“Translation is an act of risk” | An interview with Rainer J. Hanshe on translating Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare

Rainer J. Hanshe is the translator of My Heart Laid Bare & Other Texts, a collection of writings by Charles Baudelaire, new from Contra Mundum Press. Over a series of emails, Hanshe was kind enough to talk to me about My Heart Laid Bare, Baudelaire, dandyism, translation, art, stealing books, and all other manner of topics.


Biblioklept: What is My Heart Laid Bare? Did Baudelaire envision its publication in his lifetime?

Rainer J. Hanshe: The title My Heart Laid Bare is Edgar Allan Poe’s, and it’s he who conceives of a book that, if daring enough, if ‘bare’ enough, could revolutionize human thought, opinion, and sentiment. This could be achieved, Poe said, “by writing and publishing a very little book. Its title should be simple — a few plain words — ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But this little book must be true to its title.” Baudelaire took up Poe’s provocation and his Mon cœur mis à nu is one of a number of different books that he dreamt up and hoped to write “without lassitude — in a word to be in good heart day after day.” Others Baudelaire mentioned along with it in an 1864 letter included Histoires grotesques et sérieuses, Les fleurs du Mal, Le spleen de Paris, Les paradis artificiels, Contemporaines, and Pauvre Belgium! The first notes for Mon cœur mis à nu begin in 1859, two years after the initial publication of The flowers of Evil, if not possibly somewhat earlier, and continue until 1865, ceasing only due to Baudelaire’s severe health condition (he would die in 1867 at just 46 years of age), hence they comprise the final decade of his writing life.

Aside from the more direct root of Poe, Rousseau was another of Baudelaire’s models, albeit a negative one to surpass. Baudelaire said that “all the targets of [his] rage” would be collected in Mon cœur mis à nu. “Ah! if ever that sees the light of day, J-J’s Confessions will seem pale.” As I describe in the synopsis, it is an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note, and extended reflection. It is not however some memoir-like spewing of Baudelaire’s bios; rather, it is the baring of his l’esprit, and as a crystallization of such, it isn’t some kind of ‘tell-all exposé’ (Rousseau’s notion of absolute transparency, an indulgence we could well do without, especially considering its pernicious ramifications), but to me a much higher form of ‘confession,’ for it is the arc of thought, the play of the mind in its every breadth that is bared. It contains Baudelaire’s exhortations on work, faith, religion, and politics, excoriating sociological analyses, diatribes on literature, the arts (George Sand receives some choice malicious arrows), and love (women, prostitution, sadomasochism, erotics en générale), and outlines of his conception of the dandy and the Poet.

The Poet for Baudelaire is I would say a figure similar in kind to Nietzsche’s untimely personage, the posthumous human, a kind of philosophical anthropologist who hovers over the earth, examining the human species both from within and externally, from a sub species aeternitatis perspective, diagnosing it like a physician (much of the book’s terminology is medical taxonomy).

In 1861, two years after beginning Mon cœur mis à nu, sieged by resignation, calumny, and ill health (nervous disorders, vomiting, insomnia, fainting fits, recurrent syphilitic outbreaks), Baudelaire expresses doubt that he will ever complete his various projects. “My situation as regards my honor, frightful — and that’s the greatest evil. Never any rest. Insults, outrages, affronts you can’t imagine, which corrupt the imagination and paralyze it.” Three years later, it was against the continuing extremities of an exacerbated solitude, frayed nerves, self-described terrors, and constant hounding by creditors that Baudelaire implored himself to remain stalwart (“I must pull myself together, take heart! This may well bring rewards.”) and write.

Clearly, he did envision publishing the book in his lifetime, and he diligently worked at it, steeling himself against his trials to the degree within his power, but it was never completed. The obstructions he faced were abundant; the somatic afflictions inordinately taxing. The threat of his impending decline or decay is sharply articulated in one passage wherein he speaks of “feeling the wind of the wing of imbecility” passing over him. Various translators have rendered that as “the wing of madness,” but Baudelaire says “imbécillité,” not folie or démence. The notion of “the wing of madness” has greater Gothico-Romantic cache, but it’s not what Baudelaire says, and in this case, there’s a relatively exact equivalence of terms. It was more physical weakness and feebleness that he feared, and experienced, and believed would finally incapacitate him, as it did, not madness. His aphasia and heart attacks led to his losing his ability to speak and thereafter, his ability to read and write — the death of the writer.

We have only the existing fragments then, which have been translated in full, but they were published posthumously. Despite no such title existing in the text, or any related material, French editors originally published the work as “Journaux intime” (Intimate Journals), which included two other sections, “Fusées” and “Hygiène.” Translations into English followed suite, and they adopted the false title, which must at last be discarded. If Baudelaire hadn’t been besieged by illnesses as he was, he would have imaginably given us a definitive version of Mon cœur mis à nu considering that he did complete other books he began around the same period (Le spleen de Paris, Les paradis artificiels, et cetera). It remains a fragmentary work then, in both senses, yet one that is substantive enough to merit our continued attention.

Biblioklept: For me, the fragmentary nature of My Heart Laid Bare is in some ways more appealing than the cohesion of a more polished philosophical or poetic text. It’s a discursive read, and there’s joy in tying (or failing to tie) the fragments together. This reading experience is perhaps as close as we can get to seeing Baudelaire thinking (and feeling). At the same time, there’s perhaps a risk of the average reader’s misreading or misinterpreting some of Baudelaire’s riffs, quips, and jabs here. How tempting was it to footnote the hell out of My Heart Laid Bare?

