The Ecstatic Moment: Mysticism and Individualism in The Ecstasy of St. Teresa and Salomé

“My Salomé is a mystic, the sister of Salammbô, a Saint Thérèse who worships the moon.” — Oscar Wilde

When I first conceived of a final project, I thought of expanding the post I had written on Monsieur VenusThe Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and the Anatomical Venus. I have always been captivated by Bernini’s Ecstasy, and it has proved to be a compelling Renaissance counterpoint to the Decadent texts of the fin de siècle we have explored this quarter. I was extremely surprised, however, when I learned that Wilde, in correspondence to Charles Ricketts—a prominent artist, stage designer, and contemporary of Wilde—stated: “My Salomé is a mystic, the sister of Salammbô, a Saint Thérèse who worships the moon” (Ellmann 376).  In this letter to Ricketts, Wilde secretly lamented Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Salomé and expressed his distaste for them (Ellmann 376).  Though Wilde acknowledged their artistic merit, he had originally hoped for the accompanying prints to be in the style of Gustave Moreau—full of “jewels and sorrows” (Ellmann 376).

The Climax, Aubrey Beardsley

Although Wilde’s vision for the Salomé illustrations remained unfulfilled, his statement regarding Salomé certainly calls for analysis. Salomé’s character has had a complex history; she has been continuously transformed through a number of treatments in myriad media. Wilde’s play only serves as one example in a long lineage of Decadent interpretations by those like Mallarmé, Huysmans, and Flaubert. By correlating Salomé with Salammbô and Teresa de Avila, Wilde establishes Salomé in the mystic tradition and offers a new way of understanding her story.

This new lens, however, is not without complications. Some view the climactic finale of Salomé as an unsatisfying deux ex machina in the vein of other Decadent works, like Huysmans’s A Rebours or Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine; others argue that it functions as the necessary punishment of a scheming, destructive femme fatale. Yet in Salomé’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression, Petra Dierkes-Thrun suggests that in this ending “Wilde effectively transforms [Salomé] into an unforgettable modern icon of transgression, extreme aesthetic affect, and erotic excess” (Dierkes-Thrun 43).  In Wilde’s version, Salomé is reinvented as an example of triumphant, ecstatic individualism.

In light of this radical new reading, it is hard to reconcile the goals of mysticism with an individualistic interpretation of Salomé.  In this post, I explore the implications of mysticism and ecstasy and apply them to the cases of St. Teresa de Avila and Salomé. I rely on visual representations to help reconcile the challenges of interpreting the conflation of the spiritual and sexual, as well as the individual and the Other, in Teresa and Salomé. Ultimately, I seek to understand Salomé’s place in the mystic cannon.

According to Max Weber, mysticism, in its most basic form, is “primarily the quest to achieve rest in god and in him alone” (Weber 545).  Weber suggests that deep contemplation and the cessation of earthly desires are necessary to a mystic life, and that “by these paths, the mystic achieves that subjective condition which may be enjoyed as the possession of, or mystical union with, the divine” (Weber 545). Thus, mysticism ultimately desires to subvert the self by establishing the self in relation to the divine. In this, the mystic essentially becomes a vessel for something larger than the self­—the self surrenders its precedence to a greater entity.

This relinquishing of the self, however, is not without reward. The mystic becomes privy to a new form of gnosis, a knowledge that “may be derived from a new practical orientation to the world” (Weber 545). This new knowledge allows the mystic to radically reevaluate life and extrapolate meaning from an external source.

One way to achieve this is by seeking otherworldly, out-of-body experiences. Weber suggests that mystic experience is possible through “reductions of bodily functioning, such as can be achieved by continuous malnutrition, sexual abstinence, regulation of respiration, and the like” (Weber 538). These kinds of practices are common to religions that advocate meditation or prayer as a way to access God. Furthermore, while these methods may seem to be ascetic in nature, the mystic undertakes them for the sake of becoming closer to God, rather than as a tool to block out the world.

The concept of ecstasy is highly related to the project of mysticism. In The Voice of Rapture, Karl Toepfer suggests that ecstasy “refers to a condition of being outside oneself” (Toepfer 13). Thus, in a state of ecstasy, the body and mind are sublimated in favor of something outside common existence; the self is rejected in order to become part of something greater than the self. For Toepfer, ecstasy “implies the fulfillment of a person’s greatest or most intense desire(s)” (Toepfer 15). This insinuates that the specific experience of ecstasy or the way it manifests may vary from person to person, because their desires are different. Though they have the same underlying inclination to be outside of the self, ecstasy remains a deeply personal experience.  Finally, Toepfer states, “ecstasy is always a supreme condition, a surfeit of meaning” (Toepfer 16). Ecstasy cannot be transcended because it is the highest achievement of the self; it is when the self no longer is a self—there is no place to go after this. In this, ecstasy becomes the ultimate expression of mysticism.

Teresa de Avila

Teresa de Avila, Unknown Artist

Wilde was certainly familiar with the mystic tradition and saw parallels between Teresa de Avila and Salomé. St.Teresa was a Spanish mystic renown for her direct communion with God. Teresa held an exalted position in the Catholic Church and worked to reform the Carmelite Order by establishing a number of cloisters, including a new sect, the Discalced Carmelites. She was author to a number of works, including treatises on contemplative prayer, as well as her autobiography, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila. In The Life, Teresa suggests that there are “four stages of prayer that can lead to an ecstatic experience” (Warma 509). In the first three stages, Teresa states that one seeking a mystical experience should contemplate the sacrifices of Christ in order to relinquish any earthly desires (Warma 509). When the mind is unwaveringly focused on God and all desire has ceased, one may experience ecstasy. Teresa describes it as having “no sense of anything but enjoyment…all senses are taken up with this joy so that none of them is free to act in any way” (Teresa 122). Teresa also suggests that ecstasy can be accompanied by the sensation of levitation; in The Life, she alternately indicates that the soul is carried up to heaven on a cloud or by an eagle (Teresa 136). While ecstasy is most often characterized as a mental state, it also affects the physical nature of the body. When in ecstasy, Teresa warns that the body stiffens, temperature drops, and heart-rate slows (Warma 509).

St. Teresa’s mysticism closely follows the model described by Weber: it is built upon the tenets of contemplation and rejection of worldly desires; is experienced through both mental and physical alteration; and ultimately seeks to reject the self. It is clear from The Life that in a state of ecstasy, Teresa loses all agency—as she states, she is “not free to act” (Teresa 122). In this system, there is no sense of identity or individuality; all things are done for the sake of God. In this, God becomes the Other: the self is nothing but a reflection of God.

While the mystic self becomes infinitesimal in light of God, there still remains a deeply personal aspect to ecstatic experience. Though Teresa wrote several guides on contemplation, there is no infallible system to achieve an ecstatic state. Furthermore, Teresa suggests that each ecstatic experience will vary, though certain features—like length or sensation—may remain constant (Warma 509). Within The Life, Teresa gives multiple accounts of ecstatic experience, but none are as provocative as this one:

ecstasy bernini

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The Life of St. Teresa of Avila  (210)

This passage served as the inspiration for Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Bernini was a reputed sculptor during the height of the Baroque and received patronage from a number of prominent figures of the Catholic Church, including Cardinal Scipione Borghese and Pope Urban VIII. Federico Coronaro, a distinguished Venetian cardinal, commissioned Bernini to design his family crypt in the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The Ecstacy of St. Teresa resides in the Coronaro Chapel.

This depiction differs radically from traditional representations of St. Teresa. Teresa is usually portrayed in a serene state; her eyes are raised towards heaven and fixed upon an object of devotion—the Sacred Heart, the Cross, or the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove—like in the portrait above. She is cloaked in the customary habit of a nun, and her hands are clasped in prayer.

