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  • The Night of the Poet:Baudelaire, Benjamin, and the Woman in the Street
  • Beryl Schlossman

A Une Passante La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait. Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse, Une femme passa, d'une main fastueuse Soulevant, balançant le feston et l'ourlet; Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue. Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant, Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l'ouragan, La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue. Un éclair . . . Puis la nuit!—Fugitive beauté, Dont le regard m'a fait soudainement renaître, Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l'éternité? Ailleurs, bien loin d'ici! trop tard! jamais, peut-être! Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais, O toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

[To A Woman Passing By Around me, the deafening street howled. Tall, slender, dressed in mourning, majestic grief, A woman passed by, with her ceremonious hand lifting, swaying her festoon and hem; Agile and stately, with the leg of a statue. Caught in a standstill, extravagant, I drank [End Page 1013] from her eye, a livid sky where hurricanes take seed, sweet fascination and fatal pleasure. A flash of lightning . . . then night!—Lovely fugitive, with eyes that suddenly resurrected me, will I not see you again before eternity? Someplace, far away from here! too late! never perhaps! For I know not where you flee, nor you where I go, O you I could have loved, o you who knew it!]

Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil are shaped by modernity and memory. The section named "Parisian Tableaux" features women who pass through city streets. A feminine figure emerges as the bearer of modernity; she plays the double role of poetic and erotic object. In "To A Woman Passing By [A Une Passante]," Baudelaire stages her in three ways: she appears in the sonnet as the object of a gaze, as an image, and as the incomparable resonance of desire.1

This feminine object is not anchored in a source or a history; she does not belong to monumental or collective memory, and her intimate or personal history is unknown. In any case, the notion of her origin does not seem pertinent in Baudelaire's eyes. He praises artifice and the use of theater sets. He accentuates the gaze and the effect produced by distance (CB II: 668).2

Baudelaire's images are observed at a distance. They do not reveal the object's point of origin. They make an offering of the unique appearance of a distance that Walter Benjamin names aura (WB I: 440).3 One of the aura's most remarkable qualities is that it alone can arouse the viewer's glance or cause the viewer to look up.4 But in Baudelaire's modernity, the glance or the gaze is caught between the power of Aura and its dissolution or ruin ("der Verfall der Aura" [WB I: 647] or "die Zertrümmerung der Aura" [WB I: 440]). In Baudelaire's writing, the unique appearance of a distance crumbles or falls apart; perhaps the viewer has come too close to the image. In spite of the heavy materiality of some of Benjamin's terms, like the "ruin" or "crumbling" of aura, the conceptual focus of his reading of modern subjectivity is the scene of the gaze (or glance).5 An ambivalent and paradoxical gaze enters Benjamin's interpretation of nineteenth-century Paris from Baudelaire's writings. In Baudelaire's world, the subject is threatened: vision threatens to succumb to the overwhelming shock of modernity. Like nightfall, a black screen neutralizes the viewer's gaze as it renders the world invisible and impenetrable. In this sense, the aura appears accompanied (or haunted) by its own dissolution, ruin, loss, or crumbling. [End Page 1014]

Benjamin relates the images that appear in the poet's work to the gaze that produces them—the poet's gaze.6 This interpretive move echoes Baudelaire's attempt to come to terms with a vision of modernity rendered in a work of art: in his approach to the art of Constantin Guys, Baudelaire observes the way Guys looks...


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