Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics




By Thomas F. Bertonneau


The Montréal Review, January 2019


The Sacred Grove (1886) by Arnold Boecklin (1827 – 1901)


Of the French Symbolist School of poetry, Nicolas Berdyaev writes in his Crisis of Art (1917) that its contributors not only acutely sensed the profound spiritual crisis that had shaken and shattered Western culture since the Eighteenth Century at least, but attempted a new, redemptive synthesis that would function as the equivalent of “the sacral art of the ancient world and of the Medieval world.”  (The translation is that of Father S. Janos.)  The Symbolist poets, as Berdyaev plausibly describes their aspiration, “wanted to lead art out of the crisis through a return to the organic artistic era”; they sensed that the arts “are a product of differentiation” of an historical type, and that they “derived from a temple and cultic origin… developed from an organic unity” and “were subordinated to a religious center.”  The Symbolists, Berdyaev asserts, were the last Western artists to strive for pure beauty before the schools of aschemiolatry, in a spasm of “empty freedom,” began their program of bespattering the cosmos with mud and offal.  Berdyaev even ascribes to the Symbolists a theurgic propensity.  In The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), he defines theurgic art as “creating another world, another being, another life,” even to the extent of “creating beauty as essence, as being.”  (The translator identifies himself only as “D. A. L.”)   For the Russian, theurgy in art consists in a revelation of “the religious-ontological, the religious meaning of being.”  Theurgy, as “free creation,” seeks to imitate, under the limitations of mortality and temporality, the original creative act of the World Maker, not so as to challenge, but only so as to imitate, the God whose image man bears.  The Symbolists in this way make themselves followers of such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Johann Sebastian Bach, artists who attributed their creativity hence also their creations not to themselves but, as faithful Monothreeists, to the Three-in-One.

Berdyaev’s observations in The Creative Act and The Crisis are themselves strongly indebted to the poetry and prose of the Symbolists, not least to the musings of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, but also to the works of Richard Wagner and Alexander Scriabin.  Like their Kiev-born inheritor, the Symbolists were mainly reactionary – as the cases of Baudelaire and Wagner well illustrate.  Again like Berdyaev, the Symbolists combined in their creative work and in the explanations thereof their keen sense of transcendence, their anthropological clarity, and their profound vision of cultural decline.  Such men were somewhat paradoxically modern in asserting new genres in their respective artistic domains while at the same time both rejecting modernity per se and advocating for the virtues of the West’s pre-modern phases, sometimes in the Middle Ages and sometimes in antiquity.  The Symbolists also tended to valorize Christianity.  In Mallarmé’s Coup de dès or Roll of the Dice (1897), for example, whose bewildering anti-verses seem in their typographic dispersion to represent the chaos of false freedom, Christ appears as “Le Maître,” “The Master,” who is also the early Nineteenth Century Right-Catholic critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre.  Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), whom Mallarmé took as his model, explicitly identified himself as the successor of the same Maistre.  In these essential gestures, Symbolism links itself to the larger reactionary critique of “progress” and “revolution” that first becomes explicit in Edmund Burke and in the very same Maistre.  The Symbolists must then exert considerable allure on the reactionary, anti-modern consciousness of the early Twenty-First Century – one hopes.

The present essay proposes to examine two short Symbolist poems, both sonnets, and both from the early phases of the movement.  These are “Vers dorés” (1846) by Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855) and “Correspondences” (1857) by Baudelaire, the latter appearing in the poet’s famous verse-anthology Les Fleurs du Mal or Flowers of Evil.  In its commentary on the two poems, the essay will bring to bear the insights into Symbolism of Berdyaev, certain elements of the anthropologies of Maistre and René Girard, and the Weltanschauung and generalized convictions of the reactionary consciousness of the Twenty-First Century.  The mixture might strike readers as a bit arbitrary or even as vertiginous, but its fundamental coherency should gradually make itself evident.  It is a premise of the reactionary consciousness that art is fundamentally conservative and that in its highest expression it is a species of prophesy or apocalypse, at once illuminating the fallenness of the world and pointing the fallen creature towards transcendence of its condition.

I. “Vers dorés” by Nerval. Symbolism takes an anti-revolutionary and anti-modern stance. It assumes a Bohemian and anti-bourgeois disposition, seeing in the bourgeoisie and its civic order a mere domestication of revolutionary themes; it sees in a purely social orientation the blotting-out of what is essentially human.  Symbolism heralds its reactionary character through its insistence on the truth of symbols and on the existence of a symbolic – a transcendental – domain; it resists the reductive stupidity of materialism and allies itself, as Berdyaev notes, with freedom.  Nerval qualifies himself as a founder of Symbolism in having internalized all of these convictions and propensities and in having given them original expression.  He so qualifies himself despite his occasional flirtations with liberalism and his late-in-life dalliance with a type of socialism just before his suicide.  The opening paragraphs of Nerval’s posthumously published and incomplete novella Aurélia (1855) provide something like a programmatic statement, beginning with the Calderonian declaration that, “The dream is the second life.”  In somnolent reverie, Nerval implies, the subject glimpses an alternate life, one liberated from the materialistic regime and in contact with the source of vision.  The world of the daystar has become the world of routine, the world of bureaucracy, the world of egalitarian leveling; the nocturnal demesne escapes the false illumination between dawn and dusk and, by grace of a “new brightness,” permits a necessary communion with higher powers.  To sleep, indeed, is to die and to be reborn: “A misty torpidity seizes our thoughts, and we cannot determine the exact moment when the ego, in another form, continues the activity of existence,” until finally, “the world of spirits opens up to us.”  It is an exercise in “sensibilité.

