While reading about the devastation occasioned by Hurricane Katrina, I came across this prose poem by Baudelaire. It, of course, was written long before our southern cities and towns were ravaged, having been first published in 1864, and I’m not sure it has much to contribute to a discussion of the disaster (at any rate, I think I will remain silent about that). I post it here because it illustrates beautifully what I can only imagine to be the most disheartening of those impenetrable silences that continually interrupt the human discourse, the sixth of the seven solitudes, the imponderable and uncrossable gulf between the lover and the loved. First I present the original French, followed by a plain and unadorned (and probably inaccurate) translation for your reading convenience.

Les Yeux des pauvres

Ah! vous voulez savoir pourquoi je vous hais aujourd’hui. Il vous sera sans doute moins facile de le comprendre qu’à moi de vous l’expliquer; car vous êtes, je crois, le plus bel exemple d’imperméabilité féminine qui se puisse rencontrer.

Nous avions passé ensemble une longue journée qui m’avait paru courte. Nous nous étions bien promis que toutes nos pensées nous seraient communes à l’un et à l’autre, et que nos deux âmes désormais n’en feraient plus qu’une;—un rêve qui n’a rien d’original, après tout, si ce n’est que, rêvé par tous les hommes, il n’a été réalisé par aucun.

Le soir, un peu fatiguée, vous voulûtes vous asseoir devant un café neuf qui formait le coin d’un boulevard neuf, encore tout plein de gravois et montrant déjà glorieusement ses splendeurs inachevées. Le café étincelait. Le gaz lui-même y déployait toute l’ardeur d’un début, et éclairait de toutes ses forces les murs aveuglants de blancheur, les nappes éblouissantes des miroirs, les ors des baguettes et des corniches, les pages aux joues rebondies traînés par les chiens en laisse, les dames riant au faucon perché sur leur poing, les nymphes et les déesses portant sur leur tête des fruits, des pâtés et du gibier, les Hébés et les Ganymèdes présentant à bras tendu la petite amphore à bavaroises ou l’obélisque bicolore des glaces panachées; toute l’histoire et toute la mythologie mises au service de la goinfrerie.

Droit devant nous, sur la chaussée, était planté un brave homme d’une quarantaine d’années, au visage fatigué, à la barbe grisonnante, tenant d’une main un petit garçon et portant sur l’autre bras un petit être trop faible pour marcher. Il remplissait l’office de bonne et faisait prendre à ses enfants l’air du soir. Tous en guenilles. Ces trois visages étaient extraordinairement sérieux, et ces six yeux contemplaient fixement le café nouveau avec une admiration égale, mais nuancée diversement par l’âge.

Les yeux du père disaient: «Que c’est beau! que c’est beau! on dirait que tout l’or du pauvre monde est venu se porter sur ces murs.»—Les yeux du petit garçon: «Que c’est beau! que c’est beau! mais c’est une maison où peuvent seuls entrer les gens qui ne sont pas comme nous.»—Quant aux yeux du plus petit, ils étaient trop fascinés pour exprimer autre chose qu’une joie stupide et profonde.

Les chansonniers disent que le plaisir rend l’âme bonne et amollit le coeur. La chanson avait raison ce soir-là, relativement à moi. Non seulement j’étais attendri par cette famille d’yeux, mais je me sentais un peu honteux de nos verres et de nos carafes, plus grands que notre soif. Je tournais mes regards vers les vôtres, cher amour, pour y lire ma pensée; je plongeais dans vos yeux si beaux et si bizarrement doux, dans vos yeux verts, habités par le Caprice et inspirés par la Lune, quand vous me dites: «Ces gens-là me sont insupportables avec leurs yeux ouverts comme des portes cochères! Ne pourriez-vous pas prier le maître du café de les éloigner d’ici?»

Tant il est difficile de s’entendre, mon cher ange, et tant la pensée est incommunicable, même entre gens qui s’aiment!

The Eyes of the Poor

Ah! you would like to know why I hate you today. It will no doubt be harder for you to understand than for me to explain it to you; as you are, I believe, the most perfect example of feminine impermeability that one could encounter.

We had just passed a long day together that appeared short to me. We had each sworn that all our thoughts would be common to the both of us, and that our two souls would nevermore do anything, but as one;—a dream that has nothing original in it, after all, except that, dreamt by all men, it has been realized by none.

That evening, a bit tired, you wanted to sit outside in front of the new café on the corner of the new boulevard, still covered in rubble but already showing gloriously its unfinished splendors. The café sparkled with light. The gas lamps themselves radiated all the warmth of a new day, and with all their strength brightened the blinding white walls, the dazzling faces of the mirrors, the gilded mouldings and cornices, the errand-boys with chubby cheeks trailing behind their leashed dogs, the ladies laughing at the falcons perched on their fists, the nymphs and goddesses carrying on their heads fruits, pâtés and game meats, the Hebes and Ganymedes presenting with outstretched arms a little amphora of Bavarian cream or a two-toned obelisk of a selection of ices; all history and all mythology put into service of gluttony.

