Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

Patterns: Wilde, Kerouac, Baudelaire

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I enjoy most about reading literature is spotting patterns across genres, cultures and times. It’s fascinating to see how great writers and poets, separated by wide chasms of every manner, are struck by the same abstract thought, and then crystallise into words, depending upon the dictates of their own personal voice. Yesterday, I was reading Oscar Wilde’s bitingly funny The Importance of Being Ernest, when I came across this line:

“It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.”

When spoken by a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to Harry from The Picture of Dorian Gray, these words are more than half-jest. I’ve found that quite a few of Wilde’s most profound insights are delivered in the language of jest. In any event, this immediately reminded me of two other writers, each as different from the other as they are from Wilde.

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”  These words are written (or perhaps more accurately, spoken) about a woman he has met, quite literally, on the road, two minutes before. Kerouac’s spontaneous prose is a world away from Wilde’s clipped, manicured and elegantly-constructed lines, and yet the sentiment is quite identical.

The unique tragedy of a transient meeting, where – paradoxically – the depth of feeling depends upon its very transience (because of the supreme scope it leaves to the imagination!), is – in my view – most beautifully described by Baudelaire, in the famous A Une Passante (‘To a Passerby”). The last six lines of the sonnet – which is about a single glimpse of a woman, which the poet catches in a passing crowd – are:

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Previously, I’ve discussed how this poem’s sentiment resembles the troubadour concept of “amor de lonh” (“love from afar”), where the very strength of desire is founded upon the impossibility of its fulfillment. Walter Benjamin, writing about this poem, says that “this is the look… of an object of a love… of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfilment”, and that “the never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.”

Benjamin also says that “it is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with a moment of enchantment.” The idea of an eternal parting, that follows upon a moment’s communion, is the other, dominant sentiment of A Une Passante, and this is where the obvious similarities with Kerouac and Wilde come in. In many ways, this is akin to non-fulfillment. Both situations involve a paradox – things that we think are antithetical to love or desire here become their apotheoses. Both are, ultimately, about the failure of passion to achieve its goal – and that is exactly the point. And yet, the sentiment is subtly different. In amor de lonh, and the first reading of A Une Passante, desire is defined by the very impossibility of fulfillment. In Wilde, Kerouac, and the second reading of A Une Passante, it is, on the other hand, the tantalising possibilities that a moment’s meeting allow the imagination to play with, that form the core of the feeling. Both, in their own way, count pain as an essential component of true depth of feeling.

The richness of A Une Passante – and how it gives one new things to think about on each reading, and how so many diverse writings seem to lead back to it – never ceases to amaze me!

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Filed under Beat Generation, Charles Baudelaire, England, French poetry, Jack Kerouac, Oscar Wilde

Baudelaire, Rudel and the Impossibility of the Ideal

I’d like to discuss two very different poems, written by two very different kinds of poets, in two wildly contrasting styles – but which nonetheless evoke a very similar response in me.

The first is Baudelaire’s A Une Passante (To a Passerby). I append William Aggeler’s translation.

The street about me roared with a deafening sound .
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief ,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;

Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue’s.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate, 
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

The second is an excerpt from Swinburne’s Triumph of Time, dealing with the legend of the troubadour Jaufre Rudel:

There lived a singer in France of old
By the tideless dolorous midland sea.
In a land of sand and ruin and gold
There shone one woman, and none but she.
And finding life for her love’s sake fail,
Being fain to see her, he bade set sail,
Touched land, and saw her as life grew cold,
And praised God, seeing; and so died he.
Died, praising God for his gift and grace:
For she bowed down to him weeping, and said
“Live”; and her tears were shed on his face
Or ever the life in his face was shed.
The sharp tears fell through her hair, and stung
Once, and her close lips touched him and clung
Once, and grew one with his lips for a space;
And so drew back, and the man was dead.

 The context needs some explanation. The primary theme of troubadour poetry was chivalrous, or courtly love, being as they were, wandering composers and singers of Occitan lyric in the high middle ages, who depended to a great extent on royal patronage. The lyrics of the troubadours explore the idea of love from many different standpoints, in many different ways. One conceptualisation of it is Jaufre Rudel’s amor de lonh, or “love from afar”. Legend has it that Rudel (who was of the princely class) heard so much about the beauty and wisdom of the Countess of Tripoli, that without ever seeing her, and from far away in Southwestern France, he fell passionately in love with her. His songs reflect his love (During May, when the days are long,/ I admire the song of the birds from far away/ and when I have gone away from there/I remember a love far away.)

Eventually, Rudel decided to go on the Second Crusade to get to Tripoli, and legend has it that after a long and difficult journey, during which he fell sick, he was dying as he arrived; the Countess came down from her castle to him as he was brought ashore, and he died in her arms. During the romantic era, this theme was treated by many – Browning wrote Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli, and of course, there are those two stanzas from Swinburne.