Hanshe: In his poet’s notebook, Paul Valéry said that “a work is never necessarily finished, for he who has made it is never complete, and the power and agility he has drawn from it confer on him just the power to improve it […]. He draws from it what is needed to efface and remake it. This is how a free artist, at least, should regard things.” Similarly, he says elsewhere that, “in the eyes of lovers of anxiety and perfection, a work is never finished but abandoned.” Since Baudelaire never prepared a definitive version of the book, we cannot know what he would have changed, or not, yet as a work closely aligned with his self, it’s something that could never have been completed, only abandoned. Hence, it would always remain fragmentary. Think of Schlegel’s poetics of the fragment where even ‘incompleteness’ is exceptionally refined, an architecturally precise aesthetic form (sculpturally, this calls to mind Giacometti). In his essay on German Romanticism, Walter Benjamin pointed out that aphoristic writing is not proof against systematic intentions (an accurate insight made about Nietzsche’s work in fact, albeit one lost on many of his later readers…), that one can write aphoristically and still think through one’s philosophy or writing “in a comprehensive and unitary manner in keeping with one’s guiding ideas.” In this way, it’s not that Baudelaire’s book lacks cohesiveness; it’s deliberately fragmentary to eschew finality, and because the self, the ‘heart’ being laid bare, is never complete. That Baudelaire worked on it for nearly ten years though makes it probable that its character was quite well defined before illness permanently disrupted his voluntarily abandoning it.

There are certainly unities, or thoughts that overlap and intertwine within the book, as there are with other books of Baudelaire’s, and when I began translating it, I kept track of those I was aware of while also benefitting from the extensive and exemplary notes that the French editors amassed. The critical addendum was therefore unfurling like an infinite papyrus, threatening to end in it being as long, if not longer, than the book itself. In a way, that kind of critical gesture is an act of usurpation and domination, just as overly lengthy introductions can be (consider the grand effrontery of Foucault’s introduction to Binswanger’s Dream & Existence, which is twice the length of the book). At a certain point, I felt that continuing to amass notes would have made the book extremely cumbersome, one unpleasant to read, merely due to sheer volume. There’s also something about a massive critical addendum that’s imposing, if not intrusive, to many readers. Additionally, it was a question of elegance: I didn’t want to litter the book with footnote numbers; alternative methods to that could have easily been devised but, ultimately, I opted against including extensive notes. While as readers we can disavow them altogether, not having them makes for a more comfortable book to wield. Finally, encountering it would be more like coming upon Baudelaire’s own notebook, free of editorial invasiveness, thereby leaving the reader to his or her own rapturous encounter with it, however intractable it may be. As for misreading or misinterpreting, I don’t think such can ever be definitively foreclosed. While errant and contentious readings exist, to fear risking them is to argue that we can fathom authorial intention, or that there are definitive and absolute interpretations. Reading should be dangerous, risky, volatile, something that threatens to undermine, overwhelm, and mutate us, if not put the world into metamorphosis, as books can and have done, though hardly as much in our depleted and toothless epoch. Otherwise, reading is just entertainment, a diversionary narcotic, and we have to be willing to be shattered by books, to undergo both subtle and emphatic shocks.

Self-Portrait by Charles Baudelaire, 1863-64

Biblioklept: What is Flares?

Hanshe: Quite simply, it’s a writer’s notebook; as such, it doesn’t have a single focus but is more motley, something of a hybrid entity. To paraphrase, we could call it The Poet Laid Bare (of poetic form). Nonetheless, I believe it has two principal nerve centers: critique and meditation.

The critique is many-tendrilled, with its points of observation being the craft of the writer, art and aesthetics, love, pleasure, and intoxication (numerous types), religion and theology, politics, etc. The writer’s smelting room and sometimes place of furious venting. As with Mon cœur mis à nu, there is a root in Poe, who in his Marginalia spoke of “a peculiar type of criticism” that “can only be designated by the ‘German ‘Schwarmerei’ — not exactly ‘humbug’ but ‘sky-rocketing’…” Baudelaire took up this idea, naming his work fusées, which is an expansive translation of the English skyrockets. A fusée is a pyrotechnical device (rocket, flare, or firework), musket, or heraldic emblem, hence the title corresponds well with the work’s variegated character. It is something incendiary, combative, and elegant. The manifold subtitles peppered throughout “Flares” offer us a provisional overview of its character, too: Plans, Projects, Suggestions, Notes, Hygiene, Morality, Conduct, Method. Here we see the writer’s notebook, the critique, and the meditation.

In speaking of intellectual gymnastics, the altar of the will, moral dynamics, the great deed, perfect health, the hygiene of the soul, political harmony of character, eurhythmy of character and faculties, self-purification, mastery of time, and accomplishing one’s duties, Baudelaire enumerates a concentration of terms and concepts related to self-cultivation. The book thus contains a kind of technology of the self, the outline of Baudelaire’s martial praxis for the artist — intellectual gymnastics and the sanctification of the will both bespeak an agonistic sensibility, as does his paean to greatness and his call to achieve it in contradistinction to the tremendous oppositional force of nothing less than an entire nation. What is this but Baudelaire’s Miltonic-Satanic typology. “The man of letters rends foundations…” (Flares §6) Such terminology, and the repeated invocations to himself to master his will and to work diligently to become who he is, are part of a regimen of poetic self-shaping. “Want every day to be the greatest of men!!!” (My Heart… §70) The references to Emerson and his Conduct of Life further reinforce that, which is but one reason why in the book’s synopsis I made a parallel to Marcus Aurelius, characterizing the book as Baudelaire’s meditations, which I see as its second nerve center. The poet is clearly concerned with self-government, and this shaping or cultivation of the self is meant to strengthen him, thereby aiding his accomplishing his artistic tasks, of which the book is in part a record.

These notions can be woven together with other parts of the work, i.e. §16 of “Flares,” where Baudelaire speaks of the most perfect type of virile Beauty (the Miltonic Satan­), or the Emersonian hero (he who is immovably centered), giving us the supreme artistic model of Satan, that is, Satan as the light-bringer, the visionary, he who is anti-human (“Let us defy the people, common sense, the heart, inspiration, and evidence.” §47; “The man of letters is the enemy of the world.” §53). In §21 of ”Flares” Baudelaire asks, “To give oneself to Satan, what is it?” The book provides us with some answers, as does his poetry (the “Litanies of Satan” et alia), and his Dandy (a superior figure) is another type with similarly sublime aspirations. It is the onset of the anti-Christian hyperanthropos. “The poet, the priest, and the soldier are the only great men among men: … the rest are made for the whip” (§47).

