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Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. [...] Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning from inferring, and saying perhaps, "Ah, that is he". For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the colouring, or some such cause (Aristotle, Poetics. Chapter 4).
Recall the object that we have seen, my soul,
On that beautiful summer morning so sweet:
At the turn of a path, an infamous carrion
Upon a bed sawn with pebbles,
With its legs in the air, like a lustful woman,
Burning and sweating poison,
Opened in a nonchalant and cynical fashion
Its belly full of exhalations.
The sun shined upon this rotting thing,
As if to cook it [medium] on the spot,
And return to great Nature a hundred times
All that it had joined together;
And the sky looked at this superb carcass
Blossoming out as a flower.
The stink was so strong that, on the grass,
You thought you would faint.
The flies were buzzing on this putrid belly,
From which black battalions were emerging
Of larves, that were flowing like some thick liquid
Along these living rags.
All this ebbed and swelled like some billow,
Or rushed forward with crackles,
One would say that the corpse, inflated by some vague breath,
Was living and multiplying.
And this world rendered a strange music,
As the running water or the wind,
Or the grain, which the winnower with a rhythmic movement
Moves and turns in his winnowing-basket.
The forms faded away, and were no more than a dream,
Some lingering image, a sketch
Forgotten upon the canvass, which the artist is to complete
Merely from memory.
Behind the rocks a worried bitch
Watched us with an angry eye,
Looking out for the moment to resume [have a second helping] at the skeleton
The bit it has left.
Yet, you will resemble this ordure,
This horrible infection,
Star of my eyes, sun of my nature,
You, my angel and passion!
Yes! like this you will be, oh queen of graces,
After the last sacraments,
When you go under the grass and the rich blooming,
To rot amid the bones.
Then, oh my beauty! tell the worms
That eat you with kisses,
That I have preserved the form and divine essence
Of my decomposed loves.
"Une Charogne" and the Critics
Baudelaire's poem "Une Charogne" has attracted much attention among readers and critics of poetry. However, mostly they consider it as a typical instance of Baudelaire's cruel realism, or as some kind of "practical joke" the purpose of which is nothing but "épater le bourgeois", to shock the conventionally-minded. Both these attitudes point at some conspicuous feature in the poem, but neither of them amounts to an aesthetic appreciation of it. Nonetheless, some of the best characterizations of the bulk of Baudelaire's poetry readily apply to this specific poem as well:
The realism of his Fleurs du mal is bitter, insistent, and can be gruesome. We may acquit him of any cynical intent to shock the reader merely in order to satisfy an itch for scandal. His purpose is complex. He was determined to show things as they are; and this resolve fastens naturally on aspects of life ignored by conventional art. Moved by a disgust that does not spare himself, since his knowledge is gathered from experience, the poet evokes images of debauchery and all the excesses that welter behind the decent veil of civilization, and the flowers of the poet's hot-house are defiant, sinister, and poisonously scented (Cazamian, 1960: 342).
Baudelaire's "Une Charogne" is very often
quoted as a notorious instance of its author's cruel
realism, itch for scandal, and so forth. It has received
excessive praise on the one hand, such as in Faguet's
(1910) enthusiastic article on Baudelaire: "Une
Charogne" is "forceful and vivid, has a great
image and is admirably placed [...] and has movement,
a very beautiful movement [...] this is perhaps Baudelaire's
only poem that may be said to be on the move";
on the other hand, Gide (1910) takes issues with Faguet,
accusing him of being too much of a traditionalist
for understanding Baudelaire's novelty; Faguet has
chosen, according to Gide, Baudelaire's poorest poems,
one of them being "Une Charogne". Or, as
one of the more moderate critics put it some forty
years later, "Une Charogne does not seem to deserve
all the praise that it has been given, but technically
it is one of the most influential of Baudelaire's poems"
(Turnell, 1953: 297). It is difficult, however, to
find a close reading of this poem, or a detailed discussion
of the aesthetic conception underlying it. Cargo's
(1968) bibliography appears to be quite representative
of this state of affairs. In eighteen years' crop of
Baudelaire criticism only three entries have been listed
for this poem, all of them devoted to influence-hunting
(two are tracing possible influences on this poem,
and one its possible influence on Flaubert's Bouvard
et Pécuchet). At most, it receives a one-or-two-page
long discussion in a wider monograph. It would appear
that the scandal associated with the poem appeals to
the critics more than its possible aesthetic quality.
In what follows, I am going to offer a fairly detailed
close reading and consideration of the underlying aesthetic
conception of this poem. Toward the end of this paper
I am going to discuss the possible mental processes
involved in the pleasure derived from a poetic description
of the disgusting.
The Ugly and the Disgusting
One assumption of the present paper is that Baudelaire's cult of beauty and his cult of the repugnant deeply imply each other; that his poem "Une Charogne" is implied by such poems as his "La Beauté":
According to this conception, a poem like "Une Charogne" pursues the Romantic conception of imagination to its extreme logical consequences, formulated by Coleridge, for instance, in Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria, as follows:
Doubtless, as Sir John Davies observes of the soul--(and his words may with slight alteration be applied, and even more appropriately, to the poetic Imagination)
Doubtless this could not be but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.
From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear then light on her celestial wings.
Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through the senses to our minds.
Now, when we consider the Baudlairean Aestheticist cult of ugliness and repugnance, we may suggest that it merely pursues precisely this Romantic conception of imagination to its extreme logical consequences: the grosser the matter, the greater the achievement in drawing "a kind of quintessence from things". Indeed, we are told,
The emphasis on the power of imagination could also suggest that imagination can render anything artistically acceptable, however wicked or repulsive it might commonly be considered. Thus Swinburn praises Baudelaire for his ability to "give beauty to the form, the expression to the feeling, most horrible and most obscure to the senses or souls of lesser men". This raises another possible implication of "art for art's sake"--that art constitutes a segregated world of its own, to which ordinary values are quite irrelevant (Johnson, 1969: 39).
Now, as far as this aestheticist principle of "art
for art's sake" is concerned, the "wicked
or repulsive", or the "most horrible and
most obscure" rendered "artistically acceptable",
endowed with beauty, is to be preferred to what is
inherently beautiful; "ordinary values" are
relevant to beauty, though one may encounter it rather
rarely in our ordinary world. It is the "wicked
or repulsive", or the "most horrible and
most obscure" rendered beautiful "to which
ordinary values are quite irrelevant".
This focusses attention on the beauty arising from the poet's art rather than on the beauty of the subject matter. This, again, pursues another age-old aesthetic principle--which, ultimately, goes back to Aristotle--to its extreme logical consequences. This issue has extensively been discussed by Eighteenth Century aesthetics and literary criticism. Addison, in his Spectator Papers (No. 418) elaborated on this issue:
for not only what is Great, Strange or Beautiful, but any Thing that is Disagreeable when look'd upon, pleases us in an apt Description. Here, therefore, we must enquire after a new Principle of Pleasure, which is nothing else but the Action of the Mind, which compares the Ideas that arise from the Words to the Ideas that arise from the Objects themselves [...]. For this Reason therefore, the Description of a Dunghill is pleasing to the Imagination, if the Image be represented to our Minds by suitable Expressions; [...] we are not so much delighted with the Image that is contained in the Description, as with the Aptness of the Description to excite the Image (Addison, 1951: 822).Notwithstanding, it would be absurd to assume that Addison would have commended a poem like "Une Charogne". He makes the distinction between the delight with a beautiful object to be described and the delight with the aptness of description, implying that the proper pleasure of literature arises from the apt description of a pleasing object. "It is the part of a Poet to humour the Imagination in its own Notions, by mending and perfecting Nature where he describes a Reality, and by adding greater Beauties than are put together in Nature, where he describes a Fiction" (loc. cit.). Whereas the aestheticist conception underlying a poem like "Une Charogne" implies that the more disagreeable the object, the more it forces the aptness of the description upon the reader's attention. And "if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the colouring, or some such cause"; and this may further heighten the aesthetic value of the work.
