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Baudelaire’s "Les Fleurs du mal"
The following is intended primarily as a discussion of the philosophical influences on, and some of the ideas contained within, Baudelaire’s "Les Fleurs du Mal". It is not intended as a literary review.
On a personal note, I must say I have never found poetry "easy" – just as the beauty of the poet’s words can elicit clarity and truth, so too can they produce obscurity and an excess of subjectivity. While I would never claim to find Baudelaire’s poetry simple, I found a clarity of expression and interpretation I have rarely encountered – either before or since.
In my opinion the key to truly understanding Baudelaire’s torment lies in understanding the philosophical ideas in vogue at the time of writing, and especially the philosophical revolution which was taking place in the nineteenth century.
Central to Baudelaire’s poetry is the Platonic division between the body and the soul, and its rebuttal by the philosophers of the Enlightenment Movement. According to Plato, what belongs to the body is temporary, open to error and corruption, and can never achieve perfection. What belongs to the soul, however, is infinite and may attain true knowledge and perfection through acquaintance with the ultimate forms of truth and beauty etc..
This philosophy is quite clearly the basis for Western philosophy and religion, and by extension, Western morality.
Until the arrival of the age of reason and the "Enlightenment Movement" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (accompanied by education and communication through books), this belief in the division between body and soul allowed the Church to maintain political and moral supremacy. Simply put, those who erred from the path of righteousness on Earth (as interpreted by the Church), would pay the price for eternity through the suffering of their souls. Those who claimed to have the power to absolve men from their punishment naturally held considerable moral power, power which extended to influencing and eventually controlling political matters.
Thus, when philosophers such as Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, and even Descartes profferred philosophies based on reason, and knowledge based on the bodily senses rather than through the soul, this represented an immense challenge, even an attack, on the status quo.
By challenging the "traditional" philosophy of Western religion and morality they were in fact challenging the authority of various countries’ political structures and governments, but perhaps more devastatingly they challenged the very existence of God and morality. And with that goes the implication that death is the end – there is no afterlife, raising questions concerning the way we deal with life, and indeed the very point of life. This alternative way of looking at and explaining life, knowledge and belief constituted the most dramatic and far-reaching philosophical and political challenge yet mounted in the history of thought and society. Indeed in many ways we are still coming to terms with the implications of such a theory.
Where does all of this fit in to Baudelaire’s poetry?
Much in Baudelaire’s poetry suggests he is lost – he doesn’t know what to believe, or whether he should believe in anything. At one moment he suggests God is responsible, the next it is the Devil who is pulling the strings. Then he decides it doesn't matter anyway – he will simply seek pleasure in his experiences because life is short and should be appreciated as such. He appears confused or at least unclear about who or what is responsible for life, but he is quite clear that he finds nature overwhelming – he feels he is not in control and is disappointed that he cannot find it in himself to rise above his nature. He sees his own shortcomings and weaknesses with remarkable clarity (and extends his criticisms to the whole of humanity), so that he understands the consequences of his actions, but finds himself incapable of altering his nature.
Baudelaire makes much of the fact that death is the end. If God does not exist, then there is no afterlife. This also brings home the fact that life is relatively short and should not be wasted. Each moment is precious and should be filled with something worthwhile, yet life is also boring and repetitive, and perhaps ultimately pointless. All the more reason, then, to seek moments of pleasure to relieve the boredom and pressing feeling that time is running out.
Baudelaire frequently emphasises the temporary nature of moments of pleasure. These are fleeting moments which make life more bearable, but the pleasure he takes from them is double-edged. He is left with the feeling that physical experience is lacking in some way – he is happy to indulge in his freedom, but regrets the lack of spirituality and the depth that would lend the experience, and a sense of control over these events.
I think this is essential to understanding the torment, despair, and spirituality which underpin Baudelaire’s "Fleurs du Mal". The key to understanding Baudelaire’s poetry is in understanding his ambivalence toward moral freedom – his overwhelming desire to indulge in the moral and sexual freedom implied by the Enlightenment Movement (indeed his inability to resist it!), but countered by his recognition of negative aspects, and his longing for something of spiritual value, accentuating his awareness of the emptiness and fleeting nature of mere physical being. This is reflected in the very title of the collection, where he finds himself attracted to something, yet recognises its harmful effect.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you have found these notes of some help, and I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the subject further. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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