Nerval invokes Emanuel Swedenborg – and through him implicitly Jakob Boehme – to link dream visions with the mystical experience and with what Swedenborg called Memorabilia.  The term connotes the Platonic theory that learning is remembering, not only tautologically (if one cannot recall a thing, one certainly has not learned it), but also metaphysically: The subject can remember knowledge learned in a pre-incarnate life before this incarnate and mortal one.  This view rejects that key element of liberalism, John Locke’s annihilation of human nature in the de-symbolizing anti-metaphor of the tabula rasa; in insisting on the reality of the Memorabilia, Swedenborg and Boehme and Nerval himself after them attest to innate ideas and therefore also to a definable human nature, which in the bourgeois order assumes the defective form of a perverse fallenness.  In Aurélia, the narrator tells the story of his recovery, even if it were only a partial recovery, from a mysterious illness.  What is that illness except the malaise of life in the spiritual emptiness of the economic regime and continuously self-amassing megalopolitan environment?  Nerval through his poetic voice invokes as his models two narratives of salvation – Apuleius’ Golden Ass, a Second Century Latin novel, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Nerval’s story-teller categorizes those works as “studies of the human soul.”  How foreign Nerval’s outlook is to the reigning clinical Puritanism of the Twenty-First Century, not least for its interpretation of earthly love as the symbol of a transcendent counterpart!  And again for its patience in a search for meaning in arcane fragments of ancient knowledge that modernity would classify as meaningless superstition.

Here, then, are the “Vers dorés” or “Gilded Verses.” –

Eh quoi ! tout est sensible !
– Pythagore.

Homme, libre penseur ! te crois-tu seul pensant
Dans ce monde où la vie éclate en toute chose ?
Des forces que tu tiens ta liberté dispose,
Mais de tous tes conseils l’univers est absent.

Respecte dans la bête un esprit agissant :
Chaque fleur est une âme à la Nature éclose ;
Un mystère d’amour dans le métal repose ;
« Tout est sensible ! » Et tout sur ton être est puissant.

Crains, dans le mur aveugle, un regard qui t’épie :
À la matière même un verbe est attaché…
Ne le fais pas servir à quelque usage impie !

Souvent dans l’être obscur habite un Dieu caché ;
Et comme un œil naissant couvert par ses paupières,
Un pur esprit s’accroît sous l’écorce des pierres !

Eh, what! Everything is sentient.
– Pythagoras

You, free thinker, imagine only man
Thinks in this world where life bursts from all things?
The powers within proscribe your freedom’s wings,
But you leave the universe outside your plan.

Respect the mind that stirs in every creature:
Love’s mystery is known by metals too;
Every flower opens its soul to Nature;
“Everything’s sentient!” and works on you.

Beware! From the blind wall one watches you:
Even matter has its logos all its own…
Do not put it to some impious use.

Often in humble life a god works, hidden;
And like a new-born eye veiled by its lids,
Pure spirit grows beneath the surface of stones.

[Translation by C. W. MacIntyre.]

Nerval avails himself of an established form, no less than the sonnet, that fourteen-line complementarity of two quatrains and two tercets, a discipline as arbitrary as it could be that has nevertheless established itself as an institution – no doubt but that the discipline implicit in the arbitrariness attracts the poet, who rises to the challenge.  Nerval modifies the sonnet structure only slightly by appending to it an epigraph, such that the first words of the poem express the emotion of sudden amazement, “Eh quoi” or “Eh, what,” as though a bolt of lightning had split the clear sky to draw the subject’s attention involuntarily upwards.  It amounts to a breaking up of routine and to a breaking in upon the flatness of life of something transcendent – the action of the Logos or of Grace.  The oracular declaration, “tout est sensible” or “everything is sentient,” adds its ubi-animist content, with its ascription to Pythagoras, to the initial, blank surprise.  Nerval’s sonnet thus offers itself as an instance of revelation.  A comment by Berdyaev makes itself relevant.  In The Creative Act, Berdyaev writes, “Symbolism is culture’s dissatisfaction, an unwillingness to remain in culture,” but it is also “a way to being.”  The libre penseur” or “free thinker,” whom the poet addresses, naturally considers himself a person of culture, a person of taste, but because his free thought submits itself to the epistemological restrictions of modernity, his pride in thinking freely is really only his pride in thinking correctly, so as not to offend social sanction.  The poet, on the other hand, who has encountered the Logos, now providentially stands outside the paltriness of the flattened and flattening free thought.  Nerval characterizes this so-called free thought as a voluntarily assumed diminution of consciousness hence also as a distancing from genuine being.

