Wine and Spirits: Baudelaire’s Orgy and Attention
Attention, Dissipation, and the Evasion of Time
Simone Weil wrote a lovely essay for students in which she reminds us of the special luck of the student. The thing a student learns, in everything she learns, is to attend to one thing entirely for a while—to pay attention. It doesn’t much matter what the one thing is—an algebra problem, a poem; and it doesn’t matter whether you’re good at it. In fact, it might be better if you’re not; the more effort it takes, the better. What matters is to turn your mind fully toward the matter before you. According to Weil, this is the very effort which prayer requires; in collecting oneself completely, in forgetting time for a while, one comes a little closer to God.
I love this essay because it provides me with a weapon against my old enemy, dissipation. What’s dissipation? Two strangers are talking to each other at a party, but the conversation is going nowhere, because each of them is keeping one eye over the other’s shoulder, waiting for some other, better stranger to appear. Neither of them is entirely listening, so neither of them speaks well; their conversation remains superficial. Eventually one of them finds an excuse to depart and both go off to do the same thing again with someone else. No one speaks well when he’s waiting to move on, and no one speaks well when he’s not being listened to; without attention everyone is boring. It’s the same way with books: there are dozens of books worth years of study, but they reveal their worth only to one willing to spend years. But who has years to spend?
I think most of us suspect on occasion that if we could only attend entirely to whatever’s before us—this one moment or mood, this single book or poem—it would reveal a larger share of the world than all our wandering will discover. But which moment, which mood, which poem? No one can say, and again, no one has time to find out: death is always a good argument for staying—you’ll settle somewhere, after all—but an equally good argument for moving on.
The threat of dissipation isn’t exactly that I’ll attend to many things superficially instead of one thing fully, that I’ll dribble out my remaining time across too many things and waste it; the threat is rather that I’ll never at any moment attend, because part of my mind will always be turned toward the question of whether it’s time to move on. Dissipation applies not to the whole course of life but to each moment separately: it’s a division within that moment, a deferral of that moment in the name of the future. Part of the mind is turned away from the matter in hand, toward the future—and not future moments to be attended to, but the future as such, empty time ticking away, and the question of how to “spend” that time, the question of whether it’s wasted. Dissipation is the consciousness divided between time as such and the present moment. Is it ever pleasant to consider time as such? To think of the future as an empty space growing smaller every day? Isn’t the best thing to forget time as such and lose oneself in what fills it? But time keeps calling us away; we’re faced at every moment with a decision about how to spend the next one.
Weil’s description of efforts of attention is an attempt to silence the future by turning us away from the objects of attention and toward attention as such. No time is wasted so long as it is spent attentively; to the question “what should I attend to?” Weil answers that the question itself is always a mistake, that it is sufficient simply to attend. The suspicion that one may be attending to the wrong thing is precisely what will prevent you from ever attending; let the question go, let your moments go, find your way out of time for a while.
Weil’s lesson is that attention entails trust, and that conversely inattention is mistrustful. Positively, it means trust that the object will not disappoint, that it is worthy of time, that it has everything to teach—and this trust is grounded ultimately in trust of its Creator, who binds all objects of attention together and links each of them to the whole. Negatively, trust means lack of pridefulness, lack of faith in one’s capacity to decide or know in advance what ought to be trusted. To trust in God we must acknowledge the comical fallibility of human prudence, our inability to decide in advance what’s worth our time and what time is wasted.
An unbeliever like me can entirely affirm the negative aspect of trust: I could be hit by a car before I finish this article. Who am I to know what of my time will turn out to have been wasted? The positive aspect, however, presents an obvious difficulty. I cannot trust that all things are worthy of attention; the best I can do is acknowledge that it would be better to believe this, better than dissipation. Attention entails a version of Pascal’s wager, a bet out of ignorance. One must simply attend to each thing as if it were the only thing.
