A box of twinkies made me do it

In his Baudelaire, Sartre condemned the author of The Flowers of Evilfor having abdicated responsibility for his actions. Sartre was particularly repulsed by Baudelaire's recourse—which he viewed as a disavowal of responsibility—to "the Devil" and "Hysteria" as the causes for morally reprehensible deeds. With biting sarcasm, Sartre described Baudelaire's self-stylization as a perpetual victim of his circumstances:

[Baudelaire] is no more than a marionette whose strings are being manipulated... At bottom it matters very little whether he attributes his actions to the Devil or to Hysteria; the essential [thing] is that he is not their cause but their victim. After that, we notice that he has, as usual, left the door open. He doesn't believe in the Devil.17

For the existentialist Sartre, Baudelaire's renunciation of responsibility for one's action was inexcusable. Make no mistake here, Sartre warns his readers, Baudelaire does not even believe in the existence of the "Devil" or the unadulterated evil on which he blames his deeds. Baudelaire's lack of faith in unadulterated evil puts his "Devil," as the cause of actions in which he has no investment, in a line with other such figures that are themselves empty of significance and yet prompt extreme actions: Poe's "Imp of the Perverse"; a box of Twinkies; an order from "above"; the system in which the individual does not necessarily believe. In light of his notion first developed in Being and Nothingness of an "original choice" by which man can exercise his freedom, Sartre finds Baudelaire's evasiveness appalling. Sartre's existentialist psychological reading of Baudelaire, which provoked outraged responses that, in their vehemence, rivaled the attacks on Arendt's Eichmann, culminates in the assertion that Baudelaire equated "his destiny" with free choice, that he embraced whatever happened to him in one gesture as both inevitable and as his desire.18 Sartre condemns Baudelaire for deliberately refusing to alter his sense of self, for not letting "an accident or the intervention of chance" change his understanding of "this life which was so closed and narrow."19 Above all, Sartre attacked the way Baudelaire resigned himself to the external conditions of his life and then blamed these very conditions for his deeds.

Sartre shrewdly isolates the significance of Baudelaire's self-stylization as a perpetual victim of circumstances. Ultimately, Baudelaire is unclear about the precise nature of man's compulsion to commit evil. Sartre hones in on this ambivalence and identifies it, indeed, as a sign of Baudelaire's refusal to make a choice—a choice regarding the nature of evil, and a choice that would, by its mere possibility, serve as testimony to the possibility of human freedom.

In order to grasp the full significance of Sartre's Baudelaire, Bataille suggested, one must not get caught up in judging Sartre himself.23 Instead, it proves germane to recall the historical situation in which Sartre wrote his book. Sartre ruthlessly dissected the "quasi-legendary prototype of the cursed poet" in 1942 and 1943, during the German occupation of France.24 Occupied Paris, where Sartre is writing, presents a situation where dangerous choices are needed that would oppose the reigning system, where everyone has to claim responsibility for his or her actions, and where the freedom to choose should translate into deed.

Precisely because Baudelaire was so widely revered as a "cursed poet" celebrating le mal in a society engulfed in the profound moral and political crisis of life under Nazi occupation, Sartre was unforgiving about Baudelaire's implicit claim that he could not help but suffer a fate dealt to him. Indeed, Sartre's Baudelaire can be read as an angry wake-up call aimed at a largely complacent French public under Nazi rule. Sartre aims to dismantle the cult of Baudelaire because the author of The Flowers of Evil constitutes a dangerous sedative, an excuse for languid complacency, and the refusal to take responsibility for one's actions.

Sartre saw in Baudelaire the quintessential bourgeois subject who displaces agency for his actions onto his surroundings. Baudelaire serves as the prototype for the functionary who ascribes responsibility even for his own deeds, which are meant as expressions of his free will, to the system. From Sartre's Baudelaire emerges, uncannily, the outline of the phenotype of Arendt's banality of evil: a criminality that is strangely devoid of an investment in or passion for the crime. For Arendt, Eichmann was characterized by:

...sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is "banal" and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.26

This lack of "diabolical or demonic profundity" also produced the climate of Baudelairean "Evil." Sartre describes this disturbing lack of interiority of the one committing such moral offenses (to which Sartre gives the label "crime"):

For with Baudelaire, the crime was concerted, carried out deliberately and almost under duress. Evil did not correspond in any way to abandonment. It was a counter-Good which had to possess all the characteristics of Good except that they appeared with a different mathematical sign in front of them. And since Good stood for effort, exercise, self-domination, we shall find all these characteristics in Evil.27 To fully grasp Sartre's criticism of Baudelairean evil, it is crucial to recall Sartre's emphasis on the fact that Baudelaire did not believe in "the Devil," whom he blamed for his actions. Baudelaire attributed his deeds to an agent whom he knew to be nonexistent. He carried out his deeds, as it were, without investment in a larger principle...

... the phenomenon of evil evidenced by Eichmann.. signifies a deliberate refusal to take notice of the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century. This "central phenomenon" was the individual who disavowed the notion of anything external that would alter his actions.


For Sartre, the French public's addiction to Baudelaire kept them from making genuine choices during the Nazi occupation. Sartre explained in a radio interview with the BBC in 1944 that "we were never freer than under the Nazi occupation," by which he means that the occupation endowed every decision with existential significance, for or against a murderous regime. When the French public accepted their fate as something they could only suffer in the face of Hitler's guns, this stance found expression in the widespread conception of Baudelaire as "living a life he did not deserve."32 For Arendt, the demonization of Eichmann similarly sealed the "moral collapse" of Europe in a realm of unanalyzability and spared Europeans from examining their complicity in that collapse.

She thought that it was not Eichmann's "fanaticism" but his conscience, as a rigid adherence to internalized values, that made him carry out his crimes.33 For her, Eichmann failed to take note of what Sartre in his Baudelaire calls "a gesture, a breath, a thought [that] may suddenly alter the sense of the whole of the past" and permit a break with existing positions.

"Those few who were still able to tell right from wrong," Arendt concludes in her report on the banality of evil, "went really only by their own judgments, and they did so freely; there were no rules to be abided by, under which the particular cases with which they were confronted could be subsumed."34 Criticism, Baudelaire wrote famously, "ought to be partial, passionate and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view but from the point of view that opens up the widest horizons."35 Sartre's and Arendt's books, on two manifestations of the "banality of evil," contain such exclusive points of view. In an unexpected parallel gesture of freeing themselves of existing opinion, the undeniably "partial, passionate and political" points of view expressed in Eichmann in Jerusalem and Baudelaire reach beyond their respective objects of inquiry to discern something that is not limited to the realm of either literature or politics.

Instead of insisting, like others, that evil is radical, Arendt and Sartre attempted to counter the stupefaction which they saw descending like a fog over Europe after the war. Their books are reflections on the moral crisis prompted by World War II—a crisis they acknowledged but feared would lead to a revival of the notion of radical evil that would "defy the possibility of human judgment."36 This crisis results in large part from a wholesale loss of faith in divinity as controlling human existence. Arendt shrewdly noted that in response to the debunking of the divinely anchored model of the universe, there needed to follow a process of de-demonization of evil. "What has come to light," she wrote in response to the controversy over her book, "is neither nihilism nor cynicism, as one might have expected, but a quite extraordinary confusion over elementary questions of morality."37
Cabinet Magazine Online - The De-Demonization of Evil: Banality, Arendt, Sartre


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