January 18th, 2011 11:01 EST
Baudelaire and Sherman Might Have Been Doppelgangers Bound in Horror and Grief
Poet and general, their bond was grief
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) had begun to suffer crippling nightmares by the time William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) began his horrific march to the sea, destroying Southern means and morale. Improbably, the great poet and general had much in common. They knew about evil.
Baudelaire had written the unforgettable Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), poems which continue to unsettle and alarm us, and Sherman understood that men enjoy killing each other too much. He did his famous share to make war too horrible to contemplate. He failed. Baudelaire raised our consciousness of the beauty and seductiveness of evil.
I was still in high school when I noticed, or thought I noticed, a similarity between photographs of the Parisian poet and the Ohio soldier. I was so excited about this that I told my friend, David L. O`Melia, that they were doppelgangers. Their dates didn`t precisely coincide and I knew little about doppelgangers, but David, a French speaker and lover of Baudelaire, appreciated my ardor.
David was to die on December 16, 1960, in a horrendous plane collision over his native Brooklyn. He was returning from studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. Baudelaire died at 47, demented by his nightmares. Sherman died in old age, reviled in the South and admired in the North and leaving us an image of himself which, like Lincoln`s, would come to symbolize the toll of war and responsibility. Baudelaire and Sherman were familiar with nightmares. The legacy of the one is inarguable; the legacy of the other is tragic and haunting.
As I look at their photographs today I see sorrow and torment, and I think it was those qualities I first noticed. Robert E. Lee in old age, after his defeat, had the look of a grand hero, a living legend. But Sherman looked like every battle he`d fought, and Baudelaire looked like every nightmare he`d suffered. Ulysses S. Grant, to me at least, looked like a man turned to stone by the decisions he`d had to make.
We know more, because of the Internet, about the people with whom we share the earth than Baudelaire and Sherman knew, but I am haunted by the knowledge, the certainty, that I have contemporaries who will someday be famous for their deeds and works and yet are unknown to me and perhaps to most of us. I know that many whom we celebrate today will be unknown or little known. I know that we don`t know as much as we vaunt about merit and heroism, and we pay a bitter price for it in the hollowing out of our culture.
William Tecumseh Sherman
Would Baudelaire and Sherman have noticed each other in a crowded room? Were they sort of people who crowd a crowded room, like our politicians? I doubt it. Were they ever privileged to see their doppelgangers? I have several times seen my own. Once in a VelÃ¥zquez court painting. He was kneeling before his king. If I had been the king, would I have trusted him? More recently I saw him rounding a corner in a limousine. Or was it a hearse? He was smiling, looking at me as if he knew something I didn`t "a simple feat.
I feel under my feet the steps of these co-inhabitants. We think we have measures of merit and greatness, but it would be better for humankind if we were not so sure. We are too sure of too much. Would Baudelaire and Sherman agree? I like to think so.
We are immersed in these wonders, these synchronicities, these coincidences. When I walk at Gettysburg I meditate but feel nothing of the calamity. When I walk at Chancellorsville my hair stands on end and I seem to recognize every knoll. I hear the din, smell the powder. Why? Perhaps one inspires my imagination and the other doesn`t. Or perhaps there is more to it than that.
I feel this way about Charles Baudelaire and William T. Sherman. The great French poet knew what a holocaust was occurring across the Atlantic. Perhaps it was one of his nightmares. We know horrors are taking place as we drink our coffee in Starbucks. We know poets are witnessing them, as they are witnessing our own vitriol and corruption. We know poets have taken part in ethnic cleansing and also fallen to it. Too bad these paradoxes fail to interest us as much as the weather or taxes.
Sensibilities finer than our own are in the midst of slaughter "witness the poet Brian Turner in Iraq "and each of us has a startling lookalike somewhere. Are these accidents? Or, as some say, are there no accidents? And if there are no accidents, what are we to make of these puzzling phenomena?
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com