274. (Charles Baudelaire)

All poetry is nature poetry—imagining what it is in the nature of things to do and become; nature is the order of what occurs rightly, by its own inner directive, and so allows us to speak of what things are. At the same time, all poetry is a record of what is unnatural, of what thwarts nature or of nature perverting itself. Even the lightest society verse is written against such a background, manners themselves being the most contingent and refined development of second nature.

In the context of such a generalization, any poetry can be read. But Baudelaire’s poetry, so wary of the health of “nature” as it was conventionally and dully felt, needs to be read in this context. It’s boredom and desire, it’s Eros and Acedie, are reactions against creation—but in examining and articulating those reactions, Baudelaire is in fact, also, tracing out the perversions and distortions of nature without denying (indeed affirming) that they are internal to, coterminous and consubstantial, with

nature itself. His embrace of nature recognizes that nature includes within itself the potential for its own undoing; and not only the potential, but the actual undoing itself, whence his boredom and desire proceed.

Karl Barth, whose commentary on the Epistle to the Romans contains passages I’ve found illuminating when reading Kafka, contains also a passage that casts light on Baudelaire. Maybe Barth is the ideal and neglected critic of modernity. The passage:

Unbroken naturalness is not pure. Nor are matters improved when ‘naturalness’ is penetrated by piety. In ‘naturalness’ there is always secreted that which is non-natural, and, indeed, that which actually contradicts nature. This contradictory factor awaits the hour when it will break forth. When, by allowing nature to run its course freely and uncontradicted, God and the world have become confused with one another, there comes into prominence a further confusion: what cannot be avoided or escaped from becomes confused with some necessity of nature, and this is in very truth a demonic caricature of the necessity of God. These confusions stand altogether on one line, they belong together and cohere together. What is at first merely open to suspicion moves inexorably on to what is positively absurd. Everything then becomes Libido: life becomes totally erotic. When the frontier between God and man, the last inexorable barrier and obstacle, is not closed, the barrier between what is normal and what is perverse is opened.

Baudelaire’s poetry at time revels in demonic caricatures—which may be helpfully read as being “of the necessity of God.” God, here and also, in Baudelaire, is a negative, an absence in nature, or a presence against which all of nature, including humanity, is set and dependent. But the poetry makes that felt, knowingly, by exposing the non-natural perversions and contradictions of nature “secreted” within it; Barth suggests how to make sense of the “evil” to which Baudelaire responds and the discoveries his explorations of desire and boredom yield.

I keep telling myself I will spend time moving patiently through a poem by Baudelaire, line by line, and I will, but so far I’ve been drawn instead to working out the shape of his imagination, which is marked by, but not wholly presented, in the poetry. “Nature” is central to that imagination, but nature that cannot be wished to a pristine antique state, and a nature that does not exist elsewhere, for healing or consolation; it is a nature that contains what is unnatural but seemingly necessary, and that cannot be torn away from it—but that must be known and articulated and imagined through its own distortion and corruption.


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