Notions of Evil in Baudelaire

By Catani, Damian | The Modern Language Review, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Notions of Evil in Baudelaire


Catani, Damian, The Modern Language Review


ABSTRACT

This article seeks to resituate and revivify a debate of very long standing--the problem of evil--through a philosophical and literary reading of Baudelaire. Its objectives are twofold: first, to show that in the post-Enlightenment era Baudelaire makes a decisive contribution to this debate through poetry and theoretical writings that have both assimilated earlier or contemporary notions of evil and acted as a catalyst to a polemical treatment of the subject by certain important twentieth-century thinkers; and, secondly, to suggest a fresh approach to Baudelaire criticism through a judiciously considered application of the concept of evil to his work.

Introduction: The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil--what it is, who is responsible for it, how and if we can justify its existence--today commands intense philosophical discussion which renews and develops a debate of very long standing. This article is based on a dual hypothesis which is both philosophical and literary in import and comprises two closely interrelated propositions: Baudelaire aids us in interpreting evil; evil enables us to interpret Baudelaire. However, since the sources and effects of Baudelaire's varying perspectives of evil can profitably be examined in some detail, and since the use of concepts of evil as a tool in the literary evaluation of Baudelaire has in the past given disappointing or incomplete results, emphasis will be placed on the first proposition and a possible way forward only briefly suggested in consideration of the second. The objectives are as follows: to give a succinct overview of how debate on evil has developed since the Enlightenment; to argue that Baudelaire makes a decisive contribution to this debate through poetry and theoretical writings that have both assimilated earlier or contemporary notions of evil and acted as a catalyst to a polemical treatment of the subject by certain important twentieth-century thinkers; and to suggest a fresh approach to Baudelaire criticism through a judiciously considered application of the concept of evil to his work.

A detailed philosophical investigation clearly lies beyond the scope of this article. A selective survey will, however, help us to understand how the post-Enlightenment debate on evil has arisen. Susan Neiman has provided such an account from a secular perspective. (1) She convincingly argues that the problem of evil was given new and dramatic prominence with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and was subsequently intensified by the Holocaust. Central to Neiman's argument is Kant's claim that man has an innate need of reason to make sense of the world. At the heart of human experience is the gap between is (how the world is) and ought to be (our rational desire to understand it), which constantly draws us in two opposed directions. Our desire to make the world intelligible is reflected in our moral expectation that virtue and happiness should be systematically connected (that is, good ought to be rewarded and evil punished). (2) Before Lisbon, Neiman argues, this moral assumption appeared to be fully justified by the dominant paradigm for explaining evil: Augustine's theological account of the Fall. Man became a sinner by abusing his free will, which led God to divide evil into two categories: moral evil (sin), which is inherent to man as a result of the Fall, and natural evil (suffering), which is the punishment meted out by God for man's sin. God, however, is not merely punitive but also good: if he punishes man's sin he also rewards his virtue with the promise of an eternal afterlife. Sin and suffering, virtue and happiness are thus logically connected within a balanced moral framework. But the scale of human suffering caused by Lisbon, Neiman claims, was so extreme that for the first time in history Augustine's rationale for explaining evil was shattered. What sin (moral evil) was so great that it justified punishment (natural evil) on this scale?

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