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Review: ‘Belgium Stripped Bare and My Heart Laid Bare & other texts’ by Charles Baudelaire

By: Thomas Sanfilip

One of the more extreme challenges these days is to somehow reinvent a writer deceased over 150 years ago and still appeal to modern, literary tastes. The 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire, presents such a challenge, though not an insurmountable one. For those willing to probe beyond the safety of their own prejudices, Baudelaire’s prose—brought back to vivid life by Contra Mundum Press in two well-designed publications—is a great rediscovery of a supreme iconoclast who suffered for his art, but still rose to be respected as one of France’s greatest literary voices. For those who’ve read Fleur du Mal and were transfixed by its dark, lyrical grace, these two never-completed prose works of the poet—Belgium Stripped Bare and My Heart Laid Bare—are translated with precision and care and should revive some serious interest in the poet, as well as broaden the palette of appreciation for the work of translator Rainer J. Hanshe who has brought them so faithfully to the page.

As part of this process—which informs his translations—Hanshe keeps faithful to Baudelaire’s intended methodological approach to both works. In Belgium Stripped Bare, for instance, Hanshe points out that Baudelaire assumes many guises to ultimately appraise the country’s cultural value—as sociologist, anthropologist, city planner and aesthete—“sketches of his (Baudelaire’s) examination of physiognomy (of humans, streets, and architecture), political customs, the fear of annexation by France, general traits or characteristics, including observations about animals, women, love & prostitution, cuisine, health, and related questions of tobacco & wine, economy, familial matters, social relations and hospitality, crime and punishment, bigotry, the French language in Belgium, everyday phrases, bon mots, journalism and literature, style, religion, burial customs, oddities and amusements, the fine arts, modern painting and museums, churches, landscapes, streets, and walking.”

Here’s where Baudelaire’s fragmentary work on Belgium comes alive—a country he saw as a metaphor for the insipidity culture can reach, yet still pretend to authenticity. The number of possible titles for this never-completed work gives a clear idea of Baudelaire’s cultural perspective—Poor Belgium! Grotesque Belgium, The Capital of Apes and Belgium Stripped Bare, the last and least offensive used by Hanshe for his translation of the poet’s extensive notes. It is, however, Hanshe’s smart editorial hand that navigates skillfully the incomplete work, drawing out in the process its every possible sub-textual meaning. He contemporizes in fine lines Baudelaire’s fragmentary manuscript and analyzes its conceptual intentions with exactitude in both his translation and sharply-written contextual introduction.

That said, in spite of Baudelaire’s redundancies, the poet’s sharp and cutting observations come through like thunder bolts from the sky. “It is difficult to define the Belgian character as it is to classify the Belgian in the rank of beings,” asserts Baudelaire. “He is an ape, but he is a mollusk . . .It’s easy to oppress him, as history notes; it’s almost impossible to crush him. To judge him, let’s focus on certain ideas: apishness, counterfeiting, conformity, hateful impotence, and we could classify all the facts under those different titles.”

For Baudelaire—no matter how much acid poured on—even a small country like Belgium needed to be put in its place to expose what he saw as the shallow emptiness of its society, including the Belgian physiognomy. “Shape of the jaws. Heaviness of the tongue. Whistling. Slow and clumsy pronunciation. The frightened, bulbous, stupid, fixed eye. Apparent dishonesty, simply due to slowness of vision. Belgians who turn around while walking, and who finally fall to the ground.”

Belgian wine and cuisine come in for a good thrashing as well. “Do Belgians like their wine? Yes, as a bric-a-brac object. If they could display it without others drinking it and without drinking it themselves, they would be very satisfied. They drink it, out of vanity, to pretend that they love it. Always old wines.” As for Belgian cuisine, it was simply “bad bread, for gourmands—The way to console yourself: read a cookbook . . . There is Flemish cooking; but it’s not found outside the home.”

Is this simply the Beaudelairian “spleen” or is there something to his observations that are relevant to an understanding of the how and why cultures decline into a form of mediocrity? For Baudelaire, certain localities like Belgium exemplified a certain inherent set of flaws that invariably led to such inevitability. He unrelentingly describes the Belgium of his time as just such a place—a simulacrum of “nothingness” and as a consequence is erased out of any real existence by the reality of its own emptiness.

I recall seeing a poster while waiting on a train platform in Brussels that read in part—“What is the use of Belgium?” with the answer provided—“To gain speed . . .” For some reason, I found it impossible to write anything about Belgium while there. Brugge felt almost plasticine, except for its churches with their doors left open at various times of the day—but there was no sense that anything deeply spiritual had gone on inside for many years. They were empty shells, like behemoths preserved from antiquity in the midst of a city largely catering to tourists.

As Baudelaire himself asserts in many instances throughout Contra Mundum’s other volume, My Heart Laid Bare, the wonder is that anything of real artistic value can seriously impact society in profounder ways than as distraction. This makes Baudelaire’s bite more caustic and in my view more honest than the gushy words of sycophants who are happy with the way modern culture lays down. Furthermore, the fact that the true poet no longer has a place in society—though poetry may still be written in a variety of voices—leaves the poet still stranded at the extremities of society. It is, as Baudelaire would say, useless as art because it transforms nothing, drowned out by its own silence.

“There can be no (true, that is, moral) progress) but in the individual and by the individual alone,” Baudelaire concludes. “But the world is made up of people who can think only in common, in herds. Thus, the Belgian Societies. There are also people who can amuse themselves only in hordes. The true hero amuses himself alone . . . Being a great man and a saint for oneself, there is the only important thing.”

For Baudelaire, as Hanshe points out, “it is the relationship between the writer and society that becomes the measure of the country’s values and spirit,” though “there was something in him that relished wounds, or wanted to test whether his guignon *bad luck would continue, or the spell finally be broken.”

Hanshe warns that Belgium Laid Bare is not a completed book, but rather an extensive collection of notes and related newspaper writings Baudelaire intended as reference for further analysis. It is hard to imagine how Baudelaire himself intended shaping this mass of observations and reactions on the Belgian people, their culture and their life style into a coherent work. Here is where translator and scholar Hanshe’s introductions to both volumes are indispensable. He analyzes all of Baudelaire’s textual disparities and brings the two works into a tighter coherency for the reader. His analysis of Baudelaire, his influences and interpretations of the poet’s projected works from different angles are exemplary critical pieces of literary analysis well worth reading for their erudition alongside Baudelaire own words that still impress with their biting prescience.


*All quotes from Belgium Stripped Bare and My Heart Laid Bare & other texts, published by Contra Mundum Press.

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