The foregoing discussion may be illuminating of the
aesthetic principle underlying a poem like "Une
Charogne", and may even yield some significant
insights into the poem as an aesthetic object. But
it is rather unsatisfactory, as far as cognitive poetics
is concerned, as it makes no distinction between the
aesthetic purpose of the poet and his success to realize
it. In other words, it gives no account of the perceived
affects of the poem. In still other words, it suggests
that the poet may have sought to arouse aesthetic pleasure
by focussing attention, of all things upon the "wicked
or repulsive", or the "most horrible and
most obscure", but leaves to the reader's discretion
to imagine, how such an "impossible" task
may be accomplished.
The harmonious interaction of many parts which produces beauty can be destroyed by a single unfitting part, without, however, making the object ugly. Ugliness demands also a number of unsuitable parts, which we must be able to take in at one glance if we are to feel the opposite effect of that which beauty produces.
According to this, then, ugliness by its very nature could not be a subject of poetry [...]. Is not the effect of ugliness destroyed by the successive enumeration of its elements just as much as the effect of beauty is destroyed through a similar enumeration? (Lessing, 1962: 121).
In poetry, as I have already noted, ugliness of form loses its repulsive effect almost entirely by change from coexistence to the consecutive. From this point of view it ceases to be ugliness, as it were, and can therefore combine even more intimately with other qualities to produce a new and special effect (ibid, 128).
In another passage, Lessing quotes Moses Mendelssohn
on feelings of disgust, which too are indisputably
relevant to Baudelaire's poem.
Representations of fear, of melancholy, terror, compassion, etc., can arouse our dislike only insofar as we believe the evil to be real. Hence, these feelings can be transformed into pleasant ones by recalling that it is an artificial illusion. But whether or not we believe the object to be real, the disagreeable sensation of disgust results, by virtue of the law of imagination, from the mere mental image. [...] Our dislike did not arise from the supposition that the evil was real, but from the mere mental image of it, which is indeed real. Feelings of disgust are therefore always real and never imitations (ibid, 126).
If Mendelssohn is right in assuming that feelings of
disgust are always real and arise from the mere mental
image, its effect cannot be destroyed by the successive
enumeration of its elements. This, however, seems to
contradict some of the major implications of the foregoing
three passages for the aesthetic acceptability of Baudelaire's
poem. One possible solution to the problem is that
descriptions of the disgustful differ only in degree
and not in kind from descriptions of the ugly, and
that their effects can be destroyed by the successive
enumeration of their elements. However, the disagreeable
sensation of the emotional disorientation to be discussed
below, certainly arises from the "mere mental
image", and its effects cannot therefore be destroyed
by the successive enumeration of its elements. What
is more, this precisely seems to be one reason that
Baudelaire does not confine himself to the description
of the disgusting, but has recourse to the description
of incompatible elements that arouse a feeling of emotional
disorientation. Toward the end of the present paper
I shall attempt to account for the co-presence of these
two apparently incompatible principles in "Une
Another passage in Lessing's Laocoön contains an interesting criticism of Aristotle's suggestion that objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity. "The pleasure which arises from the stilling of our thirst for knowledge is a momentary one, and merely incidental to the object through which it is satisfied. Displeasure, on the other hand, which accompanies our contemplation of ugliness, is permanent, and inherent in the object that awakens it" (op. cit. 127). The solution offered to this problem by Lessing is, in an important sense, in Aristotle's spirit: it transfers the focus of the issue from the physical to the psychological domain.
To judge from the examples which Aristotle gives, it would seem that he had no intention of including bodily ugliness in those displeasing objects which can afford pleasure in imitation. These examples are ferocious beasts and corpses. Ferocious beasts incite terror, even though they may not be ugly, and it is this terror rather than their ugliness which is transformed into a feeling of pleasure in their imitations. So it is, too, with corpses: It is the keener feeling of pity, the terrifying thought of our own destruction, that makes the real corpse repulsive to us; but in imitation this pity loses its keenness through our awareness that it is a deceit, and the addition of soothing circumstances can either divert our thoughts from this fatal recollection or, by uniting itself inseparably with it, cause us to believe that we can see in it something more desirable than terrible (op. cit., 127-128).
I shall ignore the discrepancy between the translations ignoble animals and ferocious beasts. Certainly, the former term could not afford Lessing his analysis. What is important for our discussion is that in Baudelaire's poem "soothing circumstances" are carefully avoided, and painful perceptions are as forcefully amplified as possible. What is more, "the terrifying thought of our own destruction" is explicitly forced upon the beloved (as well as upon the reader) in the last three stanzas. At the same time, by virtue of the closing two verses,
Que j'ai gardé la forme et l'essence divine"this pity loses its keenness". I shall return to this issue toward the end of the present paper.
De mes amours décomposés!
The awareness of death in the late Middle Ages has three great motives: the question where are the great and the beautiful of the past; the decay of the human body; and the dance of death, "de Macabré la danse". [...] The danse macabre presents in engraving, statue or poem, a skeleton Death leading away with dancing steps everybody, pope, king or poor peasant; all are equal before death. [...] It is plausible that originally it was not Death, but the shrunken, rotting corpse itself, swarming with worms, [...] that was dancing amid grotesque gestures (Szerb, 1943: I. 257-258).
"Danse Macabre" in this aspect is felt to
be particularly affective and repugnant. "Une
Charogne" elaborates on two motives of the Mediaeval
Death tradition, the decay of the human body and the
danse macabre in this original sense of the rotting
corpse, animated, as it were, by the worms. Death is
repellent and frightening in most respects. And the
dead corpse is thought of as repugnant even before
it begins to disintegrate, with the olfactory corollaries
of the process. In many cultures, the dead are felt
to be contagious, not only because--as sometimes rationalized--they
may have died of some contagious disease, or because
of the unwholesome nature of the rotting process. It
is as if the corpse embodied, metonymically or magically,
death itself. Pierre in War and Peace instinctively
shrinks away from the condemned to death who tries
to hold fast on him as on a last straw. Pierre seems
to have felt that the wretch embodied death and was
contagious, so to speak, even before his actual execution.
An awareness of the other physical processes, of really
contagious nature, only reinforce this deep-rooted
primitive response in us. Now, the repugnant effect
of the macabre seems to go far beyond this. What appears
merely to be the amplification of the disintegration
process, is revealed, on closer inspection, as far
more than that. Disquieting as death and the dead may
be, there appears to be an acquiessence in the sharpening
of the dichotomy between the dead and the quick, between
death and life, with their opposite emotional tendencies.
