A difficult and thought provoking question, and one that will elicit many a contradictory answer. One might choose to argue that the aim of a genuine poet must always be to endeavour to interpret the truth of life. This is all well and good but the truth has an annoying habit of being contradictory, ambiguous and at times unfathomable, which invariably leads to misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the artists work. On occasion the reader, filled with his or her own unique prejudices and perspectives, may even conclude the opposite to that which the poet perhaps intended.
A classic example of this is the French poet Charles Baudelaire whose poetry reflects a deep obsession with darker, Dionysian aspects of human character. This primitive and passionate nature is one that the poet appears to fully embrace and therefore, in this respect, certain questions need to be addresses; although Baudelaire is impressively perceptive regarding the social workings of nineteenth century Europe, is he so obsessed with the darker side of life that he merely creates negative and destructive representations of people rather than offering a more Apollonian vision of mankind? Is this then damaging to humanity as a whole? And if this is the case is this poet who openly revels in death and disease actually the disease within society? Is it not the responsibility of the poet to offer positive, life-affirming depictions of humanity in order to aid the smooth running of a contented, cohesive society? Should a poet be allowed to cripple readers mind with doubt and fill their thoughts with images of filth?
In Baudelaire’s bourgeois society where a person’s ‘good name’ and social standing is sacrosanct, and in which the concept of the presence of an omnipotent god who judges all is used to control people, there appears to be little room left for truly individual thought and expression. Yet Baudelaire subverts traditional concepts of beauty, good and holy god in order to fully explore life.
There is a generally upheld idea that Baudelaire is a strong believer in the devil and all that he represents, that the poet is convinced that dark forces are at work shaping mans evil behaviour. Certainly Baudelaire’s belief in evil and hell appears to be woven throughout his poetry; The Seven Old Men are a “parade from hell,” with “… evil glitter in his eyes.” In a world where society revels in its own greatness, Baudelaire’s characters seem to inhabit an alternative version, one of old men seen as ‘sick beasts’ who’s ‘shoes trampled on the dead | In hatred, not indifference to life.” The reader is constantly assaulted with strong negative images of devilish people merely existing in a dirty, malevolent world before death claims them. These outrageous offerings are shocking to the reader to the point where the question has to be asked, what exactly is the author’s aim?
Could it be that this is simply the truth of how he views people? When you take away all the lies and pretence, is this a closer representation of mankind’s behaviour?
Although Baudelaire was successfully prosecuted for indecency upon the first publishing of Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) it would be a short-sighted reader who presumed that his only intention was to elicit disgust.
A closer examination of T S Eliot’s essay on the poet in 1930 reveals a moral attempt to ‘excuse’ Baudelaire’s mental attitude,
“Genuine blasphemy, genuine in spirit and not purely verbal, is the product of partial belief, and is as impossible to the complete atheist as to the perfect Christian. It is a way of affirming belief.”
In effect Eliot is arguing that in order to have such belief in evil, and to renounce god so fully, Baudelaire has to first accept that god and a force for good equally exists. So, although at first glance Baudelaire’s viewpoint seems positively satanic, it could be argued from this perspective that he probably has greater religious belief than any of the bourgeoisie who openly proclaim their faith.
This is an interesting statement and offers a possible explanation as to why, if he does truly believe in god, Baudelaire so vehemently and comprehensively condemns the middle classes for their religious hypocrisy.
However one can’t help but feel that Eliot is attempting to justify Baudelaire’s supposed ‘bad behaviour’ simply because there is much about the poet that Eliot does admire. Eliot himself is a Christian and a bona fide member of the moral bourgeoisie. His explanation is still positioned from a religious perspective. Does he need to believe that Baudelaire did really believe in god in order to explain his own psychological, moral and religious beliefs? Perversely Eliot is presenting Baudelaire as the opposite of his true self; Eliot is convince that Baudelaire is a god-fearing, “counter-romantic,” but it is Eliot’s own religious and social prejudices that colour his opinion and lead to such subjective conclusions.
We need to turn to Baudelaire’s own poetry to find the true answers. In the poem A Carcass, Baudelaire tells us that the rotten, stinking cadaver will “render to Nature a hundredfold gift | Of all she’d united in one.”