While Bernini captures Teresa in a moment of spiritual intimacy in The Ecstasy, it marks a departure from the orthodox images of Teresa. Teresa is couched on a cloud, ascending towards heaven, with her head thrown back, and her fingers and toes curled in pleasure. She is sumptuously draped in the “flame-like folds” of her habit which “appear to consume” her body (Warma 508).  A smiling seraph stands above her, withdrawing a fire-tipped golden arrow from her heart. She is at the height of her ecstasy, and as Jacques Lacan most succinctly suggested, St. Teresa is “coming.”

It should come as no surprise that Bernini chose to represent Teresa in a sensuous manner. Teresa de Avila was canonized as a saint only forty years after her death and was widely popularized in Catholic communities. Bernini would have had access to her writings, and The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is indeed a faithful representation of Teresa’s ecstatic experience chronicled in The Life of St. Teresa. Teresa’s own autobiography uses highly suggestive language; she describes the seraph “thrusting” the arrow into her heart, the great pain that “made [her] moan,” and the sweet “caressing of love” (Teresa 210). These elements are all present in The Ecstasy.

It is difficult, however, to reconcile the explicitly erotic content of The Ecstasy with the mystic spirituality it is supposed to convey. Susanne Warma states, “[Bernini desired] to depict not only the piercing of Teresa’s heart, but also the depth of her experience through the inner penetration of her soul” (Warma 508). While this may be true, it ignores the extent to which Bernini has sexualized Teresa—intentionally or not. The Ecstasy should not change our understanding of Teresa’s ecstatic experiences, but rather, extend it; if anything, Bernini’s portrayal serves to highlight the paradox between the spiritual and the sexual, the individual and the Other.

These tensions are overwhelmingly present in Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and they are only further complicated with the suggestion that Salomé is a mystic. Throughout history, Salomé has been conflictingly portrayed as the innocent ingénue or the femme fatale; Wilde incorporates both of these personas in his adaptation. While this creates a particular struggle for identity throughout the play, it allows for the kind of resounding climax that only occurs in Wilde’s Salomé.

salome guido reni

Salomé, Guido Reni

Within the play, Salomé is presented as physically vulnerable and innocent. She is described as “a white rose in a mirror of silver,” (Wilde 584) Her “white hands” flutter like “doves” or “butterflies,” and her feet are like “white doves” or “white flowers” (Wilde 585,599). Salomé also holds a particular affinity for the moon; she admires its “cold and chaste” nature and says it has a “virgin’s beauty” (Wilde 586).  Salomé additionally states that the moon is like a “little silver flower,” which is identical to how Salomé described by the Young Syrian, who also calls her a “silver flower” (Wilde 586).

Salomé is often assigned the same epithets as the moon; they are both “little princesses” with “eyes of amber” and “white doves for feet” (Wilde 583, 588). The moon largely functions as a foreshadowing device; when its color shifts—from white, to red, to black—so does Salomé (Dierkes-Thrun 24). And though Salomé maintains a positive relationship towards the moon, others describe it as “a woman rising from a tomb,” “a dead woman,” and a “mad woman” who seeks “everywhere for lovers” (Wilde 583, 592). In the same way, though many desire Salomé, Joakanaan denounces her as the “Daughter of Babylon,” “Daughter of Sodom,” and harbinger of destruction (Wilde 589). These descriptions portray Salomé as a wanton harlot with no regard for morality and sharply differ from the innocent image of Salomé.

This view of Salomé is in the vein of the ekphrasis offered by Des Esseintes in Huysmans’s A Rebours:

Salomé Dansant Devant Herode, Gustave Moreau

No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, —a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.

                                                                                                A Rebours (65-66)

Des Esseintes was inspired by Gustave Moreau’s depiction of Salomé entitled Salomé Dansant Devant Herode. It was this style of Salomé that Wilde had hoped would be replicated for the play’s accompanying illustrations. In this description, Huysmans transforms Salomé from the naïve dancing girl into the supremely destructive, ever alluring goddess of Hysteria—no one can escape her whims. This is a truly Decadent portrayal of Salomé as she represents beauty without morality; she encompasses both the aesthetic and transgressive aspects of existence.

Though we do not see the Dance of the Seven Veils in the Wilde version, the same sort of world-destroying longing is present in the play. Salomé will stop at nothing to achieve her greatest desire: to kiss the mouth of the prophet Joakanaan. Upon her first encounter with him, she declares, “Your body is while like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never moved…the roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body” (Wilde 589). Salomé also admires his dark hair, stating, “The long black nights, when the moon hides her face, are not so black” (Wilde 590). Next, she describes his mouth: “[It] is redder than roses…redder than the feet of doves” (Wilde 590). Salomé concludes this monologue by proclaiming, “I will kiss thy mouth, Joakanaan. I will kiss your mouth” (Wide 590).

While Salomé certainly operates on a basis of sexual impulse towards Joakanaan—“I am amorous of thy body!” she exclaims—she is attracted to him on a larger, aesthetic scale (Wilde 589). His color palette of white, red, and black reflects the same as the moon, the same as Salomé.  In order to characterize Joakanaan, Salomé adopts words that others have used to represent her; she makes reference to roses, flowers, and doves, which have served as her epithets throughout the play. Finally, Salomé is attracted to his pure, virgin quality. This is evident when she describes him as the unmowed field or the untouched snow (Wilde 589).  It is important to remember that Salomé also admires the moon for its chastity. Ultimately, Salomé strives to possess Joakanaan’s beauty, but only because it mirrors her own. She is not attracted to Herod’s jewels or peacocks, even when he tries to use the same words—“white,” “silver,” “moon”—to describe them (Wilde 601).  In this, Salomé sets up Joakanaan as the Other, just as in the mystic tradition, St. Teresa establishes God as the Other.

As we know, ecstasy is the desire to be outside of oneself, and this is possible by becoming one with the Other. This is how Teresa achieves ecstasy—she sublimates the self in favor of God. We also know, per Toefper, that ecstasy is the fulfillment of one’s greatest desire. Thus, for Salomé to achieve ecstasy, she must become one with Joakanaan: she must kiss his mouth. Joakanaan, however, is not so obliging; he rejects her as a foul temptress, “I will not look at thee, thou art accursed Salomé” (Widle 591). Salomé cannot access the Other, and because of this, decides to destroy the Other in order to possess it.

Salomé uses the opportunity to dance before Herod as a way to vanquish the Other; when Herod offers her up to half of his kingdom, Salomé requests the head of Joakanaan. Salomé receives the head and enacts her greatest desire; she kisses Joakanaan’s mouth and “[bites] it with [her] teeth as one bites a ripe fruit” (Wilde 604).  She exclaims:

Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood? . . . Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love. They say that love hath a bitter taste. But what matter? what matter? I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth.

                                                                                                                        Salomé (605)

This is Salomé’s moment of triumph; it is her moment of ecstasy. It represents a superabundance of meaning, where Salomé has achieved her fundamental project. Toepfer suggests that in this instant, nothing “stands ‘between’ the self and the Other; [Salomé] is the Other, that level of consciousness that propels one out of one’s self—and eventually out of life” (Toepfer 155). Salomé’s discordant identities have been transcended by a singular desire, and in overcoming the Other, she is no longer confronted with the Other, in a place between herself and the Other, or in a place between two selves—she has gone beyond herself.

