If you took Roberto Calasso’s head and shook it you would hear a great rattle and jangle. Inside, shining and curious pieces, many of them, but many of them disconnected. This Italian writer, publisher, and savant does not pursue an idea; he ambushes it from half a dozen vantage points as it goes by. Sometimes it never does go by.
In the enchanting “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” he retold a selection of episodes from Greek mythology in a fashion so personal and idiosyncratic that they might have happened to him. In the tangled and overly ambitious “The Ruins of Kasch,” he feels his way through Europe’s Romantic period, not narrating it so much as conveying it by signals flashed from a hand-held mirror.
“La Folie de Baudelaire,” a more constricted and less ambitious work that explores 19th century French art and literature, is, like “Kasch,” constructed largely of quotes, though it does convey Calasso’s own view of Charles Baudelaire’s particular pioneering achievement. “Folie” is French for “folly” — not as meaning foolishness but as denoting a kind of adult playground. Blending biographical detail and criticism, the writer visits his subject in rather on-and-off fashion; he skips around to other figures and to what Baudelaire said about them or, more frequently, what they said about him and about each other.
There is André Gide on Baudelaire’s immediacy: “In a low voice now he converses with each of us.” Calasso himself remarks that when Baudelaire began to write all the space was occupied by the Romantics “but only horizontally. He opted for the vertical.” Another writer called him “a magnetic storm.” Mostly, Calasso dwells on Baudelaire’s art and literary criticism rather than his poetry. There is a lovely quote on Chopin who wrote “light, impassioned music that resembles a vari-colored bird wheeling above the horrors of the abyss.”
Taking Baudelaire’s fervent espousal of the romantic painter Delacroix against the more classical Ingres, Calasso weaves his subject’s and others’ comments about Delacroix to, in effect, unsay the poet’s own position. It was characteristic of Baudelaire: with burning assurance to contradict assurance.
“Lines, lines,” Ingres had urged, eschewing any attempt to bring in emotions or points of view. And there are various contemporary quotes criticizing this as a limitation. No soul, they said; no thought. One writer suggested derisively that Ingres was “able to express more powerfully than anyone else what little he perceived.”
But Calasso argues that this distrust of emotion and emphasis on the objective reflected what Baudelaire, in fact — despite his pro-Delacroix stance — was himself to voice in his poems. And the author sees in him the precursor of subsequent modernist and post-modernist writing. He cites Stéphane Mallarme’s emphasis upon the sounds and rhythms of words as against what they express. Words, Mallarme wrote, must have sufficient strength “to resist the aggression of ideas.”
Calasso writes of other contemporaries of Baudelaire’s: Manet, Halévy, the librettist of a series of popular operettas, and, at considerable length, Degas. He addresses a number of Degas paintings, seeing in a family portrait not a traditional unity but, instead, dissension. Of an interior that seems to show a woman who had been assaulted he uses the splendid phrase “a violent silence.” He writes of the “petits rats” — the young dancers Degas painted, each chaperoned by a mother or older friend, and in search of a rich and powerful protector. “In the end the little girl could even become a marquise, maybe in Italy (which was something of a letdown but still a respectable result).”
The great critical power of the day, virtually literature’s dictator, was Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve. According to Calasso he was more comfortable with minor figures than with the greats; mixing praise of these with undermining barbs. He was troubled by Baudelaire — and, accordingly, condescending — putting him at the bottom of a list of mediocrities he saw as possible candidates for the Académie Française, and giving a decidedly mixed appraisal of “Fleurs du Mal.”
Nevertheless, Calasso notes the shrewdness of his criticism. Repeatedly speaking of Baudelaire’s “folly” (both senses of the word), he wrote that the poet “was content to have done something impossible in a place where it was thought that no one could go.” Calasso adds that this “is the foundation of all that can be said and has been said about Baudelaire.”
The strength of “La Folie de Baudelaire” is, in fact, the quotes that Calasso has searched out. Baudelaire, for instance: “Genius is essentially childhood formulated with precision.” What they lack is connection. His thoughts make a promising start; then they largely fail to go anywhere. He is a trapeze artist who takes off spectacularly but whose flight vanishes before it gets to the bar it launches for.Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at email@example.com.