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Baudelaire, Maistre, and Original Sin

J oseph Conrad once said “It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were the source of a proud and unholy joy.” He was musing about fiction, and his insight is worth bearing in mind when we consider that of Baudelaire and Maistre.

The Freudian unconscious has a certain transcendental status. Moreover, in its insistence on the primal scene, the crime of patricide as the basis for civilization, pervasive guilt, and yet a forgotten founding crime—this psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious is arguably the return of Original Sin in the more user-friendly mental constructs of modernity.

We all know that the industrial and social revolutions in Europe in the 19th century brought along a certain ebbing of religion, a certain erosion of the belief in a transcendental. Yet, there are ways in which the unconscious reinstates a transcendental, as we know. Freud’s unconscious is the royal road back to a transcendental register, even if the map is frequently upside down. That is, with the monotheistic deity, up is heaven and down is earth. Freud (as Starobinsky has brilliantly noted) turns to the chthonic powers of polytheism to chart his map: up is consciousness; down is underground, the flowing of the Acheronto, the river of Hades, where “real” but unattainable things are. So down, of course, is the unconscious. Long before Freud, in the Christian paradigm, down is the realm of Satan, as Baudelaire knew all too well. These topographic metaphors from two disparate traditions are not without some connection.

Baudelaire, obsessed with Original Sin, turns to the hyper-Augustinian Joseph de Maistre to cathect, as it were, his unfocused guilt and his fascination with evil. It is Baudelaire’s bleak view of the world that draws him to Maistre—for the latter has a dark vision that Augustine did not share, but the poet did. The concept of evil in Baudelaire frequently ends up sublating his radical binary structures, such that Satan and God are often conflated. The first poem of Les Fleurs du mal reminds us that “the Devil holds the strings that move us.” As Jonathan Culler has written, the Baudelaire who is fascinated by the Devil has generally been seen by critics as the romantic, embarrassing Baudelaire; while the much more admired Baudelaire is the one who writes the city and who is the harbinger of modernity, as Benjamin was to argue. But I think this chronological cleavage is wrong. Baudelaire’s belief in Original Sin and evil is there from the beginning; it is Maistre who will provide, later in the poet’s career, a theological and philosophical template for understanding the role of evil and sin. The Devil is embedded both in the early Baudelaire (sometimes a Romantic one) and the later Baudelaire (the herald of modernity). The notion of evil is never absent from the poet’s mind.

Until 1852, Baudelaire was under the sway of the socialist (and “father of anarchy”) Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who on the face of it could not have been more different than the right-wing Maistre. And yet it was Proudhon (who spends a lot of time on “the hypothesis of God,” which he decides he has to keep) who announced that “God is Evil,”—by which he simply meant that a reliance on predetermination and the status quo will not solve the ills of poverty, disease, and social inequality.

Whereas Baudelaire is typically thought of as having been on the left until just after the revolution of 1848, and then on the right upon reading Maistre shortly thereafter. The poet in fact retains a lot of Proudhon’s ideas on God, even as he becomes the disciple of Maistre. Baudelaire thus carries with him, and in his texts, a double (and contradictory) vision that has gone insufficiently recognized in the numerous depictions of him (beginning of course with Benjamin) as the founder of modernity.

Baudelaire writes the city less as the theoretician of modernity than as the producer of texts that perform the inevitability, indeed the triumph, of evil. It is in this sense, I should add, that The Flowers of Evil has been misunderstood, as Baudelaire himself lamented. Though he does himself enjoy reveling in corruption and wickedness at times, there is also a way in which Baudelaire’s conviction that man is by definition irrevocably sinful is confirmed in the poet’s depictions of the modern, capitalist, industrial city. Baudelaire’s depiction of debauchery is the affirmation of his deepest belief: that man can never escape his sinful heritage. Baudelaire, for this reason, saw his Flowers of Evil as deeply moral; a view that he was pretty much alone in upholding.

Baudelaire is consistent in his will to contradiction and his work resists chronological labeling. These contradictions are deployed by the poet in every aspect of existence: everyday life, politics, social class, historical events, religion, philosophy, love, psychology, textual and poetic production, style—to name just a few. These antinomies are willed, formally as well as intellectually; they are telescoped, as Benjamin puts it—in other words, they collide (what I have called Double Vision). Baudelaire himself was fully aware of dualities and doublings in his own work and in the everyday life of modernity. As he puts it, “The artist is an artist only on the condition of being double, and of being unaware of no phenomenon in his double nature.”

