11 May, 2012

Les Lesbiennes vs. Les Limbes vs. Les Fleurs du Mal

Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal was originally intended to be titled Les Lesbiennes, when he conceived of the book as engaged with Sappho and female grosteques. Allegorical figures in the book include feminized death, beauty, pain, madness, and night. The book features the prevalence of many women literary and mythological figures, including Circe, Diana, Echo, Eurydice, Venus, Cybele, Proserpine, Delphine, Hippolyta, Lethee, Elvira, and Lady Macbeth. The “damned women” of Lesbos in particular seem appropriate for Baudelaire’s ideas of societal repression, but he also characterizes dandyism as a kind of permission granted by his mother and Jeanne Duval. Later, he announced the title of the book would be Les Limbes, which would have contextualized these poems much more overtly with Dante's The Inferno. While there may be an argument that the women are really a secondary level to the book, and that the book shifted over time to one emphasizing a moral slippage toward evil itself, learning this recently about the three titles, I can't help but think Baudelaire had other possibilities in mind: Limbo (the edge of hell) is where virtuous atheists and agnostics go when they die. Here exists an eternal "salon" of poets and philosophers (Homer, Ovid, Lucan, Virgil, Aristotle, Socrates) welcoming Baudelaire to their number, as they had welcomed Dante before him. Baudelaire expected to be exiled in "hell" by a moral Christian audience for publishing the book. Hippolyte Babou convinced Baudelaire that Les Fleurs du Mal captured a "submlime" quality of "blooming evil." The constantly shifting titles reflects how the book (and the author's attitudes toward it) changed over time. In the frontispiece above, Baudelaire has written some interesting notes, including a disingenuous comment about his "shock" to see the word "poesies" attributed to the work.

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