Salomé’s supreme ecstasy allows for Wilde’s climactic finale. As Salomé imparts a last kiss upon Joakanaan’s dead lips and ponders the greatness that is the “mystery of love,” Herod orders her execution (Wilde 604). She is crushed to death while the moon sheds one final spotlight on her achievement. Wilde’s choice to kill Salomé represents the completion of the self; Salomé has fulfilled her existence—essentially she has nothing else to live for. As Dierkes-Thrun writes, “Arranging for Salomé a spectacular execution center stage at her most intense moment of triumph and then immediately closing the curtain on her lifeless body, Wilde grants her the glamorous death of a heroine rather than that of a despised villain” (Dierkes-Thrun 45).  Thus Salomé is refined out of existence, and her story transcends her death.

But, can we say Salomé is a mystic? She certainly achieves ecstatic experience, but it appears to be quite different from the kind of ecstasy St. Teresa underwent. While the erotic elements are certainly preserved, Salomé does not sacrifice the self in the same way Teresa does—she acts for the sake of herself, and not something else. Salomé does not contemplate God, nor mortify the body, nor seek to reject the world. Instead of rejecting the self to be in touch with the Other—in Teresa’s case, God—Salomé destroys the Other in order to go beyond herself.  In this, Salomé proposes a new system in which morality is subordinate to the individual aesthetic representation of the self. Essentially, Salomé has gone beyond good and evil—she is free to move between states; she exists then dies. In this, Wilde calls for a radical redefining of the concept of mysticism: Salomé cannot serve as a traditional mystic like Teresa. Instead, Salomé, like Wilde suggests, is a mystic of the moon: amoral, ever-changing, and eternal.





Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011. Print.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Huysmans, J. -K., Nicholas White, and Margaret Mauldon. Against Nature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Teresa. The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself. London: Penguin, 1957. Print.

Toepfer, Karl Eric. The Voice of Rapture: A Symbolist System of Ecstatic Speech in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. New York: American University Studies, 1991. Print.

Warma, Susanne. “Ecstasy and Vision: Two Concepts Conccected with Bernini’s Teresa.” The Art Bulletin 66.3 (1984): 508-11. Print.

Weber, Max, Guenther Roth, and Claus Wittich. Economy and Society an Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley: University of California, 1978. Print.

Wilde, Oscar, and Merlin Holland. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

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La tentation de saint Antoine-Presentation Handout



Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) finally publishes his Tentation de saint Antoine in 1874. Flaubert has made a stylistic break from his former works, into a more ascetic or nihilistic text.

  • “Historical figure born around 251 and was said to have died in 365. Saint Anthony withdrew from society to the solitude of the Thebaid. For the first fifteen years, he was reportedly tempted by what are generally taken to be hallucinations engendered by fasting and lack of sleep.” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 8).
  • La tentation de saint Antoine “[…] falls between genres. In terms of content, one could call it an “anatomy” in Northrop Frye’s sense—an encyclopedic compendium of information, this instance, involving the heresies of the early Christian period. In terms of form, it blends two genres.” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 325)
  • The work demonstrates by his very eccentricity, not to say absurdity, the way writing for Flaubert was, for all its obvious external concerns, a profoundly personal enterprise. Both can be seen to reflect their creator’s struggle between his commitments to Art his acknowledgement of the monstrosity of the products of both the imagination and the intellect. Not for nothing did Henry James describe Flaubert as ‘almost insanely excessive’” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 16).

Contemporary and Critical Reception

Flaubert’s Saint Anthony is a removal from his previous realistic style into the realm of asceticism. Flaubert calls The Temptation of Saint Anthony the work of his life” as we had previously mentioned in class, Flaubert has worked and re-worked this piece from the 1840s all the way through its publication date in 1874. This step some said, was perceived as a “titubation” of sorts, or a stumbling for the great realist. In other words the book was badly received and quickly put to pieces by its critics.

  • La tentation de saint Antoine, finally published in 1874, was the last full-length work to appear during Flaubert’s lifetime. In it, critics believed, he seemed to have slid back into the incoherent, excessively bookish exoticism of Salammbô, depicting a limp-wristed saint, passively watching a parade of visions. Henry James condemned the work for consisting entirely of ‘a strangely artificial and cold-blooded picturesque—abounding in the grotesque and the repulsive…’” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 79).
  • Barbey d’Aurevilly (who had formerly revered Madame Bovary) spoke of La Tentation as incomprehensible, undecipherable, and found it “un ennui implacable, un ennui qui n’est pas Français, un ennui Allemand, l’ennui du second Faust de Goethe… An overwhelming boredom, a boredom which is not French, a German boredom, the boredom of the second Faust of Goethe(Barbey d’Aurevilly)Flaubert’s Influence on Wilde

For Wilde, like many others, Flaubert represented a sort of antidote, or a liberation from this Victorian literature that Wilde so despised. Wilde idolized Flaubert above many British writers of his time. Wilde uses Flaubert to create an artistic form that is his own by detaching himself from the British preconceived Victorian thought. This artistic trend as we have often seen it realizes itself in a decadent fashion without morality and relishes in impersonality. He finds his voice and pleasure in the new French culturally decadent and obscene.

  • In the Artist as Critic, Wilde says, “It is considered as an instrument of thought, the English spirit is coarse and undeveloped. The only thing that can cure it is the growth of the critical instinct.”
  • In a discussion with Max Beerbohm: “Of course I plagiarize. It is the privilege of the appreciative man. I never read Flaubert’s Tentation without signing my name at the end of it.”
  • Writing to W.E. Wenley in 1888: “Yes! Flaubert is my master, and when I get on with my translation of the Tentation I shall be Flaubert II, Roi par la grâce de Dieu, and I hope something else beyond.”
  • And finally “Setting aside the prose and poetry of Greek and Latin authors, the only writers who have influenced me are Keats, Flaubert, Walter Pater, and before I came across them I had already more than half-way to meet them. Style must be in one’s soul before one can recognize it in others.”

3 Themes and Close-Readings

False Ascetic Discourse

An interesting disjuncture happens here, Flaubert who is striving to establish an ascetic character, does so by using a des Esseintes-like descriptive discourse.

-How can an ascetic lifestyle be described in such lavish terms?

-What do you guys make of this? How can the text be ascetic if it is written so similarly to the complex descriptions in À Rebours?

-Also, what do you make of this all of a sudden nihilistic ending?

Close reading

-Prophet Manes intricate description of asceticism pp. 102-103 in La tentation.

-Also Anthony’s nihilistic discussion with Satan in which there is no top or bottom etc. 290-293 in La tentation.

  •  “Flaubert had a lifelong fascination with sainthood: for him, the saint who chooses the unending martyrdom of an ascetic, lonely life was analogous to the dedicated artist, who likewise must struggle with doubt and despair” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 10)
  •  “Flaubert’s literary endeavors creates a durable image of an author torn between two opposite extremes, yielding first to one and then to the other, binging and then fasting like an anorexic.” (ibid 79)
  • “Jean-Paul Sartre who reads the suggestion in La tentation de saint Antoine that suicide’s creation of nothingness is equivalent to the nothingness from which god creates the world. If Being is suffering, Nothingess is Better, writes Sartre of Flaubert’s nihilism.”

Haunting and Madness

The book is riddled with mournful voices without faces that call out Antoine’s name, hauntings, illusions, visual objects that undergo transformations, a “silence” that separates Antoine from the world, being as if in a trance, and of course when he contemplates suicide at the end. Flaubert too is haunted, in part by his epileptic episodes during his youth, but also during most of his life.

-What do we make of this madness, by detaching it from this religious frenzy could we simply say that Anthony has been along too long and has fallen victim to the effects of asceticism the way des Esseintes did?

-Has his health been so affected that he can no longer function in what one considers the normal world (much like des Esseintes who is forced to regain Paris in the end)?

– I learned that Flaubert’s goal in his work was what he called “psychological realism”, or “psychic projection”, which is that of being outside oneself. What can we make of this?

Close Reading

-On page 49 and 50 in La tentation, Saint Anthony goes on a mad killing spree of his enemies. He later drinks their blood.

  • “Every other setting that appears in the novel, and every one of the hundred of characters who appear singly, in groups, or in processions come from the saint’s memories, readings, or imaginings. Every word they speak derives from the same sources. […] we may appropriately choose to believe that all the other characters are hallucinations and dreams” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 8-9)
  • On psychological realism, it is “a defense mechanism that attributes one’s own shameful feelings to beings outside oneself. The devils and monsters that beset Antoine in his hallucinations and dreams are extensions of his own personality, embodiments of his memories.” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 79)
  • “In January 1844 Flaubert suddenly lost consciousness while he was driving the family cabriolet at night. As he describes it, he felt as if he were being carried off by a torrent of flames. […] He felt discomfort and saw streams of light, like fireworks passing before his eyes. […] the fits were brought on by any sort of nervous tension. […] Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that Flaubert’s problem was hysteria. […] Saint Anthony’s life may have been inspired by the author’s lived experience.” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 118)
  • Maxime Du Camp too describes Flaubert as being “permanently in a daze and “not quite there”, and Flaubert himself admits to a habitual state of mind resembling that of somebody who has had too much to drink. While for the former this state is negative, for the latter it is clearly something positive, involving a conscious enjoyment of the ability to experience life as a dream.”

Women as a World

While looking at the Queen of Sheba’s exclamation that she is a world, we can say that religion or a connection to religious euphoria IS her. She is no longer a woman, she is a tool to attain a higher state of being. The woman is therefore “dewomanized” in Flaubert’s work for a higher purpose. This reminded me also of des Esseinte’s locomotive woman. Woman as a powerful, steel, machine, as opposed to a personified human being. Women then are discrete forces that work towards enigmatic allusions, even women described as animals are replaced by metaphors.

-What does this dehumanized woman represent? To Flaubert, to the reader?

-What higher spirituality is one to attain through these women?

-What do awe and fear of a woman create, as opposed to lust and desire?

Close reading

-The Queen of Sheba exclaims she is not a woman but a world on page 78 in La tentation.

-The Prostitute of all Nations or Helen of Troy on pages 164-165 in La tentation.

-Atys who mutilates himself out of mad desire to become a woman on page 233 in La Tentation.

  • “Flaubert’s queen of Sheba represents lust-luxuria She offers Antoine unimaginable wealth and endless sexual delight.” (The Three Daughters of Lust 56)
  • “All three allegorical figures represent the daughters of the personified sin Luxure or the Queen of Sheba: Adultère (aldultery), Fornication (fornication) and Immondicité (immondicity)”. (Ibid)
  • “It will also be shown that these same images, in a remarkable continuity of vision, are associated with the female figure throughout Flaubert’s novels.” (Ibid 57)
  • “Echoes contemporary medical discourse on the physical manifestations of hysteria.” (Ibid 58)
  • “The bold lines of these three portraits are assimilated into the powerfully seductive vision of a single figure la Reine de Saba.” (Ibid 61)
  • “Masculinity […] sexual ambiguity and indeed hermaphrodism are repeated in the description of the queen.” (Ibid)


Flaubert, Gustave. The Temptation of St. Anthony. Chicago, IL: M. Walter Dunne, 1904.

Mikhail, E. H., Oscar Wilde. Interviews and Recollections, vol. I. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Tilby, Michael. “Flaubert’s place in literary history,” The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert. T. Unwin, ed. Cambridge UP, 2004.

James, Henry. “Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony,” Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Laurence M. Porter. Boston, MA, 1986.

Reik, Theodore. “Flaubert and His Temptaion of Saint Anthony.” Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Laurence M. Porter. Boston, Mass, 1986.

Knight, Diana. Flaubert’s Characters, the Language of Illusion. Cambridge UP, 1985.

Neiland, Mary. “The Three Daughters of Lust: from Allegory to Ambiguity in Flaubet’s La tentation de saint Antoine.” Romance Studie, vol. 31. Minogue, Valerie, 1998.

Porter, Laurence M. A Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia. Westport, CT, 2001.


Flaubert-Revues critiques et génétiques:


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Filed under Week 7 reviews: Flaubert, Temptation of Saint Anthony

Mallarmé’s Flight Toward the Poetical Beyond

In Les Fenêtres and L’Azur, Stéphane Mallarmé tries to describe a vision of the sublime through the sight of the sky’s deep azure. In the first stanza of Les Fenêtres, an old and dying man (moribond) sees delicate wisps of fetid smoke (encens fétide) arising along the windows’ curtains (rideaux). The smoke drew the moribund’s attention to the sunbeams passing through the windows (second stanza). The third stanza has a feminine “it” (elle) for subject (translated “it” in Hubert Creekmore’s translation). The identity of this elle remains veiled until the eighth stanzas: “she” refers of course to Beauty, which the poet caught a glimpse of through the windows: “–Let the window be art, be mystic state” [–Que la vitre soit l’art, soit la mysticité–]. The drunkenness (l’ivresse) and the euphoria of the fourth stanza (Ivre, il vit, oubliant l’horreur des saintes huiles / Les tisanes, l’horloge et le lit infligé, / La toux; et quand le soir saigne parmi les tuiles, / Son œil, à l’horizon de lumière gorgée) in which the dying man forgets everything: his ills, his desperate conditions and even the notion of time itself, is promptly interrupted by the unfortunate man’s nausea (ninth stanza). The poet’s headlong rush (la fuite) to infinity and beauty (Au ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté) stops in a disturbing impression of disgust and nausea (écœurement). The foolishness (la Bêtise) of the poet who tried to put words on the ineffable is making him sick. The poet is forced to “hold his nose” (boucher son nez). Yet the verb boucher also contains the word bouche (mouth). The poet is forced (la Bêtise / Me force à me boucher le nez devant l’azur) to buckle it up when he is before the infinity of the blue-azure horizon. Whereof the poet cannot speak, thereof the poet must remain silent. In the last stanza, the poem ends with a question: Can the poet take his flight (a flight towards a poetical beyond, the call of blue water/sky cf. Mallarmé’s famous poem Brise Marine) without the risk of falling forever in a temporal void (tomber pendant l’éternité)?

In L’Azur, one finds again the theme of the flight toward a poetical beyond (second stanza) along with the sublime beauty of the blue horizon (eighth stanza). Fogs and wisps of smoke are arising as they structurally echo a vertical ascension and elevation of the poet’s mind. Perhaps echoing the beginning of industrialization in pre-modern Europe, in the fifth stanza the fog transforms into a polluted and corrupted smog (Encor ! que sans répit les tristes cheminées / fument, […] Le soleil se mourrant jaunâtre à l’horizon). Here, as opposed to Les Fenêtres, the sunlight cannot traverse the opacity of the fetid smoke. In L’Azur, the sky is dead (Le Ciel est mort) because it is masked by a thick smog. Yet behind the opaque veil the azure remains still (l’Azure triomphe). The suffering poet feels haunted by the blue azure: he mourns its vanishing and cries over his incapacity to honor its memory: […] ma cervelle, vidée / […] N’as plus l’art d’attifer la sanglotante idée […] at last my mind, drained […] No longer has the art to garnish the tearful idea]. -R.C.