The obsession with duality in Baudelaire is regularly demonstrated by the remark he famously notes down in his journal: “There are in every man two simultaneous postulations, one toward God, the other toward Satan.” These “postulations” of a simultaneous ascent and descent (note the topography of up and down) are further complicated by the fact that the descent is a “joy,” and is connected with love for women and “intimate conversations with animals, dogs, cats, etc.” That statement shows that Baudelaire has no illusions about mankind; not only is man given to evil, but he enjoys it.

The choice—God or Satan—inscribes the “equilibrium” between these forces with one of Baudelaire’s most consistent beliefs: Original Sin as the root of all human experience. The equilibrium can be no better resolved in this context, since sin will always trump any move toward the good, and the good will frequently turn out to be enjoying its own descent toward Satan or indeed turn out to be Satan. The repercussions of such a view on his own literary judgment are distinct for Baudelaire. Georges Sand, for example, is a créature stupide, Baudelaire writes in his journal, because she thinks, “a real Christian cannot believe in Hell.” She is in fact “possessed” by the Devil, who makes her believe in her “good heart and good sense” so that she can convince others in turn of the same.

In another passage, Baudelaire wonders about the nature of the Fall: “If it is unity become duality, it is God who fell. In other words, couldn’t creation be the fall of God?” Is God playing his own Lucifer, or is Lucifer now God, given the Fall? (Lucifer and Satan are frequently conflated in the poet). Thus Rousseau, Baudelaire frequently noted, was an idiot because he believed in the natural goodness of man—he was naturally stoned by his own simple-minded morality, plus he did not even believe in Original Sin. We see in these examples the alternating back and forth between categories of the good and the bad; alternating to such an extent that the two categories become entirely destabilized—which is of course the point. Thus Maurice Blanchot describes Baudelaire’s imagination as “Equilibrium in perpetual disequilibrium.”

The opening of the Confessions had to have intrigued Baudelaire. (Augustine’s views on Original Sin changed over time, as Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy explains. But Baudelaire, we know, read the Confessions, so I will limit my remarks to that). In the Confessions, it will be remembered, Augustine too grapples with the conundrum of the infant’s innocence versus irremediable birth into sin: “Who can tell me the sin I committed as a baby?” Augustine asks God. “For in your sight no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth . . . Was it a sin to cry when I wanted to feed at the breast?” These remarks serve as the existential landscape from which the book unfolds. But for Baudelaire, this is the question that he unendingly asks and can never resolve: even when man appears at his most innocent, even as a child, he is by nature always already sinful. Philosophy and religion, writes Baudelaire in “Homage to makeup,” (1863) order us to feed our old and infirm relatives. But nature is nothing other than the voice of our self-interest; it is nature, moreover, that commands us to beat up on these same relatives. We are back to physical struggles.

Every happy moment in Baudelaire is either erased (or at least compromised) by an unhappy one, as if punished by the rearing of Evil’s many heads. Innocence is never genuine, even when it appears so (a child for example). In the prose poem “Le Gâteau,” the narrator begins with a rare sense of “lightness” (légerté) and something very close to happiness: vulgar passions, he tells us, seem distant, as do hatred and “profane love.” The beauty of the landscape is such that, as the narrator tells us, “something” happens in his soul. But then two poor children viciously battle for a piece of bread that the narrator of the poem (in his state of peaceful contentment and consequent generosity) had given to one of them. Neither “little savage” wants to sacrifice a bit of bread for his brother. Being of equal strength, they fight until they are both exhausted. Panting and bloody, the two little boys (who are so alike they “could be twins”) realize that the object of their battle no longer exists: the bread has been scattered into crumbs “like the grains of sand with which it was mixed.” This “fratricidal war” ruins the beautiful landscape for the narrator, and destroys as well his sense of peace. Once again, Rousseau has been slammed; but that is only part of the story—the protagonist is Original Sin, which emerges here triumphant and inexorable. The fratricidal war is reminiscent of the earlier poem “Abel et Caïn,” one of the three poems of “revolt.”

The poem is from 1862, by which point Baudelaire had turned quite conservative, as I noted. “Le Gâteau,” in fact, despite the happy tenor of its opening, carefully prepares the reader for its inevitable, morose conclusion. To begin with, nature is almost never a simple word in the baudelairean lexicon, and the moods it elicits are rarely to be trusted. The poem opens with a sense of calm and happiness, but there are warnings. “My soul seemed to me as vast and pure as the dome of the sky.” One can never escape the tragic animality of being human, even in a beautiful and isolated landscape. You can fool yourself into thinking you have escaped human sordidness, that your soul is “pure” as the vast sky, but the poem again warns: the narrator, turning what had been a charming scene into something beginning to resemble the opening of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” sees the shadow of an occasional cloud pass over the lake like “the reflection of an aerial giant’s coat.” The “little lake,” the narrator’s sense of purity of soul, quickly darkens when confronted by the reality of humankind.

