Roberto Calasso’s Clandestine Metaphysics

by Eric Byrd

21032015_0976_cultura_roberto-calasso.jpg_1508290738Maybe I’m inclined to what Nietzsche called “impure thought,” that is to say, a kind of thought where abstractions are so mixed with the facts of life that you can’t disentangle them. I feel thought in general, and in particular what is unfortunately called “philosophy,” should lead a sort of clandestine life for a while, just to renew itself. By clandestine I mean concealed in stories, in anecdotes, in numerous forms that are not the form of the treatise. Then thought can biologically renew itself, as it were.

—Roberto Calasso's Paris Review interview

The structure of La Folie Baudelaire, the sixth book of Calasso's project, resembles that of the “brothel-museum” of which Baudelaire dreamt in the early hours of March 13, 1856, a Thursday – a dream interrupted at 5am when his mistress, Jeanne Duval, suddenly shifted a piece of furniture, in another room. In his dream, Baudelaire encountered another poor man of letters and they split a cab; they followed nocturnal versions of their daily routines, calling at editors to submit or solicit reviews, and presenting their books to possible patrons. Baudelaire stopped the cab at a brothel and went in to present his manuscript to the madam (on the surface, the first edition of Les Fleurs du Mal was then in preparation).

In a letter to Asselineau, Baudelaire said that the brothel-museum was made of “immense galleries, adjourning, poorly lit” – “like an erotic Piranesi,” Calasso comments – in which girls and clients mingled. Baudelaire was bashful of his bare feet and his penis hanging from his fly, and avoided the crowds to study the pictures on the walls: sketches of Egyptian ruins, ornithological prints with moving, “lively” eyes, and clinical photographs of the deformed children born to prostitutes. He encountered one such “monster born in the house,” “pink and green,” who squatted painfully upon a pedestal, with an elastic, serpentine appendage, starting from his nape and wound around his body. They talked – “he informs about his troubles and pains,” the greatest of which is the humiliation of dining at the same table with the girls, the ropelike coil of his neck-tail at his side. “I awake,” Baudelaire reported, “tired, enfeebled, with aching bones, my back, legs and sides painful. I presume I had been sleeping in the monster's contorted position.”

La Folie Baudelaire is a heap of galleries, some immense, others just closets – a grand bazaar or dilapidated palace of paragraph- to page-sized essays in which selected paintings, artifacts and texts are presented for explication – or rather for explication so insinuatingly subtle you think it the fruit of your own contemplation. Calasso's extensive arcades do have a center, and it is this passage:

“Genius is none other than childhood formulated with precision.” It is possible to come across some of Baudelaire's stunning definitions (and the art of definition was the one in which he excelled above all) obliquely or hidden in a corner, sometimes amalgamated almost inseparably with the writings of another (who is De Quincey here) or camouflaged in an occasional piece, composed reluctantly. Generally, they are not isolated phrases, with aphoristic pretensions, but fragments of phrases from which they must be detached so that their luminosity may expand. It is his way of protecting secrets: not concealing them behind esoteric barriers, but on the contrary, throwing them into a promiscuous ambience, where they can easily get lost, like a face in a crowd in a big city, thus going back to breathe their unnoticed and radiating life. Thus the cell that emits vibrations is not the verse and not even the phrase, but the suspended definition, which we can find anywhere, set in a chronicle or in a sonnet, in a digression or in a note…In all these fragments of phrases we recognize a perceptual constellation that had never crystallized before. They are juxtapositions of sensations, syntagmas, phantasms, single words, sentiments, ideas that moved away from current schemas, but without damaging form too much.

Baudelaire's “clandestine metaphysics,” scattered in the crowd of magazines and in impeccable stanzas, infiltrate a “marginal and erotic” modernity into familiar forms, without rupturing them. “The greatest exemplar of modern poetry in any language,” said Eliot, wrote sonnets so morphologically antique that when Aleksander Wat placed one before Czeslaw Milosz, alongside a sonnet of Ronsard's, Milosz hesitated a moment before pronouncing which was Baudelaire's. Resonant anecdotes like that are what make Calasso's books likewise unclassifiable, mutating in the mind, irresistibly insinuating. See the two-page sketch of Andrei Platonov – “The Moscow Gatekeeper” – in The Ruin of Kasch.

“Clandestine metaphysics” is the theme whose variations Calasso tracks in the neighboring painters and poets. Ingres extolled drawing and denigrated a concern for color, while being one of those most inventively bizarre and idiosyncratic colorists of all time; he pompously lit candles at the academic shrines of “Raphael” and “Nature” while his pencil, said Paul Valéry, pursued ideal grace “to the point of monstrosity.” Valéry on the Grand Odalisque:

The spine never long and supple enough, the neck flexible enough, the thighs smooth enough, or all the curves of the body sufficiently beguiling to the eye, which envelopes and caresses more than it sees them. The Odalisque, with a hint of the plesiosaurus about her, makes one wonder what might have resulted from a carefully controlled selection, through the centuries, of a breed of woman specially designed for pleasure – as the English horse is bred for racing.


Calasso writes that Manet “loved success, parties, the old masters, women,” “but as soon as we look at his paintings everything becomes far more obscure and disturbing.” Degas, in Medieval War Scene and Interior, comes right up to traditional, legible genre painting, but withholds some crucial touches, so that the works permit no narrative, or permit any and all narrative. In Interior (obtusely dubbed The Rape by close friends and critics) Calasso says “meanings are opaque, sentiments obscure, the whole thing could fall only into that all-enveloping, brooding, formless genre that is life itself.” Degas obeyed tradition in his obsession with the female figure, but stubbornly – fetishistically – pursued the marginal, “the intermediate poses among the canonical ones,” the poses that have “no meaning and are only functional,” and “often not perceived even by those who make them.” The washerwoman yawning, the dancer stretching, the bather drying her toes. Terrence Malick, especially in his improvisatory, fully impressionistic recent work, has revealed himself an heir of Degas – and of Woolf. To the Lighthouse – To the Wonder À la merveille.

Degas' Portrait of Edmund Duranty is one of my favorite paintings and I realized that I've loved it in Calasso's terms – a known form imbued with strange perception, in which close drawing coexists with pure coloristic abstraction. Degas translated Duranty's library into that “new existence in a beyond of color” of which Rilke spoke (in the Letters on Cezanne), where they exist “without any previous memories.”


In Courbet's The Artist's Studio Baudelaire is famously marginal and book-absorbed in the hubbub of models, critics, pets, and assorted hangers-on. Photographic analysis has revealed that Courbet painted Jeanne Duval – “a black woman looking very coquettishly at herself in a mirror,” said Courbet – beside Baudelaire, but erased the image at Baudelaire's insistence. A talismanic framed print, a detail of The Artist's Studio, of Baudelaire reading (Horace, according to Courbet), a plate I cut from a ruined 1930s book on Courbet I found for 50 cents, has been on my wall for years. At Calasso's instigation I took it down – and immediately saw Jeanne's ghostly face floating over Baudelaire's. How had I missed it? Calasso says that 19th century French audiences – Modernism's first audience – didn't see what they weren't looking for.