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Reviewed by:
  • Scènes d’aumône: Misère et poésie au XIXe siècle
  • Dan Edelstein
Anne-Emmanuelle Berger. Scènes d’aumône: Misère et poésie au XIXe siècle. Paris: Champion, 2004.

"The workers need poetry more than bread:" Simone Weil's aphorism might well have served as the epigraph for Anne-Emmanuelle Berger's ambitious study of poetry and/as poverty in an "age of misery." Interspersing close readings of Verlaine, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Baudelaire, and other poets with sophisticated discussions of philosophical, anthropological, and sociological discourses on poetry and [End Page 145] gift-giving, Berger argues for a redefinition of the modern lyric subject as a respondent to the (literal) face of misery in nineteenth-century France. She also suggests that only poetry can function as a "pure gift," that is, one bereft of selfish interests.

The first part of this rich work, "Misère de l'âge," examines how poverty and misery were constituent themes in nineteenth-century reflections on modernity. After classifying the different figures of the poor, Berger shows how poets not only identified with the poor, but made poverty the model for "dwelling poetically" in the world. Berger develops this point with a case study of Verlaine's poetics (and ethics) of impoverishment (his "art du peu," 69). But this poverty, Berger suggests, is more than an esthetic choice; following Heidegger ("What Are Poets For?"), she argues that it is constitutive both of poetry and of the modern condition. Only by wallowing in this "age of misery" can we escape the "misery of the age"; only the homeless (in both literal and figurative senses) can find shelter in Being, which in turn is only disclosed through poetry. In reaction to this Heideggerian theory and to the nineteenth-century poetics (and practice) of poverty, however, Berger brings up in finis Rimbaud and his farewell to poetry, which she interprets as a farewell to poetry-as-misery.

In the following part, "Fins de don," Berger turns to the question of gift-giving, taking Mauss's landmark "Essai sur le don" as a point of departure, before engaging its multitude of commentators, from Bataille to Derrida. After redefining every gift-exchange as a potential potlatch, Berger focuses on the question of the pure gift: under what conditions can giving escape the laws of exchange? While Berger later suggests that the pure gift may be found in poetry, she uses Benveniste's etymological study of the gift-giving lexicon to argue that laws of exchange are precisely what the poor cannot respect—to be poor is to be unable to give. In this respect, giving to the poor challenges the Maussian theory of reciprocal gifts. Alms ("l'aumône") either fall into a Christian charity/maternal Nature model, or force us to rethink our relation to the poor. Berger argues that Lévinas's theory of the face-to-face encounter, in which the other commands me to respond, should dictate this relation. However, this argument hinges on a questionable analogy between every face's spiritual poverty and the pauper's specific material poverty, an argument which contradicts Lévinas's [End Page 146] own statement that the face contains no social or material information (168).

The theme of an encounter with the poor is nonetheless central to the Baudelaire prose poems that Berger analyzes in the third part ("Les dons de Baudelaire"). The encounter with the poor family in "Les Yeux du pauvre," and with various beggars or widows elsewhere, indeed forms the basis of Baudelaire's relation to the poor. And yet his attitude toward poverty is ambiguous, somewhere between Mme de Staël and Proudhon, Berger suggests. Her reading of "Assommons les pauvres!" stresses how sarcasm and sincerity are so intricately interwoven that it becomes impossible to determine Baudelaire's exact position on pauperism. Her finest analyses, however, concern the foundational link for Baudelaire between alms and toys (joujoux). Evident in numerous poems, this "missing link" conclusively connects the pure gift with poetry, or art: the toy is the child's first intoxicating experience, which the poem later attempts to reproduce. Literally gratuitous, the toy-poem does not burden...


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