Just in front of us, on the roadway, was planted a brave man of some forty years, with a weary face, a grizzled beard, holding the hand of a little boy and carrying in his other arm a small child too weak to walk. He was playing the nanny and taking his children out for some evening air. All in rags. These three faces were extraordinarily serious, and these six eyes fixedly contemplated the new café with equal admiration, though varying in expression according to age.

The eyes of the father were saying: “How beautiful it is! how beautiful it is! one might say that all the gold of our poor world is painted on these walls.”—The eyes of the little boy: “How beautiful it is! how beautiful it is! but this is a house that only grants entry to people who are not like us.”—As for the eyes of the smallest, they were too fascinated to express anything but a mindless and profound joy.

The balladiers say that pleasure lifts the spirit and softens the heart. The ballad was right that evening, concerning me. Not only was I touched by that family of eyes, but I felt a little ashamed of our glasses and our carafes, much larger than our thirst. I turned my gaze toward yours, dear love, to read my thoughts there; I was plunging into your eyes, so beautiful and so oddly gentle, into your green eyes, inhabited by Caprice and inspired by the Moon, when you said to me: “Those people there are insufferable with their eyes open like carriage gates! Could you not ask the maître d’ to send them away from here?”

How difficult it is to understand each other, my dear angel, and how much thought is incommunicable, even between people who love each other!

How much is silent, how much is not said in this poem! The couple pledge that their thoughts will be shared, presumably without speaking them. The family is reduced to three pairs of eyes, which alone do their talking. And even then, the small child finds it impossible to express anything—even silently!—beyond a joy, stupid and profound. Has the poet actually offered an explanation of his hatred, or did he choose to remain silent? And, of course, even if he has explained it, does his lover hear? And how much must remain unspoken! As Baudelaire says, there is so much that is incommunicable, not merely uncommunicated. He suggests that the failure is unavoidable, inevitable, insurmountable…

But here, it is the noise that causes the problem and gives rise to the hatred. One might well wonder if he would have succeeded in reading his thoughts in her eyes, had she simply remained silent. One can, afterall, read almost anything in a pair of beautiful, bizarrely gentle green eyes, particularly if it is a pleasant thing to read. And what could be more pleasant than to find one’s own thoughts mirrored in the eyes of one’s love? The silences that Masters describes, the silences of the inexpressible, the silences that signal that of which we cannot speak, are not always signalled by auditory negative space, or an absence of sound. They declaim an unwillingness to speak, or an inability to articulate a feeling too pregnant for language, or a failure of words; accordingly, they may often be filled with noise, chatter, or distractions of any sort to divert attention from the inadequacy. The soldier tells the boy a bear took his leg, just as the poet might tell his love a stomach ache caused his grimace, even as he signals to the waiter to ask him to send the peasants away.

It might not be surprising, then, to find that Nietzsche counsels silence as a solution, as a bridge to the gulf that Baudelaire has sketched:

Human, All Too Human 376

Of friends.—Only reflect to yourself how various are the feelings, how divided the opinions, even among your closest acquaintances, how even the same opinions are of a quite different rank of intensity in the heads of your friends than they are in yours; how manifold are the occasions for misunderstanding, for hostility and rupture. After reflecting on all this you must tell yourself: how uncertain is the ground upon which all our alliances and friendships rest, how close at hand are icy downpours and stormy weather, how isolated each man is! When one realizes this, and realizes in addition that all the opinions of one’s fellow men, of whatever kind they are and with whatever intensity they are held, are just as necessary and unaccountable as their actions; if one comes to understand this inner necessity of opinions originating in the inextricable interweaving of character, occupation, talent, environment—perhaps one will then get free of that bitterness of feeling with which the sage cried: ‘Friends, there are no friends!’ One will, rather, avow to oneself: yes, there are friends, but it is error and deception regarding yourself that led them to you; and they must have learned how to keep silent in order to remain your friend; for such human relationships almost always depend upon the fact that two or three things are never said or even so much as touched upon: if these little boulders do start to roll, however, friendship follows after them and shatters. Are there not people who would be mortally wounded if they discovered what their dearest friends actually know about them?—Through knowing ourselves, and regarding our own nature as a moving sphere of moods and opinions, and thus learning to despise ourself a little, we restore our proper equilibrium with others. It is true we have good reason to think little of each of our acquaintances, even the greatest of them, but equally good reason to direct this feeling back on to ourself.—And so, since we can endure ourself, let us also endure other people; and perhaps to each of us there will come the more joyful hour when we exclaim:

‘Friends, there are no friends!’ thus said the dying sage;
‘Foes, there are no foes!’ say I, the living fool.

Two notes:

  1. The “sage” who spoke to his friends about having no friends was supposedly Aristotle. Diogenes Laertius says that Favorinus records Aristotle as having said, “ᾡ̂ φίλοι, οὐδεὶς φίλος” (“hoi philoi, oudeis philos” in case the Greek doesn’t appear). The translator of my copy of Diogenes’ book cites the Eudemian Ethics vii 12, 1245b 20 and the Nicomachean Ethics ix 10.6, 1171a 15-17 (see the line about obsequious people), which are both close, but not quite the same. A number of websites attribute the saying to Coco Chanel. Make of that what you will.
  2. I hear echoes of Brooke’s Voice breaking the silence of Baudelaire’s poem.