An Oasis of Horror
a short story
Amer savoir, celui qu'on tire du voyage!
Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd'hui,
Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir image:
Une oasis d'horreur dans un désert d'ennui!
Charles Baudelaire, "Le voyage".
1. Spleen de Paris: 30 June 1845
"Existence," said Charles Baudelaire to his father's
ghost, "moves in the midst of a multifarious epidemic in which
no one is ever quite content with the disease that has fallen to his
lot. The metaphorical consumptive contemplates with peevish frustration
those afflicted with St. Anthony's fire; the spiritual leper would prefer
the particular ruination of lupus; those whose souls bear the scars
of smallpox would rather entertain the demon of cholera....no, it won't
do, with it? Too obvious. We're all sick--so what? To yearn to be sick
in a different way is as good a definition of futile hope as any, but
it can't explain...."
Waiting for a reply from his absent father, present only in feeble
spirit, would also have been as good a definition of futile hope as
any, but that wasn't why he trailed off. He had conceived a new beginning.
"It is unnecessary to envy the dead body its oblivion,"
he said, "for annihilation is within the grasp of any man, but
to envy the dead soul its transcendence of life is another matter. The
objective of one who is unhappy with life is not to cease to be, but
rather to discover a realm in which being is not so direly bound by
discomfiting circumstance--which is to say, a realm in which the pattern
of discomfiting circumstance is not so stifling in its arid monotony.
No--it pains me to admit it, but it may be true that there are points
at which all communication fails, where silence is preferable to verbal
expression because the act speaks for itself, more eloquently than any
He set down his pen, dissatisfied. He had, in any case, already taken
care of the formal necessities; he had written his will and placed it
in an envelope, with a covering letter, addressed to his lawyer, Ancelle.
He had bequeathed all his possessions to his saviour, Jeanne Duval,
and had asked the lawyer to watch over her and guide her, just as he
would have watched over and guided him, in accordance with the order
of guardianship for which his mother had applied to the Tribunal in
the previous September. He had asked Ancelle to remember him to Jeanne
as a hideous example--a dire warning of the extremes to which a disorderly
life might go. That was enough; his dead father needed no suicide note
to understand what Charles was doing and why, and nothing could be said
that would enlighten Madame Aupick, let alone the general. His mother
and stepfather had long grown used to their particular sicknesses, and
did not understand the politics of resistance. When his mother had gone
to the Tribunal to have Ancelle appointed as his legal guardian, it
was in the genuine belief that she was acting in his best interests,
in a spirit of valiant palliation.
Charles picked up the dagger in the same hand that had set down the
pen, and placed the point to his left breast, feeling for a gap between
He did not expect to discover what it felt like to die. He expected
to feel a sudden shock of pain, in which his consciousness would sooner
or later dissolve--sooner, if his hand were steady and the blade punctured
his heart at the first stroke; later if he faltered, and was forced
to move the blade from side to side, groping for fatality.
Jeanne had told him that he need have no fear of death, because she
had favoured him with a special kiss that would deliver him to vampire
undeath, but he had not believed it when she said it and he did not
believe it now. He did not expect to be clawing his way out of the tomb
on the day after his burial. Jeanne Duval was certainly a lamia--a serpent
in human form, a temptress asp--but Charles did not believe that her
sting was more powerful than that of death.
He took a deep breath, and pressed the dagger home.
His hand was not steady, and he had to grope for fatality, cursing
himself the while because his heart was so unexpectedly hard to find.
Then he found it, and the felt point strike like a cobra's fang, opening
the ventricle to let out the pulsing blood.
He waited to die. And waited. In the end, the pain faded away, but
consciousness did not. He never lost his grip on consciousness for an
instant, and never would again.
"Has heaven rejected me, then?" He asked his father, eventually,
"or is it simply that my blood is no longer my own, and will not
flow to my bidding."
He checked his pulse, and could not find one. He breathed on a mirror,
and it did not fog--although his reflection was still there, as dull
and sickly as ever, wearing a rictus snarl. His heart had evidently
stopped; his lungs no longer sucked in air; he had left life behind--but
not for death. Jeanne had told him the truth.
