Charles Baudelaire was a French poet, art critic, essayist and translator whose powerful lyrical exploration of modernity, the artistic and the sensual continues to inspire generations of readers. It can be argued that Baudelaire’s interests and pursuits were as important as his poetry, as they not only mirrored his passions but made flesh a personal vocation that was almost sacral in its expression. Baudelaire’s rejection of bourgeois values, his obsession with sex, friendships with other artists and recreational drug use made him the ultimate bohemian visionary.
Baudelaire was influenced by French Romanticism (notably Gérard de Nerval), but his conception of a new artistic movement, one that explored the evanescent allure of urban life and the elevation of the self, was quite unlike the innocent exaltation of nature personified by the Romantics. And, unlike the pale, morose and otherworldly figureheads of English Romantic poetry, Keats and Shelley, Baudelaire’s work was a dark and often cynical study of the flesh. While Keats was reportedly chaste, and Shelley an atheist, Baudelaire engaged with risqué sexual and theological motifs that had more in common with ancient polytheist traditions than the sublimity of nature espoused by the Romantics on one hand—and austere Christian mores on the other.
I have always felt that it would not be unreasonable to argue that of all the artistic movements, Romanticism may be the hardest to define due to a heady profusion of often contradictory ideals, demonstrated in poems like Baudelaire’s Une Charogne, where he is mourning his lover and yet equally enamoured with visions of her decomposing corpse:
When you lie beneath grass and luxuriant flowers,
To moulder among the bones of the dead
Then, O my beauty!
Say to the worms who will devour you with kisses,
That I have kept the form and the divine essence
Of my decomposed love!
It’s as though Baudelaire is instructing us to abandon all reason and just feel, a premise that lies at the very heart of Romanticism. Baudelaire may be the poster boy for post-Romanticism; his work signaling a retreat into a private world of symbols and post-Romantic decadence. In a time when people were caught up in the turmoil of ideas and attitudes inspired by the industrial revolution, the Romantics transformed Europe into a volcanic continent erupting in its rejection of the sane and the sensible, and laid the perfect foundation for Symbolism, and the advent of modern man.
I don’t think it is really possible to understand Baudelaire until one reflects on the nature of modernity as he understood it. Modernity is, by definition, subject to renewal; it is in a constant state of transformation and innovation. Thus, the difficulty in trying to define modernity in any simple formulation is that, in doing so, the essence is lost. It is in this transience that modernity lives. For Baudelaire, the secret is to capture something eternal in the ephemeral. It can be argued that Les Fleurs du mal is a meditation on the ephemeral nature of human life, and the sacral mystery of life eternal; the old traditions being swept away in favour of reinvention and modernity.
According to Baudelaire, however, there is no catharsis or liberation in modernity. On the contrary, it compels man to face the task of producing himself. It is an interesting train of thought that takes one from the sublimity and timelessness of nature through to the evanescent experience of fast-paced, urban life, reaching a final destination: the invention of man, and the deification of the self. Baudelaire perceived in man an intrinsic desire to invent himself and replace religion with a new doctrine of hedonism, scepticism, refined aesthetic sensibilities and spiritual autonomy, dandyism.
Originally associated with Beau Brummell (1778-1840), who was excessively preoccupied with his wardrobe and appearance, dandyism is also used to define an attitude to life that oscillates between hedonism, subterfuge and the most profound scepticism. According to Baudelaire, the dandy “must ceaselessly aspire to be sublime; he must live and sleep in front of a mirror. He is not thinking so much about outward appearance, which is merely a symbol of the aristocratic superiority of the dandy’s mind, but of a kind of religion, the last glow of heroism in a decadent world; an ardent desire for originality and above all, an essential characteristic of the artist.” (Pichois, 1987: p.710). To Baudelaire, dandyism is synonymous with immortality; the spiritual birthright of every artist.
In Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire substitutes a religion of faith for a religion of doubt and an exaltation of the ego. To be faithful to oneself and live a truly authentic experience, it is no longer enough simply to believe; a process of experimentation and reinvention must be undertaken. If for the Romantics nature was a source of revelation, the path to enlightenment and salvation, for Baudelaire it was a cult of the self, where self-adulation (auto-idolatrie or culte de soi-meme) is creed, the doctrine of elegance is sacrament, and an almost ritualistic denunciation of God an intercession:
I shall get drunk with spikenard, incense and myrrh
And with genuflections, viands and wine,
To see if laughingly I can usurp
In an admiring heart—the homage due to God!
In spite of Baudelaire’s mockery and erratic condemnation of Christianity that at times borders on the Satanic (“O Prince of Exile, you who have been wronged, and who vanquished always rises up again more strong!” The Litany of Satan), much consideration is afforded to the indomitability of the human spirit and man’s moral fibre, which according to Baudelaire, can only be strengthened by spiritual autonomy. If man is a god, a priest and a saint for himself, this will shield him against the threat of moral disintegration, because the concept of dandy implies, according to Baudelaire, ‘a subtle understanding of the entire moral mechanism of this world’.
Baudelaire’s discernment and integration of symbols, fables and classical motifs are constant themes in Les Fleurs du mal and serve to foster not only his sense of the divine, the macabre, and the sensual, but also his feelings about social alienation and the ethical responsibly of the dandy. The often conflicting nature of Baudelaire’s spirituality can be mirrored in his powerful lyrical imagery, where in spite of his pursuit of the transient beauty inherent in modernity, his love of the classical world and of Romanticism is brought to the fore with moving clarity:
Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes emit confused words;
Man crosses it through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.
Baudelaire left a compelling legacy in Les Fleurs du Mal that speaks volumes about his vision and great yearning to belong. In the fabrication of his own mythology, where man is an island entire of itself, the closeness to others in the cradle of modernity does little to pacify his woes. And since man is his own God and redeemer he remains very much alone, and there is no solace, or redemption, in that. Of course, Baudelaire would argue that that precisely is where salvation lies.