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Enivrez-vous — Get High

by Charles Baudelaire by Don Webb

Il faut être toujours ivre. Tout est là : c’est l’unique question. Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.

Mais de quoi ? De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous.

Et si quelquefois, sur les marches d’un palais, sur l’herbe verte d’un fossé, dans la solitude morne de votre chambre, vous vous réveillez, l’ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue, demandez au vent, à la vague, à l’étoile, à l’oiseau, à l’horloge, à tout ce qui fuit, à tout ce qui gémit, à tout ce qui roule, à tout ce qui chante, à tout ce qui parle, demandez quelle heure il est ; et le vent, la vague, l’étoile, l’oiseau, l’horloge, vous répondront : « Il est l’heure de s’enivrer ! Pour n’être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps, enivrez-vous sans cesse ! De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise. »

Le Spleen de Paris, XXXIII (1857)

You must always have a high. It’s everything; it’s all that matters. In order not to feel the horrible burden of Time that crushes your shoulders and bends you to the ground, you must get high resolutely.

But on what? On wine, poetry or virtue, as you will. But get high.

And if, sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the dreary solitude of your room, you awaken, and the high has already diminished or disappeared, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock — anything that flies, moans, moves, anything that sings or speaks — ask what time it is. And the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock will answer, “It is time to get high! In order not to be martyred slaves of Time, always be high! On wine, poetry or virtue, as you will.”

“Surely you jest,” other translators may say. “The title of Baudelaire’s prose poem says very plainly, ‘Get Drunk.’ And surely you have seen the guidelines posted in French cafés titled Répression de l’Ivresse Publique. They deal with patrons who may become staggering or blotto. Why the colloquialism ‘high’ from late 20th-century America?”

Yes, that is all quite true. And Baudelaire, who sadly died young at the age of 46, was no stranger to alcohol and to intoxication by other substances, such as opium. But let’s read the poem.

Ivresse due to alcohol is only one option; the poem doesn’t stop there. Poetry and vertu are also ways of confronting mortality.

Ivresse and the verb s’enivrer have a very broad range of meaning. It can extend from falling-down drunk to ecstatic enthusiasm. Can one become inebriated by poetry? Baudelaire seems to have done so, and the world has been rightly grateful.

What, then, of vertu? It is not restricted to “virtue” in the American sense of “that which is socially approved,” such as the axe-wielding anti-alcohol activism of Carrie Nation, which led to Prohibition. Rather, vertu retains the old sense of striving in any noble cause, one that is larger than any individual’s self-interest. The word généreux also used to mean “noble” in the same sense, but it has lost its ivresse and, like “generous,” has come to mean merely “magnanimous.”

The prose poem Enivrez-vous provides a classic example of translation’s encountering the problem not only of different meanings but of different cultures. Can the poem then not be translated at all? Not literally, not word for word. But it can be adapted.

Despite all obstacles of translation, the poem’s purpose remains clear. Baudelaire counters the “woe is mortal me” commonplace of memento mori with a vigorous call to life, a memento vitae.

Original by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
translation © 2020 by Don Webb

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