Saturday, April 29, 2006

Les Fleurs du mal

I've been intending to post an excerpt from my friend's memoir, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky (see April 4th post), a work which really impresses me in so many ways, but specifically for our purposes, in its many illustrations of "meaningful coincidence." Late last night I started to build the post, but demurred, as I couldn't quite find the thread that would weave it into my experience. That's not to say that everything in the blog has been or must be tied in this way, I just happen to find things more interesting when they bear multiple meanings.

So, here is the passage I wanted to share. (For new readers, the following refers to a friend's brother lost on the PanAm Lockerbie crash in 1988. And to pre-clarify, Ella Ramsden was the name of an unfortunate lady whose house was littered with bodies, on the rooftop and in the yard. David was found under her collapsed stone wall, and his book was retrieved from her yard)-

"I dug through my plastic bags of Lockerbie relics, looking for David's copy of Baudelaire's, 'The Flowers of Evil.' Judging by the mud on its cover, and the lack of mud on the covers of the other books returned from Lockerbie, I decided that David might have been reading 'The Flowers of Evil' at the time of the explosion. I used to rub at the mud and try to picture where the book could have fallen to have gotten so dirty. Now I knew that this was mud from Ella Ramsden's backyard, but this did not much diminish my preoccupation with the last things of David's life.

For all the time I'd looked at the Baudelaire book over the years, I'd never bothered to read any of the poems. The corner was turned down at "The Voyage," so I decided to start there. The poem begins with an image of "children crazed with maps and prints and stamps," their "brains on fire" with all they don't know about a vast world they've never seen. The children, it becomes clear, are really the living, and what they can't comprehend is the experience of the dead. The children cry out: "Amazing travellers.../ what have you seen?" And the dead reply: "We have seen stars and waves/We have seen sands and shores and oceans too/In spite of shocks and unexpected graves/We have been bored, at times, the same as you." Then the dead explain how their journey began:

The solar glories on the violet ocean
And those of spires that in the sunset rise,
Lit, in our hearts, a yearning, fierce emotion
To plunge into those ever-luring skies."

The definition of "synchronicity," a term coined by C.G. Jung, he described as, "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." This elaboration comes from Wikipedia: "Having two (or more) things happen coincidentally in a manner that is meaningful to the person or persons experiencing them, where that meaning suggests an underlying pattern. It differs from coincidence in that synchronicity implies not just a happenstance, but an underlying pattern or dynamic that is being expressed through meaningful relationships or events."

Or as someone smart wrote me recently, "Ever hear someone refer to 'God winking'? It's one of those coincidental moments that just blows your mind and reminds you that you're somehow connected to something bigger."

So Friday night I shrugged off the notion to write this down. I simply thought it best to wait.

Saturday morning I met my roommate at the local auto repair place, so I could drive her home after we had breakfast at the 101 Cafe. I could find a spot in neither of the adjacent parking lots, nor on the sidestreets. This is notable as it has never been the case, and I was forced to park what in LA is considered an arduous walking distance of four blocks. I was nonetheless pleased to see a quaint strip of twenties-era apartment buildings, and as I passed behind the Franklin commercial strip which houses my favorite cheap Thai restaurant, I passed a dilapidated couch, upon which was a rent and dirty book.

Though torn in half, with the front cover faced down and three clumped pages ripped out entirely, I could still discern from the back cover that it was some sort of academic grade publication. With a bit of trepidation, owing to the squalid state of the couch, I reached for the three pieces and reassembled them. The tome was Baudelaire, The Complete Verse.

I wrangled with my conscience for a few moments. I clearly wanted the book, but what if it were a source of pleasure for some indigent soul who spent his moments of repose at this same spot? The works were entirely in French, so it seemed unlikely, though I hated to presume it. It appeared unlikely to be a prize possession, as it was neither kept close to its owner, nor treated with care. Someone intentionally ripped it. The book was a disaster; it was mine.

As I sat with my roommate in the diner, I tried to explain to her the words in Ken's account. Finding my memory of the verse wholly insufficient to express the poetical tragedy of it all, I opened the paperback to the index and located "The Voyage" on page 240, in the section of 'The Flowers of Evil' known as "Death." Opening to that page, I found it was dog-eared, one of three pages in the four hundred page text. Three poems were found notable enough for this mark, in order, Le Vampire, Tout Entiere, and finally, Le Voyage.

What to make of this, then? The same book, of all the books there are, dirty, wrecked and prompting attention to the same poem, ten hours after I'd last thought on it. For me, the best coincidences in life have the strange beauty of poetic logic and meaning, but they also retain their mystery. That gives them the brushtroke of the sublime; that is how you know you have grazed up against the unknowable. I optimistically read these moments like signposts telling me I am on the right path. Reminded of a dream recently shared here, about a man and a girl on a raft, I hope my own voyage is on its rightful course.

So I'll end with two more passages, in translation, from this eight part poem. I'll leave it up to the reader to assign the meaning.

"But the true travellers are those, and those alone, who set out
only for the journey's sake; with light balloon-like hearts
they never swerve from their destiny,
but, without knowing why, keep saying, 'Let us fare forward!'

Those whose desires are shaped like clouds,
and who, like the conscript dreaming of his cannon,
have visions of boundless, ever-changing, unexplored ecstasies
which the human mind has never been able to name!"

In the end, death, 'O Death!' is called, and -

"Though sea and sky be black as ink,
Our hearts which you know so well are full of shafts of light!

Pour us hemlock, for our comfort:
Its fire so burns our brains that we long
to dive into the gulf's depths, and - what matters if it is heaven, or hell?
Into the depths of the Unknown, in quest of something new."

No comments: