Writing against Theodicy: Reflections on the Co-Existence of God and Evil in Baudelaire's Poetry and Critical Essays

By Powers, Scott M. | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Writing against Theodicy: Reflections on the Co-Existence of God and Evil in Baudelaire's Poetry and Critical Essays


Powers, Scott M., Nineteenth-Century French Studies


Scholars have neither sufficiently identified nor discussed the importance of the sustained reflections in Baudelaire's writings on the possibility or impossibility of the co-existence of God and evil. This lack of attention to Baudelaire's engagement in the centuries-old philosophical and theological dialogue of theodicy can be explained in part by the fact that it has become increasingly unpopular in Baudelairean criticism to discuss theological concepts as the inspiration for or significant subtext of the poet's writings.' As part of a sustained interest in issues of rhetoric and (post-)structuralism, scholars have focused their attention on dimensions of Baudelaire's modernity, even post-modernity, or his poetics of irony and deconstruction. Another reason for scholars' virtual silence with respect to Baudelaire's reflections on the co-existence of God and evil is that these reflections usually emerge obliquely in lesser known essays or through what more popular texts do not explicitly say. However, I argue below that Baudelaire's sustained and evolving thought on the existence of God and the reality of evil, expressed most methodically in his critical texts, helps to provide a conceptual framework for what most scholars agree upon as a major shift in Baudelaire's poetry from an idealist, metaphysical poetics in Les Fleurs du Mal toward a more "realist" poetry of "daily experience" in Le Spleen de Paris?

Theodicy is a term that refers to a long tradition in which theologians, over the centuries, have proposed a variety of arguments to justify the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent God in light of a world of evil and suffering. By suggesting that Baudelaire writes "against" theodicy, I mean that Baudelaire places into question God's existence precisely because of the reality of evil. To argue that Baudelaire wrote against theodicy might seem implausible if one thinks solely of poems from Les Fleurs du Mal structured on binary opposites, including good and evil, God and Satan, "Spleen et ideal" and seem to correspond to the poet's off cited remark in his Journaux intimes that "Il y a dans tout homme, a toute heure, deux postulations simultanees, l'une vers Dieu, l'autre vers Satan" (1: 682). And yet, there is also a move in Les Fleurs du Mal away from God. In the collection, God and the good fade in the presence of destructive impulses and evil figures. As poems such as "Au lecteur," "Correspondances," or "L'Heautontimoroumenos" show (to name but a few), evil appears as a more compelling concept and as the triumphant force. Whereas a small number of poems in Les Fleurs suggest the poet's fascination with the divine, for Baudelaire what is most immediate, most "real," is evil. In "Au lecteur" evil is portrayed as man's irresistible response to his chronic existential crisis of ennui. Accordingly, evil constitutes a positive force (positive in the sense that it is something that veritably exists) that awakens the poet's dulled sensibilities. As Benjamin Fondane eloquently described it, the poet is responding to the need to feel himself exist, to break with the monotony of the quotidian, and it is through pain that man most acutely feels alive. (3) The collection's sadomasochism can best be understood in light of Baudelaire's candid remarks in his Journaux intimes on the pleasure that he feels in committing acts of evil: "Moi, je dis: la volupte unique et supreme de l'amour git dans la certitude de faire le mal. --Et l'homme et la femme savent de naissance que dans le mal se trouve toute volupte. [...] Cruaute et volupte, sensations identiques, comme l'extreme chaud et l'extreme froid." (4) An originality of Baudelaire's thought is his rapprochement of evil with life itself, or in philosophical terms, the confusion of Evil with Being. An extension of this thesis is Baudelaire's equation of evil with the beautiful, as the title "Flowers of Evil" intimates.

Often times, in Les Fleurs du Mal even God is portrayed as an evil force. …

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