Another man might have picked up his hat and rushed to see his sometime
mistress, in order to begin his education in the politics and practices
of undeath, but Charles did not. Jeanne was an actress, of sorts, but
she was not a poet. She knew how to exist as she existed, but Charles
did not think for a moment that she had the slightest idea what possibilities
there might be in undeath.
"Perhaps there have been undead poets before," he said,
no longer to his father but more straightforwardly to himself, "and
perhaps there are some still active, in the New World if not in the
old--but that does not matter. They could no more teach me what I need
to learn than Jeanne Duval. It is 1845, and wisdom is being rewritten
with every day that passes. It is not the ancient alchemy of undeath
that I need to discover but the new chemistry: the new atomism. It is
not a mentor that I need but a method of investigation; I am the Lavoisier
of vampirism, appointed by fate to discover its oxygen. I am the sick
man who has finally found the disease that will fulfil me. I cannot
ask, and do not want, to be happy, but I have found me sublimity, my
astonishment, my horror. Henceforth, I am the poet of undeath--and could
never have wished for any other fate, had I ever believed that this
one might be achievable."
He did take up his hat, then. Before he closed the door behind him
he looked around his room with new eyes, no longer seeing its shabbiness,
its unworthiness, its vile mundanity. It was no longer a manger fit
for beasts but a cradle fit for a messiah. He no longer had the slightest
desire to leave it behind forever.
"I need to look at the world," He said, to his impatient
writing-desk, "but I shall return--and in time, I shall know how
to vent my spleen!"
2. Les métamorphoses du vampire: 1845-1848
It was not that simple, nor that easy. He never missed
the beating of his heart, or the necessity to draw breath, and learned
to feign the latter easily enough. He would not have missed the necessity
to eat and drink, either, had he been relieved of them, but he was not.
The undead, he discovered, hungered and thirsted for more than blood.
Indeed, the first of many inherited misconceptions he had to put aside
was the notion that the undead were entirely dependent for their sustenance
on human blood. Human blood tasted sweet, to be sure, but it was an
indulgence--perhaps a fetish--rather than an appetite. To sustain himself,
he learned by trial and error, his only absolute requirements were red
meat and water--in which, he presumed, all the raw materials of blood
What he did miss, however, was sleep. His sleep, as a living man,
had long been so overfull of dreams as never to give him a moment's
respite, but he had never grasped the significance of that fact until
sleep was denied to him. He could feign sleep as easily as he could
feign breathing, but he could not actually lose consciousness. He could
dream, but he could no longer cage his dreams, carefully placing them
beyond the bounds of conscious life. His dreams were free now, and would
have to be tamed--if he did intend to tame them, and if it were possible
to tame them--in a different manner.
That, he knew, would take time.
For a while, he considered the possibility of becoming an apostle
of undeath, openly acknowledging his condition and advertising its merits.
From time to time he planned essays on the subject, but never took the
risk of writing one down, let alone attempting to publish one.
"The transition to undeath is not pleasant," he told his
imagined audience, "but nor is it surprising. It is more like waking
up than going to sleep; the sensation seems familiar. That may seem
odd to you, but one sometimes requires a spur to bring out the fullness
of what one has always known. Perhaps, when you leave life behind, you
will find death more familiar than you had anticipated. You might think
of death as a moment that cannot be experienced twice, but it is entirely
possible that you will one day realise--cursing yourself for not having
realised it before--that death is always with us, an inevitable companion
of life. We begin to die before we are born, and even as we are conceived
we carry forward a legacy of death that extends throughout the history
of creation. Death is original sin, and we live with it constantly.
The embryo in the womb is sculpted by death, as an artist chips a statue
free from inchoate stone. The elements of the growing body are ceaselessly
replaced; every aspect of our form has been remade a dozen times before
we achieve maturity. We know death intimately, but it is the dullest
sickness of all, the ultimate uniformity. It is a rare victim who learns
the desire to be rid of it, and a rarer one who finds the means, but
it can be done. Only follow me, and I shall show you the way. I am the
resurrection and the undeath, the way to salvation."