This seems to grant us some degree of what might be
called "cognitive stability", at least. What
appears to be much less tolerable than death itself
is, when the distinction between the clear-cut, opposing
categories is obscured; that is, when the dead body
shows signs of life, as e.g. when it begins to move
"of itself"; it presents a shock and arouses
a sense of emotional disorientation (imagine, for instance,
a dog or a cat on the street, run-over by a car, lifting
suddenly its head). It is this anxiety, arising from
the abolishment of these clear-cut categories of great
existential significance, the anxiety evoked by the
obscuring of the distinction between the conflicting
emotional tendencies, that the macabre adds to the
anxiety of death. Ehrenzweig (1965) put forward the
fruitful suggestion that art-history reflects not only
the strife of mankind for expression, but also the
strife of mankind to defend itself from the anxieties
arising from too strong expression. In the light of
the foregoing, the traditional allegoric representation
of Death leading away the dead may be regarded as the
result of applying such defence mechanisms to the putative
original version of the macabre (that is, of the corpses
carried away by the moving worms). In this traditional
allegoric representation, the movement of the dead
(with only a minimum physical signs of being dead,
such as paleness), is treated not as an ambiguous interim
state of the dead behaving like the quick, but rather
as an unambiguous visual metaphor of death, of "passing
On eût dit que le corps, enflé d'un souffle vague,
Vivait en se multipliant.
Baudelaire is creating here, verbally, what appears
to be even more disgusting than a rotting, stinking
carrion. Now, what is more repugnant than a rotting,
stinking, disgusting carrion? A rotting, stinking,
disgusting carrion that shows signs of life. Furthermore,
from the beginning, the carrion is characterized as
"burning and sweating like a lustful woman",
implying that the sight was disgusting indeed. Now,
are lustful women such a "good example" of
disgustfulness, that they may serve as an effective
simile for the disgustfulness of a rotting carrion?
I seriously doubt it. It is rather that, again, Baudelaire
is arousing, by verbal means, the shock of a rotting,
stinking, disgusting carrion that shows signs of life,
and even contains ingredients that have claims for
desirability. What seems to be so intolerable here
is not merely the rot, but the rot together with what
is emotionally incompatible with it; that is, emotional
There are two further issues in which the poem poignantly arouses conflicting emotional tendencies. One of the archetypal oppositions in the region we are involved in concerns the opposition between the disgust aroused by rotting, harmful food, and the appetite aroused by fresh, healthy food. Now this opposition is, again, shockingly obscured by the description of the bitch longing to resume her appetizing meal on the carrion. Another issue in which the distinction between conflicting emotional tendencies is violated--on a less existential level, thoug--hconcerns the description of the most repugnant in terms of the quintessence of beauty. I mean such expressions as
Et le ciel regardait le carcasse superbe
Comme une fleur s'épanouir.
On the verbal level, the mixture of these conflicting
emotional tendencies is reinforced by such ambiguities
as " á point", meaning "just
right, on the spot", or "[to cook] medium";
"reprendre" meaning "to resume"
or "to have a second helping"; or "infâme",
suggesting "morally deplorable", or the now
cosiderably weakened sense, "repugnant";
or even "nonchalante", suggesting "lacking
activity, indifferent" or "having some effortless
Brooks's Irony and Beardsley's General Canons
I shall approach the aesthetic character of this poem from two vantage points: I shall consider the changes that the various elements (words, images) undergo when they become part of the aesthetic whole. Cleanth Brooks defined his key-term in literary criticism, irony, as "a general term for the kind of qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context" (quoted by Wellek, 1963: 329). Likewise, I shall have recourse to Beardsley's (1958) three general canons of aesthetic appreciation: unity, complexity, and some intensive human quality. The intense percepts as well as the intense responses of "you" and "I" of the poem certainly count as "some intensive human quality". The various aspects of obscuring the distinction between opposite categories and conflicting emotional tendencies (reinforced by verbal ambiguities), briefly discussed above, may be regarded as one (rather perplexing) way of "reconcilement of incompatible or discordant qualities", to use Coleridge's notorious formulation, that is, unity in complexity. Hitherto I have discussed "unity in complexity" as what can be detected in any instance of the macabre; however, this tendency may also be detected in the fine-grained semantic texture as well as its organization into the over-all structure of this poem.
"Unity, complexity, and some intensive human quality" is significantly related in this poem with the maximal exploitation of the potentials of words and images. The multiplicity of potentials may be a source of the complexity of an image or a situation; the unity of the image or the situation bestows unity upon the various potentials and the various sense-impressions. An impression derived from a variety of potentials of a variety of images is mostly perceived as more than usually intensive; at the same time it can be regarded as having great unity and complexity. Some unified movement bestows unity upon a variety of elements; the effect of such unity increases with the increase of the variety of elements. The unified movement may be local, as in the fifth and sixth stanzas (see detailed discussion below), but may be perceptible also in the process that takes place from the beginning of the poem to its end. The internal "action" of the poem is drawn out from the physical-repugnant at its beginning, to the purified-spiritual at its end. At the same time, the reader witnesses a process of increasing disintegration, simultaneously with the opposite process: the crystallization of ideal form. Likewise, the gradual amplification of the intenseness of impressions is perceived as one "movement" from the beginning of the poem to its end.
Words may have a wide range of potential meanings. These are actualized--one, or some of them--by the phrases in which they occur. The same is true, with the necessary changes, of poetic images and situations. The potentials of an image are derived from the properties of the object underlying it, or the situation or processes in which it participates. Potentials of images, when actualized, combine some sensory element with some property that may be denoted--as a rule--by some abstract noun. Thus, for instance, the most conspicuous potentials of a carrion are stink, repugnance, repulsion (the carrion stinks, is repugnant, arouses repulsion); decay of the body (the carrion is a disintegrating body); the recycling of matter in nature (the matter that constitutes the disintegrating corpse participates in nature's cycle); the destruction of form and return to chaos (the carrion's form is gradually destroyed); the stemming of new life from the disintegrating corpse (the disintegrating organic matter serves as food for insects and fertilizer for vegetation).
In a poem in which some of these potentials, or all
of them, or even more than them, are actualized, the
carrion becomes the intersection of heterogeneous properties,
situations and processes. It is in this sense that
the carrion becomes a symbol in this poem (the word
symbol is derived from Greek symbolon meaning a piece
of an object broken into two, intended as a sign of
recognition between two persons). It "symbolizes"
nothing; each of its properties (or "potentials")
is, rather, a part of the whole object, and serves
to evoke the other potentials of the whole. A potential
of an image is actualized, when there is another element
in the poem (image or word), one of whose potentials
may be subsumed under one concept with it. In this
way, then, the potentials of the various images actualize
one another. Since it is impossible to predict all
the elements that will occur in a poem, or to limit
their number, unexpected potentials may be actualized
in any image--after the event. Let us illustrate this
by the first two stanzas of this poem. The phrase "with
its legs in the air", referring to a carrion,
suggests casualness, unstableness, helplesness, etc.
