Baudelaire and procrastination: the flâneur, the dandy, and the poet

The following is a guest blog by Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika, one of our speakers in this autumn’s Procrastination Seminar. Come and hear Tamara discuss ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’ on Wednesday 29 October at 5.30pm in the Old Library, All Souls College, Oxford.

baudelaire 1855

Baudelaire, by the famous photographer and balloonist Nadar (aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), 1855-8

Il n’y a de long ouvrage que celui qu’on n’ose pas commencer. Il devient cauchemar.

The only difficult work is that which we dare not begin. It becomes a nightmare.*

—Charles Baudelaire

These words by the accursed poet, the writer of beautiful spleen and terrifying idéal himself, are a perfect mantra for anyone experiencing the entrancing throes of procrastination.

The sentence that follows them in his Journaux Intimes (1887)—“By putting off what one has to do, one runs the danger of never being able to do it”—confirms that Baudelaire was no stranger to procrastination. Since he speaks of it as danger, risk, or haunting nightmare, it is not surprising that he also offers thoughts on how to counter its siren call.

A few lines further, in a section titled “Hygiene. Morality. Behaviour.”, Baudelaire makes this note-to-self: “An abridgement of wisdom. Grooming, prayer, work.” As editor Claude Pichois explains, the poet viewed the ritual of prayer as a process through which to gather his spirits, focus on his work, and enhance his determination.

Indeed, although Baudelaire penned the figure of the flâneur who whiles away the hours in observant but unproductive wanderings, his journals show that he actually aspired to a work ethic that defies procrastination (“Work tirelessly six days a week”)—and that there is another key figure of his oeuvre which is closely connected to this preoccupation with time and creation: the dandy.

Dandy

In his essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Baudelaire depicts the dandy as a man stoically devoted to “cultivat[ing] the idea of beauty” in himself, assiduously crafting his existence into a work of art. While some are quick to discard the dandy as a superficial figure, the Journaux Intimes underline that Baudelaire’s dandy has depth: he is the “superior man”, who must “be sublime without interruption” and even “like to work”, so long as it is not for the mundane purpose of making a living—since he is by definition, as is clearly stated, wealthy and powerful enough to not be concerned with such trivialities.

The dandy’s meticulous grooming and steadfast commitment to sustaining a cold, proud façade (he has an “unshakable resolve not to be moved”) are less frivolous than popular opinion would have it: as Baudelaire’s above note-to-self indicates, they are an antidote to procrastination, a morally-driven behaviour at the service of creation. By dedicating his every minute to embodying his aesthetic ideal, unperturbed by the rest of the world, the dandy’s mere being—both in appearance and thought—is art, without having to produce anything outside of himself.

fleurs du mal-01

The poet, however, does not necessarily have this luxury. In his poem “La Fin de la Journée” from the iconic Fleurs du Mal (1857), Baudelaire writes that a poet always welcomes nighttime with a relieved “At Last!”—not only because he revels, in romantic fashion, in its soothing shadows, but also because it “erases everything, even shame”. Tormented by the pressure of time and productivity (daytime is “pushy and shrill” in the poem), the poet feels at home in the moment at which rest and sleep (darkly likened to entombment) are expected.

As evident in the use of the words ‘erase’ and ‘shame’, artistic self-doubt looms behind the poet’s procrastinatory tendency and his desire for respite from, even destruction of, his work. In Baudelaire’s “Le Confiteor de l’Artiste” (from the prose poetry collection, Le Spleen de Paris, 1869), the speaker, in awe of the splendour and vastness of the world, confesses: “The study of beauty is a duel in which the artist screams out of fear before being vanquished.” The poet is paralysed by the beauty that he sees in the light of day, unsure he will be able to match its wonder.

The dandy, untroubled by ordinary considerations or feelings (deadlines, bills, or low self-confidence are foreign to him), is indefatigably focused on being his own masterpiece (he must even “sleep in front of a mirror”, according to the Journeaux Intimes). The poet, confronted with the realities of life and his own anxieties, instead finds solace at night, when the spectre of what has not been achieved during the day fades. He can then stop writing and revising—or on the contrary, stop putting it off and quietly start all over again—liberated by the sense that the late hours demand nothing from him, that darkness is a blank slate.

Photo © JR_Paris, Flickr

Three visions for the (anti)-procrastinator: flâneur, dandy, poet. Photo © JR_Paris, Flickr

Baudelaire’s work is a Pierian spring for procrastinators. The flâneur, who merely promenades through the modern city, without aiming to create anything, may be the first of Baudelaire’s key figures to come to the procrastinator’s mind: how could the freedom of idling along the streets with no obligation not be tempting when faced with a daunting task? Moreover, as is commonly accepted, a stroll may spark renewed creativity (though that is not what the true flâneur seeks).