He could not do it, not because he would have been staked through
the heart, burned at the stake, beheaded or crucified merely for making
the suggestion, but because it was essentially blasphemous. He was,
after all, an incorrigible Catholic.
In that respect, if not in any other, he learned to do as other vampires
did; he feigned humility as he feigned life; he pretended to be a man.
He took care to appear to breathe as a man breathed, and he took care
to appear to write as a man wrote. As Jeanne Duval was an actress, whether
she was on stage at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Antoine
or in his bed, so Charles became an actor, not merely in the salons
he frequented and the Café Brasserie, but in the privacy of his
room and his writing-desk. He was undead, but he played the part of
a living man addressing other living men.
He stuck to his resolution of never seeking help from Jeanne--although
she understood the change in his condition from the first moment she
saw him undead--but he did begin to understand her a little better than
he had before. He came to understand the peculiarity of her whoredom--why
she did not like to accept the gifts that pleased other whores, including
money; why she was reluctant to accept food or wine in restaurants;
and why she was so proud of her seemingly meagre needs. He never tried
to discover her real name, age or place of origin, not so much because
he was not curious or because he suspected that she had long since forgotten
all those details, but because he preferred to exercise his imagination
on such questions. He wanted to think of her as a representative of
some primal African race, ancestral to all humankind: an infertile Eve,
who lived in civilization but was not part of it. In his own mind, he
reconstructed the myth of Eden, preferring a version in which Adam abandoned
his second wife as he had abandoned his first, to be given another of
the same name on which to father Cain, while the one he left in Eden--Genesis
being explicit in the statement that he was expelled alone--had entered
into a more intimate relationship with the serpent, and had found a
better fate than death in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Charles preserved that fantasy, jealously, even after discovering,
somewhat to his dismay, that undeath had not rendered him immune to
aging, disease or death. He wanted to believe, even then, that Jeanne
was different, and that her undeath really was undying. His friends,
who had ever been able to comprehend his interest in her, could not
comprehend either why he maintained his relationship with her even though
she was no longer his mistress.
"She is beautiful in her fashion," Banville told him, after
encountering her in his presence in January 1848, "but beyond her
relentless irritability she is remote and indifferent. There is no feeling
in her for other human beings, no reward for attention paid to her.
She might have amused you once, but I cannot understand your continued
Nadar, who was also present, concurred. "She's seductive, but
insubstantial. She's long accustomed and inured to the fact that the
men she fascinates move on. She understands that there is no future
in any of her dalliances, and expects no more than desertion. In this
instance, at least, you should indulge her. You'd do far better to let
her alone, now that she's of no further use to you in bed."
"There is a sense in which she is my only true companion,"
Charles told them, "and always will be. There may be others like
me, but I do not intend to seek them out; she is different, because
she knew me before, and made me what I am."
"I know that you can never hear two men agree without wanting
to argue the opposite case," Banville pressed him, "but I
can see that there is more to your interest in Jeanne than a simple
desire for dissent. Alas, your explanations make no sense."
"I can see the goddess in her," Charles told them. "I
can see the sublimity of her conduct as well as the beauty in her face.
There is always an element of horror in sublimity, as there is always
an element of pain in beauty, but it only serves to sharpen the sensation
for the connoisseur. Art comes from the Devil as well as from God, Theo,
and the true artist must love and fear both virtue and its opposite."
"Now that is sheer perversity," Nadar opined.
Charles made no attempt to deny it. "When I call Jeanne my dark
Venus," he said, instead, "I do not mean by that that I ever
worshipped her, or ever desired to do so--but I always knew that there
was something in her more or less than human. There is nothing that
she can teach me about what I desire to become, but that does not alter
what she is."
He said no more, because he was committed to playing the part of a
living man, even with such friends as Banville and Nadar, let alone
Murger and the Brasserie crowd.
Charles continued to see Jeanne, not to interrogate her or to worship
her, let alone to sleep with her, but to study her as a specimen of
his own kind and to imagine her as the better Eve. There was, however,
one thing that did intrigue him, almost to the point of asking her a
question--one matter relative to which the products of his imagination
seemed vaguely imperfect.
