Part 21. Louise & Johanna. Damned Women?
If you are familiar with the painting, you will know that I am talking about the guy who stares straight out at you from the right hand side of the work; the somewhat haunting face behind the good looking Frenchman in the straw boater. If you are not familiar with the panting, you can view it by visiting the Renoir virtual museum at www.expo-renoir.com and clicking on the second version of the work. Your eye isn’t immediately drawn to our friend in the top hat with the pipe, in fact he really doesn’t need to be in the picture at all but, for whatever reason, Renoir couldn’t live without him and so he painted him in.
That’s exactly how I feel about the next character who is going to be painted in to my pictorial study of Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’: I am not totally sure why he is there but his name has cropped up, not only in relation to ‘Visions of Johanna’, but also in respect of Dylan’s work generally as I will disclose later. Although he may be an indistinct character in my study of the classic Dylan song, his importance in the genre of his own art, i.e. that of poetry, is manifest. Indeed he is considered to be one of the great poets of the nineteenth century and the forerunner of symbolism, the literary movement that swept though France in the second half of that century. Of course, in keeping with the constant theme of my view of ‘Visions of Johanna’ , he just had to be French, so let me sketch him straight away on to my canvass by announcing.
5. Enter Charles Baudelaire
One of the things that first nudged me towards Baudelaire in the context of ‘Visions of Johanna’ was this aspect of the power of ‘the she’ that I have previously written about when relating Dylan’s song to the legend of Joan of Arc(139). In my previous article in this series I concentrated on the use of the image of the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa by Dylan in the fourth verse of the song and I quoted extracts from the book that was published to mark the 500th anniversary of the year when the world’s most famous painting was completed(140). The author of that book, Donald Sassoon, drew the attention of his readers to the situation that Baudelaire had written about the Mona Lisa in one of his poems but before quoting a verse from that particular poem, Sasson provided some background information about Baudelaire:
‘Baudelaire’s representation of women was a mixture of mysogynist sadism, envy of their alleged power, abject humility before their redemptive capacity, and submissiveness mixed with idolatry. As he wrote in 1856, his ideal of ‘Beauty’ was:
In the poem ‘l Idéal’ he rejected
Sassoon then brings into focus the combination of Baudelaire and the Mona Lisa before setting down the verse of the poem under consideration. But first, some more about the French symbolist poet:
‘The theme of self-abasement is carried out consistently throughout his (collection of poems) Les Fleurs du mal . In the sexually impotent Baudelaire, the devouring femme fatal found a poet of astonishing power. His poem ‘The Beacons’ (from Les Fleurs du mal collection), dedicated to great painters of the past, hints at the Mona Lisa. In the passage on Leonardo, Baudelaire describes a sweet and yet mysterious smile against a strange landscape:
There is a connection here between Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’ and Baudelaire’s The Beacons and that connection is in the smile of the Mona Lisa, although that’s about as far as it goes because Dylan describes the Mona Lisa as having the ‘highway blues’, because of the way she smiles whereas Baudelaire considers that she has a ‘sweet smile’. Nevertheless, whatever way you want to see it, both poets are concerned with the very same smile.
It is however another line from ‘Visions of Johanna’ that concerned the writer and critic John Herdman who also puts Dylan in the frame with Baudelaire. In his book ‘Voice Without Restraint. Bob Dylan’s Lyrics and Their Background’ Herdman considered the line:
‘So though protected he is not satisfied, and with that extraordinary metaphor of the fifth line, which so finely exemplifies Baudelaire’s theory of ‘correspondances’ and might well have been envied by the Rimbaud of the sonnet ‘Voyelles’, we explicitly learn why: even as he lies in the arms of Louise his thought are with his former lover.’(143)
Interestingly, Baudelaire’s poem ‘Correspondances’ comes from the same collection of his poetry, namely Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) that featured ‘The Beacons’ which, as we have seen, referred to Mona Lisa’s smile. The full English translation of ‘Correspondances’ (translated as ‘Universal Analogies’) goes as follows:
It will be noted that, in the second verse of his poem Baudelaire uses the imagery of ‘echoes from infinity’ to make his poetical point. In ‘Visions of Johanna’ Dylan adopts similar imagery:
Again the echoes are different: with Dylan it is voices, with Baudelaire the echoes relate to ‘all scents, all sounds and colours’. This is however, as the poem suggests, what Baudelaire’s ‘corespondances’ are all about: the unity of the senses: the correspondences between smells, colours and sounds in the expression of different moods or feelings. And herein lies another oblique conjunction between Baudelaire’s idea of ‘correspondances’ and the fourth verse of ‘Visions of Johanna’. It is in those lines:
In this context there is a connection between the colourful image of the wallflower (or a decorative image if it was a flowered ‘frieze’) and all the women, who have smelled the flower which causes them to sneeze: a word which indicates a reaction to something being smelled and the sound of so doing. Am I making myself clear? No, I didn’t think so!