Biblioklept: You bring up Baudelaire the Dandy… In one section of My Heart Laid Bare, Baudelaire writes, “Eternal superiority of the Dandy,” and then immediately under it “What is the Dandy?” What was the Dandy to Baudelaire?

Hanshe: Although your question is more the subject of an essay, if not book, a brief typology of Baudelaire’s notion of the Dandy and Dandyism could be constructed through examining some of the passages wherein he refers to both, not only within My Heart Laid Bare, but also within his œuvre.

In “Dandyism,” an essay in The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire describes dandyism as a social attitude as strange as dueling, an exilic institution, a form of self-invention, a cult of the ego, a form of self-government, a spiritual or philosophical praxis, and a form of heroism in the midst of a decadent age. The dandy is also an enemy of democracy. Baudelaire roots the figure socio-politically, diagnosing that it is a type born during a limbic stage “when democracy is not yet all powerful and aristocracy is only just beginning to totter and fall.” In its simplest form, the dandy is one who makes his life into a work of art, which begs the question, what is a work of art to Baudelaire? He has clearly defined ideas of that, but to elaborate upon them here would take us into another labyrinth.

To return to My Heart Laid Bare, prior to the section you cite, he speaks of the dandy as one who “must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live & sleep before a mirror,” which is one of the key passages on the dandy. Beyond cultivating a refined appearance (which begs another question: what is appearance and what does it signify?) and that statement suggesting a possibly self-enclosed reality, it can also refer to self-reflection, to the ceaseless act of learning to know oneself and becoming who one is, just as it suggests dreaming before a reflective optical object, therefore, to projecting one’s dreams, visions, etc. to the world (the very work of creation).

Yet, is a mirror only strictly a literal mirror, or are other things (objects, people, animals, etc.) mirrors before which the dandy lives & sleeps, too? If the world is a mirror and the dandy lives & sleeps before it, is he not one who is contra mundum, one who stands in opposition to what most value as meaningful? Recall Baudelaire’s gibe about usefulness: — to be useful is hideous (a damnation of bourgeois values). And when the poet proclaims that dandyism is “an institution outside the law,” it evokes his statement about the man of letters being “an enemy of the world.” Yet the dandy also “has a rigorous code of laws,” hence he is not lawless, only free of the world’s laws (and morals). While Foucault admired if not adopted Baudelaire’s concept of the dandy, in his essay on the Enlightenment he noted that “‘the doctrine of elegance’ imposes ‘upon its ambitious and humble disciples’ a discipline more despotic than the most terrible religions.” While judgment of that can be left to each individual, think of the passage in “Flares” wherein Baudelaire says that “the true saint is the one who whips and kills the people for the good of the people.” Could we paraphrase: “the true Dandy is the one who whips and kills himself for the good of himself”? Is what Foucault calls despotism not then but a fierce martial regimen for self-overcoming in order to achieve sublimity? “Above all, TO BE a great man and a Saint for oneself” (MHLB §42). One passage Baudelaire cites from Emerson’s Conduct of Life is here apposite: “Great men … have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.” The martial praxis I spoke of earlier is thus not a fanciful or errant interpretation. While Baudelaire had an antagonistic relationship to his father-in-law General Aupick, even once attempting to have him assassinated, he seems to have been marked by his regimental character, but cultivated it as a drive for perfecting his poetics.

To return to the task of developing a refined appearance, consider this caveat from The Painter of Modern Life: “Dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” Conceivably, this is what Nietzsche meant in part when he spoke of the profundity of superficiality — the surface is made into a spectral projection of the interior (the depths); the inner world and its every dimension become a panoply of scintillating folds rippling on the surface of a body. Think of reality being a hologram of the cosmos. And by negative definition, the Dandy is anti-natural and highly refined: in My Heart Laid Bare, Baudelaire states that “Woman is the opposite of the Dandy” because she “is natural, that is, abominable” and so “always vulgar, that is, the opposite of the Dandy.” This seems to imply that woman is a natural dandy therefore, according to Baudelaire, she cannot be a true Dandy. In The Painter of Modern Life, a parallel is also made between dandyism and “spirituality and stoicism,” whose gymnastic exercises are meant “to strengthen the will and school the soul” (dandyism as dueling).

Baudelaire is clearly not some lackadaisical café rat devoid of great drives and satisfied with the weakest form of pulsions. The Surrealist dream that everyone becomes a poet would probably — rightfully — be a nightmare to him, indicative of what he saw as the leveling spirit of democracy. “Can you imagine a Dandy speaking to the people, except to scorn them?” (MHLB §22) Baudelaire was far more exacting in his poetics and compared the Dandy’s doctrine of elegance and originality to “the most rigorous monastic rule” akin to “the inexorable commands of the Old Man of the Mountain.” The dandy could be conceived of as a kind of poetic samurai — not only a warrior, but a highly refined person, a practitioner of the arts, a hopeful master of bunbu-ryōdō (the two ways of the civil and martial arts).

Ultimately, the dandy is for Baudelaire a figure of opposition and revolt and “representative of what is best in human pride, of that need to combat and destroy triviality.” Camus argued that the dandy’s existence is only found “in the expression of others’ faces” (a mirror) and that “he plays at life because he is unable to live it,” a viewpoint I would contest. It is an ecstatic life, lived at the highest pitch; an exilic life of limit experiences and extreme expenditure.

Biblioklept: Baudelaire writes in §5 that “Woman is the opposite of the Dandy. Therefore she must inspire horror.” He seems to equate women with the natural world, and notes that they are thus “abominable.” There are a number of aphorisms and notes in the collection that will read as sexist to many contemporary readers.

Hanshe: To pursue the absolute logical extreme of where your arrow could lead, we might paraphrase the title of a famous book on Sade and here ask, Must We Burn Baudelaire? Undoubtedly, le poète maudit is not an advocate of equality, and therefore not someone to seek political guidance from. Walter Benjamin said that, “Ultimately, Baudelaire’s political insights do not go fundamentally beyond those of professional conspirators.” He had contempt for humanity in general, despised most artists and writers, saw only poets, priests, and warriors as venerable, avowed that all love is prostitution, and declared God the most prostituted being. Is his caustic view of women different then from any of those barbs and declarations, or his caustic view of the human species itself? And is this a matter of personal prejudice or, conversely, a matter of the ruling mores of the time, which he perhaps didn’t always escape? To address this, just as with the dandy et alia, we’d have to examine all of the passages wherein Baudelaire speaks of women before being able to come to a just understanding of his views, unless we want to succumb to a facile judgment. In Baudelaire’s Prose Poems, Edward Kaplan noted that Baudelaire’s practice easily surpasses our theories.