Obviously, she did not kiss all her lovers in the way that she had
kissed him. Very few of those she took to her bed, he had to suppose,
had ever seen her metamorphosis or calculated its significance. For
the majority, she remained forever flesh, although she presumably drank
their infant blood from its marrowbone cradle as thirstily as she had
drunk his. He did not know whether it was her generosity that granted
him the sight of her true self, or whether there had been some special
capacity for sight in him. She had seen that he had seen and had known
that he had known--and had seen and known, too, that when he saw and
knew her as a snake and as a skeleton, he did not recoil, being entirely
content with the confirmation of his fascination--but that in itself
did not explain why she had kissed him in the serpentine fashion that
had allowed him to survive the dagger's penetration of his heart.
Sometimes, he wondered whether she had actually intended it at all,
or whether she was as helpless to determine the inheritance of her legacy
as she was to determine so much else in her life.
Either way, he did not want to learn the secret of the kiss from her,
because he had no intention of communicating it to any of his own lovers.
3. L'invitation au voyage: 1848-1855
As Charles watched the barricade being constructed from
his window, on the morning of the 15th, his first thought was: This
is nothing to do with me. Mine is only a pretence of life, a mere masquerade.
Then the National Guardsmen came, and tried to tear down the incomplete
barricade. He saw one of the defenders run through with a bayonet--a
man whose blood was all too ready to flow and flood, and whose flesh
was entirely unresistant to the shock of fatality--and he went downstairs.
He took his place at the barricade, consenting to be armed with a
rifle that had not been fired since July 1830, because he had something
to defend, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of his fellow men, to
whom injustice had been done. When he heard from Nadar that the rumour
had been put about the Brasserie that he had donned a workman's blouse
and run from barricade to barricade trying to raise a mob to assassinate
General Aupick he was momentarily annoyed, but then consented to laugh,
and even to wonder why he had not thought of doing exactly that. He
left the barricade, though, when he concluded that it was doing more
harm than good to those whose interests he desired to represent.
"You did the right thing," Banville told him, "not
simply because the revolution has soured, as revolutions inevitably
do, but because ours is a different and more effective path of rebellion."
"Not if it leads to your Parnassus or Gautier's art pour l'art,"
Charles told him, risking a quarrel. "I am pioneering a different
"By imagining yourself in love with my mistress?" Banville
retorted, although Charles knew that he was far more intent on defending
the New Parnassus than Marie Daubrun. "I wish now that I had never
counselled you to abandon Jeanne Duval."
"All my life," Charles told him, pointing to the window
so that his friend would know that he was referring to the barricade
rather than Marie, "I have sought oases of horror in the vast desert
of ennui, but when civil order disintegrates and human society
is reduced to chaos there is no relief in horror--quite the opposite,
in fact. The horror of the sublime requires a very different mise-en-scène.
I require nothing of your mistress that need occasion your jealousy.
She is a merely an example, an actress cast in a role; I view her as
a writer, not as a seducer."
"Sometimes," Banville told him, "I think the Brasserie
rabble might be right, and that you might be going mad."
Sometimes, as he dreamed while he was wide awake, Charles thought
that might be possible, and he was not so foolish as to believe that
undeath was any insulation against the dangers of madness. He had been
undead long enough, by the Year of Revolutions, to know how imperfect
its insulation was, even against the diseases of the living.
The repression that followed the revolution did not please him any
more than the monster the revolution had become, and such order as it
restored seemed to him to have been bought at a terrible price. He had
had to leave Paris behind to go to Dijon; he had work to do, not merely
for the support of his remaining appetites, but in pursuit of the only
utility left to him. Alas, he was ill, and found it as difficult to
work, even in more pleasant circumstances, as he had often found it
while he was alive.
"Those who are brought back reluctant from the tomb," he
said, to the absent Jeanne, "rudely wrenched from the oblivion
they would have preferred, are doubtless conformists in undeath as they
were in life. Small wonder that they so often become angry and wretched,
when they discover that they have no more won immunity from pain and
terror than they have won immunity from original sin. Legend doubtless
speaks the truth when it portrays vampires pursuing what ends they may
still find, by stake or fire or the guillotine, shunning daylight in
the meantime as if it were the unquenching fire of hell."
