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Saturday
Aug102013

Baudelaire, "Les veuves"

A prose poem ("The widows") by this French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Vauvenargues has said that in public gardens there are paths haunted principally by disappointed ambition, by unhappy inventors, by aborted glories, by broken hearts, by all those tumultuous and secluded souls who still moan in a storm's final sighs and retreat far from the insolent view of the happy and the idle.  These shady nooks are the meeting places for life's cripples. 

It is mostly towards these places that the poet and the philosopher like to direct their avid conjecture.  One finds there a certain pasture.  For if there were a realm they would, as I just insinuated, disdain to visit, it would be that of the joy of the rich.  Such turbulence in a void has nothing that might attract them.  On the contrary, they feel irresistibly drawn to all that is weak, ruined, contrite, and orphaned. 

An experienced eye is never wrong.  In some rigid, crestfallen traits, in some dark, cavernous eyes occasionally brilliant with the final sparks of combat, in some profound and extensive wrinkles, in these gaits so slow or so twitch-ridden, such an eye immediately deciphers the countless legends of unrequited love, of unacknowledged devotion, of uncompensated efforts, of hunger and cold humbly and silently endured.  Have you sometimes espied the widows on those solitary benches, the widows of the poor?  Whether or not they are in mourning, it is easy to recognize them.  Moreover, in the mourning of the poor there is always something missing, an absence of harmony that renders them even more dreadful.  They are obliged to be frugal with their sadness.  The rich bear theirs out in full force.

Which widow is the more saddened – she who holds the hand of the child whose reveries she cannot share, or she who is utterly alone?  I do not know.  One time I happened to follow for many hours an old woman so afflicted; stiff, upright, beneath a small, second-hand shawl, she exuded with all her being a certain stoic pride.  It was clear that she was damned – by absolute solitude, by the habits of the old spinster – and the masculine character of her mores added a mysterious originality to their austerity.  I cannot know how and in what miserable café she ate breakfast.  I followed her to a reading room, and for a long time looked on as she searched through the newspapers with piercing eyes, formerly burned with tears, for news of powerful and personal interest.  At length, in the afternoon, beneath a charming autumn sky, one of those skies from which regrets and memories descend in hordes, she was sitting apart in a public garden to hear, far off from the crowd, one of those concerts whose regiments’ music gratified the Parisians.  It was doubtless here that the little abundance of this innocent (or purified) old woman, the well-earned consolation of one of those long days without friends, without conversation, without joy, without confidants, which God had allowed to befall her, had gone on for perhaps many years now, three hundred sixty-five times a year!  

Another one: I can never prevent myself from taking a if not universally sympathetic, then at least curious look at the crowd of pariahs who squeeze around the outer wall of a public concert.  Across the night sky the orchestra launches songs of celebration, triumph, and voluptuousness.  The trailing dresses that sparkle; the looks exchanged; the slothful, tired from having done nothing, prancing about, feigning an indolent taste for the music.  Here there is nothing but the rich and happy; nothing that does not breathe or inspire insouciance or the pleasure of living life; nothing, apart from the aspect of the rabble pressed up against the outer barrier, absorbing for free, at the whims of the wind, a shred of music, as they gaze upon the blaze of the inner furnace.  

This reflection of the rich's joy in the eye of the poor is always an interesting thing.  But that day, amid the people garbed in floral blouses, I caught sight of a being whose nobility provided a striking contrast to the surrounding triviality.  She was a tall, majestic woman, so noble in her demeanor that I could not remember having seen anyone like her among the collections of aristocratic beauties of the past.  A perfume of haughty virtue emanated from her entire person.  Her face, sad and emaciated, was in perfect agreement with the great bereavement she bore.  Like the plebeians among whom she now mixed and who did not see her, she gazed profoundly at the luminous world, and listened while softly nodding her head.  A singular vision!  "Without fail," I told myself, "this type of poverty – if there is poverty there – cannot allow for sordid economizing.  A face so noble says as much.  Why then does she willingly remain in a milieu where she leaves such a glaring mark?"    

But in passing near her out of curiosity, I came to divine the reason.  The great widow held by the hand a child dressed like she in black; so modest was the price of admission, that this price perhaps sufficed to pay for one of the needs of this little being; better yet, for a superfluity, for a toy.  And she must have returned on foot, meditating and dreaming, alone, always alone; because a child is turbulent, selfish, bereft of softness or patience; and it cannot even act, like a true animal, like a dog or cat, as a confidant for solitary sorrows. 

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