302. (Charles Baudelaire)

Of the many wonderful poems by Baudelaire is “La Squelette laboureur,” available in a number of translations online:

Le Squelette laboureur


Dans les planches d’anatomie
Qui traînent sur ces quais poudreux
Où maint livre cadavéreux
Dort comme une antique momie,

Dessins auxquels la gravité
Et le savoir d’un vieil artiste,
Bien que le sujet en soit triste,
Ont communiqué la Beauté,

On voit, ce qui rend plus complètes
Ces mystérieuses horreurs,
Bêchant comme des laboureurs,
Des Ecorchés et des Squelettes.


De ce terrain que vous fouillez,
Manants résignés et funèbres
De tout l’effort de vos vertèbres,
Ou de vos muscles dépouillés,

Dites, quelle moisson étrange,
Forçats arrachés au charnier,
Tirez-vous, et de quel fermier
Avez-vous à remplir la grange?

Voulez-vous (d’un destin trop dur
Epouvantable et clair emblème!)
Montrer que dans la fosse même
Le sommeil promis n’est pas sûr;

Qu’envers nous le Néant est traître;
Que tout, même la Mort, nous ment,
Et que sempiternellement
Hélas! il nous faudra peut-être

Dans quelque pays inconnu
Ecorcher la terre revêche
Et pousser une lourde bêche
Sous notre pied sanglant et nu?


The poem places itself, its vantage point and standing ground, within the first two lines, so that we are in commercial modern Paris, where prints and books are sold along the banks of the Seine; as so often, Baudelaire enlists us with his fascinations without any fanfare, cunning, or insistence; he speaks in a voice that is both public and familiar in its assumption that what it says will be particular to the speaker. “Ces” in the second line orients us to the immediacy of the wares and the river, they are at-hand; we stroll alongside them, with Baudelaire as a personal guide, or perhaps we sit nearby. He speaks of what he has found, by happenstance, or not, as he has rummaged once; it is good polite conversation at first, and even “maint livre cadavereux” is a self-conscious stroke of wit, since he is speaking of anatomical plates, of the dead; many of the books are cadaverous themselves, like a mummy because at rest, because buried, and because composed of paper made from rags and now fraying. “Poudreux” more lightly has a similar effect, where the dust is owing to a late summer’s dry heat (the laborers will sweat and toil over dry earth themselves), and also suggests the dust of decomposition. “Dort” is the sleep of books, a sleep that he fears, late in the poem, will be denied to men when they die. “Antique” feels redundant: what other sort of mummy is there? But for Baudelaire, likely a modern mummy exists, found in one of the nearby poems about Parisian street-scenes; the word is also intended to set off the modernity of the scene, Baudelaire as walker of the modern streets.

The second stanza elaborates on the prints—it pauses, delays, expounds, on their beauty, telling us in the first place that a beauty has been bestowed upon them, and in its dilatory remark, suggesting that the world has beauty if we would stop to notice and know what we saw; this is Baudelaire as critic and connoisseur. What he admires is the beauty in the etchings and drawings, bestowed by the severity, seriousness, and knowledge of the old artists who made them. “Severity” and “knowledge” are the crucial traits, and “commuinquer” as in “transmit” or “bestow” or even “endow” the verb. The stanza is less an account of the drawings than an account of a particular species of beauty, its origins and the artistry required to bring it forth; it raises the question of whether Baudelaire believes his own art to depend on the same traits. It is distinctly painter: a subject is treated and beauty emerges depends on the treatment made possibly by knowledge and solemnity. I suspect we are to take this as something other than Baudelaire’s character, and the treatment his poem will allow, and the poem itself is about the encounter of his sensibility with that of the drawings, and a different sort of idea of beauty, if it is that at all. We are supposed to feel already that Baudelaire’s sense that these are beautiful, his submitting them to an aesthetic criteria, is surprising: these are drawings intended to illustrate anatomical guides and learned treatises, and Baudelaire sees in their expression of knowledge a value of art. He is not wrong to do so—does not ask to be seen as wrong to do so—but is demonstrating a power to collapse the scientific and the aesthetic, which later will encompass the ethical and spiritual.