The very name of Pythagoras, from the collection of whose sayings the phrase “Golden Verses” comes, contributes its richness to Nerval’s poem.  In his famous geometric theorem, after all, Pythagoras was a Trinitarian thinker.  As an ascetic, he anticipated the early saints and martyrs.  Because Fathers of the Church such as Augustine admired Pythagoras and more or less baptized his vision, by invoking him Nerval links his sonnet to a religious-mystical tradition that joins Paganism dialectic-wise with Christianity.  The liberal-modern order foolishly breaks with that tradition, denying the invisible, denying any type of transcendence, and proclaiming the exclusivity of matter.  In The Creative Act, Berdyaev declares that “mysticism is in the sphere of freedom.”  Materialism, au contraire, positions itself in the sphere of necessity; it reduces humanity to nothing but physical, linear causality.  The liberal-modern premise thus logically contradicts the liberal-modern claim to freedom-of-thought or to freedom of any kind.  What in MacIntyre’s translation the poem refers to as “freedom’s wings” function only under the sign of transcendence, which is the same thing as life, which is the same thing again as spirit or mind.  Liberal-modern premises cancel the action of “freedom’s wings.”  The libre penseur might scheme a utopia, but, as he takes no heed of what lies beyond his immanence (“l’univers” or “the universe” – the thing greater than he) his scheme will not accord itself with any higher order.  Because the scheme participates in nothing theurgic, as Berdyaev might have put it, it will doom itself from its inception to failure.  So much for the first quatrain.

The tone shifts slightly in the second quatrain, indicated by Nerval’s use of the imperative; the lines acquire an admonitory quality.  “Respecte dans la bête un esprit agissant,” as Nerval writes; or, in MacIntyre’s somewhat lackluster translation, “Respect the mind that stirs in every creature.” The French bête, in English beast or animal, is more specific than the Norman-Saxon creature.  Bête links the command not only back to Pythagorean doctrine, according to which an animal might well embody a reincarnated human soul, and in which everything possesses a soul, but to the Franciscan ethos, which directs compassion not only to man but to animals as well.  The reader should call to mind one of the formative modern claims.  René Descartes denied the existence of consciousness in animals and therefore regarded them as automata – a claim that he extended to the human body as the mind-body dichotomy.  Modernity is analytic rather than synthetic.  In this context, MacIntyre’s creature serves a purpose.  A flower is as much a creature, an entity of the divine creation, as is, perhaps at a higher level, a dog or a cat.  Thus, “Chaque fleur est une âme à la Nature éclose”; or, as MacIntyre resets it in English, “Every flower opens its soul to nature.”  It is worth dwelling on the image, which rises to the level of a symbol.  But what is a symbol?  Once again, Berdyaev proves helpful.  In The Creative Act, he comments that, “Art always teaches us that everything passing and temporal is a symbol of another form of being, permanent and eternal”; and again that, “the symbol is a bridge thrown across the gulf from the creative act to hidden, final reality.”  Few things participate so intensely in temporality as a flower.  People regard few natural phenomena as so paradigmatically beautiful as a flower.  In the flower temporality and beauty combine themselves.  For Nerval, flowering amounts to a religious gesture: The flower’s beauty comes from Nature; beauty participates in spirit.  The flower offers its beauty back to Nature, and then it perishes.

Real pathos informs the flowery life when one views it in such a light.  The flower knows what the liberal-modern mentality would like to forget: That the gift of life puts one in debt to the life-giver and that the debtor has a moral obligation to compensate his benefactor.  Modernity consists in part of an arrogant and stupid repudiation of indebtedness.  Now the word bête, which in Nerval’s poem takes on a positive meaning, bears a relation to another word, bêtise, which invariably carries a negative meaning.  Bêtise denotes stupidity, but more specifically a lapse from or a lack of sensibility, so that one is constantly tripping over his own karma.  To whom does the sin of bêtise attach itself?  It attaches itself to the libre penseur.  In rejecting the wisdom which comes down to him from the past – in his attempt to avoid indebtedness – the libre penseur stupefies himself and dooms his schemes in advance.  In the last line of the second quatrain, Nerval specifies the particular wisdom from which, in his progressive delusion, the libre penseur would untrammel himself.  It is the selfsame Pythagorean observation previously ensconcing itself in the epigraph: “Tout est sensible” or “everything is sentient.”  Thinking (the word is not quite accurate but it is unavoidable) himself autonomous, rejecting out of resentment anything that does not originate with himself, the libre penseurshuts his eyes to the cosmic web of forces, in which willy-nilly he takes his place; at the same time, he severs himself from the web of cosmic meaning, towards which as symbols the things of this world point.  This is the free thinker’s bêtise.  The paradoxical regard of le mur aveugle” or “the blind wall” signifies the ubiquity of the Logos, which takes heed of human actions and responds to them.  A lack of regard for Providence and for Grace, not to mention for finite material resources, entails impiety.  Man should stand as steward of Nature, not as its cynical user.

