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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Les Fleurs Du Mal–Baudelaire’s Poems Of Defiant Amorality

Charles Baudelaire, poet and philosopher, wrote Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857 and was immediately criticized by the Catholic Church for his message of moral anarchy.  Boredom was the most pestilential of human illnesses he wrote, and religion and its sanctimonious morality were nothing more than social constructs designed to keep society docile.   ‘We pay a high price for our confessions’, he wrote referring to the cycle of sin and repentance that confined the individual within a defeating, corrosive, paradigm of sin, repentance, absolution, and sin again.  Religion and traditional morality were neutering, depriving the individual of his will, his individuality, and his worth.  In Au Lecteur he writes:

Folly, error, sin, avarice
Occupy our minds and labor our bodies,
And we feed our pleasant remorse
As beggars nourish their vermin.

Our sins are obstinate, our repentance is faint;
We exact a high price for our confessions,
And we gaily return to the miry path,
Believing that base tears wash away all our stains…

The Devil holds the strings which move us!
In repugnant things we discover charms;
Every day we descend a step further toward Hell,
Without horror, through gloom that stinks.

If rape, poison, dagger and fire,
Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs
On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,
It's because our soul, alas, is not bold enough!

It's Boredom!—eye brimming with an involuntary tear
He dreams of gallows while smoking his hookah.
You know him, reader, this delicate monster,
Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!

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In an essay on Baudelaire T.S. Eliot wrote:

The possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation—of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living . . . Baudelaire was man enough for damnation. “I have always believed that there are two levels [of experience]: One that of science and common sense, and another, terrifying, subterranean and chaotic, which in some sense holds more truth than the everyday view. You might describe this as a satanic mysticism. I have never been convinced of its truth, but in moments of intense emotion it overwhelms me.

The Devil speaking in the chapter Ivan’s Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov says:

But nothing but hosanna is not enough for life, the hosanna must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style.

But I don’t meddle in that, I didn’t create it, I am not answerable for it. Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat, they’ve made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there’d be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events. So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what’s irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy.

They suffer, of course … but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious

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Nietzsche believed than in an age of nihilism, Platonic-Christian morality has run its course and is no longer cogent. Man must overcome himself by seeing himself as he originally is: as a physiological and psychological being who must therefore choose values that will make him stronger in those two realms.  In a meaningless world, the only validation of human existence is the expression of pure individual will. 

Machiavelli echoed the same sentiments.  Clearly what strikes us at first, and what is known to be one his central innovations, is his disregard for moral concepts in his understanding of virtù. Virtue as understood by Christianity entails following the rules set down by its religious tenets. In its place Machiavelli wants to promote the idea that one reaches certain rules through experience. The quality of foresight, to be able to see in advance what will come, entails a mastery of the notion of new-ness.

When Graham Greene was a young man, he found boredom intolerable.  So much so that he turned to Russian Roulette, the ultimate adrenaline rush and the final, absolute, and necessary act to challenge a life which had become meaningless because of its same dull, and meaningless routines.  He writes about the experience in the first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life.

One forgets emotions easily. If I were dealing with an imaginary character, i might feel it necessary for verisimilitude  to make him hesitate, put the revolver back into the cupboard, return to it again after an interval reluctantly and fearfully, when the burden of boredom and despair became too great.  but in fact there was no hesitation at all. I slipped the revolver into my pocket and the next thing I can remember is crossing Berkhamsted Common towards the Ashridge beeches. Perhaps before I had opened the cupboard, boredom had reached an intolerable depth. The boredom was as deep as the love and more enduring – indeed in descends on me too often today…
Now with the revolver in my pocket I had stumbled on the perfect cure.  I was going to escape in one way or another…Deliberately I chose my ground, I believe without real fear…I slipped a bullet into a chamber, and holding the revolver behind my back, spun the chambers round…The discovery that it was possible to enjoy again the visible world by risking its total loss was one I was bound to make sooner or later.
I put the muzzle of the revolver into my right ear and pulled the trigger. there was a minute click, and looking down at the chamber I could see that the charge had moved into the firing position, I was out by one. I remember an extraordinary sense of jubilation as if carnival lights had been switched on in a dark drab street…

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He insisted that he was not attempting suicide, although if that were to happen, it would not be because of the mental illness usually ascribed to it.  He played Russian Roulette without any real fear “perhaps because so many semi-suicidal acts which my elders would have regarded as neurotic, but which I still consider to have been done under the circumstances highly reasonable, lay in the background of this more dangerous venture”.

It is not surprising that Greene in Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter present suicide as a legitimate option; but whereas Scobie (The Heart of the Matter) commits suicide in a prideful action of self-abnegation and –damnation for the sake of his wife; Pinkie does so because he has come to the end of ‘the game’ – a life of amoral, self-serving killings, deceptions, and immoral persuasion lived beyond good and evil that was exciting, satisfying, and philosophically pure.  Pinkie chose to live ‘on the other side’ because the righteous, the good, the morally purposeful were creatures of drawing rooms and confessionals – less than human.  Now that the game was over and that a life of legal punishment and philosophical castration were to follow, there was no other choice than to end it now.

“Life would be holy, but tedious”, Ivan’s Devil says echoing the words of Ivan who has hallucinated the scene, created it in delirium no differently than he wrote his short story of The Grand Inquisitor. Ivan tells Alyosha, his Christ-like younger brother that morality would not exist without immortality.  Immortality is the fiction created by Christ and promulgated by the Church, so ‘everything is permitted’.

Perhaps more importantly, Pinkie makes a gaming choice.  He sees Hell around him with nothing but promises of Heaven and eternal salvation.  How could anyone living in a world of depravity, violence, venality, ambition, and greed possibly believe apostolic nostrums? As the critic Sarah Jones notes:

On his wedding night he looks around his room from his bed, no longer alone and no longer celibate (‘He had graduated in the last human shame) realizes that ‘ This was hell then . . . it was just his old familiar room'. Mr. Prewitt, the lawyer, confirms this when Pinkie visits him: 'Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it'

It has often been noted that Catholics understood goodness better than anyone else because their experience of sin is so immediate, tactile, horrible and ever-present.  The danger may lie in undervaluing sinners like Scobie and Peguy-and, perhaps Greene would say, even Colette. They know "from experience," the Mexican priest (The Power and The Glory) says, "how much beauty Satan carried down with him when he fell. Nobody ever said the fallen angels were the ugly ones."

Pinkie could never get past the ugly to see the good; and for him it simply did not exist. If he was already living in Hell and already consigned to eternal damnation because of his commission of mortal sins, then why not live above the law and more important above morality?  Greene has created a character both Mitonian and Nietzschean. 

Milton’s Devil is heroic.  Against overwhelming odds he challenges God, defies Christ, and rather than lament his exile from Heaven revels in his exile, for he has more power than God.  He will enjoy his work and in his many forms and lives he will devise new and ever more ingenious ways of corrupting Man.

The words of Baudelaire were never far from Pinkie and Greene.

If rape, poison, dagger and fire,
Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs
On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,
It's because our soul, alas, is not bold enough!

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