Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil)

by Pericles Lewis

In August of 1857, the French lawyer who had prosecuted Gustave Flaubert, Ernest Pinard, had greater success in prosecuting Charles Baudelaire for The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal) (1857). The court banned six of Baudelaire’s erotic poems, two of them on lesbian themes and the other four heterosexual but mildly sado-masochistic. The ban was not officially lifted until 1949, by which time Baudelaire had achieved “classic” status as among the most important influences on modern literature in France and throughout Europe.

Like Flaubert, Baudelaire was rebuked by the court for his “realism.” The judges held that some of his poems “necessarily lead to the excitement of the senses by a crude realism offensive to public decency.” The poet had already distanced himself from Courbet’s visual realism, and the court was using the term in a very general sense, but Baudelaire’s fascination with the detritus of urban life did chime in with realist concerns. His most infamous love poem, “A Carrion,” describes in detail the rotting corpse of an animal, with its “legs flexed in the air like a courtesan.” The poet reminds his beloved that after her death, “even you will come to this foul shame, / This ultimate infection,” thus making disgustingly literal the traditional poetic theme of the fleetingness of earthly love. Baudelaire translated Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories into French and wrote several poems about Paris (“seething city, city full of dreams”), peopled with figures like the “red-haired beggar girl,” the “hideous Jewess,” the “consumptive negress,” and the drunken ragpicker. Yet Baudelaire aimed not at a sociological analysis of the city but at a poetry that could express the new experience of the city-dweller, Poe’s “man of the crowd.” In his essay on the dandy, the idle man who strolls about town, Baudelaire celebrated the “cult of the ego” and typified the modern urban experience of viewing the world as if through the plate glass of a shop window. The new economic relations that created vast urban areas and a consumer culture thus had a direct impact on the way poets perceived their surroundings. In “To a Passer-by,” the poet laments that he will never again see a beautiful woman who has passed by him in the street: “We might have loved, and you knew this might be!” The literary critic Walter Benjamin later observed that, for Baudelaire, “The delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight.”[1] This is the city seen not from a God’s-eye-view but from the streets, or the gutters.

Baudelaire presented his new subject matter in a defiant poetic idiom. The first poem of The Flowers of Evil, “To the Reader,” invites the reader to identify with the poet and with the beggars and prostitutes he describes. We all take what clandestine pleasure we can, he writes, “Like an exhausted rake who mouths and chews / The martyrized breast of an old withered whore.” If only we had more guts, he suggests, we would all be rapists, murders, and arsonists. Our evil arises not so much from the enticements of Satan as from the most typical of modern vices, Boredom (“L’Ennui”): “[Boredom] in his hookah-dreams, / Produces hangmen and real tears together, / How well you know this fastidious monster, reader, / —Hypocrite reader, you—my double! my brother!” Baudelaire here celebrates the evil lurking inside the average reader, in an attitude far removed from the social concerns typical of realism. T. S. Eliot would later quote the last line, in the original French, in his poem The Waste Land, a defining work of English modernism: “You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!” Despite his earlier sympathy for the revolution, Baudelaire had none of the political ambitions of a naturalist like Zola. Nor did he attempt the detachment typical of Flaubert. Rather, he wallows in evil in order to snatch away the veil of polite manners that turns too much poetry into cliché and high sentiment. This aspect of Baudelaire’s work announces a new mood typical of some later nineteenth-century and modernist writing that Baudelaire himself celebrated as “decadence.”[2][3]

  1. ↑ Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Knopf, 1969), p. 169.
  2. ↑ Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1987), pp. 164-171.
  3. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 37, 46.