The Sole Question of Importance

From The Poems and Prose Poems (1919), by Charles Baudelaire.


One must be for ever drunken: that is the sole question of importance. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time that bruises your shoulders and bends you to the earth, you must be drunken without cease. But how? With wine, with poetry, with virtue, with what you please. But be drunken. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass by a moat, or in the dull loneliness of your chamber, you should waken up, your intoxication already lessened or gone, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the timepiece; ask of all that flees, all that sighs, all that revolves, all that sings, all that speaks, ask of these the hour; and wind and wave and star and bird and timepiece will answer you: “It is the hour to be drunken! Lest you be the martyred slaves of Time, intoxicate yourselves, be drunken without cease! With wine, with poetry, with virtue, or with what you will.”

Petits Poèmes d’Automne by Stuart Merrill

Every autumn I reread one of my favorite volumes of poetry, Stuart Merrill’s Petits Poèmes d’Automne (1895). This short volume has been available in PDF at Gallica for several years now, but it has not been available as an online text. But now, in celebration of the current season, I have transcribed it into text and sent it to Project Gutenberg, where it is available here.

Merrill was an American who spent many years in France and wrote in French. He was influenced by the Symbolist movement and was a friend of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine (whose stimulus on his work is evident). Merrill’s poetry was praised on both sides of the Atlantic and was widely read in its day, but today he is mostly forgotten. Which is a pity, since he had an unusual gift for French rhythms, and his insights into dream and memory can be fascinating.

The Petits Poèmes give us a world filled with a strange and shadowy beauty, where the hurly burly of the modern simply does not exist. Merrill seems to inhabit some kind of medieval or Catholic universe, but even this world is portrayed as indistinct and blurred. Its once mighty deeds of glory and legend have become meaningless. Nevertheless, this a world filled with strange wonders, where you can find enchantment at every step. Merrill is especially skillful in describing remote and forgotten landscapes, where you seem to float along empty pathways, and where the only light is that of twilight or the silver glow of the moon. His faded gardens are filled only those kind of flowers which bring oblivion or quickly fade away: water lilies, poppies, roses. And the only creature he ever seems to notice is the chimera, that fantastic creature which can carry you out of this world.

All of this is conventionally melancholic, of course, but to my mind hardly depressing. Merrill seemed to have possessed the kind of “white melancholy”, which doesn’t lead into depression, but to an elusive aesthetic appreciation. There is beauty everywhere in these short poems, both in the rich sounds of the verse and in their evocative images. Merrill was a man who possessed a rich interior life, which he brilliantly communicates. This is a perfect volume of verse for an enchanted September twilight, when the trees are softly whispering and the stars are coming alive in the sky.

The Mental Season

Today the sun goes into the constellation Virgo. I always try to notice energy or weather shifts whenever the sun enters a new astrological sign, and I can frequently feel a subtle transformation in the world around me when astral energies change. Virgo is an earth sign with connotations of order, fastidiousness, and mental analysis, which perfectly describes the energies of late August and early September.

I always consider the arrival of Virgo to be the beginning of the fall season, which is my favorite time of year. I have never been a fan of summer heat and always look forward to the cooler temperatures and mellow light which come in the fall. At this time of year, it seems as though the whole world comes alive with preternatural clarity and vividness, which you can experience with a quite delightful intensity.

Autumn is also a period of serenity and contemplation, the perfect moment to take stock of your existence. Several weeks ago I came across the phrase “saison mentale” in reference to autumn, which struck me as a ideal way to describe my favorite season. After some searching I discovered that the phrase comes from poem Signe in Alcools (1920) by Guillaume Apollinaire:

Je suis soumis au Chef du Signe de l’Automne
Partant j’aime les fruits je déteste les fleurs
Je regrette chacun des baisers que je donne
Tel un noyer gaulé dit au vent ses douleurs

Mon Automne éternelle ô ma saison mentale
Les mains des amantes d’antan jonchent ton sol
Une épouse me suit c’est mon ombre fatale
Les colombes ce soir prennent leur dernier vol

which can be ineptly translated as:

I am placed under the leader of the Sign of the Fall
As I leave I love the fruits I hate the flowers
I regret each kiss that I give
Such a stolen walnut spoke his grief to the wind

My eternal Autumn O my mental season
The hands of the lovers of old are strewn over your ground
A spouse follows me it is my fatal shadow
The doves this evening take their last flight

Apollonaire shows us in a few concrete images both the bewitchment of the season and its connotations of thought and eternity. I cannot think of a better way to start my favorite season than taking time to ponder a flawless little poem like this.

Flying from Star to Star

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is one book that I am always continually rereading.  One of the most famous statements in the whole seven volume saga comes in Chapter 2 of The Captive:

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is; and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.

