Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

Infective Writing: Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil and Angela Carter's 'Black Venus'

Abigail Bray


"'Baby, baby, let me take you back where you belong, back to your lovely, lazy island where the jewelled parrot rocks on the enamel tree and you can crunch sugar-cane between your strong white teeth, like you did when you were little, baby'" 1

"My child, my sister, dream
How sweet all things would seem
Were we in that kind land to live together,
And there love slow and long,
There love and die among
These scenes that image you, that sumptuous weather."2

"'and a little girl in a short white frock with a yellow satin bow in her kinky pigtail will wave a huge feather fan over us stirring the languishing air'" 3

"Tended by many a naked, perfumed slave,
Who fanned my languid brow with waving palm.
They were my slaves - the only care they had
To know what secret grief had made me sad." 4

" 'the ship, the ship is waiting in the harbour baby. My monkey, my pussy-cat, my pet . . . think how lovely it would be to live there'" 5

"There drowsy ships that dream of sailing forth,
It is to satisfy
Your least desire, they ply
Hither through all the waters of the earth."6

"at the invitation of the mysterious currents of the heavens, this well-appointed cabin will lose its moorings in the street below and take off, depart, whisk across the dark vault of the night, tangling a still-born, crescent moon in its ropes, nudging a star at the lift-off and will deposit us . . . " 7

"We, too, would roam without sail or steam,
And to combat the boredom of our jail
Would stretch, like canvas on our souls, a dream
Framed in horizons, of the seas you sail." 8

"'No!', she said. 'Not the bloody parrot forest! Don't take me on the slaver's route back to the West Indies, for godsake! And let the bloody cat out, before it craps on your precious Bokhara!'"9

Choreography of Shadows

"[S]he will sometimes lob the butt of her cheroot in the fire and be persuaded to take off her clothes and dance for Daddy."10

"The darling one was naked and, knowing my wish . . ."11

"This dance, which he wanted her to perform so much and had especially devised for her, consisted of a series of voluptuous poses one following another; private-room-in-a-bordello stuff but tasteful, he preferred her to undulate rhythmically rather than jump about and shake a leg."12

"Had kept only the regalia of her jewellery
Whose resonant charms can lure and vanquish
Like a Moorish slave-girl's in her moment of glory." 13

"[H]e liked her to put on all her bangles and beads when she did her dance, she dressed up in the set of clanking jewellery he'd given her, paste, nothing she could sell or she'd have sold it." 14

"I drink a Bohemian wine,
powerful and tart,
A liquid sky that sows its stars
Within my heart!" 15

"If she should put on the private garments of nudity, its non-sartorial regalia of jewellery and rouge, then he himself must retain the public nineteenth-century masculine impedimenta of frock-coat (exquisitely cut); white shirt (pure silk, London tailored); oxblood cravat; and impeccable trousers." 16

"Her eyes fixed as a tiger's in the tamer's trance,
Absent, unthinking, she varied her poses." 17

"He fixed his quick, bright, dark eyes upon her decorated skin as if, sucker, authentically entranced. 'Sucker!' she said, almost tenderly, but he did not hear her."18

"It seemed as if desire had fashioned a new toy.
Her faded, fawn-brown skin was perfection to either!" 19

"She sulked sardonically through Daddy's sexy dance, watching, in a bored, fascinated way." 20

"Dear indolent, I love to see,
In your body bright,
How like shimmering silk the skin
reflects the light!" 21

"She looked like the source of light but this was an illusion; she only shone because the dying fires lit his presents to her." 22

"And every time a flame uttered a gasp for breath,
It flushed her amber skin with the blood of its bloom."23

"Although his regard made her luminous, his shadow made her blacker than she was, and his shadow could eclipse her entirely." 24

"You seem to be swayed by a wand.
A dancing serpent." 25

"He said she danced like a snake and she said, snakes don't dance: they've got no legs, and he said, but kindly, you're an idiot, Jeanne." 26

"Naked, then, she was to all my worship,
Smiling in triumph from the heights of her couch."27

"If she was going to have to dance naked to earn her keep, anyway, why shouldn't she dance naked for hard cash in hand and earn enough to keep herself? Eh? Eh?" 28


