November 3, 2022

My French Connection


Thomas Jefferson, never one of my favorite Founding Fathers, but that’s another story, did say something that I’ve long found to be true. “Every man,” Jefferson declared, “has two countries – his own and France.” At least that’s been true for me, and in this blog I will tell you why. In doing so, I will reveal a fundamental part of my character that I think you will surprise you.

My first inkling that I might have a special connection to France came in an unexpected way. In the early 1970s, when I was still a young professor at the University of Connecticut, I happened to attend a gathering which featured a talk by “a reincarnation researcher and author” whose name was Noel Street. We were all sitting around on the floor of the room where he was speaking and during his talk, he looked directly at me and said, as I recall. “You. You had a past life in France during the 19th century when you were a lawyer and involved in penal reform.”  

Well, what to make of that? I hardly knew, and I didn’t necessarily believe it. But obviously, I never forgot that incident.

At the time, I had never even been to Europe. I didn’t travel there until I was nearly 50 and found myself in France. I loved being in Europe - why had I waited so long? – and for the next twenty years or so, I spent a lot of time in Europe, often in connection with my work on NDEs. The odd thing is, I felt more “myself” in Europe than in America, as if that was my real home. And the more time I spent there, particularly in France, the more I felt that was where I belonged. But not in the France of the twentieth century. No, I had been displaced in time. The France I identified with was actually the France of the 19th century.  

But my identification was more specific than that. It was with the artists of that century, as I later tried to explain to a friend of mine named Gloria. However, I have to preface this with an aside about my very first girlfriend Carolyn to whom I had to refer in my letter to Gloria and will have occasion to mention again. All you need to know now is that Carolyn and I had broken up in college because she found my then “bohemian ways” insufferable. In the passage to follow, however, which actually comes from one of my memoirs, I give some necessary background before I come to what I had written to Gloria about my identification with French artists of the 19th century:

Because of my strong identification with artists from the Romantic period and my draw to the nineteenth century generally, I now found myself drifting back to that period again in order to try to “explain myself” and the particular trajectory of my life — which seemed so strange as to be “bizarre” to Carolyn whose values were admittedly much more “bourgeois” and who had, unlike me, experienced only a single and deeply satisfying marriage of forty-five years duration and counting. 

Thus it was that I returned to reading many books dealing with sex, love and romance in the nineteenth century. And not surprisingly, I again found myself focusing on the lives of some of my favorite French characters, as I continued to read books about various French artists, the courtesans of the Second Empire with whom they consorted, and the general cultural climate during that epoch. And not only reading about them.  I wrote about them, too, including a little book about my favorite French composer, Camille Saint-Saëns.  In the course of my reading, however, I came to become fascinated with the character of the poet, Charles Baudelaire, whom of course I had read about previously but whose life and poetry had never previously evoked my interest. Suddenly, I was hot to read about him.

By this time, I had met a very cultured academic and writer of Korean ancestry named Gloria, who worked at the University of California at Berkeley, my old alma mater. 

One day I happened to mention to her in an email that I was planning to make a study of Baudelaire. She was surprised. “Why Baudelaire?” she asked. Since at this stage, Gloria knew very little about my life, I decided I had better inform her about what was really central to me at that time. What I wrote to Gloria will well serve to sum up the essence of the not always conscious thrust of my life during those years that ultimately stems from the influence of my father who was an artist himself of bohemian leanings. At any rate, this is what I replied to her question. 

Don’t think I am attracted to Baudelaire because I like him; I don’t. (I often am led to read or write about persons I don’t particularly care for, but who interest me for other reasons.) It’s just that Baudelaire is “one of my people.” You see, I belong in nineteenth-century France; that’s where I come from and where I wish I could be. I belong with the outcasts, the disreputables, of that time — the artists, the poets, the musicians, the courtesans of the demimonde, the salonnières, etc. People like Berlioz and Henri Litolff, Turgenev and Pauline Viardot, Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant, Sand and Musset, Théo Gautier and Gérald de Nerval, the Goncourt Brothers, the Dumas boys, Flaubert and Colet, Manet and Degas, and dozens of others from that time are a part of my family. I mostly find these people objectionable or ludicrous, but, still, I am fond of them and in some ways I am very like them. I don’t mean in talent, of course, but in disposition and in my love of the arts. Had I lived then I probably would have been something like a minor poet and part of the salon scene. I immerse myself in that world now in order to reclaim some long-detached part of me that never had a chance to develop in this life. 

There’s much more to it than that — and some of it has to do with my father who died young (at 41), and whom I scarcely knew but whom I think I resemble in many ways — but that’s probably enough to give you some basic orientation. 

So what was it that drew me to Baudelaire in particular? To understand my deep interest in his character, I’m afraid you will have to indulge me when I give you a brief account of his life. At the very least, if you don’t know much about this great poet, you will learn something about him – and eventually some surprising things about me.

