Walter Benjamin on Charles Baudelaire: Guilt, Modernity, and The Crowd

Walter Benjamin’s aesthetic theory and conception of modernity lead him to interpret Baudelaire’s poetry in an innovative and compelling way.

Nov 16, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

walter benjamin charles baudelaire


Walter Benjamin, the famous German philosopher and cultural theorist, wrote several essays concerning the work of Charles Baudelaire, the French poet. Starting with Benjamin’s first essay on Baudelaire and the “negative essence” of his poetry, this article further elaborates on various motifs repeatedly featured in Baudelaire’s work, such as guilt, knowledge, the crowd, and industrialization. Throughout, links to Victor Hugo and Karl Marx further illustrate the continuities in the development of modern literature thought.


Walter Benjamin on The ‘Negative Essence’ of Baudelaire’s Poetry

charles baudelaire portrait
Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, 1848-9, via The Conversation.


Walter Benjamin was one of the most important members of the renowned Frankfurt School, a group of 20th-century scholars who developed key ideas in Critical He was an individual who could see far beyond the surface, making key connections across political, artistic, and other realms of human existence.


The first of Walter Benjamin’s essays about Charles Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet, is simply entitled Baudelaire. It starts with the analogy between a photograph of things as they really are and the negative of that same photograph. The photographer has to develop the real image from a negative. Normally, it is not possible to infer the photograph from the negative. Without developing the negatives, we cannot get to the meaning of a photograph.


Baudelaire is just like us in this respect—he is not able to read off negatives. However, he is unlike us (unlike anyone) in being able to extract essences from these negatives through infinite mental effort. This is, Benjamin says, the “negative essence” of Baudelaire’s poetry. This gives Baudelaire’s work a very different interpretation from the way in which it is normally conceived, which is simply pessimistic or nihilistic poetry.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Immediately after presenting this metaphor, Benjamin claims that Baudelaire’s writings reflect an awareness of the fact that knowledge is guilt, an idea that calls back to the myth of the fall front from the Garden of Eden. This is, for Benjamin, the lesson we can learn from Baudelaire: that behind knowledge, there is always guilt, and so a life spent pursuing knowledge is a life led by a guilty conscience. These two motifs—knowledge and guilt, or perhaps even knowledge and its consequences—are how Benjamin chooses to frame Baudelaire’s work.


Benjamin also talks about a kind of reversal of perception or visual ‘backwardness’ which we find in Baudelaire’s work. Putting two and two together, we are led to suspect that Baudelaire’s aforementioned mental effort has been poured into this kind of reversal, into learning to see things ‘backwards,’ to reverse the course of things in order to understand how they really are (as the photographer does when developing negatives). This is a kind of mystical flavor that is ever-present in Benjamin’s work and points toward his profound religiosity as a point of reference for his critical perspectives.


Walter Benjamin on The Modern Audience of Baudelaire’s Work

turchi poetry allegory
Alessandro Turchi, Poetry, 1606, via the Royal Collection Trust.


Some of Benjamin’s most extensive discussion of Baudelaire’s poetry comes in the essay On Some Motifs in Baudelaire. At the start of this essay, Benjamin attempts to describe Baudelaire’s conception of his readers. According to Benjamin, Baudelaire wrote specifically for those who were least likely to appreciate lyric poetry, who were more given to physical, sensory pleasures.


Benjamin thinks this decision was simply based on a decision to be understood, on Baudelaire’s part, and was a response to the increasing difficulty of writing lyric poetry for a substantial audience. This is partly due to the decreased individuation of lyric poetry as such, and its integration (and therefore demotion) into the status of a literary genre.


Benjamin holds that the brute fact is that lyric poetry is less likely to be a major literary influence and is less likely to align with the experiences of those who might read it. Benjamin suggests that the fundamental character of lyric poetry may have changed less than the structure of the experience of readers at the time. Baudelaire is often characterized as the first writer of modernity and as being profoundly concerned with representing this historical transition, so Benjamin’s focus here is not so surprising. The direction he turns at this point, on the other hand, is.


Benjamin on the Links Between Baudelaire, Bergson, and Proust 

Portrait of Henri Bergson, by Henrie Manuel (date unknown), George Grantham Bain Collection, via the Library of Congress.


Benjamin takes the idea of a change in experience in a philosophical direction, focusing on the work of Henri Bergson, and especially his book Matter and Memory. Bergson’s philosophy offers us a ‘clue’ to the nature of this change in experience. Bergson conceives of memory both as biological in nature and as reliant on voluntary acts of the mind.