On the Intimate Connection between the Will and Stupidity
Weil’s discussion of attention refers ultimately to the old Christian question of the relationship between love of God and knowledge of Him. The question may be presented, in a rough paraphrase of St. Augustine, as follows:
Unbeliever: I would like very much to become faithful to God, but first, tell me why I should believe in him.
Believer: You want to know God before you believe, but that is impossible. Turn your heart to God, learn to love and obey Him, then you will come to know him.
Unbeliever: But how can I love what I don’t know or understand? Explain Him to me first, so I will know what I am loving and why!
Believer: Is it really impossible to love what you don’t know? Tell me why this should be.
Unbeliever: I can’t love a man if I don’t know him, any more than I can desire a house if I’m ignorant of what a house is good for. How can I love something if I don’t know what I love?
Believer: You claim that it is impossible to love and turn toward what one does not know. But surely you do not deny that it is possible to learn. Students learn what they do not know, and they do so by devoting themselves to the very thing by which they do not know, and by faithfully obeying teachers who do know. How else could anyone learn? You say that knowledge must precede love, but knowledge cannot come into being without learning, and learning (as attention, devotion, desire) is a way of loving.
Unbeliever: Tell me this, then: why should I love God? Why Him and not something else? How do I know that in obeying him I’m not wasting my time?
Believer: I wish very much that I could tell you that, but as I have said, it’s impossible. You want to know before learning! You’re worried that when you’ve learned you’ll be disappointed. That’s a risk every student takes, of course, even students of lesser subjects than God: only the wise know whether wisdom is of value. All I can say is: trust me, trust Him, and take the risk. If you are unwilling to trust you simply cannot learn.
The unbeliever is unwilling to undertake something whose consequences he cannot know ahead of time; he wants to make sure he’s getting his money’s worth. He’s more than willing to love and obey, if God is all he’s cracked up to be; but he’s not willing to let go of that if. But learning is precisely the sort of undertaking whose results one can’t know in advance, and God’s worthiness of love (like a human’s, for that matter) is revealed only to those who look to him lovingly.
Thus the unbeliever’s thrifty relation to time is more dangerous than prodigality ever could be: he’s not willing to learn what he doesn’t already know, which is to say that he’s not willing to learn at all. He cannot desire, cannot even see, what he doesn’t already know. He wants to recognize what he’s about to learn, to see the future as though it were already past. He is dissipated, and time will weigh heavy on him.
The unbeliever is right about one thing, of course: the decision to seek wisdom is never itself wise. It’s unreasonable to go off in search of one knows not what, the thing one doesn’t know. He’s wrong only to think that it’s impossible to do this. It is possible, it is even necessary, to make a choice for no reason, to simply plunge. So essential is this capacity that the Church Fathers invented a special faculty just to guarantee it, a capacity for unreasonable choice—they call it the will, the “free” will.
The freedom of the will is a strange sort of freedom. It’s not the capacity to manage one’s life in one’s own best interest, independent of outside influence; no such metaphysically indeterminate entity is required for that, since one’s desires are perfectly adequate. Quite the contrary: as the will acts out of ignorance, it acts into obedience. It places itself in the power of what it cannot understand. A free will is the kind of will which can obey without understanding. The freedom guaranteed here is the freedom to give oneself up, entirely and unreasonably, to God; to make a gift of one’s whole life, to give it away in a single act.
In Christianity the peculiar arbitrariness of this faculty is retroactively justified—this is Weil’s point concerning attention. To the question, “given no reason can tell me what to love and learn, what should I love and learn?” she responds that it doesn’t matter at all: anything will do, whatever they teach in high school will work just fine. She can answer thus because in her view all things one could learn are God’s creations, so there’s only really one thing to learn and it’s the one thing everything teaches. The multiplicity of moments is insignificant; each is a doorway into eternity, and the main thing is to pass through the door.
