Baudelaire Contra Benjamin: A Critique of Politicized Aesthetics and Cultural Marxism. Beibei Guan and Wayne Cristaudo. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019.
Walter Benjamin was one of the most important literary and critical theorists of the 20th century, or so the narrative goes. Beibei Guan and Wayne Cristaudo, at a very informative moment in their work, mention how the “authorities” of the human condition are no longer the great writers and philosophers of the past—like Homer, Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or Austen—but the academic theorists whom they regard as cultural Marxists, “Benjamin, Adorno, Derrida, Foucault, Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and the latest batch of theorists.” While Guan and Cristaudo do not besmirch the insights that one can gain from reading Benjamin (or other “theorists”), their principal task in this book is to show the insufficiency, indeed, the idiocy, of Walter Benjamin’s politicized aesthetics and the damage it has wrought to art and literary studies and contrast the shortcomings of Benjamin with the depth and abundance of Charles Baudelaire. In doing so they expose how the “theorists” inevitably present a truncated master and act as intermediaries preventing the reader from fully engaging with and learning from the original writer or artist.
Baudelaire Contra Benjamin presents itself as a work of critical engagement through the juxtaposition of the famed nineteenth century French poet over and against the twentieth century German-Jewish critical theorist who was indebted to Baudelaire. Because of the relationship between Baudelaire and Benjamin this contrast is appropriate and eye-opening. Guan and Cristaudo go to great lengths in showing the relationship between the French poet and German theorist, highlighting how “the importance of Baudelaire for Benjamin is threaded throughout his philosophical development.” However, Guan and Cristaudo also take this opportunity to reveal the deep antagonisms between these two men.
Growing up in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary War and downfall of Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, 1848 Revolution, and the industrialization of France (especially Paris), Baudelaire lived in exciting, energetic, and transformative times. His poetry reflects the rupture with the past that modernity was bringing, thereby severing the Erfahrung that had defined traditional, pre-industrial, French society. While Baudelaire’s poetry, especially his early poetry influenced by the ecstatic fervor of the 1848 Revolution, does contain political content, Guan and Cristaudo convincingly show how Baudelaire’s poetry grows beyond the hope of mere “political redemption” and begins to probe the depth of human psychology, the soul, and the human condition in a way that Marxism, especially Benjamin’s Marxism, never can.
The heart of Guan and Cristaudo’s engagement with Baudelaire is to save “art for art’s sake,” which is really the engagement with aesthetic psychology, human emotion and suffering, and the reality of evil which permeate Baudelaire’s poetry. As they write, “For our part, we are interested in Baudelaire for poetically depicting features of life that are supra-political, a by-product of which is that he helps draw attention to the limits of politics, and hence to any misplaced faith in political redemption.”
If Baudelaire goes deeper than mere politics—the mere progress and scientific utopianism of the Enlightenment metaphysical scheme established by Descartes (and Bacon)—then Benjamin is the savant-idiot, to use Joseph Epstein’s term, of a man imprisoned by his own rigid political metaphysics and therefore incapable of understanding or interpreting anything outside the prism that they have committed themselves to. Benjamin’s Baudelaire is a truncated Baudelaire, a Baudelaire that must be allegorized to death to make him a poet-prophet of anti-capitalism and anti-liberalism. “To think that there is a political solution to such despair,” our authors write, “is to put it precisely, ‘idiotic,’ where the ‘idiot’ is the person who cannot think outside their own limited private point of view because they are incapable of entering into the suffering and reality of someone else on terms other than their own abstractions and secure familiarities.”
Guan and Cristaudo subsequently show the depth of Baudelaire’s writing, how it goes beyond simple politics and repudiates the Enlightenment dream of scientific utopianism (something which has trapped liberalism and Marxism alike), and how Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire was political from the onset which necessarily reduces Baudelaire to a political poet and nothing else. Following Benjamin’s politicized aesthetic hermeneutic deprives us of the genius of Baudelaire and limits our own capacity for flourishing and joy which is wrapped up in the aesthetic imagination of human creativity, “To make art and literature mere tools of political propaganda was, for Baudelaire, to deprive humanity of its greatest power—the imagination, and hence also its greatest joys.” And transform Baudelaire into a tool for political propaganda is precisely what Benjamin does, and in doing so, Benjamin transforms the field of literary theory into an enslaved and weeping muse for cultural Marxism.
This brings us to the main question: What is cultural Marxism? This is a thriving question in today’s cultural climate. We might better understand cultural Marxism as a form of academic revisionism, a post-Marxism that keeps the historical materialist moralism of Marxism and the oppressor-oppressed dialectic inherited from the conflict between capital and labor, while ultimately abandoning the hope of proletariat revolution, “With cultural Marxism, faith in the proletariat had to be abandoned, but faith in the understanding of intellectuals to identify the beyond and the identities of the emancipators remained.” Moreover, Guan and Cristaudo’s work highlights another element of cultural Marxism—that the cultural Marxist, the “intellectual” who can “identify” the oppressed and how they are to be emancipated, is almost always a bourgeois professional who must overcome the oppression inflicted onto others from his or her own social class to be the prophet-redeemer of the class he or she identifies as being oppressed by the class which the intellectual genealogically belongs.
