Disclaimer Series: Charles Baudelaire and the right to contradict oneself

Nineteenth Century French poet and  philosopher Charles Baudelaire, once said, ‘It is regrettable that, among the rights of man, the right of contradicting oneself has been forgotten’. 


Of course, at the time of writing, there might not have been a universal application of this right by Baudelaire or his peers, however, surely we cannot immediately dismiss the sentiment and genius of the content because of the momentary folly of the creator, should there have been any. The lives and minds of the greatest philosophers and artists in human history, we so often find, are plagued by vice and ill conduct, but why should that then render their works taboo, irrelevant or obsolete?


In society today, we see people punished and ostracised for the words they spoke or posted online as a teenager or young adult; society, it seems, has no room to let people learn and change, and would rather categorise people in one moment of their existence, and have that remain their category for the rest of their lives. The aim of this series is to conflict this reactionary moralism, which endangers the controversial, revolutionary and discourse inducing integrity of art and philosophy. I want to look at the works of a variety of artists and philosophers, often those who history tends not to look upon so kindly, and extract from their work, lessons and moments of beauty and genius which can help us improve and invigorate our own lives and hopefully those of the people and society around us.


I want to begin with Baudelaire, because I feel that this sentiment of contradicting oneself, though small, is one which can do an infinite amount of good for us all, if applied consistently. It is also a theme, I think, which will run through most of the subsequent posts made in this series – an encouraging of scrutiny and critical thinking, but also of  understanding and self-reflection rather than judgement and persecution. By analyzing a small portion of Baudelaire’s essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, we should begin to understand a little more about what lies beneath this idea of ‘self-contradiction as human right’ and how it can benefit our lives and society as a whole, when put into practice. 


In ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, Baudelaire discusses his own representation of the flâneur; an idler or ‘spectator’ of life in cities for whom ‘it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude’. The spectator of city life is described as a ‘prince’ who, rather than being weighed down or restricted by the hustle and bustle of the city, is liberated in his wandering and observing. Baudelaire uses the painter Constantin Guys as his subject and positive example of a flâneur and explains that Guys’ ‘mainspring of his genius is curiosity’ thus presenting a Romantic vision of the idler and observer as a curious soul, one who soaks up an understanding of life through their idle observations.


Guys and the flâneur are described by Baudelaire as being the kindred spirit of the convalescent and the wide-eyed child: ‘the convalescent like the child, is possessed in the highest degree of the faculty of keenly interesting himself in things’. For Baudelaire, what the convalescent and the child share is having both been in relatively close contact with death, or the eternal nothingness at one time. The convalescent is recovering from illness, potentially life threatening and thus has a renewed appreciation for life and wonder at what may seem the smallest things, just as for the child, every new experience is met with wonder and inspiration. The convalescent is also a metaphor for those among us who muse on death and the eternal all to frequently, despite never having made its acquaintance. It may lay in waiting far down the line, but it is inevitable, and so engenders in us, a thirst and desire to soak up as much knowledge and experience which we hope might somehow form a protective wall from death, if not physically then perhaps in some kind of an accumulative legacy. 


This Romantic appreciation for curiosity and the childlike wonder of the flâneur forms the basis of the main contradiction I want to celebrate in Baudelaire’s essay. In Guys artwork, Baudelaire recognizes a ‘forced idealization which is the result of a childlike perceptiveness – that is to say, a perceptiveness acute and magical by reason of its innocence!’. Baudelaire once again Romanticizes Guys work by equating it with a childlike idealism and evoking areas such as magic and innocence which relate far more to a spiritual, celebrated irrationality concomitant with Romanticism, than the logical, rational and scientific discourses which were becoming more and more prominent in 19th century philosophy.


However, Baudelaire purposefully contradicts himself by undermining Romanticism and championing logic and rationalism in his conclusions on genius and the art of modern cities. He explains that originality in art is possible if the present moment is represented accurately and not substituted in painting or writing by a Romanticizing of the past; ‘Woe to him who studies the antique for anything else but pure art […] By steeping himself too thoroughly in it, he will lose all memory of the present […] originality comes from the seal which Time imprints on our sensations’. Returning to his ideas on genius coming from a childlike curiosity, he concludes that this curiosity only becomes genius when there is an output which is made possible by ‘manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis.’ The language here evokes mathematical or statistical rationality and logic which would be in direct conflict with the mysticism or spirituality of Romanticism, evidencing Baudelaire’s use of contradictions to help him convey his message and theory in a thorough and dialectical fashion. 


How then, could the right to contradict oneself be of benefit to our lives and society? In championing contradictions, Baudelaire’s theory can be exercised as a liberating one first and foremost. It allows us, as inquisitive human beings, to explore multiple value systems and philosophical schools without having to come to any reductive conclusions on what constitutes right or wrong or good and bad. It can dissuade those looking back on our lives from ever saying he or she believed this or that one thing, but in fact was always learning and changing how they saw the world. I have often been perplexed at the astonishment some people exhibit when they find out that either I, or a more public person, has changed their mind on a stance they previously held. This is an attitude which is wholly ridiculous; should we not expect people to learn and to change? To develop, mature and become better, more well rounded individuals? It seems to me that society would prefer us to be staunchly, obstinately and obtusely close-minded in our opinions, rather than open to learning and evolving. Attitudes such as this would seek to curtail the evolutionary genius of great artists such as David Bowie, who sought to always change his public persona in an attempt to evade being categorized as this or that, thus evading the homogenizing reach of normality.


Baudelaire’s ‘right’ can also be a tool with which we ameliorate the rabid thirst which society has for judgement of others both in everyday life and in the arts and media. If we understand that people do and are allowed to contradict themselves then the self-righteous general public will realize that we are all hypocrites in one way or another and that judgement of others for their follies, when you yourself are guilty of your own, only renders one a hypocrite too. If we understand that everyone, good, bad or evil, is inevitably caught up and struggling with their own pains and travails, much the same as all of the rest of us are, then instead of approaching them from a place of judgement and ignorance, we can approach them from a place of empathy and understanding. We should however, first understand ourselves and our own journeys, how we intend to become the best we can possibly be, before dictating to others how they should live their lives, or why we think they are wrong, sick or depraved. The right to contradict oneself is the right to freedom, the right to be liberated from the constraints and pressure to be, and stick to, a prescribed role in life. It is a right which instead, encourages evolution, learning, critical thinking and crucially, empathy. 


[Title Image: ‘Les Promeneurs au Bois de Boulogne’ by Constantin Guys]

2 thoughts on “Disclaimer Series: Charles Baudelaire and the right to contradict oneself

  1. Sticking to what we perceive as ‘right’ is so human – based on fear and not wanting to really think. So proud of your thinking Dave! It frustrates the hell out of me that once there is a ‘party line ‘ in societal thinking , it’s almost a sin to suggest there might be two/three/ a hundred different possibilities- grey areas!


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