Happy Friday the 13th! Today I will focus on one of the spookiest, creepiest poets of all time: Charles Baudelaire. His poems are dark as Guinness stout and chilling as… a simile about cold beers.
When I first read the works of Charles Baudelaire, I was none too impressed. Had he been an American teen in the early years of this millennium, Baudelaire would have been a goth kid with whiny LiveJournal. Everything is corpses and skulls with that guy. “Nobody likes me,” his poems lament, “but that is because my soul is a that of a beautiful poet and everybody else is a dick.” (By the way, I am only half making this stuff up. His poem The Albatross compares the poet to a majestic bird that is mocked when it condescends to land among normal men.)
But Baudelaire was more than just a whinging kid with macabre tastes. Perhaps his greatest contribution to literature was his translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (Which sheds some additional light on his morbid sensibilities.) It seems that Poe was more or less forgotten in the United States in the generation after his death. Luckily, Baudelaire translated Poe into French and popularized his works. The so-called Decadent Movement spread across Europe, to England, and across the Atlantic, and it brought Poe back into vogue with it.
Of course, Baudelaire’s own work is not without value. I particularly like his poem Get Drunk. The ceaseless crushing gears of time are unbearable unless one gets drunk. “Get drunk! Stay Drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, on whatever you want.” Find something that intoxicates you, something that alters your perception of time. And if you should wake up with a hang-over on the steps of a palace or in the grass of a ditch, ask the world what time it is. And the answer will be: time to get drunk!
Beer of the week: 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style Dark Ale – Find a photo of Baudelaire and tell me that he doesn’t look like a cartoon vulture. Which, given his dark style, seems totally appropriate. 5 Vulture Ale is brewed by 5 Rabbit Cervecería, a Latin American inspired brewery near Chicago. This dark ale is brewed with ancho chili peppers. The color is dark amber and the head is tan. The aroma is distinctive and sweet. The taste has hints of dark chocolate and a subtle fruit presence that I can’t quite pin down. The ancho chilies used in the brewing give a pleasant tingle at the end, though I’d actually prefer a bit more spice. It also feels thinner than one would expect from such a dark, flavorful beer. It is so different that I really don’t know what to think about it.
Reading of the week: Get Drunk by Charles Baudelaire – The first version of this poem that I read was an English translation that included the word “beer”. When I checked the French, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to find that the word used was “vin”. Beer would have been better, but wine will do.
Question of the week: I am sure that I understand being drunk on wine. I think that I understand being drunk on poetry. But I can’t quite get my head around being drunk on virtue. What can that mean?
When Adam disobeyed the Lord in the garden, what was his punishment? He had to get a job. (To say nothing of the punishment of having to wear pants.) Until that first sin, there was no such thing in the world as labor. Actually having to work is the punishment that men endure because of original sin. No longer do all good things simply spring up from the ground, but bread must be earned “by the sweat of one’s brow.”
As an American, however, I was raised in the shadow of the “Puritan work ethic.” Labor has been transformed from a punishment to a solemn duty. According to Albert Jay Nock in his scathing Our Enemy the State, “this erection of labour into a Christian virtue per se, this investment of work with a special religious sanction, was an invention of Puritanism.” As England changed from Catholic feudalism to a Puritan merchant state, what is more natural than the emerging merchant class teaching the working class that God wants them to embrace labor? What better way to ensure a productive workforce than to tell them that hard work is a religious mandate?
As compelling as Nock is, I am unable to give up on hard work as a virtue. It seems to build character and, if viewed properly, teaches valuable lessons about patience, the value of time, and myriad other things. The sticking point for me is the idea that it is a religious virtue. I agree with Nock that “there is no hint that God would take it amiss if one preferred to do little work and put up with a poor living, for the sake of doing something else with one’s time.”
So work hard and enjoy the proceeds (both tangible or otherwise) of your labor. Or don’t work hard and enjoy that.
Beer of the Week: Dos Equis Amber Lager – Dos Equis Amber Lager has a dark cream head, almost tan, that hangs around for much longer than expected. The beer itself is surprisingly clear for how dark it is. The smell is dominated by bready malts. The taste is very much the same. There is not much hops to speak of, but a full, rich malt profile makes this beer a winner. There is a lingering sweetness that might be just a bit too much, but otherwise, this is a darn good beer. I am glad somebody worked hard to make it.
Reading of the week: Our Enemy The State by Albert Jay Nock – Nock has a very firm and critical grasp of history and his willingness to take on deeply seated beliefs and ideas is very impressive. This reading shows of both of these qualities. Nock writes that “the best witness to the essential character of the Puritan movement in England and America is the thoroughness with which its doctrine of work has pervaded both literatures, all the way from Cromwell’s letters to Carlyle’s panegyric and Longfellow’s verse.”
Since the beer is “Two X’s” and Nock specifically mentions Longfellow, I include:
Bonus reading: The Village Blacksmith by H. W. Longfellow – This poem is a perfect illustration of what Nock wrote about Longfellow and the Puritan work doctrine. The smith loves his family and is a godly man, but his paramount virtue is his labor. He is a hero because he works hard “Week in, week out, from morn till night” and like Adam, the smithy’s “brow is wet with honest sweat.”
Question of the week: I feel a strong resistance to Nock, but I cannot put it into words. Is that because there actually is something wrong with Nock’s characterization of work ethic, or is it because I have been thoroughly indoctrinated?