In lieu of totality, a few observations: To focus on the passage you refer to, there’s a specific context, and it seems that it’s more what is natural, and precisely naturalism in relation to dandyism, that Baudelaire is critical of. If something is innate, then there’s no art, no invention, no act of transfiguration. Nonetheless, I would question his view of women being natural dandies. If artifice or dandyism is natural to women, then every woman would be a master of such, which is not the case. How many Claude Cahuns are there? One. How many Baroness Elsa von Freytags? One. Baudelaire doesn’t seem to recognize, at least in the passage in question, that artifice is learned, cultivated, developed; what is seemingly natural becomes such through a long period of incorporation and practice. Artifice is a discipline. Baudelaire’s viewpoint is also specific to a culture and a civilization. What would he think of the males of the African Wodaabe tribe, who do more to cultivate their beauty than the female Wodaabes? Since the men are trained from youth in the art of artifice, could they be true dandies? and what of many 18th-C European men, who from their youth onward powdered their faces, rouged their cheeks and lips, and wore wigs — according to Baudelaire’s perspective, would not both be considered abominable?

To reflect on another passage, consider the dedication to Les Paradis artificiels, where Baudelaire says that “woman is the being who projects the greatest shadow or the greatest light into our dreams. Woman is fatally suggestive; she leads another life in addition to her own; she lives spiritually in the imaginations she haunts and fertilizes.” Julia Kristeva observes that there is an ambivalent splitting here toward amatory objects that are both ideal and abject. I would add that, since Baudelaire equates the artist with the prostitute, whenever he speaks of the prostitute, he is also then speaking of the artist or poet, which makes for a further splitting or ambivalence. The prostitute in Baudelaire’s work is both a member of the polis (a literal prostitute) and a concept or type (the artist). What too are we to make of the fact that, in Paradis artificiels, Baudelaire disguises himself as a curious, mature woman with an excitable spirit?

To present a definitive counter view, in his poem on Sappho, Baudelaire describes the ancient Greek poet as virile, recognizing in her the same quality of strength he recognizes in his Miltonic Satan, and speaks of admiringly. Simply writing of lesbian erotics in France in the mid-18th C was, if not an anomaly, certainly far from common. And Baudelaire’s poetry is peopled with lesbians, prostitutes, courtesans, old women, and widows; they are not excluded from his urban reality, but compose a large part of it. One of the reasons why the original edition of Les fleurs du Mal was in part banned was due to the poems about lesbians. Baudelaire saw beyond the object of desire and focused on desire itself as a pulsional force, free of all moral tenor. He was fined 300 francs for offending public morality and forced to suppress numerous poems from Les fleurs du Mal to gain permission to publish the book. The country of liberté, égalité, and fraternité was not so emancipated, hardly amoral, far from it. It wasn’t until 1944 that women were granted suffrage in France, and not until as late as 1975 that abortion was legal there — so much for enlightenment in the city of lights. In freely writing about lesbians and seeing their desire as no different from the desire of Don Juan, Baudelaire didn’t suffer from the moral priggishness that prevailed in the Second Empire, and which continued into the 20th C, and still in many ways prevails today (as the social-media generation calls one aspect of it, “slut shaming” — but why even refer to your desire as sluttish? It’s simply the natural expression of a rich and abundant libido). To the horror of one of his landlords, Baudelaire also had a black lover. But naturalism, now that’s abominable… Can we not be so solemn and sacrosanct and see what’s comical in this?

In “The Ideal,” we also have another definitive counter view. Baudelaire overturns the predominant stereotype of women as anemic and weak and sings the praises of Lady Macbeth, and of the figure of Night, one of Michelangelo’s magisterial sculptures of a strong, vigorous woman, a figure who starkly contrasts with any conventional notion of woman as gentle, passive, and obedient. A Titan. Ultimately, it’s the cogitating, powerful, self-directed Lady Macbeth, a figure whose heart is abyssal in its depth and who embraces her desires, that Baudelaire expresses admiration for, extols as an ideal. The women scorned in some passages cannot therefore be women in general, but only a certain type of woman, a gender code many women themselves reject. In fact, in his early essay on Poe, Baudelaire argues that the reason why many writers regard women as nothing but household utensils or objects of lust (his words) is due to their not receiving an adequate education, both in terms of politics and literature. It’s a brief passage, but he recognizes that differences between men and women are not due to character or essence in any degree, but to women being ostracized from the socio-political sphere. In the same essay, he also criticizes Poe for being quite anti-feminine. Finally, to look briefly at a poem related to the passage you cited, in “Confession,” the female narrator avows that the work of being a beautiful woman is not only difficult, but banal and mechanical, which seems to in fact cancel or negate the viewpoint that dandyism is natural to women. If not, it certainly complicates the statement.

We see here how passages from a notebook cannot be too easily seized upon and taken as definitive and representative ‘viewpoints.’ While undoubtedly embodying the misogyny particular to the time period, in the end, a more nuanced, complex, and variegated or tensional view of women exists in Baudelaire’s œuvre. And what more incandescent and volcanic performance of Baudelaire do we have than Diamanda Galas’ Litanies of Satan? Clearly, Baudelaire’s views of women didn’t impede her from reading or working with him, and she brooks no fools. Today, Sade is still read, and he will continue to be read tomorrow, and the same will be true of Baudelaire. If perfectly ethical viewpoints (from what perspective?) are to dictate our reading, a host of books would have to be dispensed with or, much worse, burnt, which would be to engage in the act of upholding social ‘purity’ through the cleansing (or destruction) of what is ‘degenerate,’ and that is a fascistic pursuit, even if limited to censorship, for censorship is a form of silencing and silencing is a form of death, of ostracization.

