This essay explores how Baudelaire’s insistence on perverse forms of nonreproductive sexuality (what is here called “bad sex”) exposes critical aspects of his poetics and his relation to the question of aesthetics. It takes up two of Baudelaire’s most famous poems (“To the Reader” and “Beauty”) in light of Walter Benjamin’s insight that the significance of Baudelaire’s poetry is linked to the way sexuality becomes severed from normal and normative forms of love. Following Benjamin, the essay argues that Baudelaire appeals to beauty to undo the damage done by the so-called natural order, to bear witness to the world that is left out of familiar cycles of production and reproduction, and to remake the world by other means. For Baudelaire, the motif of “bad sex” becomes a kind of gestural language, a poetic medium, and a form of theatricality that conjures up actions, events, and figures that escape other modes of representation. Beauty’s work is neither presentation nor representation, but something like an artificial alternative to birth.
It is almost certain that Georges Bataille had Baudelaire in mind when he wrote these lines in his short essay, “The Language of Flowers”:
Risen from the stench of the manure pile—even though it seemed for a moment to have escaped it in a flight of angelic and lyrical purity—the flower seems to relapse abruptly into its original squalor: the most ideal is rapidly reduced to a wisp of aerial manure. For flowers do not age honestly like leaves, which lose nothing of their beauty, even after they have died; flowers wither like old and overly made-up dowagers, and they die ridiculously on stems that seemed to carry them to the clouds. (12)
To appreciate what is at stake here, it is worth recapitulating— and rereading—some of the most basic elements of Baudelaire’s poetics. First, let’s take another look at how spleen and idéal initially appear to be related to one another. “Spleen” poems are characterized by the expression of a form of pain, solitude, and melancholy that manifests as an inability to live in time or with others in a social world. For Baudelaire, spleen is always accompanied by pain that is simultaneously psychic, spiritual, and bodily. Because it comes from the body and keeps one bound to a body that is always a body in pain, spleen is intimately related to sin and failed spirituality as well as to a full range of unsatisfied bodily wants, needs, vulnerabilities, and desires. Sometimes translated as bile, spleen is related to excremental waste, violent rage, and to anything that is produced by an economy (be it bodily, spiritual, social, or political) to which it cannot be returned and by which it cannot be represented. Like bile, it is unmetabolized and unmetabolizable material. In the “Idéal” poems, by contrast, Baudelaire appears to hold up an idealized idea of “beauty” (often represented through figures that point directly to poetry and/or to other arts such as painting or music) that either promises or is shown to appear to promise the possibility of a redemptive spiritual alternative to and/or consolation for the debased material experience of spleen.
The place accorded to Baudelaire in French literary history and perhaps even in aesthetic theory more broadly displays evidence of a reticence, or a resistance, on the part of his readers regarding Baudelaire’s most dramatic, idiosyncratic, violent, and elusive assaults on classical notions of beauty. It is remarkable how easily he has been assimilated into and recuperated by the very narratives of literary history and aesthetics that also identify him as the turning point in that same history.2 Consciously or not, many of Baudelaire’s readers far too readily endorse an implied division of labor between Spleen and Idéal and thereby implicitly privilege certain poems and certain sets of poems over all the others in order to impose reassuring coherence and order.3 In practice, this means that rather than taking up Baudelaire’s explicit exhortation to read the articulation between flowers and evil in the title The Flowers of Evil [Les Fleurs du mal], many of his readers opt for either flowers over evil (in which case Baudelaire becomes a poet of synesthesia and harmonious “correspondances”) or evil over flowers (in which case Baudelaire becomes a libertine poet of sin, sexuality, freedom, and the Devil). Although this need not be the case (there are, after all, powerful readings of Baudelaire that can be located in both domains), in general terms, the very gesture of choosing between spleen and idéal, as it were, often accompanies and produces reading practices that reinforce tired moralisms and worn-out homilies and neutralize the very aspects of Baudelaire’s poetry that are the most forceful, the most inimitable, the most enduring, and the most subversive.
For the purposes of this discussion, and for reasons that I hope will emerge as I proceed, I am choosing to place my attempt to read the relation between flowers and evil implied in the title Les Fleurs du mal under the aegis of a more general problem specific to Baudelaire’s poetics that I am calling “bad sex.”4 In order to understand what bad sex means in Baudelaire and for Baudelaire, it is important to underscore that the English title Flowers of Evil does not begin to convey the complexities of the French title Les Fleurs du mal. In part, this is because of the ambiguities and overdetermination in the French word mal. As a noun, which it is in this context, the word mal can mean evil, but, as I have already indicated, it can also mean pain. As Barbara Johnson has pointed out, the term mal in Baudelaire’s title is particularly difficult to parse. In a chapter of Mother Tongues called “L’Esthétique du Mal,” she observes quickly, in passing: “Le Mal is notoriously hard to translate into English. Is it ‘Evil’? ‘Badness’? ‘Sickness’ [. . .]? ‘Suffering’? ‘Melancholy’ (spleen)? ‘Romanticism’ (Mal du siècle)?” (27). Moreover, the word mal in Baudelaire’s title is even more problematic because it is not clear whether or not he intended it to be written with a capital “M,” thereby presenting it as an allegorical figure (of evil and/or pain) rather than as a common noun. Although the word mal is printed in lowercase in all the critical editions of Les Fleurs du mal, Claude Pichois, editor of the Pléiade edition, reminds us that in Baudelaire’s letters “in nine out of ten instances” he writes the word fleurs in lowercase whereas he writes the word Mal with a capital “M” (797, my translation). Although most critics concur that regardless of whether or not the word mal is actually capitalized in the text, Baudelaire undoubtedly invested it with theological and allegorical meaning. However, it is also important to recognize that even in its most theologically charged usages, there is no evil for Baudelaire that is not also an experience of bodily pain and psychic suffering.
