27 April 2007

Eliot on Baudelaire

[from T. S. Eliot's essay on Baudelaire, 1930]

Baudelaire's morbidity of temperament cannot, of course, be ignored . . . To the eye of the world, and quite properly for all questions of private life, Baudelaire was thoroughly perverse and insufferable: a man with a talent for ingratitude and unsociability, intolerably irritable, and with a mulish determination to make the worst of everything; if he had money, to squander it; if he had friends, to alienate them; if he had any good fortune, to disdain it. He had the pride of the man who feels in himself great weakness and great strength. Having great genius, he had neither the patience nor the inclination, had he had the power to overcome his weakness; on the contrary, he exploited it for theoretical purposes. The morality of such a course may be a matter for endless dispute; for Baudelaire, it was the way to liberate his mind and give us the legacy and lesson that he has left.

He was one of those who have great strength, but strength merely to suffer. He could not escape suffering and could not transcend it, so he attracted pain to himself. But what he could do, with that immense passive strength and sensibilities which no pain could impair, was to study his suffering. And in this limitation he is wholly unlike Dante, not even like any character in Dante's Hell. But, on the other hand, such suffering as Baudelaire's implies the possibility of a positive state of beatitude. Indeed, in his way of suffering is already a kind of presence of the supernatural and of the superhuman. He rejects always the purely natural and the purely human; in other words, he is neither 'naturalist' or 'humanist'. Either because he cannot adjust himself to the actual world he has to reject it in favour of Heaven and Hell, or because he has the perception of Heaven and Hell he rejects the present world: both ways of putting it are tenable. There is in his statements a good deal of romantic detritus; ses ailes de gĂ©ant l'empĂȘchent de marcher, he says of the Poet and the Albatross, but not convincingly; but there is also truth about himself and about the world. His ennui may of course be explained, as everything can be explained in psychological or pathological terms; but it is also, from the opposite point of view, a true form of acedia, arising from the unsuccessful struggle towards the spiritual life. . . .

It is not merely in the use of imagery of common life, not merely in the use of imagery of the sordid life of a great metropolis, but in the elevation of such imagery to the first intensity — presenting it as it is, and yet making it represent something much more than itself — that Baudelaire has created a mode of release and expression for other men.

. . . Baudelaire perceived that what really matters in Sin and Redemption . . . and 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.

Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot


  1. Joseph Myers22:43

    Brilliant work!!!

  2. Anonymous06:28

    very nice!

  3. I read a definition of freedom as the experience of wanting to do something one ought to do.
    I also have known what it means to be liberated from responsibility.
    So, I think I can imagine why feeling damned would also be a relief -- because it means an escape from doing things that we don't want to do, but which we ought to do.
    I like the idea of damnation being the opposite of freedom.

  4. [Kant] the idea of freedom . . . is the only one among all the ideas of pure reason whose object is a fact and which must be counted among the scibilia [knowable things] . . . freedom becomes, in Kant's thought, the link between nature and the moral laws we create through our practical judgments. [from Susan Stewart's "The Poet's Freedom"]