Charles Baudelaire and Seeing Things-As-They-Really-Are

‘But what can eternity of damnation matter to someone
who has felt, if only for a second, the infinity of delight?’
- Charles Baudelaire.

I am fascinated with the person and poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). I am sure that says more about me than I would like to know or share.

Expelled from school, and extremely morbid and tortured, Baudelaire lived a life of excess and ruined his health by overindulgence in alcohol and addiction to opium. He attacked bourgeois complacency and one finds a ruthless honesty in all his writing. His poems are very much about evil and corruption, decadence and debauchery, depravity and damnation, physical and moral dissolution, and sin and redemption, the latter, at least in Christian terms, seemingly impossible in Baudelaire’s view. Still, the ideal can at times be perceived to shine through the transient, the ugly and even the sordid. Even the infinite can at times be dimly perceived – a wonderful solace – even if it remains unattainable except in death with which he appeared to have a special fascination. Take, for instance, these lines from Baudelaire’s poem ‘The Living Flame’:

‘Beautiful Eyes that gleam with mystic light
As candles lighted at full noon; the sun
Dims not your flame phantastical and bright.’

… and these two quatrains from ‘Hymn to Beauty’:

‘What matter, if thou comest from the Heavens or Hell,
O Beauty, frightful ghoul, ingenuous and obscure!
So long thine eyes, thy smile, to me the way can tell
Towards that Infinite I love, but never saw.

‘From God or Satan? Angel, Mermaid, Proserpine?
What matter if thou makest—blithe, voluptuous sprite—
With rhythms, perfumes, visions—O mine only queen!—
The universe less hideous and the hours less trite.’

It’s not that I like Baudelaire’s poetry all that much, although one must admit that although his vision of life is for the most part bleak, he wrote so very well and with passionate imagination. He could see the beauty even in ugliness and degradation. No wonder fellow countryman, the poet, essayist and philosopher Paul Valery (1871-1945) called Baudelaire the most important poet of the 19th century. He certainly was the greatest lyric poet of his age. Having said that, after reading several of his poems in one sitting you can end up quite depressed. At the very least, you feel like you need a good, long bath or shower. Take, for instance, these lines from his poem ‘Spleen’:

‘I’m like some king in whose corrupted veins
Flows aged blood; who rules a land of rains;
Who, young in years, is old in all distress …’

Then there’s these lines from ‘Heauton Timoroumenos’:

‘I am the vampire at my own veins,
one of the great lost horde
Doomed for the rest of time, and beyond,
“to laugh – but smile no more.”’

… and these from ‘Beyond Redemption’:

‘A damned soul descending endless stairs
Without banisters, without light,
On the edge of a gulf of which
The odour reveals the humid depth ...’

Of course, there are some quite uplifting, even lyrical, poems. Here’s a quatrain from ‘Exotic Perfume’:

‘When, with closed eyes, on a hot afternoon,
The scent of thine ardent breast I inhale,
Celestial vistas my spirit assail;
Caressed by the flames of an endless sun[.]’

However, the mood of foreboding, torpor and gloom is never far away. Take, for instance, this quatrain from ‘Autumn Song’:

‘The whole of winter enters in my Being--pain,
Hate, honor, labour hard and forced--and dread,
And like the northern sun upon its polar plane
My heart will soon be but a stone, iced and red.’

Now, we can learn a lot about mindfulness from reading the poems of Baudelaire. You see, mindfulness is seeing things-as-they-really-are in a non-reflexive way. Choiceless awareness, to use a phrase often used by the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti. Here are some lines from Krishnamurti:

‘When you look at a flower, when you just see it, at that moment is there an entity who sees? Or is there only seeing? Seeing the flower makes you say, “How nice it is! I want it.” So the “I” comes into being through desire, fear, ambition [all thought], which follow in the wake of seeing. It is these that create the “I” and the “I” is non-existent without them.’ (J. Krishnamurti, The Krishnamurti Reader, ed by Mary Lutyens (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), p 245.)

Mindfulness is choiceless – that is, non-judgmental – awareness. You look, you see, you observe. You touch, you feel. You hear. You smell. You taste. There is no reflexive thought about these experiences. You, the observer, are one with the observed. You are one with the experience and the thing or occurrence experienced … as it happens … as it unfolds. Awareness without choice, judgment, condemnation, interpretation, comparison or analysis. The French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre astutely understood Baudelaire:

‘Baudelaire’s fundamental attitude was of a man bending over himself—bending over his own reflection like Narcissus. With Baudelaire there was no immediate consciousness which was not pierced by his steely gaze. For the rest of us it is enough to see the tree or the house; we forget ourselves, completely absorbed in contemplation of them. Baudelaire was the man who never forgot himself. He watched himself see; he watched in order to see himself watch; it was his own consciousness of the tree and the house that he contemplated. He only saw things through this consciousness …’ (Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudelaire, trans from the French by Martin Turnell (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1950), p 22.)

Yes, Baudelaire sees things through his consciousness of—himself. Here are some more lines from ‘Heauton Timoroumenos’:

‘I hear it in my voice - that shrillness,
that poison in my blood!
I am the sinister glass in which
the Fury sees herself!’

Baudelaire is not alone. If we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us bend over ourselves much of the day. We bend over our own reflection like Narcissus who, according to the Greek version of the myth, saw his own reflection in the water and was so entranced by the reflection of himself that he died at the banks of the lake. Why? Because he was unable to obtain the object of his desire. You see, the object of his desire was nothing more than an image. A self-image. It’s the same with us. We have lots of images of ourselves in our mind but they are just that—images. They are not the person that we really are. When we experience reality as it unfolds from one moment to the next we tend to experience and interpret that reality through our various self-images. The result? An indirect, non-immediate, distorted experience. Reflexive consciousness as opposed to mindfulness.

So, what exactly can we learn from Baudelaire about mindfulness and the importance of seeing things-as-they-really-are? Well, this. Don’t let your ‘watching self’ distort your experience of life as it unfolds moment by moment. Learn to see things-as-they-really-are by merely observing them. Resist the temptation to compare, contrast, analyse and judge. Just enjoy the experience of watching and observing. In other words, be choicelessly aware. Be ever mindful of the intrusive ‘watching self’. Once you become aware of its presence, it ceases to be a problem. It disappears. Let it go. You don’t need it at all.

Practise mindfulness at every moment of the day. Stop watching yourself watch. Just watch, look and see. That, my friends, is the art and science of living mindfully.

Note. The substance of this post appeared on the author’s own blog on July 29, 2016.