The phrase “les fleurs du mal” (“flowers of evil”) is further complicated by the ambiguity of the activity implied by the of. One can read the title in at least two very different ways. As the more traditional, redemptive reading would have it, Baudelaire’s flowers arise from evil but transcend, transform, or escape the material conditions out of which they have been made. In the aftermath of the 1857 trial during which Baudelaire’s book of poems was condemned for offenses to public morals and after which six poems were removed from the collection, he wrote several texts (in both prose form and poetry) in which he defended the book on those very grounds. For example, in an unpublished poem that was written as a possible epilogue to the 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal, after having condemned the city of Paris along with all its inhabitants, Baudelaire appeals to angels to bear witness to the spiritual righteousness of his poetic labor with these words: “Car j’ai de chaque chose extrait la quintessence, / Tu m’as donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or” (Oeuvres 1:192) [“For I extracted the quintessence from every thing / You gave me your crap and I turned it into gold”].
But Les Fleurs du Mal can just as easily be read as “flowers made of evil,” or evil flowers. According to this reading, the flowers do not merely come from evil but are produced by evil, composed of evil, and reproduce evil by dispersing it everywhere through perfumed scents and disseminating pollen. As we shall see, and as Bataille’s text has already suggested, Baudelaire’s flowers of evil are not ephemeral manifestations of an ideal of beauty, but rather sexualized, time-sensitive bodies whose beauty is always infected by their complicity with sexual reproduction and inflected with their communicative proximity to the sexual act through the diffusion of their pungent odors and their susceptibility to becoming abject and monstrous as they fade and die.
The inescapable convergence of evil and pain in Les Fleurs du mal opens up onto the field of sexuality. In Baudelaire, when sexual relations involve two living humans (which they certainly do not always do, for sex in Baudelaire can involve interspecies love, love of dead things, and love of inhuman forms, like the crowd, which is animated without being alive), the sexual encounter is most often, if not always, associated with pain. It causes pain and is caused by pain. Moreover, and more radically, for Baudelaire, the experience of love (and the word “love” here deserves to be accompanied by as many scare quotes as one can muster) is inextricable from the desire to inflict pain. Although the link between love, pain, and sexuality is palpable throughout Les Fleurs du mal, the baldest formulation of this link is located in this oft-quoted passage from the personal diaries: “Moi je dis: la volupté unique et suprême de l’amour gît dans la certitude de faire le mal.—Et l’homme et la femme savent de naissance que dans le mal se trouve toute volupté” (Oeuvres 1:652) [“For my part, I say: the sole and the supreme pleasure in love lies in the absolute knowledge of doing evil (de faire le mal). And man and woman know from birth that all voluptuousness is to be found in evil”]. The essential link between the sinful knowledge of causing pain that comes “from birth” and the evil expression of that knowledge in what Baudelaire here calls volupté—but that I am calling “bad sex”—is crucial for understanding the basic building blocks out of which his poetics are constructed.
One of the most important consequences of “bad sex” (and this is an essential concern in Walter Benjamin’s late writings devoted to Baudelaire) is that when sex detaches itself from eros, all relations in and with the world become unfamiliar.5 For Benjamin, the fact that desire is no longer linked to love in any normal, normative, or even recognizable fashion has enormous consequences for the way the poems are put together, the specificity of Baudelaire’s “modernity,” and its effect on modern aesthetics. When sex detaches from eros, the realm of art enters into different relations with that which is not art; the work of art starts to assume a whole new set of functions, responsibilities, tasks, limitations, and burdens, and the world brought into view by the work of art discloses entirely new sets of relations. Here it may come as a surprise that despite the colossal amount of attention that has been paid to Benjamin’s late writings and despite the pervasive (albeit occasionally reductive) influence that his readings of Baudelaire have had on the poet’s reception over the last fifty years, Benjamin’s final—and arguably most sustained—engagements with Baudelaire, in the unfinished fragment “Central Park” and in the behemoth section of The Arcades Project devoted to Baudelaire, “Convolute J,” have remained relatively untouched. Given the difficulty in knowing how to approach these texts (even by Benjamin’s standards, they are cryptic and opaque), it is perhaps not surprising that they have generated very little critical commentary.6 In contrast to the seemingly endless proliferation of critical responses generated by two other late unpublished texts from the same period, “The Theses on the Philosophy of History” and “Convolute N” of The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s late writings on Baudelaire have, thus far at least, with very few exceptions, generally failed to attract the attention of his most discerning philosophically inclined readers.7 Coincidentally, perhaps, in “Central Park” and “Convolute J,” Benjamin identifies male impotence—along with lesbianism, prostitution, fetishism, and hatred of pregnancy—as the determining impetus behind Baudelaire’s anachronistic and innovative use of allegory and his poetics more generally.
Any reading of Benjamin’s late writings that does not take into account his insistence on how Baudelaire brings eros and sex into tension with one another risks overlooking a crucial factor in understanding why Benjamin chose to dedicate the greatest part of his intellectual energies during the last years of his own life to his study of Baudelaire. Throughout “Central Park” and “Convolute J,” Benjamin devotes considerable attention to what he calls Baudelaire’s “erotology of the damned”: “In the erotology of the damned—as that of Baudelaire might be called—infertility and impotence are the decisive factors. They alone are what give to the cruel and ill-famed moments of desire in sexual life a purely negative character—something that is lost, it goes without saying, in the act of procreation, as in relations designed to last an entire lifetime (that is, in marriage)” (Arcades 347). Throughout his late writings on Baudelaire, Benjamin insists on establishing a relation between Baudelaire’s nonreproductive sexual figures and the subliminal or subterranean ways in which urban motifs and other traces of “modernity” become inscribed into Baudelaire’s poems through the fault lines opened up by his sexual motifs. For example, in “Central Park,” he writes: “The motif of androgyny, the lesbian, the unfruitful woman, should be treated in connection with the destructive power of the allegorical intention.—The rejection of the ‘natural’ must be dealt with earlier—in connection with the city as the poet’s subject” (165).
Glossing Baudelaire’s famous recurrent declaration that Les Fleurs du mal was not written for his wives, daughters, and sisters or for the wives, daughters, or sisters of his neighbor (Oeuvres 1:181) and that if his poetry has nothing to say to “wives, daughters, and sisters,” it is especially the case since he himself has “little to do with such things,” Benjamin remarks: “On the phrase, ‘I have little to do with such things,’ in the draft of a preface to Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire, who never founded a family, has given the word ‘familiar’ in his poetry an inflection filled with meaning and with promise such as it never before possessed. It is like a slow, heavily laden haywagon in which the poet carts to the barn everything which throughout his life he had to renounce” (Arcades 336). In all of his commentaries on what he calls Baudelaire’s “deviant eroticism,” Benjamin suggests that Baudelaire’s sexual perversions drive him away from all conventional poetic forms and themes and impel him to seek alternative modes of poetic expression. In a fragment from “Central Park,” Benjamin explicitly connects the discovery of the city and the masses to Baudelaire’s “satanism, spleen, and deviant eroticism”:
One must assume that the subjects at the center of Baudelaire’s poetry could not be arrived at by a planned, purposeful effort; thus, he does not aim at these radically new subjects—the big city, the masses—as such. The melody he seeks is not in them. It is in satanism, spleen, and deviant eroticism. The true subjects of Les Fleurs du mal are found in inconspicuous places. To pursue the image: they are in the previously untouched strings of the instrument whose sound had never been heard before and on which Baudelaire’s works were improvised. (170)
In two of the most important fragments of “Central Park,” Benjamin establishes a particularly important link between Baudelaire’s use of allegory, the dissolution of semblance, the decline of the aura, and his virulent aversion to pregnancy. The dissolution of semblance (die Scheinlosigkeit) and the decay of the aura are identical phenomena. Baudelaire places the artistic device of allegory in their service. It belongs to the Via Dolorosa of male sexuality that Baudelaire regarded pregnancy as a kind of unfair competition (“Central” 173). The Baudelairean allegory—unlike the Baroque allegory—bears traces of the rage needed to break into this world, to lay waste to its harmonious structures (174). All of the famous motifs that Benjamin discovers in Baudelaire’s poetry (ranging from the shock experience, the distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, the decline of the aura, and the importance of the crowd) are derived from the way Baudelaire translates and transforms his disconsolate rage and unsatisfying sexuality into his poetry. Here, it is important to underscore that Baudelaire’s impotence, his perversions, his fetishism, his misogyny, his hatred of childbirth, and his celebration of sexual cruelty would hold no interest—either for Benjamin or for me—had they not profoundly altered and transformed, in ways that resist easy description, the very foundations of poetic language and the very experience of what constitutes poetic beauty.
One should also keep in mind that whether or not Baudelaire actually hated women in real life (and one could even make a case to support the idea that he didn’t actually do so nearly as much as he proclaims—although I’m not sure this matters one way or another), it is important to acknowledge that misogyny operates like a structural necessity and a theoretical axiom that undergirds the very poetic principles of Les Fleurs du mal.8 More specifically, misogyny is the affective means by which Baudelaire immunizes himself and his poetry from anything remotely related to sexual reproduction. This fundamental abhorrence of pregnancy is expressed very well in a passage from the early novella La Fanfarlo, where Baudelaire describes how his idealistic romantic alter-ego Samuel Cramer (for whom love is primarily an intellectual aesthetic experience) “considered reproduction as a sin of love and pregnancy as a spider’s affliction. He wrote somewhere: ‘angels are hermaphroditic and sterile’” [“il considérait la reproduction comme un vice de l’amour, la grossesse comme une maladie d’araignée. Il a écrit quelque part: les anges sont hermaphrodites et stériles” (Oeuvres 1:577)]. If Baudelaire vehemently wards off any contact with “wives, women, and sisters,” it is because these classes of women have a dual reproductive function: along with being the chosen bearers of sexual reproduction, they are also assigned the role of safeguarding and reproducing societal norms and conventions.
