Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan (review)
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Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 400-401



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Baer, Ulrich. Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000. Pp. 343. ISBN 0-8047-3927-7

Ulrich Baer has found a compelling, immediately coherent way to discuss two poets whose works diverge yet share key concerns. Together Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan create the space of "modernity," with Baudelaire's work ushering it in and Celan's concluding it. In linking them, Baer aims to locate the resistance of experience and historical understanding, or how experiences become or remain unassimilated (1). Baudelaire and Celan both devote their poetry to an investigation of the shattered fragments of previously logical experiences, with Baudelaire focusing on the experience of the modern metropolis, and Celan pursuing the meaning of genocide. For Baer, there is an analogical relationship between witnessing (receiving another's traumatic testimony) and reading a poem (12). Although Baer does not subject concepts such as "modern" or "modernity" to rigorous explicit analysis, his implicit definition of the modern is the age of "unremembered and unassimilated" experience (2).

Bauer's notion of the poetry-trauma connection is challenging and absorbing; yet it does raise questions. Baer does not make clear why the analogical link between reading poetry and "witnessing" does not extend beyond trauma to include any situation where one has to make a juridical, ethical, or aesthetic decision (the decision itself as the "unresolved"). Furthermore, considering these two very strong poets, one wants to see precisely in poetry its privileged analogical space, but can this assertion be better substantiated? In addition to "modernity," other terms at the core of Baer's book, "witness," and "experience," could have received greater articulation. At one point, experience of freedom, "unresolved experience," is defined as the moment when the self moves from knowledge to the freedom of the self at its known borders (28) "an experience that resists integration into existing patterns of explanation, and thus exposes us to both the ecstatic and the traumatic" (112). But in this definition, how can experience be delineated, if it potentially includes everything outside knowledge? For Baer, experience and poetry share this: a space outside knowledge. Both require the abandonment of the self to the logic of the other - be it a textual or nonlinguistic dimension (29). Trauma then is likened to poetry, in that poetry's absence of meaning is a loss of the poetic self in the same way that a traumatic shock is the self's annihilation: trauma is the absence of meaning (64). But Baer never shows where the experience of freedom is located, if anywhere, outside poetry. In that case, what is the difference between poetry and experience? In other words, the unity of this analogical opposition, "experience/poetry" become lopsided, and all tends to become poetry without experience.

The conceptual frame for Baer's discussion of Baudelaire's poetry is familiar to those who have approached Baudelaire via Walter Benjamin's writings on the concept of the shock and the end of traditional "lived experience." Baer's readings of Baudelaire rest on close analyses of three poems, "L'étranger," "Paysage," and "Les [End Page 400] aveugles." Productively, Baer tracks Baudelaire's rhetorics of clouds and sky. In his reading of " L'étranger," Baer uniquely and interestingly develops what one might call an "ethics of the clouds," in which Baudelaire's rhetoric introduces an ethics beyond empathy that acknowledges the other as other (45). Baer's interpretations of Baudelaire often emphasize not so much trauma as the ways in which the absence of signification acts as an analogy of trauma, as in the case of " L'étranger." In "Paysage," Baer discusses Baudelaire's "refusal to look at the outside world in order to see the world more clearly" as an experience of freedom. This poem, for Baer, is the exception to Baudelaire's city-oeuvre, as it displays both the desire for an experience of freedom, and its coherence and unity, secured in Baudelaire...


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