The final tercet establishes an extraordinarily complex symbol, doing so, of course, by gathering things together rather than taking them apart.  The second line of the tercet invokes birth and incarnation.  The “être obscur” or “humble life” of the tercet’s first line stands fair then to be a reference to The Incarnation, with all its appurtenances including the presence of people who, like the census takers in Bethlehem, remain insensible to its significance.  The reader of Nerval’s poem will recall that Pythagorean doctrine entails a belief in reincarnation, which itself symbolizes the continuity of life as spirit.  Pythagoras influenced Socrates and Plato; Plato influenced, at a much larger distance, Swedenborg.  The reader of Nerval’s poem will recall that Swedenborgian doctrine entails the belief in Memorabilia.  The newborn infant whose eyes his lids yet close will soon open those lids and begin to take cognizance of a world that pre-exists him but that the universe has fitted him to understand, partly through the Memorabilia.  The Tradition represented by his parents will play its role in his creation of his lifeworld.  Tradition too constitutes a type of Memorabilia; it bequeaths itself to the new generation – a gift from the dead.  Like the flower, when the child gains the ability to express himself, he will disclose himself to the world, an act that belongs to the ethos of reciprocity, the moral imperative that one must give back in some form what he has been given.  The eyelid of the newborn is, however, according to Nerval, like the hard exterior of stony nodule in that that too conceals a spirit that steadily increases in the depth of its concealment and seeks light and expression.

The life-cycle of the flower, or of its spirit, as seen from the human perspective, is tragically brief; the life-cycle of the stone, or of its spirit, as seen from the human perspective, unfolds itself with majestic slowness on a geological time-scale.  The human life-cycle operates comparatively on a middling time-scale, between that of the flower and that of the stone.  These are the superimposed rhythms of the universe.  The flower and the stone accord themselves naturally to the great polyrhythmic pattern.  The human being, through a paradoxical limitation inherent in ­self-consciousness, must struggle harder than flower or stone, first to be sensible of the pattern, and then to accord himself to it.  There are, as Pythagoras taught, harmonic patterns as well as rhythmic ones implicit not only in the structure of the cosmos but likewise in its unfolding life.  Nerval’s libre penseur qualifies in this mystic context, not only as blinder than the blind but secretly observant wall, but as deader, more insensible, than the secretly living and sensible stone.  In accepting the premises that betoken only necessity, the libre penseur has in effect stymied his proper birth; he has denied himself freedom.  Nerval, in his seemingly modest fourteen lines, has provided a powerful diagnosis of liberal-modern malaise; he has as well reminded his readers that an alternative to that malaiseexists – in the form, precisely, of a venerable Tradition.

II. “Correspondences” by Baudelaire. According to MacIntyre’s commentary on “Vers dorés,”Baudelaire rejected pantheism but allowed it in Nerval’s poetry because of the verbal elegance with which his gentle precursor put across the theory. While rejecting pantheism, Baudelaire nevertheless found plausibility in the same sources that offered themselves as plausible to Nerval.  The notion of correspondence, which Baudelaire takes seriously, originates in Swedenborg.  In the principle of correspondence, the phenomena of this world point symbolically to the intangible entities and patterns of an immaterial and transcendent world.  One can learn to read the meaning of phenomena in relation to the higher levels of the cosmic order.  MacIntyre points his readers to Baudelaire’s essay on L’Art romantique (`1868), in which the poet-essayist invokes Swedenborg by name and makes a thumbnail sketch of his theory: “Everything, form, movement, number, color, perfume, in the spiritual as in the natural world, is significant, reciprocal, conversely related, and corresponding.”  Baudelaire’s essay on Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris (1861), in which the poet self-quotes the first two quatrains of “Correspondences,” attributes to the music-dramatist a flair for the symbolic.  Wagner’s motifs and orchestrations function themselves as symbols, conjuring an unavoidable mental imagery in the auditor.  Baudelaire writes how, on hearing the Prelude to Tannhäuser, he “felt freedom from the constraint of weight,” and grew aware “a solitude with vast horizons and bathed with a diffuse light.”  (The translation is that of C. P. Charvet.)  The Wagner essay also raises an issue central to Baudelaire’s sonnet: That of the sacred, and of a derivative sacred beauty, in their relation to sacrifice.  A recurrent plot-device in Wagner’s librettos, including the one for Tannhäuser, is that the death of the protagonist reconciles a fractious community, which has indeed brought about that death either directly or indirectly, to redeem itself from a threatening violence.

Both Baudelaire and Wagner intuited a generative relation between ritual murder and institutions, including the arts.  They understood that relation as a type of original sin.  Joseph de Maistre’s seminal Elucidation on Sacrifices (1821) would have sharpened Baudelaire’s sensibility in respect of the topic.  Maistre observes in his essay that human sacrifice, while historically widespread, extending itself among savages even unto the present, is never other than erroneous and monstrous, but that the highest wisdom, whether Pagan or Christian, has always condemned it.  Nevertheless, only Christianity has proven itself able to suspend the practice – although not in every case, so recidivist is human nature.  Maistre remarks further that modernity is nothing less than a recrudescence of savagery, a return to human sacrifice.  He offers the French Revolution as proof of his thesis.  When the Cult of Reason anathematized Christianity and persecuted the Church, what was the result?  “In a blink of the eye,” Maistre writes, there reappeared “the customs of the Iroquois and the Algonquin” and “innocent blood [covered] the scaffolds that covered France.”  That idol of the Enlightenment, “natural man,” suddenly reasserted himself, not in his false guise as the bearer of perfect virtue, but in his actual sanguinary repulsiveness, as the Committee for Public Safety.  Modernity should know better when it mistakes for transcendence the orgiastic pleasure of immolating one of the people’s enemies.  Even that arch-materialist Lucretius rejected the proposition that Iphigenia should die that the Greek army might prosper, no matter how much the soldiery shouted and danced while demanding her life.  The question how to distinguish false from genuine transcendence lies at the center of Baudelaire’s oeuvre.

