The Oxford Student recently ran – and later retracted – a story about a Bullingdon Club initiation ceremony which allegedly included burning a £50 note in front of a tramp. Whether or not the story’s true, it pales beside Baudelaire’s narrative prose poem ‘Let’s Beat Up the Poor’.
The poem begins with the poet describing a fortnight spent in his room intensively reading the works of the ‘entrepreneurs of public happiness’, which brings on a near catatonic state of vertigo and imbecility. Yet from deep within his stupor there is born the ‘germ of an idea’ which, on leaving his room for a brisk walk to a local cabaret, he finds himself both clarifying and putting to the test. Accosted by a beggar in the street, he hurls himself at him, punches him in the eye, kicks him in the back, bangs his head against a wall and, seeing a branch lying on the ground, finishes the job by beating him ‘with the obstinate energy of a cook tenderising a steak’. But he hasn’t finished him off. A bloody heap, the ‘decrepit’ beggar stirs, drags himself to his feet, and impels himself into a counter-attack, punching his assailant in both eyes, breaking four teeth (Baudelaire is nothing if not precise), and beating the living daylights out him with the same branch. The roles of giver and receiver are thus at once reversed and equalised.
In many ways, the poem is deeply resistant to interpretation, and is meant to be. The surface of demonic hysteria and sadomasochism is a pokerfaced mask, concealing a range of provocative ironies. Against the background of the spectacular collapse of ideologies of well-meaning benevolence in the insurrections of 1848, Baudelaire’s poem probes all the weak points of the philanthropic: the egoism in altruism (‘I am such a nice person’); the bad faith of charitable giving as alibi, letting people off the hook of finding real solutions to inequality; the malicious thought that a relation of equality established through the exchange of violence is preferable to the humiliating servitude of supplicant beggardom, the smile, the deference, the politeness, without which the needy rarely accede to the status of the deserving.
Perhaps David Cameron or George Osborne should propose Charles Baudelaire for posthumous honorary membership of the Bullingdon Club. His poem could be read out as part of the inititation ceremony, and hailed as a fine way of converting shirkers into strivers. We can then look forward to the moment when the tramp, faced with the burning £50 note, grabs hold of it and sets light to a Bullingdon Boy’s tails.