Charles Baudelaire, “My Little Melancholy Monkey”


In a journal entry in the spring of 1856, Charles Baudelaire wrote at the top of his journal page the following title: “Self-Purification and Anti-Humanity.”   Directly under this title, he writes that “in the act of love,” there is “a great resemblance to torture or a surgical operation.”   In the spirit of irony and contradiction that Baudelaire revels in, he follows up this dark and counter-intuitive claim with an erotic reflection: “Presently he asked permission to kiss her leg, and, profiting by the occasion, he kissed that beautiful limb in such a position that her figure was sharply outlined against the setting sun!”   Baudelaire translates his conflicted understanding of sexuality into a series of animal nicknames that affirms an erotic-slash-poetic sensibility:

“Pussy, kitten, catkin, my cat, my wolf, my little monkey, big monkey, great big serpent, my little melancholy monkey.”

However, after reveling in these names, Baudelaire claims that “such excessive use of animal nicknames testifies to a satanic aspect of love. Have not demons the forms of beasts? The camel of Cazotte – camel, devil, and woman.”   Since Baudelaire suggests that the use of such erotic language (a blurring of lines between man and animal) is satanic, he seems to be negating them. However, as we can see from the title of this entry, Baudelaire also suggests that these animal nicknames and their negation while suggesting “anti-humanity,” have something to do with “self-purification.”   The affirmation and negation of the animal nickname is the affirmation and negation of eroticism.

In lieu of this exercise, Baudelaire sets forth a poetic principle: “When I have inspired universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered solitude.” In other words, he sees his reflections on the nexus of eroticism and animal life as inspiring “horror and disgust” while, at the same time, enabling him, through negation, to “conquer solitude” and become a true artist. By becoming double (by affirming and negating eroticism), he becomes a modern artist.   Even though he negates the man animals, he knows he is a man animal.   This is – apparently – the secret of Baudelaire’s poetic consciousness.  And this secret sets him apart.

Even though he has negated the nickname, he still sees himself as a “little melancholy monkey.”  His use of “horror” doesn’t make him angelic or simply “anti-human.” It doesn’t purify him either.  The animal challenges his desire to conquer solitude. By being a “little melancholy monkey,” he can only experience solitude. He can’t – like everyone else – be fully human. He can only attempt to purify himself and this is what makes him melancholic. He is, sadly, bound to the “little monkey.”   He is vulnerable (little) and cannot escape animal life (monkey). But he must hide this shameful truth by way of negation.   He knows, however, that his negation is not real.

But there is more.  And this comes out with the word “my.”  Despite his “mastery of solitude,” he is still loved by someone. He is not alone and perhaps, for that reason, he isn’t – according to his definition – a real artist. Despite his irony, he belongs – like an animal of sorts – to the other.  Most likely, it was his Haitian born mistress, Jeanne Duval, who said that he is “my little melancholy monkey.”   And it is only his bitterness about her possession of him – which he also loves – that gives him a melancholic sense of self which he cannot separate….from animal life.  His solitude and his pain…which comes with being human is…interrupted by animal life and the love that attends it.

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