- Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity by Françoise Meltzer
Françoise Meltzer’s latest book analyzes the phenomenon of “double vision” across Baudelaire’s oeuvre. But much more than that, it is an invitation au voyage in its own right, prodding the reader to partake in and practice this double vision. It begins by solemnly declaring that it is “not yet another book about modernity” but in the same breath declares that the protean variations on modernity run “like a badly sewn thread throughout” (1). It both is and is not another book on modernity, one in which Baudelaire serves as a guide toward a fresh “double” look at both a well-studied poet and at modernity.
In the study’s grand narrative, 1848 functions as the pivot. But rather than separate out a before and an after, Meltzer proposes that Baudelaire created an “aesthetic strabismus” that sees both “worlds” at once. Much of the tension in Baudelaire’s verse and prose poetry results, then, from an inability to integrate the two visions. For Meltzer, Baudelaire serves as a sort of optical instrument, “recording” without necessarily understanding or even fully acknowledging the full duality of his vision. Contra Sartre’s insistence on a personal, subjective perspective, Meltzer reads this vision along lines first articulated by Bataille: as an instance of a “material tension imposed […] from without” (7). It is in this way that Meltzer invites the reader to go back to well-read Baudelaire poems with a novel way of seeing both them and the nineteenth-century world (or worlds) that contributed to, indeed imposed, this particular aesthetic.
Although Meltzer’s metaphors are largely visual, the study lends itself to musical terms, organized as different riffs or variations on the phenomenon of double vision with chapters dedicated to four “aspects”: beliefs, seeing, money, and time. Each chapter offers a sustained, close reading of a single poem while deftly mobilizing a great variety of Baudelaire’s writing to support the interpretation and to make a larger argument both about a general aspect of Baudelaire’s poetry and about modernity.
The book’s first chapter convincingly demonstrates the interpretive leverage of Meltzer’s focus on double vision as a mode of thinking. Centering on “Assommons les pauvres!” and two of Baudelaire’s most prominent interlocutors, de Maistre and Proudhon, it provides a subtle argument against contradiction as the dominant mode of thinking about Baudelaire’s political and theological beliefs. Chapter two builds on Benjamin’s reading of “À une passante” to further articulate double vision not simply as a symptom but [End Page 209] as a praxis performed by Baudelaire’s poetry. Chapter three focuses on “La Chambre double” along with Baudelaire’s many notes on money to argue for an economy that links aesthetics, morality, theology, and currency in a system of “negative correspondences” (173) in opposition to that developed in the verse poem “Correspondances.” Closely reading “Harmonie du soir,” the fourth and final chapter engages Benjamin’s notion of now-time (Jetztzeit) and the difference between Erlebnis and Erfahrung to characterize Baudelaire’s poetry as “recollection in […] reshuffled hindsight” (213). It is this final chapter that brings the variations on double vision to their theoretical culmination. Taking exception with de Man’s reading as overly tidy—and perhaps overly influenced by Nietzsche—Meltzer staunchly affirms that Baudelaire’s poetry “does not challenge the power of representation” (215). She thus rejects the firmly established narrative that situates Baudelaire at the cusp of a “crisis in language” that runs through Mallarmé, Breton, Artaud, and on to Blanchot and many others. This is not to say that Baudelaire is “anti-moderne” or part of the “arrière-garde.” Rather, Meltzer elicits a nuanced re-evaluation of what modernity is and is not, one that is more provocatively suggestive than assertive.
Readers will certainly be tempted to pick up Meltzer’s self-proclaimed “badly sewn thread” and continue weaving new narratives. For instance, although Rancière gets only one brief mention, we could read Meltzer’s study as a response to that philosopher’s work...