The “joy of descent,” as Baudelaire puts it, is often a kind of embrace-your-fate. If there is progress in any given struggle for Baudelaire (“progress” being another fraught word for him), it is not the inexorable move toward Spirit in Hegel, nor that toward communitarian ideal in Marx or Proudhon. For Baudelaire, “progress” more often than not lies in the inevitability of descent; it is, he writes in his work on Poe, “that great heresy of decrepitude.” Baudelaire’s “little men” in “Le gâteau” fight no less ferociously than did the master and slave in Hegel; but there is no advancement to be gained from the vicious struggle, no higher ground to which a new dialectic can be lifted up, and the conflicting forces remain of equal strength and thus afford no happy resolution, no matter how distant. It is man’s inherent and inherited evil that causes the struggle, and it is evil that will win by simple virtue of the struggle itself.
Original sin, in other words, is for Baudelaire the engine motivating the conflict between (even) children, causing the contradiction between the thought of the good and its constant defeat in the face of man’s heredity of evil. It is the same contradiction that motivates the passage we considered from the Confessions: even as a baby, man is sinful in the eyes of God: “no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth.” Baudelaire’s frequent recourse to children who demonstrate their potential for evil is a reminder to himself not to be taken in by the seductive promise of goodness: for him, it will always be a promise broken. Another of Augustine’s phrases from The Confessions can only have been endorsed by our poet: “If babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” The passage that follows in Augustine is as if an earlier version of “Le Gâteau”: “I have seen,” writes Augustine, “jealousy in a baby and know what it means.” A toddler is jealous when his baby brother nurses at the breast, though there is abundant milk. Can this be innocence, asks Augustine, “to object to a rival desperately in need and depending for his life on this one form of nourishment?” Such faults are not a “mere peccadilloes,” since they are “intolerable” in adults. Equilibrium will always yield to, or be rooted in, evil.
It follows quite logically, then, that it is virtue that is artificial, and evil that which is effortless and natural. Consider the following passage in “The Painter of Modern Life”: “Crime,” he writes is, “the taste for which the human animal acquired in his mother’s belly, is originally natural. Virtue, on the contrary, is artificial.”
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