Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Baudelaire was perhaps the first performance artist in history. At least he was one of the first to live out his aesthetics, to make his home decor, his clothes, even his way of moving, consistent with his poetry. As the portrait photographer Nadar recalled, "Monsieur Baudelaire was gloved in pink and proceeded in his walk by little jerks, like a wooden marionette, seeming to choose each place where he would step, as if walking between eggs." He was the great apostle of dandyism, and he thought nothing of spending so much of his fortune on curious medieval furniture, Rhine wine, emerald-coloured goblets, loose robes and rich foods that when he died in 1867 he still owed money to shopkeepers for these extravagances of his early twenties. In his letters to friends from this period, Baudelaire frequently talks about the purchase of a Japanese print, a writing desk, a drawing or bits of bric-a-brac long before such bizarre objects bought randomly were a la mode. As he wrote, his ideal was "the man who was rich, idle, even blase, who has no other occupation than to run on the path towards happiness; the man brought up in luxury..."

Although Baudelaire later suffered - in his dispute over the control of his fortune with his stepfather, General Aupick, in his amorous disappointments with women, in his battles with censors over his collection of poems, The Flowers of Evil, and in his struggle with syphilis - nevertheless in his years at the Hotel de Lauzun (which was known as the Hotel Pimodan in his day after a more recent owner), the poet was entire happy. His mistress, an actress named Jeanne Duval, who was one-quarter black, was living just a few blocks away. Jeanne was one the whom Baudelaire addressed in his poetry as a strange deity brown as night ("bizarre deite brune comme les nuits"). Her rooms were on the rue de la Femmes-sans-Tete ("the Headless Woman" now the rue Les Reg Rattier); the street was named after a sign in front of an inn that showed a woman without a head and the slogan "everything is good", meaning that all was well when one dealt with a headless woman. Baudelaire was writing some of the most important poems in these years, 1843 and 1844 - according to some experts, the majority of the poems that would eventually appear in Les Fleurs du Mal.

But by September 1844 the party was over. The poet's mother, dismayed that her son had spent 44,500 gold francs in two years, had the rest of his fortune placed in the hands of a guardian who would dole it out in minuscule monthly sums. Nine months later the humiliated poet attempted suicide by knifing himself (he wrote that suicide is the "only sacrament in the religion of dandyism"), but he failed to do himself in and was nursed back to health by Jeanne Duval. After that he limped home to his mother and lived with her. His glorious years on the Ile St. Louis were over.

— Edmund White, The Flaneur (a stroll through the paradoxes of Paris) Bloomsbury 2001