Dec 29, 2023

The Flowers of Evil: A Place Where Hercules and Christ are One

Back before there were shelves labeled "gay literature" in bookstores, when library card catalogs contained two books labeled "homosexuality," if that, you found gay books through key words in the title: something dark, dangerous, sinister was likely to be gay.

So one day when I was an undergrad at Augustana College, I found a copy of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).

A series of poems about a man who is an alien in his own society, searching for a beauty that the people around him cannot understand.  He remembers countless past lives of Arabian Nights opulence, living only for the pleasures of sight, sound, taste, and touch, surrounded by "nude, perfumed slaves." Male slaves, I assumed.

He longs for a "good place," the distant country portrayed by Michelangelo, where "Hercules and Christ are one."  Where they worship masculine beauty?

He tells the story of four boys charting out their futures. The first longs for the theater, the second, for God, the third, for women...and the fourth, for gypsy men "with enormous black eyes" who live together and make "astonishing music."

The fourth boy is obviously gay.

Turns out that most scholars disagree with my undergrad reading of Les Fleurs du mal.  Baudelaire was a precursor of the Symbolist Movement, whose main voice, Paul Verlaine, was indeed gay.  And he was a dandy, one of one of those flamboyantly feminine men who scandalized polite society in Paris and London.

But Baudelaire himself was apparently heterosexual.  He has a prurient, sordid interest in women's bodies, especially lesbian bodies -- his first title for Les Fleurs du Mal was The Lesbians.  But barely a glimmer of interest in male beauty.

No do we see any significant same-sex loves in his life.  He smoked and drank heavily, wrote in taverns, patronized prostitutes, and had a series of mistresses.

But we know that author's own identity is not necessary for a gay reading.  Nor is authorial intent.  The meaning arises in the interaction between the text and the reader's life experience, expectations, and desire. When you are erased from most literature and mass media, you find meaning where you can, and Les Fleurs du mal remains one of my favorite books.

See also: The Dandy and the Gay Cult; A Season in Hell

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