Baudelaire the Damned by F. W. J. Hemmings

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Baudelaire the Damned

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

F. W. J. Hemmings’ title is not intended to be provocatively sensational, nor is it pejorative. The author’s thesis is that Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) believed himself to be—taking the precise sense of the word—damned. In a letter to his mother, Caroline Archenbaut Defayis Aupick, on December 4, 1854, the poet expressed this conviction succinctly: “In short, I believe that my life has been damned from the beginning, and that it is damned for ever” [Baudelaire’s italics]. Hemmings argues that Baudelaire not only accepted as a demonstrable fact the curse of his “damnation,” but also believed that his art was deeply influenced by a consciousness of doom. According to Hemmings, Baudelaire frequently uses the word “damnation” and its cognates to describe his condition, evidencing the circumstances of his own life as proof that he had been condemned—damned—while still on the earth.

In this masterful biography, Hemmings provides for the reader carefully selected patterns of events in Baudelaire’s life to illuminate some of the dark areas in the French poet’s psychology. Essentially a study of Baudelaire’s mind rather than of his art, Hemmings’ book, although not ignoring aesthetics, concentrates on two basic themes, often interwoven: that of Baudelaire’s preoccupation with questions of election and damnation; and that of his mother’s powerful impact upon his self-image of failure. These themes, sharply elaborated, form the pattern of a depressive personality. In nineteenth century language, Baudelaire’s psychological state would have been called “morbid.” Hemmings avoids judgmental terms. Instead, with compassion moderated by a sound understanding of human behavior, he shows how the poet allowed his own self-fulfilling curse of damnation to shape a life that was, though wretched by almost all materialistic standards, not without compensating artistic glory.

To be sure, other commentators have also been aware of Baudelaire’s obsession with damnation. Jean-Paul Sartre interprets the poet’s life-pattern as the result of conscious choice—indeed, existential choice—from options that might as well have provided other, more satisfactory results. Sartre notes that Baudelaire’s selection was deliberate, urged by his deepest needs, and even when the poet failed to make choices, his passivity contributed to formulating a certain destiny. Hemmings goes beyond the observation of Sartre and other critics, to show that Baudelaire feared that his damnation was predestined. From his father’s supposed sins (chief among them, from a Catholic point of view, his failure to abide by an early vow to remain a priest), Baudelaire may have assumed that the father’s curse would fall as well upon the son. Hemmings points to the fact that the poet’s father, François Baudelaire, had once worn a priest’s cassock and that Charles habitually referred to himself as “the son of a priest.” Not only was the poet suspicious of his father’s conduct as a cause for damnation, but he also feared that his mother shared in the blame because she had consented to marry a former priest. In Hemmings’ view, Baudelaire probably rationalized that the curse of misery which darkened his existence had originated with his parents’ sins. Since he could not change the circumstances of his birth, the writer was bound to suffer the consequences of unatoned guilt.

A second theme of the biography, one that Hemmings treats as subordinate to that of Baudelaire’s “damnation,” is the impact of Caroline Aupick upon her son’s behavior. Without question, this strong-willed, capricious, intelligent, parsimonious, ambitious woman influenced Baudelaire’s personality perhaps more for evil than good. Yet Caroline was not without virtues. Although she was reticent in showing her affection, she loved her son dearly and brooded over his wayward progress, alternately cajoling and hectoring him. Baudelaire wrote letters of...

(The entire section is 1,561 words.)