The Apparition


The Sun

In the original 1857 edition of Les fleurs du mal, the third poem is “The Sun”, in the second stanza of which Baudelaire compares the titular celestial body to a poet and allows himself some uncharacteristically posi imagery: the sun “awakens in the fields verses like roses” and “replenishes minds and hives with honey”. This solar hymn, so early in the book, might suggest to a reader unfamiliar with Baudelaire that the poet’s mission is the same: to redeem and replenish. That reader would be sucker-punched by the rest of the book. Baudelaire is not trying to redeem anything; he’s happy to get high and go to museums. But he does start us off with a glimpse of this alternate world, a world where the dominant colors are gold and green rather than silver and purple.

Fields of wheat dotted with wild roses. This arcadian vision doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the book, but it suggests that at some point Baudelaire wanted to make the urban-rural contrast in Les fleurs du mal explicit, with the country standing for the natural and pure and the city for the artificial and corrupt.

Why couldn’t he keep it that way? In the final 1868 version of the book “The Sun” has been moved far back, into the “Parisian Landscapes” section, a few poems away from “The Swan”, Baudelaire’s lament for Paris before Baron Von Haussmann’s renovations, in which he describes the sky as “cruelly blue”.

Light, Gold and Gauze

Sometime between 1841 and 1857, Baudelaire was sitting at the back of a cheap theater, a miserable orchestra sawing away in the pit, when an angel with gauzy wings appeared onstage and banished all evil. He was at a féerie play and must have known it was an illusion, but the vision left him weeping and desperate for hours or maybe days.

Féerie was a genre of glitzy effects spectacle that drew mass audiences for decades. It built up to a climax of pure ecstasy, in which angels descended from the catwalks and made everything right. Budgets were often stretched thin, and producers had to make do with very cheap props, whence Baudelaire’s description of the angel as a being of “light, gold and gauze”—that is, muslin, imitation gold dust, and limey footlights out of Degas. This cheapness didn’t affect Baudelaire’s earnest experience of the angel’s divinity. He was living in pure filth somewhere in Paris. See his apartment, strung with icicles in January and crawling with bugs in June. He spent days by himself, always drunk or hungover, and he felt wolves closing in around him. He could see the angel onstage, but the proscenium was a transparent wall between its ideal world and his own shithole of a life.

He dreamed about the angel after that, and in many dreams it seemed to become an alabaster sphinx, its beauty intact but somehow lacking all warmth. Every morning he woke up to workers smashing the flagstones to rubble.

Cinders and Chalk

The French colony of Saint-Pierre was obliterated on May 8, 1902 by a hissing wall of vapor that rushed down from the volcano above the town, scouring everything to its foundations. One of the three survivors described watching people die writhing and wailing “although their garments showed no sign of having been touched by flame”. 28,000 people were essentially burned to death by the air itself. It was one of the first real catastrophes of the young 20th century. Photos of the aftermath show a lunar landscape like the one left behind after the bombing of Dresden.

Morbid fascination spread through the the metropole, but there weren’t enough photos of the eruption to satisfy the public, so with Olympian self-confidence Georges Méliès simply recreated it in his studio. Apparently he’d read some eyewitness accounts—he’s careful to include the burning cloud—but then he throws in some dramatic lava flows that have no basis in fact. And yet people watched it in the understanding that it was real. Seven years before, the same people had run screaming from the Lumieres’ train because they didn’t know it was an illusion.

Years later, twittering at a party, the modernist poet Guillaume Apollinaire asked Méliès how he had created the effects for the movie. Méliès, not apparently a very doctrinaire magician, revealed that he had done it by photographing cinders and chalk, and Apollinaire, turning to a friend, apparently said, “Monsieur and I have the same occupation: we enchant ordinary materials.”

The Moon

Méliès used the cloud effect again, later in 1902, for a rock obelisk that explodes when the astronomers first reach the surface of the moon. That makes it a special effect, developed for use in an artificial recreation of a real event, now being put to use in a fantasy film. Méliès clearly saw these things, reality and fantasy equally, as fuel for his work—just different types of ordinary material awaiting an enchanter.

When he was a child there were covered passages in Paris called “galleries” or “arcades”, floored with cool white marble, with iron-ribbed glass roofs that let in an unearthly, diffuse light. The city was honeycombed with them. Most of them closed, though, after Haussmann broadened the boulevards and vast new department stores moved in to line them, replacing the ragged shops of small tradesmen who couldn’t afford to live in the center of town anymore. Méliès may have realized that the city itself had been arcadified.

The first line of the Paris Métro had a stop just south of the theater where he showed his movies. The entrance to each metro station was a grove of metal trees, ungrowing parodies of ones you might find in the Île-de-France countryside. Down in the stations it was always too dark, and if it was a clear day the sun blinded you coming back up. Even if it was a clear day everyone wore black and swung umbrellas. It was fashionable to buy vases shaped like tulips.


