348. (Charles Baudelaire)

How long does it take to absorb an influence, to learn what the insights of another mean? A couple of years ago, I published an essay on James Smith, the oft-forgotten early-mid century British critic, enshrined in Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity as the only critic to whom Empson responded. Only now, though, the full force of Smith’s Aristotelian criticism has come home to me; it is, I suppose, a mark of my own limitation that what is explicit in Smith helps me to clarify what is implicit in other critics I admire, where the description of poetic power and worth is saturated and animated by a sense for the virtues in all their variety. Here, I am turning to it to make sense of Baudelaire, whose poetry, imposing edifice that it is, offers me few hand-holds, in the original or in translation.

I’d wanted to think about Baudelaire in terms of virtues—in terms of human goodness and a striving after it, and had been stuck in the narrowness of what I meant, when I attempted to pull myself free with the thought that goodness is “right action,” only, seconds later, to find myself at last pulling Smith off the shelf, turning to his pages on Baudelaire and seeing, in what I’d read before but not digested, the anchoring phrase: “it is here, if anywhere, that he must achieve the fully satisfying life, in spite of and because of repulsive sights, and the difficulties of right reasoning and right action.”

Smith’s essay reads Baudelaire, surprisingly but persuasively, in reference to Bishop Butler. I take it that his intent is first and foremost to provide an orthodox Christian account of human goodness, “right reasoning and right action,” and to show how Baudelaire needs to be as working out, and measuring himself by, a similar notion of goodness. Baudelaire’s “Satanism,” of which there are, Smith notes, more and less imaginatively substantive versions in the poetry, is an account of what gets in the way of goodness and its attendant happiness; but Baudelaire is not, for Smith, primarily a poet of damnation. Though explicitly mentioned only a few times, Eliot is, I suspect, very much in Smith’s mind and he wants to provide an alternative to Eliot’s account of Baudelaire as a poet “man enough for damnation,” a phrase that is reactionary in its valuation of damnation as a recourse against modernity’s faith in progress and that is puerile in its invocation of manliness.  Bishop Butler, in addition to elucidating Smith’s sense of what Baudelaire is up to and about, has the solid Anglican credentials to battle Eliot on his own ground.

Moving on the two legs of Bishop’s account of human nature—that it is various, a bundle of desires, impulses, reasons, and that it is dependent on the external world for its happiness, and capable also of finding satisfaction in the external world. And we find statements including:

“Baudelaire, when he is fully himself, is of an heroic fortitude. And the source of this, once again, would seem to be the external world. The commerce which is natural to us is our opportunity of happiness; and it must remain so, however much through our mismanagement it has yielded misery in the past…Baudelaire finds a consolation: a promise of happiness which, however conditional, is sufficient to ward off despair. If the consolation appears small, that is the measure of what I called Baudelaire’s heroism.”

Whereas Eliot takes Baudelaire as a hero for embracing damnation as a consequence of the alternatives for living provided by modernity, and thereby showing that something prior to and unaccounted by modernity (Sin) can be asserted, Smith takes Baudelaire as a hero for finding, despite the possibilities of damnation, failure, and corruption, within the modern world the objects, real and external to his mind, capable of providing happiness, even a vision of beatitude. The heroism, for Smith, lies not in Baudelaire’s proclaiming happiness, but in his establishing it so scrupulously, rejecting what is false, but not turning his back, Puritanically, on his desire; like Butler, desire accords with nature and the good the world can offer an individual life.

Smith identifies fortitude, but he reads Baudelaire within the Catholic tradition that the poet himself accepted, in some form (and not only in a grotesque parodic inversion, or as opposition), and that means reading him in relation to the four cardinal virtues of the Catholic Church: prudence, temperance, and justice, as well as fortitude. What is harder to detect in Baudelaire are the graces: faith, hope, charity. Their irrelevance, which is not outright or conspicuous absence, to his imaginative work probably speaks to the nature of his Catholicism. It might seem a stretch to think of Baudelaire in terms of prudence or temperance, but when Smith reads “Voyage to Cythera” and comments on Baudelaire’s ultimate rejection of the vision, prudence is relevant to his account: “This was not the paradisal, which endures; but only make-believe. As such it crumbled, either before self-examination or before the mere course of events.” It is prudence that sets out the limits of the imagination in the poetry, above all in appreciating the ephemeral in the glimpses of paradise, whether that means paradise is itself is ephemeral or the capacity to perceive it enfeebled.

