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Portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Édouard Manet on Wikimedia Commons

A Little Book True to Its Title

Richard Sieburth

The title of this never-to-be-finished book, My Heart Laid Bare, was also drawn from one of Poeʼs “Marginalia,” in which the author of the “Tell-Tale Heart” had thrown down the following gauntlet:

If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple—a few plain words—“My Heart Laid Bare.” But—this little book must be true to its title.

Now, it is not very singular that, with the rabid thirst for notoriety which distinguishes so many of mankind—so many, too, who care not a fig what is thought of them aft er death, there should not be found one man having sufficient hardihood to write this little book?. . .But to write it—there is the rub. No man dare write it. No man will dare ever write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.¹³

With Mon Coeur mis à nu, Baudelaire rose to Poeʼs bait: he would attempt to undertake an absolutely unwritable, self- incinerating book, fully aware though he was that the pretense to absolute frankness was but another literary mask: “Hypocrite lecteur, —mon semblable, —mon frère!” He liked to quote Joseph de Maistreʼs observation that if anyone were to adopt the motto of Jean-Jacques Rousseauʼs Confessions, “vitam impendere vero” (“to devote oneʼs life to truth”), this would be a sure indication that the author was a bald-faced liar.

Most of the information we have about My Heart Laid Bare comes from Baudelaireʼs letters to his mother. In April 1861, shortly after the publication of the second edition of The Flowers of Evil, he wrote her that among the various other projects he had in mind (which included a play and several novels), there was a “major book” about which he had been dreaming for the last two years: “My Heart Laid Bare, into which I shall load all my angers. Ah, if this book ever sees the light, J-Jʼs Confessions will pale beside it. As you see, Iʼm still dreaming.” But he added that in order to undertake this “singular” work, he would need to have access to all his correspondence of the past twenty years—most of which he had either given away or burned. Two years later, in June 1863, he wrote to inform her that he had recently signed a multibook contract with Hetzel for a new edition of The Flowers of Evil, to be followed by the prose poems of Paris Spleen and the autobiographical My Heart Laid Bare, but that he would have to return to Honfleur (where he had sent several trunks of papers) to complete the latter project, which had now become “the true passion of my brain, something quite different from Jean-Jacquesʼs celebrated Confessions.” Two days later he added:

Yes, this book that I have so dreamed about will be a book of grudges [un livre de rancunes]. But rest assured that my mother and stepfather will be respected in it. But in recounting my education, the manner in which my ideas and my feelings were fashioned, I want relentlessly to convey just how much I feel myself to be a stranger to the world and all its religious creeds. I shall turn my real talent for impertinence against all of France. I stand in need of vengeance as an exhausted man stands in need of a bath. . . .Of course, I shall not publish My Heart Laid Bare until I have amassed a fortune suitable enough to place myself out of harmʼs way, beyond France, if necessary.¹⁴

Having in the meantime expatriated himself to Belgium (and thus presumably out of harmʼs way), he wrote Mme. Aupick in January 1865 that he planned to finish up My Heart Laid Bare (together with a series of short stories) if and when he returned to her maternal side in Honfleur—a homecoming he continued to delay. The following month, he again mentioned Mon Coeur mis à nu (“a great monster, dealing de omnire”) to his literary agent, Julien Lemer, but by this point his projected baring of his heart had given way to the even more rancorous mise à nu of Belgium in his other unfinished (and, in many ways, equally autobiographical and equally monstrous) book, La Belgique déshabillée—or Belgium Stripped Bare.¹⁵

  1. Poe, Brevities, 322.
  2. C2: 302, 305.
  3. C2: 443.

From Late Fragments: Flares, My Heart Laid Bare, Prose Poems, Belgium Disrobed by Charles Baudelaire, translated from the French and edited by Richard Sieburth. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.

Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) is widely regarded as a giant of modern French poetry. Richard Sieburth is Professor Emeritus of English, French, and Comparative Literature at NYU.

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