In “The Essence of Laughter” (1855), Baudelaire analyzes the “dual nature” of laughter and responds to an imagined protest on the part of the reader that “The laughter of children is like the blooming of a flower.” Here too, children are compared to the apparent beauty of nature, so it behooves the reader of Baudelaire to be suspicious. And indeed, nature returns as an idiomatic metaphor: the laughter of children does indeed differ from the contentment of animals, because children are already not “entirely void of ambition,” unlike animals. That is, “little men” are “immature Satans.” Like the brothers’ bloody battle for the bread, the fundamental evil of children is unavoidable: they are unripe grain, but they will be Satan’s harvest in the end. In both “Le Gâteau” and the essay on laughter, we see the later Baudelaire didactically demonstrating, as he will do again and again, how one must not succumb to illusions of purity, innocence, goodness—or even happiness.

There may be “two simultaneous postulations in man,” but Original Sin is always at the bottom of it all, a sort of undertow that preserves the “two simultaneous postulations” while descending them into a lower confrontation with man’s inexorable evil. The unicity of Original Sin, unum est origine in the words of the Council of Trent, will always overwhelm the proliferation of dualities. Original sin then, within the dialectic of good/evil, functions structurally such that the good can suddenly emerge, shock-like (in Benjamin’s sense), only to be returned to the primal soup of evil. If Nietzsche’s Dionysian is close to Schopenhauer’s notion of the all-consuming will, Baudelaire steps into such an economy with his own notion of le mal.

The “joy of descent,” as Baudelaire puts it, is often a kind of embrace-your-fate. If there is progress in any given struggle for Baudelaire (“progress” being another fraught word for him), it is not the inexorable move toward Spirit in Hegel, nor that toward communitarian ideal in Marx or Proudhon. For Baudelaire, “progress” more often than not lies in the inevitability of descent; it is, he writes in his work on Poe, “that great heresy of decrepitude.” Baudelaire’s “little men” in “Le gâteau” fight no less ferociously than did the master and slave in Hegel; but there is no advancement to be gained from the vicious struggle, no higher ground to which a new dialectic can be lifted up, and the conflicting forces remain of equal strength and thus afford no happy resolution, no matter how distant. It is man’s inherent and inherited evil that causes the struggle, and it is evil that will win by simple virtue of the struggle itself.

Original sin, in other words, is for Baudelaire the engine motivating the conflict between (even) children, causing the contradiction between the thought of the good and its constant defeat in the face of man’s heredity of evil. It is the same contradiction that motivates the passage we considered from the Confessions: even as a baby, man is sinful in the eyes of God: “no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth.” Baudelaire’s frequent recourse to children who demonstrate their potential for evil is a reminder to himself not to be taken in by the seductive promise of goodness: for him, it will always be a promise broken. Another of Augustine’s phrases from The Confessions can only have been endorsed by our poet: “If babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” The passage that follows in Augustine is as if an earlier version of “Le Gâteau”: “I have seen,” writes Augustine, “jealousy in a baby and know what it means.” A toddler is jealous when his baby brother nurses at the breast, though there is abundant milk. Can this be innocence, asks Augustine, “to object to a rival desperately in need and depending for his life on this one form of nourishment?” Such faults are not a “mere peccadilloes,” since they are “intolerable” in adults. Equilibrium will always yield to, or be rooted in, evil.

It follows quite logically, then, that it is virtue that is artificial, and evil that which is effortless and natural. Consider the following passage in “The Painter of Modern Life”: “Crime,” he writes is, “the taste for which the human animal acquired in his mother’s belly, is originally natural. Virtue, on the contrary, is artificial.”

This is, of course, a departure from Augustine, for whom the vice of malice is not natural and indeed against nature because we are created without evil (Augustine thus protecting God from the accusation of predetermining evil and vice.) Created good, you can turn evil; but God will use the evil to produce good. And indeed, even Augustine ends up telling his readers that “The Devil is not to be blamed for everything: there are times when a man is his own devil.” Though Augustine insists on ethical dualism—that sin causes evil, that God could not have originated evil—the divided will of man “caused the illusion of metaphysical dualism” he, Augustine, was opposing. Moreover, his notion of free will leaves him open to the charge, as one critic put it, that “generous donors don’t offer gifts that will destroy their recipients.”

