Poetry News

'I want every fantasy to sustain itself forever': Melissa Broder on Baudelaire's Banned Les Fleurs du Mal

By Harriet Staff

In honor of PEN American's Banned Books Month, the Daily Pen American blog has "reached out to writers, editors, literary illuminati, and PEN staff to write about the banned books that matter to them most." So far, pieces have been writ by Deji Olukotun, Matthew Zapruder, Amy King, and Meat Heart author Melissa Broder, who graciously lent us her thinking on Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. Poems from the book were argued by judges in August of 1857, Broder writes, to “necessarily lead to the excitement of the senses by a crude realism offensive to public decency.” More:

...In other words, they were too sexy. The poems resurfaced once again in Les Épaves: a chapbook-like text containing 23 pieces, published separately in Brussels in 1866. A “mutilated” version of the book, as Baudelaire referred to it, was published along with new work in 1861 and posthumously in 1868.

I have never read Les Fleurs du Mal. I don’t speak French, and I suspect that translation is its own form of mutilation. I have read, many times, a New Directions edition of Flowers of Evil from 1955, which contains three of the six banned poems. My favorite, “The Vampire’s Metomorphoses” is not included.

In two swollen stanzas, “Vampire” employs many themes essential to my own work: the succubus, the dissolution of fantasy, the death wish, and the death unwish. A presumably male speaker makes love to a vampirous woman who embodies the attributes of a femme fatale. In various translations she possesses “moist lips,” “a mouth red as strawberries,” “words impregnated with musk,” as well as the capacity to replace the solar system for any man who sees her nude. While making love, the woman “lusts blood” and sucks the speaker dry of his marrow. Yet when this transfusion is complete, she is neither fattened nor enlivened. Rather, she herself is drained and rendered skeletal: an empty “wineskin.”

From a religious perspective, Baudelaire revels in the vampire’s role as an outlier for whom “impotent angels damn themselves.” It is here that his desire to make beauty bloom out of evil is realized. But as he writes in his first preface to Les Fleurs du Mal, “The poet is of no party. Otherwise he would be a mere mortal.” This poem is not merely pushing an outré sexual agenda. On a purely physical level, the speaker is satisfied with his masochistic role, emitting a “loving moan” at being consumed. The dissolution of self, and self-control, is its own reward. But the vampire’s subsequent annihilation embodies the end of a fantasy—one that sucks the dreamer dry only to disappear. When the object of fantasy ceases to transcend temporal reality, when she takes on the “faceless” look and “pus” of death, the speaker can no longer escape his own mortality through her.

Like Byron, Baudelaire had no tolerance for those who lack imagination. I don’t either. I want every fantasy to sustain itself forever. I want multiple dark and romantic fantasies and I want them to defeat the facets of reality that I find most distasteful: time, drudgery and death...

Read the rest o' the piece here, s'il vous plaît.

Originally Published: September 10th, 2012