BEAUDELAIRE and NON-NEGOTIABLE VALUES

Ricardo 3Sometimes, people have utterly different values from ours. As a teacher, I try to detach myself from my students’ values and try to understand them dispassionately and fairly. But in life, there are fundamental values that are non-negotiable.

The election in Brazil of a far-right candidate, who some call Fascist, and who in any case has an utter disregard for democracy, has torn apart our country.

Families are divided and friends estranged. The half of Brazil who voted against the unspeakable implored the other half to consider moral, ethical and democratic values. People did everything to convince others that there was a fundamental moral flaw in voting for a quasi-nazi, who belittles women, hates gay people, humiliates the poor, demeans black people, wishes to rob indigenous people of their ancestral land and finally will be an utter and complete disaster for the environment.

People supplicated their families and friends not to give in to extreme-right populism, but they were met with laughter.

“He will never do what he says he will”, people replied. Strangely enough, they were voting for a candidate they didn’t believe in. Their hatred of anything remotely associated to left wing politics led them to the abyss. Their main concern, they said, was to rid Brazil of corruption, and in order to do that they elected a man who’s been in congress for 28 years, and who while holding no other known job, became extremely rich. During his tenure, he proposed only two laws (which were partly rejected). He used to belong to one of the most corrupt parties in the country. His only claim to fame was an unabashed capacity to shock with his distempered diatribes against all that is different and free. It was an utterly irrational choice. I find no rational explanation for this.

But now, we are stuck with this horror for 4 years at least, and I’m very afraid our young democracy and frail institutions won’t survive. Our country, our families, our friends are irremediably divided. There are values that are non-negotiable.

Baudelaire explained how non-negotiable values can get in the way of love in this magistral account of a fortuitous rendez-vous in Paris.

Baudelaire — The Eyes of the Poor
From Paris Spleen, 1869

(Haussman was actively redoing the now-famous Paris boulevards, which Baudelaire references below. Baudelaire popularized the image of the flaneur — the casual, removed observer who sees and strolls to be seen in urban spaces.)

Ah! So you would like to know why I hate you today? It will certainly be harder for you to understand than for me to explain, for you are, I believe, the most perfect example of feminine impermeability that exists.

We had spent a long day together which to me had seemed short. We had duly promised each other that all our thoughts should be shared in common, and that our two souls henceforth be but one — a dream which, after all, has nothing original about it except that, although dreamed by every man on earth, it has been realized by none.

That evening, a little tired, you wanted to sit down in front of a new cafe forming the corner of a new boulevard still littered with rubbish but that alreday displayed proudly its unfinished splendors. The cafe was dazzling. Even the gas burned with all the ardor of a debut, and lighted with all its might the blinding whiteness of the walls, the expanse of mirrors, the gold cornices and moldings, fat-cheeked pages dragged along by hounds on leash, laughing ladies with falcons on their writs, nymphs and goddesses bearing on their heads piles of fruits, pates and game, Hebes and Ganymedes holding out little amphoras of syrups or parti-colored ices; all history and all mythology pandering to gluttony.

On the street directly in front of us, a worthy man of about forty, with tired face and greying beard, was standing holding a small boy by the hand and carrying on his arm another little thing, still too weak to walk. He was playing nurse-maid, taking the children for an evening stroll. They were in rags. The three faces were extraordinarily serious, and those six eyes stared fixedly at the new cafe with admiration, equal in degree but differing in kind according to their ages.

The eyes of the father said: “How beautiful it is! How beautiful it is! All the gold of the poor world must have found its way onto those walls.” The eyes of the little boy: “How beautiful it is! How beautiful it is! But it is a house where only people who are not like us can go.” As for the baby, he was much too fascinated to express anything but joy — utterly stupid and profound.

Song writers say that pleasure ennobles the soul and softens the heart. The song was right that evening as far as I was concerned. Not only was I touched by this family of eyes but I was even a little ashamed of our glasses and decanters, too big for our thirst. I turned my eyes to look into yours, dear love, to read my thoughts in them; and as I plunged my eyes into your eyes, so beautiful and curiously soft, into those green eyes, home of Caprice and goverened by the Moon, you said: “Those people are insufferable with their great saucer eyes. Can’t you tell the proprietor to send them away?”

So you see how difficult it is to understand one another, my dear angel, how incommunicable thought is, even between two people in love.

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