Benjamin reads Bergson as responding to the perceptual challenge of industrialization, which has a kind of blinding effect to which the necessary response is the construction of a kind of “afterimage.” Benjamin then relates this kind of delayed perception to another great modernist writer, Marcel Proust, and his conception of memory as accidental, chaotic, and dependent on the construction of a complete image of oneself in which to integrate new memories.


marcel proust
Photograph of Marcel Proust, via Encyclopedia Britannica.


The question that Benjamin poses is how poetry can exist and thrive when it has become normal, after the advent of industrialization, for experience to be exposed to ‘shock.’ It is this experience of shock that Baudelaire places at the center of his poetry, which he attempts to capture and imitate.


Benjamin gives us a kind of abbreviated critical history, a summary of responses to Baudelaire as the poet of shock, of trauma, before stopping us short with the following quotation from the poet himself:


“Who among us has not dreamed, in his ambitious moments, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, yet without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and resistant enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of reverie, and the sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive ideal is born, above all, from the experience of giant cities, from the intersecting of their myriad relations.”


What we learn from this, according to Benjamin, is that although Baudelaire cannot be conceived of as an analysis of class relations, he is profoundly affected by the figure of “the crowd,” the experience of living in a city. Here again, Baudelaire is conceived not as the first to express something (in French literature, it is Victor Hugo who wrote “the crowd” into existence), but as a kind of culmination of this expression.


Benjamin on Baudelaire and Marx

Photograph of Karl Marx’s grave, 2019, via Pixabay


Baudelair’s expression is, importantly, a culmination that is parallel to the culmination in the development of political economy at roughly the same time; the poet was a contemporary of Marx and Engels. The idea that Baudelaire and Marx are running on parallel tracks, driven by some of the same concerns and certainly responding to many of the same social developments, is a central part of Benjamin’s analysis of Baudelaire.


Benjamin reflects on two competing approaches to “the crowd,” or rather two transformative aspirations. For Victor Hugo, the crowd had to be transformed into the reading public, a kind of modern-day corollary to the patrons of the medieval period, who expected to see themselves reflected in the works they sponsored and read.


For Marx, the crowd had to be transformed into the proleteriat, a development that comes with a certain measure of disgust. Benjamin quotes Engels: “the very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive about it, something against which human nature rebels.”


This kind of moral reaction, a reaction of unfamiliarity, is in sharp contrast with what Baudelaire is going for. Baudelaire is not looking to seamlessly integrate the crowd, and the city itself, as the subject of his poetry. The crowd is not named, but in many of Baudelaire’s poems, it is the “structure of action,” the source of movement. The crowd becomes a kind of distortive effect that can be applied to more traditional poetic subjects, such as the nature of love.


Walter Benjamin on Baudelaire’s Relationship With “The Crowd”

Photo of Walter Benjamin in Paris by Gisèle Freund, 1938, via the New York Review of Books.


There are other idiosyncracies of Baudelaire’s treatment of the crowd that Benjamin finds significant. One such is the association between the man of the crowd and the “flaneur,” or “stroller” in the literal translation from French. The flaneur was a kind of totemic figure of urban life at the time, representing a species of drifter who is simultaneously disinterested in ordinary city life and engaged in an endless project of aimless observation or wandering. The man of the crowd is, almost by necessity, purposeful, and yet the crowd itself (the organic mass of which he is a part) has no specific aim. It is an aggregation of aims, sharing—at best—a general solidarity with one another.


Another social development that Benjamin finds reflected in Baudelaire is the increased automation of productive processes, exemplified by the increasingly undemanding, automatic nature of the machinery of modern life. Baudelaire promotes a kind of conditioning appropriate to the simplification, ease, and lack of skill required to use such “machines.” Though Baudelaire was far from a worker, he is captivated by the “reflexive mechanism” triggered by such machines as he observed it in others.


Benjamin ultimately relates Baudelaire’s interest in the reflex mechanism back to a conception of time and experience. In Baudelaire, the central temporal concept is that of “correspondances,” signifying both a relational conception of time and one which is focused on the uncontrollable or involuntary. What he wants us to focus on are the unchosen, incidental workings of the mind, the ones that express the autonomy of memory and of time, rather than our autonomy in the face of it.

Author Image

By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.