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  • Baudelaire in Chains: Portrait of the Artist as a Drug Addict
  • Debarati Sanyal
Hilton, Frank. Baudelaire in Chains: Portrait of the Artist as a Drug Addict. New York: Peter Owen Publishers, 2004. Pp. 288. ISBN0-7206-1180-6

It is always tempting to make a great literary master our contemporary, to bring his voice down from the lofty summit of canonization and make him into "one of us," into someone who, despite his genius, still has to deal with life's daily problems: parents, debts, love, job, addictions and so forth. Where Baudelaire is concerned, such an attitude seems authorized by the poet himself. His wry prose poem, "Perte d'Auréole," depicts the felicitous loss of the poet's halo in the hustle and bustle of the modern city, freeing him to mingle with mere mortals and partake in their debauchery with impunity. Frank Hilton, however, might dismiss this poem's allusion to seedy taverns as yet another "cover-up" for Baudelaire's real problem, which, according to this book, was not alcohol but drugs.

Baudelaire in Chains: Portrait of the Artist as a Drug Addict details the nefarious consequences of opium addiction on Baudelaire's personality, productivity, family, money-management, social and sexual relations. According to Hilton, Baudelaire's guilty secret was not unresolved oedipal issues, nor bad faith, nor alcoholism, nor thwarted political or religious idealism, nor even syphilis (which Hilton dismisses altogether), but, quite simply, drug abuse. Laudanum furnishes the key to Baudelaire's "inability to manage his financial affairs, his unsatisfactory relationships, his bad health, his guignon, his insensitivity to the world about him and – most important of all to Baudelaire – his chronic difficulty in getting down to any prolonged creative work" (19).

If there is a precedent to the unusual genre of Hilton's inquiry, it is not established biographies of Baudelaire by Claude Pichois, Enid Starkie, or Joanna Richardson, but Jean-Paul Sartre's existential demystification of the poète maudit. Hilton approvingly echoes Sartre's psychobiography on several points. He returns to the primordial fêlure of the poet's childhood, that is, his mother's precipitous remarriage to general Aupick, [End Page 184] which ruptured the mother-son dyad and threw the poet into his lifelong quest for "otherness." Even his mention of Baudelaire's creative juices drying up under the pressures of addiction, leading to various forms of plagiarism and self-plagiarism, echoes Sartre's own biting remark that, from age 23 onwards, "ce créateur ne crée plus; il rapetasse" (152). However, whereas Sartre detailed the forms of bad faith by which the poet masked his essential freedom, Hilton recasts this bad faith as a series of psychological manoeuvers and traits typical of the drug addict's personality: manipulation, exploitation, selfishness, self-pity, health and libido issues, irresponsibility before familial and social duties, and ingratitude towards the well-intentioned adults in his life. These adults, often reviled by biographers for their inability to understand the plight of the poète maudit, here receive full rehabilitation: Baudelaire's stepfather, general Aupick, his brother Alphonse, and his conseil judiciaire Narcisse Ancelle are applauded for their patience and generosity. As for Baudelaire's mother, although she is described as "an enabler," her inability to practice "tough love" by cutting her son off is sympathetically portrayed as typical of family and friends dealing with the manipulations of a drug abuser.

Frank Hilton's approach will no doubt resonate with our current culture of pop psychology and televised confessions, 12-step programs and family values. The question animating his inquiry is why Baudelaire, unlike Coleridge or de Quincy, failed to face up to his problem and "come out" as a user, either in his Paradis artificiels or in his correspondence. Hilton distinguishes himself with some flourish from biographers who sanctify their subjects. There are no nostalgic allusions to drugs opening doors of perception for the poet as visionary or mage. Instead Hilton wishes to show – with a mixture of parental disapproval and tabloid sensationalism – that this giant of European literature can indeed be compared to "some dirty, useless junkie crouched in a squalid hovel with a needle stuck in his...


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