- The Milieu in Baudelaire
Honoré de Balzac established the importance of the milieu in literature. In his preface to La Comédie humaine (1842), he affirms the theories of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: “L’animal est un principe qui prend sa forme extérieure, ou, pour parler plus exactement, les différences de sa forme, dans les milieux où il est appelé à se développer” (8). For Geoffroy, the milieu ambiant encompasses the “influences variables du monde extérieur” (69), such as atmospheric conditions and molecules in the environment (68). He refers to such external conditions as well as circonstances (68), the term that Jean-Baptiste Lamarck also employs to refer to “l’ensemble des actions qui s’exercent du dehors sur un vivant” (Canguilhem 131). Balzac popularized and developed the notion of the milieu by extending it to include social conditions, such as professions, that shape a person’s characteristics (1: 8). The idea that the milieu shapes beings gained currency throughout the nineteenth century, often being used to explain the development and degeneration of individuals and civilizations.1 In literature, treatment of the milieu was most prominent in realism and naturalism, which perhaps accounts for the fact that critics have not recognized the significance of the milieu for Charles Baudelaire. However, Baudelaire’s conception of the milieu informs his views on art and the artist and his project of capturing the psychological influence of Paris in Le Spleen de Paris: Petits poèmes en prose (1869).
Baudelaire explicitly draws on theories of the milieu in “Exposition universelle 1855.” He identifies the “milieu” as that which “gives birth” to the artisanal “products” of a given country (2: 576). He also sees the artist’s “milieus” as part of what creates the “bizarreness” necessary for beauty (2: 578–79). At the same time, he considers great artists to lack “precursors”: “[t]oute floraison est spontanée, individuelle” (2: 581). He compares such originality to the situation of “nations,” which nonetheless draw on “toutes [End Page 17] les notions et toutes les poésies environnantes” in producing their own works (2: 581–82). For Baudelaire, the idea of artists’ and nations’ originality is compatible with the notion that their work is born of their milieu.
In “Le Peintre de la vie moderne” (1863), Baudelaire goes further in arguing that artists should actively engage their milieu: he promotes the “peinture des mœurs du présent” (2: 684). Although he does not employ the term milieu in this essay, the notion of the milieu informs his views. He uses a synonym of the word milieu, circonstance, throughout the essay to describe the nature of this art. He favors “la beauté de circonstance” (2: 683) and “le peintre de la circonstance” (2: 687) and explains that the painter of historical subjects “abdique la valeur et les privilèges fournis par la circonstance; car presque toute notre originalité vient de l’estampille que le temps imprime à nos sensations” (2: 696). Thus, the circumstances specific to a certain time enhance the artist’s originality, just as the milieu contributes to the “bizarre” and the unique in “Exposition universelle 1855.”
Baudelaire identifies Balzac’s La Comédie humaine as the literary complement of the art he champions, a reference reinforcing echoes of Balzac’s views on the milieu in Baudelaire’s essay (2: 687). Much as Balzac, Baudelaire conceives of professions as determining physical appearance (2: 707). For example, he explains that soldiers have a simple facial expression because they live in common with others and do not have to take care of their everyday needs (2: 708). His notion that professions shape appearance evokes Balzac’s idea that the milieu accounts for the characteristics of people in different professions.
Baudelaire alludes to the milieu as well in his description of M.G. as a “peintre de la circonstance.” He explains that the crowd is M.G.’s “domain,” analogous to air for a bird or water for a fish (2: 691). The medium in which a being exists is a paradigmatic example of a milieu (Canguilhem 131). Similarly, he conceives of the outside world as “entering” M.G.: “[h]arnachements, scintillements, musique, regards...