It is crucial to observe that the word “mother” is not included in Baudelaire’s litany of female figures to whom and for whom Les Fleurs du mal was ostensibly not written. The figure of the mother occupies a special and very complicated place in Baudelaire’s biography, his theology, and his poetics.9 For over a hundred and fifty years, critics have produced a whole host of persuasive biographical and/or theological explanations to account for Baudelaire’s obsession with original sin and his rejection of all sexual relations that could potentially culminate in childbirth. Most of these accounts very convincingly trace his conception of original sin back to an eclectic mix of sources, including the reactionary Catholic theology of Joseph de Maistre coupled with his quasi-incestuous attachment to his widowed mother, who, he felt, abandoned him when she remarried. Virtually all of Baudelaire’s readers have noted that everything associated with motherhood or maternity is especially tainted, painful, and toxic for him. For the purposes of this discussion, however, it is important to note that birth and evil are almost like inverted mirror images of one another, or two names for the same thing. Birth is the primal cause of evil/pain, and evil flows directly from birth. The birth of evil is inextricable from the evil of birth. More important, however, for Baudelaire birth is an endless process, the source of an open wound from which evils spring forth throughout life and even into death. Death does not put an end to the endless pain of birth.
In the pages that follow, I would like to take a brief look at two of Baudelaire’s most famous poems, “Au Lecteur” [“To the Reader”] and “La Beauté” [“Beauty”] in relation to some of the issues raised above. I have chosen these two specific poems for several reasons: both lay claim to having something of a “meta” status in relation to The Flowers of Evil as a whole; both deploy startling structures of address to the reader; and they both make use of allegorical figures that elucidate Baudelaire’s terms spleen and idéal through quasi-theatrical scenes. In “To the Reader,” the yawning figure of Boredom (l’Ennui) emerges at the end of the poem as a monstrously annihilating manifestation of modern evil. In “Beauty,” the entire poem issues from the voice of a cruel and inhuman feminine allegorical figure: Beauty. The poem is presented as Beauty’s direct response to the implied but mute and unvoiced human question “what is beauty?” that presumably stirs the inhuman figure into speech. However, because these poems are situated on opposite poles of Baudelaire’s cosmology (“To the Reader” falls under the sign of Spleen and “Beauty” appears to be the very matrix for the Idéal), they do not share the same poetic lexicon and hence are rarely read in relation to each other. I have chosen to read them together here—precisely on account of their differences—in order to suggest that Baudelaire’s idealized depiction of beauty is affected by and is in some way a reaction to the very conditions of Spleen that are laid down in “To the Reader.”
“To the Reader” is perversely and provocatively addressed to modern readers, for whom, as Benjamin famously put it, “the reading of lyric poetry would present difficulties” as “[w]illpower and the ability to concentrate are not their strong points” (“On Some Motifs” 313). As Benjamin’s comment indicates, part of the diabolical irony of the poem lies in the very structure of this impossible address: the poem is addressed to a reader who—for the precise reasons systematically and forensically described in the poem—is ill equipped to read the very poem that is addressed to him. The reader’s failure to read is no accident: it is a direct consequence of the fact that he himself is a product of the sins that the poem enumerates. Moreover, since the greatest sin of all, Ennui (Boredom), can also be understood here both as the acquired inability/resistance/refusal to read and as the mechanism of hypocritical self-protection that defends itself from all self-knowledge, including the knowledge of one’s failure to read, by holding up a mirror to the reader in which he is forced to confront his own hypocrisy and bad faith, the poem calls the reader to account for his own sinful inability to read. Because the reader cannot read the poem, the poem reads the reader and thereby sends his own evil image back to him.
In the poem’s famous final two lines, the narrative voice of the poem abruptly discards the collective “we” and splits into two grammatical positions. Using the intimate second person tu (“you”), the poem’s narrative voice steps out from under the comforting mask of collective experience and, turning on the reader, accuses him of complicity and collaboration with evil:
This specular homosocial mirror scene in which the male reader is brought face to face with his own monstrous evil twin has fascinated Baudelaire’s readers since the poem’s first publication. I would like to suggest, however, that this final scene of self-recognition is still far too comforting, as it gives a face—however evil—to the horrific figuration of evil invoked by the poem.
Moreover, the final specular scene of fraternal, narcissistic self-recognition actually participates in the very manifestation of evil that it purports to denounce because it provides the narcissistic gratification of a self-image—even if that image is an ugly one—and, in so doing, both gratifies the desire for self-representation (which is not the same thing as self-knowledge) and diverts the reader’s attention away from inscriptions of other, more horrifying, and more primal figurations of evil and pain at work in the poem.
