University of Virginia Library


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The important and complicated relation between an
artist and the age in which he lives has been the downfall
of many an excellent critic. Some, denying its importance,
have regarded works of art as if artists—and critics too—
lived exclusively in the timeless and spaceless world of the
spirit; others, denying its complexity, have assumed that
a work of art is a purely natural product, like a pebble on a
beach, totally explicable in terms of its physical causes.
(Such critics, however, are usually reluctant to apply the
same hypothesis to their own judgements.)

Since Man is neither pure spirit nor pure nature—if he
were purely either he would have no history—but exists in
and as a tension between their two opposing polarities,
both approaches lead to misunderstanding. Thus, among
literary critics, the first type is correct in maintaining that
aesthetic values are spiritual, to be recognized intuitively,
and that, for example, no comparative study of Elizabethan
and Victorian society can explain why Shakespeare's
poetry is better than Browning's. The second type is right
is maintaining that aesthetic character is, to a great degree,
natural, and that a study of their respective milieus is
essential if one is to understand why Shakespeare's poetry
is different from Browning's.

The former critic, pledged to appreciation, would, if he
were consistent, contract criticism to the making of translations
and anthologies; the latter, pledged to causal relations,
would expand it into an investigation of every word ever
printed, including menus and telephone-books.

Few of the entries in Baudelaire's Intimate Journals are
concerned with the art of poetry; most of them are reflections
on subjects which concern all men at all times, love,
religion, politics, etc.; at the same time they are the


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reflections of a poet living in Paris in the middle of
the nineteenth century.

They require, therefore—and this is a great part of their
fascination—to be read in four different ways at once: as
the observations of a human spirit irrespective of time
or place; as the observations of a poet irrespective of
time or place but as distinguished from men with other
gifts and professions; as the observations of a Frenchman
of the nineteenth century; and as the observations of a
French poet of the nineteenth century.

Random jottings though they are, most of the entries
revolve around one central preoccupation of Baudelaire's,
namely: what makes a man a hero, i.e. an individual; or,
conversely, what makes him a churl, i.e. a mere unit in
human society without any real individual significance
of his own?

The term `individual' has two senses, and one must be
careful in discussion to find out in which sense it is being
used. In the realm of nature, `individual' means to be
something that others are not, to have uniqueness:
in the realm
of spirit, it means to become what one wills, to have a self-determined

In the first sense, individuality is a gift of fortune, as
when this dog is white and that one black, or this man
intelligent and that man stupid; it is objectively manifest,
for an impartial observer has only to compare one with the
other to recognize it; and, since it applies to being, not
becoming, time is either irrelevant or, in so far as time is
the dimension of change, the enemy. In the second sense,
fortune is either the enemy—for to will to become something
usually implies that what one is by fortune is other
than one wills—or irrelevant, as in the exceptional case
when one wills to become by duplication what one already
is—for, in this case, the point is that one wills it, and the
fact that it is already granted one is an accident. This kind


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of individuality is not manifest to an outsider since the
comparison by which it is recognized is not between one
object and another object but between what the subject
thinks he is and what he wills to become, and this comparison
no outsider can see; he can only take the subject's word
for it. Further, since it applies to becoming, time is its
necessary dimension, without which it cannot come into

Since Man is both nature and spirit, he possesses both
kinds of individuality, and one of his major problems in
understanding himself is to determine what relative importance
to assign to each, and how to reconcile them.

As a European, Baudelaire inherited three main concepts
of the human individual, two of them Greek and one
Jewish. The Greek poets thought of the hero in terms of
nature, i.e. as the exceptional man, endowed by fate with
areté, recognized by the exceptional public deeds he performs,
and in the end publicly humiliated and destroyed
by fate. The spirit could only enter into their work in
disguise, as the hubris by which the hero offends the Gods—
for what is this hubris really but the will of the hero to
become the fortunate man he already is? It is not the same
as the Christian sin of pride which disobeys the commands
of God; for, if it were, one would be able to say of the tragic
hero—at such and such a point in his life he made the
wrong choice. And one can never say this. No, what his
arrogance really consists in is saying `I am exceptional by
choice, not by fate'.

The Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, took the
opposite course and thought of the hero in terms of spirit,
i.e. as the knower of the Divine Ideas who by fate was a
churl, imprisoned in the body and its temporal flux of
passions, but who, by his own will, has transcended his
fate and lifted himself into the timeless realm of the Good.
This transcendence is not manifest to others, except in so


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far as they are willing to accept him as their teacher, but
is only known directly to the hero himself as a freedom
from passion and a knowledge of the Good; and once he
has attained this state he cannot lose it, for his knowledge
of the Good determines his will. This time it is nature that
enters in disguise as the heavenly eros, i.e. the desire to
know the Good before one knows it. This is really a gift of
fortune and sets one apart as an exception to the brutish
mass: that is to say, the hero and the churl are still recognizable
by comparison—only, instead of the poet's comparison
between the strong and nobly born and the weak
and ill-bred, the contrast is now between the sage and the

The third concept of the hero, which does justice both
to human nature and to human spirit, is found in the Old
Testament, and, in a more consciously developed form,
in orthodox Christianity.

Abraham is not a hero in the poetic sense, for he has no
exceptional gifts, only the human nature that any man has.
What makes him exceptional is that he, outwardly an
average man, is called by God to an exceptional task and
obeys. Adam, on the other hand, loses his true self—not
because he is overconfident of his powers or ignorant, but
because he diobeys. While Agamemnon sacrifices his
daughter for the sake of the Greek Army, and suffers,
Abraham is ordered to sacrifice his son as a test of faith
and—because, without saying a word to anyone, he proceeds
to obey—Isaac is saved and he is blessed. Job suffers
a reversal of fortune which, to the Greeks, would have been
a sign of divine disfavour, but actually it is nothing of the
kind: the catastrophes which befall him are not the sentence
pronounced on one who is guilty, but the trial by
which he proves himself innocent.

Nor, on the other hand, are Abraham and Job philosophical
heroes: they keep on insisting that it is impossible


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to know the mind of God in the way the philosopher can
know ideas, and that it is presumption to try to know it:
one can only obey or disobey his commands. In this
capacity, however, lies a spiritual freedom which is lacking
in both the tragic and the philosophic hero. The hero of
poetry necessarily becomes guilty of hubris—otherwise
there would be some who remain fortunate forever; and
there are none. The churl of poetry necessarily remains
innocent, because fortune does not give him a chance to
become anything else. The hero of philosophy necessarily
remains a hero—once he has attained his vision, to which
he can no more refuse assent than the mind can refuse
assent to the truths of arithmetic. The churl of philosophy
necessarily remains a churl because he lacks the prerequisite
endowment of eros which could start him off on
the ascent from ignorance to knowledge. But when what
distinguishes the hero from the churl is the choice of
obedience or disobedience, then it is open to anyone at
any time to become either. Thus the heroes of poetry and
philosophy have only a temporary interval of personal
history—the former during his downfall from greatness to
death, the latter during his ascent from nature to spirit.
Only the religious hero is an historical individual at every
moment of his existence.

In so far as Abraham and Job are recognizable as heroes
by being in the end rewarded by worldly success, there
are traces in the Old Testament of the poetic concept of
individuality—but these disappear in the Prophets and the
New Testament, where the religious hero is revealed to
the eye of faith as the suffering servant, the despised and
rejected of men, whose individuality is invisible to the eyes
of poetry and philosophy—by whose standards, indeed, he
seems both weak and ignorant.

Confronted with his own nature and the society of the
nineteenth century, Baudelaire devised and maintained,


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until just before he went mad, his own pair of opposites.
The Dandy, or the heroic individual, on the one hand;
and, on the other, as the churlish mass, Woman, the man
of commerce, l'esprit belge.

The Dandy:

Is a great man and a saint, for his own sake
Lives and sleeps in front of a mirror.
Is a man of leisure and general education.
Is rich and loves work.
Works in a disinterested manner.
Does nothing useful.
Is either a poet, a priest, or a soldier.
Is solitary.
Is unhappy.
Has as many gloves as he has friends—for fear of the itch.
Is proud that he is less base than the passers-by.
Never speaks to the masses except to insult them.
Never touches a newspaper.

His anti-types:

Are natural—when they are hungry, they want to eat.
Run away from home at twelve—not in search of heroic adventures, but to found a business.
Dream in their cradles that they sell themselves for a million.
Want, each of them, to be two people.
Believe in progress—that is, count on their neighbours to do their duties for them.
Are like Voltaire.

