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About the Author
Frank Hilton has written a number of drama series and serials and translated documentary and feature films. He is the author of The Paras, which was accompanied by the highly successful BBC television series.
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Baudelaire in Chains
Portrait of the Artist as a Drug Addict
By Frank Hilton
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2004 Frank Hilton
All rights reserved.
On 14 May 1859 Charles Baudelaire wrote to his friend Nadar, the photographer, asking him for a loan of 20 francs. At the time Baudelaire was in Honfleur – a town at the mouth of the Seine estuary where his mother had a villa overlooking the sea. When his collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal had finally been published two years earlier it had been prosecuted as an offence against public morality. This had been a disagreeably damaging experience, both to his professional reputation and to his self-esteem, and for some months afterwards he had succumbed to one of the debilitating bouts of depression that scarred his life. But since then things had taken a turn for the better. With the death of his stepfather a few months before the publication of his poems, his relationship with his mother had improved, and her resistance to lending him the large sums of money he needed to clear his debts and get his financial affairs in order was weakening. He was also in a better physical condition and state of mind than had been the case for many years and was enjoying a rare burst of creative activity. He saw Honfleur as a haven in which he could escape the day-to-day irritations of his life in Paris, get a little peace from his creditors and settle down to some serious work.
The business of settling down to some serious work is a constant theme in Baudelaire's letters to his mother and his friends, and one that also figures largely in his private confessions. Six months earlier he had written to his publisher, Auguste Poulet-Malassis, saying that once he was settled in Honfleur he would set about 'repairing sixteen years of idleness' – a rather startling statement for someone who was only thirty-seven at the time he wrote the letter. If he was telling Malassis the truth, and not simply comically exaggerating his legendary indolence, it means that during the major part of his adult life, since the age of twenty-one in fact, he had produced far less work than he believed himself capable of.
The question of why he found it so difficult to work is a key issue in any consideration of Baudelaire's life. Was it a congenital failing? Or was it a consequence of his upbringing, of the emotional damage to his personality caused by the death of his father in 1827, shortly before his sixth birthday, followed by his mother's remarriage some eighteen months later? He was certainly a very sensitive child and extremely attached to his mother. Could the effects of this double blow to his immature psyche have been the source of his inability to work with the kind of concentration that the French bourgeoisie usually had no difficulty instilling in their children?
Many of his biographers believe so. And his school record goes some way towards supporting this argument. The Oedipal trauma of his mother's remarriage – one of several Hamlet parallels – is seen as the critical event of his life, causing irremediable damage to his personality and development. In spite of this, and, though he lived a life totally opposed to his mother's, the cord between them was never irredeemably broken. He always turned to her when he was in difficulty, and she on her part never totally abandoned him. Baudelaire the debt-ridden dandy, the scourge of bourgeois respectability, the scandal of his family, the author of the condemned book Les Fleurs du mal, bemused and troubled her and caused her endless misery and anguish. But almost always when he needed her and begged her for help she came to his aid, even though often with reluctance and after much heart-searching during which she struggled in vain to resist his appeals.
His mother, Caroline, has not had a good press with the critics. Many consider her a hard-hearted woman who put her own bourgeois comforts before the desperate needs of her son, leaving him reduced at times through poverty and bad luck – the notorious guignon – to starvation, rags and squalor.
Her second husband, Jacques Aupick, has also been subjected to a good deal of adverse criticism for his unsympathetic attitude to his brilliant stepson. Aide-de-camp to the Prince of Hohenlohe when he met and married Baudelaire's mother, he climbed steadily to the rank of general, serving with distinction and devotion under whatever administration happened to be in power at the time – monarchy, republic or empire – and is ritually sniffed at by Baudelaire's biographers for his Vicar-of-Bray-like loyalties.
In the same way, Baudelaire's half-brother, Alphonse, the son of their father's first wife, also receives short shrift. He is portrayed as the General's henchman, a stupid and pompous lawyer who lectures his half-brother on his disordered way of life and joins with the rest of the family in taking Baudelaire's financial affairs out of his control in order to prevent him from squandering what remains of his share of his father's legacy.