Spoken in a first-person plural voice, the poem recounts how “our” sinful thoughts, actions, behavior, and attitudes lead “us” unwittingly down the road to hell. From the perspective of the poem’s plot, this trip to hell follows a standard clichéd story line borrowed from popular Christianity. The first line of the poem consists of a litany of “our” sins—“stupidity, error, sin, and stinginess”—followed by a scathing enumeration of “our” moral weakness, bad faith, and pathetic attempts at repentance. These moral failings deliver us to the Devil, lead to debauchery and the descent into hell, and set the stage for the last judgment.10 But from the very first words of the very first stanza onward, it becomes abundantly clear that despite the familiar story line, there is, at the level of the poem’s vocabulary, its metaphoric language, and its curious images, something much stranger at work as well. The creaky and somewhat cumbersome theological framework is like a skeleton or a scaffold onto which Baudelaire has superimposed depictions of pain in modern urban life in Paris. Or vice-versa. Parisian scenes are embedded—or embossed—into the very scaffolding of the theological drama that is played out in the poem.
As the poem intimates in the final stanza, where the bored reader “dreams of gallows while smoking his hookah,” the greatest evils and horrors of hell are not to be found in an afterlife, but are the very fabric of this life. The descent into hell is nothing other than a return to business as usual in everyday life. Almost all of the words and images of “evil” in the poem are historically inflected by the social and political conditions of Baudelaire’s modern-day Paris. For example, the very first word of the poem, “sottise,” does not really mean “folly” (as it is rendered here), but rather a form of socially induced insipid stupidity that is class bound and that has a very nineteenth-century ring to it. More important, however, the first stanza introduces the two parallel signifying tracks—one theological and the other contemporary—that become intertwined and that establish an ongoing structural analogy between, on one hand, the theological story of how “our” souls have become corrupted and, on the other, striking images of the afflictions of modern life:
From the very beginning, the poem is about the disfiguring effects of two kinds of hunger that cannot be satisfied. In the first case, our insatiable hunger for sin causes us to feed our remorse. But our “remorse” does not feed us in return. Instead, it bites back (the literal meaning of remorse), thereby consuming us and opening us up to even greater evil. The more we feed our remorse, the more we are eaten by evil, the more corrupt we become. The poem compares this spiritual hunger to the way beggars—that is, starving people, people who are too poor to feed themselves—become fodder for the parasites that feed on them. In the first case, the hunger is caused by, and causes, evil. In the second, the hunger is caused by, and causes, suffering. Both evil and suffering are implicitly figured by a gaping, voracious open mouth that will not, or cannot, receive the nourishment it needs. A mouth that cannot receive food becomes a gaping void, an abyss, a yawning chasm that swallows the world.
The poem posits a world in which the only two figures that presumably could provide healthy nourishment—God and the mother—are strikingly absent. Throughout the poem, the void that is created by the absence of good is filled by evil substitutes. Presumably in search of the mother’s love he never received, the poor libertine suckles at the desiccated breast of an ancient whore. In squeezing the old whore’s shriveled breast like an “old orange,” the “poor” libertine is reduced to feeding on a poor substitute for mother’s milk. Likewise, the place that should have been occupied by a mother who watches over her child and sings her child to sleep is now occupied by the figure that the poem calls “Satan Trismégiste.” This magical, alchemical Satan, who turns the rich gold metal of our willpower into fumes, is represented as a maternal figure who lulls us into a druggy stupor.
As we have already seen, every incarnation of evil/suffering is depicted through diabolical substitutions and/or reversals (the one who cannot eat is eaten, the one who cannot read is read). Thus, the sinner does not occupy the city, but rather is occupied by it: the inhuman activity of the crowd is depicted like a race of devils that populate the mind like teeming worms. As we have already suggested, the hell conjured up by “To the Reader” is not opposed to lived life; it is lived life. Or, as Benjamin puts it in “Central Park,” “Spleen is the feeling that corresponds to catastrophe in permanence” (164).
But the most powerful poetic inscription of evil/suffering in the poem occurs in the penultimate stanza, where the actions of the ultimate vice are described before the vice is given the name of “l’Ennui”:
How are we to read this image and the hyperbolic claims that the poem makes about it? Among all the vices, this one is “even uglier, meaner, and more foul.” With a yawn, this, the most disgusting sin (the word immonde means disgusting, vile, abject, monstrous), would swallow up the entire world (monde). Most readers understand the yawn on the basis of the poem’s final stanza. If one does so, the yawn becomes readable as a gesture in a social world and as a commentary on the world. It is a mark of fatigue, indifference, hypocrisy, and insensitivity to the suffering of others. But if one reads the yawn in this way, it is still a figure that is readable.
The point of the poem, however, is that evil is evil precisely because it destroys anything like a human face. Every yawn, no matter how quotidian or banal, threatens to expose the fact that every human face is for Baudelaire nothing but a mask that only very precariously covers over the yawning abyss without name or form that lurks within us at all times. In “Central Park,” Benjamin makes several oblique references to the catastrophic force of this figure. He writes, for example, “when yawning, the human being himself opens like an abyss. He makes himself resemble the time stagnating around him” (184).