Baudelaire and Me

Early in my recent correspondence with Carolyn, she told me about the reasons we had broken up. As I mentioned, they had largely to do with the fact that within a short time after becoming a college student at Cal-Berkeley, I had changed from a conventionally-minded, clean-cut teenager into someone who, in her eyes, had become a dissolute lout. She could neither understand nor countenance this drastic alteration in my personality and behavior, and given its persistence and my intractability, she soon dismissed me from her life. For my part, though I felt her loss keenly, I had no intention of trying to rectify my behavior for her sake or anyone else’s. To me, I was just behaving in a way that had quickly come to seem natural to me. I had already learned to identify with the radical fringe and alienated youths like myself. 

The question is why. 

You might think that I have already provided the answer. That is, you might simply assume, as I had in later years, that I had even then begun, however unconsciously, to embody and express the more artistic side of my nature and was drawn to outsiders like myself in what was an unknowing imitation of my father’s own proclivities. But as I was to discover, this could not possibly be the entire answer. This shift in my character didn’t just have to do with my father’s personality and lifestyle. Instead it had everything to do with an incomparably greater artist: Charles Baudelaire. 

Since Baudelaire’s life and work are so well known, I need only summarize some of the most basic facts about him. Born in 1821 in Paris, he was to become the most celebrated poet of his age and forever influence the course of French poetry. Regarded as the first true poet of modernity, Baudelaire was drawn to the seamy side of life. He lived with an uneducated prostitute for many years, and regularly consorted with the denizens of the underclass. Although born into well-to-do circumstances, he lived most in his life in wretched squalor and penury and died at 46 after years of misery and intense suffering from syphilis, which he had contracted at an early age. 

He is best known for his seminal book of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), which posterity would come to honor as the most important volume of French poetry to be written in the nineteenth century. But he was also celebrated as an art critic and a translator. It was Baudelaire, for example, who first translated many of the works of Poe into French and was responsible for creating the virtual cult of interest that the French were to have about this American author. He was also the friend and partisan of many of his era’s great artistic geniuses, such as Delacroix, Manet and Wagner. Overall, his work in the field of literature, as poet, critic and translator, during his brief and tormented lifetime was of incomparable value and significance. 

But, for us, it is not Baudelaire’s work that is of primary relevance here. Instead, we need to examine Baudelaire’s particular family constellation. 

Baudelaire’s father, Joseph-François, was 61 when his son was born. Earlier in his life he had been a priest and a tutor to the children of an aristocratic family into whose lives he became deeply enmeshed. He was well educated, had beautiful manners, and had come to know a number of the leading intellectual figures of his day, such as the philosopher, Helvétius, and the philosopher and politician, Condorcet

Baudelaire’s father was also very interested in art, had a taste for and a modest talent at painting, and had artistic ambitions. When he was a student at the Sorbonne, he had also sought out the company of artists, and even after he retired he devoted much of his time to sketching and painting. 

Joseph-François took an active and loving interest in educating his son to whom he was very close. This is how one of Baudelaire’s biographers, Joanna Richardson, describes it: 

He had taught his son about art, as they admired the prints and pastels in the rue Hautefeuille, the statues in the Jardin du Luxembourg. He had no doubt taught him history ... He roused in his interest in music ... and taught his son the rudiments of Latin ... Joseph-François had himself written numerous pieces of verse ... It was from him that Baudelaire inherited his love of literature and art, his patrician manners, his style and sensuality; father and son had a natural affinity that went beyond ties of blood. It was an irreplaceable relationship. 

Unfortunately, it was not to last long. Joseph-François died shortly before Baudelaire turned six. It was a crushing loss to the boy. Afterward, he always carried a portrait of his father wherever his nomadic life took him. He was devoted to his memory. 

Baudelaire’s mother, Caroline, was his father’s second wife, and she was much younger than he. Well-educated and intelligent, she had grown up as the ward of a very privileged family, the father of whom had long been good friends with Baudelaire’s father. After his first wife had died, Joseph-François elected to marry Caroline. Caroline’s early upbringing, including the death of both of her parents by the time she was seven, resulted in her always suffering from poor health. In addition, she was a nervous woman, somewhat melancholy in disposition. Hypersensitive, too, she was given to emotional outbursts. In many ways, we can see in her the seeds of her son’s morbid personality structure. 

Although Joseph-François had been kind to his wife during their few years together, it is obvious that she had never loved him. She didn’t even see to it that he was properly buried, and his gravesite has never been located. The only person she had ever truly loved and doted upon was her son, and now he was hers entirely. From all accounts, it was especially after his father’s death that Caroline sought to bind Charles even more deeply to her, and for the rest of their lives they had a very powerful and complex love-hate relationship. 