The Dandy, it will be seen, is like the hero of poetry, in
that he requires certain gifts of fortune, such as money and
leisure, and like the hero of philosophy, in that he must be
endowed with the will to make himself into a dandy out


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of the corrupt nature into which he, like everyone else, is
born. On the other hand, the Dandy is neither a man of
action nor a seeker after wisdom; his ambition is neither to
be admired by men nor to know God, but simply to become
subjectively conscious of being uniquely himself, and unlike
anyone else. He is, in fact, the religious hero turned upside
down—that is, Lucifer, the rebel, the defiant one who
asserts his freedom by disobeying all commands, whether
given by God, society, or his own nature. The truly dandyish
act is the acte gratuile, because only an act which is quite
unnecessary, unmotivated by any given requiredness, can
be an absolutely freely self-chosen individual act.

Logically, the Dandy should remain chaste: if, like
Baudelaire, he lacks the will-power to do so, he can at least
partially assert his freedom from natural desire by choosing
to be debauched, i.e. by yielding deliberately to what he
despises and making it as despicable as possible, until every
pleasure in love has been eliminated except the knowledge
that he is deliberately doing evil. Again, the Dandy should,
logically, become a hermit: if, like Baudelaire, he cannot
endure the loneliness which lack of relation to others
entails, then at least he can assert his freedom from social
relations by deliberately making them negative, i.e. by
giving offence. `When', Baudelaire says, `I have inspired
universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered

Even when one has allowed for the love of exaggeration
which every writer has, Baudelaire's conclusions would
have seemed, to any earlier age, rather extreme: if they do
not seem so to us, it is because we experience for ourselves
the extreme situation which provoked them. Poe and
Baudelaire are the fathers of modern poetry in that they
were the first poets (with the possible exception of Blake)
who, born into the modern age—that is to say, after the
mutation of the closed society of tradition and inheritance


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into the open society of fashion and choice—realized what
a decisive change this was. This change was not instantaneous,
and even now it is still incomplete; it does not
proceed uniformly in all fields of activity and at all levels
of experience: traditional beliefs may break down before
traditional morals, or vice versa; an artistic style, a
rhetoric, may persist when the habitual pattern of ideas
and emotions which made its interest has dissolved; poetry
may have reached modernity while music is still unreflective;
but, sooner or later, the change comes to all and,
once this happens, it is decisive and irrevocable—for,
whatever the field, once the mind becomes conscious of
alternatives, retreat into habit is cut off; either a man must
make a deliberate choice (that is to say, become a critic as
well as an actor) or become paralysed. Reliance on others
is only possible in so far as their authority can be recognized,
i.e. chosen. Reliance upon public opinion—on numbers of
people in general—is impossible, because they too are in
the same position as oneself, and the inevitable result is a
mutual destruction of individuality.

Viewed objectively, there may seem little difference
between living by tradition and living by public opinion;
in both cases the observer sees a number of people believing
the same thing or acting in the same way—without having
individually examined the evidence or made a personal
act of faith. Subjectively, however, the difference is infinite:
the believer by tradition is unconscious of any possible
alternative, and therefore cannot doubt—for, even if his
real reason for believing what he believes is that his
neighbours believe it, he cannot know this and must
imagine his reason is that the belief is true. The believer
through force of public opinion, on the other hand, is
conscious both of the fact that alternatives exist, or might
exist, and of the fact that he does not choose to consider
them—so that, even if what he believes happens to be true,


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he cannot escape knowing that he does not believe it for
this reason but because his neighbours do; to whom, as he
also knows, the same applies. The danger of losing one's
individuality is, therefore, greater in modern times than it
has ever been before.

The members of a traditional society—say, a Chinese
peasant village—are not fully developed individually, but
they have not lost their potential capacity to become so,
and one can therefore say that, as far as they have gone and
as far as one knows, they are individuals. The members of a
public—say, the evening crowds on Times Square—have
been offered the possibility of full development but have
rejected it, and by this rejection have lost the right to be
called individuals. Though neither is capable of fatherhood,
a boy who has not yet reached puberty is considered
masculine, a eunuch is not.