Baudelaire is willing to see nature in itself as an indifferent given. But for him it is man who is naturally evil; who has the “will to evil” as Augustine puts it—or, in Baudelaire’s terms, has no will at all and is thus doomed. “Evil is done without effort, naturally, by fatality,” he writes. It follows then, that the good must always be the result of “an art,” because that takes effort and is artificial. The eternal aspect of art is thus at once “veiled and expressed” by this duality of good/evil, either by style or by the particular temperament of the author. To explain this double aspect of art, Baudelaire alludes again to the homo duplex: “The duality of art is the fatal consequence of the duality of man.” And continuing in the naturalist’s own dialectic, Baudelaire says that the eternal aspect of art is “like the soul of art,” and the variable element is “like its body.” For him (despite a few disclaimers) the beautiful is, finally, best described by Stendhal: “The beautiful is but the promise of happiness.” If the promise of goodness is always to be broken, and if happiness in the human realm is always to be disappointed, then at least the beautiful—for Baudelaire this means primarily art and literature—can give a fleeting hope for joy.

The way Baudelaire manipulates dualities performs a conceptual contradiction. The position of the antithesis is inverted, such that evil becomes natural and virtue artificial; makeup is more virtuous when caked on obviously than when pretending to be natural, etc. Baudelaire’s dualities, in other words, manifest themselves in stylistic as well as conceptual contradiction, as if Original Sin were counter-intuitive (“I was a baby and yet…”) and one had to be forcibly reminded by wrenching everything palpable into its opposite, lest one lapse into unacceptable—because self-deluded—contentment.

This understanding of Original Sin is behind Baudelaire’s literary judgment with respect to Rousseau and Sand. His disappointment in Hugo’s Les Misérables is also directly to do with Baudelaire’s belief in the inherent sinfulness of man. Hugo, writes Baudelaire with evident surprise, “is for Man, and yet not against God. He has confidence in God, and yet he is not against Man.” These are sentences that can only be understood in the light of Baudelaire’s unshakeable belief in Original Sin as the basis of “everything.” If you are for Man, then you will no doubt be against God. The most obvious example of this approach is Voltaire, for whom the earthquake in Lisbon proved the incompatibility of a loving God, given that the horrors of natural disasters can only have been produced by God’s hand. If on the other hand you are for God, then you will believe that Man must necessarily deserve the tragedies that are visited upon him regularly. In any case, concludes Baudelaire, egotistical Happiness needs to be dragged by the hair occasionally by a “poet or philosopher” and have her nose rubbed in the blood and odor she produces. Moreover, he uses the figure of speech most favored by Joseph de Maistre, the highly conservative Catholic thinker (and brilliant stylist) who, Baudelaire claimed, had taught him “to think.” That figure of speech is metabole: a rhetorical trope that reverses the order of words, as in “He was afraid of everything and everything was afraid of him.”

Baudelaire began reading Joseph de Maistre between 1851 and 1852, and mainly read The Evenings [Soirées] in Saint Petersburg. As was often the case, Baudelaire was completely smitten (as he famously was, for example, upon first reading Poe or hearing Wagner’s music). Original Sin, writes Maistre, is a notion that “explains everything, and without which nothing can be explained” (There’s a metabole!). For Maistre Original Sin is afflicted with what Freud would later call repetition compulsion, since that sin of all sins “unfortunately repeats itself at every instant of time,” according to the Count, who is the Maistre spokesman in the Soirées. Maistre, in other words, conflates original with actual sin—and Baudelaire will follow. You will agree, says the Count to his two interlocutors, that “every being that has the faculty to propagate itself can but produce a being similar to itself.” Thus a “degraded” being (such as man, for example) cannot but produce an equally degraded being. Children are doomed and, it follows therefore, as Baudelaire will echo, “J-J Rousseau is the most dangerous sophist of his century,” (54) because he thinks man is by nature good.

Maistre, that “soldier animated by the Holy Spirit,” as Baudelaire calls him, writes in something like aphorisms couched in powerful, almost muscular contradiction. It is a brilliant style, capable of intriguing the likes of Roland Barthes, for whom Maistre is the counterexample of what Barthes calls le neutre. Barthes calls “the neutral” that which escapes the paradigm of binaries. If the Neutral is a concept that wants “to baffle the arrogance of unity,” the texts of de Maistre magisterially perform such arrogance for the purpose of unicity in its strictly Roman Catholic sense; indeed, the Council of Trent is Maistre’s guide to the hyper-Augustinianism that infuses The Soirées.

