Baudelaire published ‘Les fleurs du mal’ in 1857, during the 2nd French empire which began in 1952 and was defined by its intense Catholicism. Unsurprisingly, Baudelaire figure-heading ‘la decadence’, a movement characterised by abandoning traditional morals in search of beauty, hence ‘the flowers of evil’, did not go down so well. However, Baudelaire did enjoy a resurgence in 1910.
Emile Faguet, an ardent Baudelaire disapprover, describes the young people of the 1910s ‘cultivating in him their own hysteria, looking for a neurasthenic pure and simple who expresses his depression in poetry, a man who in the end has a taste for nothingness and who has nothing but that’. Harsh. On the other hand, André Gide argues that ‘Baudelaire has something else to offer them… only those writers who are capable of offering successive generations different nourishment survive, because each generation has a different sort of hunger’.
The zeitgeist of Baudelaire to the youth of 1910 is explored by Jacque Riviere, some 40 years Faguet’s junior, and a prime example of the Baudelaire-loving generation at 26 years old in 1910. He was against Faguet’s idea of Baudelaire as ‘depressed’, arguing that ‘said ennui is not a simple poetic melancholy, an ordinary sadness. it is the sudden revolt of the soul, it can no longer live with the weight of its imperfection in the terrestrial suburb’. This preoccupation with original sin is demonstrated in Baudelaire’s ‘ah seigneur donnez moi la force et le courage de contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans degout’ (give me the strength and courage to think of my heart and my body without disgust), and in several of Baudelaire’s poems like ‘l’irremediable’. Riviere elaborates that ‘the poet feels his pain grow. it ceases to be personal to him. he is taxed by the remorse of losing paradise’.
In 1905, the French government had introduced the principle of secularism, called ‘la laicité’. This is a severely entrenched separation of church and state that is still influential to this day as the reason for the burka ban and the prohibition of wearing visible religious symbols in schools or other state buildings. Baudelaire rebelled against the Catholicism of the 2nd empire by subverting Edenic tropes to write about decadence, and it seems that his followers in 1910 were rebelling against the secular laws in latching onto the prevalent, if unorthodox, Christian imagery in Baudelaire’s writing. WHS’s much-beloved T.S. Eliot exemplifies this view that any interaction with religion is better than secularism: ‘damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because at least it gives some significance to living’.