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THE MISSIONARY TIMES


Like Ice, Like Fire
(Addressing The Night in ‘Visions of Johanna’)

 by J. R. Stokes

 

Part 21. Louise & Johanna. Damned Women?

The story goes that the day after the French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir completed his masterpiece
‘Le Mouline de la Galette’ in the summer of 1876, he went back to have a look at the painting and realised that something was missing. He hurriedly retrieved his brushes and painted in the face of a man with a top hat and a pipe. There was no particular reason why this man should appear in the painting, the work would have been perfectly fine without him, but Auguste considered it necessary  for this final image to be included before he could be satisfied that the job was truly done. 

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: 

‘a seductive and beautiful head, a woman’s head, a head
which can make one dream of lust and sorrow, involving
the sensation of melancholia, weariness and even of satiety,
with its opposite: vigour, and the desire to live’
 

In the poem ‘l Idéal’ he rejected 

Those figurine beauties, spoiled products of a lethargic century.
Let Gavarni, poet of anaemic woman, keep his grazing
flock of hospital belles……What I need for my heart, deep
as an abyss, is you, Lady Macbeth, soul devoted to crime’.
(141)

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: 

Leonardo da Vinci, deep and sombre mirror,
Where charming angels, whose sweet smile
Is suffused with mystery, appear in the shade
Of glaciers and pines enveloping their domain
.’(142)

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: 

‘The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face’

and observed: 

‘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: 

The colonnades of Nature’s temple live
And babble on in tongues half - understood;
Man wanders lost in symbols while the wood,
With knowing eyes, keeps watch on every move

Like echoes from infinity drawn out
Into dappled unison of light,
Beyond the dawn of day or dead of night,
All scents, all sounds and colours correlate.

Some fragrances resemble infant skin
Sweeter than woodwinds, green as meadow grass –
Others expand to fill the space they’re in,

Endlessly rich, corrupt, imperious;
Amber and musk, incense and benjamin
In sense and spirit raptures sing as one.’ 
(144)

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: 

‘Inside the museums Infinity goes upon trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while’.

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: 

‘See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly faced women all sneeze’

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: 

‘Noontime , and I’m still pushin, myself along the road,
          the darkest part
Into the narrow lanes, I can’t stumble or stay put.
Someone else is speaking with my mouth, but
          I’m listening only to my heart
I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you,
          while I still go barefoot.’

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: 

‘But its like I’m stuck inside a painting
That’s hanging in the Louvre’

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: 

‘Lesbos! Where kisses recklessly cascade
Headlong down to bottomless abysses,
Tempestuous, intense and unafraid,
Sobbing, probing, tingling, fitful kisses
Of Lesbos where they recklessly cascade! 

Bare breasts are drawn to one another here
Where every sigh is taken for a sign;
The stars that favoured Paphos draw near,
And Venus well may envy Sappho’s shrine!
Bare breasts seem drawn to one another here, 

Lesbos of sultry night and sweet caress,
Where sheep-eyed maidens try their maidenheads,
Voluptuous, before the looking glass,
And taste their own ripe fruit in sterile beds,
Lesbos of sultry night and sweet caress… 

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: 

I like to spend some time in Mozambique
The sunny sky is aqua blue
And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek.
It's very nice to stay a week or two. 

There's lots of pretty girls in Mozambique
And plenty time for good romance
And everybody likes to stop and speak
To give the special one you seek a chance
Or maybe say hello with just a glance. 

Lying next to her by the ocean
Reaching out and touching her hand,
Whispering your secret emotion
Magic in a magical land. 

And when it's time for leaving Mozambique,
To say goodbye to sand and sea,
You turn around to take a final peek
And you see why it's so unique to be
Among the lovely people living free
Upon the beach of sunny Mozambique.

But I digress. That is Dylan’s ‘Mozambique’. This is Baudelaire’s ‘Damned Women. (Delphine and Hippolyta)’

Half-hidden in the dying light’s caress
Amid deep cushions steeped in musky scents,
Hippolyta relived the crucial kiss
That tore the veil from blissful ignorance.

As travellers will turn for one last glance
To blue horizons crossed at break of day,
Wild-eyed, she sought her own lost innocence,
A paradise of pure naiveté. 

The shattered look, the violated air,
Defeated arms and dull docility,
Although they served to emphasize despair,
Enhanced her beautiful fragility. 

A lioness will rest beside her prey,
Once she has mauled and marked it as her own;
Contented, calm and patient, Delphine lay
Quietly appraising her companion. 

She hoped to find in this pale victims eyes
The  little silent songs that pleasure sings,
And gratitude, that in the form of sighs
Can overflow the hearts own hidden springs. 

Grown bolder now, she kneels before the girl
Voluptuously savouring her prize,
And moving ever closer, she appeals
For sweet rewards, unspoken words of praise. 

‘Hippolyta, my dear you realize
By now that cruel winds must never be
Allowed to touch your sacrificial flowers –
To do so would defile them, shamefully. 

My kisses are as gentle as the wings
Of May flies glancing off a crystal lake;
Rough lovers scarify you with their toungues
- A plowshare leaves a furrow in its wake – 

Men trample on your body, brutally,
As if you, too, were but an animal…..
Hippolyta, dear sister look at me!
My soul, my heart, my equal and my all, 

Let me, through your eyess, see heaven unveiled!
Come heal me with your gaze and be my friend –

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: 

‘You can’t look at much, can ya man?

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:

‘Just Louise and her lover so entwined’

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:

Amid the luxuries, the plush divans,
          Crystal and bibelots,
Statues and tapestries and perfumed gowns
          Fallen in lavish folds 

In the dark room, a motionless hothouse
          Whose leaden atmospere
Has fetid flowers trapped in their cut glass
          Coffins gasping for air. 

He then sees the body: 

The corpse, reduced to pure licentiousness,
          Has no decorum left:
All nature’s eloquent and naked grace
          Has proved a fatal gift.

But judging from the subtle curvature,
          The writhing elegance
Of hip and thigh - as if a serpent were
          Aroused and made to dance

She’s just  a girl! – What lust could tantalize
          The boredom in her soul
To recklessness, while such enormities
          As this held her in thrall?

He ponders  her death and speaks of the farewell kiss: 

And the insatiable inquisitor
          Much loved, despite his wrath –
Was this the ultimate iniquity,
          Deflowering your death?

Or did he then, with his lips to your teeth
          And your hair in his fist,
Bid you farewell with a cold-blooded oath
          And a passionate kiss?
 

And concludes:- 

Far from the ravening courts, and the crowds,
          And the scurrilous world,
Stunning enigma, sleep peacefully now,
          Hermetically sealed.

He roams the earth, and your immortal form
          Lies with him where he lies –
The constant bride beside her faithful groom,
          To the end of his days.

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!


(139) Freewheelin 203 Part 13 Like Ice Like Fire
(140) ‘Mona Lisa – The History of the Words Most Famous Painting’ by the author Donald Sassoon published by Harper Collins in 2002
(141) Ibid  page 99
(142) Ibid page 100
(143) Voice Without Restraint. Bob Dylan’s Lyrics and Their Background. Written by John Herdman Published in 1982 in hardback and paperback by Paul Harris page 29
(144) Charles Baudelaire. Complete poems. Translated by Walter martin. Published by Carcanet Press. Page 19
(145) Clinton Heylin Behind The Shades Take two page 126
(146) Do You Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors  edited by Neil Corcoran. page22
(147) Biography of Charles Baudelaire by Barry Wayne Veinott. Empire:ZINE website.

 
 
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