For those of us who don’t believe in God (not because we don’t have reasons, of course, since that never stopped our forebears, but because we don’t want to anymore, because tastes have changed), Weil’s doctrine seems not so much impracticable as insane. To get involved entirely and at every moment in whatever happens to come along, to give oneself over to the encounter without asking reasons or hunting consequences—well, it sounds less like faith than like getting happily, thoroughly drunk in a city at night.
And it really is a bit like that, I think—that’s why I like to drink. Which brings us to Baudelaire.
Baudelaire and the Drunk’s FaithOne of the most famous pieces in Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen:
Il faut être toujours ivre. Tout est là: c’est l’unique question. Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.
Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous. Et si quelquefois, sur les marches d’un palais, sur l’herbe verte d’un fossé, dans la solitude morne de votre chambre, vous vous réveillez, l’ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue, demandez au vent, à la vague, à l’étoile, à l’oiseau, à l’horloge, à tout ce qui fuit, à tout ce qui gémit, à tout ce qui roule, à tout ce qui chante, à tout ce qui parle, demandez quelle heure il est; et le vent, la vague, l’étoile, l’oiseau, l’horloge, vous répondront: “Il est l’heure de s’enivrer! Pour n’être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps, enivrez-vous; enivrez-vous sans cesse! De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise.”
One should always be drunk. It’s all in that: that’s the only question. So as not to feel the horrible burden of Time which breaks your shoulders and bends you to the ground, you must get drunk without pause. But on what? On wine, poetry, or virtue, whatever you’re into. Just get drunk.
And if once in a while, on the steps of a palace, on the grass of a lawn, in the sad solitude of your room, you awaken, your drunkenness already fading or gone, ask of the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, of all that flees, of all that groans, of all that turns, of all that sings, of everything that speaks, ask what time it is; at the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock will answer you: “It is time to get drunk! To not be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk unceasingly. On wine, poetry, or virtue, that’s up to you.”
People talk about getting drunk as though it were a way of dulling the world, of finding distance; this has never been my experience. I have become drunk in many ways and for many reasons—I like to think I have become drunk in most of the ways there are to be drunk, and there are many ways—but for instance I don’t think I have become drunk to “drown” my sorrows, if to drown them is to forget them. On the contrary: I drink to drown in my sorrows, when I’m with sorrows. To sink all the way to the bottom of them and inhale. It’s very hard, sober, to be entirely and seriously sad.
I know a man, a Russian fellow, who emigrated fifteen years ago and left his best friend back in Moscow. They don’t talk often, but every season or so each of them buys a bottle of vodka and they talk on the phone for hours and get thoroughly drunk. I asked him why the drinking and he answered: some things you can’t talk about sober; they’re too serious. I understand how that is.
In Baudelaire’s formalized conception of drunkenness, one can get drunk on almost anything: wine, poetry or virtue, it doesn’t matter at all. Drunkenness is defined by its opposite, and its opposite is consciousness of time as a ticking clock. We are temporary, temporal beings, and all the clocks tick us away; we have only so much time to spend. How shall we spend it? By forgetting that. If Weil tells us: always attend, because there’s only one thing to attend to, Baudelaire tells us: always get drunk, because there’s only one thing to forget.
This is a negative image of drunkenness: to drink is to flee time. But what do we find in drink? What does one remember in forgetting the clock? For Baudelaire, the image of drunkenness is inseparable from the crowd.
Il n’est pas donné à chacun de prendre un bain de multitude: jouir de la foule est un art; et celui-là seul peut faire, aux dépens du genre humain, une ribote de vitalité, à qui une fée a insufflé dans son berceau le goût du travestissement et du masque, la haine du domicile et la passion du voyage.
Multitude, solitude: deux termes égaux et convertibles pour le poëte actif et fécond. Qui ne sait pas peupler sa solitude, ne sait pas non plus être seul dans une foule affairée.
Le poète jouit de cet incomparable privilège, qu’il peut à sa guise être lui-même et autrui. Comme ces âmes errantes qui cherchent un corps, il entre, quand il veut, dans le personnage de chacun. Pour lui seul, tout est vacant; et si de certaines places paraissent lui êtres fermées, c’est qu’à ses yeux elles ne valent pas la peine d’être visitées.