Charles had never been overfond of daylight before he left life behind,
but he found it just as endurable afterwards as he had before, even
in Dijon, where the sun shone far more fiercely than in smoke-cloaked
Paris. He did not seek it out, but nor did he live in fear of it. He
dedicated himself to his learning, and his work, in spite of his fevers
and his aches, and in spite of the deliria that disturbed his waking
He knew that the delirium was not caused by the venom that Jeanne
Duval's vampire kiss had injected into his flesh and his soul, but he
suspected that she might have communicated another poison to him as
well: the poison of the pox. He did not blame her for that any more
than he blamed her for the other--indeed, he blamed her less, for he
had been warned of that sort of danger attendant on sleeping
"A voyage to Cythera must be taken at the pace granted by the
wind," he told his father's ghost, "and whether there are
gallows-trees standing on the shore or not, dream-vision will provide
them. Dreams are essentially morbid as well as wayward, although they
can be enlivened as well as tamed by rhyme and metre, shaped for the
sympathy as well as the comprehension of the ear. I shall not mind their
morbidity, any more than I mind their waywardness, because I know that
it merely the dark component of their oxymoronic mask. I shall welcome
them, for what they make of me. As my living body was once sculpted
by disease and death, so my undying mind shall be etched by disease
and dreams. I am content."
Even so, the first thing he did on his return to Paris was to visit
Jeanne Duval. He did not question her directly, but he did go fishing
for enlightenment "Undeath has spared me once," he told her,
"but I do not believe that it can spare me forever. The interval
it has purchased might be thirty years or it might be a dozen, but the
pox is within me, and is consuming me still. You and I shall not be
companions for all eternity."
"I never expected that," she told him. "The pox won't
kill you, if you don't yield to it, but I don't think you have the capacity
to resist. I never did."
Charles told himself that she could not know that, but he knew that
she could and did. There were many things that she probably did not
know--including her given name and how old she was--but she did know
how to live with the pox inside her. She knew how to carry the disease
without injury to herself, and she knew how to recognise those who could
There was no alternative for Charles but race against time: to work,
in spite of his deliria. He had worked even before committing suicide,
but not as he worked thereafter. That was partly because the undead
had to sustain themselves just as the living did, whether they pretended
to breathe or not and he could not have lived on the pittance doled
out to him by Ancelle even if he had been prepared to abandon to the
ideals of dandyism, but it was mainly because he had a far greater sense
of vocation. He was, after all, the Lavoisier of undeath. As soon as
he had become a vampire he had announced the imminent publication of
his book of verses in 1845, and he had continued to advertise it ever
since. It had begun its imaginative existence as Les lesbiennes,
had been transmuted into Les Limbes, and was now Les fleurs
du mal, growing all the while in its actual substance as he wrote
poem after poem. In the meantime, he supported himself by publishing
prose, commemorating the life he might have lived had he not left life
behind in La Fanfarlo and encouraging his fellow artists as best
he could in my essays on the Salons and other ephemerae.
By the time he had been ten years a vampire, Charles had left far
behind him all the misconceptions regarding undeath that he learned
on the stage of the Théâtre Porte-Saint-Martin and the
pages of romans feuilletons. When the revolution of 1848 had
given way to Louis Napoléon's coup d'état, and
the consequent exile of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Eugène
Sue, he became convinced that there were more undead among the living
than anyone had ever suspected, although their appetite for work had
helped to hide their presence. Whether there might be any labouring
in the fields or in manufactories he could not tell, but he suspect
that an inability to lose consciousness would be less an asset than
it might seem in such repetitive occupations. His judgment was that
the great majority of the past's undead must have worked as he had worked,
not necessarily with a pen in hand--and perhaps more likely with a paintbrush--but
certainly in the production of art...and probably in the production
of modern art, which sought to move the world into the future.