One can imagine how Baudelaire, exhausted by his constant need for money, suggestible in every domain, unsure in all matters save that of his own poetics (and that not always), overwhelmed by guilt, ennui and the ubiquity of evil—would have been intoxicated by Maistre’s uncompromising and searing diction, not to mention sureness of footing in matters theological and in the ontology of evil. For if Maistre’s style is grounded in antimetabole, in contradiction and Socratic give and take, the thesis never wavers: the master speaks and shows through syllogism and antinomies that the only truth is that of Christianity—Roman Catholic—and grounded in the most pessimistic view possible on Original Sin.

The unremitting pessimism of his certainty inspired Baudelaire, as did the continual binaries that infuse Maistre’s dark gaze upon the world. One hears Maistrean echoes everywhere in Baudelaire, and not only concerning Original Sin. Man is also duplex in Maistre (who follows Augustine in this): there are two men in each man, one praising virtue the other crime. Two men who are not of the same opinion fight inside the breast of the same man. Maistre writes that contradiction is to be found everywhere “since the whole of the universes obeys two forces.” He writes that “evil has sullied everything, and all of man is nothing but a sickness.” He draws a direct correlation between physical and moral ills: if there were no moral evil, he says, there would be no disease (his usual example is venereal disease and Baudelaire, who suffered from syphilis from around the age of twenty, clearly responds to this sinister type of “corréspondance”).

Maistre’s theory of “redemption through blood” is almost Freudian in its notion of the threat of punishment to maintain civilization, of circumcision as the vestigial remains of sacrifice, of the basis of human connection with the divine (“Anywhere you see an altar,” Maistre famously intones, “there you will find civilization.”). Reminiscent of Freud too (as in Totem and Taboo or Moses and Monotheism) is Maistre’s idea that the secondary crime after the Fall, the crime that led to the Flood, was so terrible that we cannot even imagine nor remember it. We live in the memory only of the guilt and the knowledge that we can never catch up to the “golden age” before the flood (including intellectually). Thus does Maistre tribalize Original Sin, and double it as well: the Fall, then the crime leading to the Flood. If the first is inscribed in Genesis, the second is forever lost along with the acumen man had when God’s anger wreaked the Flood—lost to consciousness, but not expunged.

Maistre’s alarming notion of réversibilité (reversibility) had an important effect on the poet. “The righteous,” argues Maistre in italics, “in suffering voluntarily, satisfies not only for himself, but for the guilty one by way of reversibility.” Maistre uses satisfaire in the less usual sense, meaning the fulfillment of an obligation, or payment of a debt. Reversibility is the “faith of the universe”; it is a system of checks and balances; its economy is hydraulic: in thermodynamics, reversibility is a process that can be inverted to attain the same outcome; the system returned to its original state. In its theological context for Maistre, reversibility obviously means the process by which Original Sin (partially, unlike in Paul) is reversed. Maistre’s entire discussion on reversibility seems to rely on Romans 5:6-24. Paul says, “For as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (5:19). Reversibility is supposed to work, then, in both directions: sin and grace.

Maistre, however, and his admirer Baudelaire, seem only concerned with sin. It is frequently noted about Baudelaire that he sees sin but not redemption; Maistre, in my opinion, is the inspiration for this harsh point of view. It should be added that the dominant question in Soirées seems largely taken from Romans 5, where the question of Original Sin, justice, and the righteous is constant. If Paul concentrates on reconciliation and exultation in God, Maistre seems to smack his lips at God’s vengeance and punishments.

Reversibility then has a monetary economy: you owe by heredity; you pay because even if you are innocent yourself, you have inherited sin; when you pay despite such innocence, you erase the debt of another guilty party. Thus within the Maistrean universe, it is because man is by nature evil that innocence can be no refuge from suffering—on the contrary: “Men have always known that innocence will never satisfy crime; and they have moreover believed that there is an expiating force in blood, such that life, which is blood, could ransom (racheter) another life.” This is the lexicon of debt and payment. In Maistre, redemption can be (provisionally) bought with the spilling of innocent blood. This is one aspect of Maistre that Baudelaire does not fully adopt: redemption for him is at best unlikely and certainly foggy, and blood offers at best relief from ennui. What is sin without grace? For Baudelaire, it is the memory of pre-lapsarian good, and the illusion of the good in the fleeting parousia of beauty provided by art.