As for temperance, perhaps stranger to apprehend in Baudelaire’s poetry, Smith arrives at it by way of Butler’s first insight: the variety of human desires that make for the variety within human nature. Here is Smith:

“Baudelaire speaks of an infinite within us, needing the infinite which is outside; and whose demands we can never escape. ‘Fuyez l’infini que vous portez en vous,’ he calls in scorn to the women of Lesbos; knowing that they cannot, and that this is their punishment. This desire for God is the desire of which conscience and the reason most strongly approve; therefore for complete happiness, says Butler, its satisfaction must be preferred to that of all others. But in the Baudelaire of the poems other desire are already far too strong to admit of being postponed, for whatever reason. They demand satisfaction here and now, or will secure it by guile. They can do so because every satisfaction has its moment in which it appears infinite; and accordingly the inexperienced return for it a ‘gratitude infinie et sublime’. But, unless it corresponds to the desire of an ordered soul, it brings, not boundless riches, but only a pittance; it provides, instead of a true infinity to bear up the soul on every side, only a vacuity through which he plunges headlong. Baudelaire learns to be on his guard against these gulfs; but they threaten him at every moment, so that the mere thought of them fills with horror.”

Between Smith’s interpretation of Butler’s two points, we find in Baudelaire’s poems both symptom and diagnosis of infinite and disordered human desire, as well as symptom and diagnoses of the happiness that the individual can find in the world; and there is something else, in between too, the ennui, that Smith, contra Eliot, says is not accidie, “the most terrible of the soul’s maladies.” It is, instead, “boredom, such as afflicts the soul when an infinite variety of actions seems possible.” In all three, Smith suggests we read Baudelaire within a naturalism that accords well with Aristotle as well as with Butler, and that can be accommodated within humanism; it is again an implicit rebuke of Eliot’s Baudelaire (Eliot: “He rejects always the purely natural and the purely human; in other words, he is neither ‘naturalist’ nor ‘humanist’).

Eliot complained also of Baudelaire’s tiresome “unhealthiness” (drawing a comparison with Goethe’s health), but on Smith’s reading, Baudelaire suffers not from unhealthiness, but is wearied, as Geoffrey Hill wrote, from “worldly attrition”;  but, as Hill does not concede,  and Smith might remind us, that worldly attrition is suffered for the sake of worldly good (Smith: “But to Baudelaire, who waits anxiously for it, nightfall brings not the opportunity for sleep but only the duty of watching. He receives no supernatural aid, and must prepare himself for the struggle of the morrow”) . It is this more robustly human and humane poet that helps us make sense of Thom Gunn’s letter from November 1957, in which he writes: “when I try to think of poets who say anything both valid (for me) and (Christ this pen) well-put, I can count them on the fingers of one hand: Baudelaire, bits of Hart Crane, many bits of Shakespeare, and I can’t think of anybody else who doesn’t merely express beautifully things I could never agree with (e.g. Donne, Wallace Stevens, Keats, Rimbaud).” That might say more about Gunn as a reader than Baudelaire as a poet, but it suggests at least that Smith’s reading is not an isolated case.  Also pertinent, in response to Eliot’s thought of Baudelaire’s sickliness is Gunn’s remark, made about Jim Powell, that “endeavor in poetry may be like endeavor in love: both entail the entrance into a fever in which health and ill-health are indistinguishable…But only by passing through fever may the poem be written.”