Yet Baudelaire’s oeuvre presents an alternate figure for procrastinators to draw inspiration from: the dandy, who pledges his life so entirely to his aesthetic principles (in a manner assimilated to ‘spiritualism’ in the author’s essay) that his every move serves to realise them. Those who have creative rituals may find a new spiritual leader in Baudelaire’s dandy and challenge themselves to emulate the constancy underpinning his sartorial and behavioural choices. As we have seen, Baudelaire apparently practiced prayer—as well as perfect dress—to concentrate his creative energy.

Nevertheless, given that neither of these “ideal” figures (who, it is important to note, are not in fact procrastinators, since they are not required to produce anything to begin with) represents a tenable way of life for the average person in our society, the procrastinator may simply find it reassuring to listen to the voice of the third figure, the poet, echoing through Baudelaire’s writing—a voice which speaks of uncertainty and fear, but still decides to ring out and not remain silent.

 *All quotes in English are my translations from the French texts.

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The Thief of Time

‘Procrastination is the thief of time,’ runs the most famous line from Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts. (‘Collar him!’ added Mr Micawber.)

night thoughts

Another of our Mañanarama posters (PDF here). Edward Young was a Fellow of All Souls College, host of the Procrastination Seminar in autumn 2014

Edward Young is today now largely forgotten: his ‘religious enthusiasm and epigrammatic density cost him readers’, his biographer informs us, while his reputation was further dented when George Eliot attacked his ‘radical insincerity’. But the adage lives on.

Here it is in a nineteenth-century Ohio guest book,

Procrastination thief of time ohio guestbook

here in the title of an intriguing set of essays on procrastination (2010)

Andreou White thief of time

as well as a Discworld novel (2001) in which a sinister race of ‘Auditors’ attempt to take the scientific quest to manage time to its logical conclusion—by freezing time through the perfect clock

Terry Pratchett thief of time

and here, most wonderfully, in the 1930s in the hand of Time magazine, in a letter sent to late-paying subscribers.

Letter from Time magazine

From Successful Collection Letters (1941) via Letters of Note (2012)

It was apparently quite successful. As Young reminds us a few lines later, ‘Be wise today; ’tis madness to defer.’

Lame Excuses

Or,
the Many Literary Afterlives
of the Person from Porlock

Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes…
That Night a Fire did break out—
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
[But] every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

—Hilaire Belloc, ‘Matilda: Who told Lies,
and was Burned to Death’
Cautionary_Tales_for_Children_1907_edition

Forced to dissemble by a deadline-obsessed world, procrastinators tend to be an untrustworthy bunch. Consider Kafka, who complained bitterly that his job simply did not give him time to write. In fact his shift lasted only from 8.30am until 2.30pm, and he often enjoyed a four-hour afternoon nap (and writing endless letters about his lack of time). In the words of a disappointed Zadie Smith: ‘The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you.’

In the radio documentary ‘Helping Hamlet,’ Douglas Adams’ literary agent similarly recalled the author’s constant excuses and outright lies. Procrastinators are ‘a bit like alcoholics or drug addicts,’ he declared, ‘they’re always hiding their behaviour.’

Persona non grata

The most celebrated literary excuse of all was proffered by notorious procrastinator Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Waking from an opium-tinged dream, he began scribbling down his great poem ‘Kubla Khan’. As the preface famously claims:

On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour…

The rest of the poem ‘passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast’.

Porlock, Somerset

Porlock, Somerset

Readers have continued to debate whether the unwelcome visitor was real (Wordsworth? a drug dealer?), an artistic device to leave the work fragmentary, or a tiny little fib by a chronic procrastinator.

Xanadu may have stolen the thunder, from Citizen Kane to DC Comics, but the Person from Porlock has become quietly iconic in his own right. Neil Gaiman, Arthur Conan Doyle and Inspector Morse have toyed with him in passing, while for others he has become an important motif.

Genius, interrupted

The early-C20th Coleridge scholar John Livingston Lowes used to tell his classes: ‘If there is any man in the history of literature who should be hanged, drawn, and quartered, it is the man on business from Porlock.’ Coleridge, against the Romantic notion of individual agency, is the archetype of the artist visited by the Muse—and the Person has come to symbolize all that is antithetical to creativity. He is the anti-Muse.

It is no accident that the Person came ‘on business’, and he has often been taken to signify the grubby intrusions of commerce into literary life. For Australian poet A.D. Hope, Porlock embodied the babbling distractions of the mundane and vapid. A.N. Wilson called his early essay collection Penfriends from Porlock, complaining of the distractions of journalism and literary parties (J.L. Carr told him to move to Kettering).