Filed under Week 9 Reviews: Wilde's "Portrait of Mr. W.H," Mallarmé’s “The Windows" and "The Azure”

Defining Decadence: A Few More Thoughts (Open Forum)


See some of our own initial “definitions” at the start of class:


“During the last half of the nineteenth century, literary movements, schools, cenacles, and ‘isms’ proliferate.  My position is that decadence is the common denominator underlying the extremely complex and diverse literary activities in the mid-to late nineteenth century, and that this substratum of decadence is crucial to the development of the modern novel.”  (David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism, p. xvii)

“Practically everyone who writes about decadence begins with the disclaimer that the word itself is annoyingly resistant to definition.  …  [T]he paradoxical nature of decadence and its resistance to definition are among the most important elements of its meaning.”  (p. 1, 2)

“Nevertheless, by dissociating art once and for all from the goal that has always been assigned it—the faithful imitation of nature regarded as the supreme norm [i.e. mimesis]—the decadent period does constitute an essential line of cleavage between the classical esthetic and the modern esthetic.” (Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination 1880-1900, p. 11)


How did Wilde fit in—in contemporaries’ eyes, and in our own?  Wilde as the quintessential embodiment and model of Decadence?

“There is not a man or a woman in the English-speaking world possessed of the treasure of a wholesome mind who is not under a deep debt of gratitude to the Marquess of Queensberry [Lord Alfred Douglas’ father, who was the cause of the trials for “acts of gross indecency” that ended Wilde’s career] for destroying the high Priest of the Decadents.”  (National Observer, May 1895)

“[C]ontrary to its image as a rarefied ivory-tower aesthetic or merely parodic hiatus before the inception of Modernism, decadence poses serious literary, political, and historical questions.”  (Constable, Potolsky, and Denisoff [eds.], Introduction to Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, p. 1)



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A Secular Spirituality in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal

Final Media Presentation by CAN


According to the critic Richard Gilman, Baudelaire was the « man [of his time] who had raised the most interesting question of all: what are we to do with our souls in an age that does not recognize their existence? » For this reason and because of his « particular kind of spirituality,» Baudelaire sought out, through his poems, a secular means to reaching spiritual ends, through horizontal, worldly correspondences and through evocation. The Symbolist poet Mallarmé explained the concept of indirect evocation , rather than direct description, as  evoking an object “little by little so as to reveal a mood,” “the art of choosing an object and extracting from it an état d’âme.” Baudelaire uses the outlet of dream-state as well as the static voyage, or metaphysical journey, both in time and in space, in order to convey this sense of heightened reality and spirituality. He does this musically, but also visually, acting like a composer, painter, sculptor, and a poet at the same time. It is therefore not much of a surprise that his poems have inspired not only composers like Debussy and Henri Duparc, but also artists like Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet, as well as other authors like T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allen Poe.

The “Invitation Au Voyage” [English translation here beneath French] is one of the most noteworthy examples of Baudelaire’s proclivity for reaching a heightened sense of spirituality through evocation. Indeed, the “voyage” to which the poet is inviting his beloved is but a promise of a voyage, which takes place in a dream-like state. It is an invitation to meet in a privileged, idealized location, which is meant to bring comfort and a cure to the poet in his struggle against the “Spleen.” In doing so, however, the quest for this far-removed country is momentarily one and the same with the evocation of the beloved woman, and both elevate the poet and the reader, through the absence of real anchor to reality, to a sort of alternate realm, caught between earth and the heavens—out of time and space.  Later on, Baudelaire writes in his Petits Poèmes en Prose that the location in this poem is a “Pays singulier, noyé dans les brumes de notre Nord, et qu’on pourrait appeler l’Orient de l’Occident, la Chine de l’Europe.” It is a journey where the goal is to go live with the beloved woman, muse of the poet, far removed from every day realities. The European minds even coined the expression, which Baudelaire uses in this poem, “pays de Cocagne”, to refer to this terrestrial, abundant, and luxurious paradise. Although the true location of this hypothetical, utopist ideal remains uncertain, it is speculated to have originated and is thought of as the Netherlands, Belgium, or even the Languedoc region of France. This evocation by Baudelaire in his Invitation au Voyage, which is made somewhat more concrete in his prose version of the poem, is therefore like a dream and musing in front of the paintings of Vermeer and Ruysdael, who painted these Northern landscapes which Baudelaire is fantasizing about.

This poem is both descriptive and rhetorical, with a lyrical diction.  From the start of the poem, the two first qualifying nouns “Mon enfant, ma soeur”, give the poem a mystical coloration and connote a spiritual love. Indeed, these are not the traditional words used to refer to the object of one’s passion, but rather words used both in an affectionate, but also spiritual way (united in “brotherly love”, being “children” of the Christ…) The poet invites the object of his attention through the verb conjugated in its imperative form “ Songe” which, although harsh-sounding, is somewhat nuanced by the dream-like state that it connotes. The destination of the voyage also pertains, in itself, to the realm of dreams. It is removed through the expression “là-bas”, which implicitly marks a distinction with the harsh ‘here and now’ of the poet himself.  We might even be tempted to say that this “là-bas,” which the poet is suggesting and painting for his beloved, is less an actual place than a state—a state of fusion and communion between the poet and the beloved, where the goal is  “vivre ensemble.” Indeed, the parallel structure with the two verses beginning with the word “aimer” places an emphasis on this idea, all the while making it ever more coaxing and alluring. It makes it sound not only more musical but also like an incantation, through which the poet hopes to solve all his problems, to remove himself from the Spleen. The words “loisir” and “mourir” further serve the idea that this is not in fact a real place, but rather a state or an alternate reality for the poet. Indeed,  “loisir” connotes an absence of regulation and rules, while “mourir” marks a certain degree of recklessness from the poet himself, for whom death in this new, ideal destination would be preferable than life in his current situation. As such, the attraction is something that transcends life itself, as, even in death, it is preferable to what the poet has: it is a spiritual haven for the poet’s soul. One could even suggest that the “là-bas” is actually an “au-delà.”

Interestingly enough, as the poem progresses, the presence of the loved one seems to fade, and a descriptive discourse takes over. Indeed, the second stanza only evokes the beloved one through the words “notre chambre,” and the third stanza only notes the poet’s attention to her “moindre désir.” By the end of the poem, the world “ s’endort,” forms a sort of loop with the beginning of the poem, harkening back to the couple of words “aimer et mourir,” since this sleep seems to be a form of death or forgetfulness in itself. The progressive effacement of the feminine figure in the poem enables us to say that the romantic invitation is but a pretense for the poet to offer his vision of this idealized state, this metaphysical journey. Although he seems to be describing it for his beloved, he is perhaps most of all delineating the contours of the image for the readers, and painting his emotional landscape more than referring to any actual place.

The remainder of the poem is indeed somewhat of an art gallery for the reader. Baudelaire is like visiting a series of paintings in his dream, and proceeds to transpose the pictorial atmospheres of these paintings, such as when he writes the two lines : « Les soleils mouillés / De ces ciels brouillés ». The terms « mouillés » and « brouillés» used to refer to the sun and to the sky are quite clearly chosen in an artistic perspective. What is more, the use of the plural “ciels” points towards the artistic representation of the skies; had he not meant it with an artistic connotation, he would have used the singular “ciel” (to refer to the sky itself) or the plural “cieux” (the sky above our heads, or the heavens). The use of the term “ciels” is exclusively used as part of the artistic vocabulary, to single out that part of the painting. It refers to the tradition of painters who made it their distinctive characteristic.  Indeed, one might think of the “ceils” which made Turner, Whistler, Monet, or even Van Gogh famous.

