I have known since adolescence—though in Soviet Russia it was all a bit hard to believe, these United States of ours being, after all, the Manichaean pole of Light—that Edgar Allan Poe was completely unknown in America and would have perished in obscurity had he not found a literary agent in Charles Baudelaire and a vociferous claque in Baudelaire’s milieu in France.  What I never would have believed until a month ago, when somebody in Moscow sent me a thesis by a professor at the scarcely plausible University of Evansville in Indiana, is that Russia has the credit for the discovery of Baudelaire.  The title of that thesis could not be more succinct—“Baudelaire in Russia”—and it has been published by the University Press of Florida.  What Adrian Wanner has come up with is little short of an illumination.

What astounds the reader is the perspicacity of the Russian intelligentsia of Baudelaire’s day.  Their discernment may almost be called anecdotal, as Baudelaire’s poems and prose—including the essays in which he championed Poe—began to appear in periodicals with such righteous names as Syn otechestva (“Son of the Fatherland”) and Otechestvennyie zapiski (“Fatherland Chronicles”) in the early 1850’s, long before the succès du scandale of Les Fleurs du Mal in France.  The poem “Le Flacon,” for instance, was first published in Russia, when Karl Stachel, the Paris correspondent of one of the Russian journals, had been handed a manuscript of the poem by the author.  If one contrasts this fragment of European intellectual history with the fact that the Russian-literature article in the 1968 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica contains no mention of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)—whom Boris Pasternak revered as il miglior fabbro—one begins to question the achievement of “connectivity” on which the modern world so prides itself.

It turns out that news of high culture traveled much faster before the invention of the telephone and the computer.  One of my favorite examples of this unpalatable truth is that only a short time after the premiere of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem at Bremen in 1868, and of the final version at Leipzig in the following year, Cambridge University proffered the German composer an honorary doctorate.  There were neither televisions nor radios in those days, to say nothing of e-mails and cellphones, but somehow one is certain that the Encyclopaedia Britannica—established, incidentally, in 1768 at Edinburgh and in its ninth edition when Brahms’ Requiem had its premiere—would not have been as deeply ignorant and smugly provincial as these things are nowadays.  Culturally, Leipzig was closer to Cambridge a century ago than now, when it is in the United States of Europe.

A similar paradox awaits the student of Baudelaire where the poet’s morality—or lack of it—is concerned.  Just as fin du siècle Russian intelligentsia were appalled by the “persecution” of Oscar Wilde in his native Britain, so it was in the placid backwater of 19th-century patriarchal Russia that Baudelaire found his staunchest defenders against accusations of depravity leveled at Les Fleurs du Mal in France.  Thus the poet and critic Petr Yakubovich was able to eulogize Baudelaire in Severnyi vestnik (“The Northern Messenger”) not as a poet of genius despite his moral corruption, but as “a deeply principled poet.”  Once again, if one contrasts this fragment of European intellectual history with the fact that U.S. Customs was still confiscating and destroying copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as late as 1959, one begins to question the whole premise of seamless congruity between political and cultural freedom that has so lodged itself in the modern mind.

Whether Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a work of art is not the issue here.  I find Michelangelo’s David more vulgar and offensive than internet pornography precisely because it is claimed to have, in the words of the Supreme Court justice in Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966), “redeeming social importance,” and when judged by this hypocritical standard Lawrence’s book likewise gives me the creeps.  But Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal is a work that asserts literature’s right to have no redeeming social value whatever: “You know that I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality,” Baudelaire wrote to his mother of the scandal that had engulfed him.  “Beauty of conception and style is enough for me.  But this book, whose title says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty.  It was created with rage and patience.”

Precisely this stance endeared Baudelaire and Wilde to the Russians, even to those with overt revolutionary tendencies, like Yakubovich.  It was up to a later generation of Russian intellectuals to pillory art for art’s sake and to insist that redeeming social importance become the morality test of all imaginative literature.  We all know how that ended.  It ended with How the Steel Was Tempered in the country that discovered Les Fleurs du Mal and with Debbie Does Dallas in the country that suppressed Lady Chatterley’s Lover.