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.