Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude. University 
of Chicago Press, 1986.

In an 1856 letter Baudelaire complains of "the great heresy of our times... the suppression
of the concept of original sin" and insists "the whole of nature participates in original sin."
Baudelaire, however, does not defend the account in Genesis. For him the archetypal myth is
symbolic of the brutual qualities that exist in human nature and is not etiologically indicative of
an ancient transgression passed on genetically. Baudelaire accepts, as it were, the enigma that
our physical world is a world of sin. His conception is strikingly analogous to Christian Duquoc’s
in "New Approaches to Original Sin" in Cross Currents (Summer 1978) that the "sin of the
world" (Jn: 1:29) "designates the tangle of responsibilities and errors which constitute human
reality . . . as deaf to the appeal from God." Similarly, Baudelaire exemplifies that attachment to
the physical world results in enmity or deafness "to the appeal from God." It is from such a
perspective that he writes in another letter, "all literature derives from Original Sin."

His letters exhibit his own involvement in the "sin of the world." They recount his
incessant battle with periods of lethargy and despair, in which he would vacillate for months
on end before finally summoning the strength to return to his work. As he wrote to his mother
in 1861, "Something terrible says to me: never, and yet something else says: try." Such
struggles continued to plague him throughout his life while he wandered from one boarding
house to another. Baudelaire was quite pained by his "disorder" and "irregular life," yet he
remained determined and committed to his calling. As one of the first poetes maudits of Western
literature, he evinces in his letters all the histrionics that have been mindlessly imitated by his
successors, in France and elsewhere. His alienation, dissipation, loathing for money, and
contempt for the "mass" or "crowd," have become literary cliches; in some of his letters and
poems, it is almost as if he had foreseen that this would happen. In his poem "Romantic
Sunset" he laments the passing of the romantic school of literature, no doubt with special
reference to Victor Hugo, whom Baudelaire idolized in his youth. Although in his letters
Baudelaire asserts he "owed everything" to romanticism, he realized he was, as T. S. Eliot called
him, the "first counter-romantic in poetry." The following lines of "Romantic Sunset" reveal
what else Baudelaire was aware of: "But in vain I pursue the retreating God; / The irresistible
Night establishes his empire." The world becomes a cold, wet marsh befouled with a mortuary
odor, while the individual treads through it trying to avoid stepping on snakes or frogs or
"something worse." The correlation between "the retreating God" and the "irresistible Night"
that takes over the empires of the hearts of men is as characteristic of Baudelaire as the imagery
of horror.

In the poem "Blindmen" Baudelaire suggests this same correlation or loss that
underlies his entire book of poems The Flowers of Evil, his "discordant product of the Muse of
modern times." The loss of the blind is not merely the physical loss of sight nor is the
foreboding aroused in the persona merely a foreboding for "all these blind men" that he happens
upon in a Parisian street. It is the horror of "Their eyes, from which the divine spark has
departed." Similarly, in "Destruction," "the Demon" terrorizes and threatens the persona: "He
leads me thus, far from the sight of God" to where "Boredom" and sin and eternal destruction
make themselves manifest. Paradoxically, Baudelaire perceives the loss against the background
of the "sin of the world,"accepting it as an enigma, but one that cannot be gainsaid. Our
historical experience since his time upholds the veracity of his witness. In an 1860 letter to
Flaubert, Baudelaire defends his almost Manichean acceptance of "the hypothesis that an evil
force, external to man" can intervene in man’s "thoughts or deeds." It is the pervasiveness of this
conception that distinguishes his work. In "The Voyage" he phrases it differently, but the thrust
is the same:

Foremost among all the sights
We’ve seen in every country, without searching,
From top to bottom of the fatal stair,
The boring spectacle of immortal sin.

Such interminable sin, the "sin of the world," which continues and endures, which demonstrates
attachment to the human world of bondage, finds overwhelming recognition in his poems and
letters. Despite all Baudelaire’s debaucheries, as T. S. Eliot observed, "It is ... really Sin in the
permanent Christian sense, that occupied the mind of Baudelaire." Unlike so many today,
Baudelaire found it relatively easy to believe in evil. As he phrased it in a letter, "I tell what I’ve
seen." By his own admission to his mother, he had more difficulty believing in

With all my heart (how sincerely no one but I can know!) I long to believe that an
external, invisible being takes an interest in my destiny. But what must one do to        
believe it?

Later in the same letter he casually discloses his own doubt, "since you are lucky enough to
believe." But Baudelaire is too complicated a writer to evaluate on the basis of a few statements.
There are, for instance, times of sustained prayer and attendance at mass on Christmas,
descriptions of himself as a "fervent" and "incorrigible" Catholic (he grants a "suspect" one), and
his repeated affirmation that The Flowers of Evil "set out from a Catholic idea"--"is there...
anyone more Catholic than the devil?" And what is more religious than the writer who studies
"crime in his own heart" and in the world around him? What other struggles had Job and
Eccelesiastes? His letters testify he stood in the full flood of his century and recognized the loss
that still deafens "the Muse of modern times." In 1866 just before the stroke that partially
paralyzed him and led to his death nearly a year and a half later, Baudelaire sent his mother a
copy of Verlaine’s article on him, writing,

These young people have talent--but what sillinesses! what exaggerations! what
youthful infatuation! For several years now, I’ve been noticing here and there 
imitations and tendencies that alarm me.... It seems there is in existence a
Baudelaire school.

How laughable to find Baudelaire alarmed by the "tendencies" or histrionics to which he
had helped give birth, especially since in 1859 he had defended to Hugo his stratagem of
handling bourgeois "utilitarian concerns" by "exaggerating a little in the other direction." Had he
lived long enough to witness the symbolists at their height what would he have then thought of
the "sillinesses"of the Baudelaire school? Perhaps he would have owned his complicity. In many
of his letters Baudelaire loathes "belief in progress, the salvation of the human race through
balloons," and "all modem stupidity." One can only assume that he would have abhorred the
silliness of many of the poets of the last forty-five years, most of whom long ago abandoned
belief in the transcendent, let alone belief in the "sin of the world."

Copyright (c) 1987 Frederick Glaysher. Reviewed in Cross Currents 37 (Summer/Fall 1987), 363-65.

Other essays and reviews available on The Globe