Biblioklept: As we’re discussing contemporary disjunctions (and conjunctions): Is there a contemporary analog of the Dandy?

Hanshe: If the dandy was a type that, according to Baudelaire, was born during an interstice between the supremacy of democracy and the decay of aristocracy, then no. It’s beyond the will of the subject — the political phenomenon that could generate the figure doesn’t exist.

If we want to consider GQ’s viewpoint (see Nick Carvell’s recent fluff piece “The Modern Dandy”), then Dandyism does exist and Kanye West is but one embodiment of it, which I can’t consider with anything but derision. Dandyism as populism?? Baudelaire’s dandy would speak to “the people” only to scorn them, whereas West struts before yet supplicates them, desperately yearning to be worshipped. Carvell’s conception of the dandy is attenuated and frivolous, limited mostly to haberdashery and opposing dress standards, where style alone is a form of self-fashioning. In that, the surface is not a reflection of a depth, but strictly a surface, or an attitudinal pose. To Baudelaire, the delight in clothes and material elegance are no more than symbols of the aristocratic superiority of the Dandy’s mind. I see no such superiority of mind in Carvell’s article, let alone in his subjects, including those in the accompanying videos. They evoke more what the French in the 19th C, including Baudelaire, called gandins, an untranslatable word, though perhaps it’s akin to a fop. Gandins were elegant young men, more or less ridiculous, who frequented the boulevards during the Second Empire, obsessed as they were with appearance and with always ‘being seen’ in the ‘right places.’ The term was popularized via Paul Gandin, a character in Theodore Barriere’s play, Les parisiens (1855). At that time, it was linked etymologically to Boulevard de Gand (now Boulevard des Italiens), a meeting place for those who considered themselves elegant. It wasn’t a haunt of Baudelaire’s. The gandins surely would have been astonished by his having a black lover. In La curée, Zola refers to them as pigs and imbeciles. Paris is saturated with both male and female gandins peacocking around as if they had just walked out of a magazine article and are waiting for Anna Wintour to discover them. It’s extreme conformism, not dandyism.

To Carvell, being a dandy is “all about playing with what we consider traditional masculinity,” which is a corrosion of dandyism, the diminishing of something formerly incandescent and nefarious to a withering husk of itself. Since longstanding forms of identity have basically been eroded (yet not identity politics, for multitudinous forms of classificatory identities (racial, sexual, cultural, etc.) still reign as primary signifiers from which scores of people cannot, or refuse to, free themselves), is there even any such thing as traditional masculinity? Carvell also restricts dandyism to men, and elsewhere in his piece he speaks of living in a period of less restrictive dress codes, which thereby makes “dressing a little more on the dandy side” “ever easier.” This perspective makes dandyism sound simply like an act of posing and accessorizing. To Sebastian Horsley, being a dandy was about being adored (his own declaration). Hence, ease — acceptability & veneration, conformism essentially, hardly revolt — is part of the makeup of the contemporary dandy. Is that even remotely akin to Baudelaire’s Dandy, or to Beau Brummel, or to Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet? If the GQ notion of the dandy entails in part a cult of the ego and some form of self-invention, it’s hardly an exilic institution, let alone a form of self-government on the scale of what Baudelaire envisioned. Is there in such people a ceaseless act of self-knowledge? Would any of them be capable of writing a book as searching and Marsyan as Wilde’s De Profundis? And do they possess a parallel with spirituality and stoicism as rigorous as what Baudelaire imagined? And are they enemies of democracy, or figures of opposition and revolt (in more than merely facile, sophomoric ways)? They seem to mostly be advocates and devotees of capitalism, consumers waiting, hoping, to be consumed. I would opt against accepting some severely diminished form of dandyism. Let’s sustain a higher, more rigorous standard of valuation and not let Dandyism be annexed and neutered.

All of that may sound severe or restrictive to the indulgent, who seem to equate freedom with the total disavowal of any standard of value, but remember that Camus proclaimed Baudelaire to be “the most profound theoretician of dandyism.”

Biblioklept: It would be fascinating to hear Baudelaire’s take on some of our contemporary public figures (like Kanye) as well as our contemporary writers.

In his notes in My Heart Laid Bare, Baudelaire is sometimes cryptically critical (and occasionally nakedly critical) of “The Literary Rabble.” George Sand gets taken to task in particular…

Hanshe: What I think your remark ultimately points to about Baudelaire, if I’m to distill it, and if we push it beyond a possible mere animus of his, is a criterion of value that is rooted to a diagnostic view of culture and civilization.

To refer to Baudelaire’s remarks as a symptomatology à la Nietzsche might be overstated, because, generally, Baudelaire does seem to be speaking directly about whatever object of his spleen, whereas whomever Nietzsche ‘attacks’ in his agons, he also values and admires, as befits a thinker who has shattered simple dichotomies (as strong a critic as Nietzsche was of Socrates, he did say that Socrates was very close to him, which is one of the reasons why he had to continually fight him). For Nietzsche, the ‘enemy’ is also always or simultaneously a ‘friend,’ and vice-versa. Whatever figure he chooses to criticize or, more affectively, ‘attack’ in his agons, becomes a typus emblematic of a cultural, psychological, spiritual, or other phenomenon that demands critical scrutiny. What he attacks or criticizes, he respects as something victorious that has contributed to the shaping of culture, whether negatively or positively.

Despite the above caveat about Baudelaire, we could nonetheless interpret his criticisms similarly. For example, take what he says in My Heart Laid Bare of Sand and her lack of belief in hell and read it alongside what he says of her in his notes on De Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses: “In reality, Satanism has won. Satan has made himself innocent. Evil that is conscious of itself is less frightful and closer to healing than evil that is ignorant of itself. G. Sand inferior to de Sade.” Here we have a theological critique about evil and our consciousness of evil. For Baudelaire, to see nature in Rousseau’s terms as innocent, as Sand does, is to lack knowledge, to be ignorant of the existence of evil, or not to offer any alternative reasoning or logic for it, whereas Sade is conscious of it, and because of that, he is superior, and the knowledge he imparts to us about evil is of greater value, which thereby makes his writing of greater value. As Baudelaire says in his cahiers, “We must always return to de Sade, that is, to the natural man, to explain evil.” Incidentally, Baudelaire does speak more positively of Sand in his early essay on Poe.