We can also say that this “ciels” points out the poet’s limitation for, despite his power of abstraction and imagination, he is unable to conjure an image that is not a representation that he has already seen—the only way thanks to which he knows this alternate reality if through the lens of another’s eyes, through another artist’s vision of it. One could however argue that this representation is not another painter’s, but Baudelaire’s himself. In this case, it could be said that Baudelaire is trapped inside his own artistic vision—the only reality he knows is art. It is the way through which he apprehends the world around him, and he needs to reason through this lens in order to get a more clear vision of reality. In the words of the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, literature and language exist because “il nous fallait tout juste un prolongement de notre corps ,un moyen d’étendre la  main jusqu’à la plus haute branche” and continues, declaring that language is “notre carapace et nos antennes, il nous protège contre les autres et nous renseigne sur eux, c’est un prolongement de nos sens.”  Language, and particularly the language in his poems, is a means for Baudelaire to understand himself, to understand the world around him.  Perhaps this is also one of the meanings of the paradis artificiels: this paradise only lives in his imagination, in the art work that he is able to conjure in his mind, and which would be the ideal place for him to escape.  He is living in a permanent daydream, which he is able to share with his reader in order to make more real.

Similarly, the second stanza describes a room that the poet has clearly imagined, as the reader can infer from the presence of the hypothetical, conditional tense “ décoreraient.”  Baudelaire conjures three different senses in order for the reader to apprehend this new place. Indeed, the sense of touch is implied through the word “polis”. Sight is what enables to poet to declare the “meubles” to be “luisants” as well as to see within the “miroirs”. Finally, the sense of smell is conjured with the expressions “ plus rares fleurs ,” as well as “vagues senteurs de l’ambre.” This grey amber, which connotes luxury and rarity, brings forth a sense of aphrodisiac power and eroticism, as is also implied with its appearance in Baudelaire’s poem Correspondances as the “parfum corrompu.” The senses are once again used as a means for humans, and particularly the poet, to decipher the world. In Correspondances, the poem ends on the word “sens”. This is particularly meaningful, as the senses become the key to the whole poem: they are the door through which humans can decipher the natural world, as they are the vehicle through which the poet delivers it to human understanding. In these two poems, Baudelaire becomes a sort of prophet, caught halfway between Humanity and the heavens. This is reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s poem on La Fonction du Poete : “ Peuples ! écoutez le poète! / Ecoutez le rêveur sacré ! / Dans votre nuit, sans lui complete, / Lui seul a le front éclairé.” Like Rimbaud, for whom the poet is a “bateau ivre” who has seen what man has not  “ Et j’ai vu quelquefois ce que l’homme a cru voir,” both Hugo and Baudelaire see the poet as a class apart, both privileged and damned, whose role is to reveal humanity to itself. For Rimbaud, he is a ship, tossed around by the waves and at the mercy of Nature, yet whose status as such leaves his privy to Nature and Humanity’s secrets, which the common of men do not ever experience.  For Hugo, the poet is a “sacred dreamer” who is responsible for bringing light to the otherwise dark night that Humanity lives in. For Baudelaire, the poet is a  a prophet, who links the human world to the spiritual world, through horizontal and vertical correspondences, and through the power of evocation.

Finally, this poem is noteworthy for Baudelaire’s attention to musicality, which relies on a subtle mix of binary and ternary rhythms. The spatial disposition of the poem relies on three stanzas and three refrains, each stanza being composed of twelves lines. The refrain itself is composed of a binary grouping “ordre et beauté,” followed by a ternary grouping “Luxe, calme, et volupté.” The first stanza starts out with a binary call “Mon enfant, ma soeur” and continues with a ternary incantation: “Aimer à loisir, / Aimer et mourir” (the three words), built on a binary repetition (the two lines).While the second stanza has a more continuous rhythm used to evoke the luxurious interior, the disposition of the elements nevertheless invites the reader to decompose the elements in a binary grouping “meubles” et “fleurs,” followed by a ternary grouping : “Les riches plafonds , / Les miroirs profonds, / La splendeur orientale.” Finally, the last stanza takes up a ternary grouping, followed by a binary grouping : «  les champs, / Les canaux, la ville entière » and  « D’hyacinthe et d’or ».  The binary rhythms produce a sense of harmony and equilibrium, while the ternary rhythms produce a sense of accumulation and abundance.  The meaning Baudelaire puts forth in his poem, and especially in his refrain, is therefore mirrored by the binary and ternary rhythms which compose it : the “ordre,” “and the “beauté,” are mirrored by the binary rhythm of the first line of the refrain in which these words figure, while the “luxe,” “calme,” and “volupté” are mirrored by the ternary rhythm of the second line of the refrain, where this second set of nouns appear. In Qu’est-ce Que La Literature, Jean Paul Sartre uses one of Tintoretto’s paintings in order to explain the concept of evocation in art—he says “ Cette déchirure jaune du ciel au-dessus du Golgotha, le Tintoret ne l’a pas choisie pour signifier l’angoisse ni non plus pour la provoquer; elle est angoisse et ciel jaune en meme temps. Non pas ciel d’angoisse ni ciel angoissé; c’est une angoisse faite chose, une angoisse qui a tourné en déchirure jaune du ciel […]”

In the same way, Baudelaire’s Invitation is not a symbol of Baudelaire’s longing, of his alternative reality. It is not meant to provoke a sense of longing to the reader. It is simply his longing, his fantasy, “faite chose” (made object) through his evocation of this dream-like state, and through both the sounds and images of the poems which live and breathe the poet’s longing, his Spleen, and his desire for escape.  This omnipresence of feeling, coupled with the rhythm of the poem, and which transpires through Baudelaire’s diction, is perhaps one of the reasons why Henri Duparc chose to adapt this poem into a now-famous musical composition, whose Romantic style and C-minor cord perfectly translate the “angoisse” and “Spleen” which lie at the heart of Baudelaire’s poem, despite the seemingly hopeful  words he puts forth.

On a similar note, Baudelaire’s “Harmonie du Soir” [English translation here under the French version] uses evocation, through a mix of kinetic, olfactory, acoustic, and visual sensations, to liberate the poet from his Spleen and help him gravitate towards his own, alternate spirituality or higher order: one based on memory, one based on the past. The strong odors of the vibrating flowers and the sounds, whose origin is not specified, turn in the evening air, performing a sad and dizzying waltz.  The coupling of sounds and perfumes in the melancholy waltz is often mentioned as an example of Baudelairian correspondences. More important is, however, the intensity and dynamics of the description, which recalls certain paintings of Van Gogh with their almost unbearably strong hues and twisting, turning strokes.

Indeed, the words “vibrant,” “vertige,” and “tournent” in the first stanza give a sense of dizziness and further convey the poet’s unrest. (Baudelaire’s “Harmonie Du Soir, Feuerlicht) However, it is interesting to look at the evolution of the words which recur in the poem. Indeed, although the word “vertige” is once again present in the second stanza, all these words have disappeared by the third stanza, and seem to have been replaced by the expression “se fige,” which is present in the last two stanzas. As such, whereas the two first stanzas express movement, confusion, and a sense of turmoil, the last two stanzas seem to connote a newfound peace, mirrored by the calmness of the pace expressed by these words. The transition can be captured by the last line of the second stanza : ‘Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir.” With this line, the poem shifts from the turbulence and chaos of the earth to the more stable, infinite sky. We may therefore ask ourselves what causes this transformation in the poem. What has the poet found which enables him to convey this dote an increasing sense of serenity through his poem?