Here, then are the “Correspondences.” –

La nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme une nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Il est des parfums frais comme de chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

Nature is a temple of living pillars
where often words emerge, confused and dim;
and man goes through this forest, with familiar
eyes of symbols always watch him.

Like prolonged echoes mingling far away
in a unity tenebrous and profound,
vast as the night and as the limpid day,
perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond.

There are perfumes as cool as children’s flesh,
sweet as oboes, as meadows green and fresh;
– others, triumphant and corrupt and rich,

with the power to fill the infinite expanses,
like amber, incense, musk, and benzoin, which
Sing the transports of the soul and senses.

[Translation by C. F. MacIntyre]

Like Nerval and likely for the same reason, Baudelaire chooses the Renaissance-descended form of the sonnet, but Baudelaire’s sonnet differs from Nerval’s sonnet, among other ways, first and foremost in that Baudelaire’s verses unfold a narrative, while Nerval’s verses offer themselves as almost bereft of narrative.  (They are more in the nature of a moral lecture, as addressed to the libre penseur.)  Baudelaire’s narrative is a minimal narrative, or, as one might characterize it, a mere mytheme, but of a recognizable genre, that of the metamorphosis.  Examples of the metamorphic myth come down to posterity abundantly in Ovid’s great Latin poem in eleven books, whose collective title pluralizes the Greek noun.  In any metamorphic myth, the transformation offers itself as a miraculous event, one that compels communal attention.  In Ovid, in particular, the metamorphosis insistently declares itself both as an instance of extraordinary beauty and, in one fashion or another, as a magnificent boon, but in such a way that, from a standpoint external to the myth, the details arouse the suspicion of the careful examiner.  In the insistent rhetoric of his storytelling, in his irony, emphasizing this feature or that of a traditional tale, Ovid indeed seems to stand external to the myth.  Take the well-known story of Daphne and Apollo, one of several entries constituting the Arcadian militant-virgin sub-genre of myths in his compendium.  Daphne, an eligible maiden, refuses her father’s request that she give him a son-in-law and grandsons, and she keeps to the forest paths to insure her solitude.  Daphne’s shyness in effect singles her out and makes her a center of attention.  Her rejection of marriage and her militant insistence on remaining ever a virgin add to her conspicuousness.  Thus despite her intention she endows herself with allure such that, as Ovid puts it, “many wooed her” (Kline’s translation).

That vague “many” signifies: It sets the tale in a community, but the myth tends to conceal that community as though the reluctant girl and her red-hot pursuer were the only parties involved.  Ovid responds to that concealment in his choice of figure, cleverly revealing the fable’s social context.  “As the light stubble of an empty cornfield blazes,” he writes, “as sparks fire a hedge when a traveller, by mischance, lets them get too close, or forgets them in the morning – so the god was altered by the flames, and all his heart burned, feeding his useless desire with hope.”  The cornfield is the sign of a community and the pyrotic simile reveals that Apollo’s infatuation participates in imitation, which requires the presence of others.  Apollo belongs to a competitive rabble of Daphne-wooers whose lust for its common object spreads and intensifies itself like a fire out of control.  When the girl spurns marriage, which exerts itself compulsorily in an archaic society, she thereby instigates a crisis.  Everyone wants Daphne, but Apollo, calling on his godly power, outruns his competitors, in another of Ovid’s keen similes, as a wolf runs down a sheep.  As he overtakes her she calls on her father, the river-god Peneus, to save her.  She undergoes swift transformation into the laurel-tree from which she takes her name or on which she endows that name through the power of the occasion.  Ovid omits to catalogue the values of the laurel – its sacred status, its usefulness in cuisine and medicine by virtue of its bark, sap, and berries, and its function as a socially elevating token through the meaning of its boughs – but these uses will have been known to his audience.  The metamorphosis functions as a metaphor, of course, for the murder of the girl, when the mob, represented by the inflamed deity, finally and after much frustration corners its victim.

