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  • Baudelaire's Destruction
  • Jonathan Culler (bio)

In an essay on the poet Théodore de Banville, Baudelaire gives a very striking account of modern verse. He declares that hyperbole and apostrophe are the forms of language not only most agreeable but also most necessary to lyric, and he goes on to maintain that

l'art moderne a une tendance essentiellement démoniaque. Et il semble que cette part infernale de l'homme, que l'homme prend plaisir à s'expliquer à lui-même, augmente journellement, comme si le Diable s'amusait à la grossir par des procédés artificiels, à l'instar des engraisseurs, empâtant patiemment le genre humain dans ses basses-cours pour se préparer une nourriture plus succulente.1

The image of the Devil practicing a gavage satanique, like the producers of foie gras, gives us an allegorical scenario with a highly original account of the forces behind modern poetry: the Devil working to fatten up our part infernale, which we then take pleasure in explicating to ourselves, in hyperbolic and apostrophic verse. Such an account marks not a crisis in verse, perhaps, but certainly an unorthodox characterization of what after all is often seen as the beginnings of modern poetry. T. S. Eliot, we remember, called Baudelaire "the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language, for his verse and language is the nearest thing to a complete renovation that we have [End Page 699] experienced. But his renovation of an attitude towards life is no less radical and no less important."2 This renovation, however, involved the vigorous articulation of attitudes that can scarcely be regarded as anything but anti-modern, as this insistence on diabolic agency suggests. When Gustave Flaubert reproached Baudelaire for having "insisté trop (?) sur l'Esprit du Mal," an unrepentant Baudelaire replied that he had given this criticism a lot of thought but realized that he was sincerely convinced of the impossibility of accounting for human thought and action "sans l'hypothèse de l'intervention d'une force méchante extérieure à lui.—Voilà un gros aveu dont tout le 19e siècle conjuré ne me fera pas rougir."3 Presenting himself as a refractory reactionary, not at all as "l'homme moderne" whom Verlaine and others since have taken him to represent, Baudelaire raises an issue that is only exacerbated in Les Fleurs du Mal: the nature and functioning of this "force méchante extérieure."

"C'est le Diable qui tient les fils qui nous remuent!" declares the opening poem of the collection, "Au lecteur," challenging us to trace the presence of the Devil in the poems that follow.

Sur l'oreiller du mal c'est Satan TrismégisteQui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,Et le riche métal de notre volontéEst tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste.

Walter Benjamin has so gripped the imagination of American critics and graduate students that Baudelaire has become above all the flaneur of modernity, the apartment dweller who parries the shocks of an alienated culture as he strolls through the arcades of the city, not at all someone who might invoke the Devil. In an essay on Poe, Baudelaire writes that the United States "a une foi naïve dans la toute-puissance de l'industrie; il est convaincu, comme quelques malheureux parmi nous, qu'elle finira par manger le Diable," predicting our disinclination to take seriously the agency of the Devil, even in Les Fleurs du Mal (2: 299). What role does the hypothesis of diabolical intervention, which Baudelaire sees as the antithesis of the progressive, melioristic thought of his age, play in what we rightly persist in regarding as the quintessentially modern poetry of Les Fleurs du Mal? [End Page 700]

One might approach this problem through the liminary poem, "Au lecteur," which it seems to me contains a central unresolved problem: the relationship between the vigorously trumpeted announcement that "C'est le Diable qui tient les fils qui nous remuent!" and the concluding sequence featuring Ennui, the most hideous monster ("plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde") in the notorious zoo of our vices. Simply put, the question is whether, as the structure of this poem might...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 699-711
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-03
Open Access
No
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