To enumerate the subjects of Baudelaire’s symptomatology then: style and whether it is eternal or not; individual versus herd mentality; flowing style as negative; the anti-artist and strict materialist (Voltaire is the representative type here); drunken inferior pedantics (the principle negative qualities of the literary rabble); the avant-garde as non-militant conformists who can only think as crowds; democracy as the enemy of art; the relationship between sexuality, art, and potency, etc. That is a list of mostly negative, not positive types (or subjects and some representative types), but I’ve spoken of some of the positive ones earlier.

And to return to your initial statement, in a letter to his mother, Baudelaire diagnoses the Parisians to be a decadent race, and one that he is so horrified by, it makes him want to flee humanity altogether: “You have no idea how much the Parisian race has declined. […] artists know nothing, authors know nothing — not even how to spell. All these people have become abject, perhaps inferior to common folk….. — I want to flee from the face of humanity, but especially from the face of the French.” Considering that, what might he think of our age?? Imaginably, we could engage in a thought experiment and exchange the names in the following jeremiad of his with ones from our own time to determine his possible diagnosis:

“With the exception of Chateaubriand, Balzac, Stendhal, Merimee, de Vigny, Flaubert, Banville, Gautier, Leconte de L’Isle, all the modern riffraff horrifies me. Virtue, horror. Vice, horror. A fluent style, horror. Progress, horror. Never talk to me anymore about those who say nothing.”

Leave it to each reader to conclude who of our time would be an exception for Baudelaire, and who would horrify him. Fluent style alone would bring down a whole wealth of writers, the near-entirety that is of those whom many people admire and extol as ‘great,’ and who are the object of focus in most print and media sources today. We hear their names again and again, ad nauseam. But if someone were to write the kind of critique that Baudelaire did, all the self-appointed judges would come out of the woodwork with their sickles and scarlet letters. There are few genuine trials, more public defamations — the ritual sparagmos of the scapegoat by the intoxicated, fiendish hordes. This decade is one where vilification, condemnation, and vengeance are typically mistaken for justice, and more often than not, such gestures are nothing but acts of sanctimonious, self-righteous moralism. But the moralist lacks a greater overarching vision of culture and civilization; moralists don’t see aeonically, only microscopically, limited largely to the frame of their own lives (the rabid narcissism of the age of the selfie (nauseating word) and Facebook), or decade, if even that. The enthusiastic fervor of the masses is to be feared.

Biblioklept: Tell us about your translating process. What sources did you use? Were there previous English translations of Baudelaire’s work that you wanted to capture the flavor of, or align with—or any translations that you strike you as stale or off key?

Hanshe: It’s first an act of immersion and saturation, then of revolt — a wild curving away or disorbiting —, finally of returning and loyalty, which is an additional period of immersion and saturation, but in a more concentrated, surgically precise way, when one burrows into the work like a mole.

I begin by reading the book numerous times, after which I make a quick, rough translation, like a sketch — a study toward the definitive work, the moment when it must at last be abandoned. During the initial stage, the aim is to hover within the atmosphere of the work and what it provokes, remaining attentive to impressions, intuitions, and other subtle sensations one has when entering it, or when it enters you. I focus less on individual words and more on persisting moods, the emotional or psycho-geographic tonalities of the writing, and thereby, hopefully, the writer’s esprit or Geist. It’s an act, however much this is possible, of incarnation, an attempt at bodysnatching, or entering an other like an host or incubus. To become the writer, or at least borrow some layers of his or her flesh, nerve endings, blood cells.

At the second stage, the period of revolt, the original is entirely abandoned and the translation is read as its own work and variously altered, undergoing a series of metamorphoses and mutations, till it sounds less like a sketch, less like a lingual transposition (with the inevitable infelicities that result from that), and more like an entity of its own. Disorbit to see anew, partially because there’s a stage when one can no longer see; a period of blindness and obfuscation when one is too dominated by the work to freely incarnate and create it anew.

In the final stage, the original is returned to and the translation is examined against it with the utmost rigor. That is an act of precise modification when one works to refine the translation as acutely as one can, making it into, hopefully, an eerie an incarnation of the original, albeit one that remains eminently foreign and always a translation.

Accompanying that was the reading of as much of Baudelaire’s other work as possible so as to have as expansive a knowledge or awareness of his entire œuvre. Additional sources included obvious enough reference books and related material, such as different studies on Baudelaire, from brief statements like those made by Nietzsche, to the remarks of Baudelaire’s own friends (Nadar and others) and the observations of Walter Benjamin, Derrida, Starobinski, Calasso, etc.

I didn’t seek to establish a relation with other translations, but I did turn to them afterwards, seeing that some choices were similar, some quite close, and others considerably different. I find some translations dated or far too contemporary, while others reduce Baudelaire to a kind of punkish adolescent rascal, imbuing his work with a tone I find alien to his spirit.

It would be tedious to reiterate a number of examples, but let me offer two observations about some translation differences. They may seem minor, but they are indicative of a certain range of infelicities, distortions, or tonal discord. As I say in my brief notes at the end of the book, my aim was not to contemporize Baudelaire, but to create a translation as close to mid-19th C. English as possible. A number of translators have rendered Baudelaire’s “porte-voix” as “megaphone,” but that word dates to 1878, hence it postdates the text by well over a decade. Instead, I chose “speaking-trumpet,” the corresponding English phrase of the period. In her book on Baudelaire, Rosemary Lloyd renders Baudelaire’s “table tournante” as “Ouija boards,” consequently arguing that “the reference to Ouija boards indicates that the main focus of [Baudelaire’s] criticism … is Victor Hugo,” but “Ouija,” a trademarked name, dates to 1891, over twenty years after Baudelaire’s death. Granted, “talking boards” equivalent to modern Ouija boards were used in China in the 12th C (called fuji), and claims have been made about other cultures using them (proof of which I believe remains lacking), but they weren’t revived, if we can say that, till the 19th C. In France, although a spiritualist invented the planchette in 1853 (a similar device was therefore used during Baudelaire’s time), he doesn’t use that word, but the exact French equivalent of table turning, hence, in this case, there’s no linguistic ambiguity. It would be equally if not more anachronistic to translate voiture as car instead of carriage. To cite one other brief example, in the “Choice of Consoling Maxims on Love,” Baudelaire uses the word “Aliborons,” a reference to Rabelais, but Isherwood renders that as “vainglorious jackasses” (other translators made similar bastardizations), hence entirely eliminating the literary reference. To strip a work of literary references when translating it is frankly an abomination. A writer’s intelligence and cultural richness must be respected, even if it’s beyond the ken of the average reader. If translations can be made more precise and historically accurate, then they must be.