Le promeneur solitaire et pensif tire une singulière ivresse de cette universelle communion. Celui-là qui épouse facilement la foule connaît des jouissances fiévreuses, dont seront éternellement privé l’égoïste, fermé comme un coffre, et le paresseux, interné comme un mollusque. Il adopte comme siennes toutes les professions, toutes les joies et toutes les misères que la circonstance lui présente.
Ce que les hommes nomment amour est bien petit, bien restreint et bien faible, comparé à cette ineffable orgie, à cette sainte prostitution de l’âme qui se donne tout entière, poésie et charité, à l’imprévu qui se montre, à l’inconnu qui passe.
Il est bon d’apprendre quelquefois aux heureux de ce monde, ne fût-ce que pour humilier un instant leur sot orgueil, qu’il est des bonheurs supérieurs au leur, plus vastes et plus raffinés. Les fondateurs de colonies, les pasteurs de peuples, les prêtres missionnaires exilés au bout du monde, connaissent sans doute quelque chose de ces mystérieuses ivresses; et, au sein de la vaste famille que leur génie s’est faite, ils doivent rire quelquefois de ceux qui les plaignent pour leur fortune si agitée et pour leur vie si chaste.
It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude; taking pleasure in crowds is an art; and only he can relish a debauch of vitality at the expense of the human species, on whom, in his cradle, a fairy has bestowed the love of masks and travesty, the hatred of home, and a passion for voyaging.
Multitude, solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable to the active and fertile poet. A man who cannot populate his solitude is equally incapable of being alone in a bustling crowd.
The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself or someone else, as he pleases. Like those wandering souls who go looking for a body, he enters at will into each man’s character. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.
The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights of which the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will forever be deprived. He adopts as his own all the preoccupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers.
What men call love is a very small, restrained, and feeble thing compared with this ineffable orgy, this holy prostitution of the soul giving itself entire, with all it poetry and charity, to the unexpected as it comes along, to the stranger as he passes.
It is good on occasion to teach the happy of this world, if only to humble for a moment their foolish pride, that there are higher joys than theirs, finer and more vast. The founders of colonies, shepherds of peoples, missionary priests exiled to the ends of the earth, doubtlessly know something of this mysterious drunkenness; and in the midst of the vast family created by their genius, they must often laugh at those who pity them because of their troubled fortunes and chaste lives.
Baudelaire’s crowd is not the urban spectacle of the flâneur, the pleasure of seeing and being seen; it is much closer to communion. The poet in the crowd gives himself up entirely, “poetry and charity,” to any unexpected stranger; he can lose himself in the contingent and become someone else, and this is happiness.
Baudelaire’s endless fascination with the figure of the poet can be read as an inquiry into the question: What does it take to “marry the crowd”? Baudelaire’s poet is “accursed,” loathed by his family, misunderstood by his readers, absolutely alone; all this is not evidence of despair but a prerequisite for intoxication. The proud bourgeois cannot marry the crowd because he is too full of himself, too busy; he has too much to lose. He does not have a free and arbitrary will, only petty interests. The poet, to plunge at every movement, must have nothing to lose in the fall. Even Baudelaire’s famous irony, most vicious when turned against himself, reflects not world-weary bitterness but the pleasure of crowds. Irony serves the poet as self-flagellation serves the monk: it humbles the flesh to free the spirit. The poet lacerates his ego because his ego is what holds him back from the crowd.
The accursed poet is a secular rendition of the saint. Both seek to give themselves up entirely; both value the freedom of the will. Both give themselves over entirely. But whereas the saint gives himself once and for all, toward devotion and eternity, the poet gives himself contingently to whatever time brings, not once but a thousand times. The saint becomes the bride of the One, the poet is “holy prostitute” to the many. His communion is the orgy of contingency.