The uses of the laurel make the transformation of Daphne a boon, not for her, but for the community.  The details of the transformation beautify what is, in the order of human plausibility, the murder of a defenseless girl, whose crime is that she cherishes her virginity.  As skin turns into bark, hair and face into the leafy canopy, and the two delicate feet into twisting roots, as Ovid writes, “only [Daphne’s] shining beauty was left.”  And that “shining beauty,” with its hint of dematerialization or apotheosis, bespeaks the mob reconciling its fractiousness viathe catharsis of the irreversible act.  Contentiousness finds its relief and the general peace its restoration.  The mob transfers the afterglow of its Dionysiac glee to the girl, on whom during her metamorphosis the myth bestows anesthetically a “heavy numbness [that] seized her limbs.”  Ovid’s charming little story might even be said to take provisional steps to justify itself, given how close to the surface the nastiness in it rises: It might, on discovery, blame the crisis on Daphne; for she by her flouting of custom ignites the fire that Ovid compares to one set by a trespasser, and thus in the end, should anyone guess the filthy secret, the mythmakers might propose that she properly expiated her sin beneath the shade of the tree.  Another remark from Maistre’s Elucidation bears on this hypothesis.  Maistre writes that, “It is very likely that the first human victims were criminals condemned by the laws.”  Later, Maistre adds, enmityand criminality were conflated and later again their conflation was conflated with foreignness.  But who is an enemy, a criminal, or a foreigner?  As in the case of Daphne, such a one is anyone who dissents, or anyone who stands accused of dissenting, from a communal consensus; or it is anyone who is eccentric or odd in relation to the community.  The sacrificial victim supplies in himself or herself an individual, convenient in the hour of crisis, whom the mob selects more or less arbitrarily and anathematizes retroactively, so as to assuage or cover up its guilt.

The first quatrain of “Correspondences,” through its mixing of categories and its reference to a Babel-like breakdown of language, indicates a social crisis, presumably the extended, violent social crisis of modernity.  The first line, for example, identifies “la nature” or “nature” with “un temple” or “a temple,” whereas a temple, being an artifact, belongs to the category of culture, not to that of nature.  The exception would be that religion serves as the template of culture and lodges itself inexpugnably in human nature.  The temple’s “vivant pilliers” or “living pillars,” which emit their “confuses paroles” or “words… confused and dim,” and which possess the faculty of observation, can only signify a human presence.  This human presence also constitutes a plural “forêts des symboles” or “forests of symbols” whose gazing eyes familiarly remark the vagabond “homme” or “man” who passes under their surveillance.  Who is this man?  In what way is the communal regard familiar?  Baudelaire’s diction attaches the definite article to the man, a gesture entailing another ambiguity.  In French, l’homme can denote the category of man-in-general; but it can also denote the man, the one who is singled out from all others to become the center of sinister attention.  Sacrifice is a ritual.  Rituals necessarily repeat themselves.  What repeats itself becomes familiar, such that everyone knows what to do and how to do it.  The feature of “Correspondences” that emphatically marks the man as the victim of a crisis-stricken community, however, is his disappearance after the poem’s fourth line, only to be replaced in his singularity by an array of pacifying and plural effects.

The most important of these effects, the “ténébreuse et profonde unité” or “unity tenebrous and profound,” appears in the second quatrain.  It represents the restoration of consensus in the community, which unanimously attests both the criminality of the victim and the victim’s transcendence of that criminality so as to have been not only the instigator of the crisis but also the powerful redeemer of the people. Maistre’s Twentieth Century successor, the aforementioned René Girard, calls this process transference.  In the Daphne myth, which well illustrates Girard’s notion, metamorphosis runs congruently, and wickedly, with apotheosis.  The mortal girl becomes the immortal dryad, a minor divinity perhaps, but a divinity nonetheless.  Every use thereafter of every useful thing derived from the laurel tree recalls that divinity and exercises a sanctifying, even an intoxicating, power.  Apotheosis peeks through the secondary adjectival qualification that Baudelaire applies to the “unity tenebrous and profound,” his paradoxical phrase, “vaste comme une nuit et comme la clarté” or “vast as the night and as the limpid day.”  The collective murder generates the sacred, which then reconciles opposites, crime and boon, evil and good, night and day.  The concluding tercets catalogue the items of a probable sparagmos of the victim: The “parfums frais comme de chairs d’enfants” or “perfumes as cool as children’s flesh,” in which one detects a hint of cannibalism; and those varieties of incense “ayant l’expansion des choses infinies” or “with the power to fill the infinite expanses”; all of which “chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens” or “sing the transports of the soul and senses.”  The “Correspondences” aligns itself with the pattern of metamorphosis except that it is by its author’s intention self-revealing rather than fugitive.

Another of Baudelaire’s sonnets supports a Maistrian or Girardian reading of “Correspondences.”  Baudelaire’s “Harmonie du soir” records the degenerate ecstasy of a murderer who has killed his mistress and who remembers his victim each day at sunset.  Baudelaire creates a phenomenology of ritual blood-letting.  In recalling the fell deed, the perpetrator experiences synesthesia in which, as in “Correspondences,” “les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air”; or, as MacIntyre translates it, “perfumes and sounds in the evening air are blent.”  The world becomes a valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige”or “melancholy waltz and dizzy languor.”  The red spectacle of the sunset becomes so much spilt and congealing blood.  The concluding line of the poem borrows blasphemously from the Catholic ritual: Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir” – “Your memory shines in me like the Sacrament.”  Indeed, the pervasive sacred imagery of the poem, not to mention its thematic harmony, suggests a collective experience, even the foundation of a cult, which like the one in “Correspondences” would be corrupt from its instauration.  But then modernity has shown itself corrupt from its instauration, basing itself on the expendability of the person whether in the cynical precepts of Utilitarianism or in the homicidal activity of what calls itself Revolution or Progress.  As the beastly Marseillaise puts it: Qu’un sang impure / Abreuve nos sillions”; or “Let an impure blood / Water our furrows.”  If politics failed completely to obliterate a Christian sensibility of genuine transcendence, industrialization would likely step in to redeem the failure.  From Baudelaire’s notebooks comes this pithy aperçu: “So far will machinery have Americanized us, so far will Progress have atrophied in us all that is spiritual, that no dream of the Utopians, however bloody, sacrilegious, or unnatural, will be comparable to the result.”