In their exposé of cultural Marxism another key element to understanding cultural Marxism is made manifest to us. There is a sort of class-guilt complex deeply implanted in the psyche of bourgeois individuals born of modernity who struggle to overcome the apparent oppression of the class the cultural Marxist belongs to by way of radicalizing and raising the consciousness of the oppressed class providing the pleasurable lifestyle that the bourgeoisie parasitically feeds from. There seems to be, from Guan and Cristaudo’s ruminations, a certain Jewish-Protestant salvific narcissism intertwined with the cultural Marxist disposition tinged with a psychological Augustinian guilt conscience which drives the bourgeois cultural Marxist in his or her enterprise.
One of the shortcomings of this book is that it portends to be a critique of cultural Marxism and the “politicized aesthetic” of the cultural Marxist theorists (Benjamin most prominently), but the book, in my opinion, is really about saving the aesthetic experience and human capacity for artistic creativity from the encroaching bonds of modern critical literary theory. In my opinion, the book is a really a heroic attempt to liberate the artistic and poetic masters from the “idiot” teacher-theorists of the last 80 years who depreciate and destroy the depth and genius of our artistic and literary tradition by subjugated it to the political messianism Guan and Cristaudo identify as being mostly Marxist in conception. The reader, myself included, is still left wondering what cultural Marxism is beyond the few definitive statements the authors do provide. Is cultural Marxism more than what we have hitherto annunciated above?
If cultural Marxism is the academic enterprise of largely bourgeoise professionals in academia and journalism to poison and weaponize art, literature, and film for a fixed ideological purpose—namely, a revision of the Marxist metaphysic of law and nature being an oppressor-oppressed dialectic in a mere socio-economic and political reality—then what distinguishes these Marxists from cultural Whigs, liberals, or conservatives who do the same apart from having a different metaphysical or ideological prism from which they approach the humanities? Why single out just the cultural Marxists and not also the empty liberal critics who Lionel Trilling equally said debase and depreciate the arts with their bland and truncated readings which kill the imagination just as much as Marxist readings do? This is still a question one has after reading Guan and Cristaudo. Aren’t we all guilty of utilizing art for other ends beside art for art’s sake?
We mustn’t forget Plato argued, rightly in my view, that art is not supra-moral but intimately connected to other spheres of the human condition (as Guan and Cristaudo show when discussing Baudelaire). Giambattista Vico, whom our authors cite as an example of an anti-ideological defender of the humanities, still said that “poetic metaphysics” aims at instruction in virtue. It seems that Guan and Cristaudo have chosen to tackle Benjamin and the cultural Marxists simply because they are the powerholders in today’s academic leviathan which destroys art, literature, and the broader humanities through its sickening and corrosive enslavement of the humanities to its political end—thus depriving us of the joy of imagination and aesthetic ecstasy that comes with reading the likes of Baudelaire, Dante, or Homer. 70 years ago, Guan and Cristaudo may have been assailing the liberalism Trilling identified as deracinating the imaginative consciousness of people and society.
In this attempt to save art and literature from the constricting confines of fixed and rigid, and ultimately limited, readings offered by the new “authorities” (the cultural Marxist theorists) Guan and Cristaudo enlist the help of Baudelaire to strike at the heart of critical Marxism’s insufficiencies (best represented, according to the authors, by Benjamin who was also an exhaustive reader of Baudelaire). In doing so they convincingly show how Baudelaire’s poetry reveals him to be a far greater and deeper intellectual of the human condition than Benjamin or any of the contemporary cultural Marxists can ever be because Baudelaire enters the cloudy mist of aesthetic and erotic psychology, the soul, and all the dark, superstitious, passions and prejudices that modern philosophers and theorists after Descartes have brushed away as mere fantasy. In their careful and concise exploration of Baudelaire as belonging to “the devil’s party,” a reality which Benjamin must brush aside as mere allegory for the evils of “capitalism” which does not remotely capture the essence of Baudelaire whatsoever, Guan and Cristaudo show how such “idiot” readings are woefully insufficient for thorough artistic and literary engagement.
In this book, Guan and Cristaudo undertook a heroic effort in critiquing and exposing the shortcomings of one of the patron saints of modern critical literary criticism. Guan and Cristaudo decisively, and convincingly, show how Benjamin’s politicized reading of Baudelaire has poisoned the whole well of literary criticism that is indebted to him. We would do well to listen to Guan and Cristaudo’s impassioned apologia to read Baudelaire qua Baudelaire and not Baudelaire siphoned through the rigidity of Benjamin’s revisionist bourgeois Marxism. And in reading Guan and Cristaudo, as in reading all good literary critics, we might also grow in our understanding of Baudelaire and Benjamin.
*This review was originally published at VoegelinView, 6 May 2020.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of Finding Arcadia, The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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