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That statement was the opening of Charles Baudelaire’s first draft of the preface to Les Fleurs du Mal. He went on:” Paris, a center radiating universal stupidity.” A few lines later:” Great men are stupid.” My book may have done some good; I do not regret that.”

As a way to endear oneself to new readers and the public, this is not it, although figuratively slapping them about the face is one way to separate the casual reader from Baudelaire’s fellow-traveler. As an introduction its rhetorical largesse is vast although its logical cogency is zero. Subsequent drafts helped, somewhat, to repair that fault.

By comparison, Faulkner’s introduction to Sanctuary is mild. His introduction has passed into writing folklore with its misleading information; the negative comments he made of the work compared to his earlier (and much better books) which neutralized his request to the reader to buy it and tell all their friends to buy it; and, finally, the slap directed at the publishing director for making him write the introduction at all. Faulkner aims his rebuke in personal terms; not against all humanity, and he does make a good case to read the other books, but not Sanctuary.

By the time he did a second draft Baudelaire toned down the anger:” I know the passionate love of fine style exposes himself to the hatred of the masses; but no respect for humanity, no false modesty, no conspiracy no universal suffrage will ever force me to speak the unspeakable jargon of this age, or confuse ink with virtue.” This self indulgent and sanctimonious mood still gives Baudelaire the conceit he believes is rightfully his. Like a petulant adolescent he is a furnace of moral outrage. His logical expression has improved but it is still a battle of Us against Them: a battle characterized by bitter disappointment at the life and choices of others.

Someone who also felt severely disappointed was Roderick Jaynes, the erstwhile film editor, who wrote the introduction to the Coen Brothers’ scripts of Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing. From the bucolic depths of Haywards Heath, England, the irascible Jaynes wrote,”Scenarists are inevitably amateurs, boobies, and hacks. At best the scriptwriter is a student of writing rather than a writer per se; he is like a child scraping away at his scales on the violin.”

Harsh words indeed, especially for an introduction to a book of screenplays. Jaynes is equally severe on the style, method and aesthetic qualities – or lack of them – which the Coen Brothers have created in their movies. Despite the criticism there were no ill-feelings and Jaynes and the Coen Brothers continued to collaborate for many years. That is how it should have been, as they are one and the same.

That spirit of equanimity was not something Baudelaire had. By the third draft he had found his voice:” If there is any glory in not being understood, or in being only very slightly so, I may without boasting [sic] say that with this little book I have at a single stroke both won and deserved that glory.” The false humility of this sentence, compared to his first draft which was just invective, is eliminated instantly as he notches up the stupidity of the publishing world as a fine example of his superiority. His stylistic changes had not altered the self-justifications, the long-held frustrations which burst on the pages like suppurating sores.

After three attempts it’s clear that Baudelaire couldn’t write a preface, not one that didn’t deliberately offend just about everybody. It’s fortunate that the poems are ravishing.

Guy Cranswick
20 July 2012