“The Bad Glazier,” a translation by David Lehman of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Le Mauvais vitrier , appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of The Antioch Review.
The Bad Glazier by Charles Baudelaire translated by David Lehman There are people who live entirely in their minds and are totally impractical, utterly abstract, who can nevertheless, under the sway of some mysterious force, act so decisively even they cannot believe it. One fellow comes home, fearful of bad news, so he paces for a full hour in front of the concierge’s door, too nervous to knock but too irresolute to leave; another one holds onto a letter for a fortnight before he opens it; a third is still wondering, after six months have gone by, whether to do something he should have done a year ago. There are times when even such characters spring into action, rudely propelled by an irresistible force, like an arrow shot from a bow. The moralist and the physician, with their air of infallibility, cannot explain where this energy comes from or how a good-for-nothing idler or voluptuary, ordinarily incapable of running the simplest errand, can somehow tap into that surfeit of bravery that emboldens a man to perform the craziest and most reckless stunts. A friend of mine, as innocuous a daydreamer as has ever lived, once set a forest on fire just to see, he said, whether fire spreads as speedily as people think. Ten times the experiment failed. On the eleventh it succeeded all too well. Somebody else will light a cigar near a powder keg just to see, to know, to tempt destiny, to test his mettle, to gamble, to enjoy the pleasures of anxiety, or for no reason at all, on a whim, a piece of mischief born of idleness. For the twin cause of this energy is ennui and fantasy; and those in whom it manifests itself tend to be, as I have said, the laziest of day-dreaming louts. Someone too timid to meet your gaze, who needs to pluck up all his courage just to enter a cafe or step into the box office of a theater, where the ticket vendors appear vested with the majesty of Minos, Eacus, and Rhadamanthus, will suddenly stop an old man in the street, a stranger, and hug him with a big show of affection before an astonished crowd. Why? Because . . . because the man’s face struck him as irresistibly sympathetic? Maybe. But it is likely he had no idea why he acted as he did. More than once have I myself been the victim of these crises, these impulses that lead us to believe that we are possessed by malicious Demons, imps of the perverse that make us do their bidding, whether we will it or not. One morning I woke up in a bad mood, depressed, exhausted, yet motivated, as it seemed to me, to do something spectacular--to attempt some heroic exploit. That is when, alas, I opened the window. (Observe, please, that the mystical spirit, which, in some of us, is a sign neither of overwork nor affectation but of inspiration and good fortune, suggests, in the intensity of desire it rouses, a certain state of mind--hysterical in the view of doctors, satanic in the view of those who think more deeply than doctors -- in the throes of which we may commit deeds as rash and dangerous as they are transgressive.) The first person I saw in the street below was a maker of window glass loudly hawking his wares. He virtually punctured the pestilential air of Paris with his shouts. I can’t say why the sight of this poor bastard filled me with a surge of violent hatred, but it did. “Hey,” I shouted, motioning him to come upstairs. I grinned at the thought that the glazier would have to climb six flights of narrow stairs and that his fragile cargo might not survive intact. And then there he was. I looked at the panes and said, “What! No colored glass? No rose-colored glass, red glass, blue glass? Where are the magic panes, the window-panes of paradise? What impudence! You barge into this humble neighborhood without even the decency to bring the glass that can make life beautiful.” And I pushed him down the stairs. I went to the balcony with a little flower pot and when he emerged in front of the door, I dropped my engine of war perpendicularly. The shock made him fall backward, breaking all the glass that remained of his itinerant stock. It sounded like the cracking of a crystal palace split by lightning. Drunk with the madness of the moment I shouted: “Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!” These impulsive jests are not without their hazards, and sometimes there is a stiff price to pay. But what does an eternity of damnation matter to one who has found in a single instant an infinity of joy?
David Lehman has two new nonfiction books in 2015. The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014 (Pittsburgh) comprises the annual forewords he has written for “The Best American Poetry,” the anthology series he created in 1988. Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World (HarperCollins; October 2015) appears in the year that the late singer would have turned 100. Lehman’s New and Selected Poems was published by Scribner in 2013. He lives in New York City and teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School.
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