"There are some powerful odours that can pass
Out of the stoppered flagon; even glass
To them is porous. Oft when some old box
Brought back from the East is opened. . ." 29

"She huffed off and contemplated her sweating breasts; she would have liked a bath, anyway, she was a little worried about a persistent vaginal discharge that smelled of mice, something new, something ominous, something horrid." 30

"Phantoms of old the folding darkness hides" 31

"'You think I don't need to wash because I don't show the dirt.'"32

"I'll be your shroud beloved pestilence!
The witness of your might and virulence,
Sweet poison mixed by angles; bitter cup
Of life and death my heart has drunken up!" 33

"He thinks she is a vase of darkness: if he tips her up, black light will spill out. She is not Eve but, herself, the forbidden fruit, and he has eaten her!"34

"Woman, a vile slave, proud in her stupidity,
Self-worshipping, without the least disgust:
Man, greedy, lustful, ruthless in cupidity,
Slave to a slave, and sewer to her lust." 35

"[B]ut she will hold him to her bosom and comfort him for betraying to her in his self-disgust those trace elements of common humanity he has left inside her body, for which he blames her bitterly, for which he will glorify her, awarding her the eternity promised by the poet."36


"Nothing but should address
The soul's loneliness,
Speaking her sweet and secret native tongue."37

"It was as though her tongue had been cut out and another one sewn in that did not fit well."38

"There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure."39

"Therefore you could say, not so much that Jeanne did not understand the lapidary, troubled serenity of her lover's poetry but, that it was a perpetual affront to her. He recited it to her by the hour." 40

"You'd know that she was young.
Her soul affronted.
Her senses stung with boredom" 41


"Come to my arms, cruel and sullen thing;
Indolent beast, come to my arms again." 42

"[She] invited him to join in the dance with her. But he never would, never. Scared of muzzing his shirt or busting his collar or something."43

"I long to sleep: I think that from a stark
Slumber like death I could awake the same
As I was once, and lavish without shame
Caresses on your body, glowing and dark." 44

"He liked to have her make a spectacle of herself, to provide a sumptuous feast for his bright eyes which were always bigger than his belly." 45

"To see her body flower with her desire
And freshly spread out in its dreadful play." 46

"Venus lies on the bed, waiting for a wind to rise: the sooty Albatross hankers for the storm. Whirlwind!" 47

"And guilty joys with feasts of strange delight
Full of infernal kisses, omens certain." 48

"'Get it up for me', said the poet." [. . .] "'Jeanne, get it up for me'".49

"And then, voluptuousness divine!
Delicious ritual and profound!
I drink in every sob like wine"50

"'Nothing is simple for this fellow! He makes a performance worthy of the Comedie Francaise out of a fuck, bringing him off is a five act drama with farcical interludes and other passages that could make you cry and, afterwards, cry he does, he is ashamed, he talks about his mother." 51

The collage of quotations calls attention to the ways in which Carter's text 'Black Venus' (1985) is in dialogue with Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil (1857). Although Baudelaire's so-called 'Black Venus cycle' provides the title for Carter's intervention she also draws from outside the cycle in order to weave a composite narrative about the relationship of the poet to his muse. Indeed, it is possible to read the formation of Carter's text as an ironic critique of the ways in which Baudelaire frames his muse Jeanne Duval through a nineteenth century colonial aesthetic in which black woman is framed as the tabula rasa for a series of white disseminations. Carter's dismantling of Baudelaire's poems inscribes the scene behind his writing as a choreography of light and dark enacted in the (modernist) cave of his writing in which a white man's shadow can cast whole continents into darkness.

However, while Carter re-writes these disseminations on/of the body of Duval as infectious (Baudelaire infects Jeanne with syphilis just as he infects her with his colonising aesthetics) the muse of Carter's text outlives Baudelaire, sells his remaining poetry, sails to the Caribbean with the money and there dispenses "to the most privileged of the colonial administration, at a not excessive price, the veritable, the authentic, the true Baudelairean syphilis."52 Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil live on through writing but also through the body of his 'muse' Jeanne. While Baudelaire's writing potentially disseminates the aesthetics of a colonial imagination, his virus silently rots the core body of the parasitic 'colonial administration.' In "Black Venus" Baudelaire's muse does not simply function as the feminine mediator which bears the word for a phallocentric imaginary but rather strategically re-infects the parasites with their own virus, turning the tables to transform parasite into host, coloniser into colonised.

