Charles Baudelaire: Lilith – The Damned

In glistening shot-silk she seems to wind
Sidelong across the floor as in a dance,
As when a gypsy waves the mystic wand
That puts his writhing viper in a trance.

To the barren dune and desert sky
Humanity is an irrelevance;
In coiling and uncoiling like the sea;
She manifests the same indifference.

Her petrifying eyes burn bright and cold,
As alien as if an angel were
United with a sphinx on some dead star

Where life is crystal-carbon, steel and gold
That radiates through all of human time
The empty womb’s majestic paradigm.

– Charles Baudelaire, from Complete Poems translated by Walter Martin

 


 

This poem by Baudelaire brings his mythos of Lilith (Serpent), Gorgon (Medusa), and Vampire (Alien Angel) together. As his biographer F. W. J. Hemmings says:

“But Baudelaire was not a nineteenth-century liberal; indeed, to many of his contemporaries, including one suspects Flaubert, he appeared as something of a throwback: regressive in his moral outlook, however modern he may have been in other respects – in his aesthetic insights, for instance. It is impossible not to be struck, as one reads him, by the frequency of his use of the word damnation and its cognates; the sentence we have picked as epigraph is simply the most memorable instance that can be found in his writings: ‘In short, I believe that my life has been damned from the beginning, and that it is damned forever.’

We notice that Baudelaire does not call himself damned, but only his life; his biographer has to explain how this life came to be damned, but need not take into account the possibility that he who lived that life was and is now among the company of the damned. There is little evidence that Baudelaire seriously visualized the afterlife in conventional terms of heaven and hell, and even if he did, it is most unlikely that he would have imagined hell quite as Dante imagined it … or Wyndham Lewis. As to the kind of existence reserved for humanity beyond the grave, he kept an open mind ; he was curious about it, and curiously hopeful; had it been otherwise, had he seriously entertained the notion of a Catholic God sitting in judgement on the souls of the departed, no doubt he would have embraced again, before his death, the faith that he lost in his late teens. But he did believe very firmly that certain lives are damned on this earth and that his was one of these.”1

1. Hemmings, F. W. J. (2011-09-28). Baudelaire the Damned: A Biography (Bloomsbury Reader) (Kindle Locations 34-39). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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