Last of the quartet of persecutors is Narcisse Ancelle, the family solicitor, an interfering Polonius figure whose lot it was to become Baudelaire's conseil judiciaire, the legal instrument by means of which the income from Baudelaire's remaining capital was to be doled out to him in – as Baudelaire saw it – hopelessly insufficient monthly portions for the rest of his life.
The unattractive cast list is now complete: inadequate mother; harsh stepfather; treacherous half-brother; intrusive, if well-meaning, family tool. For many of Baudelaire's biographers these four people are considered to have made a major contribution to his downfall – damaging him psychologically in childhood and subsequently frustrating his efforts to remedy his youthful indiscretions. This approach is exemplified in what for many English readers may well be the only source of information about Baudelaire's life that they have access to: Francis Scarfe's introduction to his translation of the verse. Here, for instance, we learn that 'Much of Baudelaire's misery came ... from the sternness of General Aupick, the unimaginativeness of his mother, the twisted character of Jeanne Duval, the obtuseness of Ancelle ...' Alphonse is described as 'toadying to the Aupicks' and 'nourishing the fires of resentment', while Baudelaire's publishers – not to be allowed to escape a share of the blame – are found guilty of 'disgraceful extortion'.
These are not untypical judgements. Most of Baudelaire's biographers give a similarly jaundiced view of his situation and of the people who surround him. Yet they have to admit to a certain uneasiness about some of the things he does – in particular the squandering of his father's inheritance. This is where many of his biographers find themselves in something of a quandary. Though generally in sympathy with the anti-family line of argument, they have an uncomfortable feeling that Baudelaire's handling of money is totally out of order. They know that in life – if Baudelaire were their own son, for instance – they, too, would be very tempted to slap the conseil judiciaire handcuffs on him. After all, what else could the family have done? Baudelaire had gone through half his inheritance in two years. Were they supposed to stand by and let him squander the lot? It would have been almost irresponsible of them to have done so. But, as literary critics and scholars writing many years after the event, his biographers feel obliged to pay their dues to genius by siding automatically with the debt-ridden poet, even though they find many of his actions hard to understand and even harder to defend. As a result, they sometimes find themselves forced into the unsatisfactory position of being presenters of raw facts instead of interpreters of events – decrying, for instance, Madame Aupick's hard-heartedness on one hand, while lamenting her son's cruelty to her on the other, without being able to produce a proper explanation for either.
But however the story is told – whether we choose to see him as an unappreciated genius with the albatross of a hard-hearted family or incorrigible debt or just plain bad luck hung around his neck – by May 1859, in spite of all his problems, Baudelaire was again beginning to feel optimistic about his future. He was, he believed, on the brink of a personal and poetic renaissance. He had written several important new poems. In addition, he was preparing reissues of his earlier poetry and of a number of critical works and was on the point of completing his long-planned book about the use of drugs – a work in two parts: the first a study of the effects of hashish, the second an adaptation of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Much of this renewed optimism and rediscovered energy was due to his recently improved relationship with his mother. In recent years the power of the quartet had declined dramatically. His half-brother, Alphonse, was himself having career problems. The family lawyer, Ancelle, had been temporarily replaced as financial intermediary by Antoine Jaquotot, a lawyer who Baudelaire believed would be more sympathetic to his needs. Most importantly, however, with the General dead his mother's loyalties were no longer divided. She was now able to turn her attention, free of guilt, on to her brilliant, if wayward, son who – he imagined – could now hope for a more generous attitude to his money difficulties. But it was not so generous, alas, that he would not be forced from time to time to turn to his friends for help. Hence the letter to Nadar asking for the loan of 20 francs.
