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This review is taken from PN Review 125, Volume 25 Number 3, January - February 1999.

TRICK OR TREAT? CHARLES BAUDELAIRE, Complete Poems, translated by Walter Martin (Carcanet) £14.95

Walter Martin loves Baudelaire 'to distraction'. He was 'a man whose bitterness and disgust have turned out to be more uplifting, more enlightening in the long run, than all of his contemporaries' goodwill, kindheartedness and "homicidal philanthropy"'.

I must admit that reading Baudelaire has never left me feeling uplifted or enlightened. Instead, I come away pondering whether or not this revered body of work is, in fact, a bit of a con trick, a showy excuse for the banal cruelty of picking endlessly at a universal wound we all know will never heal, the wound opened in the conflict between our vanity and our mortality. In Baudelaire, everything is corruptible. Art and desire generate their exquisite heat and light, but the darkness that follows when they burn out, as they must, is doubly cursed. Living out his 'eternally lonely destiny', the poet dramatizes the cycle of ecstasy and disgust that comes with living in artificial paradises.

Louise Glück's marvellous Hopwood Lecture, 1996, 'Fear of Happiness', reprinted in PNR 118, helped me to think about what dissatisfies me in Baudelaire. (I don't presume for a moment that Glück actually had Baudelaire in mind, though she may have been thinking of Rilke, as her essay in PNR 116, 'American Narcissism', shows.)

Glück discusses the relation of unhappiness and suffering to the making of art and why this relation has been taken by many to be essential. The creative act, she notes, promotes catharsis. Catharsis requires ...


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