- Seeing Double: Baudelaire's Modernity
Françoise Meltzer's Seeing Double: Baudelaire's Modernity envisions a new perspective from which to understand the poet Charles Baudelaire's relationship to modern life. Challenging the interpretations and accepted wisdom of some of Baudelaire's most distinguished readers, Meltzer's arguments focus on Baudelaire's engagement with the radical transformations in society, philosophy, and aesthetics in mid-nineteenth century Paris.
Meltzer characterizes Baudelaire's response to nascent modernity as a kind of double vision. Seeing Double asserts that the irreconcilable tensions that critics have so often observed in Baudelaire's work are the result of the poet's [End Page 1154] inability to integrate his vision of the old world of the ancien régime with the new Paris (still under construction) and France's budding democracy. Baudelaire's dilemma, as it emerges in Meltzer's book, crystallizes around issues of time and mortality. For the poet, language still has the power to convey, though his work gestures toward, and indeed lays the groundwork for, the crisis of language that will consume later writers, such as Stéphane Mallarmé. Similarly, though Baudelaire's work may describe “the erosion of the subject” (227), he does not yet have the distance to understand this phenomenon historically, as attached to modernity. Meltzer contends that Baudelaire “does not actually understand what he is seeing, even as he records it” (5). Baudelaire's genius is rather that “he puts the reader into the same maelstrom as himself” (248).
Meltzer organizes Seeing Double's four chapters according to “four major aspects of Baudelaire's thinking . . . beliefs, seeing, money, and time” (9). Each chapter includes a reading of a poem that serves to illustrate the pervasive double vision Meltzer perceives as crucial to an understanding of Baudelaire's modernity. Meltzer couples her close readings of “Assommons les pauvres!,” “À une passante,” “La chambre double,” and “Harmonie du soir” with discussions of Baudelaire's journals, art criticism, essays, and correspondence. Meltzer's interpretations, which place Baudelaire's oeuvre in dialogue with a wide array of texts and thinkers (including biographical, historical, philosophical, socio-political, literary and literary critical perspectives), make Seeing Double a comparative and broadly relevant text.
The contradictory influences of two such thinkers, Joseph de Maistre and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, form the basis for Meltzer's reading of “Assommons les pauvres!” in the first chapter. “In ‘Assommons,'” Meltzer writes, “we are witness to a theological and political strabismus as if the poet were remembering Proudhon's social theories with one eye and reading Maistre on original sin with the other” (17). This strange (and often overlooked) alliance marks the first instance of Baudelaire's double vision. Meltzer analyzes the ramifications of these two irreconcilable postulations, demonstrating how Baudelaire's commitment to the doctrine of original sin interferes with his socialist tendencies. Meltzer contends that the strabismic perspective in “Assommons les pauvres!” typifies the contradictions and ambivalences that a reader encounters in Baudelaire's writing. Her argument casts these ambivalences as “symptoms of the larger issue, which has to do with the birth of modernity” (70).
Meltzer's second chapter, heavily informed by Baudelaire's art criticism, focuses on a different type of modern clash: the meeting of gazes captured in “À une passante.” Meltzer's reading of this poem elucidates the logic of the image as it works in Baudelaire's poetry more generally. The double vision Meltzer outlines in this section underscores the role of memory in the creation of the work of art. Baudelaire, according to Meltzer, imagines the work of art (or poetry) as “twice removed” from the event or experience it portrays. “Twice removed” because a painting or a poem is a representation of a memory, which is always already the representation of an original fleeting perception or experience. [End Page 1155]
Meltzer's observations regarding Baudelaire's fascination with certain optical devices, including the phenakistiscope, the kaleidoscope, and the stereoscope, provide a novel approach to vision in Baudelaire's poetics. These devices created an awareness of a subjectivity of vision for Baudelaire, making visual play...