The next phrase, "like a lustful woman",
actualizes another potential of "with its legs
in the air"--a "good example" of a lustful
gesture or posture. The potential a place to lie upon
for the carrion is actualized in the phrase "a
bed sawn with pebbles"; in that perspective, the
phrase "sawn with pebbles" suggests that
the place is covered with pebbles. On the other hand,
the phrase "a bed sawn with pebbles", in
the perspective of "a lustful woman" suggests
indifference of the carrion, lying as comfortably upon
the pebbles as upon a bed. This is reinforced by the
relevant meaning of nonchalante. On the other hand,
"lustful woman" actualizes the main meaning
of bed--a place for humans to lie upon.
Infâme, in the context of a lustful woman suggests
"morally deplorable", whereas in the context
of a carrion--to which this meaning cannot apply--it suggests
"repugnant". Likewise, brûlante et
suant in the context of charogne, poisons and matin
d'été suggest physical heet and secretion;
in the context of une femme lubrique they are construed
as "burning with desire" and "sweating,
perspirating". In this context, the phrase "suant
les poisons" becomes metaphorical, deleting from
poisons the meaning-components suggesting "serious
harmful interference with biological functioning",
retaining only a general attitude of repellence. Finally,
even objet changes its meaning, from a neutral and
rather pale sense of "that which is presented
to the senses or thought" (instantiated by the
two verbs related to it, Rappelez-vous ... que nous
vîmes), to the pejorative sense of "some
base thing, not worth the trouble to identify it"
(instantiated by une charogne infâme).
Baudelaire's poem exploits the potentials of its underlying image by way of using a complex system of refuted expectations and unexpected impressions appealing, at one and the same time, to as many of the (mind's) senses as possible. On these impressions unity is imputed (1) by twelve stanzas of identical prosodic structure and rhyme scheme; and (2) by a series of situations imposed one upon the other, so as to increase or decrease psychic distance: a. the carrion rotting in the sun; b. the lovers looking at it; c. the lovers recalling the event; d. the reader contemplating the poem, and through the other situations--the carrion.
A Reading of the Poem
The poem begins in an atmosphere of lovers endulging in some pleasurable memories, against a background of "that beautiful summer morning so sweet". "At the turn of a path" is a metonymy for, say, a garden, and as such it suggests a concrete scene for "beautiful summer morning". The reader may expect, in literary descriptions, that in such circumstances some pleasurable experiences follow; but what follows instead, is "an infamous carrion". It is the unexpectedness of the item that generates a most intense effect. The carrion seems to be thrown in a casual position: this is suggested by the phrase "with its legs in the air", which is a "good example" of an unstable position. The description of the carrion as a whore exploits another potential of "with its legs in the air". Although "charogne" does have, in popular usage, such meanings related to whores, this simile exploits one of the less expected potentials of the situation. However, the unexpected description is anything but unmotivated: if we return to the first stanza (prompted by the syntactic structure of the run-on sentence), we shall find there some faint anticipation of the simile. Infâme, introduced here for its now considerably weakened sense "repugnant", denotes, as its main sense, "morally deplorable" (it means, etymologically, "ill-famed"). This is reinforced by an extra internal rhyme, femme-infâme. There is here, furthermore, an antithesis between the lovers having their morning stroll in the vein of Sixteenth Century French Pléiade, and the sight to which they are exposed; this antithesis, as I shall suggest below, already holds the seeds of the comparison of the beloved to this rotting carrion. The epithet "burning (with desire)" bestows intense vividness ("energeia"--in Aristotle's term) upon the carrion, brings it nearer to the human world and, as I have suggested above, amplifies its repugnance.
The sun (suggested by summer morning) is explicitly
mentioned at the beginning of stanza 3, amplifying
the appeal to the thermal sense as part of the description
of the summer morning, or of the "heated"
carrion. The simile "comme afin de cuire",
drawing upon the thermal sense, emphasizes the "meat"-aspect
of the carrion, thus contributing, as I have earlier
suggested, to its repugnance. Lines 3-4 of this stanza
"And return to great Nature a hundred times /
All that it had joined together" foreground another
kind of activity of the sun: it stimulates the re-cycling
of matter in nature, actualizing another potential
of the carrion-image. Thus, the basic attitude to the
process of rotting is changed: the process is chemical,
and the attitude to it is "objective", almost
The simile "Comme une fleur s'épanouir"
(blossoming out as a flower), referring to a carcass,
foregrounds at the present stage several aspects: 1.
explicitly, it seems to elaborate Ouvrait two stanzas
earlier: the legs and belly of the carcass were "opened"
like an opening flower; 2. the simile introduces into
the image information that is emotionally incompatible
with it, and contributes to the effect of emotional
disorientation; 3. the sky admired the disintegration
of the "superb" carcass, which, from the
point of view of the natural cycle is no less valuable
than the blooming out of a flower; 4. the sky regards
the process with indifference--it does not distinguish
a rotting carcass from a blooming flower; 5. the speaker
has achieved sufficient aesthetic distance to contemplate
intently the carrion. According to 3 and 5, the epithet
"superbe" is to be understood literally,
according to 1, 2 and 4--ironically. The fifth aspect
is an antithesis to the girl, who was about to faint.
Thus, the first appeal to the (mind's) olfactory sense
is foregrounded to a considerable degree, while the
stanza alludes both to intent "contemplation"
and intense repugnance.
"The flies were buzzing" (stanza 5) arouses
disgust by way of appealing to the senses of hearing
and sight, while "putrid belly" suggests
smell too. The phrases "black battalions",
"flowing", "thick liquid" appeal,
at one and the same time, to the visual, kynetic and
tactile senses, arousing the sensations of blackness,
thickness and vivid sight. Haillons (rags) is another
element suggesting filth. Its poetic potentials include
shapelessness and feebleness, and being torn to pieces.
Accordingly, the phrase "vivants haillons"
(living rags) is a periphrasis for something like "torn
flesh", generated in a special way: the noun rags
denotes lifeless things, suggesting a more remote
relationship to life than flesh; at the same time it
implies the information conveyed by torn; on the other
hand, living denotes "that has life". Thus,
the phrase sharpens the opposition life~lifeless, skipping--but
suggesting--the proper term torn flesh. It suggests,
at one and the same time, 1. flesh that was once living,
and now is deformed; 2. flesh that is capable of sensations
(and may feel the touch of the crawling creatures);
3. flesh that has a texture with no resistence, like
rags, set into motion by the insects. The comparison
of the black battalions of larves to the flowing of
some thick liquid points up the difference between
an image "seen" by the "mind's eye"
and one seen by the "real" eye. Some thick,
black liquid may be considered beautiful, if one knows
that it is, for instance, tar melted in a furnace.
The black mass seen by the flesh's eye can be either
black battalions of larves, or some thick, black liquid,
but not both at one and the same time, whereas in a
figure of speech the two may be present together, and
"preserve their warring identity".
In stanza 5, the number as well as the intensity of
senses involved has been amplified; at the same time,
a unified motion has been suggested, in which the various
sense impressions are assimilated. The impression of
a unified motion is amplified in stanza 6, where the
first syntactic subject is Tout cela. "All this"
refers, then, to flies, larves, rags as well as the
stink--the motion attributed to them is total, all-pervasive.
