Pamelyn Casto 

A Close Reading of Charles Baudelaire’s
“To Each His Own Chimera”

Read the story.

Or read it in his Paris Spleen collection.

Poisoned Well with Chimera by Jacka Malczewski

“Things are in the saddle. And ride mankind.”
.                                                 ―Ralph Waldo Emerson

Prose poetry and flash fiction often share many characteristics. They sometimes share so many that certain pieces can comfortably fit either category. Charles Baudelaire’s “To Each His Own Chimera” is one of those category shifting pieces. The piece is also interesting because it draws on Greek mythology and it is a story worth exploring for all the effective writing techniques. 

Works With Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory

The story also works well with Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing, his theory of omission, where so much is left unsaid and exists there just below the surface. As Hemingway said in his essay “The Art of the Short Story,” “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.” So much exists below the surface of this story and what lurks there can be drawn out according to the background of the reader.

A Simple Setting Opening

The one-page story opens with a description of the setting that is easy enough to visualize. The reader is shown a broad sky of grey (spelled with an “e,” which always strikes me as even bleaker than when the word is spelled with an “a.”). This is a flat, dusty, pathless plain. The area is so bland it is without grass or even thistles or nettles. This is a ravaged and devastated environment. The movements of the bent-over men blend into the bleak grey setting. The location is not identified and works better if it is not named.

Chimeras Ride And Direct The Men

The narrator observes that each man carries an enormous Chimera on his back and estimates the weight of the beast to be that of a heavy sack of flour, or coal, or the gear of a Roman foot-soldier. The choice of the weights of three such disparate loads or burdens possibly suggest necessary domesticity, trade, and the reality of the times of war—the things that often drive and direct human kind. But there is a difference . . . 

Immediately the narrator states that the monstrous beasts were not dead weights (as a sack of flour or coal or war gear might be). Instead these monsters physically oppress the men, ride and drive the men, and even their “fabulous” heads are a covering for the men’s brows– like the helmets ancient warriors used to terrify their enemies.

In questioning one of the beast-ridden men, the narrator discovers that the man likely didn’t realize or recognize the burden he was carrying (or the monster driving him). The only thing he knew was that he and the other men were going somewhere because they were “urged on by an invincible need to walk.”

Mythical Chimeras Are Female

The chimera of ancient myth was female and some translations of Baudelaire’s story refer to the chimeras as shes (while other translations assign no gender). It is interesting to explore what might lie below the surface words—what is not stated but which through omission adds considerable strength and perhaps direction to the tiny story.

The chimera of myth was part of a grim brood of monsters and is sometimes described as having three heads (those of a lion, goat, snake), and sometimes as having a body composed of these same beasts. The chimera breathed fire and devastated lands. She was finally killed by the hero Bellerophon, who in turn rode his winged steed Pegasus, the horse that sprang from the neck of beheaded Medusa, a witch beheaded by Perseus. (It is often difficult keeping up with the killings in old myths.)

Men Condemned To Hope

The narrator points out that “none of these travelers seemed irritated with the ferocious beast”(s) attached to their backs. They seemed to consider them a part of themselves. The men’s faces, described as fatigued and serious, showed no signs of despair but instead they seemed to be resigned and “condemned to hope always” as they trudged along. In this story hope is not a good or desirable thing. It is a condemnation. 

Just as it was done in the ancient myth of Pandora, hope is presented in an unusual and disturbing way. Pandora, created as a gift to punish mankind, let all the evils of the world escape from her jar—all except for hope. It was the one evil she managed to keep in her jar. For the trudging and burdened men in Baudelaire’s story the men are “condemned to hope always.” Here Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim also comes to mind: “Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man.” After reading and pondering this story a reader will likely think more about what hope might be and what might be its place in our modern world.

Narrator Is Ridden by Indifference 

The long procession of Chimera-ridden men passes by the narrator and finally disappears into the grey mist of the horizon where the procession is now hidden from sight, now out of range of the human gaze. 

For several instants, the narrator wants and tries to understand this mystery but is soon overcome and is himself ridden by “irresistible indifference.” He insists he feels more “heavily overwhelmed” than those passing men who were driven by their crushing Chimeras. Once the spectacle passed he could no longer care about the mystery he witnessed. Out of sight, out of mind. The indifference overwhelmed and takes over and ends the story. Ironically, in his way the narrator has now taken on some of the mythical indifference of ancient Greek gods themselves. 

This is one of those outstanding tiny stories that can lead to much further thought. This is the kind of fine flash fiction that can ignite a reader’s imagination and fire it in so many surprising and unpredictable directions. This story can also serve as an effective example of Hemingway’s iceberg theory in action. So much is not said and yet it quietly informs the surface words so that the reader helps create the resulting story.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Charles Baudelaire:
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a very important French poet, art critic, essayist, and translator.

Image: Poisoned Well with Chimera by Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929). Unknown medium. Unknown size. 1905. Public domain.