Discovering the poetry of perpetual motion
A book in the life of Alain De Botton
Monday 27 March 2000
In a biography of Charles Baudelaire, I am intrigued to find that the poet had a fondness for all places and objects associated with travel, however ugly: harbours, docks, ships, roads, roadside inns, etc. Staying with his mother in the port of Honfleur in 1859, Baudelaire would take up position at the quayside and observe ships set out and return across the seas. He wrote of the 'infinite and mysterious charm that arises from contemplating ships'.
I sympathise with Baudelaire's tastes. In a certain frame of mind, there seems something extremely charming about airports, aeroplanes, trains, railway stations, roadside diners and hotels. They are usually not beautiful in the classic sense; they are charming because they imply motion. They are gateways to a life radically different from home and all its constraints and disappointments. TS Eliot credited Baudelaire with discovering what he called 'the poetry of waiting-rooms' - and connected this to another Baudelaireian idea: 'the fact that no human relations are adequate to human desires'. Being on the road becomes poetic and interesting when staying at home is prosaic and dull. In his diary, Baudelaire once wrote of his 'horror of home' and of 'a feeling of solitude, ever since childhood, despite family, in the middle of friends, and a feeling of being destined to an eternally solitary existence.'
Baudelaire's greatest works - his Flowers of Evil and Prose Poems - are filled with longings for escape to other worlds. In his poem 'Invitation to Travel', he tells his lover of an enchanted country far away:
Imagine the magic
of living together
there, with all the time in the world
for loving each other,
for loving and dying...
All is order there, and elegance,
pleasure, peace, and opulence.
Then again, it probably isn't, and Baudelaire knows it. There would be arguments, mosquitoes and boredom. Baudelaire colludes with us in the knowledge that there is no perfect faraway land, and yet he also takes the desire that there should be such a land seriously. He gives space to our romantic fantasies while being aware (so aware that he does not need to state the fact) of the sterner realities.
For someone strung like this between dissatisfaction with home and the knowledge that there is no perfect alternative, travelling may be the most perfect state. In his poem 'The Journey', Baudelaire writes that 'only those who leave for leaving's sake are travellers.' Those who, 'not knowing why, keep muttering: "Let's go!"', their 'longings have the shape of clouds', they dream of 'huge and fluctuating and obscure delights, none of which has ever had a name'. Of course, it is a futile quest, for: 'Life is a hospital where every patient is obsessed by changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he'd get better by the window. It seems to me that I'll always be well where I am not.' It might sound like a pessimistic conclusion, but that would be to overlook the pleasure that is available simply from changing beds, from being in motion between one bed and another.
There is delight in the prospect of the vastness of the oceans from the deck of a ship, of the clouds from an aircraft window, of a new hotel in a strange land, of the road stretching out ahead, of a path leading beyond two mountains; these things are attractive even without reference to a particular destination: the very idea of being in motion is the key. Our deepest longing may be for home, but as Baudelaire suggests, those whom home has failed may prefer the airport and the train station buffet.
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