A similar scuttling of criteria of judgment happens in the little phrase “Bien que le sujet est en soit triste”: it is offered as an aside, like a politeness, a kind remark, and an allowance of an art critic; it’s hard not to feel it somewhat trite, but to then think Baudelaire, performing the triteness, would bristle and point out that it’s true, nonetheless, and that its temperate resignation is a detached recognition of the sadness of things, rather than a plangent expression of them; more would be to detract from his own proper subject and less would be to do an injustice to the subject of the artists. But the question it raises is whether the sadness of death would have proven a hindrance for them: to suggest that they endowed their work with beauty, even though the subject was sad, reinforces his praise for an aesthetic achievement that seems doubtful they would have intended; conversely, if we assume the aside is a self-excuse, an acknowledgement that he himself knows the subject to be sad but finds beauty there nonetheless, it reinforces our awareness that he is judging on aesthetic grounds a work intended, as he acknowledges in “Savoir” and even “severite,” as a scientific guide; there are other qualifications he could be making. We can imagine again Baudelaire being confronted with our doubt, and imagine him once again asking whether it is not beautiful, and whether we could affirm the beauty to be separate from the scientific endeavor of which it is a part. His poetry is such as to provide grounds for imagining answers to questions that its rhetoric carefully raises; he compels a persuasive dialogue as few other poets do.

The capitalized “Beaute” offers a glimpse of another poem entirely, by another poet; in this poem is announces a challenge: not only how Beauty can derive from the work of anatomical artists, but how it can sustain, and be sustained by, the spiritual terror that Baudelaire will find there, in the second part. Among the specimens of beautiful drawings, there are some that depict skinned human bodies and skeletons laboring and digging in an arid field.

The most mysterious part of the third stanza is the bit about mysteriousness: the clause, “ce qui rend plus complètes | ces mystérieuses horreurs” since it affirms that the mysteries full of horror are not limited to the skeletal and flayed figures at work, but extend to the full range of anatomical illustrations, and that, in fact, their laboring is what brings the horrors to completion. “Horrors” might refer either to the drawings or to the skeletons themselves; if the former, the beauty and, indirectly, the mystery of the drawings is made complete by the inclusion of illustrations of the figures at work; if the latter, the very being of the skeletons and flayed forms is itself completed by labor. In one case, the implied commentary is upon labor and art; in the other case, the commentary concerns labor and life; labor makes for a greater completion of existence and the depiction of labor is a depiction of human action that makes art more complete; the beauty of labor aids in the completion of beauty; laboring is necessary for the completion of a beautiful life; the equation is obscure but present.

The verb “bêcher” admits into the poem a common object: the verb derives from the noun for spade, and it lands somewhat as Samuel Johnson felt Macbeth’s word “knife” did, calling to mind an occupation beneath the dignity of “poesy” or a high-style. For instance, Racine, Baudelaire would have known, would have bristled at the word (Hugo remarked that in Racine, a King would never ask for a chair). But here it does not register as a jarring breach of decorum; the urbane tone is too sophisticated for such stringency; instead, it is felt as a frank candor, on the principle that euphemism or circumlocution would be absurd and undermine the dignity of the work they pursue. It matters, however, that in other contexts of French literature, the decorum would be breached: it becomes another instance of the poem’s refusal to maintain distinctions between categories, without desiring to shock, but because the speaker’s cool purchase and calm critical eye is above observing such empty niceties. The labor of the spade is the consummation of the labor of the scholarly hands; the manual labor of the skeletons and flayed muscles the consummation of their human form, since manual labor is among the human body’s finest expression, a healthy and vital expression of life for the sake of life—however ironic it might seem in the drawings. In fact, it is perhaps the thought that the irony of the drawings is fundamentally true that leads to the poem’s second part: the labor of life is the labor of the dead, temporarily living; it is labor that lies deeper than skin, and labor that separates us from the dead. There may be political overtones or undertones to the implied statements.