As depicted in this stanza, this gaping mouth is not a figure like any other. In opening a chasm powerful enough to engulf the whole world and to reduce everything in it to rubble, this figure obliterates everything around it. It has no face, no action, no movement. It is absolutely catastrophic and radically annihilating. This yawn opens a chasm that reaches back to the origin of creation. This image of apocalyptic destruction recalls the primal chaos, the primal mythical yawn through which the world was born. As the ultimate evil, this yawn reverses all of history and refuses all birth, all figuration. In this yawn, the world is cursed to destruction by means of being unborn. The figure of disfiguration here is antibirth. The yawn is directly related to the maternal figure of Satan earlier in the poem. And the most diabolical figure of all is that of a cosmological mother who draws all of the creatures of the earth back into nonbeing. For Baudelaire, in this image/action, the evil of birth converges with the birth of evil. God has vacated the world and left it destitute, poor, empty, wanting. And it is in this context, against the backdrop of a world bereft of God, in which the irreparable sin of birth opens up like an endless wound that comes from pain and reproduces pain, a hungry, empty, impoverished world that Baudelaire appeals to beauty.
Let us now turn to the poem called “Beauty.”
At first glance, this sonnet (or “quatorzaine”) might appear to accommodate— or even invite—a very traditional classical understanding of beauty as an impossible, unapproachable ideal. According to this reading, beauty instills a love in the poet that inspires him to assume the arduous task of presenting this unpresentable ideal through sensuous figures and sonorous language. And, on one level, “Beauty” lends itself (or appears to lend itself) to being read along these lines as a privileged example—perhaps even a veritable prototype—of many of the most traditional philosophical aesthetic theories imaginable. I would suggest, however, that such a reading runs the risk of overlooking all of the ways that “bad sex” is inscribed into the poem and, in so doing, of failing to appreciate the specificity of the place that “Beauty” (both the poem and the idea) occupies in Baudelaire’s poetics and aesthetics.
In what follows, in lieu of a detailed reading of the entire poem, I will indicate briefly how one might read “Beauty” against the grain. As in “To the Reader,” we can observe a tension between the poem’s relatively familiar thematic content (beauty is the unattainable ideal of eternal perfection and immutability to which art aspires) and its stranger, more perverse, formal properties. In its own way, the structure of address in this poem is as diabolical as that of “To the Reader.” There is something weird, and more than a little bit sinister, in the way that the abstract, allegorical figure of Beauty is personified here: her disquietingly violent use of the apostrophe “O mortals” in the first line of the poem is the first and most striking instance of her many disturbing speech acts throughout the poem. Ordinarily, in the lyric, human poets use apostrophe to animate inanimate objects and render present absent and divine figures.11 Here, however, the apostrophe works in the opposite way. Placed in the mouth of this inhuman creature (and Beauty is clearly depicted here not merely as a goddess, or as a purified aesthetic ideal, but also as a sexually sadistic, demonically cruel and unfeeling feminine entity), the apostrophe, “O mortals,” is murderous. Beauty’s call to “mortals” recalls that to be mortal is to be exposed to frailty, vulnerability, impoverished experience, boredom, original sin, natural birth, and susceptibility to temporality—or, in other words, spleen. In addressing mortals as mortals, she recalls mortals to their miserable, mortal life, and, in so doing, she causes the very pain that only devotion to her can cure.
Moreover, as the poem makes clear, as a lover, Beauty makes no promises about “happiness.”12 Quite the contrary: Beauty actively promises to hurt anyone who loves her. To love Beauty is to be bruised and wounded by her. The poem does not merely eroticize Beauty, then; it depicts her as a promiscuous practitioner of bad—even painful—sex. The masochistic interspecies love that she inspires in poets renders them mute and compels them to line up at her hard breast where, one by one, they get bruised and beaten by her. Like a dominatrix, Beauty makes punishing demands and keeps her poet lovers coming back for more.
How does the “bad sex” in the poem affect our understanding of what Baudelaire is doing with or to the ideal concept of Beauty that the poem also presents? The poem sets up the problem of Beauty as a double bind. In dedicating themselves to Beauty, poets sacrifice themselves to a life of thankless, hard labor, mute devotion, with dubious gratification. But the poem also implies that the alternative, a life without beauty, is not an option. By staging the action of the poem as an impossible double bind, the poem insinuates—and makes us feel, without ever saying it directly—that the world without Beauty is not merely fragile, vulnerable, and impoverished but actually unbearable and unlivable. So poets work for Beauty because they need Beauty to work for them. Beauty works as a sex worker. Like a prostitute, she is available to any poet who seeks her out. Here, it is worth recalling that in his personal diaries, Baudelaire himself compares art to prostitution: “what is art? Prostitution” (Oeuvres 1:649); and God to a prostitute: “The most prostituted of all beings is the being par excellence, that is, God, since for each individual he is the supreme friend; since he is the common and inexhaustible source of love” (Oeuvres 1:692).