While the sensation of movement follows a downwards trend throughout the poem, this is not the case for the presence of light, and the heart. Indeed, The importance of the heart in the poem is growing steadily.  In the first stanza it is not mentioned at all but may be implied from the adjectives “melancolique” and “langoureux.”  It then appears in a simile in the second stanza (“frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige”) before becoming the subject of a relative clause in the third stanza (“Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir”)  and finally, in the fourth stanza, becomes  independent—it is the subject of the sentence which forms the first two lines of the stanza.  In the last line the heart, which until then has only been indefinite, “Un coeur”, as a counterpart of the violin, evidently becomes definite, revealing itself as the “I” of the poet when Baudelaire declares “Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir.” Similarly, the power of light is steadily growing too. After the sensations of movement, smell, and sound have had their say in the first two stanzas, the optical sensations take over in the last two, and the poem ends if not on a lighter note, at least on a note of light with the word “luit.” The poem progresses from the coupling “noir-sang” (dark red), to “lumineux – ostensoir.”  Baudelaire leverages off the structure of the Pantoum in order to play on repetition and the effects of different words, thus evoking his melancholy, but also his solution –memories– without explicitly citing it. Indeed, the opposites, nature –heart and darkness-light are related to the contrast between present and past. The poem is in the present tense, except for the lines 12 and 15, “Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige.” While the past is linked to the source of light, “le soleil,” the present tense, and the heart are linked to darkness  : “Un coeur tendre qui hait le néant vaste et noir.” As such, Baudelaire subtly crafts his poem like the most skilled of scultpors, in order to point the reader in the right direction without ever explicitly stating the source of his newfound comfort : he evokes his alternate faith through repeated sounds, smells, and images.

Interesting also is the grammatical distribution of gender in the poem. Indeed, there are over fifteen masculine nouns, for only three feminine nouns.  What is more, these three feminine nouns all occur in the first stanza and seem to connote ephemerality and movement, “tige”, “fleur” and “valse”, referring to a flower and a dance, as opposed to the permanence and poise of the masculine nouns “ néant,” “noir,” “reposoir,” “ciel,” “ostensoir”…. As such, the gender divides also help implicitly demarcate these concepts which Baudelaire contrasts, and the progression moves in the direction of the more ‘eternal,’ masculine nouns. Baudelaire also plays on spirituality in the poem, with a gradation of religious significance throughout. Indeed, the poem presents three similes which end in nouns with a religious connotation, consist of three syllables, are placed in a strategic position, and rhyme with each other: “Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir,” “ Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir,” and finally “ Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir.”   There is an increasing order of religious significance in these similes, from the encensoir which connotes a smell reminiscent of the Church, to the ostensoir, where the consecrared host (the “body of the Christ”) , is kept for veneration by the believers.  The growing religious intensity is furthermore parallel to the growing roles of the heart and of the light. Of particular importance is the ostensoir, the last word of the poem. It occurrs only once, while the more common encensoir and reposoir are repeated. The poet tries to conquer his fear and hate of darkness and death with the memory of the beloved and compares the light of this memory with that of a monstrance. For the Catholic believer, of course, this monstrance brings to his mind ideas such as union, communion, strength, love, faith, and conquest of fear and death. It can therefore be argued that this is Baudelaire’s way of imparting to the reader that he has found his alternate spirituality in his memories. This is made possible thanks to the particular form of the poem, without which the distinction between words that are repeated and words that only appear once, which guide the reader in his understanding of the relative importance of elements in the poem, would not be possible.

Like the “Invitation Au Voyage,” Harmonie du Soir is notable for haven been translated into music – this time by Claude Debussy, who was influenced by Wagner into coupling form, musicality, and meaning into his adaptation, in the symbolist tradition. Debussy indeed compared his desire to minimize ornament in his music to Mallarmé’s careful economy of language. Debussy also rejected the idea that music should tell an easily decipherable narrative: “There are those who want music to tell base anecdotes! As if the newspapers didn’t perform this task wonderfully well already.” (Debussy and His World, Fulcher)  Debussy, but also Mallarmé himself, imagined that their work, because of its rejection of anecdotal references and formulas, required active participation by their audience and asked them to transcend everyday experience. Both held the opinion that naming an object—or expressing things too literally—removed half of the pleasure of the experience.  Debussy therefore emphasized not only sound but also silence as an element of meaning in his music, and this has been described as analogous to Mallarmé’s emphasis on the pauses and blank areas of the page in his late poems, who brings this to a near-exaggerated level in his “Un Coup de dés.”

According to Sartre, “le silence meme se definit par rapport aux mots, comme la pause, em musique, recoit son sens des groupes de notes qui l’entourent. Ce silence est un moment du langage; se taire ce n’est pas etre muet, c’est refuser de parler, donc parler encore.” Baudelaire’s poems function in a similar way: what the poem is really saying, what he is really getting at, is not what his words say, but on the contrary what lies in the “silence” of the poem—that which is evoked, but not uttered.  Similarly, Duparc uses silences in music to reflect the stasis created in Baudelaire’s Invitation Au Voyage refrain, which is laden with commas.  Duparc furthers this stasis by changing the meter from 6/8 to 9/8, and by suddenly replacing the continuous semiquavers (which are shorter notes) with long, tied notes. This change in pulse serves to eradicate any sense of continuity from the previous verse (Between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: Voice, Conversation, and Music, Abbott) One could even argue that this change in pulse which occurs for the refrain, furthers the distinction between the “ici” of the poet and the “Là” which is described in the couplet. It is as if the idealized, promised land has its own motif, which is conjured upon Baudelaire’s evocation of it.

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Baudelaire himself wrote in his 1851 notice which appeared in Pierre Dupont’s Chants et Chansons, that poetry can be “admirablement complétée par le chant.” As such, he seems to suggest that poetry and music are not only embellishments of one other, but perhaps more consequentially, have a symbiotic relationship: one begins before the other ends, and serves to give a fuller, more realistic image of the other. Baudelaire therefore well understood that his poem was only truly complete upon conjuring multiple artistic media to bring it to life. This may be an intuition as to why Baudelaire’s poetry is so evocative: because there are implicit silences, where the additional artistic realms (music, painting, sculpture…) or alternatively our imagination thereof— are meant to step in and complete it.

The Pantoum Harmonie du Soir arguably increases the role of ‘silence’ or the implicit, as the constraints imposed by the form make it impossible for the poem to be completely natural or to express exactly what the poet wants : it forces a mysterious, eerie, near-enchanting tone upon it. And that is why Baudelaire chooses to convey the meaning through evocation, rather than deliver it to the reader on a plateau, as both Mallarme and Debussy argued for. However, perhaps more important in Debussy’s adaptation was Baudelaire’s admiration of Wagner’s work : “ Aucun musicien n’excelle comme Wagner, a peindre l’espace et laprofondeur, materiels et spirituels…Il possede l’art de traduire, par des gradations subtiles, tout ce qu’il y a d’excessif, d’immense, d’ambitieux, dans l’homme spirituel et naturel. Il semble parfois, en ecoutant cette musique ardente et despotique, qu’on retrouve peintes sur le fond des ténebres, dechiré par la reverie, les vertigineuses conceptions de l’opium.”  Wagner’s music has the effect on Baudelaire, which the latter tries to dote his own poems with – the effect of evoking something else merely through the art itself, and transporting the audience into an alternate state, an alternate reality, as effectively as would “les vertigineuses conceptions de l’opium.”

The poem Harmonie du Soir therefore has a very strong musicality, which is reinforced by the constraints of the Pantoum form of the poem. The most evident source of musicality is the repetition of the second and fourth lines of each stanza into the next stanza. However, the rhymes also lead to the musicality and harmony of the poem: all of the rhymes have either the sound “oir” or “ige.” It is interesting to note that the words which rhyme together also carry simiar meanings : “soir,” “noir,” “encensoir,” “reposoir,” “ostensoir” all have the idea of permanence and larger-than-life dimension in them, while “tige,” “vertige,” and  “vestige,” and “afflige” connote transience and turbulence. The only exception to this rule would seem to be the word “fige.” However, it can be argued that since this word connotes a change from movement to stillness, it is the bridge between these two categories, the pivot after which the poet finds the harmony and peace he has been searching for.  As such, the rhyme scheme and musicality of the poem are also vectors of Baudelaire’s revelation to the reader.

