Twins in Suffering: Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire

‘Jacob Wrestles with the Angel’, Gustav Doré, 1885

Twins in Suffering: Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire

Buddhadeva Bose

Editor’s note: Charles Baudelaire had his two hundredth birth anniversary on 21st April this year. The poet, novelist, and critic Buddhadeva Bose began translating Baudelaire into Bengali in the 1950s. He was not performing an altruistic task by presenting a French poet to Bengali readers (who could, anyway, have read him in English translation), but shaping a literary history that wasn’t defined by cultural ownership.

Bose isn’t interested in the usual models of historic exchange and movement: to give an example of such a model – ‘Colonialism brought the novel to India, where it took on new forms’. Bose doesn’t think literary history works in this way. His essay below proposes Baudelaire and Dostoevsky as ‘twins’ born at the same time in different parts of Europe, asking us to put on hold ‘Europe’ as a unitary idea, and to become alert to coincidences and echoes, to correspondences rather than a linear history of genre. While creating a context for Baudelaire and Dostoekvsky, he provincialises the colonial narrative: ‘The next half-century will see the ascendancy of England in world politics and, in the same measure, her decline in poetry and literature. Indeed the two facts are inter-related; it was England’s empire which caused her spiritual anaemia.’ Various kinds of interrelationship are explored by Bose as he pursues the notion of the twin.

Although Bose founded the first department of comparative literature in India, he wasn’t really a comparativist, if comparativism means leaving linear history undisturbed. Bose was a simultaneist; cultures presented themselves to him not as antecedents, but as components of the historical moment in which he found himself. He discovered, simultaneously, relationships these components had to each other and to him. He also gave birth to the twins in his essay.

There is another essay related, fortuitously, to both Baudelaire and Bose in the new uploads in the Magazine section: Sumana Roy’s reflections on Bose’s Bengali translations of the French poet, which, she says, left a deeper impression on her than the English versions.

Bose’s 1959 essay, which he wrote in English around the same time he completed his Bengali translations, and Roy’s new essay, which she has kindly written for the literary activism website, are offered to readers to celebrate Baudelaire’s 200th birth anniversary, not to forget Dostoevsky’s, as well as new ways of experiencing literary history.


Last summer, while preparing a chronology of the life of Charles Baudelaire, I hit upon a fact which I had not found in any book: Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky were born in the same year. I must confess I was strangely moved by this discovery; it seemed to me providential rather than a mere coincidence, something destined and purposeful rather than blindly concurrent. It was marvellous to reflect that in the same year this poor planet of ours was permitted to receive two individuals whose life’s work transformed the very conception of the novel and the poem. With them ‘a terrible beauty’ was born in literature.

The year was 1821. Romanticism had not yet arrived in France, but Pushkin, having read Byron in French versions, was laying the foundations of modern Russian literature. England, where romanticism and the modern novel originated, was still secure in literary leadership. Don Juan and the Waverley Novels were in process; Shelley had published Prometheus Unbound. During the next decade, Paris will be hit by the Dandies and Anglomania, Goethe dead, and French romanticism will win the day in the Battle of Hernani.1 But by then the ‘fanatic hearts’ of England will have stopped beating and a highly domesticated ‘Lawn’ Tennyson begun to prevail. The next half-century will see the ascendancy of England in world politics and, in the same measure, her decline in poetry and literature. Indeed the two facts are inter-related; it was England’s empire which caused her spiritual anaemia. Through those long and gilded eras associated with the names of Queen Victoria and King Edward, the English writers were on the whole too smug and provincial to mean much to the big world outside their realm. While Thackeray depicted English manners and Tennyson the English countryside, germinal poetry moved to France and the novel to Russia.

