Baudelaire’s Ennobling Revulsion

Baudelaire was the greatest poet of the capitalist epoch. Does anybody doubt this? You would have to search for a reputable critic who would disagree today. And yet — my God! what a wretched fellow he was. Anybody unfamiliar with the subject would be sure the Hyslops had rigged an invidious selection of his letters. [Baudelaire, a Self Portrait. Selected Letters, translated and edited by Lois Boe Hyslop and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr., Oxford University Press.] They haven’t done so, yet this hundred, chosen from about a thousand that survive, not only show him in a bad light, they never, never at all, show him in a good one. It was unlucky for Baudelaire that his mother saved all his letters to her. He never wrote her a decent letter and he wrote plenty. They are all dishonest. If he is not begging her for money, he is trying to trick her out of it by the most transparent devices and lies. He lies about his business affairs. He lies about his love affairs. Always he picks at the scabs of his ulcerating oedipus complex. It is all very disgusting.

His letters to his friends are mostly concerned with literary log-rolling and wire-pulling. Again and again he wheedles Sainte-Beuve. Again and again he is snubbed. Precisely because he was the kind of man his letters reveal him to be, he was not the sort that Sainte-Beuve, that slightly seedy bon vivant, could take seriously. He tells his guardian he will beat him up. He stages a fake suicide. He never, not once, has a genuinely good word, never an honest one, to say for his mistress, Jeanne. At the end, she vanishes, blind, sick, and crippled. She may have been pretty bad — perverted and totally masochistic himself, Baudelaire doubtless picked quite a freak — but she put up with him for twenty years, a job which might have revolted his guardian angel. Certainly it was not for his money, because she got very little, and in her young days at least had plenty of opportunity to do better elsewhere. His love letters to other women are absurd; the scorned and beseeching lover of a tenth-rate provincial melodrama. Altogether he manages to put up an even worse front than his master, Poe.

What was great about this man? He wasn’t even bad, but “delinquent,” like an incorrigible, shifty, not very bright child of ten. However powerful and original his published criticism of painting and letters, in his correspondence when he writes of ideas, of literature, of art, he seldom rises above the level of a scrapbook of demoralized adolescence. Poe’s Eureka may read like the philosophizing of Amory Blaine, but Baudelaire does not even reach these heights. It has been said that he admired Poe so much because he couldn’t understand English. To judge by the letters, it was because he couldn’t understand Poe. French or English, it all seemed very deep stuff to Baudelaire. Then, too, it was profitable. He seems to have made more money off his Poe translations than from anything else he did — at last to sell the entire copyright for a pittance. Why was this man one of the world’s greatest writers? That is the hardest of all critical questions to answer.

In a sense it is the fundamental critical question. It must be answered just right. The slightest confusion leads to aesthetic and moral nonsense. Catullus is a great writer. Céline is a great writer. Genet is not a “writer” at all — he is a social document. Pornography is not enough. Evil living is not enough. Demoralization is not enough. Of course, everybody knows that Baudelaire was great because of the magnificence of his style. But what does this mean? Here of all places the style is the man. There is something that doesn’t meet the naked eye. For the poetry to possess such grandeur, the man must have had it too. The qualities of his poetry are obvious enough to everyone but T.S. Eliot. Most of them are included in his own aesthetic of “dandyism.” They are maximum tension, achieved by all sorts of means, but especially by dynamic contrasts of both style and material — the well-known use of classical rhythmic inflections in a fiercely ironic sense is a good example. Mr. Eliot took this at face value. Of course the point is that Baudelaire uses the heroic hysterics of Racine to mock his own predicament. The Action Française nonsense about his Catholicism is a similar error. Religion for Baudelaire is a kind of sultry farce. The Mass is a travesty of the Black Mass, rather than the other way around.

Another characteristic of Baudelaire is his overpowering gravity. Poe is always frivolous. Baudelaire is always in deadly, terrifying earnest. The motte of his mistress, the hallucinatory streets of Paris in the autumn evening, “lit with prostitutes,” the snaky hiss of taffeta petticoats, the stale sweat of poverty and lust, everything is given the life and death significance of an induced paranoia. And the verse echoes this mortal concern. Through it all beats the measuring out of ultimate crisis, the tones of his cloche fêlée. Compare them with the bell strokes of [Tennyson’s] In Memoriam and you sense instantly the difference between the pathos of sentiment and the pathos of total tragedy.

Even so hasty a characterization makes apparent what it is that makes Baudelaire great. Homer was as professionalized as an acrobat. Butler thought Nausicaa wrote the Odyssey. Certainly Homer never stood on the walls of Troy beside his infant son and resolved within his own heart the ruin of all bright things. He let other men do it for him. His job was to record the acts of heroes. So too with Aeschylus and Sophocles. With the arrest of industrial and commercial civilization at the level of the French Restoration, French official culture disintegrated into a congeries of lies, like a heap of evil jackstraws. The only heroes society has to offer are confidence men. Where the poet preserves an awareness of his prophetic responsibility, where he insists that poetry still is a symbolic criticism of values, he is forced to become his own tragic hero. Society can only provide the cast for bitter comedy — Jonson’s Volpone, Machiavelli’s Mandragola. What is the nineteenth-century novel, from Balzac or even Choderlos de Laclos, but the representation of this malignant mockery? Anyone who pretends to mount and manage the fall of Agamemnon or the parting of Titus and Berenice in terms of the coming century and a half of revolutions betrayed is a self-convicted fraud.

It sounds glib to say that Baudelaire embodies within himself the “contradictions of capitalism,” as though he was a sort of ambulatory Falling Rate of Profit. Perhaps it can all be traced back to economics, but the tragedy of the modern world, the metaphysical horror, the Social Lie, the World Ill, these are catch phrases masking total moral breakdown, the alienation of man from his work, from his fellows, and from himself. Organized society in our epoch simply has nothing good about it. It is deadly fraud from start to finish. We are so used to it that we forget, or we never face, what writers like Veblen, or Riesman, or Wright Mills mean in actual human terms.

Baudelaire or Céline face the monster all the time. They can never forget for an instant. The horrors of a world where man is wolf to man struggle all through every moment in the very bloodstream, like leukemia.

Does this mean that, as the Marxists used to say, all great writers of the past two centuries have been revolutionaries, conscious or unconscious? Certainly not. Such a notion only reveals the lack of what the Russians, in signs warning you not to spit in the subway, call “culture.” Léon Blum had a career and a program; Céline had a life and a work of art. Leon Trotsky said that, long ago, in the best thing he ever wrote. In the final showdown, all our revolutions have turned out to be careers for some and programs for others. The stuff of life, of art, is not only vaster far than all programs and careers, it is the material of a different qualitative world altogether.

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus could ennoble and purify the Greek community in ways that we can hardly realize — however well we may understand them. The hero, Baudelaire, enables us to endure a predicament we understand only too well with at least some kind of dignity. It is, in fact, a very considerable dignity, greater than can be comprehended in the term “Dandy” unless we want to give it the very special connotation he gave it — the meaning of tragic hero of the modern metropolis. But there is none of this dignity in the letters; just the terrible fires of shame out of which that dignity was forged. We can pity; but as Yeats said, the poetry is not the pity.



This essay — a review of a collection of Baudelaire’s letters — originally appeared in The Nation (20 July 1957). It was reprinted in Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1959. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Diverse translations of a Baudelaire poem
Rexroth’s Classics Revisited essay on Baudelaire
Other Rexroth Essays