Monday, September 26, 2011

Flowers of Evil

Once in a while I discover the reason I’ve taken a photograph. This doesn’t happen often. In fact, there was a space of ten years between the time I made this photograph at left and “discovered” its raison d’ĂȘtre. I cannot say where I made the original image (memory being imperfect, note-taking, even less so), but I did at some point apply some photo dye to a paper print. Perhaps this was ill-advised. Regardless, I like the colorized image. 

Titling my work is not one of my strong points (my oldest daughter, Julie, used to make fun of my titles). So, any help I can get is appreciated. Not being above plagiarism, I’ve stolen words and phrases from books, magazines, song lyrics − ultimately, from other people. When I came upon the collection of French poetry by Charles Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil, it was like I found the Grail!  

I found this lovely volume while browsing the fine book section at Long in the Tooth, a fabulous used/new-book-and-music shop in Philadelphia. The couple who own it cater to a rather specialized clientele – in other words, they have cool stuff that I like. I’d heard of Baudelaire, but had no idea what his work was about. Thumbing through the book for a minute made me realize it had to be mine. Not only is this 1857 collection of poetry fabulously intense reading (forget Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn that you had to read in high school!), but for my photographic images, I can pretty much open the book anywhere and grab a fine title line! A casual thumbing rewards you with such gems as:

"Under a stricken sky"
"The twin goddesses, Force and Grace"
"Trembling like a soul in pain"

I’ve sprinkled this article with some of my original images, graced with titles borrowed from Les Fleurs du mal. For the kind of cemetery photography that I do, Baudelaire’s poetry offers descriptive candy. Merely opening the book and reading any line will serve quite nicely. But that one line can easily suck you in. Before you know it, goths, horror fans, and cemetery travelers alike may find themselves reading the entire poem, then the one after that, and so on. 
"The black hearses of my dreams"
Baudelaire was a French poet of the mid-nineteenth century. Bitter. Hated people, critics especially. Widely recognized as an innovator of French literature (Wikipedia), his work influenced an entire generation of poets, including Arthur Rimbaud (A Season in Hell). Baudelaire had great difficulty getting his work past the censors of the day, mainly because his writing is violent, brave, vulgar (for the time), and highly sexual – all of which make Flowers of Evil a collection of exquisite poetry that is oh so worth reading! (And oh so worth plagiarizing.)

Baudelaire was fascinated by Poe's evocation of the dark side of the imagination, which influenced the sinister seductiveness of his own work. “These themes and influences play a predominant role in Baudelaire's 1857 collection of poetry, The Flowers of Evil, which juxtaposed the negative themes of exile, decay, and death with an ideal universe of happiness”(ref).

"A smile not ever, neither do I weep"
Baudelaire and his publisher were both prosecuted at the time, as Flowers of Evil was viewed as “an insult to public decency."As a consequence of this prosecution, Baudelaire was fined and some of his poems from the work were suppressed (the ban on their publication was not lifted in France until 1949)(Wikipedia). Which is all very surprising to me, as the work is certainly not as horrible, hideous, and gruesome as the work of another French writer, the Marquis deSade, who was imprisoned and sent to an insane asylum as a reward for his work. Ah, the power of the written word – and the possible consequences when you grant people freedom of speech.

The French Novel

My only experience with the French novel up to the point of my discovery of Baudelaire was a Humanities course I took in college (1978!), called “The French Novel.” I had heard it was easy – read six novels and give an oral presentation at the end of the semester. The course description was accompanied by the two most beautiful words in the English language: “No tests.” A cake course, I thought. 

Between reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Zola’s Nana, and a few other classics, I had to come up with a topic for my 45-minute speech. Early on, I learned to pick up on clues left by people as to their likes and dislikes (a skill that has allowed me to be nuts-on with buying Christmas presents over the years). The professor who taught the French Novel course would mention the work of the Marquis deSade every now and then, which was enough for me to pick up on the fact that he was a fan. And, not knowing anything about deSade's writing, my nineteen-year-old curiosity was piqued. 

"The tomb is hungry"
My presentation would be on deSade's work. After procuring some of his books (not easy, as its basically all violent porn), I devised a presentation. At the end of the semester, I brought a couple of the books to class, with the intention of not showing them to anyone. During my speech, I referred to his Gothic fiction in vague terms, never once quoting deSade. It was a small audience, maybe six guys and twelve girls. As I spoke, I could tell they were getting more and more nervous, yet curious about deSade’s writing. I kept saying things like, “You shouldn’t read this if you have a weak stomach,” and “Really, this is the most horrible thing you’ll ever seen in print. Please don't open the book unless you really want to.” 

I’d considered it experiential learning, in a way. People loosely throw around statements like, “That teacher is such a sadist! He gives SO much homework!” Perhaps we shouldn’t use the term so lightly?

"The sacred holocaust of your first flowers"
By the middle of my presentation, I’d worked them to a fever pitch. The flowers of their curiosity were opened and in full bloom, ready for my Evil. I picked up one of the books, Justine, and held it out to a student, with the suggestion that they may open it and read a few words if they dare, then pass it along. As I continued speaking, I totally ignored their reactions. Someone would receive the book, hesitantly open it, read for a couple seconds, maybe half a minute, close it, and pass it on. Every face was shocked. In the span of fifteen minutes, three young women burst into tears, got up and fled the room. I wasn't actually prepared for that, but I soldiered on. The professor loved my delivery and I got an “A” for the course. Over a year later, I actually overheard a couple of freshmen discussing the particular professor who taught the French Novel course. One of them said, “It’s a tough course. I heard only one person ever got an “A.”

When you learn more about something (like cemeteries, for instance), you typically become more comfortable with the idea. Not so with deSade's work. And maybe not so with Baudelaire's, either. So why read such dark literature? Other than providing witty titles for artwork, what other purpose can it serve? Filmaker/author John Waters points out a possible benefit to all of us: "No one ever committed a crime while reading a book!"

Links and Further Reading:

Long in the Tooth on MySpace

Marquis deSade
The writings of the Marquis deSade are not for the faint of heart, so I purposely avoided linking to any of them. However, if I've aroused your curiosity, please hunt for them yourself - but you've been warned.

Books by the Marquis deSade:
The 120 Days of Sodom
Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man

Then there's the (2000) movie about deSade, Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix (not for the squeamish).