Educated at the same lyceé as Degas, attached to yet estranged from his domineering mother, stepson of an army general whom he despised, dependent on exiguous handouts from his financial guardian, humiliated by his cruel Haitian mistress, addicted to hashish and ravaged by syphilis, the brilliant Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) was abrasive and self-destructive. The photographer Félix Nadar—who took his portrait, with bulging forehead and flowing hair—described him as “a nervous, testy, irritable, and irritating young poet, often utterly unpleasant in private.”

In his rambling series of vague aperçus—without any clear structure or argument—Roberto Calasso focuses on Baudelaire as an art critic, not as a poet, and discusses Ingres and Delacroix, Degas and Manet, as well as Rimbaud, Laforgue, Flaubert, and Proust. Calasso’s erudition and style have been highly praised, yet this book shows the same obvious weaknesses and tedious mannerisms that also marred his work on Kafka.

He uses verbatim repetition when introducing a quote; lapses into ponderous vacuity: “a writer is he who inevitably reveals things . . . through the written word” and Sainte-Beuve has “a tightrope walker’s ability to protect his own respectability;” indulges in far-fetched analogies: “For Baudelaire, the disappearance of the old place du Carrousel . . . is like the disappearance of Troy for Andromache;” makes incorrect assertions (from Gottfried Benn): “ ‘Snow’ . . . offers little in the way of either linguistic or emotional ideas,” though the chapter called “Snow” is the high point of The Magic Mountain; wanders into pointless digressions about Vedic seers explaining “the primacy of manas and vac;” and favors otiose obscurity: “Who is speaking here? . . . Damascius or Iamblichus? Is it an Egyptian theurgy?” As Byron said of Coleridge, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”

Calasso begins to hit his stride when he drifts away from Baudelaire and offers sound readings of paintings by Degas and Manet. But, in a shaky start, Calasso is puzzled by the unreality of the mirror-like lake in Degas’s Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source, though the lake, painted on a theatrical stage, is deliberately unreal. As Merleau-Ponty once observed, a “mirror is the instrument of a universal magic that changes things into spectacles.” Calasso misreads The Bellelli Family by asserting that “this painting develops around an empty space in the center,” though the younger daughter, Giulia, sits exactly in the center; that the father “has no gaze,” though he’s seen in profile gazing at his children; and, misusing biographical information, that it’s a “portrait of a family united by reciprocal aversions,” though there’s no evidence of hostility between Bellelli and his children.

Calasso is on firmer ground with The Misfortunes of the City of Orléans, a portrayal of sexual violence in the late Middle Ages, whose source Degas found in Jules Michelet’s monumental Histoire de France (1844). Like Goya’s Disasters of War, it portrays the tragic fate of civilian victims. The three horsemen have raped and murdered four women, whose corpses lie abandoned on the ground. The surviving women—naked, vulnerable, and about to be slain—are helpless and pitifully erotic. Calasso links Degas’s woman bound to a tree to the heroine in Ingres’s Angelica Saved by Ruggiero, but does not elaborate on this comparison.

In Ingres’s painting, based on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Ruggiero’s frightened hippo-griff, rearing above a supine sea monster with outstretched claws, also seems to threaten Angelica. Its talons reach toward her head just as the monster’s tail lunges toward her feet. Ruggiero plunges his lance down the creature’s throat and through the teeth once destined for Angelica’s flesh. In this horrific but erotically charged painting, Angelica—chained and naked, swooning and submissive—seems already half in love with her savior.

Calasso writes of Interior, Degas’s most enigmatic and fascinating painting, “we can infer nothing certain regarding what has happened. All we can sense is something diseased and desperate. . . . Something sexual and unsaid has swept across the entire scene.” But the details reveal a clearer meaning. The white undergarments of the half-dressed, disconsolate woman are exposed in the open traveling case and flung carelessly on the wooden floorboards. The domestic touches suggest that the fully dressed man, staring coldly at his victim, has paid for her room and violated her body. The mirror above the fireplace reflects both the man’s cruel passion, now spent, and the psychological effects of the rape on the woman. The sexual violence is symbolized by the dancing fire, her red hair and his red beard, the red flowers on the wallpaper and lampshade, the red stripes in the rug, and by the gaping case with its pink lining garishly exposed by the lamp.

Baudelaire (in illuminating passages not quoted by Calasso) observed that Manet “has a definite taste for reality, modern reality—which is a good sign—a rich and lively, sensitive and audacious imagination.” After Manet had been savaged by the critics, Baudelaire, writing to a friend they have in common, paradoxically admired the abuse and encouraged his stoicism: “When you see Manet, tell him this: that torment . . . that mockery, that insults, that injustice are excellent things, and that he should be ungrateful were he not thankful for injustice.” Baudelaire—a connoisseur of condemnation—believed that the insults of fools merely confirmed his talent, that suffering spurred him on to greater effort, that meaningful victory could only be won after a hard struggle.

Calasso does not mine the rich ore of Manet’s Olympia, whom he defines with negatives: “she is neither complacent nor complaisant; she is neither languid nor dreamy.” Manet’s masterpiece, celebrating a forbidding and threatening sexuality, and involving the spectator in its louche appeal, continued to provoke derision long after his death. Calasso notes in passing that “irony is concentrated only in the hump of the cat’s back.” But the cat, whose black fur contrasts with Olympia’s white skin, is a witty and dramatic detail. While Olympia’s glance is inviting, the cat, with hostile arched back, seems to be hissing at the client about to intrude in its domain. In French, as in English, synonyms for “cat” suggest the female sexual organ, and the large erect tail signals sexual promiscuity. Calasso does not mention that just as Baudelaire derived his portrayal of cats from his translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” so Manet also “Baudelairized” all his cats, taking them from “Le Chat” in Les Fleurs de Mal, where Baudelaire associates the cat with his enchanting and destructive black mistress.

Calasso could also have said much more about another elusive masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which connects to the title of his own book. The barmaid—dispensing bibulous pleasure but receiving none herself—has the disillusioned, world-weary expression of a sensitive and forlorn woman. Her steady gaze and black dress convey a deep sadness. The fashionable gentleman reflected in the mirror represents the barmaid’s chance to escape from servitude into another, more luxurious, form of bondage. Manet was suffering from a fatal disease when he painted this picture. So it’s possible to see the gentleman at the bar, approaching the barmaid from an unexpected angle and appearing in an unnaturally oblique reflection, as a figure of death.

Calasso convincingly stresses the painter Berthe Morisot’s “profound infatuation” and “tormented love” for the married Manet, whose brother she eventually married. Obsessed with her striking beauty and magnetic presence, Manet expressed his love for her and revealed her feelings for him in a series of eleven stunning portraits. In Berthe Morisot with Hat, in Mourning her hair falls loose on her forehead, her eyes are troubled and the expressionistic slashes of paint on her face reinforce her sorrow and anguish. In Berthe Morisot with a Fan her refined, vibrant face is as lovely as ever, her expression intelligent and alert. Her left arm, with elegantly expressive fingers forming a circle and touching the tip of her decorated fan, is bent backward in response to something that startles her outside the frame of the picture.

Casting his net too wide, jumping from subject to subject and writing in a rather precious style, Calasso does not do full justice to the great writers and artists in this book.