‘The unique and supreme voluptuousness of love lies in the certainty of committing evil. And men and women know from birth that in evil is found all sensual delight’ –Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire compiled by James Laver; Heritage Press
001. [Introduction] He became known among his fellows and his teachers for the outrageous cynicism of his opinions… he had decided to take up literature, and this is a decision which never causes great joy in prosperous and conservative households.
002. …the course which Baudelaire had mapped out for himself involved throwing over every prejudice, overcoming every repugnance and the resolute exploration of the furthest and lowest reaches of the human soul. For such a programme, the mastery of self was a first requirement.
003. … He was not by nature sociable. In fact, we have every reason to believe that he always found himself somewhat ill at ease in polite society.
004. … Where his friends were extravagance, bold-voiced, full of practical jokes in the tradition of la Boheme, he was scrupulously, even excessively, polite as if in memory of the ancien regime manners of his father, and he only sought to astonish by the unexpectedness of his remarks and the cynicism of his attitude.
005. … He was the creator of the European reputation of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, indeed, became for him a kind of second self. It was in 1846 that the works of the great American was first brought to him notice, and Baudelaire was so much struck by the resemblance between Poe’s career and his own that he determined to give a translation of his works to the French public.
006. … his translation of the tales of Poe is a supreme example of how closely a foreign language can be made to follow the thoughts of an author. Baudelaire’s prose fits Edgar Allan Poe like a glove. …
007. [During the revolution] His instincts were aristocratic and pessimistic. In later years, he professed to think that the only pleasure he had found in joining the revolutionary movement was the pleasure of doing evil with his eyes open.
008. [Finds a muse in Madame Sabatier, whom he wished to adore from afar. He sent her many letters and verses.] It is characteristic of his timidity in the face of what he regarded as a respectable woman, that there were all written in a disguised hand. The lady’s curiosity was piqued and she was not long in discovering the source of these complimentary messages; but for a long time Baudelaire continued to send them to her without making any further advance. He was content to admire from a distance.
009. [Madam Sabatier] made few difficulties about becoming his mistress. The result was disastrous…the fact that she was willing to offer herself robbed Madame Sabatier in his eyes of all prestige. Immediately, the poems take on a very different tone.
010. The character of Baudelaire had undergone a change. It would be an exaggeration to say that he was converted in the religious sense of the word; but at least his cynicism had fallen away. Satanism had taken on a new and profounder meaning, a meaning not far removed from the attitude of orthodoxy…
011. There were times, no doubt, when Baudelaire was sufficiently the child of his age to accept its 3rd generation Rousseauism, and that, from which the 19th century Liberalism was so largely descended, and which is still the inspiration behind so many humanitarian activities rests ultimately upon a denial of Original Sin. Man is not only born free—and is now everywhere in chains—but is born good and is now everywhere corrupted, the changes in both cases being to the badness of social institutions and the villainy of kings and priests. Therefore natural instincts are good; therefore self-expression is good; therefore it is good for man to enlarge his personality to the utmost possible limits. It was this notion which created the heroes and the giants of the Romantic Movement.
012. Yet even a casual reading of Baudelaire’s letters, his remarks to friends, and the poems themselves leave no doubt that his dominant belief through his life was a belief in the utter and abject natural wickedness of man…
013. ‘By the progressive abolition of evil we are moving steadily towards a state in which all men will be happy.’ Such doctrines cover with a crust of complacency the boiling cauldron of the world; and when, as in present times, the crust shows signs of cracking, and through the fissures come the old authentic flames, the idealist can do no more than lament, with a puzzled anguish, the sudden collapse of all the kindness which yesterday were commonplaces, and the slipping back of mankind into barbarism. It is then that a poet like Baudelaire… is seen to have had a clearer grasp of reality than any of the prophets of smooth things.
014. His world is a fantastic world of corpses and ghouls, of prisons and fatal passions…