It is little wonder really that the ideas of Baudelaire have worked themselves some where into the art of Bob Dylan. In the early 60’s, when Dylan was absorbing influences faster than a Kleenex soaks up a nose bleed, Baudelaire was one of the poets with whom Dylan became interested, as Clinton Heylin records:
‘With Suze’s encouragement, and the gentle prodding of the Van Ronks’, both veracious readers, Dylan was starting to expand his intellectual frontiers. While in Britain at the beginning of the year (1963) he had begun to read Robert Graves ‘historical grammar of poetic myth’, The White Goddess in which Graves categorically asserted that ‘the function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse’. He also began to immerse himself in the French symbolists – Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Verlain.’ (145)
It was an interest that remained with Dylan through the 60’s and into the 80’s it seems. When writing about the song ‘I & I’ from Dylan’s 1983 album ‘Infidels’, Neil Corcoran likens the following verse from that song to another poem by Baudelaire:
The likened poem by Baudelaire is another from his Les Fleurs du mal collection and Corcoran has this to say about the similarities of the works:
‘The address to the listener in the final line is a kind of Baudelairean gesture, as when ‘Au Lecteure’, the poem which opens Les Fleurs du mal – to which Dylan alludes in Every Grain of Sand’ - addresses the reader as ‘- Hypocrite lecteur’- mon semblable, - mon frère!’ – a line which T.S. Eliot famously appropriates for The Waste Land’. (146)
I may be accused of painting by numbers here, but the song ‘I & I’ sits next to ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’ on the album ‘Infidels’ and of course the latter song has that line:
So we are back to the Mona Lisa and, consequently to ‘Visions of Johanna’. But are we back to the mainstay of my interpretation of the song, namely the legend of Joan of Arc? Well indeed we are and once again the connection is in the theme of ambiguity of gender that is not only my obsession within the context of Dylan’s classic song: it was also an obsession with Baudelaire, in particular in his collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal.
I am aware that it is almost forbidden to discuss biographical details when studying art but just a glimpse of Baudelaire the man may help in understanding one particular view he expressed in his work and also could provide a link between certain of his poems and Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’. The fact is that Baudelaire was dominated by two women in his life, namely his mother Caroline and his mistress Jeanne Duval. Baudelair’s father died when the poet was only 6 years old and for a period of time Baudelaire and his mother lived alone together on the outskirts of Paris. When he wrote to his mother, later in life, Baudelaire referred to this period of absolute bonding thus: “I was forever alive in you; you were solely and completely mine”.(147) Baudelaire’s mother subsequently remarried which obviously caused great intrusion into the maternal relationship but thereafter the affections towards his mother were replaced with a subservient affair with his mistress who was to dominate his life for some 20 years.
Perhaps it was as a result of this matter of female domination that, in some of his work, Baudelaire disclosed a world that was totally female and where men just dare not enter in; a world of same sex liaisons with women taking the role usually performed by men. Now this brings me back, as I have said, to one of the broadest strokes on my canvass, namely ambiguity of gender, but if you think that I am obsessed with that very idea then, comparing my obsession to Baudelaire’s is liking comparing a spot of blood from a thorn in the thumb to a haemorrhage from the severance of a limb! But, as the song goes: only women bleed.
The collection of poetry where Baudelaire disclosed this all - female world is again Les Fleurs du mal,; a collection which attracted some notoriety because of its often erotic and dark nature. So, if you happen to be squeamish about such things, perhaps now is the time to avert your eyes………
I am so glad that you all decided to stay with me! The first poem under consideration here is ‘Lesbos’ and this extract illustrates the kind paradise that Baudelaire considered could be found in same sex affairs under a Greek sun:
The poem actually goes on for another eleven verses in which the sun gets increasingly hotter but I want to turn my attention to the next poem in the series which Baudelaire called ‘Damned Women’ with the subtitle ‘Delphine and Hippolyta’. It is the tale of two female lovers and you will note from the penultimate verse of this extract just how men are likened to mere brutal beings. You may also recognise a familiar image in the second verse which reminds me of the closing verse of Dylan’s ‘Mozambique’ from the ‘Desire’ album. As an aside, perhaps if I set down the entirety of ‘Mozambique’ and bring it into line with Baudelaire’s visions of what goes on in places where the skies are aqua blue, you may never think the same about this song again:
But I digress. That is Dylan’s ‘Mozambique’. This is Baudelaire’s ‘Damned Women. (Delphine and Hippolyta)’:
So, what is all the point of all this erotica? Where is it leading and what colour, if any, does it add to my pictorial interpretation of ‘Visions of Johanna’? Well it brings me to an exploration of a very important relationship in the song: the relationship between Louise and Johanna. Louise is described as being ‘delicate’ – perhaps fragile like a flower – and in true Baudelairian style, she seems to demean the capabilities of men by ALWAYS declaring:
Whereas ‘man’ can’t see much at all, Louise can see double for she ‘seems like the mirror’. On the other hand, she could be a mirror image of Johanna perhaps: the pair seen together, inseparable; entwined as in:
And what I am saying here, using my own true Baudelairian style, is that Louise and Johanna are lovers. And the colour is blonde on blonde.
There is another poem in Baudelaire’s collection Les Fleurs du mal and this poem stirs in me something of the sense of the images of Visions of Johanna’. It starts in a room where the heat pipes are perhaps coughing, it speaks of a farewell kiss and it concludes with the situation that visions are all that remain. It is a very dark and erotic poem involving the death of a young girl. In the following extract, Baudelaire first sets the scene:
He then sees the body:
He ponders her death and speaks of the farewell kiss:
So merely the visions of this ‘stunning enigma’ are all that remain. And the name Baudelaire’s poem : ‘A Martyr’. Which returns me to the centre piece of my canvass and to one of the most famous martyrs that ever lived: Joan of Arc. Martyred for her visions and her ambiguity of gender.
In the penultimate article in this continuing saga I want to move forward 100 years from the time that Baudelaire wrote Les Fleurs du mal and mention the work of two poets from our own age, contemporaries of Dylan, who have something to say about Joan of Arc. The standout word in that last sentence has to be ‘penultimate’ as I am sure you will agree!
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