I am anxious to be brief and I beg the reader’s indulgence for not mentioning Dickens and the French realistic school. We all know that their influence on world fiction was large and important, but who of us can deny that of all the novelists of the nineteenth century, the most significant for us today, and those with whom we are most intimate, hailed from a country with little history and apparently no ‘tradition’, a country which appeared on the eastern horizon of Europe only in the century before Pushkin’s? Marvellous was the leap with which Russia entered into world history and world literature. Russia, veiled in fog for centuries, untouched by the Renaissance and untutored by classical ideals, rooted to Byzantine Christianity and the rough native vernacular—how was it that she produced, all in the course of the nineteenth century, the dazzling series of writers from Pushkin to Anton Chekov? We are forced to conclude that her weakness in culture proved to be her strength in creativity: free from the perpetual tutelage of Aristotle, from the constrictions of French rationalism, and what André Gide calls the Castilian pride of Western nations, she, a gigantic and eager virgin, was no sooner exposed to the seeds of Western Europe than she shocked the world with a productivity of which the only historical parallel is Goethe’s Germany. How intense this absorption was, is seen from the promptness and opulence with which the Russian writers gave back what they had initially borrowed from the West—Pushkin and Lermontov from Byron, Gogol from Hoffmann, and Dostoyevsky from Dickens: the least one can say in this matter is that the balance is rather on the credit side. Likewise, the Dandies and Bouzingos of France were proud to imitate English ways, and yet it was the French poets from Baudelaire to Laforgue who set the tone for modern poetry. In London, as the nineteenth century drew to its close, Yeats and his friends realised that they must ‘purify poetry of all that was not poetry’; and by poetry was meant poetry ‘as written by Verlaine and Baudelaire’. And Baudelaire and Verlaine were the two poets whom Rilke rapturously quoted and referred to in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, a book conceived soon after his arrival in Paris in 1902.

If we were required to name two writers, one in verse and the other in prose, who lifted the curtain on the twentieth century and with whom modern literature begins, it is these two names that would rise instantly to our lips: the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal and the creator of the Karamazovs. In the English-speaking world, the twentieth century did not begin till the appearance of Prufrock, but France and Russia, thanks to Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky, brought forth the twentieth century well before the nineteenth was out. Without knowing each other’s work or being aware of each other’s existence, they collaborated on the completion of a great work: the creation of the idea of modern literature and the myth of the twentieth-century man.

Both were enemies of common sense and utilitarianism, hungry for guilt and beatitude. Certain passages of Notes from Underground read almost like a prose commentary on Les Fleurs. What they reveal is truly a Baudelairean world transferred to St Petersburg, a world where the practical man is morally deformed and the man of conscience utterly useless to society. Thomas Mann has noted that the hero of the Notes is in reality a non-hero or anti-hero, and this applies with equal force to the ubiquitous ‘I’ of the Fleurs. Both are representatives of the free man, the child of the spirit who refuses to conform, sick and incapable of resolution because of excessive consciousness. Modern society threatens to crush him; it is too late in the day to revolt in the Byronic fashion; the best he can do is to go underground and assert the value of the individual—not in the hope of influencing the times but as a mode of self-knowledge. And that is what these two non-heroes do, in a characteristically confessional and purgatorial style, crying out from the depth of a darkness rent by the lightning of a terrifying clairvoyance.

Great literature is often of mean origin, as Diotima held love to be. A source of the Fleurs was the so-called charnel-house poets of the eighteen-twenties, remembered today chiefly for Baudelaire’s interest in them. On Dostoyevsky an important foreign influence was the ‘frenetic’ school of French romanticism, which stimulated him to explore the psychology of cruelty and self-abasement. But what was crude and sensational in the models, merely physically sensational, gained a spiritual dimension in the works of these two seers whose path to Heaven lay through sin and profanation. The stock they took over was already rather shop-soiled—corpses and crime, madness and hysteria, snake-like women and lovers who love ignominy; but when the next generation received it, it had all become radiantly new and meaningful, charged with an anguished and human urgency. Dostoyevsky plans a ‘thriller’ and writes The Double, an acute study of the duality of man’s character; he begins a crime story and ends on the theme of salvation. In like manner, death and putrefaction in Baudelaire have reference to those ultimate questions that man, who is not mere animate matter, is bound to ask himself sometimes. They both burned with the same hot flame: a love of God made strong and valid by a thorough knowledge of the ways of Satan. And the fuel of that flame was their whole existence.