The eminent Baudelaire scholar Pichois points out that reversibility itself is less and less used in Catholicism and “has never been at the center of Catholic theology . . . because of its ‘juridical,’ indeed ‘mercantile’ slipperiness which can make it dangerous.” Dangerous, perhaps, but telling in the Maistrean context. The unfinished Soirées were published in 1821, just after the author’s death. Given the rise of industrialization, capitalism, the new urban centers (developments which Maistre loathed), it is worth noting the extent to which the lexicon of these changes in the fabric of European culture creep into Maistre’s willfully ancien régime and pre-industrial perspective.

Maistre, of course, hates the French Revolution but believes that God’s hand is more evident there than in any other human event. If during the Revolution the Divinity “employs the vilest of instruments,” it is only because “it is punishing in order to regenerate.” He adds that in the Revolution, “God is advancing to avenge the iniquity that the inhabitants of the world have committed against him.” Maistre’s is then a scorched-earth theology, one that sees punishment as necessary to set man aright; one that promises redemption through the blood of sacrifice; one that in monetary metaphors formulates Original Sin as a debt that can never be “satisfied.” Augustine’s influence is evident; but Maistre’s is a hyper-Augustinianism.

Reversibility itself partakes in the economy of exchange although, as we noted with Baudelaire’s own notion of Original Sin, the evil that begins with the Fall and is repeated by the “crime” that brings on the Flood is so great for Maistre that expiation is impossible, even if redemption through blood seems in his text worth something like a better chance at the Last Judgment. Reversibility, then, is going in the right direction in Maistre, but will never really get back to the point of origin that would allow for an erasure of the Fall. The debt, to repeat, can never be fully satisfied; but the coin of that realm is blood and, it strangely follows, it “is divine.” The adjective “divine,” as the philosopher Emile Cioran points out, is Maistre’s favorite, modifying everything from the Revolution, to hereditary monarchy, the constitution, and the papacy.

Needless to say, “reversibility” is how Maistre understands the crucifixion. Moreover, the murder of Louis XVI seems for Maistre to be something like a distant reminder of the Passion—again, a sacrifice necessary for helping to reverse the sins of man. As Georges Bataille puts it (after having admiringly cited Maistre),”When the executioner shows the head of the monarch to the crowd, he is attesting to the perpetration of a crime; but at the same time, by baptizing the assembly with royal blood, he is communicating to that assembly the saintly virtue of the decapitated sovereign.” And Klossowski at the Collège de Sociologie says that the moment the king’s head is cut off, “It is the representative of God who is dying; and it is the blood of the temporal representative of God… [for Maistre and other] counter-revolutionary, Catholic philosophers . . . Louis expiates the sins of the nation.”

Maistre, writes Cioran, never bores us, in part because he has not been domesticated by being fully understood. He is a “monster” who “Lifted the smallest problem to the level of paradox and to the dignity of scandal, handling anathema with a cruelty mixed with fervor.” But such a combination—cruelty and fervor—is precisely what had to appeal to the older, no longer left-leaning, pessimistic and increasingly ill Baudelaire.

The poem “Réversibilité” (1853), directly inspired by Maistre’s grim view of that term, ends with the dying biblical David trying to sap the angel’s strength. The Angel of the poem is a woman to full of the joy of light, health and beauty—in other words, she is guilty of too much happiness. David, had he known her, would have usurped her innocence and health to save himself (thus, reversibility). While David is ready to deploy what Pichois calls the “juridical” and “mercantile” aspect of reversibility, the narrator is more generous, as he would have it, in asking “only” for intercession. Much like the scandalous poem, in its time, “The Litanies of Satan,” the poem “Réversibilité” uses catechistic concepts and incantatory repetitions reminiscent of the Mass in a context that disjoints expectation. Here, the angel is the woman whom the narrator loves, and the intercession he seeks from her is freedom from the pain of vices too powerful to allow for happiness, and yet helpless to erase ennui.

If Baudelaire admired Maistre, the poet Vigny (Baudelaire’s near contemporary), on the other hand, vigorously attacked him, calling Maistre “a falsifying mind.” Vigny vituperatively singles out precisely “the fatal theory of reversibility and of redemption through blood,” and accuses Maistre of having found this theory in Origen who, as the new Pléiade edition of Baudelaire primly notes, “did not, as we know, have the smell of sainthood.” Vigny points out that for Origen, there are two redemptions, that of Christ which ransoms the universe, and “diminished redemptions,” which save nations through payment in blood (he is here thinking of the decapitated king Louis, of course). Whence, we may assume, Maistre’s own notions of reversibility. Maistre, writes Vigny, was one of the most brilliant philosophical minds Europe has produced, and with his doctrine of sacrifice produces the “most immoral” of ideas, “source of all crime.” No argument, adds Vigny, is worth “a single drop of blood. This is a theory for assassins.” (424)

