The Magazine

God in the Details

Is the decadent Baudelaire the answer to the bourgeoisie?

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Such extraordinary people required a top-heavy and sententious art. They wanted poetry rich with gods, the way they wanted massive silver plate on their sideboards. Writers like Alfred de Musset delivered the divine afflatus. But where the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin had genuinely felt the gods’ terrible presence—a visitation from Apollo drove him mad—in post-revolutionary France, invoking the gods was sheer mummery.

The cleverest Parisians saw through the pretense, and sneered gaily. The operetta master Jacques Offenbach and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy introduced a new artistic insouciance, which spread to drawing rooms and dinner parties: “ ‘a nimble spirit, stripped of commonplaces and stock sentiments,’ endowed with an ‘intentional dryness,’ elastic, scathing, intolerant of the ‘verbal sentimentalism of a previous epoch’ (as Proust was to describe it).” Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) and La Belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen) revel in the double-edged send-up of Greek myth and contemporary politics. In the words of the once-authoritative Jules Janin, fastidious critics huffed at the desecration of “holy and glorious Antiquity”; but the public filled the seats and ate it all up. 

Calasso barely mentions the two operettas in passing—a strange reticence, given his lifelong preoccupations. Siegfried Kracauer, in the classic Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time (1937), provides a full and illuminating account. Calasso leaves gaping questions here: Why did the gods so suddenly become funhouse caricatures? Why did the bourgeois audience go from demanding art of magniloquent solemnity to embracing the titillating and raffish? (For it is, of course, the titillating and raffish that have come to reign supreme in modern art.)  

But then Calasso scatters his powers on all manner of subjects either directly or tangentially or remotely associated with Baudelaire and his folly. Most notable are the artists Ingres, Delacroix, Manet, and Degas; Baudelaire wrote about the first two in his art criticism for the newspapers, while the latter appear in Calasso’s book as Baudelairean epigoni, exemplars of the artistic modernity that opposed itself to bourgeois modernity—of decadence versus material progress.

The highlight of Calasso’s own art criticism is his description of Ingres’s Jupiter and Thetis, in which Achilles’ mother implores the master of the universe to restore her son’s tarnished honor: “Her white breast rests on the thigh of the sovereign of the gods with the familiarity of an old lover. And her right big toe brushes that of Zeus. Neoclassical eros had never gone so far.” Here, Ingres paints gods who possess the luscious erotic weight of mortal flesh. 

Yet Calasso overlooks entirely a passage from Baudelaire’s piece on the Universal Exposition of 1855 that faults Ingres for “total absence of sentiment and of supernaturalism” in his Apotheosis of Emperor Napoleon I and Joan of Arc. According to Baudelaire, Ingres’s depiction of Joan fails to avenge “this noble virgin” for the “lewdnesses of Voltaire,” the supreme rationalist and archenemy of all that is holy, who had accused the martial saint of sluttishness. And Ingres’s Napoleon appears not to be ascending into heaven, the “goal of all human aspirations and classic habitation of all great men,” but to be tumbling earthward with his chariot, “like a balloon without gas.”

One hates to say it, for Calasso is an outstanding critic and his new book does have dazzling moments, but La Folie Baudelaire represents a falling off. Too often it rehearses tired themes, misses opportunities to make telling points, passes off incoherence as learned virtuosity, and diffuses the effervescence of the author’s own extraordinary mind so that a disappointing fizzle remains. Roberto Calasso is as good as they come, and one wants more and more from him. One just wants it to be better than this.  

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.