He was determined, though, that undeath should not make an obsessive
recluse of him. He cultivated the new friends forced upon him by his
poverty. He entered more fully into the Bohemia of those whose pens
and brushes were all that stood between themselves and penury: those
who wrote or painted for a living. With Ancelle as his guardian,
he found himself caught in a strange limbo between two worlds--an heir
without access to his fortune, a Tantalus whose hunger and thirst could
never be appeased--equally far from home in the Café Brasserie
and the salons, among those who counted their fortunes in sous
and those who reckoned in louis. He was not unwelcome in either
milieu, and such suspicion as he excited in both had little or nothing
to do with having left life behind without having fallen dead. In spite
of his conviction that the undead were far more likely to labour as
artists than as agriculturalists or wage-slaves, though, he never met
another of his own kind--not, at least, in person.
By 1855, it seemed to Charles, in retrospect, that the revolution
of 1848 had not been the most important event of that year for him
at all. It was in 1848 that he had translated Edgar Poe's "Mesmeric
Revelation," although it was not until three years later that he
realised the importance of the role that Poe was to play in his career
and his life, and began to suspect that Poe too must have been undead
for some years before finally departing the world in that same crucial
year of 1848. Even in 1851, translation still seemed a mere sideline
within his work, but he came to understand then that if he were to be
the writer he wanted to be--the secret apostle of undeath--he need not,
and perhaps should not, restrict his efforts to the definitive volume
of his poetry that was still in gestation. If Poe had been a voice of
undeath, as seemed increasingly obvious, then he ought to do what he
could to assist in the transmission of that voice, by importing it into
his own language.
That too became part of his vocation, hampered but never stopped by
the progress of the disease that was making undeath as impossible for
him to endure as life had been.
4. The Phosphorescence of Putrescence: 1855-61
By 1855, those effects of undeath that had proved cumulative,
perceptible only with the passage of time, had revealed themselves in
full. Charles understood by then that he had lost the faculty of forgetfulness
along with the ability to sleep. His memory had become a store from
which nothing was any longer discarded.
At first, he thought that this must be an envious situation, especially
for a writer--but he realised soon enough that its advantages were undermined
by darker corollaries. He realised that just as the living body is sculpted
by death, so the active mind is sculpted by forgetfulness. He realised
that sleep--true, dreamless sleep--was no mere absence of mental activity,
but rather a process of release and disposal. He realised that a mind
that had lost the ability properly to discriminate between dreams and
wakefulness had also lost the ability to reformulate and reorganise
its memories. In the short term, that had caused him, and would continue
to cause him, no acute difficulty--but in the longer term, it might,
and probably would, engender a chaos of superfluity.
The realization of what was happening to him had grown in Charles
by slow degrees, but by 1855 the evidence was irresistible. Jeanne,
he saw then, had contrived to overcome the difficulty by learning to
forget without going to sleep--but she had not been able to retain the
discrimination that sleep normally exercises. Her forgetfulness
was random, and it was powerful--except for the kind of unconscious
memory that her body had, which required no input from imagination.
She had become a creature of ingrained habit, with a layer of conscious
memory so thin and delicate as to be hardly more than a gloss. She retained
her language, well enough to memorise small theatrical parts, but she
hardly knew who she was, let alone what elaborate combination of experiences
had made her what she was. She could relate to other people, well enough
to be seductive, but her seductiveness had no greater objective, no
place in any plan for the future--and she was forever restless, without
knowing why. That was the price she had paid for her immortality. That
was how she had learned to live with the pox, to carry it without being
consumed by it
It was not a price that Charles could ever be prepared to pay. He
was an artist; memory was the core of his expertise. He had, therefore,
to make the most of his gift-cum-curse while he still could. He had
to take the tide of opportunity. He had to publish what he could, while
he could, even if Les fleurs du mal was not yet finished--and
in spite of the gulf of incomprehension that still separated him from
a completer understanding of his own state of being.
"My undeath," he told his father's ghost, "is no simpler
an opposite of your death than life was and is. The living are dying
while they live, and the transition to undeath does not banish death
entirely from the body, any more than it banishes sickness and disease.
