The New Factory of the Eccentric Actor recently staged a new play 1848 at Conway Hall. It’s a mix of styles: documentary, drama, musical, popular history. With a minimum of fuss and rehearsal the extravaganza was staged by approx. 75 actors and a band of musicians for one night only on Jan 22 2014. It was artistic collectivism in action. I got to play Charles Baudelaire who was very much involved with the Parisian wing of the 1848 revolution, as poet-activist-journalist. Here is my translation of his revolutionary poem from 1848 with its bourgeois vs. proletariat overtones, ‘Abel and Cain’.
ABEL AND CAIN
Walter Benjamin says of this unique poem in the Baudelaire oeuvre:
‘The litany entitled “Abel et Cain” shows the basis for Baudelaire’s view of the disinherited… The poem turns the contest between the biblical brothers into one between eternally irreconcilable races…. The poem consists of sixteen distiches; every second distich begins the same way. Cain, the ancestor of the disinherited, appears as the founder of a race and this race can be none other than the proletariat. In 1838, Granier de Cassagnac published his Histoire des classes ouvrieres et des classes bourgeoises. This work claimed to trace the origin of the proletarians: they form a class of subhumans which sprang from the crossing of robbers with prostitutes. Did Baudelaire know these speculations? Quite possibly. What is certain is that Marx, who hailed Granier de Cassagnac as “the thinker” of Bonapartist reaction, had encountered them. In his book Capital, he parried this racial theory by developing the concept of a “peculiar race of commodity-owners” by which he meant the proletariat. The race descended from Cain appears in Baudelaire precisely in this sense, though admittedly he would not have been able to define it. It is the race of those who possess no commodity but their labour power.’
The poem has always fascinated me. I translated it about 20 years ago. Francis Scarfe’s prose version was pretty terrible, so I felt it wouldn’t be too difficult to improve on it. The above version is a dusted down and touched up version of the effort from all those years ago. Later I translated it into Pidgin English – which suited the tribal theme very well, with its ‘Pipol blong Ken’ refrain a nod to Ken Campbell who had taught me the Melanesian esperanto he called Wol Wantok. Later still, I did a modern adaption of the poem, updating it to contemporary London, though keeping Baudelaire’s rhyme-scheme and rhythm. http://internationaltimes.it/abel-and-cain/
Baudelaire is always capable of savage irony but what I noticed in the translations and adaptions was that I was channelling and juggling at least four voices: my own, Baudelaire’s, as well as Abel’s and Cain’s. Thus, occasionally the two races seem to be having a slanging match. This makes the adaption much more a mirror of modern England with its Daily Mail vs. Daily Mirror class propagandising. The tone is cruelly unsentimental but is of course occasionally misinterpreted. The line ‘Race of Cain, you breed like dogs / gratis on the NHS’ is not me talking, or Baudelaire, but the Race of Abel, probably echoing a modern sociologist and eugenicist such as Professor Richard Lynn.
There is also a film of a performance: http://vimeo.com/69963170
Interestingly, speeches by the Mazzini and Bakunin characters in 1848 both echoed the last line of the Baudelaire version, about evicting God from heaven, so Baudelaire was clearly and consciously versifying an idea that was current at the time. I updated it to ‘Big Brother’ making it more contemporary, and suitable to the biblical theme.
Here is another poem, inspired by my researches into Baudelaire’s participation in the February Revolution.
This cabalist passion for milk and honey!
I am sharing the desert with machinists.
Behind barricades of quatrains
I work with new materials, magic stones,
falling into events, an impersonal history
and have never had such company or communion.
My tomahawk voice works overtime
gibbering with idiots savants
as waves of barbarism and counter-barbarism
crash into thin bodies, candled souls.
This depression and mania.
The engineered dream – Paris – is losing
its royal dollhouse aura
looking more a like a sea of cormorants
lunching on bourgeois goldfish.
This is the saddest opera I have ever seen
because I have worked out the ending.
I war with Latin egos
who dislike the topography of a poet’s brow,
the Cain forehead complimenting a cloven hoof
expert at dance steps.
This below. This above.
Onion-layers of irony cannot make me shed
an animal’s sincerity.
A field-marshal is fucking my mother.
(That’ll do for France.)
In darkrooms I’m developing
a poetry like photography.
I told you I know the end of the opera.
My empty belly is a crystal ball.
I’ll leave the final word with CB himself, taken from his later diaries:
“Mon ivresse en 1848. De quelle nature était cette ivresse ? Goût de la vengeance. Plaisir naturel de la démolition. Ivresse littéraire : souvenir des lectures.”
Photo: Julie Goldsmith