Such ironies lead to the second part of the poem not because they are developed in it, but because they are inverted in its thinking: the Dantesque horror of an eternal life of labor, in which labor is the fate of dead and living alike, the dead laboring through their decomposition, being raised from their graves only in order to labor more, to no end.

The range of translations of “fouiller” suggests the range covered by the word: upturn or excavate or ransack, with the latter two getting at the purposiveness of the activity, something being sought from the ground where they dig, perhaps with desperation. “Manant” is a rustic, possibly with feudal ties, but low and uncouth. The skeletons, because they labor, are lowly, but that is a joke of the poem: death levels all, and the thought that only the skeletons of peasants must have to labor after death is balanced against the other thought, developed throughout the second part, that all of us are levelled by death, to an uncouth and painful existence of laboring. They are seeking something they need, though the first two stanzas of the second part show Baudelaire unable to fathom what. The political and spiritual implications move in two directions: all after life will be condemned to the wretched existence of those bound to the land, without freedom, and so death is imagined as a state of perpetual servitude and drudgery with no end or purpose; but we are to recognize in the nightmare of that vision the state of men who spend their lives thus laboring, whose existences are living nightmares, reducing them to a resigned and funereal state. That stands in sharp contrast to the dandified speaker of the poem, the aesthete, who is beguiled and horrified at the “effort” of vertebrae and muscles, yielding nothing; but who, in a pastoral recognition of high in low, complex in simple, sees his own fate.

“Forçats” suggests both that they are criminals of the type sent to galleys and that they are paupers, reduced to penury (the two meanings are available in Larousse, at least); in either case, it is an evolution from “manants,” as Baudelaire imagines them now as condemned or fallen, without going so far as to say “damned” outright; their debasement is not as spiritual as that, since the world of this poem is without the extremes of God or Satan; it is a limbo. Nonetheless, someone has put them there: “arracher” suggests they were snatched or plucked or torn out of the charnel-houses; what is curious is that Baudelaire does not ask them who snatched them, either assuming we know (God?), or else asking that we understand him to be taking poetic license, calling them “prisoners/paupers snatched from the charnel house” (here the pauper sense rings true to my ear, as the police would tear people from home to be in debtors’ prisons) only because they resemble those; they never were properly allowed to rest, there was never any alternative to this, and so they weren’t truly torn away from a natural home. Were there anyone responsible, it would include Baudelaire and the artists who pictured the men; their imaginations have done this to the bones of the dead.

What he asks instead returns us to the purposive intensity of “fouillez”: what strange harvest do you take in or what for what farm are you filling the barn? The question supposes that their task is supernatural, but it does not demand a supernatural answer; they might he harvesting dust or stones, gathering them in a place that does not seem a farm at all, so removed is their labor, possibly, from any purpose the living could recognize. The question also taunts the speaker with its rhetorical fluster: if they are not gathering any harvest so-called, if they are not laboring to fill the grange of any farm, then their labor has terrible purposelessness. “Dites” lands a heavy blow, since neither a drawing nor skeletons are beyond saying and telling. The absence of evident purpose, I think, rather than the worry of why they are resurrected, propels him to the following stanzas.