'I am like a soul in torment,' he writes:
I was silly enough to let my mother go off on a trip without asking her for money, and here I am, alone, not short of meat or bread, etc., but completely without a sou and exposed to all kinds of inconveniences as a result of this disaster. I was wondering – if it's not too much trouble to you – if you would be kind enough to send me (immediately, I'm afraid!) a postal order for 20 francs, which I'll pay you back on the 1st of the month provided you agree not to laugh too much at my promise. I shall have to go to Paris then. If you could be so kind as to do this for me before five o'clock, your reply will get here first thing the day after tomorrow ... To give you some idea of how hard up I am, which is the only possible excuse for such a ridiculous request, I absolutely have to go to Le Havre for a few hours (but please don't imagine I've got some kind of debauchery in mind), and I can't go, because I haven't enough money to do so.
It is clear from this extract what a practised dun Baudelaire had become. Only someone inured to the task of writing begging letters would bother to go to the trouble of telling a friend such an elaborate story for so relatively small a sum – 20 francs: about £60 in today's money – the price, in all likelihood, of a three or four weeks' supply of laudanum. Claude Pichois, the editor of his letters, thinks that may have been what Baudelaire wanted the money for. And so does Joanna Richardson, who writes in her biography of Baudelaire, 'It has been suggested by Pichois ... that Baudelaire was in need of opium. This seems more than probable. Baudelaire had once needed laudanum, the medicinal form of opium, to soothe his stomach pains, the result of the progress of his syphilis. Now it had become an essential drug. He probably used laudanum as an anti-depressant, as De Quincey had originally done.'
Though there are a number of statements in this passage that I believe to be mistaken, there seems little doubt that laudanum was indeed Baudelaire's reason for wanting to borrow the money. We know there was a pharmacy in Honfleur that stocked the drug. We know that its proprietor was a certain Monsieur Allais, whose professional scruples, allegedly, forbade him to sell his customers more laudanum than he felt was good for them. We also know that Baudelaire was one of these customers, as Madame Allais recollected after her husband's death: 'I often saw the poet at the pharmacy. He looked old, but he was very agreeable and distinguished in his manners ... There were times when he and my husband had their little – disagreements. He had acquired the opium habit and used to beg my husband to supply him with some. But Monsieur Allais never gave him more than a conscientious pharmacist was able to.' Quite right, too, and very praiseworthy of the man – even if, as seems only too likely, the distinguished and agreeable Monsieur Baudelaire had been getting his laudanum on tick and the scrupulous Monsieur Allais wasn't prepared to give him any more until he'd wiped the slate clean – the kind of unreasonable demand Baudelaire was rarely in a position to comply with. Hence the need for a quick trip to Le Havre as a way round the problem.
Luckily, Nadar sent the 20 francs by return of post. And Baudelaire immediately wrote in reply thanking him for the money and telling him at some length about his search for artists to illustrate some of his forthcoming publications, in particular a planned reissue of his poems together with his new work on drugs, Les Paradis artificiels – Artificial Paradises. For this he was planning an allegorical frontispiece, depicting the principal pains and pleasures of the drugs he was writing about: hashish, a brief and one-time indulgence he now sternly condemned, and opium, 'an old and terrible mistress' as he described it famously in one of his prose poems and which was 'like all mistresses, alas, rich in caresses and betrayals'.CHAPTER 2
When I first became interested in Baudelaire's use of opium I was struck by the fact that everyone who writes about him knows he used the drug – many, indeed, describe him as an addict – but that no one, not even Claude Pichois who has made a special study of the subject, seems to have grasped the full consequences of such a condition. Baudelaire's biographers all behave as if his opium addiction were some kind of bolt-on extra, yet another problem to add to the well-known host of difficulties he was beset with, when in fact, in my contention, his addiction was at the root of all his problems: his inability to manage his financial affairs, his unsatisfactory relationships, his bad health, his guignon, his insensitivity to the world about him and – most important of all to Baudelaire – his chronic difficulty in getting down to any prolonged creative work.
