A Heroic Death

April 4, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

A Heroic Death

by Charles Baudelair

Fancioulle was an admirable buffoon and almost like one of the Prince’s friends. But for men whose profession it is to be funny, serious things have a fatal attraction, and one day, although it may seem strange that ideas of patriotism and liberty should take despotic possession of a mummer’s brain, Francioulle joined a conspiracy formed by certain discontented nobles of the court.

There exist everywhere worthy men always ready to denounce their more atrabilar brothers who long to dethrone princes and, without bothering to consult it, to reconstitute society. The nobles in question were arrested as well as Francioulle, and all of them faced certain death.

I could readily believe that the Prince was quite put out to find his favorite player among the rebels. The Prince was neither better nor worse than other men; but having an excessive sensibility he was in general far more cruel than his fellows. A passionate lover of the fine arts, as well as an excellent connoisseur, he was an altogether insatiable voluptuary. Indifferent enough in regard to men and morals, himself a real artist, he dreaded one enemy only, Boredom; and the extravagent efforts he made to vanquish or to outsit this tyrant of the world, would most certainly have won him epithet of “monster” from a severe historian, if in the Prince’s dominions any one had been permitted to write anything whatever which did not make exclusively for pleasure or for astonishment, one of pleasure’s most delicate forms. The misfortune of the Prince was in not having a stage vast enough for his genius. There are young Neros, stifled in too narrow bounds, whose names and good intentions will forever remain unknown to future generations. A heedless Providence had given his Prince faculties greater than his domains.

Suddenly a rumor spread that the sovereign had decided to pardon all the conspirators; and the origin of this rumor was an announcement that a magnificent pantomine was to be given in which Fancioulle would play one of his most famous, most successful roles, and at which even the condemned nobles, it was said, were to be present; an evident proof, added superficial minds, of the generous proclivities of the offended Prince.

On the part of a man so naturally and deliberately eccentric, anything was possible, even virtue, even clemency, especially if in it he could hope to find some unexpected pleasures. but for those who, like myself had probed deeper into that curious sick soul, it was infinitely more probably that the Prince wanted to test the value of the histrionic talent of a man condemned to die. He wanted to profit by this occasion to make a physiological experiment of a capital interest, to find out to what extent an artist’s faculties might be changed or modified in a situation as extraordinary as this; beyond that, was there in his mind, perhaps, a more or less definite idea of mercy? This is a point that has never been clarified.

As last, the great day having arrived, this little court displayed all its pompsl and it would be difficult to conceive, unless one had seen it, what incredible splendor the privileged class of a tiny state with limited resources, was able to muster for a notable occasion. This one was doubly so by the wonder of the luxury displayed as well as by the mysterious moral interest attaching to it.

Sieur Fancioulle excelled especially in silent parts or ones with few words, which are often the principle roles in those fairy pantomimes whose object is to represent symbolically the mystery of life. He came out lightly onto the stage, with a perfect ease that confirmed the boble audience its notion of clemency and pardon.

When people say of an actor: “What a good actor,” they are using an expression which implies that beneath the character they can still distinguish the actor, that is to say, art, effort, volition. But if an actor should succeed in being, in relation to the part he played, what the best statues of antiquity, if miraculously animated they lived, walked and saw, would be in relation to the general, the confused idea of beauty, that would indeed be a singular case and altogether unheard of. Fancioulle was that night just such a perfect idealization, so that one could not help believing in the impersonation as alive, possible and real. The buffoon came and went, laughed and wept, and lashed into fury, with always about his head an imperishable aureole, invisible to all, but visible to me, that blended in a strange amalgam the beams of Art and the glory of Martyrdom. Fancioulle, by waht special grace I cannot say, introduced something of divine and supernatural into his most extravagent buffooneries. My pen trembles and tears of an emotion that has bever left me, fill my eyes, while I look for words to describe for you that unforgettable evening. Fancioulle proved to me in the most peremptory, the most irrefutable way, that the intoxication of Art is more apt than any other to veil the terrors of the eternal abyss; and that genius can play a part, even on the edge of the grave, with such joy that it does not see the grave, lost, as it is, in a paradist that shuts out all thought of death and destruction.

The whole audience, blasé and frivolous though they were, soon fell under the all-powerful sway of the artist. No thought remained of death, of mourning, or of punishment. Every one gave himself up without a qualm to the voluptuous and multitudinous pleasures the sight of a masterpiece of living art affords. Explosions of delight and admiration again and again reverberated to the vaults of the ediface with the noise of continuous thuder. The Prince himself, in a frenzy of intoxication, joined in the applause of his court.

However, for a discerning eye, this intoxication was not without alloy. Did he feel himself cheated in his despotic power, humiliated in his art of striking terror into hearts and chill into souls, frustrated in his hopes, flouted in his forecasts? Such suppositions, not altogether justified yet not unjustifiable, ran through my mind while I watched the Prince’s face, as over his habitual palor, a new palor spread like snow falling upon snow. His lips were more and more tightly compressed and his eyes blazed with an inner fire resembling that of jealousy or spite, even while he ostensibly applauded his former friend, the strange buffoon who now played death’s buffoon so superbly. At a certain moment I saw his Highness turn toward a little page standing behind him, and whisper in his ear. A roguish smile flashed across the child’s charming face; and he left the royal box as if to carry out some urgent commission.

A few minutes later a shrill prolongued hiss broke in upon Fancioulle in one of his greatest moments, rending all ears and hearts. And from that part of the hall whence this unexpected refbuff had come, a child darted out into a corridor with stifled laughter.

Fancioulle, awakened from his dream, closed his eyes, and when almost at once he opened them again, they seemed to have grown inordinately large, then he opened his mouth as though struggling for breath, staggered forward a step, then backward, and fell dead upon the stage.

Had the hiss, swift as a sword, really frustrated the hangman? There is ground for doubt. Did he regret his cherished, his inimitable Fancioulle? It is sweet and legitimate to hope so. The guilty nobles had enjoyed the delights of the theater for the last time. The same night they were effaced from life.

Since then several other mimes, justly appreciated in many countries, have come to the court of xxxx but none has ever been able to approach the miraculous talent of Fancioulle, nor rise to the same favor.

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