“It is strange,” wrote Flaubert, aged twenty-five, to his friend Maxime du Camp, “how I was born with little faith in happiness. While still very young I had a complete presentiment of life. It was like a nauseating smell of cooking escaping through a ventilator; you don’t have to eat it to know how it would make you vomit.” Put that side by side with a remark of Baudelaire’s in his journals: “When I was still quite small I would experience two quite contradictory sensations: the horror of life, and the ecstasy of life. Just the thing for a lazy hypochondriac.” Baudelaire’s words are less concrete, much less emphatic, more balanced—and they carry the sting of detached self-criticism. After all, what faith can one be born with? An imaginative capacity for joy, gaiety, and comedy may have nothing to do with happiness, can even be a creative substitute for...


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