‘There are in every man, always, two simultaneous allegiances, one to God, the other to Satan.’ ‘God and the Devil are forever contending, and the battlefield is the heart of man.’ The same thought, and almost the same words; yet the first is from Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals and the second from The Karamazovs. ‘I consider myself an intelligent man only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything,’ says Dostoyevsky’s underground man, and Baudelaire: ‘To be a useful person has always appeared to me something particularly horrible.’ ‘Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! … Here all boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side!’ It is Dmitri Karamazov who is speaking, but the accent may as well be of the Parisian poet who sees in beauty a sphinx, ambivalent between Heaven and Hell, engaging man in a duel ‘in which he shrieks with terror before being overcome.’ How remarkable that, with all their obvious differences, these two minds should intersect at so many points! ‘Woman is natural, that is to say abominable.’ Harmonising with this neat French epigram rises a shrill Slavonic voice: ‘The real normal man, as Mother Nature wished to see him, is stupid and should be stupid. The antithesis of the normal man is the man of acute consciousness, who has come not out of the lap of Nature but out of a retort.’ Consciousness produces what Dostoyevsky calls inertia and Baudelaire ennui, a painful and exhilarating prolongation of the time-sense. The underground man regards his fortieth year as ‘extreme old age’, and at thirty Baudelaire is able to ask himself: ‘If I have lived three minutes in one … am I not ninety years old?’

The two men have essentially the same vision, the same scale of values. Their connection is umbilical: nurtured by two widely separated cultures, one logical and aristocratic, the other mystic and revelational, they are nevertheless twins in the pursuit of suffering. I say pursuit, meaning that they do not see suffering merely as the absence of happiness, but as a positive value and perhaps the supreme value of human existence. Suffering, they seem to argue, denotes a desire for the impossible, and the desire for the impossible is the mark of the hero and the saint. Suffering that interests them is congenital rather than circumstantial, not to be removed by technology and social reform. It is not as social types that Baudelaire treats the poor and the desolate, but as his own counterparts, figures of an infinite sadness in whom he sees himself reflected. His widows and clowns and ragpickers are beyond our pity or commiseration; they have grown larger than life-size by having made suffering their career. In like manner, Dostoyevsky’s characters suffer as if by instinct, as normal people satisfy hunger or sex.

Art is willed, and life is a chain of accidents. Yet what the works of the two men tell us, their biographies perfectly corroborate. Examples of sufferers they not only were, but were almost determined to be. Here again we come upon a string of coincidences: syphilis and epilepsy; a discordant stepfather and a parasitic stepson; frustration in love; unending humiliation and debts—but for Dostoyevsky’s years in Siberia, the portions would seem to be equally divided. But the point is not what happened to them, but what they made of what did. There is enough to show that they were not weak or passive men who merely let unpleasant things befall them. Steadily they sought and courted suffering, went out of their way to meet it, instinctively realising its need. With both men, suffering is something to be earned and the one thing never to be dissipated.

Baudelaire hated ‘good nature’, at any rate as manifested in George Sand, that ‘prodigious blockhead’ whom Dostoyevsky warmly admired. This difference in literary taste need not make us pause, for Dostoyevsky’s good-natured characters are not so in George Sand’s manner: they do not wish away the ills of the world and are conscious of the value of suffering. It is Stepan Trofimovich in The Possessed, in the shaping of whom Dostoyevsky must have helped himself to a big dose of Dickensian comicality, it is that mild, affable and ludicrous ex-radical who insists that ‘unhappiness is as necessary to man as happiness.’ ‘I believe that the fundamental need of the Russian soul is a thirst for suffering,’ Dostoyevsky wrote in his Diary of a Writer, having believed all his life that suffering was a privilege of the Russians and the Russian people could suffer more richly and creatively than any other nation on earth. Shattered by his own novels, and by works like The Overcoat and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, we could as well have taken him at his word, had we not known what he did not: that in one of those West European capitals which he stigmatised as ‘godless’, someone had made the astounding discovery that the function of the poet in the modern times was to suffer on behalf of all. Let us note it was an American, a child of a young and vigorous country far removed from the perplexities of Europe, that revealed this truth to Baudelaire. In Edgar Poe, Baudelaire saw his own image, the type of modern poet who martyrs himself to art. On the specific question of art, Dostoyevsky said but little, and though his underground man is a great reader who wants to translate literature into life, the few professional writers flitting through his novels are very minor and the least sympathetic of his characters. Yet there is a striking resemblance between his most appealing creations and the ‘pious poet’ of Baudelaire: Prince Myshkin, for example, who takes upon himself the whole mad load of human suffering, but, with all his conscience, does not and cannot effect the slightest change in his own immediate surroundings, let alone averting the horrible murder which he foresaw before setting his eyes on the victim and within a couple of minutes of his first meeting with the would-be murderer. Myshkin’s virtue lies in his blazing consciousness, his sense of responsibility for all. His task is not to save the world, but to feel it. Like the poet of the Fleurs and Paris Spleen, he can enter into the souls of the sick and fallen, but their wounds he does not pretend to be able to heal. No question his spirit is that of the poet, as Baudelaire conceived the poet to be.