Similarly, the para-citational gestures at play in Carter's text function as dismantling infections: the main body of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil is contaminated by Carter's insistence that between the lines of his poetry the muse Jeanne is thinking otherwise. Carter's text works on several levels to explode and displace the power of Baudelaire's aesthetics. Firstly, she excavates a parasitic narrative which lies encrypted within The Flowers of Evil by writing against but along side the grain of Baudelaire's text in order to construct a narrative about Jeanne Duval. By bringing attention to and historicising the racial, gender and class differences that would have existed between Baudelaire and Jeanne, Carter writes a critique not only of Baudelaire but of the tradition from which he emerges. Parodying Baudelaire's poems allows Carter to position his voice strategically within the text: "Invitation to the Voyage," "The Voyage" and "A Former Life" are mimicked in order to contrast Jeanne's and Baudelaire's perception of the colony. By exploding the romantic myth of origins which the poems rely upon, Carter re-frames them as part of a violating aesthetics which attempts to write Jeanne into the essentialising and unified space of the exotic Other- "he will force a home upon her whether she's got one or not."53 Baudelaire's infamous appreciation of the beautiful is cast as an attempt to limit and contain Jeanne's nomadic impurity with the rhetoric of a colonial imagination in which tropes like 'noble savage' function to eclipse the materiality of white imperialism. The romanticisation of slaves in "A Former Life" and the description of Jeanne as a "Moorish slave-girl" in "Jewels" also points to the way in which aesthetics and economic instrumentality are closely aligned. Indeed Carter describes the relationship between Baudelaire and Jeanne, poet and live-in muse, as a form of prostitution which is brought about by the effects of French colonialism. Forced through poverty into being a kept woman Jeanne functions as the Black Venus for the poet's parasitical body of writing. Moreover, it is possible to read the politics of desire occurring in the text as a description of the ways in which the colonial writing machine eclipses the material history of colonised others. Baudelaire's eroticisation of Jeanne as a dancing 'slave-girl' is dependent not only upon a blindness to the other's material reality but also an intoxication with, not opium, but power.

Speculating about Jeanne Duval's biography Carter comments that there is no scholarly agreement over where she came from, her date of birth being unknown and besides "Duval she also used the names Prosper and Lemer, as if her name was of no consequence." 54 Against the background of French colonialism Carter describes Jeanne's genealogy as a series of accidental births and matings between people of unknown nationalities in unknown countries. Jeanne's Creole - "her secret and native tongue" - is at odds with the poet's eloquence, which as Carter writes, denied her language. Jeanne is not simply the feminine victim of phallocentric language; her marginalisation is the product of a history of colonial oppression in which gender and class inter-twine to produce subjects whose languages are denied the space of reason.

If Carter's project in "Black Venus" is to re-inscribe the eclipsed history of Baudelaire's 'muse', her reading is in sharp contrast to Kristeva's interpretation in Tales of Love where Baudelaire's "The Flask" is analysed as an example of the musicality of male avant-garde writing. The "powerful odours" which pass through "some old box" "from the East" are analysed by Kristeva as "perfume." She goes on to assert that this perfume has "fusional connotations that condense the intoxicated memory of an invaded maternal body."55 Moreover, this perfume "is the most powerful metaphor for that archaic universe."56 Carter however, reads the poem as a double-edged homage to a syphilitic flask in which Jeanne's "invaded maternal body" (that orientalised box) is framed as the cause of Baudelaire's "beloved pestilence!" For in "Black Venus," it is Baudelaire who infects Jeanne with syphilis but "blames her most bitterly" - after all, Jeanne is from that "archaic universe" where people don't wash because they're uncivilised. Rather than attempting to explain the psychoanalytic basis for the imagined torment the great white male avant-garde writer experiences - an explanation that locates creative disintegration as a dangerous fusion with the irrational maternal semiotic chora - Carter seems to be saying that Baudelaire and his ilk can be read as practitioners of what Rousseau once described as "that dangerous supplement." 57

