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  • Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and the Malicious Muse
  • Jeffrey Meyers (bio)

“Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?”

—Baudelaire, “Le Voyage”

I

From Homer in classical Greece to Milton in the English Renaissance, epic poets have invoked the sacred muses for inspiration. In a perverse rejection of this noble tradition, Baudelaire and Nietzsche did not seek inspiration from the goddesses, embodiments and sponsors of art, but pursued destructive women who tormented and humiliated them. The women they loved were foreign, exotic beauties. Charles Baudelaire’s Jeanne Duval was West Indian, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Lou Salomé was Russian. Both women followed the same destructive-yet-creative pattern. They made the writers suffer, suffering inspired their art and their art portrayed the malicious muses who made them suffer. Though permanently scarred, they wrote two of the most important works in modern literature: The Flowers of Evil and Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Baudelaire’s mulatto mistress, Jeanne Duval, had many traits in common with another muse, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets. She has dark skin and black hair, and causes exquisite pain in love: “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head” (Sonnet 130). Like the Dark Lady, Duval is mendacious: “When my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her, though I know she lies” (138). Both are described as satanic women who drive their lovers to damnation: “To win me soon to hell, my female evil” (144), and as beauties who end up as carrion: “Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, / Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?” (146). [End Page 543]

Hostile to and resentful of women but enslaved by his passion for Duval, Baudelaire compared love to a surgical operation in which he was a patient etherized upon a table. He thought women were all flesh and lacked noble spirit, and exclaimed with wild exaggeration:

Woman is natural, that is to say, abominable. I have always been astonished that they let women inside churches. What conversation could they have with God? Woman doesn’t know how to separate the soul from the body. She is simply like an animal.

(Starkie, 1958, p. 90)

And that’s exactly what he found appealing. “The strange thing about woman,” he added, “her pre-ordained fate, is that she is simultaneously the sin and the Hell that punishes it” (1958, p. 90) with Baudelaire as the damned and willing sacrificial victim.

Duval’s background, despite extensive research, remains obscure. Her grandmother was a slave and prostitute (the family’s traditional occupation), born on the Guinea coast of West Africa. Duval’s mother, also a slave, was born in the West Indies. Duval was born around 1820, the year before the birth of Baudelaire. The photographer Nadar, Duval’s lover before Baudelaire took over the emotional burden, said she came from the Caribbean. Several sources, without providing firm evidence, specify the island of Haiti as her birthplace. Duval aspired to be an actress but lacked talent, and in 1838 played bit parts (“Dinner is served, Madame”) on the Paris stage.

In June 1841, Baudelaire’s severe stepfather, Jacques Aupick, sent the twenty-year-old on a long voyage from Bordeaux to Calcutta, which was meant to remove him from bohemian life and end his dissolute habits. He had a brief liaison with an Indian nursemaid on the ship, and visited the tropical islands of Réunion and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. But he hated the passengers and the boring voyage, left the ship in October and, stopping en route in Cape Town, sailed back to France.

In February 1842, soon after his return to Paris, Baudelaire began to court Duval—who was used to pretty rough treatment—like a wealthy suitor, with hothouse flowers and elegant carriage rides. He soon set her up in her own apartment, [End Page 544] which she richly furnished in oriental style. The poet Théodore Banville, who had also enjoyed her favors before Baudelaire, described her unusual mixture of debased and lofty qualities: “She was a colored girl, very tall, who carried her superb head covered...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-7931
Print ISSN
0065-860X
Pages
pp. 543-561
Launched on MUSE
2018-12-14
Open Access
No
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