Luxe, calme, et volupté

[Cezanne - Le Mont Sainte-Victoire 1902-04]


There's a passage in A.S. Byatt's novel Still Life in which the narrator describes a familiar feeling: the uncanny coinciding of events, motifs, phrases, and ideas, inspiring one to believe that they are being afforded a rare glimpse into the arcane workings of purpose in our world. The narrator likens it to George Eliot's mirror on which the concentric scratches radiate outward toward the candle, or to the inward-turning brushstrokes that radiate from the eye in Van Gogh's self-portraits. The ego-centrism that catches all of us at some time or another, causing one to exclaim "Me, this is a sign for me!"

This happens to me a lot, and whether that is a sign of an over-developed ego-centrism (probably) or a sign of hyper-receptivity of the signs and messages of the world (I wish) doesn't really matter. The point is that when one begins to trace out the patterns and relations of their immdediate world, there are in some sense creating a world...vivid, related, and relevant.

Still Life sparked off this current course of my thoughts, and they have culminated as a flurry of borrowed books (Mallarmé and Baudelaire, Sargent's Venetian Pictures, Fuchs' Herbal, Cezanne in Provence, the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Woolf's The Waves), a silly and predictable desire to be inspired by genius, some musing on muses, and a general taste for sun-drenched, color-flooded experiences.

The phrase that is the title of this entry is taken primarily from the composition by Matisse which in its right borrowed from a poem by Charles Baudelaire:

[Henri Matisse. Luxe, calme et volupté]
L'invitation au voyage (translation here)

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D'aller là-basvivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes. Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
Des meubles luisants,
Polis par les ans,
Décoreraient notre chambre;
Les plus rares fleurs
Mêlant leurs odeurs
Aux vagues senteurs de l'ambre,
Les riches plafonds,
Les miroirs profonds,
La splendeur orientale,
Tout y parlerait
À l'âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.
Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
Vois sur ces canaux Dormir ces vaisseaux
Dont l'humeur est vagabonde;
C'est pour assouvir
Ton moindre désir
Qu'ils viennent du bout du monde.
Les soleils couchants
Revêtent les champs,
Les canaux, la ville entière,
D'hyacinthe et d'or;
Le monde s'endort
Dans une chaude lumière.
Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
— Charles Baudelaire
The Good Life: perhaps a mirage, but a perpetually compelling one nonetheless. I long for the sun-dappled groves of fragrant trees, for that salt-crusted baked feeling after the sunshine and sea that makes you paradoxically stiff and languid. I'm excited for those fantastic early days of freedom that people lose themselves in when the weather turns warm. Everyone goes a little batty, shedding layers and lingering out-of-doors.

But there's a disjunction between the Matisse posted above and what can be read between the lines of Baudelaire's poem. They are linked, but the resemblance is not as complete as it may initially appear to be.

The Matisse is a distillation of the captivating spirit of bonheur that is such an epidemic in the summertime. "Idyllic" is the word that fits. The beauty of the painting is in its wholeness of vision, tone, and meaning. It is fantastically colorful, and has a vague reality which recalls dream visions. There is no distractting irony, so worrying memento mori intruding on the viewer's rapt attention. Just "Luxe, calme, et volupte."

But the poem by Baudelaire worries me. There is an uncertainty lurking between the lines, between the words, at the back of the narrator's throat. He invokes his beloved and entreats her to travel with him to the land that resembles her. It's a simple plea, an invitation, a characteristcally sentimental entreaty at the intial moments of a seduction. The worrying part is that I feel as uncomfortable in the midst of this relationship (as conjured by the words) as I do in many of Shakespeare's sonnets. It feels too fantastic and too "idyllic" to be a sentiment capable of being returned. A Utopia is constructed, but its impossibility is so painful that blind eyes are turned.

Isn't that the problem with changing seasons? We are so fragile in our hope for something fantastic and exciting and luxurious. Springtime promises newness and summertime beckons with idle days of pleasure. Stuck in the fickle days of early April we expect both of these wholeheartedly, losing ourselves in plans for vacations and thoughts of leisure. But there's always a voice speaking with the gravity of experience. It reminds us of plans dampened, vacations in shambles, obliterating heat and haze, the horrible, horrible feeling of being thwarted by obligation when the days stretch long and the promise of fun fades away.

We all want a "Roman Holiday," or a Gauguin-splashed Tahitian trip, a langorous tour of the South American treasures, or a breezy New England weekend. I'll settle for some cherry blossoms in DC and a return trip to Provence, via the National Gallery.