Beyond that, more philologically correct versions of CB’s texts have been published in France since the existing English translations of My Heart Laid Bare had been made, which necessitates a new translation even more. If Benjamin found his translations paled in comparison to Baudelaire’s metric ingenuity and baroque banality, surely readers will find fault with my own renderings, but I struggled to offer as estimable a translation as I was capable of. Translation is an act of risk.

Biblioklept: How does My Heart Laid Bare fit (or not fit) into Baudelaire’s oeuvre?

Hanshe: There’s a passage in “Flares” wherein Baudelaire transmogrifies the nature of beauty, declaring that its essential and characteristic element is that which is slightly deformed, a disproportion that includes irregularity, the unexpected, surprise, astonishment. What isn’t slightly deformed, he says, is lacking in sensitivity, which is a subtle but incisive damnation of a classical precept, also a focus of attack in his final essay on Poe. This transfigured, affirmative notion of beauty as deformity is emblematic not only of My Heart Laid Bare, but of Baudelaire’s œuvre itself. It’s an anamorphosis of classical aesthetics, and thereby an ushering into being of modern aesthetics — Baudelaire gives birth to, or forges, a new, transgressive definition of beauty. A similar declaration exists in his essay “The Universal Exhibition of 1855”: “The beautiful is always bizarre.” In writing of marginal and extreme characters such as dandies, criminals, whores, beggars, lesbians, and other similar outcasts, or to use Nazi terminology, what would be considered Entartete (degenerate) material, Baudelaire enacted a transvaluation of the classical canon and what constitutes the adjudicated content of art, putting it into metamorphosis. To concentrate on such material and make it the province of art, the focus of that about which one is sensitive and which warrants representation — and Baudelaire was a seismograph of such material —, is to transfigure art itself. Although he recognized Baudelaire’s genius, T.S. Eliot essentially ridiculed his “stock of imagery” and said that Baudelaire’s “prostitutes, mulattoes, Jewesses, serpents, cats, corpses, form a machinery which has not worn very well,” but this critique is warped and ignorant. What Eliot neglects to discern (or was too orthodox to countenance) is that Baudelaire was inaugurating an aesthetic that stands in strict contradistinction to any notions of purity, heroism, supreme health, physical perfection, etc., which we could now call an antifascist aesthetic. To write a book called Les fleurs du Mal was both a subversive critical and creative act. In the late essay on Poe, Baudelaire points out that the phrase decadent literature is academic and denounces the classicists for their focus on morality of purpose and merit of intentions as loci of critique. This he declares is part of the maelstrom of mediocrity. Baudelaire is one of the principal figures to have established, and vindicated, an aesthetics of ugliness, locating beauty in the strange, the castoff, the calamitous, the disdained. A striking example of his celebration of such is his prose poem “In Praise of Dogs.” The Nazi’s notion of the degenerate was based partly upon Nordau’s book Entartung (Degeneration), and Baudelaire was one of its key subjects, for his life demonstrated to Nordau all the mental stigmata of degeneration. In using such rhetoric in his etiology, Nordau essentially made Baudelaire into a martyr, and when describing his death and the aftermath of his acolytes, he made an analogy between Baudelaire and Alexander the Great and his generals, further endowing his heritage with a stately, heroic aura, though that wasn’t his aim. Nordau focused on numerous poems from Les fleurs du Mal to illustrate that le poète maudite was attracted to what he defined as the morbid, criminal, and lewd, while even Baudelaire’s fear of abysses (cremnophobia) betrayed the obsession of a diseased mind. Nordau also referred to Verlaine as “a repulsive degenerate subject with an asymmetric skull and Mongolian face, an impulsive vagabond and dipsomaniac.” I would not be sharing salt with Nordau, or any of his ilk, any time. Give me the vagabonds and dipsomaniacs. Baudelaire’s poetics of deformity endowed abnormality with dignity, and clearly triumphed over Nordau’s moraline critique — the poète maudite became one of the incandescent beacons of the 20th century while Nordau has the Nazis as bedfellows. My Heart Laid Bare concentrates (and exalts) Baudelaire’s transmogrified notion of strange beauty; it is a fragmentary and aphoristic equivalent of the poetry, prose poems, and essays; their critical-creative corollary. The work of one who is anti-human. A flower of evil.

Like Nietzsche, Baudelaire was a posthumous writer far in advance of his time, which he was wholly aware of and stated: “I have some convictions, in a higher sense, and which cannot be understood by the people of my time.”

Biblioklept: In your estimation, what’s the best starting point for readers new to Baudelaire—particularly younger readers?

Hanshe: It depends upon their proclivities, but The Flowers of EvilParis SpleenLa Fanfarlo, My Heart Laid Bare, and Artificial Paradises. If one wants to have direct, intimate contact with Baudelaire, to gain some knowledge of the everyday reality of his life, read the letters. I would also encourage people to turn to some of the lesser-read essays, too, such as the ones on Shakespeare, Poe, laughter, and toys. In the latter essay, speaking of the potent effect of toys upon the child’s imagination, Baudelaire notes that “the toy is the child’s first initiation to art, […] its first concrete example of art.”

Biblioklept: What are some of the better English translations of Baudelaire you’ve read?

