Evil Cannot Produce Flowers
by Davide Rondoni
The French poet Charles Baudelaire is a crux of the world. When he came up with
Les Fleurs du Mal (“The Flowers of Evil”) as a title for his collection
of poems, he established forever one of the most relevant questions for modern
man. In his immortal poems about women passing by, the night streets of Paris,
bored young kings, poisonous loves, drunkards, and the genius of artists as a
sob in the face of eternity, in poems about jewels and about Peter’s betrayal,
he gives shape to a very vivid question.
The title, The Flowers of Evil, seems nonsense from the very first reading. Can
evil produce flowers? And what kind of flowers are they? Contradiction! That
is what Baudelaire’s poetry shamelessly puts on stage. He says clearly
that every experience contains a potential and tremendous ambiguity, that nothing
is settled in life by a predetermined automatism, as it were. His own personal
history too was marked by this contradiction, which was always dramatically present,
even in his family affairs.
Baudelaire is the poet who marks the beginning of modern poetry: with him, for
the first time, the themes of the metropolis, of rootlessness and the anonymity
of the crowd, of individual vileness and social turpitude unhesitatingly become
the stuff of poetry. But in that title and that collection, there is something
more; or rather, there is something in it that concerns everyone who comes after
him. It is no coincidence that the book had its own distinctive fate: condemned
by the censors of the very secular French government, it was not condemned by
the Catholic world. Indeed, one of the leading French Catholic men of letters
of the early twentieth century, Paul Bourget, author of Nos actes nous suivent
[Our Acts Follow Us], considered Baudelaire to be the best author for understanding
the modern mind.
TS Eliot, too, wrote an important essay about the poet of the Fleurs, indicating
as the characteristic principle of his vision a great capacity for suffering.
But suffering over what? Over the insuppressible contradiction that is harbored
in human life. He suffers it, never complaining, but looking into the abyss of
this mystery. And he voices this human condition magnificently, sometimes smugly,
but never making or considering it banal. He never settles complacently into
the modern Manicheism that claims to put everything in order by interpreting
contradiction as a consequence of social disorder or as an inevitable natural
mechanism. For him, like for Manzoni, the human heart was a tangled mess. And
the world appeared a mysterious and enthralling spectacle, full of correspondence
and useful analogies for understanding it.