Carter's critique is also at odds with Walter Benjamin's analysis of Baudelaire as a "professional consipirator" whose revolutionary modernist aesthetics corrupted Romanticism.58 In "Baudelaire: Liberté, Libertinage, and Modernity" Beryl Schlossman takes up Benjamin's critique and argues that "Heautontimoroumenos" represents Baudelaire's understanding of revolution as "a structure of reciprocal violence." Schlossman immediately follows this with the assertion that the poet "limits political ideology to a relationship of victim and executioner."59 Schlossman's reading is dependent on an interpretation of such lines as "I'll strike you" and "I am the looking-glass, wherethrough/ Megaera sees herself portrayed!" as indications that the (female) object of violence has internalised the executioner's gaze.60 Furthermore, in a series of strange theoretical twists Schlossman argues that the unidentified woman in "Héautontimorouménos" is actually a metaphor for Romanticism and the poem's uneasy celebration of violence represents Baudelaire's violation of the Romantic tradition. Reduced to metaphor the specificity of the woman in the text is evacuated.

Similarly, Schlossman interprets "The Swan" as a critique of Romanticism: alluding to Ovids' swan (and let's not forget that famous rape) the swan's lament to a dying and corrupted nature is read as Romanticism's cry of disillusion. Exiled from the Edenic garden of romanticism the swan reproaches a silent and absent god for his expulsion while traipsing melancholically through the modernity of the "new palaces, and scaffoldings, and blocks" of Paris.61 The (melancholic) black sun of modernity has eclipsed the hope and brightness of the romantic vision, all that remains are memories, the shadowy simulacra of an imagined past. Schlossman's reading of "The Swan" locates the poem as a key moment in the formation of modernist aesthetics insofar as it offers a corruption of the natural tradition of romanticism. Moreover, in a somewhat desperate attempt to locate the edge of modernity Schlossman argues that the poem prefigures Barthes' death of the author and thus "marks a decisive turn in the economy of textuality; the reign of the authorial self is declared to be over." 62 Baudelaire is thus championed as a great modernist writer. However, it is apparently of no consequence that in the very same poem Baudelaire writes the following:

And of the Negress, wan and phthisical,
Tramping the mud, and with her haggard eyes
Seeking behind the mighty walls of fog
The absent palm-trees of proud Africa.63

Recalling Carter's reading of Baudelaire it is possible to ask: whose exile has been appropriated as a convenient allegory for the death of the author? Furthermore, an attention to questions of gender and race allows for another reading of the great modernist moment occurring in Baudelaire's "The Swan." After all, the swan in question is "like him that Ovid writes of;" the romantic tradition for which the swan stands as an allegorical figure is therefore gendered as masculine. In contrast to the white nobility of the swan as the masculine gender of Romanticism the exiled 'Negress' can concurrently be read as another allegory for romanticism within the poem. (No guessing as to who gets raped.) When this is acknowledged it is possible to read the exile of a black woman in the poem as the feminisation of modernity's corruption of romanticism. That this reading is eclipsed by Schlossman is significant: an attention to the specificity of the tropes of gender and race utilised in the poem calls attention to the ways in which the death of what is assumed to be a universal author-subject often occurs at the expense of the subjectivity of others. "In Baudelaire's 'Le Cygne'," writes Schlossman, "monuments and disguises go underground; they live on in the sanctum of memory."64 The exiled 'Negress' in "The Swan" can be read as functioning as the immobilised and silenced feminine caryatid which supports the weight of modernity's catacombs of allegory.

"Who reigns, now that the imperial author is dead?" asks Schlossman. Carter's answer might be located in Jeanne's actions after Baudelaire dies from his "beloved pestilence!": dismantle and sell the remains, move strategically and there dispense "to the most privileged of the colonial administration, at a not excessive price, the veritable, the authentic, the true Baudelairian syphilis."65 After all, the moral of Carter's tale seems to be that the death of a white author does not have to spell the death of a black woman.

