Alex Danchev is dazzled by Roberto Calasso's meditations on Baudelaire
Roberto Calasso takes his cue from Sainte-Beuve: "M Baudelaire has found a way to construct, at the extremities of a strip of land held to be uninhabitable and beyond the confines of known Romanticism, a bizarre pavilion, a folly, highly decorated, highly tormented, but graceful and mysterious, where people read the books of Edgar Allan Poe, where they recite exquisite sonnets, intoxicate themselves with hashish to ponder about it afterwards, where they take opium and thousands of other abominable drugs in cups of the finest porcelain. This singular folly, with its marquetry inlays, of a planned and composite originality, which for some time has drawn the eye toward the extreme point of the Romantic Kamchatka, I call Baudelaire's Folly. The author is content to have done something impossible, in a place where it was thought that no one could go."
That conceit is characteristic Sainte-Beuve – brilliant and insolent, inventive and exact, not to say exacting. It is also characteristic Calasso, whose extravagant admiration and connective intuition makes a book of equal brilliance out of a chain of fragmentary reflections – Walter Benjamin might have called them blinks – beginning and ending with Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), cast as the primary metaphysician of modernity: part-creator, part-revelator, part-enactor of our signature condition. Calasso notes the weight in Baudelaire's verse; he weighs both the verse and the prose. The Flowers of Evil and The Painter of Modern Life are the foundation texts.
Calasso likes to bandy words with his subjects. His work can be read as a series of dialogues with his illustrious predecessors – with Sainte-Beuve, with Proust, with Stendhal, with Baudelaire himself – his intellectual interlocutors, his near neighbours on the common continent of letters. He quotes Jules Renard on "Baudelaire's dense phrasing, as if laden with electrical fluids", linking him to another commentator as if making an introduction. "The question of weight in Baudelaire's verse was brought up again almost one hundred years later by Julien Gracq: 'No poetry is as heavy as Baudelaire's, heavy with that weight typical of a ripe fruit about to drop from a drooping branch … Verses that constantly bend under the weight of memories, vexations, suffering, and of joys recollected.'" Typically, Calasso adjudicates these encounters, spinning his own sonorous aphorisms out of the whirl of words. "Renard and Gracq are talking about two different weights. Both are present in Baudelaire. His words are laden, whatever they say. There is an engorgement of sap, an accumulation of energy, a pressure from the unknown that sustains it – and in the end lays it low."
Calasso emphasises Baudelaire's clarity and originality (his "firsttimeness"), his imperativeness and his fearlessness. "I have contented myself with feeling," offers Baudelaire – "words of false modesty that say everything about the immensity of his gamble," adds Calasso. Today his "totemic power" is still intact. This has to do above all with the issue of sensibility, a concept that owes something to Baudelaire himself. "Hold no one's sensibility in contempt," he wrote. "The sensibility of each person is his genius."
Sensibility is one of Calasso's chief delights. His Baudelaire is a person, not to say a personage. Part of the fascination of his book is its biographical or prosopographical colour. "Baudelaire was a dandy, especially in ruin," Calasso observes characteristically, evoking him at 32, walking too cautiously, for fear of widening the rips in his clothes. "He is a first Buster Keaton in a frock coat, who moves off, slowly, through the streets of Paris."
Out of Baudelaire's works and days Calasso weaves a series of interrelated digressions on the writers and artists who were his subjects, acquaintances, contemporaries and followers. The highlight of this ambitious enterprise is the reading or rereading of certain painters and paintings, in Baudelairian perspective. Perhaps Calasso's canniest move in his attempt to take the full measure of la folie Baudelaire is to give due weight to his "metaphysics in disguise" – his art criticism. "Those who do not participate to some extent in Baudelaire's unique devotion to images will grasp very little of him," Calasso writes. "If one of his confessions is to be understood literally, and in all its consequences, it is the one he makes in "My Heart Laid Bare": 'To glorify the cult of images (my great, my only, my earliest passion).'"
Calasso excels at these exercises, blazing a trail of bon mots, gnomic remarks – "nothing gets closer to muteness than the wisdom of the painter" – and arresting observations on painters and paintings alike, aided and abetted by some discriminatingly chosen illustrations, beautifully reproduced. The treatment of "Ingres the monomaniac", Degas and Manet is a textbook demonstration of his critical temper. Of Manet, "he tended to appear ecumenically human". Of Degas, "his words attain a kind of ulcerated pathos". Calasso is one of the few to do justice to Degas's rabid antisemitism. He is also a great noticer of things in the paintings. In Manet, he notices the red bootee dangling from the balcony in The Masked Ball at the Opera, and the green bootees swinging on a trapeze in The Bar at the Folies-Bergère– the swinging motion transmitted "like a frisson" to the entire painting. In Degas, he notices "the absence of a centre".
It is tempting to think that Calasso lets himself go a little in those divagations in paint. "When it came to identifying 'the painter of modern life'," he writes, Baudelaire chose "an unknown devoid of any academic protection, a reporter of images who could not bear even to see his name in print: Constantin Guys. In one stroke, this move bypassed Delacroix, Ingres, and the impressionism yet to come, and it led to the threshold of a new day in the form of a desire forever unfulfilled: desire for futility, eros, lightness, and a life that might be adventurous and even a little shady." Does this wish list, with its echoes of Kafka and Kundera, tell also of the impeccable Roberto Calasso, author-publisher of Adelphi in Milan?
We are left to wonder about the nature and purpose of this prolific author's project. La Folie Baudelaire presents itself as the sixth panel of an ongoing work in progress, a work at once nameless and capacious. If there are clues to be found in the book at hand, perhaps they reside in the dialogue with Paul Valéry, his most compelling interlocutor. "Valéry expressed the hope that one day there might exist A Unified History of the Things of the Spirit, which would replace every history of philosophy, art, literature and the sciences," Calasso discloses. "Coquettishly, he hid it in a 'Digression' that in its turn was part of the unrestrained digression that is Degas Danse Dessin… It remains an ever-more-urgent desideratum in an intellectually debilitated epoch such as the present."
A speculation. The work in progress is an attempt to fulfil that desideratum, and the unrestrained digression that is La Folie Baudelaire is an attempt to match Valéry – or outdo Valéry – the Valéry of "How to talk about painting?" and "Stupidity is not his forte." Calasso himself is a formidable intellectual, with a weakness for showing it, in his vocabulary, his verbal tics and his occasional over-reaching. (In Manet's Olympia, "Irony is concentrated only in the hump of the cat's back.") Strange to relate, stupidity is his forte. In pursuit of his quest, he delivers a magnificent riff on the bêtise. His warrant is Baudelaire: "All great men are bêtes; all representative men who represent, or men who represent multitudes. It is a punishment inflicted on them by God." Roberto Calasso wends his way, inviolate. La Folie Baudelaire is bedazzling.
• Alex Danchev is the author of Cézanne: A Life (Profile).