Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 371-373
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Porter, Laurence M., ed. Approaches to Teaching Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil. Approaches to Teaching World Literature. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2000. Pp. 209. ISBN 0-87352-752-6
No doubt, there is a fascinating as well as a motivating twist to the idea of having one day to teach a course on Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. But let us be honest, there's also a demoralizing, almost panicking aspect to it. Indeed, how should one proceed? Where should one start? Which themes or poems should one select?
Well, we have a tool to help us curb this first wave of panic: the reading of Approaches to Teaching Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal.
This volume (about twenty essays altogether), edited by Laurence M. Porter, is part of the well-known series "Approaches to Teaching World Literature" but is unique in the sense that it is "the first volume [of the series] devoted to a lyric poet who did not write in English" (4). Let us add that the choice of Baudelaire seems to be a natural one as the essence of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil is in itself an invitation to diverse critical readings and therefore to as many pedagogical approaches. Beyond that, Baudelaire's poetry played a significant role in the history of ideas worldwide, and it is indeed very appropriate to have him as part of the Series.
In a short first section, Laurence M. Porter analyzes the results of a survey he conducted in which he asked participants to relate and explain their choices (why Baudelaire? why a particular edition?) as well as to state the difficulties they might have encountered during their teaching. For advanced students, the preferred texts [End Page 371] are French paperbacks (Garnier, Flammarion, Larousse . . .) which come with good introductions and notes, whereas for less specialized courses, instructors usually favor bilingual editions (with no strong preference as far as the translator is concerned, however) or anthologies of French literature featuring poems by Baudelaire. The editor also suggests a few ways of integrating the study of Baudelaire into a course. This first section - completed by a relatively extensive bibliography at the end of the volume - also provides useful tips as to obtaining adequate material, e.g. audiovisual, on Baudelaire.
The second part starts with an introduction by L. Porter in which he summarizes each participant's contribution and is followed by Anna Balakian's prologue in which she raises a fundamental question: why teach Baudelaire? Because "Baudelaire is the contemporary of every new generation that encounters him" (32) is her answer - a deceptively simple answer one might add.
The first three approaches have a common ground for the fact that they relate the experience of teaching Flowers of Evil in particular academic settings: two high schools and a church-oriented university. In "Teaching Baudelaire to Advanced High School Students," Laurence Risser suggests that Baudelaire may be presented along with other poets (Poe, Eliot, Byron . . .), the bottom line for Risser is not to study the text in and of itself, but to put it into a perspective that will actually encompass the students themselves. In "Engaging with Poetry in AP French: Fragmentary Perceptions," A. McLees presents a method which acknowledges the diversity of learning techniques among students and her methodology seeks to reflect such diversity, to be "a methodological synesthesia" (42). In his essay, "Powers of Evil," William Olmsted focuses on the challenges of introducing Flowers of Evil in a church-related university and suggests ways to go off the beaten paths on the subject of Baudelaire and religion.
The next six approaches are text-centered. Roger Shattuck chooses to introduce "Baudelaire as an Unknown" to his students asking that they essentially focus on the poems. Eleonore Zimmermann makes a case in point for using vocabulary as an approach with her study of "La Chevelure" in particular. Judd Hubert devotes his essay to the benefits a teacher may derive in using translation to uncover "hidden aspects of the original" (77...