Death: a visitor who comes without warning. Hans Holbein the Younger, 'The Rich Man' (woodcut, c. 1526)

Death: a visitor who comes without warning. Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The Rich Man’ (woodcut, c. 1526)

In a more self-critical vein, Louis MacNeice used the concept for his last radio play, Persons from Porlock (broadcast 1963), about a painter and his alibis for failure. His art is interrupted by war, women, drink, and commercial selling-out—not unlike MacNeice himself, with radio plays themselves a meta-Porlockian distraction. Eventually Death, ‘a noble person from Porlock’, comes for the artist—and came for MacNeice himself only a few days after the broadcast.

Persons unknown 

© Street & Smith Publications

Science fiction writers also embraced S.T.C.’s image (Robert Heinlein: ‘Anne, you have just interrupted a profound thought. You hail from Porlock’), but reinvented him for the age of pulp. In Raymond F. Jones’ classic short story, published in Astounding Science Fiction (1947), the Person became a malevolent extraterrestrial conspiracy:

‘Don’t you see? It’s these Persons from Porlock who have made it impossible for me to complete my work… These Persons from Porlock—I wonder how many thousands of years of advancement they have cost the world!’

The alien Persons had indeed intervened to stop Coleridge from writing—because, of course, his drugged dream had ripped the veil from their secret colony.

A welcome break

But what if the Person came just in time? Stevie Smith cast doubt on Coleridge’s alibi: ‘As the truth is I think he was already stuck.’ Unlike her procrastinating predecessor, she welcomed a visit. This is the Person re-envisaged as a depressive death wish:

I am hungry to be interrupted
Forever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.

Porlock, 1937

Porlock, 1937

Others have embraced the Person in less morbid fashion. The experience of artistic creation has been depicted as divine: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, for example, compares the narrator’s troublingly spiritual creative experience to that of an unPorlocked Coleridge. It was a short step from this (and from sci-fi pulp fiction) to reinvent the Person himself as godly—thus Welsh poet (and Anglican priest) R.S. Thomas called him ‘The eternal, nameless caller at the door’.

For Vladimir Nabokov, the Person recurs as a supernatural being of sorts. In ‘The Vane Sisters’, the quack librarian Porlock hints at the story’s eventual paranormal literary solution; and the novel Bend Sinister (1947) was provisionally entitled ‘A Person from Porlock’—with Nabokov himself the Person, ‘an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me’. The figure last appears in Lolita as a taunt in a guestbook: ‘A. Person, Porlock, England.’

Convenient accidents

‘Tomorrow I’ll sing a sweeter song,’ S.T.C. concluded in (mis)quoted Greek, ‘but the to-morrow is yet to come.’ It never came. Not published for another two decades, ‘Kubla Khan’ would always be presented as a fragment of an unrecoverable whole.

There is something strangely potent about unfinished works, with their suggestion of eternal promise wrecked by death, or about works sadly lost altogether. They are the X on the tea-stained treasure map, the Ark of the Covenant, and have fuelled both academic speculation and Dan Brown’s career. Kurt Vonnegut even sketched a ‘Two-thirds of a Masterpiece is More than Enough’ rule. Hamlet, for example, ought to finish after the murder of Polonius: ‘Got it, got it, got it. All freeze. Bring in a person from Porlock. Lower the curtain. The play is done.’

Truman Capote ©Jack Mitchell, 1980

Truman Capote ©Jack Mitchell, 1980

But some interrupted works may never have existed at all. Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison were both perfectionist procrastinators who failed to publish for decades after their masterpieces, In Cold Blood (1965-6) and Invisible Man (1952). Both constantly sought excuses and scapegoats for their lack of productivity. For Capote it was a vindictive ex-lover who had stolen the manuscript. For Ellison it was his soon-to-be wife (YOUR SILENCE PREVENTING WORK, he telegrammed) and later a convenient fire. Both men’s biographers agree that these works may never have existed.

This, too, is interruption as divine salvation, deus ex machina—it’s the ‘dog ate my homework’ of literary procrastination.

Saving Porlock

It took an unrepentant procrastinator to fully rehabilitate the Person’s reputation. Paranormal influence on S.T.C. appeared again in Douglas Adams’ sci-fi detective mystery Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987). The novel is full of passing time, taking in a sleepy Oxbridge college full of sinecures, silent dons, and a ‘Professor of Chronology’ appointed some two centuries earlier by a clock-obsessed George III.

With the apocalypse nigh at the hands of an alien ghost, the eponymous detective must save the world with a crucial interruption in Somerset:

‘Mr. Samuel Coleridge? I was just passing by, on my way from Porlock, you understand… I do hope I haven’t kept you from anything important—’

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