- The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony, and the Politics of Form
The challenge that this volume faces is to combine an examination of irony and violence in Charles Baudelaire’s poetry with a study of three later authors whose thematics and sense of the socio-political will not, at first blush, be seen as relevant to Baudelaire’s own. The latter three “unlikely heirs,” as Sanyal calls them, are Rachilde, Virginie Despentes (contemporary author of the novel Baise-moi, and scénariste and director of the film adaptation translated as Rape Me in the USA), and Albert Camus. Two-thirds of the study consists of the introduction and three chapters on Baudelaire, and the other three authors are dealt with in the remaining third.
The chapters devoted principally to Baudelaire explore—if one were to simplify—1) Baudelaire’s ambiguous relationship to violence, as victim and aggressor, 2) the intertwining of aesthetics and politics in Le spleen de Paris, and 3) Baudelaire’s women as figures of the troublesome relationship between form and content. The surge of trauma theory post 9/11 is the impetus to re-read Baudelaire’s “poetics of shock” as the production of a trauma-struck modernist writer. However, though trauma is perhaps, as claimed, an important and deeply entrenched contemporary theoretical paradigm, it is also, as the author points out, a “rarely interrogated category for reading history and literature.” The effort to recontextualize or rebaptize Baudelaire’s poetry as traumatically—and thus meaningfully—contemporary is not always convincing, because what is “modern” about his poems is that they seem automatically to strike contemporary chords.
On the other hand, Sanyal’s firm emphasis on the sense of counterviolence in Baudelaire’s poetry, of striking back bitterly and ironically against an atmosphere of post-1848 bourgeois political intimidation and violence, represents an important contribution to our sense of what is at the heart of his poetry. Sanyal opens our eyes by picturing the man as a “poète engage,” and by stressing the underlying political content and context of his works. Although Marcel Proust read Baudelaire’s treatment of the same subject in a poem and then in a prose poem as an aporia, an inability to choose which form dealt with the topic best, Sanyal makes of Baudelaire’s use of the prose poem a form of political counterviolence. And the chapter on Baudelaire’s women makes another convincing point about form, that is, that the prostitute, and probably the female in general, becomes the symbol of a conflict between the aesthetic imagination and the matter with which that imagination must work.
The footnoting and complex referencing to other critics of Baudelaire make of this study one of the most solidly critically informed works in the field. On its way to engaging with Baudelairian text, Sanyal’s discussion in chapter 1 analyzes Jean-Paul Sartre and Theodor Adorno’s opposing views on commitment and testimony through form, and a wide and useful variety of views of modernism and modernity, including Fredric Jameson’s all-too-true note that modernism is [End Page 227] a trope and that modernity is anything one chooses it to be. In assessing irony as violence Sanyal invokes Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Schlegel, Vladimir Jankélevitch, Søren Kierkegaard, Georg W. F. Hegel, and Paul de Man plus, in her notes, scores of other critics. Indeed, there are 53 pages of footnotes, many of them between 200 and 500 words in length, with at least one topping out at about 700 words. Reading the notes as one reads the text does at times provide illuminating sidebars to the main discussion, but it’s a chore, and there is an inevitable feeling of either garrulousness or self-indulgence.
Reading the essays on Rachilde, Despentes, and Camus is a liberating experience. Gone in large part is the stylistic turgidity of the early sections, the dense, wordy, doggedly abstract and extremely repetitive style of the initial Baudelaire chapters. It is as though a major effort toward...