baudelaire and marx notes

yeah so i’m not sure how much this is gonna help but here ya go


so a big thing in marxism is materialism. its looking at stuff in the world as an explanation for how ideas or values came about, rather looking at how ideas themselves shape the material world.

this interview is a good example of a materialist account of racism

What witchcraft and racecraft have in common is they are part of something that cannot have a regular causal explanation — the cause of good and bad fortune such as sicknesses and draughts. What we do in America is to explain inequality by saying there are certain characteristics of people who come out on the wrong end of things.
Since we can’t talk about inequality in America, or at least until very recently we could not, the explanation becomes something inherent in black and Hispanic people.

marxism and morality

Anyway, the poem is about individual morality and bad moral choices. Marxists generally argue the cause of these bad choices is not the inherent goodness of the individual person, but the material conditions they find themselves in. For example, the reason a franchise owner of a mcdonalds wants to push their employees’ wages as low as possible isn’t because the owner is a bad person, but because thats what capitalism forces them to do. The problem isn’t that capitalists are individually morally bad, and that we need to replace them with nicer capitalists. Marx wrote in Capital, “As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital.” So, what we need to do isn’t to change the capitalists’ souls, but change the system which governs their actions.

Probably a better way to explain this is to look at david brooks. His big thing is saying that poor people are poor because they lack the right moral values and that to make them less poor we gotta instill them with virtue. Marxists would argue that he’s got the cause and effect backwards. Brooks likes to argue that high divorce rates and high numbers of single parents cause people to be poor, but marxists would argue that the high amount of pressure and stress that comes from poverty and economic precarity makes it more difficult to sustain a marriage.

so yeah thats basically the gist of it. Poor people commit more crimes because they’re poor, not because more poor people are immoral. rich people don’t rob banks not because they’re nicer people; its because they already own the banks.

poem analysis

so the poem starts with a list of bad things people do, and how despite feeling bad about doing them and repenting, we keep on doing them anyway. in the third stanza he mentions the devil

On the pillow of evil Satan, Trismegist, 
Incessantly lulls our enchanted minds, 
And the noble metal of our will 
Is wholly vaporized by this wise alchemist.

the devils usually though of as the personification of evil. we all have two countervailing tendencies; on the one hand we want to do good, but also we have the temptation to do bad. the idea of the devil separates the temptation to do bad from us. that temptation is no longer part of us, but something other than us that acts upon us.

i guess you could compare this to the sort of economic determinism in marxism. the idea of a devil that acts on us and influences our actions is kinda like the idea that our material conditions influence our actions. baudelaire writes that “C’est le Diable qui tient les fils qui nous remuent!” (The Devil holds the strings which move us!). similarly, our material conditions (our wealth, our role within the capitalist mode of production, etc.) set the confines of our choices, and influence us to take certain actions.

If rape, poison, daggers, arson 
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs 
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives, 
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.

so this sort of relates to marxism in a different way. a marxist might say that all people have the capacity to commit crimes, and whether they do so or not is determined by their circumstances, not inherent goodness or virtue. baudelaire takes a sort of similar, but also kinda different position here. he also argues that we all have the capacity to do these bad things, but says that the reason some people don’t isn’t because of circumstances or virtue, but because they’re cowards. we all wanna commit arson, but we aren’t all brave enough too.

But among the jackals, the panthers, the bitch hounds,
The apes, the scorpions, the vultures, the serpents,
The yelping, howling, growling, crawling monsters,
In the filthy menagerie of our vices,
There is one more ugly, more wicked, more filthy! 
Although he makes neither great gestures nor great cries, 
He would willingly make of the earth a shambles 
And, in a yawn, swallow the world;
He is Ennui! — His eye watery as though with tears, 
He dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah pipe.
You know him reader, that refined monster,
 — Hypocritish reader, — my fellow, — my brother!

so here the poem takes a turn here and baudelaire argues that the worst vice is ennui, or boredom or listlessness. im not really sure how this relate to marxism, except that ennui isn’t something generally associated with factory workers or laborers. its sort of an aristocratic and bourgeois emotion. baudelaire was definitely a member of the idle rich, living off his family’s money, he spent alot of time at salons, etc. and his readers were probably in similar circumstances. so maybe you can do something with that.

some links

heres some stuff that might be usefull:

Lyric Commodity Critique, Benjamin Adorno Marx, Baudelaire Baudelaire Baudelaire

Marxist Literary Criticism, Then and Now


Baudelaire and Revolution

Writing Against Theodicy: Reflections on the Co-Existence of God and Evil in Baudelaire’s Poetry and Critical Essays

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