Maistre has since Vigny been adopted—or at least cited—as one of the precursors of modernity, precisely because of his excesses. It is the vehemence of Maistre’s style that seems to attract theorists of the “modern.” If, as Cioran puts it, Maistre was known as the “prophet of the past” at the end of the 19th century (as with the disgusted Vigny), such a label was a “luxury” which that era could well afford, steeped as it was in “liberal illusion.” Maistre, because of his vehemence, intolerance, incomprehensibility (is he being ironic, asks Cioran? Can he possibly mean this?), and sheer excess (Bataille was to be his descendent, in this logic) is dubbed one of the forefathers of modernity by modernity itself. It would be tempting (and has been for many readers of Maistre), to say that the modern period shares with Maistre a nostalgia for certainty, some kind of apodictic; but such a view is insufficient.

Maistre’s famously uses his hyper-Augustinianism for political purposes. Indeed, I suspect that Augustine would see in Maistre a worrisome, easy collaboration between God and kings (by divine right): the elision, in other words, of the earthly and heavenly realms such that one renders to God by way of, and with baksheesh to, Caesar. Maistre’s is a consistently anti-Enlightenment stance, and this is what he shares with much of more contemporary thought. Indeed, a line can be drawn directly from August Comte, to Durkheim, to Maistre, whom the first two openly admired. Comte calls Maistre the greatest of modern historians who invented the study of symbolic practices. Similarly, many of Durkheim’s ideas come directly from Maistre (the heterogeneity of the sacred and profane; the idea of social totality; religion as the force underlying social systems). The line continues directly to Georges Bataille and the Collège de Sociologie. Horkheimer and Adorno, moreover, may dismiss Maistre as “a true son of the Church if ever there was one,” but they obviously feel compelled to allude to him, even if mainly for the purpose of deriding his misogyny.

There is something of Maistre that appeals to a later age. It is not by chance that Isaiah Berlin describes him looking with a “proto-fascist” gaze; because Maistre sees man as filled, as Berlin puts it, with “black instincts” that nothing will “ever finally quell,” and with Original Sin, “which nothing can ultimately exterminate.” Berlin notes that Maistre’s imagination “swings between two extremes—on one side extreme punishment and terror, on the other side chaos.” As Maistre himself puts it, “God who is the author of sovereignty, is also that of punishment; he has cast our earth upon these two poles; for Jehovah is the master of the two poles, and on them he makes the world turn.”

But Berlin’s Maistre is also a bit too facile: Maistre would retort that given man’s penchant for evil, extremes allow for equilibrium, and there must be order with authority over minds to prevent bloodshed. I would suggest in passing here that the line that I have been tracing from Maistre to other thinkers culminates in someone like René Girard, whose lyrical arguments on sacred violence and sacrifice echo, not only Baudelaire and Bataille, but also the Maistrean worldview. Again, one senses here Baudelaire’s attraction to Maistre, and not only because of the Maistrean formulation of polarity as the basis of this world. There is also the matter of terror and punishment.

As any biography of Baudelaire notes, and as his poetry overwhelmingly attests, he is obsessed with both terror and punishment incarnated by his military, severe and unforgiving stepfather, the General Aupick. Punishment for Baudelaire is patriarchal of origin (Aupick or God), and one senses that the “crime” of humanity to which Maistre so often refers—that crime that was so terrible that we have “forgotten” it—is for Baudelaire (as it would be for Freud) a patricide. What is Original Sin, after all, if not disobeying the Father? There is throughout the Baudelairean corpus the desire to escape patriarchal law, though the “revolt” is usually, as if in a parody of Swedenborg, the same system in reverse. “O Satan!” is a prayer to a patriarch of a different realm, but a potent one nonetheless: the last lines of the poem refer to Satan as the “adoptive father” as against “God the Father.”

Rebellion, in Baudelaire, more often than not recapitulates blind obedience as a mirror image. The litanies to Satan invert the Mass and the prayer praises the devil; we do not need deconstruction to recognize the same economy of male power and sovereignty. And as the poem “The denial of Saint Peter” savagely puts it, God is like “a tyrant gorged on meat and wine, falling asleep to the sweet sounds of our hideous blasphemies.” There is no question, in Baudelaire, that man is a sinner; but it is equally clear that God is a despot who considers the sobs of martyrs and condemned criminals “an intoxicating symphony.” Here, needless to say, Baudelaire parts ways with both Augustine and Maistre.