Hanshe: To give you a list would be cursory, but assessing translations with any equanimity requires considerable effort and space, and I prefer to eschew being flippant. Translations can also vary from passage to passage, just as in any performance, hence it’s beneficial to read a series of different ones to see how the renderings diverge. Nonetheless, although I haven’t read every translation of each of these works, in brief, of Paris Spleen, I admire the translations of Louise Varèse and Raymond MacKenzie, of Flowers of Evil, the one by James McGowan, and the New Directions edition, which features the work of various translators. I’ve only read one English version of Artificial Paradises. I’m focused now more on reading Baudelaire in French.

Portrait of Jeanne Duval by Charles Baudelaire, 1865

Biblioklept: Will you tell us a little bit about some of the sketches and drawings you’ve included at the end of My Heart Laid Bare?

Hanshe: Considering the plethora of Baudelaire’s reflections on the plastic arts, we thought it apropos to include some of his own drawings, as well as a few portraits of him by other artists, while the drawings and sketches are also related to Baudelaire’s project of self-knowledge and critique. For any Baudelaire aficionados, there’s a magnificent large-scale edition of his drawings called Les dessins de Baudelaire. Even if you can’t read French, it’s a treasure to behold. One of his early editors, Auguste Poulet-Malassis, said that “Baudelaire’s aptitude for the art of drawing was all the more striking because, when he took to pencil or pen, it was unexpectedly, as if to relieve his memory of a definitively accentuated physiognomy, and he summarized it in his brain, fixing it in a few decisive features.” Included in our book are portraits of friends, literary figures, incendiaries like Blanqui (whose Eternity by the Stars we published in 2013), and a series of striking self-portraits that convey a considerable intensity that is equal in lucidity to Van Gogh’s self-portraits, not to mention one rather humorous, but ultimately tragic, drawing of the poet dreaming with avidity of a bag of money, which seems to simultaneously fly toward and away from him. These are yet further facets of his observing eye, of the heart laid bare, of the pursuit of self-knowledge, and are all conveyed with real, almost searing perspicacity. Some French scholars believe that, had Baudelaire never written any poetry but continued to draw if not paint, he would be remembered for his artworks.

Many of the drawings contain text, such as notes, scribbles, and lines from poems, some of which are by Baudelaire, some of which are by others. The Blanqui drawing has a quotation in English, with slight variations, from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”: “Art is long and time’s fleeting, / And our hearts, though strong and brave, / as muffled drums are beating / Fun’ral marches to the grave.” Then there’s the series of his portraits of women, including several of his lover Jeanne Duval, which are rather tender and affectionate and reveal his admiration and love, not to speak of the fact that he definitely seemed to very much enjoy drawing breasts.

Self-Portrait with Other Drawings by Charles Baudelaire, 1845-47

The self-portrait of a young Baudelaire on page 212 — only recently discovered and published here in English for the first time — contains what may be his only nude drawing, which actually seems to be a loving, gentle depiction of one woman performing cunnilingus upon another, who is gazing directly at us, free, comfortable, devoid of any shame, and joyful. It’s not a very good drawing, hardly comparable to his self-portrait, but it does convey (as his other drawings of women) a distinctly different sentiment than some of the poems about women, yet perhaps it’s a self-portrait too, of Baudelaire disguised as a woman, a corollary to his disguised female presence in Paradis artificiels. The eyes are similar. It’s also one of the only self-portraits to include images of other people (and a dog).

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

Hanshe: I’ve stolen hordes of books actually, but only when young and devious, in concert with a friend, a fellow bibliophile who was something of a Baudelairean figure himself. We used to have contests to see who could steal the greatest number of books, or the most expensive, which we would pinch from both libraries and bookstores. Terrible bastards. It was a hunger for knowledge. And, every time, he bested me.

The greatest achievement was when he managed to steal an enormous oversize monograph of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, which he seemingly absorbed into his jacket, without my witnessing it. When we reached his house to compare treasures and savor them over a bottle of cognac, I was stunned, and deeply envious. When I asked how he did it, he burst into a devilish laugh, then started to fill our glasses with cognac. Great thieves don’t reveal their secrets. He used to do the same thing in supermarkets with six-packs of Guinness. He’d walk in and, within a few minutes, his jacket would be full of bottles (not cans mind you, making the act even riskier), sometimes up to 12, everyone entirely unaware. Perhaps his acumen for thievery had to do with his invisible air (there was something rather ghostly about him), or his catlike demeanor, which made him appear present but absent, enabling him to vanish almost at will, as if he walked into a shadow, or leapt upon a sill without anyone’s noticing. Although he was from an Irish-Protestant working class family, he had this very regal gait and diction, as if he was blueblood (like Henry Chinaski in Barfly), or some prince, yet it wasn’t an affectation. I guess no one believed that such an innocent looking elegant soul would ever steal. When he was down and out once, he sold off all his cymbals and drums so as to be able to buy rare first editions of his favorite books, like James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night. Much later in life, he went cuckoo for Christ and, in an act of real madness, defamed his entire past as a period of pagan idolatry, then made a funeral pyre of all his books and records, including, I believe, all his own poetry. Somewhere in the universe there’s a mist of beautiful, highly complex ashes. You see the dangers of succumbing to defunct metaphysics. It was a phantasmatic soul abduction. In his honor, I stole a two-volume set of Rembrandt’s drawings from a prestigious university library. One day, when I finally get my books out of storage, I’ll return those Rembrandts.


Rainer J. Hanshe

Rainer J. Hanshe is a writer. He is the author of two novels, The Acolytes (2010) and The Abdication (2012), and a hybrid text created in collaboration with Federico Gori, Shattering the Muses (2017). His second novel, The Abdication, has been translated into Slovakian (2015), Italian (2016), and Turkish (2017). He is the editor of Richard Foreman’s Plays with Films (2013) and Wordsworth’s Fragments (2014), and the translator of Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare & Other Texts (2017). Hanshe has also written numerous essays on Nietzsche, principally concerning synesthesia, incubation, and agonism. He is the founder of Contra Mundum Press and Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. Other work of his has appeared in Sinn und Form, Jelenkor, AsymptoteQuarterly Conversation, ChrisMarker.orgBlack Sun Lit, and elsewhere. Hanshe is currently working on two novels, Humanimality, and Now, Wonder, and In Praise of Dogs, a photojournalism project with Harald Hutter.

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