited and admired by the most exalted spirits of the world. The wall’s whiteness remained bare. It was forgotten, erased from memory, now known only to the Creator, who one day sent his most beautiful son to Earth, showing men the stupidity of their forms and ideas – a son who, like the first, was not understood: Caravaggio, a talented painter but a destroyer of art, his censors said. Too antisocial, he had to be expelled from the golden palace of society: why carry on this burden, this immoral being, this shame of the sublime? Only the 20th century could rediscover it. Only the twentieth century, in the light of Baudelaire, his blood brother, could truly understand it:

These curses, blasphemies and these laments, These ecstasies, cries, tears, hossanas from A thousand caverns, form one echo, whence — death-doomed, we draw a heavenly opium!

Theirs is a blast a thousand sentinels Pass on with their trumpets in a thousand moods; A torch upon a thousand citadels, A hail from hunters lost in pathless woods!

For truly, ’tis the mightiest voice our souls Command, o Lord, to prove their worth to Thee: This ardent sob which down the ages rolls And dies against Thy verge, Eternity! [4] 

Who better than Caravaggio is enlightened so well by this praise of Baudelaire, who better than him shakes his rags before our eyes and tells us of human suffering [5], so he reveals man in his greatness and dignity? But the poet had to remain in the dark of everything – this is the extent of the forgetfulness to which every living being, in their Age, is destined. Being so similar they would have loved each other, and yet Baudelaire could not have known him, just as Caravaggio could not have known Baudelaire. This is the atrocity of time that destroys bodies and minds and goes so far as to devour itself. Who knows, perhaps out of boredom – abandoning oneself to forgetfulness.
This is the miracle of love, those torn apart bodies and minds can bind them to itself, intertwining poppy and memory, in a crown that shines well above thorns.

[1] C. Baudelaire, The Beacons, translation by William Aggeler, which may be consulted at https://fleursdumal.org/poem/105.

[2] C. Baudelaire, The Ideal, translation by William Aggeler, which may be consulted at https://fleursdumal.org/poem/117.

[3] C. Baudelaire, A Caracass, translation by William Aggeler, which may be consulted at https://fleursdumal.org/poem/126.

[4]  C. Baudelaire, The Beacons, translation by William Aggeler, which may be consulted at https://fleursdumal.org/poem/105.

[5] Baudelaire’s comments on Rembrandt, in John B. Halsted (edited by), Romanticism. Selected documents, Palgrave Macmillan, London 1961, p. 121.