“Voulez” refuses to let go: what is it they want, then? They must, even if their labor serves no end, want something in so performing it? The poem has become, in its tenacity, a dramatization of the hermeneutic process: Baudelaire knows they are anatomical plates, can imagine the reason the artists would have shown bodies in action, selecting arbitrary and basic human tasks, labor which, he insists, nearly makes their beauty complete. But that completion of beauty in the represented form, in the representation-as-representation, is what inspires the mysterious horror that in turn impels the questions of what is being represented; the aesthetic judgment has given berth for ethical-spiritual understanding. The answer to his question demands that he presuppose what they are, and that presupposition, the frame by which he has decided now to make sense of the skeletons, is contained within the frame of parentheses on the page: they are terrible and clear emblems of an excessively harsh, stark fate. A part of the answer, then, has arrived before he has even asked the full question; it is not the full answer that his question seeks, but it part of the answer, allowing him to ask the question that he does. That question, “voulez-vous montrer,” after all, demands only a yes or a no. As often in Baudelaire, the terms of the question itself argue for an understanding of the world that is richer and stranger than any response to the question could yield. (Years ago, in another post, I explored the same).

“La fosse” is not just a grave; it is a pit, which may serve as a grave (I don’t know French well enough to know whether it contains a connotation of tomb). In the question Baudelaire asks, it jars against “meme” and “sommeil”: even in the pit, our rest isn’t secure. That is different from “even in the tomb,” since “the pit” does not suggest human care or memory; we might even hear Baudelaire refusing “tomb” because, for him, human care and memory (of the dead) are disturbances of certain rest. We are most released from the world if anonymously left in a hole in the ground; this is the true yearning for oblivion: a return to brute material and the indifference of the dirt. “Sommeil promis” could be felt as religious (the rest that promises we will get some sleep before the judgment day), but that does not seem quite right because it might, after all, be the resurrection that has set the skeletons to work; the promised rest is a mockery of the religious idea, with the nothingness of death the true promise, feared by some, yearned for here.

Hence the next stanza: that the skeletal figures are to show that Nothingness of death is traitorous too, that death even is a lie; it is a horror of a Buddhist failing to achieve enlightened release from the world. “Envers” directs the treachery: towards us, towards humanity. Others may die, be released, but not humans, even if we are set apart only by our anatomical features, or skeletons and muscles; our minds, holding beliefs about death and nothingness, are undone by our material forms, the anatomical essence of humanity which marks us out for death and Nothingness to betray.

The compulsion to life is expressed in the impersonal “faudra”: what must be done, and the horror is in part that all of his vision of the perpetual (not just eternal, but the always-eternal of sempiternal) life-after-death, life-in-death is not brought about by anything or anyone, that Death and Nothingness are lies told by us, betraying us to a necessity to go on as laboring skeletons.  “Helas” at the start of the line is balanced against the “peut-etre” at the line’s end: the sighed-out despair of eternal necessity against a flickering acknowledgment of possibility; maybe it will not be quite like this. But that possibility is not enough to ballast the poem; the possibility is what instills despair.

The possibility is realized most vividly in the final stanza, which attends suddenly to the place and feel of the work itself: the harsh, anonymous, unknown landscape being grazed and scraped, the heavy spade being pushed into the ground by bare and bleeding feet—a description that has transformed the entire anatomical plate, even the landscape in which the figures are depicted, into a vision, and which imagines the implication of working a spade with a flayed body, nerves and veins intact, muscle tissue vulnerable, and the spade bringing pain.

It’s a highly particular vision of life-after-death, a highly idiosyncratic sense of the torment that eternal life might be, and we are not being asked to accept it as authoritative, or even to feel persuaded of its plausibility; we are being asked, most superficially (and the questions are directed to us, readers, rather than to the skeletons), to let ourselves consider how horrible the possibility would be (and here the political implication is: “and why should anyone spend a life like this then?”), but then being asked, more broadly, to consider how Baudelaire was led to the vision himself, how he has been led by the authority of Beauty nearly complete, how he has allowed, through a cultivated sensibility, the happenstance detritus of the artistic labor to bring him to a vision, which—even if not persuasive as a prophecy of the future—is persuasive in distilling pain, tedium, isolation, futility, and existential despair into a poem, and so in providing, as he does in the Spleen poems, an expression of life at its worst without an insistence that life is only or necessarily that; the vision remains a question, a possibility, an interpretation, but a question, possibility, and interpretation grounded on the apprehension of miseries that are very real.

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