Cioran remarks that Baudelaire uses Maistre to fuel his own obsessions, and overturns Maistrean motifs by intensifying them and by giving them the characteristic of “lived negativity.” Before he read Maistre, Baudelaire already had a kind of “Satanism” in place, as I noted at the beginning. The long verse prayer to Satan, as mentioned, “The Litanies of Satan,” is an inverted liturgy, with the poet serving as priest in his recitation of invocations. The antiphonic structure (“Ô Satan, take pity on my misery,” as in “Lord, hear our prayer,”) followed by an outright prayer, mimes even as it overturns, the structure of the Mass. The poem may have been written as early as 1848 but “Satanism,” as Baudelaire employs the term, increasingly becomes a literal if narrow reading of Maistre. If evil is all we can depend on, then it follows that it is stronger than the good, and its lord is therefore the master. There is a certain bleak irony in Baudelaire here; but if the concrete thinking the later Baudelaire chooses to perform on Maistre’s text is meant to shock, it is also a cry of despair. It is always already too late for Baudelaire, as it is in Kafka.

It is through Maistre that Baudelaire finds a way to explain dualities and contradiction. The mere fact that he felt the need to synthesize antinomies—even if by the ineluctability of evil—shows, as much as his choice of Maistre as mentor, the extent to which Baudelaire was becoming more philosophically conservative in the last decade or so of his life. Evil in Baudelaire is like a black hole that sucks everything into its vortex. Contradiction is, as I have said throughout, a dialectic of falsehood, since evil will always prevail. And here too we can see the trace of Augustine: in City of God, Book XI, Augustine tries to relegate contradiction to mere rhetorical choreography: “What are called antitheses are among the most elegant of the ornaments of speech. They might be called in Latin oppositions, or, to speak more accurately, contrapositions.” In Corinthians 2, he tells us, Paul also makes “a graceful use of antitheses.” These oppositions of language, he continues (terrifying opposites like dying and living, evil and good, the known and unknown—hardly little stylistic flourishes)—these oppositions for Augustine “lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries arranged . . . by an eloquence not of words, but of things.” So—have we now reached things, and are not merely describing tasteful turns of phrase? But it becomes evident, finally, that we are not talking about “things” either: “good is set against evil,” says Augustine quoting from Sirach 15 (Ecclesiastes), “and as life against death; so is the sinner against the godly.” These binaries are the beauties of the course of this world? Certainly, such contradictions allow for Maistre, following Augustine, to preach his grim views.

Baudelaire, following Maistre in turn (and veering off a bit), finds in contradiction the symptoms and power of evil, as we have noted. Augustine, however, does not acknowledge the terrorizing possibilities of his antinomies. In closing his chapter, he ends with a quote from Sirach 15, in a way that seems to return to Baudelaire’s dueling “two persons,” but with the implication that all is right, that contradictions make God’s ordinance even more luminous: Look at all the works of the Most High: / they go in pairs, one the opposite of the other” (Eccl 33:14,15). Perhaps it is the ethos of modernity that makes such a statement terrifying rather than reassuring: one against one in Baudelaire signals, not the beauty of contradiction, but the power of evil, so pervasive that it presents itself as struggling to overcome its opposite, even as it knows it has always already won. Herein lies the frightening vision of the Flowers of Evil for the poet.

For Baudelaire, echoing the ferocious Maistre, evil is a given and choice an illusion. Baudelaire’s poems, full of descriptions of the underworld and its characters, betray an increasingly pessimistic view that allows for neither freedom nor innocence—nor, significantly, grace. Man does not choose sin for Baudelaire; man is sin, and wallows in it ineluctably. The difference in views of Original Sin make for the contrast between a perspective that allows for humor and irony (such as Kierkegaard), and a sense of claustrophobia, a feeling of being trapped by the bondage of existence (Baudelaire). “Anywhere out of the world” is the English title for one of Baudelaire’s poems. Kierkegaard’s leap into faith seems joyful by contrast. Style, let me say in closing, is determined in both of these cases by the theological implications, the personal convictions, on Original Sin.

Editorial Note: This essay was first delivered as a Lumen Christi Institute lecture entitled, “Baudelaire and Maistre: the Weight of Original Sin.


A Closer Look at Medieval Lent’s Toughness

Featured Image: Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, c. 1862; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Françoise Meltzer

Françoise Meltzer is the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, where she is also professor at the Divinity School and in the College, and chair of the Department of Comparative Literature. Meltzer is the author of five books, most recently of Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity, and a co-editor of the journal Critical Inquiry.