Murdoch University


1. Carter, Angela, "Black Venus", in Black Venus , London: Chatto and Windus, 1985, 7-24, 10.
2. Baudelare, Charles, "Invitation to the Voyage" trans: Richard Wilbur, in "The Flowers of Evil" A Selection, ed: Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, New York: New Directions, 1955, 53.
3. Carter, 10.
4. Baudelaire, "A Former Life," trans: F. P. Sturm, 17.
5. Carter, 10.
6. Baudelaire, "Invitation to the Voyage," 55
7. Carter, 11
8. Baudelaire, "The Voyage," trans: Roy Cambell, 137
9. Carter, 11.
10. Carter, 11.
11. Baudelaire, "Jewels," trans: David Paul, 23.
12. Carter, 11.
13. Baudelaire, "Jewels," 23.
14. Carter, 11.
15. Baudelaire, "The Dancing Serpent," trans: Barabara Gibbs, 33.
16. Carter, 19.
17. Baudelaire, "Jewels," 23.
18. Carter, 12.
19. Baudelaire, "Jewels," 25.
20. Carter, 12.
21. Baudelaire, "Jewels," 23.
22. Angela, 12.
23. Baudelaire, "Jewels," 25.
24. Carter, 12.
25. Baudelaire, "The Dancing Serpent," 33.
26. Carter, 14-15.
27. Baudelaire, "Jewels," 23.
28. Carter, 13.
29. Baudelaire, "The Flask," trans: F. P. Sturm, 47.
30. Carter, 15.
31. Baudelaire, "The Flask," 47.
32. Carter, 15.
33. Baudelaire, "The Flask," 49.
34. Carter, 15.
35. Carter, "The Voyage," 141.
36. Carter, 21-22.
37. Baudelaire, "Invitation to the Voyage," 55.
38. Carter, 18.
39. Baudelaire, "Invitation to the Voyage," 55.
40. Carter, 18.
41. Baudelaire, "The Martyr," trans: Roy Cambell, 113.
42. Baudelaire, "Lethe," trans: George Dillon, 35.
43. Carter, 13.
44. Baudelaire, "Lethe," 35.
45. Carter, 18.
46. Baudelaire, "Giantess," trans: Karl Shapiro, 21.
47. Carter, 18.
48. Baudelaire, "The Martyr," 111.
49. Carter, 21.
50. Baudelaire, "A Madrigal of Sorrow," trans: F. P. Sturm, 157.
51. Carter, 21.
52. Carter, 23.
53. Carter, 11.
54. Carter, 16.
55. Kristeva, Julia, Tales of Love, trans: Leon S. Roudiez, New York, Columbia University Press, 1987, 329.
56. Kristeva, 334.
57. c.f. Jacques Derrida on Rousseau's description of masturbation as "... that dangerous supplement...Ó in Of Grammotology , trans: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, 141-157. However Derrida's interpretation of Rousseau's nocturnal activity is not necessary being suggested here.
58. Here Schlossman's reference is to Walter Benjamin's Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedmann and Hernamm Schweppenhauser. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974. Schlossman writes "Benjamin's text begins with an image of Baudelaire. The poet appears in the guise of a bohemian revolutionary, described by Marx as a 'conspirateur de profession'. In two articles published in 1850, these revolutionaries were characterized by anger, provocation, mystification, a taste for playing devil's advocate, and a penchant for improvising strategies." The two articles in question are Les Conspirateurs, by Adolphe Chenu, and La Naissance de la Republique en fevrier 1848, by Lucien de la Hodde, both published in Paris in 1850. Beryl Schlossman, "Baudelaire: LibertŽ, Libertinage, and Modernity," Sub-Stance 70, 67-80. As Schlossman comments in footnote six of her paper "The concept of Baudelaire's prose poetry as a reflection of a revolutionary aesthetic is developed by Barbara Johnson in Defigurations du language poetique, Paris: Flammarion, 1982.Ó
59. Schlossman, 72.
60. Baudelaire, "Heautontimoroumenos," trans: Roy Campbell , 67-69.
61. Baudelaire, "The Swan," trans: F. P. Sturm, 79-83.
62. Schlossman, 79.
63. Baudelaire, "The Swan," 83.
64. Schlossman, 79.
65. Carter, 23.

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