In the context of our recent discussions of beauty, art, and objectivity, along with Mike’s wonderful selections under the title “Heavenly!”, I’ve been thinking about ugliness, not in the sense of things that we don’t want to look at, but ugliness as the subject of art. Art can be beautiful while depicting ugliness, or more precisely, beautifully depict ugliness. Hieronymous Bosch triptychs filled with ghastly creatures and events sprang to mind immediately, because visual art is the easiest to recall, but not long after I remembered one of my favorite poems from when I was a young, brooding intellectual pretender with a copy of Being and Nothingness in my bag, a poem about a man arriving at an island he had heard was of unrivaled beauty, but finds only the rotting corpse of a hanged man to greet him on the desolate shore, ending with:
Ridicule pendu, tes douleurs sont les miennes!
Je sentis, à l’aspect de tes membres flottants,
Comme un vomissement, remonter vers mes dents
Le long fleuve de fiel des douleurs anciennes;
Devant toi, pauvre diable au souvenir si cher,
J’ai senti tous les becs et toutes les mâchoires
Des corbeaux lancinants et des panthères noires
Qui jadis aimaient tant à triturer ma chair.
— Le ciel était charmant, la mer était unie;
Pour moi tout était noir et sanglant désormais,
Hélas! et j’avais, comme en un suaire épais,
Le coeur enseveli dans cette allégorie.
Dans ton île, ô Vénus! je n’ai trouvé debout
Qu’un gibet symbolique où pendait mon image…
— Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans dégoût!
In Roy Campbell’s translation:
Ridiculous hanged man! Your griefs I know.
I felt, to see you swing above the heath,
Like nausea slowly rising to my teeth,
The bilious stream of ancient human woe.
Poor devil, dear to memory! before me
I seemed to feel each talon, fang, and beak
Of all the stinking crows and panthers sleek
That in my lifetime ever chewed and tore me.
The sky was charming and the sea unclouded,
But all was black and bloody to my mind.
As in a dismal winding-sheet entwined,
My heart was in this allegory shrouded.
A gallows where my image hung apart
Was all I found on Venus’ isle of sighs.
O God, give me the strength to scrutinise,
Without disgust, my body and my heart!
Thinking of Baudellaire, perhaps the greatest master of ugly beauty, I remembered an old blog friend of mine from the days when I was a famous* science blogger: Chris Schoen. Back then I was always happy to see Chris’ name pop up in comments, in part because it meant that I was not alone in whatever battle I was fighting at the moment with the dominant trend in science blogging, but mostly because he always had something intelligent and insightful to say. He was also a very good, though criminally under-read blogger himself, at Underverse, where he wrote long, incredibly well-written and well-thought out essays with surprising (given how well-written and thought out they were) frequency (the oldest of which seem not to be around anymore).
Not long after I stopped blogging altogether, Chris’ posting frequency dropped dramatically, and today he only posts a few times a year. Unlike me, however, he had a good reason for his absence from the blogosphere, and it was this reason, or at least one of them, that I was reminded of when thinking about ugliness in art and “Voyage to Cythera.” You see, Chris is a musician, and the project that took up so much of his time that he was unable to grace us with regular essays on religion, science, philosophy, and culture, was that he had decided to produce original translations of Baudelaire’s poems, compose music for them, and record them as song.
The song at the top of the post, which is not from this project, but from one of his earlier albums, Heraclitus, will give you a good idea of who Chris is a musician. He’s a minimalist, usually one or two instruments accompanying his soft, haunting voice (which no one would describe as strong). He seems almost perfect for the bleakness of Baudelaire. This is the result:
As you can see in that video, Chris teamed up with Theater Oobleck, a performing arts collective in Chicago, in a project they call “Baudelaire in a Box.” The project initially involved Chris’ music with Oobleck’s David Buchen’s cantastorias, “a low-tech story-telling medium dating back hundreds of years… pairing a series of illustrations with recitation or song.” After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Chris, and with several other Oobleck-associated artists have set out to translate the entirety of Les Fleurs du mal and put it to song and cantastorias. The result, with English translations of the poems (from here), look and sound like this:
(That’s Chris on the left.)
Cupid and the Skull
An Old Lamp Base
Cupid is seated on the skull
On this throne the impious one
With the shameless laugh
Is gaily blowing round bubbles
That rise in the air
As if they would rejoin the globes
At the ether’s end.
The sphere, fragile and luminous,
Takes flight rapidly,
Bursts and spits out its flimsy soul
Like a golden dream.
I hear the skull groan and entreat
At every bubble:
“When is this fierce, ludicrous game
To come to an end?
Because what your pitiless mouth
Scatters in the air,
Monstrous murderer — is my brain,
My flesh and my blood!”