And yet Smith’s account of Baudelaire is strengthened when set within Eliot’s perception of the poet. It was Eliot who remarked that it is not enough to read some of Baudelaire, that one must read everything he wrote (obviously I have not come near). And it is Eliot who draws the comparison with Dante. The comparison is initially lopsided in its emphasis, focused on Baudelaire’s suffering: “he could not escape suffering and could not transcend it, so that he attracted pain to himself. But what he could do, with that immense passive strength and sensibilities which no pain could impair, was to study his suffering.” This is lopsided because it draws too squarely a comparison of Baudelaire’s experience and Dante’s Inferno; but Smith has shown Baudelaire to offer diagnoses and symptomatic of three states: the unfathomable unfulfillable desires (related to Eliot’s “suffering”); boredom with the world; and beatitude. Eliot is helpful nonetheless in bringing Dante into view, since what it means to say that everything by Baudelaire ought to be read suggests that everything he writes is part of some larger drama, some imaginative and perhaps largely inwardly experienced, journey of life; it recalls, as I see it, Keats’ remark that “Shakespeare led a life of allegory; his works are comments on it”; and it suggests also what is crucially different about Baudelaire and Dante. Dante’s comedy purports to contain all of his life, as well as all of life; the surrounding circumstances of poet and pilgrim are sufficiently within the poem itself; that completeness is what might make the poem a “Classic” in Eliot’s sense, as Virgil’s Aeneid is a classic, but Shakespeare and Baudelaire are not. Before I drift further, I should return to the central point: which is that Baudelaire’s poems are utterances within a larger commedia of which they are only parts. The fuller poem is implied but not written. The journey Baudelaire makes is often left out of the poetry—though sometimes, in “Une Charogne,” for instance, the division of Baudelaire-the-poet reflecting back and Baudelaire-the-pilgrim who underwent the experience is clear. Such self-division allows for the remarkable sense of self-possessed detachment and self-scrutiny, the perfect poise of diagnosis and symptom; it is the source of his self-dramatization. Eliot: “Baudelaire, has, I believe, been called a fragmentary Dante, for what that description is worth.”

Eliot is also helpful in correcting Smith’s insistence on a positive vision of the beatific in Baudelaire. When Eliot writes, “Baudelaire’s notion of beatitude certainly tended to be wishy washy…and because his vision is here so restricted, there is for him a gap between human love and divine love.” Smith likely was attempting to correct Eliot’s own lax dismissal (“wishy-washy”; more happily, Eliot earlier writes that “Baudelaire is not always certain in his notion of the Good”—but who is?), but the haze that Baudelaire casts over his glimpses of paradise is hard to see through. Read generously, that is because Baudelaire, unlike Dante, locates his pilgrimage on the human and natural plane, where nature extends to take in artifice, and vice-versa. Purgatory, Inferno, and Paradise are simultaneous possibilities, arising unexpectedly, and sometimes shifting, in Baudelaire’s wandering through the Parisian streets; Dante is perhaps more flaneur, Baudelaire more pilgrim, than we realize at first—but Dante’s course is set, and Baudelaire’s pilgrimage is towards an experience that can have no fixed location.

To supplement, and not displace, Smith’s account of Baudelaire, I would look to a radical of religious thought: Kierkegaard. It is Kierkegaard who argues that the opposite of freedom is not necessity, but is instead guilt, and who prompts us to believe that what Baudelaire yearns for in his beatitude is some such freedom. What’s more, he provides an account of anxiety—the spirit looking on at the possibility of freedom, comprehending the terms of good and evil, depravity and purity, man and woman, but not apprehending them in a lived relationship—that might help elaborate Baudelaire’s self-division, his relation to himself from without (his eternal spirit looking on at his mind and body), his viewing the temporal from the vantage of the eternal. More speculatively, such anxiety might be located variously within poems, either as starting point, or end, or as a startled interruption of experience in their midst (“Les Sept Vieillards” for instance). But it would not be right to subordinate his mind to Kierkegaard’s idiosyncratic genius. Suffice to say that his poems are stories, memories, visions, and self-accusations of a journey that is suffused with anxiety for what eternal happiness can be found or felt in the momentary present, and that in that journey, Baudelaire looks on from without himself in order to most keenly perceive within.


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