The sequence descendait, montait comme une vague amplifies
the image of flowing liquid, attributes to it the impetus
of the sea, which is amplified, in turn, by ou s'élançait
en petillant: the rushing forward is impetuous, the
movement is unified, in spite of the swift, small particles
thrown separately. Accordingly, the reader becomes
aware of the over-all pattern of the movement and the
minute particles that constitute it. The verb pétiller
means "to burst forward with repeated, small,
dry noises", with connotations of sparkling; consequently,
it appeals to the visual, kynetic and thermal senses,
involving a tension between water and sparkles of fire.
This transfers the focus of attention from the filth
to what may be pure. In the second half of the stanza,
"inflated by some vague breath" amplifies
the sense of vitality incarnate in the dead corpse,
but also the sense of totality and unity of the movement.
It also arouses, as I have suggested above, macabric
anxiety. The rest of the stanza, vivait en se multipliant
(was living and multiplying) illustrates and amplifies
the feeling of total, over-all movement on the one
hand, and a multiplicity of minute, bounding particles,
arousing at the same time macabric anxiety (in harmony
with the beginning of the stanza).
The clause le corps ... vivait en se multipliant means
"the corpse ... lived by multiplying itself".
Corps means "dead body", or "the body,
the flesh, as opposed to the spirit"; the present
predicate tends to activate this second meaning. However,
the image of the lustful woman at the beginning of
the poem, and that of "la vermine / Qui vous
mangera de baisers" at its end activate in se
multipliant sexual components. This sexual ingredient
seems to be extended to the corpse's wavy movement
at the beginning of the stanza, with connotations of
Stanza 7 too mobilizes many of the senses in the perception
of the situation. This time it is the flowing water
and the wind that attribute the strength of natural
forces to the perceived impressions, reinforce the
awareness that we witness here some natural process,
and that the process is purifying and purified--rottenness
is mentioned no more. The new syntactic subject, ce
monde, denotes an abstract entity that imputes an heightened
sense of unity upon the distinct sense impressions.
No more the vague tout cela, but a coherent world,
in which the various conflicting forces and discordant
elements act in harmony. The sense of an over-all unity
is reinforced by étrange musique, and the ensuing
rhythmic movement elaborated in the next two lines.
Nonetheless, the reader does not lose the awareness
of minute particles, owing to the grains bounding and
rebounding in the winnowing-basket, that constitute
the rhythmic movement.
Stanza 8 changes the point of view: it appeals to the
visual sense only. After the intense impression of
a well-organized rhythmic shape in the preceding stanza,
some kind of antithesis is brought to attention: an
awareness of the fading away of visual shapes; after
a reality perceived so intensively, some unreal, dreamlike,
obscure world is presented; after a coherent world--chaos
and shapelessness. However, chaos appears only so that
another world be created from it, with the help of
the artist's memory. Now a sense of beauty--artistic
beauty, this time--is reintroduced into the poem, for
which the ground has been prepared in the preceding
stanza, by the strange music and rhythm. There appears
another important element that has been suggested to
be required for the generation of psychic distance--memory,
serving as a semantic echo of the very first word of
the poem, Rappelez-vous. Stanza 9 constitutes an anti-climax,
with the vile appetite of the bitch longing for the
Stanza 10 brings a surprise--nay, a shock--greater than
any of its predecessors. "Et pourtant vous serez
semblable à cette ordure". This stanza
is an "oddman out" in the poem in another
respect as well, that has certain artistic repercussions.
This is the first time, that in two consecutive lines
the shocking repugnance of the carrion is directly
described in general, abstract terms ("this ordure",
"this horrible infection"), with no attempt
to present fresh and specific sense impressions. Lines
3-4 pile up vocative phrases directed to the belovéd,
a series of Petrarcan clichés abounding in the
poetry of Ronsard and the French Pléiade. Surprisingly
enough, the two parts of the stanza, that are equally
devoid of concrete imagery, impute vitality to each
other, by virtue of the opposition and irony implicit
in their mere juxtaposition.
The last three stanzas, for all their shocking unexpectedness,
make ample use of elements that have occurred throughout
the poem, beyond the explicit comparison. The lines
"you go under the grass and the rich blooming,
/ To rot amid the bones" recapitulate the motive
of life stemming from rot, and exploit certain potentials
of the return to "grand nature". "The
vermin / That eats you with kisses" recapitulates
the astounding combination of rot with "carnal"
desire, as it occurs in the first few stanzas, as well
as the bitch's longing to eat the rotting meat. In
retrospect from the present stanza, a kind of dramatic
irony is generated in stanza 4: the person who was
about to faint owing to the strong stink, is to become
like "this ordure, this horrible infection".
There are also some verbal allusions to stanza 4 in
stanza 11: sous l'herbe et les floraisons grasses call
to mind "sur l'herbe" and "une fleur
s'épanouir". Stanza 4 anticipates the end
in an additional respect: it is here that the rotting
carrion is compared to a conventional symbol of youth
and beauty: a flower blooming out. Another line leads
from here to the ending, through stanzas 7-8, where
the process of disintegration and fading of forms is
shading into the opposite process of crystallizing
artistic form. From here it is only a short route to
the last stanza, where the destruction of the form
of matter gives way to the abstraction and crystallization
of the ideal essence. And if we cast another eye from
here to the first line of the poem, we find there the
vocative mon âme (my soul), which we have treated
there as a mere cliché for "my love",
or "my darling". From the present vantage
point we may regard it as some faint anticipation of
the "divine essence" that will remain of
the belovéd, after the decomposition of her
The carrion is, then, not merely an image illustrating
the decay of the body and of beauty; nor is it merely
a means to shock the bourgeois. For this, a two-lines
long epigram would have been enough. The poem actualizes
a long series of potentials implicit in the image.
These potentials are actualized one after the other
in an unexpected but plausible, even necessary way--to
paraphrase an Aristotelian formulation. Every aspect
makes use of earlier aspects, with which it is in conflict
at first sight. Thus, for instance, the carrion appears
unexpectedly after the "beautiful summer morning
so sweet". But later, the poem exploits many of
the potentials of the morning sun for such processes
as "burning" with desire, stimulating the
process of rotting, recycling matter in nature. The
units of the poem appear in opposition to preceding
elements. Frequently, however, they imply at the same
time their own opposites. The carrion rotting in the
heat of the sun is burning, as it were, with desire.
The carrion opening its belly and legs is compared
to an opening flower. The corpse decomposed by the
vermin appears as if it were informed by some living
spirit. The gradually fading form of the carrion becomes
the ground of artistic shape. As a result, a coherent,
self-sufficient and vivid world is generated, in which
the rotting process is perceived in its various aspects
at one and the same time, as a repulsive process, as
an emotionally neutral chemical process, as a vital
process of the natural cycle, as full of inherent beauty
only for him who is capable of intently contemplating
it from an appropriate psychic distance. The reader
witnesses a mass of intense repulsive sense impressions.
