“De Maistre, Baudelaire, and Original Sin: between Tyranny and Heresy as Radical Freedom” – Joseph ACQUISTO

“Freedom is the supreme good only for those animated by the will to heresy.

Cioran, Syllogismes de l’amertume

The high stakes of any modern or contemporary discussion of original sin immediately become apparent: quickly divorced from questions of belief, original sin becomes the base of a political theology that veers toward tyranny. The authoritarian conclusions fall back, however, into a logic of redemption, since beneath the concept of “protecting” human beings from themselves lies an implicit notion of redemption, in this case via the state, as Critchley goes on to note as he paraphrases proponents of original sin: “Because the human being is defined by original sin, authoritarianism in the form of dictatorship, say—becomes necessary as the only means that might save human beings from themselves. Human beings require the hard rule of authority because they are essentially defective” (108). He will go on to defend anarchism as “the political expression of freedom from original sin” (108). Baudelaire’s own position here is a more complicated one than is immediately apparent. While Baudelaire, in his most mainstream moments, sometimes seems to affirm such a reactionary politics, as we saw in his defense of capital punishment above, such a view is ultimately inconsistent with his refusal of redemption. Here, Baudelaire is a more original thinker than de Maistre, who retains a logic of redemption by way of the notion of a sacrificial victim. While authoritarianism provides an (all too easy) answer to the “ontological defectiveness” at hand, Baudelaire cannot defend it in anything more than a halfhearted or temporary way. In other words, emphasis on original sin does not necessarily lead to reactionary politics; it does so only when we hold on, as de Maistre did but as Baudelaire ultimately refuses to do, to the logic of redemption. Trying to push beyond that logic is part of Baudelaire’s crucial intellectual and literary project, and in this he might be better situated with thinkers like Freud and Schopenhauer than with overtly political reactionaries.

United to this political problem is an epistemological one, the premise that knowledge, pace the Greek philosophical tradition, is a source of evil. We shall see below that the early Walter Benjamin returns to this idea, with important consequences that we can apply to the Baudelairean worldview as it emerges in his verse poetry. John Gray has noted the curious transformation, in the contemporary world, of the identification of knowledge and sin in Genesis:

In modern times, nothing is more heretical than the idea that knowledge can be a sin [ … ]. The belief that humanity advances with the growth of knowledge is at the heart of liberal humanism. In many ways humanism is not much more than secular Christianity; but it has suppressed the profound insights into the contradictions of human nature and the ambivalence of knowledge that were preserved in the Christian tradition. At the same time it has perpetuated Christianity’s worst errors. (Heresies 6–7)

Chief among these errors is the anthropocentrism, more pronounced in Christianity than in other world religions according to Gray, that leads to an unreasonable and politically suspect humanism (hence the link that Gray establishes here between humanism and Christianity). As we shall see, Baudelaire’s crucial revision of Christianity, which robs it of its core doctrine of redemption in a way that allows him to restore the full emphasis on knowledge as evil, also has the potential to serve as a corrective to a damaging anthropocentrism. This is so not because Baudelaire affirms the animal over the human but because his pessimism imposes limits on the untenable optimism of secular liberalism as Gray here describes it.

By such reference to a critique of secular liberalism I do not mean to imply that a full-fledged or clearly articulated politics emerges from Baudelaire’s literary or nonliterary writings. Such was not his goal, and attempts to claim otherwise are destined to leave unexplained exceptions to any coherent political position unaccounted for. This is not to say that political conclusions cannot be drawn from his texts, but like any interpretive move in the case of Baudelaire, the conclusion can never be definitive on account of the very tensions and contradictions that characterize his texts. What I wish to trace is above all the metaphysics that ground the kinds of tentative political conclusions we may draw from Baudelaire’s texts; on these grounds, the poet presents a more clearly delineable position that I have already begun to identify via the refusal of redemption and its consequences both for thought and lived experience. This latter consideration will come to the fore in later chapters, where I attempt to delineate the ethical implications of Baudelaire’s metaphysics. While there are clearly political implications in many poems—one only needs to think of the caricatural violence of “Assommons les pauvres” or the implied argument against tyranny in “Une mort héroïque” [“A Heroic Death”]—the very uncertainty of Baudelaire’s own political commitments mitigates against any overconfident reading of a positive political position in these texts. Indeed, while there are sure indications of a shift from revolutionary enthusiasm to conservative vituperation over the course of Baudelaire’s life, his complex deployment of irony in his texts mitigates any definitive articulation of a political position. If Joseph de Maistre did indeed teach Baudelaire to reason, as the poet claims (I: 669), he does not ultimately follow him very far, since sacrificial violence in the name of the redemptive act is absolutely crucial to Maistrean thinking, lying at the very heart of his reactionary politics. By contrast, one of the few areas of Baudelaire’s thought both untouched by irony and consistent throughout his writings is the refusal of redemption, which effectively closes down the possibility of a direct conceptual and political lineage from de Maistre to Baudelaire. This is not, of course, to say that it is easy to move past redemptive thinking. Is it in fact possible to think beyond the logic of redemption, whether by a god, or art, or politics, or something else altogether?

ACQUISTO, Joseph. The Fall Out of Redemption: Writing and Thinking Beyond Salvation in Baudelaire, Cioran, Fondane, Agamben, and Nancy. New York/London: Bloomsbury Press, 2015, p. 28-29.

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