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.”
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.