Their intensity increases from stanza to stanza, with
the advancement of the rotting process. Nonetheless,
the description becomes more and more purified. Simultaneously,
the descrete impressions gradually assume a highly
unified form. This process reaches its peak in stanzas
In several of my writings I have argued that the descriptive terms of criticism may become meaningful only within some theoretical framework or model. The foregoing description of "Une Charogne" was intended to become meaningful within some theoretical framework or model of more or less traditional aesthetics, that may be epitomized as "the reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities", "unity, complexity and intensive human quality", "the exploitation of potentials", "multiple relationship", or "the kind of qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context". From the point of view of Cognitive Poetics, however, it is most significant that the same description can also fit into a different theoretical framework, that can be epitomized in Ehrenzweig's (1965) terms (partly derived from William James), as "thing-destruction", "thing-free qualities", and "the secondary elaboration of some superimposed pattern". The gradual destruction of the "thing", the carrion, constitutes at one and the same time the poem's contents and artistic structure. The "superimposed patterns" consist, in the present case, in the pattern of gradual purification; the gradual replacement of "things" with "thing-free qualities", upon which artistic shape is "superimposed" in turn; and the decay of the body that leads to the extraction of the quintessence of spiritual love. By the foregoing terms Ehrenzweig meant, first and foremost, the creative process, and perhaps also the re-creation of the work of art by the art consumer. As I have suggested elsewhere (e.g., Tsur, 1978; 1983), such processes restructure information in a way that is very similar to the structure of information in emotional processes. Thus, the emotional import of the information conveyed by Baudelaire's description is strongly reinforced by an emotional structure, vastly amplifying the emotional impact of the poem.
Now a few words on the poem's relationship to French poetic traditions. Rodin, in his conversations on art with Paul Gsell mentions this poem together with Villon's "La Belle Haulmière"; this points up a kinship with Mediaeval Macabre poetry, that reached its peak with Villon (we have seen above the implications of this). Let us compare for a minute Baudelaire's poem to an almost randomly chosen piece of cruel macabric realism, from Villon's Testament:
Et meure Paris ou Helaine!
Quiconques meurt, meurt à douleur.
Cellui qui perd vent et alaine,
Son fiel se creve sur son cueur,
Puis sue, Dieu sçait quelle sueur!
Et n'est qui de ses maulx l'allege:
Car enfans n'a, frere ne soeur,
Qui voulsist lors estre son pleige.
La mort le faict fremir, pallir,
Le nez courber, les veines tendre,
Le col enfler, la chair mollir,
Joinctes et nerfs croistre et estendre.
Corps feminin, qui tant est tendre,
Poly, souef, si precieulx,
Te fauldra-il ces maulx attendre?
Ouy, ou tout vif aller ès cieulx. (XL-XLI)
[Whether Paris dies or Helen! / Whoever dies, dies in pain. / He loses his wind and pant, /His bile bursts into his heart, / Then he sweats, God knows what sweat! / And there is none to alleviate his ills: / Neither child, nor brother or sister, / Who would stand in for him.
Death makes him tremble, pale, / The nose bend, the veins tighten, / The neck swell, the flesh rot,/ Joints and nerves loosen and extend. / Now, female body, that is so tender, / Polished, soft and so precious, / Must you suffer all these wrongs? / Yes, unless you go sraightaway to heaven].
Both stanzas give a merciless description of the pains of death-agony, each one suggesting at its end, that there is no hope to escape such an end, and nothing of worth remains after death. The relentless description of the "Belle Haulmière" too leaves her with a deformed, repulsive body at her old age, after a life of prostitution. At another restatement of the macabre-theme, contemplating the dead at the St. Innocents graveyard, Villon explicitly states, what remains after death:
Tantost faillent telles plaisances,
Et la coulpe si en demeure. (CXLVIII).
[Before they had much fun, / And it's only sin that stays on.]
Villon prefers to focus attention on the human body
when deformed by old age or death agony; when he finds
his way to the spirit, he has nothing more consoling
to offer, than the sin that stays on. Baudelaire sharpens
these effects. On the one hand, he describes the end
of all flesh not only as ugly, painful and frightening,
but as most disgusting; on the other hand, he also
offers a Platonic consolation: the preservation of
the belovèd's divine essence through his poetry.
This difference between Villon and Baudelaire will
make ample sense in the light of Lessing's criticism
of Aristotle, quoted above: "So it is, too, with
corpses: It is the keener feeling of pity, the terrifying
thought of our own destruction, that makes the real
corpse repulsive to us". If the preceding description
of the carcass was not repulsive enough, Baudelaire
reminds the belovèd (and through her, any human
being reading the poem) of her own destruction; at
the same time, he alleviates this "keener feeling
of pity, [...] terrifying thought", by promising
(in the spirit of Renaissance poetry) to preserve her
divine essence in his poems. Thus, Baudelaire's poem
is more cruel and offers, at one and the same time,
Thus, Baudelaire's poem has, at once, elements from the macabric tradition, as well as from what appears to be its opposite, the Platonic poetry of the French Pléiade. A comparison of this poem to the French Pléiade may enhance our understanding of it. It has been suggested above that stanza 10 made an ironic use of the love clichés of the poetry of Ronsard and the Pléiade. First, Ronsard's poetry too contains elements inherited from the macabre tradition; one may even find some illuminating verbal affinities between two lines of our poem, "Quand vous irez, sous l'herbe et les floraisons grasses, / Moisir parmi les ossements", and Ronsard's words in his famous sonnet to Helen ("Quand vous serez bien vieille"): "Je serais sous la terre, et fantôme sans os, / Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos". Just as this comparison points up the sharpening of the image in Baudelaire's poem, it also points to the similar combination of certain motives. On the other hand, we may compare this poem to Ronsard's famous poem, "Mignonne, allons voir si la rose". Here too, a couple of lovers recall their morning stroll in the garden. Here too, they encounter in the garden an object that by way of describing it the poet is reminded of his belovéd. Here too, the object becomes a symbol of the transience of beauty and of youth in general, and the future decay of the mistress in particular. In Ronsard's poem, however, this object is a rose. We have seen in stanza 4, that the flower makes its appearance in this poem too, as a symbol of beauty and a simile for the symbol of decay, the carrion. In the light of this comparison, one might expect a similar ending after stanza 11. Here, however, as at other points of the poem, such possible expectations of the reader are blatantly refuted. Ronsard ends his poem with
Cueillez, cueillez votre jeunesse!Baudelaire's speaker, however, does not entreat his coy mistress "enjoy your day while it lasts", but rather offers her consolation in the promise to preserve "the form and divine essence / Of my decomposed loves", recapitulating and amplifying the Renaissance cliché
Comme cette fleur, la vieillesse
Fera tenir votre beauté.
(Gather, gather your youth! / Like this flower, old age will wither your beauty).
So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Thus, the poem that begins with an indulging in shocking
descriptions of carnal reality at its most repugnant,
ends with the quintessence of spirituality; the poem
that in its first eleven stanzas can be construed as
a reaction against sixteenth century Neo-Platonic love
poetry, in its last stanza outplatoes Plato. The insidious
and detailed description of the decomposition of the
corpse is suddenly reinterpreted as purification, as
ridding the spirit of the corruption of flesh. Thus,
an enormous tension between cruel carnal realism and
pure spirituality is generated in "Une Charogne".