However, the time of their exclusive mutual intimacy was to be short-lived. Not long after her husband’s death, Caroline became involved with an up-and-coming soldier, got pregnant by him, and finally induced the soldier, one Jacques Aupick, to marry her. She was then 34, he, 38 and in his prime. Aupick would go on to have a very distinguished military career. For much of it, he was a general, and for that reason he is often referred to as General Aupick. Later in life, he became a diplomat, first serving as an envoy and minister to Constantinople and, after declining an offer to be ambassador to the London court, settling instead for the equivalent post in Madrid. During the course of their happy thirty-year marriage, Caroline became very submissive to her husband. He ruled; she obeyed. He was a soldier, after all, and a prominent one. One of his orders was that he didn’t want any children to hamper his life. Charles was farmed out, sent to boarding schools, dismissed. He never recovered from this abandonment. Within a year, he had lost both his father and his mother, and he had gained an enemy for life, someone he would actually later try to strangle and to whose existence he never became reconciled. He could never forgive his mother for what she had done. 

Still, at the outset and well before their vicious and lifelong rupture, Aupick tried to befriend his stepson. He truly wanted to help him. However, he was incapable of seeing and appreciating who Baudelaire was, much less of nurturing the talents that would later turn his stepson into the greatest poet of his age. Again, Richardson is very good at summarizing the essential problem in their relationship that was to cause such terrible damage to Baudelaire and to alienate him forever from his stepfather: 

The problem was that Aupick was guided by the military virtues of honor and duty, by piety and patriotism, by a bourgeois belief in regular hard work, in the value of paternal authority. Had Baudelaire chosen to enter a profession, Aupick was prepared to use all his influence to help him; but the single-minded officer from Saint-Cyr could not understand the artistic temperament. He could not comprehend a boy who showed small regard for discipline, and an early devotion to literature and painting. Baudelaire was patently the son of Joseph-François. Aupick could never give him what Joseph-François would have given him. Aupick’s rigid code of behavior, his lack of sensibility, were to bring much grief in his childhood. In his early manhood, they were to cause an irreparable breach between them.

So how did Baudelaire respond to all this in his “early manhood?” He became a rebel, of course. He chose to disidentify completely with the values of his stepfather, and in fact to defy them, to mock them. Instead, he affiliated himself with society’s renegades, with its outcasts, with its artists and poets, and turned his back forever away from bourgeois values. He thus became everything that was alien to his alien stepfather. 

That is the Baudelaire portion of this blog. Now, let’s come to me and consider the parallels. 

1. My father, like Baudelaire’s, was an artist.

2. I was very close to my father to begin with also.

3. My father left my family and me at almost the exact same age, around six, at which time Baudelaire’s father had died.

4. My mother never mourned my father’s departure; she had never loved him either.

5. She was, like Caroline, a hypersensitive and nervous woman.

6. She, too, forged a close and very intimate bond between us after my father had left.

7. Like Caroline, however, as soon as she could, she made a precipitate marriage to afford her security and protection.

8. Like Caroline, too, she married a military man used to barking orders and having them obeyed.

9. Just as Caroline had done, my mother became very submissive to my stepfather, who quickly came to dominate our lives, and she remained under his control until his death.

10. I, too, resented my stepfather, and found him entirely alien to me.

Is it any wonder that I rebelled, too, in just the way I did? 

There is seemingly a fundamental archetype involved here, having to do with initial closeness to an artistic father, an emotional but submissive mother, an artistically-inclined son, and an over-bearing and dictatorial military stepfather. All this conduces to a response on the son’s part of rebellion, disidentification and an overly strong affiliation with the anti-bourgeois elements of society. 

No wonder, then, when I suddenly found myself for the first time with models of identification for my alienation, I quickly bonded to and started to conform to the youths of my generation who represented my father’s artistic and iconoclastic bohemian values. 

Now, it need hardly be said that in pointing out these parallels, I scarcely mean to be comparing myself to Baudelaire. After all, while both my personal and professional life might well be characterized as unconventional — some might even describe them as wayward — I have only an average and not very original mind and some modest talents; Baudelaire was a genius. It’s obvious that I don’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Baudelaire, so don’t think I am putting on airs. And of course there are many, many differences between Baudelaire’s life and mine. Cela va sans dire! 

But what we have in common are some crucial features in our family constellation so that in that respect at least, we were led to follow a somewhat similar path of psychological development, our very different levels of intelligence notwithstanding. 

In any event, it was only by reading about Baudelaire’s family history that I was finally able to understand some features of my own development, the very ones that had appalled and puzzled Carolyn when I first began to manifest them. Now she will know why it was almost ordained that I followed the path I did in life, and so do I. 

I had a good friend for some years -- she was one of my graduate students, but about the same age as me -- and we connected in later years when she moved to the Southwest. She told me then that she had always seen the artistic side of my character and was surprised that I had seemingly suppressed it in order to become a psychologist. In the end, it seems, I could only identify with artists but never become one. That is the great sorrow of my life.


  1. In response to: In the end, it seems, I could only identify with artists but never become one. That is the great sorrow of my life.

    Words are an art form from which we readers of Ring gain much joy and wisdom.

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