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The Uses of a Mistranslated Manifesto: Baudelaire's "La Genèse d'un poème" John Tresen IN HIS COURSE ON "LA POÉTIQUE" at the Collège de France in 1937, Paul Valéry proposed an examination of the aspects of literature that distinguish it from other uses of language. He would investigate the "effets proprement littéraires du langage," the expressive and suggestive inventions that increase "le pouvoir et la pénétration de la parole," along with the restrictions placed upon literature "en vue de bien distinguer la langue de la fiction de celle de l'usage."1 It was a project of separation and purification. The goal was to "bien distinguer" between literary language and mere speech. Taking for granted the distinctiveness of literature, he sought to detail and to explain this difference; he claimed, for instance, that literature relied more heavily than other arts on convention and memory, and that it uniquely combined abstraction with emotion and the senses. At all times, however, literature for Valéry was something particularly mental and internal. In the "repentirs" and "ratures" of the successive drafts of a work, he saw a history of the working of the human mind.2 This paper presents one part of the story of how we arrived in the early twentieth century at a notion of literature as an exclusive medium—as an exemplary record of the creative processes of the mind, or better yet "l'esprit." If we are now sensitive to the rivalries between and within media, as well as the ways that literature can mimic and enter into dialog with the codes of meaning proper to film, sound recording or, more recently, the digital hypertext, it is only on the basis of a previously held conviction of the "uniqueness" of literature, one associated in French criticism with Valéry's poetics and with certain strands of phenomenological and semiotic analysis.1 Crucial to this history, and not only for Valéry's particular conception of the "autonomy" of literature, were the critical writings and poetic practice of Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe.4 In his literaray criticism, Baudelaire presented Poe's works as a moral and metaphysical resource for an intellectual and ultimately spiritual view of poetry, as a sacred province to be protected from contamination by the mechanical materialities of the industrial age. The poetry and criticism of both Baudelaire and Poe were central influences upon Valéry's concept of the object and methods of "la poétique." However, when we look at Poe's conception of literature in his original English texts, he appears, unlike his translator, to consider literature less as an Vol. XLIII, No. 2 23 L'Esprit Créateur isolated mental process than as a material link between an author and a reader. This view, I suggest, brings him close to contemporary views of the dialogical interrelations entertained by literature and other media. Poe saw literary technique and the material assembly and diffusion of texts as technologies that were continuous with other devices of the industrial revolution: like steam trains, the telegraph, and daguerreotypes, an effective poem would restructure the relations among humans, and between humans and the natural world. This article will first give a brief overview of the importance of technological themes and content in Poe's writing, focusing on the technical meaning of "composition" and its implications for his literary theory. It will then examine Baudelaire's early embrace of Poe's scientific and machine-friendly view of literature and his eventual drift, from the late 1840s to the mid-1850s, to a view of literature as a medium that must keep itself at a distance from the mechanical production of industrial capitalism. This eventual landing point will be anchored in a parallel reading of Poe's key critical essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," and Baudelaire's translation of it, "La Genèse d'un poème." While no translation can hope for perfect transparency with regard to the range of overtones and resonances of a text, the spiritual interpretation that Baudelaire put on the writings of his American precursor—in his introductions and critical studies of Poe as well...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 23-35
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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