Poets are contemplatives, and so are Dostoyevsky’s great characters, not excepting ‘devils’ like Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov. Now these ‘devils’, as André Gide has pointed out, never act on their own but through others. They have agents to do things for them, to carry out the fiendish schemes they hatch in their fever and isolation. And these agents are cringing and villainous slaves. There is Smerdyakov for Ivan and Pyotr Verkhovensky for Stavrogin. As Baudelaire loathed action, so in Dostoyevsky all action is loathsome. Why is this so? The reason is the clash of their times and their temperaments; one strenuously reformistic, the other deeply religious. By the mid-nineteenth century, the work of helping one’s neighbours had passed on to professional social workers; torn from its moral and personal context, it had become a matter for committees and State departments. All action tended to be official and regimented; the private person felt relieved of responsibility. But it was only the private person who could if he willed it, do good, for it took a good man to do a good action, and a good man was an individual whom society had immobilized. This explains the impotence of Prince Myshkin and the dreadful efficiency of Smerdyakov. And this is what Baudelaire had in mind when he defined progress as ‘the individual relying upon his neighbours to do his work’.

‘Each of us is responsible for everybody else,’ was Dostoyevsky’s insistent cry. Human inter-dependence, as he saw it, was rooted in religion, for ‘if God did not exist everything would be permitted.’ It is the murky Smerdyakov who thinks this thought: in Dostoyevsky God is an obsession with all who get involved in crime and ignominy. Clearly, their need of God is desperate. Let us note in passing that Alyosha, the only Karamazov capable of a good action, seldom discusses the question of God; we feel he accepts too easily and we see he has never really suffered, not even for his brothers’ sake. And let us remind ourselves of Father Zossima’s injunction: Alyosha may know the world and the evil in it before he returns to the way of God. There is little doubt that, if the sequel to The Karamazov were written, we would have seen Alyosha ‘sinning his way to Jesus’ like all his brethren in spirit.

Through the works of these two visionaries, like the blood stream in our bodies, circulates the thought that sin leads to suffering and suffering to redemption. It is impossible to live without sinning: the question is whether we know it or not. All sin, but only a few do so consciously and suffer on that account. And among those who do suffer it is only the most rare individual who can actually break through to bliss. Yet there is merit in suffering itself, in remembering God with an anguished intensity, in the manner of Myshkin and Dmitri Karamazov, and even of Fedya, the stealer of church property. Suffering such as theirs is spiritual, though sometimes externalised in poverty or disease. It would be easy to show that in the modern age, despite or because of its so-called materialism, literature and the arts have acquired a new soul. What has happened? Suffering has invaded them, and made them profoundly spiritual, whether in the conception of love, or beauty, or man. And of this there are no examples nobler than the works of Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire.

* First published in the Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Vol. 1 (1959).

1 Ed.: Hernani (Full title: Hernani, ou l’Honneur Castillan) is a play by the French romantic author Victor Hugo.

Reproduced courtesy Oxford University Press from An Acre of Green Grass and other English Writings by Buddhadeva Bose, edited by Rosinka Chaudhuri (2018).

Buddhadeva Bose (1908-74) was a poet, novelist, and short story writer in the Bengali language, an essayist and critic in Bengali and English, and a translator. He was born in Comilla (now in Bangladesh) and moved to Calcutta in 1931, where he lived for the rest of his life.