Undeath preserves--indefinitely, I must suppose, if one can adapt oneself
fully to its requirements--but the immunity it confers is by no means
absolute. Such freedom from age and decay as undeath confers is not
only conditional on the cultivation in consciousness of a new kind of
forgetfulness but on the cultivation in corporeality of a new kind of
robustness. Jeanne has that kind of physical obstinacy. Perhaps I might
train myself to it, if I wanted to, but my fate lies in another direction.
What I am trained to do by my own experience of life is to become more
and more conscious of the frailty of my flesh--not in the general sense
of which the living are always aware of their mortality, or the specific
sense in which the living feel particular aches and pains in response
to particular injuries and diseases--but in a new sense peculiar to
the state of undeath. I am becoming hyperconscious of my own inner decay:
of the creeping chaos afflicting my various bodily tissues and mental
capacities, under the dual pressure of mortal syphilis and fatal insomnia."
"If you do not have to die, my son," his father's ghost
told him, bitterly, "then I would advise you against it."
"It is in the nature of the dead to envy the undead, even when
they are sick," Charles told his father. "But I am free of
that kind of envy now. Syphilis is the one disease whose possession
in metaphor could not require the sufferer to envy others their own
sicknesses, because syphilis is the great mimic among diseases. It is
ubiquitous; there is no symptom it cannot present, no ignominy it cannot
"Perhaps," his father insisted, "you might yet be able
to cultivate the faculty of forgetfulness without unconsciousness. Then,
your flesh would surely acquire the same fortitude as Jeanne Duval's,
without any further effort."
"I doubt it," Charles relied. "At any rate, it hardly
matters. No matter how much I might resent the appalling profusion of
my accumulating memory, or the extent to which that profusion is shot
through with superfluity, I cannot do without it. Nor can I resist the
ravages of death and disease as they became similarly profuse and disordered--or
even the exaggerated consciousness of that increasing disorder."
It was true, or so he firmly believed. There was only one thing he
could do in response to his slowly-discovered predicament, and that
was to work. he worked as hard as he could, stealing poetic inspiration
as and when he could, and filling the remainder of his time with prose,
original and translated. When he could not work at all, he dulled his
senses with laudanum, even though it could not deliver him to unconsciousness.
All that it could do, at best, was to grant him a kind of separation
within himself, so that he seemed to exist on two planes at the same
time, drifting between the ethereal and the mundane as he drifted between
salon society and Bohemia.
He published Les fleurs du mal in 1857, although it was not
finished, and was rendered even more incomplete by the censors, who
demanded that six poems be deleted. He published a new version in 1861,
although it was still not finished. In the meantime, he began work on
a second volume, which was to consist entirely of poetry in prose, and
would be called Spleen de Paris. When General Aupick died he
went to live with his mother at Honfleur for a while, fully intending
to look after her, but it proved impossible; no matter how strong his
desire was, his condition--physical, mental and spiritual--was no longer
equal to the task. He had to abandon her for her own good, as she had
once abandoned him for his.
His work suffered too, but not in the same way. He could write as
never before, but only briefly and with increasing trouble in the formulation.
Poetry increased in difficulty more rapidly than prose, and original
prose more rapidly than translation--but he could not have tolerated
the translation of any writer with whom he had a less manifest kinship
than Edgar Poe. Poe became his alter ego, communicating order
and discrimination when he could no longer find it in himself, calming
him and giving him a focus that he needed as desperately as he desired
Year by year, the excess of memory corroded and corrupted his mind,
while versatile disease corroded and corrupted his flesh. He could no
longer have the least doubt that he would one day leave undeath behind
just as he had left life, faltering and groping to a far greater extent.
He felt further and further removed from the world of living men, more
and more alien to its habits and customs. He still went out to all his
old haunts, but he began to feel that he was indeed a haunter rather
than a participant in what went on there: a spectator who, while not
yet disembodied, was nevertheless not wholly present.
Might he have felt the same had he still been alive? He could not
tell for certain, but he could not believe it. Had he been burdened
by a mere mélange of conventional poisons, he should have been
able to enjoy the bounty of forgetfulness and the grace of ordinary
pain. As things were, he remembered too much and felt too deeply. He
could feel the disease working within his flesh, conducting an entire
orchestra of petty miseries, and he could not rid himself of the ceaseless
mental pressure of every vile nuance.