III. Original Sin and Transcendence.  The discussion so far has framed Nerval’s sonnet and Baudelaire’s under the premise that they illustrate Berdyaev’s claim – one echoed by many a later writer – to the effect that Symbolism rebels healthily against the strictures of modernity and that it belongs to the critique of modernity that emerged late in the Eighteenth Century and consolidated itself early in the Nineteenth Century.  While both “Vers dorés” and “Correspondences” belong to the Symbolist continuum, which Nerval founded and which Baudelaire brought to perfection, the two poems, and the two poets, differ from one another.  For one thing, Nerval is a Neo-Pagan idealist, Baudelaire an anthropological realist, as one would expect of a successor to the Sardinian Kingdom’s ambassador to St. Petersburg.  Maistre asks in the Elucidations, “What truth cannot be found in paganism?”  He means for an answer that all important truths, including the theological ones, can indeed be found in Paganism, not least the idea of redemption through the voluntary self-sacrifice of innocence.  “Redemption,” Maistre writes, “is a universal idea,” in that “everywhere men have believed that the innocent could pay for the guilty.”  Due to the fallen state of the world, however, the tribes and nations have misunderstood and perverted the principle, giving rise to Moloch and Huitzilopotchli.  According to Maistre, Christianity corrects the misunderstandings and perversions and in so doing redeems them.  Maistre advances a piquant metaphor to illustrate how Christian doctrine has transformed its Pagan anticipations: “It is quite true that Venus originally came forth from the water… that she returned there at the time of the flood… and that she went to sleep there in the depths of the waters.”  With the advent of the Gospel, Venus awoke.  “If we add that she subsequently came forth again in the form of a dove,” Maistre continues, “which became famous in all the East, this is not a great error.”  One recalls that Venus originally sprang from the violent and highly sacrificial act perpetrated by Cronus on Uranus; and that in Christian symbolism the dove betokens the Paraclete, who assumed avian form at the Baptism of Le Maître in the waters of the Jordan.

Just as, in Maistre’s view, Paganism prefigures Christianity, so Maistre prefigures, not only such as Baudelaire, but any number of religious thinkers of his own century and the next.  In his series of dialogues with Michel Treguer, When These Things Begin (1996), the redoubtable Girard appears to channel Maistre.  Treguer, who argues from the perspective of a stubborn scientism, wants to know whether Girard is “bothered by the elements of the Gospel text that seem like the stuff of myth – for example, the annunciation to Mary, the virginal conception of Jesus, the star guiding the three wise men?”  Girard responds that, “I define Christian revelation as the event that wrenched the first Christians away from the power of myth, which is the power of the unanimous mimetic lie.”  Girard adds that, “Christianity is the same drama as the fundamental myths and the major foundation stories, and in both cases the result is religion.”  For Girard, “myth is the guilt of Oedipus and truth is the innocence of Christ.”  Girard has long stressed the minimalism that distinguishes Christianity from Paganism, but he has made his point under the paradox that the minimum produces the maximum.  The stories of Oedipus and Christ share ninety-nine per cent of their features, but the one per cent of difference, which ascribes monstrous crimes to Oedipus and innocence to Christ, means everything.  Girard never took the rhetorical next step implied by his distinction – separating religion in general from Christianity, which would constitute its own category – but he would have been justified had he made that distinction.  It remains the case, however, and Girard affirms the hypothesis many times in his work, that religion made humanity, not the other way around; and since religion, as opposed to Christianity, made humanity, then it follows that the blood of innocents made humanity, which seems also to be Maistre’s thesis.

If Maistre and Girard argued rightly, then the principle that they mutually affirmed would relate to the notion of original sin.  Supposing that, as Maistre argues, Christianity redeemed archaic institutions: Christianity will also have permitted the continuity of those institutions, except for scapegoating, which it seeks to disarm.  Christianity brings about its own type of metamorphosis.  Institutions being adaptations to necessity for the sake of communal survival, and every living person being indebted to those institutions, then every living person will be similarly indebted to the innocent dead, on whose unwilling sacrifice the institutions arose.  This fact will be the case even if it were possible to imagine a society that had rid itself of every last vestige of scapegoating, and in which all persons partook in saintly morality.  The correction of an error requires the prior existence of the selfsame error, just as the law enjoining murder requires a selfsame first murder, and therefore a selfsame first perpetrator and a selfsame first victim.  To the extent that people in general benefit from a law enjoining murder, they necessarily have a stake in the first murder; in their very lawfulness they remain inexpiably complicit in it.  Is Venus reborn as an emanation of Grace?  First she must be born in the bloody gonadal dismemberment of sacrifice.