From day to night


The Rage of Professor Barbenfouillis

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 4.00.29 PM

The rules of the world are suspended here. The cavern roars off into the distance, and even as they descend the astronomers can see crags and spires, glittering stalactites, green rivers rushing over cliffs to vanish in the hissing darkness. Their leader, Professor Barbenfouillis, plants his umbrella in the ground and finds it transformed into a huge toadstool. His delight is Edenic. A whole unspoiled world awaits, a labyrinth of untold size and detail.

The astronomers have been making noise, though, and they’ve disturbed something. From the gloom of a grove of mushrooms scuttles a Selenite, a fearsome lunar crustacean. Its menace is overwhelming; Barbenfouillis rushes back to his panicked friends. Seizing another umbrella, he turns to face the Selenite and shrinks back in fear as it rushes him, but it stops short, like a bull that’s just trying to keep strangers away from its herd, and now Barbenfouillis lunges. Startled, it falls onto its back; he brings down the umbrella, and it bursts like a sporocarp.

Is Professor Barbenfouillis a killer? The obvious answer is no. This is a learned professor, passing his life in solitary contemplation of the stars, sometimes attending a conference. He is quiet and solitary, maybe not a people person. But he’s not a murderer. He was scared. His friends were egging him on.

Think about this historically, though. How old is Professor Barbenfouillis? Let’s assume he’s a lifelong Parisian, like his interpreter Georges Méliès. If he’s 70 years old in 1902, he’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe. When he was 1 or 2, soldiers walked into a tenement just northeast of the Louvre, kicked down the doors of the rooms, surprised the inhabitants (supposed rioters) in their pajamas, and slaughtered them. If baby Barbenfouillis was ever taken to the shops in the Véro-Dodat arcade (entrance surmounted by statues of Hermes and a Satyr, commerce and frenzy), he may have seen Honoré Daumier’s lithograph in a window: a man in a bloody nightgown, propped up on the flank of a bed, with his son, still alive, crushed beneath him.

It’s unlikely that he remembers that, or that he remembers how the soldiers were egged on by people like his family. But things happened at an accelerating tempo through the rest of the century. When Barbenfouillis was 16, he might have heard gunshots from across the Seine as guards outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs killed 52 people. When he was 20 he might have watched columns of people led by soldiers past his window, to be herded onto cattle cars and shipped to Algeria. For most of his 20s and 30s French soldiers died shivering with tropical diseases on gunships from the Orinoco to the Mekong. When he was 39 he would have spent months trying to get the taste of cat meat out of his mouth as the Prussians closed in on Paris. And in the Commune, who knows? Did he flee the city? Did he huddle in his flat and wait for Thiers and the Versailles Army to save him? What was he doing at the end, with the blood of 25,000 people gurgling into the gutters, when every street hissed with maggots?

That was 30 years ago. The city still smells like shit and death. Sometimes on Sunday mornings he sees the frozen corpse of a Gascon or a Breton huddled on a quay. The streets he used to know have been paved under canyonlike boulevards, and there’s nothing to hear anywhere but screaming locomotives and clanging iron wheels. He keeps waiting for it to stop and relax but it never does, it just keeps going, creeping out like a myxogastrid, swallowing Vietnam and Algeria. It is tunneling into itself now, filigreeing iron rails beneath its own skin, digging out the labyrinthine new frontier, spiraling raggedly down, faster and faster.

Now he’s on the moon. All of that is far below, and things here are silent and peaceful. But Barbenfouillis is carrying it around inside of him.

It is possible that the first labyrinth, built on Minoan Crete in the late Bronze Age, was a dance floor. Book 18 of the Iliad seems to mention it, in a long description of the new shield Hephaestus makes for Achilles. Homer doesn’t actually mention a maze, but some English translators carry it in from later traditions. Here’s Chapman, who goes all the way: “…a dancing place / all full of turnings, that was like the admirable maze / for hair-hair’d Ariadne made, by cunning Daedalus / And in it youths and virgins dance’d, all young and beauteous.”

Other translators let the choreography of the dance suggest the maze. But even if the dancing place and not just the dance was truly full of turnings, those turnings were just paint. In the Iliad, the youths and virgins get about three times as much attention as the dance floor. Their dance may have involved jumping over a bull, which would be another celebration of the young and the beauteous. But Minoan civilization collapsed, and 500 years later the Greeks, like horror fans craving gore, had buried this dancing floor deep in the earth, built walls for it, turned the youths and virgins into sacrificial victims, and transformed the bull into a Minotaur. This folkloric defamation turned a fertility rite, permanently, into a form of ritual combat. 700 years after that, the Flavians built what came to be known as the Colosseum, a venue for ritual combat built on top of a maze. 

It’s possible that, in the cave, Barbenfouillis recognizes the mirror image of the Métro, the new world beneath Paris. (The excavations at Knossos, which uncovered fair-hair’d Ariadne’s dancing floor, coincided with the excavations in Paris that created the first Métro line.) The difference is that on the moon there are no timetables, no roaring iron and hissing steam. There is perfect freedom. There’s nothing to stop Barbenfouillis from carrying out the urge that’s been boiling up inside him for his entire life.


Beneath the surface of the moon