This entire poem perhaps gets closest to Baudelaire’s truth about life and death. In it there are no representations of evil, the devil or god; this poem is an honest, truthful portrayal of the workings of Nature. Its beauty lies in its ability to fully embrace death; there are no angels, but no devils either, Nature endures to tidy away the corpse and life continues. This obsession with death, or morbidity is not, as Eliot claims, a “weakness” but is actually where Baudelaire’s true poetic strength lies, in his capacity to accept the truth of life, in all its horrid splendour.
If this is more indicative of Baudelaire’s perspective then how does one explain the poet’s constant references to evil and hell, and even his own assertions in a letter to Flaubert on 26th June 1860 that he finds it, “Utterly impossible to account for some of man’s impulsive thoughts or actions, without the hypothesis that an evil force outside himself is intervening.”
It is important to remember that the poets mind is subjected to the bourgeois strict French Catholic consciousness of the nineteenth century. Is Baudelaire intelligent and perceptive enough to see when moral hypocrisy and pretence are prevalent? If the bourgeoisie praise god but do not obey his rules, does this god really exist? If people really believed then wouldn’t they follow god’s laws to the letter? Similarly if society can be this duplicitous with faith and with god, why can he not do the same with the devil?
Perhaps to look at this from a philosophical perspective will offer a greater understanding of where these negative obsessions come from? The Tao Te Ching states, “Recognise beauty and ugliness is born | Recognise good and evil is born.”
Is it that the structured, pious, moralistic attitude of the bourgeoisie spawns its own nemesis? That the expectations of such strict, social adherence push people to fight so passionately against the establishment?
If this is the case then Baudelaire’s poems do not evidence a belief in god or the devil, it is merely his mind rebelling against enforced morality and ‘purity of thought.’
Throughout his poetry, hell is not simply hell, but hell-on-earth, created by mankind, in the image of mankind.
In this case, the poem To The Reader is most illuminating:
Our sins are stubborn, our contrition lax;
We offer lavishly our vows of faith
And turn back gladly to the path of filth,
Thinking mean tears will wash away our stains.
Baudelaire’s honest awareness of his own place within the European bourgeois society that he despises, signified by his use of the words ‘our’ and ‘we,’ adds immense power to his poetic words. He is able to so thoroughly condemn society’s hypocritical behaviour exactly because he understands that he is also a part of this framework. The words ‘lavishly’ and ‘filth’ jar uncomfortably in the mind of the reader, as thoughts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ jar in his mind; this is intentional in order to establish fully to the reader the disgust that Baudelaire not only feels towards society but also towards himself. This harsh self-analysis is then reflected back towards society,
One creature only is most foul and false!
Through making no grand gestures, nor great cries,
He willingly would devastate the earth
And in one yawning swallow all the world;
This most evil creature Baudelaire describes is not the devil, it is ‘Ennui personified.’ It is the bourgeoisie. It is the devil that will destroy ‘all the world.’ Ennui is the devil in each and every person who allows life to pass by in a haze of badly dictated moralising, social subservience and self-deceit.
Poets such as Baudelaire are an essential part of every society, they execute what Poe describes as “the hideous dropping off of the veil” which enables people to fully view their true existence and behaviour. Baudelaire’s genius lies in his ability to make people question, rather than blindly accept ‘universally recognised truths.’ Yes, people thinking for themselves may be viewed as destructive to society, but often the truth is uncomfortable and this has to be preferable to mankind stagnating.
Poets, through their work, offer up the truth as they see it in order that society can better view itself in its truest representations rather than through a veil of ill-considered morality and lies. Perhaps when people complain that Baudelaire’s representations are negative it is simply that they are uncomfortable with seeing the harsh truth.
Shelley could easily be discussing Baudelaire when he asserts in his Defence of Poetry that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted” and if Keats is correct when he tells the reader that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” then Baudelaire’s poetry offers nothing but the most beautiful representations of mankind, society and Nature.
Culled from http://www.writeoutloud.net/public/newsgroupview.php?NewsThreadsID=563