HEROES & VILLAINS: CHARLES BAUDELAIRE by Jessica Berens

The writer Jessica Berens blames the poet Charles Baudelaire for his malign influence on generations of deluded adolescent nihilists
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Charles Baudelaire got the face that he deserved. His features describe an individual embittered by his own talent for self-destruction, undermined by moral turpitude and harrowed by lack of generosity. An appalling hysteric and spiteful inebriate, association with him could only appeal to the mad or daft. "Utterly unpleasant," wrote Nadar, and he was a friend. Attractions such as gonorrhoea, contracted from a slapper in the rue Saint- Antoine, then syphilis, accelerated by alcohol, melded with self-obsession, depression, profligacy, shameless cadging, and relentless affectation. If he had been alive today, he would have slumped drunk in the Groucho Club, worn embarrassing waistcoats, and bored on about being on Prozac. "What I suffer through being alive is inexpressible," he once said.

The publication of Les Fleurs du Mal disseminated the imagery of the graveyard, the aridity of atheism and the brutality of the cynic. Awarded the title "Prince of Carcasses", Baudelaire turned himself into this apparition - an easy task for one who is bored and perverse and desperate for attention. "The only feeling that convinces me that I am still alive is a vague desire for celebrity, vengeance and money," he wrote in 1863. As self-styled provocateur, he showed Monsieur Roqueplan a book that he claimed was made from human skin and asked Monsieur Banville if he would care to share a bath with him.

"Don't you see anything of out the ordinary in me?" the poet asked Maxime du Camp, founder of the Revue de Paris. "No I don't," said du Camp. "But I have green hair and that's not very common." "Everyone's hair is more or less green," du Camp replied airily. "Now if yours were sky blue, that might surprise me..."

For Baudelaire, there were many companions but few friends; some nostalgia but little affection; and, like most poets, he purveyed notions about the transcendence of love that were the products of an intellectual confidence trick rather than real domestic experience. His Norman Bates-style relationship with his mother was distinguished by insults and begging letters. Women foolish enough to befriend him usually suffered for their stupidity. In letters, Baudelaire claimed to love Jeanne Duval, his mistress of 14 years, but he seemed unable to resist taking her money and beating her up.

Madame Sabatier made the mistake of thinking that the "love" poems dedicated to her reflected the panache of real desire. "I'm the happiest of all women," she wrote to him. "I have never felt more clearly that I love you." The Muse did not understand that her role was to be a silent objet, a fetish to inspire the outpourings of a manipulative obsessive. Her detachment is essential if solipsism, misogyny and hard-earned masochism are to be re-affirmed. Baudelaire, rude but honest, snapped back: "A few days ago, you were a deity, which is so convenient, so fine and so inviolable. Now you're a woman."

Teenagers will always revere delinquency; first-year English students will always be entertained by dissolution. The common delusion that is Baudelaire's legend is thus sustained by that dwindling market known as adolescence. In the mid-Seventies, he joined Reich, Nietzsche and Sartre in the pantheon of idols deployed by young writers optimistically attempting to imbue pop music with philosophical depth. Seen as a cool nihilist and seminal anti-hero, he was invoked in articles about Joy Division as a sure sign that the spotty NME reviewer was a Thinker. The same mood turned Tom Miller into Tom Verlaine and allowed Patti Smith to quote Rimbaud. Once, there was music; now Queen Latifah is "an organic cultural intellectual". Once there was dancing; now professors of musicology quote Plato's Laws in articles about Public Enemy.

Mediocre myth-makers and silly pseuds fail to perceive that, while Baudelaire's poems may stand as works of distinction, the life of the man stands as a poor sort of black joke. Contagious credulity has long perpetuated a romantic view of degeneracy and helped to support the defective idea that artists must be semi-insane social misfits in order to be visionary. Talent can undoubtedly be a burden, but should it be an excuse? Should a "gift" be a licence to indulge in cruelty and cowardice? Ask Harriet. Destroyed by cold rejection, Shelley's first "love" flung herself into the Serpentine. Ask Allegra. Byron's five-year-old daughter died of neglect after being abandoned in an Italian convent.

The detractor cannot fail to be irritated by the observation that Baudelaire, as his own critic, was aware of much of the above - in his novella, La Fanfarlo, Madame de Cosmelly berates Samuel Cramer (a caricature of the poet) for his awfulness. "It would seem to me to be more natural to be celebrating the health and joys of decent people rather than damning everything in sight," she says. Cramer replies that he and his ilk have been led into falsehoods by a hatred of everybody, including themselves. It is because they despair of ever being noble or worth a second look that they have painted such strange masks on their faces. "We cannot possibly speak the same language as other men," he declares, with merciless complacency.

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