Charles Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet, coined the word “modernity.” But he went from word creator to aphasia after a massive stroke in 1866, which left him paralyzed and unable to speak during the final year of his life.
Baudelaire’s famous book of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, earned the admiration of fellow writers and condemnation of the public due to its racy subject matter. Gustave Flaubert wrote him after reading the poems: “You have found a way to rejuvenate Romanticism… You are as unyielding as marble, and as penetrating as an English mist.” Whereas J. Habas stated, “Everything in it which is not hideous is incomprehensible.”
Those two extremes reflect the way Baudelaire lived life. He ran up huge debts, smoked opium, and drank heavily. He also brought Edgar Allan Poe to the French, translating his stories.
After the Stroke
Sebastian Dieguez details Baudelaire’s stroke in his paper: “Baudelaire’s Aphasia: From Poetry to Cursing.” His doctors explained aphasia to his mother as Baudelaire having lost his “memory of sound.” He still had words in his mind, but he could not remember how they were supposed to sound coming out of his mouth.
Baudelaire was left with a single phrase: “Crénom!” (or holy shit!) Dieguez proposed two theories for why Baudelaire got stuck with this word. It was either the last word he said while having the stroke (and therefore the only one the mind kept) or the first word he said after the stroke (his mind holding onto it and refusing to release it). In any case, his particular case of global aphasia frustrated the nuns who took care of him.
His aphasia frustrated Baudelaire, too, though for different reasons. He had a brilliant mind and he knew he was unable to express himself. He often lashed out in anger, especially at his mother who outlived her son by four years.
Baudelaire rose to greater fame after his death with many posthumous publications. They enabled his mother to pay off his debts and gave her a final peaceful thought. She said, “I see that my son, for all his faults, has his place in literature.”
Those books of literature that he poetically described as “a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors.” He not only lost the ability to speak but the act of putting poetry into the world.
Image: Étienne Carjat’s portrait of Charles Baudelaire via a Creative Commons license