This quotation pretty much sums up one of the most important themes of the book:  the narrator’s growth in aesthetic sensitivity.  As the novel unfolds we see the narrator responding to art, to music, to literature, with ever increasing intelligence.  Proust gives us portraits of three spiritual masters in his book:  Elstir the painter, Vinteuil the composer, and Bergotte the writer.  The narrator’s encounters with their genius enriches his life and ultimately leads to the triumphant conclusion of the novel, when he realizes that great art can not only allow him to escape the constraints of space and time, but give spiritual meaning to his life. I always learn something new whenever I reread Proust, but for a long time I have struggled with this essential idea, namely seeing the universe through the eyes of another.  We can, of course, look at a painting of a great master, or listen to some magnificent music, but how are we supposed to get inside the mind of the artist or the composer who created it?  You can spend hours listening to Debussy (one of the models for Vinteuil), but how would this give you any kind of insight into his spiritual vision?  There seemed to be some kind of secret to the trick which I wasn’t picking up on.  Critical works on Proust were of little or no help.  I dutifully slogged my way through books like Alain de Botton’s utterly frivolous How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), but was usually left at a loss.

All this changed several weeks ago when I discovered Jan Walsh Hokenson’s Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics.  French Literature, 1867-2000 (2004).  This book has proved to be the most illuminating work of literary criticism which I have read in many years.  Hokenson examines the liberating effect that Japanese art had on French culture starting in the middle of the 19th century.  We have all heard the story about how the discovery of lost texts and art from classical antiquity stimulated the burst of artistic creativity which we now call the Renaissance.  What is less known is how the the discovery of Japanese ways of interpreting the world provoked an equally profound stimulus to western culture in the late 19th century.  American, British and French artists and writers were all astonished, amazed, and inspired when they discovered Japanese art. Unlike China or India, Japan had been pretty much unknown territory until the middle of the 19th century. While people in the west had long admired Chinese aesthetic techniques, no one had ever had any solid knowledge of Japanese art until their woodblock prints began to make their way to the rest of the world, most especially the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige.  The effect of these prints was electrifying on the visual artists of the day, suffering as they were under the heavy hand of an exhausted academic tradition.  The prints’ bold ink drawings, flat vibrant colors, lively diagonals, and images of clarity and simplicity, simply knocked everybody’s heads off.

The artists who were most greatly impacted by these prints are now the ones whom we consider to be among the greatest of their time, such as Whistler, Monet, and van Gogh. But French writers were also profoundly stirred by Japanese art.  Hokenson shows how writers like the Goncourt Brothers fashioned whole novels (such as their  Manette Salomon (1886), around Japanese ways of seeing.  Emile Zola was also deeply impressed by this radical new way of interpreting the world.  His La curée (1871) is basically an extended meditation on the need for a new way to see.  The heroine of this book comes to grief partially because she cannot perceive her circumstances with any kind of clarity, the kind to be found when you can look upon the world through the eyes of a Japanese master.  Zola’s later book, L’oeuvre (1886), concerns an artist who is unable to live up to his potential, mainly because he does not learn the lessons that the revolutionary new Japanese aesthetics provide.  Zola understood something which his characters do not:  Japanese aesthetics can provide you with a whole new way of being in the world. Hokenson’s chapter on Proust is the most enlightening in the book.  Indeed, this chapter is probably the single most brilliant piece of Proustian criticism I have ever read.  It finally answered some of my most basic questions about the book’s thematic unity.  Hokenson shows us that Proust had been as powerfully impressed by Japanese aesthetics as had Zola, Monet and Debussy.  Indeed, the famous opening scene of the novel, when the narrator receives a metaphysical earthquake as he sips a very ordinary cup of tea, is framed in terms of a Japanese work of art:

And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

Well, there it is, a Japanese reference which I had never really noticed before, even though I had read this passage many times.  Hokenson goes on to show us how Japanese references, Japanese aesthetics, Japanese ways of seeing are emphasized through the rest of the saga.  The long drawn-out aesthetic apprenticeship of the narrator is at bottom quite simple:  it is a way to attain the “Japanese way of seeing”, which Hokenson summarizes as “(a) a non-European relation to nature, (b) imaginative activity in the mind, and (c) evanescence and fugitive impressions in art.” It is an aesthetics of “simplicity, suggestion, indeterminacy, and impersonality”. Time and again throughout the novel, Hokenson shows us that Japanese aesthetics are emphasized at critical points in the story.  What is interesting is that these aesthetics provide a way out of the emotional pain which the narrator is constantly experiencing.  The novel progresses almost unrelentingly through constant disappointment and unhappiness, not only of the narrator but of the other principal characters, such as Charles Swann.  Unlike Swann, however, the narrator ultimately does find an escape from his distress, thanks to his slowly acquired Japanese way of seeing.  Not just seeing, mind you, but creating (the 3,000 page novel, after all, can be summarized as man drinks tea and writes book).  Artistic creation is ultimately presented as the novel’s greatest value, as it provides the narrator with the greatest joy and happiness he has ever known. Hokenson also states:  “The emphasis [in Japanese art] is no longer on resplendence but on simplicity, purity of line and form, spare vivid contrasting colors, delicacy of method, and suggestion of unstated essence … The artwork therefore entails, radically requires, two moments in time, the moment of creation and the moment of affective recreation.”  This last is also very important.  The greatest value of Japanese art is the way it stimulates the viewer’s imagination:  “the artist’s economy of means and radical simplification operate suggestively to provoke, in the viewer, an affective experience–comparable to the artist’s at the moment of creation–and an imaginative completion (of the image, locus, motion) in the mind.”  This is why Japanese art is so powerful.  You are no longer a passive spectator being bludgeoned by academicians but an active co-creator, along with the artist, of what is being depicted.  When you respond to a work of art like this, you are then able to enter into “a new order of reality.” Hokenson has many other brilliant insights in her book, both about Proust and other French writers, too many of which to be summarized here.  But here I must confess that I found the second half of the book, when she discusses 20th century writers, to be weak.  The first author she talks about after Proust is Paul Claudel, whom I had never read.  I immediately went in search of his more well-known works but found them to be dated, superficial and pretentious (sample sentence:  “London is a city composed of body parts.”)  Hokenson also gives us a detailed account of Roland Barthes’ Oriental peregrinations, but she never quite seems to realize that he is coming across as a ridiculous poseur (probably because he actually was a ridiculous poseur).  Her discussion of the two celebrated Marguerites (Yourcenar and Duras) is more insightful but will be appreciated only by those who like their fiction bland and humorless.  As for me, I gave up on their kind of “literary” fiction a long time ago.

Nevertheless, Hokenson’s insights into Proust have caused a major shift in my own life and have deepened my appreciation of his masterpiece.  If you want to find a whole new way of being in the world, if you really do want to fly from star to star, all you need to do is start practicing the Japanese way of seeing.  Keep your mind receptive and calm.  Strive to maintain your clarity of vision.  Pay careful attention to the natural world, most especially its color and light and space.  When you encounter a work of art, take time not just to perceive it, but to recreate it within your own being.  And–best of all–start studying the old Japanese masters who started the fuss in the first place.  This is easy enough to do these days, thanks to the internet.  Hokusai’s prints can be found here, and Hiroshige’s here.

Chasing Chimeras with Stuart Merrill

I always look forward to the first cool breezes of autumn. This is the one time of the year when I want to spend as much time as I can just experiencing the world around me. When you are able to go into the moment as intensely as you possibly can, when you strain to feel every sensation, hear every sound, breathe in every scent, you can lose yourself in the glory of the world around you. This is so much easier to accomplish in the fall, when the air is fresh and invigorating, and when the natural world seems to be transforming every hour on the hour.

Every autumn I also take time to reread Stuart Merrill‘s 1895 volume Petits poèmes d’automne (online at Gallica). I stumbled across this forgotten book several years ago and have been entranced with it ever since, especially when summer’s energies start to wind down and the shadows lengthen. Merrill was an American who spent most of his life abroad and wrote in French. While his poetry sometimes seems both repetitive and derivative, it is also full of the most entrancing fin-de-siècle reveries. The book was apparently a great success when published but has since been mostly forgotten, as has its author.

All of which is a pity since Merrill was full of the most exquisite sensibilities. He was blessed with a superb gift for perception, a talent for melodious phrases, and a temperament filled with placid melancholy. Baudelaire tells us that he cannot conceive of beauty in which there is no melancholy, and Merrill’s poems are filled with this most mellow emotion. But this is not the sort of melancholy where you start feeling depressed—you find yourself in an evocative dream world filled with visions of the past, misty moonlight, faded gardens, and the sound of the sea, all of which are perfectly suited to a gentle autumnal mood.

I take time every autumn to memorize one of the poems. It gives me a good opportunity to practice my French, such as it is. I can read the language pretty well but have never had much chance to speak it. Memorizing a French poem every now and then is one of the better ways to learn the language, and far more enjoyable that trying to memorize un billet de première aller en retour pour Paris, s’il vous plaît—or
something similarly dismal. Better to hang out with Stuart Merrill and
his chimeras:


Au bord de la lointaine grève
Où nous conduisit la Chimère,
Puisez dans la coupe du rêve,
O mes frères, cette onde amère.

En l’azur du soir les sirènes
Nous chanteront, surnaturelles,
L’histoire des rois et des reine
Qui moururent d’amour pour elles,

Oubliez le casque et l’épée
Dont la cime et la lame en flamme
Tonnèrent dans maintes épopée.
Vainement, pour l’Or et la Femme.

C’est ici le pays du rêve;
Abreuvez-vous de ronde amère,
O frères, au bord de la grève
Où nous conduisit la Chimère.