Description, Explanation, Evaluation
Looking now back upon what we have done till now, we may distinguish, in the spirit of analytic aesthetics, three types of critical statements: description, explanation (or interpretation) and evaluation. Those statements that were intended to pinpoint information explicitly given in the poem, or relationships between its elements, including its linguistic structure, are descriptive. Some statements, on the other hand, are intended to pinpoint some "crucial recommendation" (in Morris Weitz's terms) to direct attention toward certain aspects of the description. Both kinds of statements are in the indicative, but what is characteristic of explanatory statements is that they are logically compatible with statements that direct attention toward different, even opposite aspects. Those passages in which I presented the aesthetic conceptions of Aristotle, Addison, Lessing, Coleridge, Beardsley and Brooks were intended here to serve as a theoretical framework in which the descriptive and explanatory statements assume evaluative significance. This suggests that although this triple distinction is clear in theory, in critical practice the border lines may be rather fuzzy.
Thus, for instance, my suggestion that the simile "Comme une fleur s'épanouir" (blossoming out as a flower) introduces into the image of the carcass information that is emotionally incompatible with it--is descriptive; the suggestion that this information becomes part of a pattern of gradual purification is explanatory, and it does not "contradict" other statements (in other explanations) that deny the poem such a pattern. It does not pinpoint a "fact" about the poem, only a possible aspect of the description. The capability of understanding a crucial recommendation to direct attention toward a certain aspect of a description is similar to the capability of understanding "the request to pronounce the word 'till' and mean it as a verb" (Wittgenstein, 1968, 214e). It certainly does not contradict our capability of understanding the word "till" as a conjunction.
Let us compare, for instance, the following two critical passages on this poem:
The issue here is not the capacity for transfiguring things, for changing their value, the capacity which we have called the poetic fiat. We wish to talk of ugliness or horrors which the poet evokes without disguising them at all. [...] Baudelaire, in order to arouse horror, begins with two amorous and springlike verses; from the second stanza on, he increases horror by mingling sensuous associations in it ("Les jambes en l'air comme une femme lubrique...") and then with a more just instinct he mixed, so as to remain readable, the theme of death with that of fecundity. The seventh and eighth stanzas offer us almost the victory of poetry; the images are deliberately vague, and bring us back to the noble spectacles of nature and art [...] the poet gave the last word to decay; the whole poem may have possibly changed its tone, may have left us with a purer fervour [...] had he inverted the ideas of the last two lines (Prévost, 1964: 290-291).
Une Charogne [...] is not just a brilliant piece of macabre elaboration but is constructed to lead up to the last two lines [...]. The decaying body becomes a heap of seething particles, forced on all the senses by the thick ooze, loathly movement and sound of buzzing flies. But slowly each of these sense-impressions takes its place in a pattern of loveliness. And this is not ingenious aestheticism but part of the essential meaning. The end of the poem is no sudden switch in feeling; it has been working out slowly in the implications of the imagery [...]. To Baudelaire, conquest of terror and decay can come only if the full disgust has been faced and expressed. [...] The poem has a bitter and cruel originality, but the tiniest details assert, over decay and destruction, the victory of memory and creation (Fairlie, 1960: 41- 42).1
The two passages refer to roughly the same details in
the poem (this would be even more apparent had I not
omitted here some of the parts). Both passages would
agree that "the full disgust has been faced and
expressed" in the poem. However, according to
Prévost, decay is tiumphant in the poem over
the "divine essence", whereas according to
Fairlie, "the tiniest details [of the poem] assert,
over decay and destruction, the victory of memory and
creation". According to Prévost, the poet
"mixed [...] the theme of death with that of fecundity"
so as to remain readable, a kind of "tender [by
analogy with comic] relief"; whereas according
to Fairlie, this and other images take their "place
in a pattern of loveliness", which lead "up
to the last two lines". Now, who of the two is
right, she who asserts the victory of the divine essence
over decay, or he who asserts the victory of decay
over divine essence? Both critics imply that their
statements are factual statements. However, these are
best handled as crucial recommendations rather than
factual statements. The poem leaves a substantial margine
indeterminate in this respect, and each of the critics--rather
than discovering the truth--makes a recommendation according
his or her own preference. This is not as bad as it
sounds; in fact, this is the most we can expect of
criticism in such instances.
As it may be apparent from my own reading of the poem, I tend, nevertheless, to prefer Fairlie's crucial recommendation; not because Prévost's recommendation is "illegitimate", but because I am not altogether happy with his reasons given for this recommendation. It would appear that Prévost wishes to emphasize that "the full disgust has been faced and expressed" (but so does, obviously, Fairlie too). But it seems to me unacceptable to treat the poetry reader's responses as absolutely conditioned by the last words rather than, for instance, by the last sentence of a poem or, for that matter, by the emerging pattern "of loveliness" pointed out by Fairlie. The issue at stake seems to be, what is the effect of the "decomposed loves" at the end of the poem: whether it enhances "the full disgust", or leaves the divine essence pure, divesting it of the flesh, so to speak. One could possibly make out a good case for any one of the two positions, but not in the mechanical way of checking, which is the last word or line of the poem. Moreover, the "pattern of loveliness"-reading, culminating in the "victory of memory and creation", integrates more completely the elements of art, beauty and fecundity in the emerging interpretation of the poem. However, such a reading does not reject on the threashold the reading that denies "the capacity for transfiguring things, for changing their value". The reader's capability of switching from one reading to the other seems to be very much similar to one's capability of pronouncing the word "till" and mean it as a verb or a conjunction, alternately.
The Ironic Situation
Having now a second look at stanza 4 as a whole,
Et le ciel regardait le carcasse superbe
Comme une fleur s'épanouir.
La puanteur était si forte, que sur l'herbe
Vous crûtes vous évanouir.
we may make another crucial recommendation, some of the implications of which have already been explicitly suggested in the course of our discussion of this stanza, namely, to mean the situation described as an instantiation of the "archetypal ironic situation".
From this point of view the pure or archetypal ironist is God [...]. He is the ironist par excellence because he is omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent, absolute, infinite, and free. [...] The archetypal victim of irony is man, seen, per contra, as trapped and submerged in time and matter, blind, contingent, limited, and unfree--and confidently unaware that this is his predicament (Muecke, 1970: 37-38).
Certain aspects of this "archetypal ironic situation"
foreground certain aspects of the situation described
in the stanza. One major aspect of the girl's repulsion
from the carcass up to the point of almost fainting
will be emphasized by this "archetypal situation",
presenting her as one who is "trapped [...] in
[...] matter, [...] contingent, limited, and unfree".
This is further emphasized, by contrast, by the presence
of the speaker who appears to have some of the superiority
and freedom of the "archetypal ironist",
being--if not omniscient and omnipotent--capable of contemplating
the situation from above and making observations on
its minute details. What is more, the girl may seem
to have little idea that she will look and smell similar
to this carcass after her death. This aspect would
concern her being "blind [...] and confidently
unaware that this is her predicament". This "blindness",
however, is de-emphasized to a considerable degree,
since one may readily grant that the overwhelming immediate
perception of the situation is the stink rather than
some detached memento mori. The reader himself is not
more aware of this possibility, and the speaker's "revelation"
in stanza 10 comes as a shock for him as well. This
aspect of ironic blindness "dawns", if at
all, only in retrospect from stanza 10. On the other
hand, the speaker in the poem is capable of "transcending"
the immediate repugnant sensations of the situation.
"In earthly art Irony has this meaning--conduct
similar to God's" (Muecke, loc. cit.).