What is more,  some of the lines in the poem  have a particular link between their sound, their meaning, and the feeling they express. This is particularly clear with the verse about the melancholy waltz. Indeed, it has an assonance at the end of the first and second hemistitchs (“ique” and “ige”) , an alliteration in the first and last words (“Valse” and “vertige”) , and a –lan sound in both adjectives (“mélancolique” and “langoureux”.) Thus, the four words (Valse, vertige, melancolique and langroureux) are linked : the feeling of intimate union could not be expressed more strongly, thus furthering the poet’s sense of melancholy and the languorousness of the memory.  This poem is distinctive for its suggesting of a vague mood and for its lack of sharply described situation, or precise logical development, as well as its lack of story or apparent purpose.  None of the lines is a simple statement, and all of the lines at least involve one image.  The unity lies in the rhythm, the rhyme scheme, the tonalities ( S, v, t, r, a, i , and oi are the dominant sounds in the poem) and the recurring images and it can be said that it has a unity of emotional and intellectual development.

Finally, the poem gives an optical illusion of many colors, although there are actually only three colors (and this is already testing the reader’s imagination) : “noir,” “sang,” and “lumineux.” As such, this is a real testimony to the suggestive nature of the poem, in which Baudelaire’s emotions are an intermingling of sounds, smells, and images which come together both for the poet himself but also for the reader to discover an alternate sense of spirituality—or at least harmony—in the world around him.

It often seems as though Baudelaire is discovering his own emotions through his poems: he does not explicitly state and does not symbolize, but rather creates his meaning through his poems, by using particular associations of sounds and images and rhythms and smells which all point in a particular direction, which reveal the poet to himself and the world to the readers. As such, the power of evocation in Baudelaire’s poetry is that it is also an approach through which he, the “poète maudit”, who is taken by the “Spleen” and the “mal du siècle” can work his way to understanding his own emotions and the ways to mitigate and relieve his experience—it is a way for him to find his very own spirituality, and to guide the “common mortals” to an understanding of their condition, and of the world around them. Through his poems, he gives readers a glimpse of the privileged status and vision that inhabits the poet and one might be tempted to say that, beyond the metaphysical journey, and beyond memories, and beyond musicality, smell, and touch, the real alternate spirituality is poetry itself. It is what sets men apart.



Research :

Abbott, Helen. Between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: Voice, Conversation and Music. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009. Print.

“Charles Baudelaire and Decadence.” Charles Baudelaire and Decadence. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <;.

Feuerlicht, Ignace. “Baudelaire’s “Harmonie Du Soir”” JSTOR. The French Review, Oct. 1959. Web. Dec. 2012. <;.

“Fulcher, J., Ed.: Debussy and His World.” Fulcher, J., Ed.: Debussy and His World. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <;.

Galand, R. “T.S Eliot and the Impact of Baudelaire.” JSTOR. Yale French Studies, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <;.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Qu’est-ce Que La Literature? Paris: Gallimard, 1972. Print.

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Baudelaire’s Modernizing Influence on Mallarmé

Mallarmé is said to have been heavily influenced by the poetry of Baudelaire, however he is also known for a newer hybridized form, which is that of combining his poems with other arts. Much like Wilde, Mallarmé was concerned with the esthetics of the page, the relationship between the form of his text, its content, but also how the words, spaces between them, and the way in which they were arranged together functioned within the text.  While looking through some of Baudelaire’s works, I was struck by how decadent—although early—Baudelaire truly was. For Baudelaire, literature is “a poetic idea, that releases itself from this operation of movement within the lines, it is the hypothesis of a vast being, immense, complicated, but eurhythmic, of an animal full of genius, suffering and sighing all of the sighs and all of the human ambitions.” (Fusées, XXII*) Baudelaire is somber and writes sinister texts, he even goes so far as to say that one must  « inspire disgust, and universal horror. » (Fusées XVII) If Mallarmé is to have been influenced by Baudelaire, we are not surprised then when we see an almost suffocating sky in L’Azur.  This sky that in the stead of being liberating in its vastness, is actually haunting and tormenting to the poet. In the 6th stanza Mallarmé says “-The Sky is dead.- To you I run, Oh matter! […]” The poet is a martyr (Baudelaire emphasizes this too), so much so that he must run to actual concrete matter to feel comforted. We spoke this week in class, about a movement from decadence towards modernism within the work of André Gide. Mallarmé too has made a literary shift here: by concerning himself with the urban languor that so disturbs Baudelaire, but also by wanting to integrate the esthetics of his pages within the realm of form and art, he has managed to reach towards a slightly different genre in which he will so famously remain a pivotal member for.

Original French-Baudelaire’s Fusées

*« une idée poétique, qui se dégage de cette opération du mouvement dans les lignes, c’est une hypothèse d’un être vaste, immense, compliqué, mais eurythmique, d’un animal plein de génie, souffrant et soupirant tous les soupirs et toutes les ambitions humaines. »

**«inspirer le dégoût et l’horreur universelle. » (Fusées XVII)




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Filed under Week 1 Reviews: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Pater (and some Wilde)

If Everyone Knew what Michel Found Out

Had Michel been purely immoral, he would not find himself with the lack of direction that he struggles with at the end of his story.  Had he been a true immoralist, he could have created a neat pattern in his life of contradicting accepted morals.  Yet Michel’s actions were not directed by malice or hatred of virtue.  He was selfish, but his intentions were not to hurt those close to him.  Sometimes he behaved in ways that would be deemed “right,” and other times in ways considered “wrong,” and often times the reader and Michel’s listeners were carried away in his story and were unable to distinguish the difference between right and wrong.

Therein lies Michel’s problem.  Certain aspects of morality as defined by society, including hetero-normativity, rang dissonant with Michel.  When he tried to force himself into the morals his society constructed, he was sick and pathetic.  Yet when he began to understand himself his desires better, he grew stronger and healthier.  Yet with this change, Michel did not seem to develop his own sense of morality; rather he sometimes acted in accordance with traditional morality and sometimes against it.  At that point, Michel was happy; he still had a framework of morality through which to understand and direct his life.

Gradually, however, Michel, along with his listeners, lost sight of the clear distinctions between right and wrong.  Michel tried to be a pure immoralist, spending time with criminals and low-lifes.  Yet though he found them interesting and enjoyed spending time with them, he never proclaimed to be the same as them.  He was falling out of the framework of morality – no more able to behave directly against it than he was able to follow it.  With Marceline’s death – Marceline, who upheld morality – the last bits of the framework fell, and Michel was lost.

How terrifying to find that freedom alone, how frightening to realize that there needn’t be a moral point and purpose to our actions, and that the moral constructs humans create are so transient as to be non-existent.  Then, the lack of judgment from his friends and from his readers, indicated that this burdensome freedom is contagious.  His friends felt involved in his immorality-turned-amorality.   They too felt lost, felt the disappearance of the framework.  But then what relief, to realize that moral inconsistencies need not be inconsistencies if there are no standards with which to be consistent!

Perhaps Michel’s friends were too small a group to feel that relief.  Perhaps Michel reached out to his friends, to see if they could accept a world not defined by right and wrong, but rather one composed of a fluid mesh of desires, actions, and beliefs that do not cohere into a set of morals or a comprehensive philosophy.  For if they could accept it, perhaps he could live comfortably with them.  Then one of Michel’s friends, perturbed by Michel’s predicament, reaches out further, to extend the circle enlightened by this troublesome freedom.

Perhaps too, this is Gide reaching out to society, to present this struggle to a wider audience.  For if it is acknowledged by the masses, then the societal constructs would indeed melt away, and perhaps there could be a more reassured acceptance of the fluidity of morality and inconsistencies inherent to living. – YG

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Filed under Week 10 Reviews: André Gide, The Immoralist