It was sublime, of course; it was beautiful too, in its fashion, but
it was excessive, and it became increasingly problematic for him to
select out moments and ideas for preservation and analysis in written
Charles could not have been free of Jeanne Duval even if she had not
come to see him to demand her petty tributes--but in truth, he would
not have wanted to be free of her. She was still his goddess, his creator,
and if she was also his damnation, there was some cause for gratitude
even in that. Art, as he had assured Banvilla and Nadar, came from the
Devil as well as from God, and undeath had brought it forth in him more
extravagantly than life...if only for a little while.
"All those who find life unendurable are likely to find undeath
no less so," he told Jeanne, when she came to visit him one day
in 1861, "but all those who find life woefully inadequate to feed
their dreams will find in the dread excess of undeath an immeasurable,
if temporary, exaltation. There are many kinds of people who would derive
nothing from a lamia's kiss but catastrophe, but there are a few kinds,
at least, who might find it rewarding. I belong to one such kind, Jeanne,
while you belong to another, but there must be others who could find
a means therein to supply their own wild hunger. You must continue your
quest, Jeanne, when I am gone. You must not give up. You must learn
to love again, for ever and ever, and you must use your kisses wisely,
"I have no quest," she told him, cruelly. "Nor wisdom,
The next time she came to see him she found him in a very poor state,
but she did not look at him with pity, and demanded her tribute regardless.
He gave her what he could--more grateful now than ever before for the
modesty of her needs and demands.
"I love you, Jeanne," he said to her, as she made to leave.
"I worship you. I always have."
"I've heard that before," she told him, "more times
than I remember." She seemed to be making light of the matter,
and gave the impression that she had no idea of the import of her words.
"You are an archetype of irony, as I am," he told her, "but
your undeath really is incurable. Mine, alas, is not, although I have
another disease, which certainly is. Nature favours discreet diseases,
which allow their hosts abundant time to communicate the infection,
and yours is very discreet indeed. I hoped at first that mine might
be as clever, in its own way, but it was too profligate and too impatient,
and it will cauterise my soul before the pox sends my flesh to its final
ruination. Now, I hope for a different kind of immortality."
"You're mad, Charles," she told him, mildly. "You always
were, but now it has run away with you. Who will keep me when you're
gone? What will become of me?"
"You'll survive," he assured her. "You might lack a
worshipper, for a while, but you'll not lack lovers. In time...you'll
kiss another at least as worthy as me. In time, you must."
"Some might think my life disorderly," she said, as she
placed her hand on the doorknob, "but it isn't."
"Mine is," he told her, "but not entirely--and I am
glad that I did not die when I first repented its impossibility. I hardly
knew what disorder was, in those days. I do now."
"Goodbye," she said, as if it were forever--but that was
the way she always said goodbye.
"One day," her victim told her, continuing even when she
had closed the door behind her, because it did not matter in the least
whether she could hear him or not, "a future Lavoisier will teach
everyone in the world the trick of leaving life behind without actually
dying, and your kind of poison will be mixed by apothecaries in their
mortars for sale as a tincture. One day, we shall all be able to toy
with memory and damnation, conscious of every movement of decay that
moves within our diseased flesh. Then, we shall see what can be made
of undeath by artists who can master every skill and conquer every thirst."
Instead of saying goodbye, he reached for his pen. Jeanne Duval could
not understand him, any more than she could understand herself, but
Charles assured himself that there would come a day when everyone
could understand him, and would.
"There will come a day," he said, to the smoke-fogged air
in his dingy room, as he set his nib to paper and began to scratch away
at the illimitable irritation that would not let him rest, "when
you, my reader, my hypocrite brother, will understand everything that
I have recorded here. There is a time to every purpose under heaven,
and beyond the corrosions and corruptions of our petty envies and haphazard
diseases, you and I are of the same sad kind."
He fell silent then, but his pen continued to scrape away, extending
its broken trail of scrupulously-stolen blood across the jaundiced page.
© Brian Stableford 2006.
This story is published here for the first time.
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