Educated at the same lyceé as Degas, attached to yet estranged from his domineering mother, stepson of an army general whom he despised, dependent on exiguous handouts from his financial guardian, humiliated by his cruel Haitian mistress, addicted to hashish and ravaged by syphilis, the brilliant Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) was abrasive and self-destructive. The photographer Félix Nadar—who took his portrait, with bulging forehead and flowing hair—described him as “a nervous, testy, irritable, and irritating young poet, often utterly unpleasant in private.”

In his rambling series of vague aperçus—without any clear structure or argument—Roberto Calasso focuses on Baudelaire as an art critic, not as a poet, and discusses Ingres and Delacroix, Degas and Manet, as well as Rimbaud, Laforgue, Flaubert, and Proust. Calasso’s erudition and style have been...


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