In a society which has become a public, a gifted man like
Baudelaire is placed in a peculiar position: his gifts enforce
a clarity of consciousness which makes it impossible for
him to join the crowd; they compel him to raise those
questions which the public by tacit consent represses. He
is bound, for example, to ask, as Baudelaire does:

Why are we here?
Do we come from some other place?
What is free-will?
Can it be reconciled with the laws of Providence?
Above all, he is bound to ask: What do I, or ought I, to
will to become? That is, how am I to become an individual?

At the same time nothing—neither his gift, nor nature,
nor God, nor society—can give an answer which compels
certainty; he must choose his answer and choice is a matter
of will, not of gifts. It is not surprising, then, if the gifted
man of our times so often is caught in the snare of reflection
in which his will prevents itself from willing anything


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in particular, so that, like Baudelaire, he suffers from
`Acedia: the malady of monks', and is desperately homesick
for a pre-conscious state—

un vrai pays de Cocagne . . . où le luxe a plaisir à se mirer
dans l'ordre . . . d'où le désordre, la turbulence et l'impré-vu
sont exclus . . . où la cuisine elle-même est poétique,
grasse et excitante à la fois.

He seeks to compel nature and society to provide his spirit
gratis with a history which it is not in their power to give,
either by making a god out of a novelty—

Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe?
Au fond de l'Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau

or a devil out of the characterless public.

The unselfconscious man can rest in his natural individuality,
in the fact that he is what others are not—but,
once he becomes self-conscious, this is not enough; he must
immediately set about becoming a spiritual individual.
His danger now is that he will make the Dandy's mistake,
and try to transform the former kind of individuality into
the latter—that is, to think of becoming a spiritual individual
not as becoming what one wills, but as becoming
what others are not.

Running through the Journals, however, even from the
start, is a thread of thought which is completely contrary
to the Dandy, with his pride in his uniqueness:

There is no exalted pleasure which cannot be related to
prostitution. At the play, in the ball-room, each one
enjoys possession of all. God is the most prostituted of all
beings, because he is the closest friend of every individual,
because he is the common inexhaustible reservoir of love.

Thus, in deliberately provoking paradoxical terms, Baudelaire
recognizes the Christian concept of love as agapé, in
contrast to the Platonic concept of love as eros which is held


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by the Dandy. He admits that to love is not to desire,
however noble the object desired—even self-perfection—
but to give oneself; that indeed the only way in which one
can will to become oneself is by willing to give oneself in
answer to the needs of one's neighbour.

Such thoughts seem to have occurred to Baudelaire only
occasionally until the crisis of January 23rd, 1862, when he
writes: `I have cultivated my hysteria with delight and
terror . . . and today I have received a singular warning. I
have felt the wind of the wing of madness pass over me.'
The last few pages in My Heart Laid Bare which follow this
entry are some of the most terrifying and pathetic passages
in literature. They present a man fighting against time to
eradicate a lifetime's habits of thought and feeling, and set
himself in order and acquire a history.

The man who wrote:

Whenever you receive a letter from a creditor write fifty
lines upon some extra-terrestrial subject, and you will be

now writes:

Jeanne 300, my mother 200, myself 300—800 francs a
month. . . . Immediate work, even when it is bad, is better
than day-dreaming.

To pray to God . . . for life and strength for my mother
and myself; to divide all my earnings into four parts—
one for current expenses, one for my creditors, one for my
friends and one for my mother—to obey the strictest
principles of sobriety, the first being the abstinence from
all stimulants whatsoever.

Between the Dandy and this lies a real change of heart
hich is lacking, I think, in that subsequent and more
ectacular decision by which Rimbaud the poet became
imbaud the trader. In the latter, it only seems as if one
nd of Dandy were exchanged for another; the same


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pride, the same desire to be unique, emanates from both.
In Baudelaire's case, what makes the note of humility
sound true is that he does not propose to make any outwardly
spectacular change in his career, to vanish from
poetry in a cloud of publicity: no—he merely prays that
he may use his talents better and acknowledges that, gifted
though he may be, he, the Dandy, is as weak as a woman,
M. Prudhomme, or the Belgians.

To the eye of nature, he was too late. As he spoke, the
bird stooped and struck. But, to the eye of the spirit, we
are entitled to believe he was in time—for, though the
spirit needs time, an instant of it is enough.