Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475
The very title The Flowers of Evil indicates that its main theme will be an exploration of the dark side of the human condition. In the book’s prefatory poem, “Au lecteur” (“To the Reader”) of The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire states his intention of examining self-destructive tendencies not only in society as a whole but also in himself and his readers. Baudelaire concludes his prefatory poem by addressing his reader thus: “Hypocrite reader,—my alias,—my twin,” as Richard Howard translated this verse. Readers should note that Baudelaire ended this poem with the words mon frère (“my brother”), but Richard Howard’s free translation stresses the fact that both male and female readers can recognize elements of their personality in The Flowers of Evil.
The poem “Gambling” reinforces well the general theme in The Flowers of Evil, which most critics consider to be the most psychologically profound book of poetry written in France during the nineteenth century. Despite their efforts to hide their mediocrity behind makeup and jewelry, the gamblers still reveal their “pitiless eyes,” “colorless lips,” and basic insensitivity toward others. Although the readers may not practice gambling or dress in a “garish” manner, they frequently act selfishly and “squander” talents. Baudelaire reminds them of the terrible truth that self-destructive behavior brings them pleasure and yet revolts them simultaneously.
Baudelaire defines the complicated and often contradictory nature of human personality. Like these gamblers, people seek happiness, but these superficial and ephemeral pleasures can produce only “deadly gaiety” which forces them to “sell” their “honor or beauty” in order to obtain these moments of pleasure that will inevitably cause long-term suffering. Whenever humans demean themselves, they behave like dogs “who rush so recklessly into the pit” in which they will be destroyed. Baudelaire encourages his readers to avoid making the terrible error of judgment committed by these gamblers, who believe that the only possible moral choices are between “pain” or “death” and between “hell” or “nothingness.” These are false choices. Baudelaire entitled the first section of The Flowers of Evil “Spleen et idéal” (“Spleen and Ideal”). In both French and English, the word “spleen” refers to an organ in the upper abdomen, but it also reminds readers of the ancient medical theory of the humors which affirmed that the spleen was the physical source of all negative and depressing thoughts. Although one cannot deny the reality of self-destructive tendencies which were once explained by the psychological effect of the spleen on the personality, the “ideal” also exists. Baudelaire wants his readers to recognize the reality of both “spleen” and “ideal” and to avoid the simplistic moral choices made by the whores and poets in “Gambling.” It is a visionary poem which enriches one’s insights into the self-destructive tendencies in everyone. “Gambling” is a profoundly moving poem that continues to fascinate readers.