But the real issue here is not the sex in itself, but rather the poetic work that the bad sex performs. The bad sex in the poem exposes the fact that Beauty needs to work so that the world is held in place. In the last stanza, Beauty explains that she fascinates her lovers with her “wide eyes,” which are “pure mirrors” that make everything more beautiful. Beauty’s eyes are neither made for seeing nor, even though they are described as “pure mirrors,” do they “reflect” an existing world. “Pure mirrors” are not mirrors in any simple sense, but sources of illumination. Beauty has “pure mirrors” because they reflect Beauty back to herself in an endless simulation and refraction of her artificial light. Beauty, who “reigns in the azure sky,” steps into the place vacated by God and, with her “wide eyes,” the “pure mirrors” that make everything more beautiful, she takes over for the sun. Even though it ends with the words clartés éternelles, the poem intimates that if Beauty extracts such a high price from her lovers, it is precisely because she wants them to pay her back for her work in keeping the world illuminated. Beauty’s cruelty bears the implicit threat that she could stop working at any time. So even though she presents herself as a source of eternal light and an immutable ideal, the poem very subtly presents a darker side to this appearance. It might just be all part of her seduction and her sales pitch. This reading is corroborated when one reads “Beauty” together with the poem that is presented as its inverted mirror image, “Hymn to Beauty” (Oeuvres 1:24–25; Flowers 45).
The poem “Beauty” also works in other ways as well. It functions like a factory of sorts, or a storehouse for many of the images and figures that recur throughout Les Fleurs du mal. Thus, for example, the image in “Beauty” of the celestial sphinx who reigns in the sky returns, in “Spleen 2,” as the sphinx who has dropped off the map (Oeuvres 1:73; Flowers 147). Likewise, the swan whose whiteness defines beauty in this poem is found again on dry land wandering in the carousel of the Louvre in “The Swan” (Oeuvres 1:86; Flowers 175). And the eyes that are “pure mirrors” that gave form and shape to the world in “Beauty” show up as the ersatz river that is a “poor and sad mirror” for Andromache’s tears in “The Swan” (Oeuvres 1:85; Flowers 173). In that poem, the speaker uses the expression “jumbled bric-à-brac” to describe how the images arise in his mind (Oeuvres 1:86; Flowers 175). Curiously, it seems that Baudelaire had initially considered using the phrase “bric-à-brac” as the title of his writings on art and aesthetics to which he later gave the name “Curiosités esthétiques” (Oeuvres 2:x). “Beauty” is the name for the place where all of these images are mass produced.
Rather than providing mortals with a way of accessing truth, a higher good, or a path to the future, Baudelaire assigns a mission, a task, and a job to this inhuman Beauty. The mission is as critical as it is impossible. He turns to beauty to undo the damage done by the so-called natural order, to bear witness to the world that is left out of familiar cycles of production and reproduction, and to remake the world by other means.
Beauty’s work is neither presentation nor representation. It is something like an artificial alternative to birth. Beauty remakes the world through sexualized performances and sexual production without sexual reproduction. As I have tried to show throughout this paper, in Baudelaire’s poems, “bad sex” is not merely a theme but is a kind of gestural language, a poetic medium, and a form of theatricality that conjures up actions and events and figures that escape other modes of representation. Baudelaire’s poems are often obscene scenes. They are odd tableaux vivants that disclose something that they neither show nor tell directly. Like bad sex scenes, these obscene scenes are performances that enact and expose dimensions of experience that cannot be seen by the light of the sun. Illuminated by beauty’s artificial light, Baudelaire’s poems enable us to bear witness to a world that only becomes visible and bearable by the flowers of evil that he generates artificially—that is, photosynthetically.
I would like to thank Marc Redfield for inviting me to present this paper at the Pembroke Research Seminar on Aesthetics and the Question of Beauty at Brown University in 2014 and Elizabeth Weed for inviting me to publish it in differences.
Translations of Baudelaire’s poems are based on James McGowan’s published translation in The Flowers of Evil. Throughout this essay, I have modified the published translations where necessary. All other translations of Baudelaire are by me and are indicated by references to the relevant French editions.
There is something unique about the way that Baudelaire’s poetry both defies and lends itself to any and all aesthetic categories of literary history. One might generalize Paul de Man’s ironic observation in “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric” regarding the canonical reception of the poem “Correspondances” that Baudelaire’s poetry “never failed to answer to the satisfaction of its questioner” (244). In Baudelaire devant l’innombrable, Antoine Compagnon enumerates some of the competing (and often incompatible) clichés and myths according to which Baudelaire’s poems have been received and classified by literary history. He writes, “There was a realist Baudelaire, a decadent Baudelaire, a symbolist, a satanic, a catholic, an atheist, a classical, a modern, a reactionary, a revolutionary, a saint, and now, today, a postmodern Baudelaire and who knows what next?” (9, my translation).
In the “Explanatory Notes” to his translation of The Flowers of Evil, James McGowan provides a cursory summary of this classic distinction between Spleen and the Idéal: “Ennui and ‘Spleen,’ a word in English, are closely related concepts in this volume: they drag man down towards the abyss, while a contrary tendency would elevate man away from evil; this is man’s yearning towards the ‘Idéal’” (351).
