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Reviewed by:
  • Grotesque Figures: Baudelaire, Rousseau, and the Aesthetics of Modernity
  • Debarati Sanyal
Virginia E. Swain. Grotesque Figures: Baudelaire, Rousseau, and the Aesthetics of Modernity. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. 288pp.

Baudelaire is the emblematic poet of rupture. A "star without an atmosphere" for Walter Benjamin, a figure who resists integration into patterns of literary evolution for Paul de Man, his poetry compels readers to question the boundaries of historical periodization.1 If Baudelaire's modernity is historicized, it is most often in light of the disenchantment of 1848, as the testimony to a definitive break with Enlightenment values, revolutionary utopianism and grand narratives of progress.

In Grotesque Figures: Baudelaire, Rousseau, and the Aesthetics of Modernity, Virginia E. Swain reads Baudelaire against the breach conventionally assumed between the eighteenth century and its post-revolutionary aftermath. Swain argues instead for important continuities between Rousseau and Baudelaire that bridge the epistemological, rhetorical and historical shift these figures have come to represent. In contrast to Benjamin's assertion that Baudelaire was the antipode of Rousseau, Swain persuasively reads both authors in light of an ongoing debate about the grotesque, allegory, caricature, realism and history.2

Swain's approach sheds new light on a number of established conceptions. It writes Rousseau back into a period that either disavowed or recontained his subversive legacy. Of particular interest is her account of the philosopher's broader reception in the nineteenth-century, [End Page 143] particularly from 1845–1865, when Rousseau is not a stable name but an ideological sign, a "cluster of aggressively contested meanings" (59). Swain maps Rousseau's reception by Désiré Nisard and Jules Michelet in their competing representations of the French revolution's influence on national memory and "l'esprit français." She addresses Baudelaire's puzzling decision to run for the Académie française in 1861 (for the seat previously held by the republican prelate Lacordaire) as a revival of his past revolutionary utopianism and as a sign of his covert activism. It is at this time that Baudelaire proposes the polemical title of "Le Promeneur solitaire" to Arsène Houssaye for his collection of prose poems. Swain thus significantly nuances Baudelaire's repudiation of politics in the famous claim that "Le 2 décembre m'a physiquement dépolitiqué" and repoliticizes the poet's later work through its engagement with Rousseau.3 Offering a fascinating physiologie of Rousseau as an emblematic type in the postrevolutionary imagination—as stranger, charlatan, beggar, madman—Swain traces Baudelaire's rhetorical and ideological transformation of this icon in his prose poems. In these readings, Rousseau emerges not only as a type in Baudelaire's oeuvre but as a figure for the operations of allegory itself, a poncif who is also the site of "an unresolvable tension between allegory as a restricted figure and allegory as an open-ended and inevitable play of language" (188).

Swain contributes to an important body of scholarship that has politicized Baudelaire's later corpus. The originality of her intervention lies in its rigorous attention to aesthetic categories—such as allegory, grotesque, personification, realism and caricature—as vectors for an ongoing engagement with Rousseau's legacy. A series of meticulous intertextual readings of Paradis Artificiels and Le Spleen de Paris trace the interplay and evolution of these aesthetic categories from Rousseau to Baudelaire. The former's writings on opera emerge as a key intertext for Baudelaire's prose poems and for a broader reflection on allegory itself. Rousseau's critique of rococo allegory gestures towards an allegorical realism that Baudelaire will both rehearse and complicate in the prose poems. For Swain, Baudelaire resurrects the hybrid and traumatic force of the grotesque and views the ubiquitous presence of allegory in real life as the sign of a basic human need for semiotic transformation (138).

Rather than aligning Rousseau and Baudelaire along a progressive literary history of influence, Swain's intertextual readings create a [End Page 144] dynamic and mutually illuminating dialogue between these authors. Her approach is at once historical, cultural, and rhetorical. Occasionally, the intensity of the book's focus on Rousseau turns the philosopher's work into a master intertext for Baudelaire, such that various...


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