Now, there is absolutely no doubt that Baudelaire’s views on love were radically opposed to those of the romantics, or those of the troubadours. So, to elucidate the commonality that I nonetheless do see in this, let’s look at Walter Benjamin’s famous analysis of A Une Passante. Benjamin is dealing with the concept of the flaneur as depicted in Baudelaire’s poetry, and in particular, the relationship between the flaneur and the  crowd that he observes, follows and mingles with. Benjamin writes:

The sonnet presents the crowd not as a refuge of a criminal but as that of love which eludes the poet. At first glance this function appears to be a negative one, but it is not. Far from eluding the erotic in the crowd, the apparition which fascinates him is brought to him by this very crowd. The delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight. The never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” (Emphasis supplied) (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, p. 45)

Ignoring Benjamin’s broader point about what the flaneur tells us about the rise of capitalism in the 19th century, I’m particularly interested in the underlined words, which I think reveal another aspect of the poem, one that Benjamin does not treat in express words. I feel that in this poem, Baudelaire has captured, with great beauty and economy, a profound truth about the human condition: the unattainability of the ideal is what makes it so. Baudelaire’s state of delirium, the vision of tempests “germinating” in the woman’s eye, and more than anything else, “the sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills” all have their inception and their raison d’être in the first five words at the beginning of the tercet – “a lightning flash… then night“. It is the fleetingness of the moment and the impossibility of fulfillment that give rise to this mad intensity of feeling. This, precisely, is what is contained in Benjamin’s beautiful expression, “love at last sight“, and this is the truth he grasps when he says that “the never marks the high point of the encounter“. Not just that – the “never”, for me, defines the encounter and makes it worthy of a poem. Beauty is no beauty unless it is fleeting, and the single glance that resurrects the poet from the void of non-feeling, rescues him from his perennial state of soporific benumbment, would only send him back there if it lingered too long. I say this: when Baudelaire asks, “will I see you no more before eternity?“, he knows that the answer is no, and that is how is must be. The last three lines, ostensibly a lament, do not really signify the poet’s wish to find the woman again. On the contrary, if he did find her again, all would be lost. She would become just another person, commonplace and quotidian; and whatever she is in the poem, an ordinary person she is not. The poem is constructed and depends upon the fleetingness of the encounter, its very transience and ephemerality that permits the poet to see the certainty of love in a passing glance, experience resurrection in a moment’s gaze, find himself in delirium at a passing vision. The fulfillment of his electric, heightened sense of desire would destroy the very essence of what makes it so. As Benjamin writes later on, once again capturing the essence of things perfectly:

It is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with a moment of enchantment.”  (Benjamin, p. 125)

And most tellingly, later down on the same page:

This is the look… of an object of a love… of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfilment.

And this, I think, is exactly what is at work in the Rudel legend, in the very concept of amor de lonh. Rudel’s death as he gazes his first upon the woman he has always loved is the only logical conclusion to the story. Just like Baudelaire’s intensity of feeling, his “love” – a kind of love admittedly entirely different from the love of the troubadours – exists on the condition of “farewell forever“, so Rudel’s amor de lonh exists on the condition of an eternally unfulfilled longing to bridge an unbridgeable distance. Rudel’s attainment of his ideal, the Lady of Tripoli, would be as anti-climactic and as destructive of everything as would be Baudelaire finding his city-woman again. The bittersweet yearning, the intensity of passion, the depth of longing created and then fed by non-fulfilment – all that would be lost at the moment of attainment. And so, for the sake of that love, and for the sake of the beautiful art that it creates, there must never be attainment or fulfillment.

And I feel there’s something else that must be noted. In my first post, I spoke about the sorrow of Virgil, of Byron and of Camus, the sorrow that comes with the inevitable awareness of the eternal gap between substance and shadow. But while the ever-retreating Ausonian fields make Aeneas weep and while Byron’s Manfred laments at humankind being “half-dust, half-deity”, for Baudelaire and Rudel, on the other hand, this impossibility is precisely what makes the ideal the ideal in the first place. And if that is the case, then there is no purpose in only lamenting – ideals are meant to bring forth great art, and for these two poets, that is precisely what they do.

(A similar – though not identical – point, incidentally, is made over on the Lemming Project, a dissertation on Walter Benjamin. The writer says: “The flâneur loves the passing stranger in the same way that he loves any source of inspiration or literary device–for its effectiveness as a representation of his own consciousness.” – see http://www.thelemming.com/lemming/dissertation-web/home/a-une-passante.html)

It is a strange and alluring paradox – but if it is a paradox that gives to us A une Passante as well as the great troubadour lyrics, then I am grateful for it.

Rudel’s troubadour lyrics (and troubadour lyrics more generally): http://www.trobar.org/troubadours/jaufre_rudel/ (the musical world of the troubadours is endlessly fascinating – I couldn’t recommend it highly enough)

Browning’s Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli: http://www.online-literature.com/robert-browning/men-and-women/9/

Swinburne’s The Triumph of Time: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174574 (a brilliant poem independent of all else)

Baudelaire’s poetry: http://fleursdumal.org/1868-table-of-contents

A few things Walter Benjamin: http://www.thelemming.com/lemming/dissertation-web/articles/articles-nav.html


Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry, Jaufre Rudel, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Robert Browning, Troubadours, Victorian Poetry, Walter Benjamin