I am certainly not claiming to be the first reader to think about Baudelaire’s predilection for “bad sex.” Critical attention to Baudelaire’s depiction of sexuality goes back at least as far as the trial in 1857. Jean-Paul Sartre’s virulent condemnation of Baudelaire’s poetics as reactionary is founded, to a great degree, on his reading of the place of infantile, masochistic, and fetishistic sexuality in his poems. Likewise, but in a more positive vein, in Baudelaire and Freud, Leo Bersani places sexuality and fantasy at the center of Baudelaire’s poetics. In my book Dead Time: Temporal Disorders in the Wake of Modernity (Baudelaire and Flaubert), I discuss how Baudelaire’s many nonhuman feminine figures either function as shock absorbers or, in the rare cases where he depicts a speaking, human woman, as shock conveyers. In this paper, however, I am proposing the term “bad sex” as a way of describing how Baudelaire’s poetics emerge out of his repudiation of any aspect of production or reproduction that is modeled after procreative sexuality and that might lead to childbirth.
Benjamin most famously describes how Baudelaire detaches sex from eros in his reading of the love sonnet “À une passante” (“To a Passer-By”) where he writes that “what makes his body contract in a tremor [. . .] is not the rapture of a man whose every fiber is suffused with eros; rather, it is like the sexual shock that can beset a lonely man” (“On Some Motifs” 324). Although this reading of “À une passante” is extremely well known, many readers are less familiar with the way Benjamin develops this separation of eros and sexus throughout “Convolute J” of The Arcades Project and in “Central Park.”
For a lucid and illuminating discussion of allegory in Baudelaire and Benjamin that does focus on “Central Park,” see Kevin Newmark’s recent essay, “Who Needs Poetry? Baudelaire, Benjamin, and the Modernity of ‘Le Cygne.’” While this essay is one of the finest readings of Baudelaire and Benjamin that I know, it is striking that the question of sexuality has virtually no place in Newmark’s reading of allegory in “Central Park.”
Werner Hamacher’s extraordinary essay “‘Now’: Walter Benjamin and Historical Time” is arguably the most philosophically rigorous and astute discussion of the temporality of history and the question of messianic time in Benjamin. It is striking, however, that in his discussion of the possible-become-impossible time of “happiness” in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Hamacher never mentions why Benjamin often insists on thinking about temporality through sexuality. More specifically, in the very thesis that Hamacher reads so rigorously, he cites the passage in which (but never actually discusses why) Benjamin (following the language of Stendhal and Baudelaire) invokes happiness as the promise of (sexual) happiness in the phrase “women who could have given themselves to us” (38). Here, as elsewhere in Benjamin, elaborations of messianic time and the time of history are often linked to sexuality. For a discussion of sexuality and feminine figures in Baudelaire and Benjamin, see my essays “Walter Benjamin’s Dream of ‘Happiness,’” “From Poetic Justice to Criminal Jouissance: Poetry by Other Means in Baudelaire,” and the reading of Benjamin and Baudelaire in the chapter “Flat Death: Snapshots of History” in Dead Time.
See my “Woman Tell Time” in Dead Time for a discussion of how misogyny operates like a poetic principle in Les Fleurs du mal.
Among the many critics who have discussed Baudelaire’s relations to his mother and to maternity more generally, see Bonnefis; Burton; Johnson, Mother; Miner; Pichois and Ziegler; Sartre; and Thélot.
In his essay “Baudelaire’s Destruction,” Jonathan Culler offers this scathing indictment of American readers of Baudelaire who have failed to recognize the importance of the Devil in Baudelaire because (according to him) they have been too influenced by Benjamin. Culler writes: “Walter Benjamin has so gripped the imagination of American critics and graduate students that Baudelaire has become above all the flâneur of modernity, the apartment dweller who parries the shocks of an alienated culture as he strolls through the arcades of the city, not at all someone who might invoke the Devil” (700). Curiously, however, Culler does not seem to be aware that Benjamin wrote extensively about the importance of the Devil in Baudelaire. Moreover, Culler’s reading of the figure of the Devil in “Au Lecteur” is surprisingly reliant on traditional paradigms. More specifically, Culler makes no mention of the fact that the Devil is depicted as an explicitly maternal figure in this poem.
See Culler, “Apostrophe” and “L’Hyperbole”; and Johnson, “Apostrophe” for their complementary accounts of how the “fundamental gesture” of apostrophe is to “make something that cannot normally be addressed into an addressee” (Culler, “L’Hyperbole” 87).
In The Painter of Modern Life, notably, Baudelaire is fond of citing (albeit slightly misquoted) Stendhal’s dictum that “le Beau n’est que la promesse du bonheur” (Oeuvres 2:686) [“the Beautiful is only the promise of happiness”]. In his recent book, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, Alexander Nehamas presumably invokes this phrase by Stendhal and Baudelaire as a way of announcing his goal to bring eros back into modern aesthetics. Although Nehamas includes Baudelaire’s poem “Hymne à la Beauté” (“Hymn to Beauty”) as an epigraph to his book, however, he never actually discusses Baudelaire’s understanding of the role of beauty’s relation to sexuality in modernity. The recognition that Baudelaire’s aesthetics are founded upon bad sex (rather than something like good eros or the eros of the good) could challenge some of Nehamas’s larger claims about eros and modern aesthetics.