A Form, Idea, or Essence, chased
Out of the azure sky, and shot
Into a leaden Styx where not
A star can pierce the muddy waste:
An angel, rash explorer, who,
Tempted by love of strange deformity,
Caught in a nightmare of enormity,
Fights like a swimmer, wrestling through
A monstrous whorl of eddying spume,
In deathly anguish, from him flinging
The wave that, like an idiot singing,
Goes pirouetting through the gloom:
A wretch enchanted, who, to flee
A den of serpents, gropes about
In desperation vain, without
Discovering a match or key:
A damned soul, who, with no lamp,
Stands by a gulf, whose humid scent
Betrays the depth of the descent
Of endless stairs without a ramp,
Where slimy monsters watch the track
Whose eyeballs phosphoresce and glow
Only to make the night more black
And nought except themselves to show:
A vessel that the pole betrays,
Caught in a crystal trap all round,
And seeking by what fatal sound
It ever entered such a maze: —
Clear emblems! measuring the level
Of irremediable dooms,
Which make us see bow well the Devil
Performs whatever he presumes!
Strange tête-à-tête! the heart, its own
Mirror, its own confession hears!
Deep well where Truth is trembling shown
And like a livid star appears,
Ironic beacon and infernal
Torch of satanic grace, but still
Sole glory and relief eternal,
— Conscience that operates in Ill!
Like angels with wild beast’s eyes
I shall return to your bedroom
And silently glide toward you
With the shadows of the night;
And, dark beauty, I shall give you
Kisses cold as the moon
And the caresses of a snake
That crawls around a grave.
When the livid morning comes,
You’ll find my place empty,
And it will be cold there till night.
I wish to hold sway over
Your life and youth by fear,
As others do by tenderness.
Mist and Rain
O ends of autumn, winters, springtimes drenched with mud,
Seasons that lull to sleep! I love you, I praise you
For enfolding my heart and mind thus
In a misty shroud and a filmy tomb.
On that vast plain where the cold south wind plays,
Where in the long, dark nights the weather-cock grows hoarse,
My soul spreads wide its raven wings
More easily than in the warm springtide.
Nothing is sweeter to a gloomy heart
On which the hoar-frost has long been falling,
Than the permanent aspect of your pale shadows,
O wan seasons, queens of our clime
— Unless it be to deaden suffering, side by side
In a casual bed, on a moonless night.
Adelind Horan, the singer and composer of that song, brings something very different from Chris’ voice and style to Baudelaire. There is a lightness that contrasts with the sentiment of the poem, in which a “gloomy heart” longs for the cold and wet of the worst the seasons bring. I find it mesmerizing.
Don Juan in Hades
When Don Juan descended to the underground sea,
And when he had given his obolus to Charon,
That gloomy mendicant, with Antisthenes’ proud look,
Seized the two oars with strong, revengeful hands.
Showing their pendent breasts and their unfastened gowns
Women writhed and twisted under the black heavens,
And like a great flock of sacrificial victims,
A continuous groan trailed along in the wake.
Sganarelle with a laugh was demanding his wage,
While Don Luis with a trembling finger
Was showing to the dead, wandering along the shores,
The impudent son who had mocked his white brow.
Shuddering in her grief, Elvira, chaste and thin,
Near her treacherous spouse who was once her lover,
Seemed to implore of him a final, parting smile
That would shine with the sweetness of his first promises.
Erect in his armor, a tall man carved from stone
Was standing at the helm and cutting the black flood;
But the hero unmoved, leaning on his rapier,
Kept gazing at the wake and deigned not look aside.
The Desire for Annihilation
Dejected soul, once anxious for the strife,
Hope, whose spur fanned your ardor into flame,
No longer wishes to mount you! Lie down shamelessly,
Old horse who stumbles over every rut.
Resign yourself, my heart; sleep your brutish sleep.
Conquered, foundered spirit! For you, old jade,
Love has no more relish, no more than war;
Farewell then, songs of the brass and sighs of the flute!
Pleasure, tempt no more a dark, sullen heart!
Adorable spring has lost its fragrance!
And Time engulfs me minute by minute,
As the immense snow a stiffening corpse;
I survey from above the roundness of the globe
And I no longer seek there the shelter of a hut.
Avalanche, will you sweep me along in your fall?
Ugliness in beauty, beautiful ugliness, with a new layer of beauty in the form of song. I don’t know exactly what beautiful ugly means for aesthetics, except that in each there is likely a seed of the other which, if given the right nourishment, can grow into something wonderful and inspiring.
If you want to hear and see more of Baudelaire in a Box, check out the project’s blog, and if you’re in Chicago, you should definitely go see a performance. They’ve got three more years and many more poems to go.
*This word is an absurd exaggeration.