Transcendence qualifies as a psychic state, as the rapture of the soul, rather than as an institution, but transcendence bears a relation to institutions, not least to the institutions of religion and art.  Nerval acknowledges this proposition when he writes in “Vers dorés” of the loss of knowledge – or suppression of lore – concerning both an invisible world and a ubiquitous sensibilité, contact with which, strictly forbidden by the materialist-atheist regime, would lift the subject out of bourgeois insipidity.  Knowledge and lore would qualify as institutions, after all.  Baudelaire in “Correspondences” addresses false transcendence by deriving the provocations and symptoms of a Dionysiac spasm from the unexplained, but entirely explicable, disappearance of “the man” from the sylvan creepiness of the lyric scene; and he does so again in “Harmonie du soir.”  The modern world, which has founded itself on purely anti-transcendent premises, nevertheless requires false transcendence in massive doses – usually by a heightening of conformity through amalgamation in the collective, or by the celebration of utility, a variant of sacrifice.  Thus any object of progressive hatred is already half-divinized, even or especially when the crowd represents its divinity in a monstrous guise.  The exercise of crowd-based hatred thrills its participants.  The thrill carries with it an addictive tendency.  Modernity shows itself to be a theurgic cult, to revisit Berdyaev’s term, not however as Berdyaev means it but in a radically degenerate sense.  As in archaic sacrifice, modernity’s ceremonies call down only false gods; those ceremonies require destruction.  Modernity meanwhile denies, probably because it fears, the reality of an actual or a renewed transcendence, which it would classify along with Christianity as superstition.  The popularity of jejune atheism among the Western cultural elites provides one sign among many of this, rather desperate, denial.  The pretence of progress, that it can make a break with history, belongs to the same general delusion as stipulates the impossibility of transcendence.

A renewed transcendence must root itself in two things, one of them positive, the other negative.  Positively, a renewed transcendence must acknowledge its debt to the innocent dead; it must affirm original sin.  By contrast, in its a-historical pose, modernity declares itself unilaterally to be debt-free.  And damn its creditors!  Negatively, a renewed transcendence must free itself from social practices, which today belong solely to the programmatic degeneracy of the self-denominating liberal regime.  In his Crisis, Berdyaev formulated such freedom radically, in a manner that might well disturb an advocate of Tradition.  Writing of art and creativity – of the genuine theurgic impulse – Berdyaev asserts that “art cannot and ought not to be subordinated to any sort of external religious norm, to any sort of norm of spiritual life, which would transcend the art itself.”  But is this not the announcement of rebellious anarchy?  No – it is not.  It is the judgment on tendentiousness, the judgment on the crowd, the judgment on aschemiolatry, and the judgment on the unanimous mimetic lie.  Those things in their ensemble constitute the “religious norm” of the present moment, in distinction to which stands the universally reviled Gospel creed in its own category.  Christianity distinguishes itself not only from religion, but from culture, which finds its template in religion.  The culture that propagated itself up to and beyond Calvary took its murderous character from fallenness.  Cain’s was the first culture.  As Berdyaev writes, culture in general reveals the propensity of opposing itself “to life, to being.”  If a culture dedicated itself not to life, it must surely dedicate itself to death.  Easy it is, frighteningly easy, to generate a long list of the ways in which the prevailing culture worships death.

Religion made humanity without the assent of its victims: Christianity unmakes religion and remakes humanity, but the making, the unmaking, and the remaking measure themselves by millennia or even decamillennia.  From the slowness of the first phase, the making, arises a colossal stubbornness, which clings desperately to the victimary mechanism.  This once again attracts the title of original sin.  The unmaking and the remaking are overlapping, glacially slow phases.  Unmaking generates a quite-literal Panic, as the stubborn archaizers try to revive their sacrificial all-god Pan, whose death Plutarch recorded already in the late First Century or early Second Century AD.  The subjects of the ethical remaking experience confusion, as in Baudelaire’s sonnet, and they must fight the temptation to lapse back into that “ténébreuse et profonde unité” that mitigates panic by infusing the ego with an orgiastic sense of moral righteousness.  In the Christian ethical dispensation, evil must enjoy as much freedom as good.  Evil compelled out of its path is not the same as good; the compulsion merely deprives evil of its wont.

An essay is etymologically an attempt, from the French verb essayer, “to try.” An essay begins almost anywhere, maybe in the memory of French Nineteenth-Century sonnets from a graduate-school seminar on the Symbolist poets forty years ago, and then it saunters where it will.  An essay, in sauntering, follows etymologically the sainte-terre, as in a pilgrimage along holy ground.  My pilgrimage has brought me – sinner that I am, fool that I am, pedant that I am, and unreconstructable Pagan that I am – to this final sentence, wherein, stupefied by the Action of Grace, and blocked in my conceited path by the Shrine of Mystery, I can advance on my heels not one step further.


This essay first appeared at


"Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists"  – Joseph de Maistre


Thomas F. Bertonneau is an American intellectual and professor. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. His articles and essays have appeared in a diverse array of scholarly journals including William Carlos Williams ReviewWallace Stevens JournalStudies in American Jewish LiteratureNorth Dakota QuarterlyMichigan AcademicianParoles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, and Profils Americains.


Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911

about us | contact us