Baudelaire, Breton, and the Madness of Love

Manash Bhattacharjee

Breton dreamt of people making perfect love in glasshouses. He meant glasshouses literally. But Nadja was not the glasshouse of mad love. Nadja was mad. Breton – the timid hero of madness – fled Nadja before tasting the madness he extolled but couldn’t manage. When Breton had Jacqueline Lamba, he attempted to save his soul once again. Pathetically. He tried to reinvent Nadja in the shape of Lamba and dedicated his mad writing to her and their daughter. But the book is neither about Lamba nor about Aube. The book is a hallucination of failed love. Breton desperately urges us to forget the past and see love in the horizon ahead of us. He wants to free us from contemplation and seize our present moment of truth. Fine. But it doesn’t escape me, Breton, why you wanted this. You did it because you found it hard to forget your past. You couldn’t forget how you failed Nadja. But you needed to forget her to love Lamba. So you tried the most impossible thing. You make Nadja disappear into your imagination of Lamba. Maybe you turn yourself into Nadja and caress Lamba with your mad love. I am very interested in the only person who secretly jostles inside your text. You call forever and for a long time as “warring expressions.” But you say they make sense together to you “today.” How can you now join three warring expressions? I find Nadja’s absence everywhere in your mad book. She who was mad and not you. The rifts in your text are the impossible junctures of failed merging. What an exceptionally gifted lyric liar are you. Breton – metaphor of surrealism.

And what about Baudelaire – that syphilis injected dandy of modern life? How does Baudelaire fare in Breton’s shadow? The man with a jerky walk and who believed in the impossibility of man’s action or thought except being some evil force? What about his life compared to Breton? A stable life not of the senses but of a relentless search for certain fatal roots of sexual desire. It is not from Jeanne Duval for sure – his mistress for twenty years – that we would get the story. But from his mother. The twenty-six year-old Caroline Archimbaut Dufays whom his father married. Then his step-father remarried after his father died. But Baudelaire was the one who worshipped her till he died in her arms. In a letter to her he had written these lines: “We are obviously destined to love one another, to end our lives as honestly and justly as possible. And yet, in the awful circumstances in which I find myself, I am convinced that one of us will kill the other.” Unlike Breton, the lyrical escapist, Baudelaire is tied to that moment of birth. For him it was also the moment of a death. One dark day Baudelaire must have fallen in love with Caroline. He must have fumbled and taken her name in secret many times in the night. Caroline, mother, Caroline, mother, mother, Caroline, Caroline, mother, Caroline, mother, mother, mother, Caroline, mother, Caroline, Caroline, Caroline, mother, go to hell, Caroline, Caroline, I love you. He must have put that name to flames night after night and never failed to hold it when it came back unscarred. The sense of his evil was spread in the flowers. It was spread among the whores, the angels, the “condemned women” in Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil).

Baudelaire’s concerns seem to be purely existential sometimes, and other times, moral. But it was the force of his aesthetic rage and despair that is most rattling. Imagine the lines, “Go, if you will, and find some brutish fiancé; / Go give a virgin heart to tortuous embrace; / And livid, with your fill of horror and remorse, / Come running back to me with scars across your breasts.” Something about women, their woman, taunts and riles Baudelaire. Bothers him, haunts him right into the depths of his blood. Women provoke Baudelaire enough to become bawdy. But no other poet could achieve bawdiness as memorably as Baudelaire did. But what is it that peeved him so much? Does the answer lie in his adulthood, his adolescence, or his childhood? Delphine and Hippolyta are magical and mythical figures. Does Baudelaire use them for a merely aesthetic reincarnation? Or do they appear out of his psychological need? Mythical figures are the best means to replace (and hide) the Absent Figure in poetry.
All flowers were a single flower. Baudelaire condemned angels and devils – not human beings – because his love wasn’t one which belonged to the world. His love was born in the forest – “the forest of symbols. What more rigorous and fatal madness can happen to life and imagination? Baudelaire was more mad than Breton. That is why he never wrote L’Amour Fou (Mad Love).
For those of you who are never happy with personal life and artistic imagination being equated, let me grant a brief epilogue. Baudelaire is many times greater than Breton because Baudelaire described the phenomenon of which Breton was a product. Baudelaire described modernity as the “bizarre.” Breton was a product of the bizarre. He was also its artist. True. For Breton – as for everyone of his generation – the past was a nightmare – as if it was bound to be, destined to be – so Breton and his believers had to trust the future – which held nothing – so obviously held everything. Breton’s idea of mad love is an idea where madness is reduced to the techniques of aesthetic imagination. From whatever reservoir of consciousness. But it disappoints as madness . Because I expect madness to lash itself. Go overboard. Lose its style. Embarrass itself. Lose control. I expect madness to puke. To really go mad. But Breton’s lovely text is ridden with a poise. An interesting but not believable poise. I have to trust madness.
You got me wrong if you thought I meant a writer should write in an inebriated language when he writes mad love. The difference between mad and sane writing is the difference between Sylvia Plath and Breton. You can sense a schizophrenic mind at work in Plath’s poems. That is why the uneasy poise in her poems haunts you. Breton’s language doesn’t. It merely gives you an impression of madness. That is why I expect it to puke. To finally write with an empty stomach and a hallucination. To gain a poise at the real level of madness. Not this make believe, mere artistic one.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University. His poems have appeared in The London Magazine, New Welsh Review, The Fortnightly Review, First Proof: The Penguin Books of New Writing from India (Volume 5), George Szirtes’ Blog, The Missing Slate, The Little Magazine, and Coldnoon. He has contributed essays, articles and reviews to Los Angeles Review of Books (forthcoming), Guernica, Huffington Post, Democracy Now, Economic and Political Weekly, Outlook, The Hindu, Biblio, etc. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and OtherPoems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.