Even Sartre, in what is one of the most interesting essays on Baudelaire – an existentialist dismantling of the heroic myth of the poète maudit, the man cursed by God and society – fails to understand this. As part of his argument against the critic Jacques Crépet's suggestion that Baudelaire's constant self-denunciations show all the signs of a man tormented by some terrible guilty secret, Sartre writes, with characteristically breezy confidence, 'No, Baudelaire wasn't burdened with secret crimes. The things we can reproach him with aren't hanging matters: just a certain, though not total, lack of human feeling, a tendency to idleness, the abuse of narcotics, a few sexual peculiarities perhaps and occasional acts of dishonesty bordering on the fraudulent.' As you can see, nothing of any account in Sartre's eyes. For him, the reason for Baudelaire's failure to take his life into his own hands lies elsewhere – in his spineless inability to reject the claims of other people's morality. Sartre argues that, while publicly adopting the stance of poète maudit, Baudelaire accepted without question all the moral and social values of his bourgeois background – in particular those of his brother and step-father. No wonder, therefore, that he was constantly held back by la paresse – by overwhelming indolence – and was constantly on the verge of succumbing to an incapacitating sense of the absurdity of life and to what Baudelaire himself described as feelings of 'enormous discouragement ... of unbearable isolation'. For Sartre there is no reason to look any further than this: Baudelaire was paralysed by irreconcilable contradictions. His 'guilty secret', as postulated by Crépet – his unconfessed opium addiction as I believe that secret to be – goes undiscovered.
In fact, however, for anyone with experience of the symptoms of addiction to opiates – that is, to opium or its principal derivatives morphine and heroin – all the characteristics listed by Sartre in the passage quoted above (apart from Baudelaire's so-called sexual peculiarities) are tell-tale signs of the effects of the drug. Dishonesty, idleness, selfishness, indifference to others are just a few of the unattractive characteristics monotonously manifested by opiate abusers.
That Baudelaire's biographers have consistently failed to make the connection between his abuse of opium and his personality defects and chaotic lifestyle is not surprising, however. It was only in the last decades of the twentieth century that a proper understanding of the consequences of opiate addiction became clear. Before then, addiction was often clouded in a mixture of romantic bohemianism and shock-horror sensationalism. Most of his biographers were writing long before the ultimately squalid realities of an addict's life became common knowledge. Virtually all they knew of the drug was what they had read about it in De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater or in Baudelaire's version of the book in the second part of Les Paradis artificiels. And, though the damage opium does to the personality, health, memory, reliability and work patterns of the victim is clearly outlined by De Quincey, the extent of Baudelaire's own involvement with the drug is far more ambiguous. Admittedly, he endorses everything De Quincey has to say as a true picture of opium enslavement. No problem there. But, whereas many of Baudelaire's biographers take a stern line with De Quincey and admonish him for his weakness of will in succumbing to the drug, for some reason they all let Baudelaire off the hook completely. If they can castigate De Quincey for his addiction, why do they feel unable to do the same with Baudelaire? Is it because he seems to be in better control of his opium habit than De Quincey – less addicted to the drug perhaps and therefore less reprehensible? Or could it be because he is simply less honest about it – quicker with his moral condemnation of those who seek to buy short cuts to ecstasy via bottles of 'poison' (as he calls them) from the pharmacy – and so succeeds in putting his pursuers off the scent? And if he is less honest, why is that? Surely a man writing what is one of the two most important books about the use of drugs in the nineteenth century – a writer who prides himself on his lack of hypocrisy, on facing up to the ugliest facts of life – hardly needs to conceal the extent of his use of opium when his mentor and fellow initiate is prepared to speak out so frankly about his own habit.
Excerpted from Baudelaire in Chains by Frank Hilton. Copyright © 2004 Frank Hilton. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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Table of Contents
|List of Illustrations||10|
|6.||On the Town||65|
|13.||Hangovers and Ennui||137|
|17.||Taking the Cure||173|
|19.||Hello, Old Friend||187|
|20.||A Jealous Mistress||199|