Now notice the following. Illuminating as the "archetypal
ironic situation" may be for the poem, it is not
"given" in it. It depends, to a considerable
degree, upon the relative weight we bestow upon the
various details; whether, for instance, we regard the
speaker as a more or less conventional auctorial voice,
as one who happens to know all the information given
in the poem, with some indication on what occasion
he acquired that knowledge, or whether we regard him
as a flesh-and-blood person who, by contrast to the
girl, could overcome the enormous natural disgust and
observe the tiniest details of "the thick ooze,
loathly movement and sound of buzzing flies";
or in a different respect, whether we accept the girl's
repulsion as the most natural response in the situation
described, without further considerations, or we regard
the carcass' processes of decay as metonymies, or instances,
of some more general principles.
At this point of the poem, Moses Mendelssohn's observation
mentioned above may be relevant, with the twist that
"we believe the evil to be real" for the
girl in the situation described by the poem, but not
for the reader of the poem. "Hence, these feelings
can be transformed into pleasant ones by recalling
that it is an artificial illusion" for the reader.
Moreover, many readers find themselves at this point
identifying their point of view with that of the "archetypal
ironist" speaking in the poem; and also "recalling
that it is [merely] an artificial illusion", they
may feel a sense of relative superiority and freedom,
and find the detailed description of repellent sights
and smells pleasurable. This is one, rather persistent,
reason for this poem to be capable of arousing pleasure
with its repulsive descriptions. One might conjecture
that it is this underlying attitude that may facilitate
many readers' acceptance of Prévost's "wish
to talk of ugliness or horrors which the poet evokes
without disguising them at all", without "transfiguring"
them. But it is relevant to Fairlie's reading as well.
Let us turn now to Mendelssohn's suggestion concerning
"the disagreeable sensation of disgust",
that "our dislike did not arise from the supposition
that the evil was real, but from the mere mental image
of it, which is indeed real. Feelings of disgust are
therefore always real and never imitations". There
is little doubt that considerable parts of "Une
Charogne" are not just ugly, but right away disgusting.
What is more, the author appears to deliberately aim
at arousing the mere mental image of the disgusting.
This mental image, notwithstanding Mendelssohn and
Prévost, is still capable of arousing artistic
pleasure, and the disagreeable "feelings can be
transformed into pleasant ones". I have suggested
above that the difference between the ugly and the
disgusting may be one of degree rather than of kind.
In matters of perception, for instance, certain crucial
differences that to consciousness appear to be strictly
qualitative, are in fact differences between "rapid"
and "delayed closure", or between "rapid"
and "delayed categorization". It may be the
case that the ugly and the disgusting too differ in
the relative speed with which the disagreeable feelings
can be transformed into pleasant ones. It may well
be the case that with the disgusting the transformation
is delayed for a considerable span of time, so that
the reader is exposed to the painful mental image for
a longer period. Perhaps Prévost's notion too,
that "The issue here is not the capacity for transfiguring
things, for changing their value [...]," but "ugliness
or horrors which the poet evokes without disguising
them at all" refers, in fact, to the appearance
in consciousness of such a delayed transformation.
In terms of the present paper, Prévost's factual
statement is to be understood as a crucial recommendation
to delay transformation in the course of reading this
The foregoing speculation may also bear, mutatis mutandis,
on another related issue. Let us consider Fairlie's
suggestion, that "slowly each of these sense-impressions
takes its place in a pattern of loveliness". As
I have suggested above, Baudelaire resorts for his
descriptions of disgusting processes to images that
are emotionally incompatible with them, such as flowers,
artistic creation, appetite, or sexual lust. When Baudelaire
uses the image that the carcass "opens up its
belly", its effect is to render the repugnant
sight more "vivid" in the reader's imagination.
When he adds the simile "blossoming out like a
flower", he introduces into the image an element
that is emotionally incompatible with it, thereby dealing
to the reader a shock of emotional disorientation.
When Baudelaire describes the disintegrating body as
having lost its shape, it again makes the process of
decay more vivid; but when he uses the simile of artistic
creation, it deals to the reader another shock of emotional
disorientation. These shocks reinforce the shock of
the "mental image" of the disgusting carcass.
At the same time, there emerges an overall pattern,
for which the term "gradual purification and disembodiment"
rather than "loveliness" appears to be an
appropriate description, leading up to the disembodied
divine essence in the last two lines. It would appear
that this aspect of the pleasurable images dawns upon
the reader only as a faint possiblity, and receives
its full weight only in retrospect, from the last stanza.
Thus, the emergence of this pattern may serve as an
illustration of the process of "delayed transformation".
Now, how does this process of "delayed transformation"
affect the reader of this poem? For one thing, the
shift is from an extremely painful perception to an
extremely pleasurable perception. The mere occurrence
of such a shift may be the structural source--according
to the Freudian conception--of a high degree of pleasure.
For another thing, the reader undergoes an experience
of great flexibility, the gist of which is characterized
by ability or readiness to shift from one aspect of
the situation to another; in the present instance,
from the disorienting aspects of the images to their
purifying aspects. In terms of the archetypal ironic
situation, this would suggest that the exercising of
one's capability of shifting from one aspect of the
situation to another arouses and enhances a feeling
of relative freedom and superiority, which, again is
experienced as pleasurable (as a matter of fact, it
is not merely a feeling of relative freedom and superiority;
the reader does exercise relative freedom and superiority).
Addison, Joseph (1951) from Spectator Papers, in James
Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks (eds.) The Great
Critics. New York: Norton & Company.
Aristotle, Poetics. S. H. Butcher (trans.), in James
Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks (eds.) The Great
Critics. New York: Norton & Company.
Beardsley, Monroe C. (1958) Aesthetics. New York and
Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Cargo, Robert T. (1968) Baudelaire Criticism 1950-1967.
University of Alabama Press.
Cazamian, L. (1960) A History of French Literature.
London: Oxford Paperbacks.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1951) Biographia Literaria,
in Donald A. Stauffer (ed.) Selected Poetry and Prose
of Coleridge. New York: Random House.
Ehrenzweig, Anton (1965) A Psychoanalysis of Artistic
Vision and Hearing. New York: Braziller
Faguet, Émil (1910) "Baudelaire", La
Revue: 1er Septembre.
Fairlie, Alison (1960) Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal.
London: Edward Arnold.
Gide, André (1910) "Baudelaire et M. Faguet",
Nouvelle Revue Française: 1er Novembre.
Johnson, R. V. (1969) Aestheticism. London: Methuen
(The Critical Idiom).
Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1962) Laocoön: An Essay
on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Edward Allen
McCormick (trans.). Indianopolis: Bobbs-Merril.
Muecke, D. C. (1970) Irony. London: Methuen (The Critical
Prévost, Jean (1964) Baudelaire: Essai sur la
Création et L'inspiration Poétique. Mercure
Szerb, Antal (1943) A Világirodalom Története.
3 vols. Budapest: Révai.
Tsur, Reuven (1978) "Emotion, Emotional Qualities,
and Poetry". Psychocultural Review 2: 165-180.
Tsur, Reuven (1983) What is Cognitive Poetics? The
Katz Research Institute for Hebrew Literature.
Turnell, Martin (1953) Baudelaire. Norfolk. Con.: New
Wellek, René (1963) Concepts of Criticism. New
Haven & London: Yale UP.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1968) Philosophical Investigations. G. E. M. Anscombe (trans.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
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