- An Atmospherics of the City: Baudelaire and the Poetics of Noise by Ross Chambers
An Atmospherics of the City is a captivating, elegantly constructed archeology of the forms and epistemologies that urban noise takes on in Baudelaire’s verse and prose poetry. It is a book on the undoing of lyrical authority in the late Baudelaire as his poetry encounters the strangeness of the everyday and the sexy, disturbing, dangerous poetics of the city (la rue … tue, as Chambers perspicuously points out, remarking upon a phantom, structural rhyme in A une passante’s quatrains). It is also an essay with a powerful claim about the role of poetry in bearing witness to (the) loss (of ideals, others, and ideal others).
The heuristic at the core of An Atmospherics of the City is concentrated in the eponymous “atmospherics” of the essay’s title, by which we may understand (at least) the following mesh of questions or problems when it comes to reading the Tableaux parisiens and Spleen de Paris: (a) almost literally, there is “weather.” But by this we should not understand so much, or solely, le temps qu’il fait—though there is indeed an intriguing trajectory in the poems (which Chambers reads as an allegory for the decentering of lyrical authority) from the supernaturally sun-drenched verse Je n’ai pas oublié to the besotted, soggy, foggy and shattered verse / verres of texts such as Les Sept vieillards or Le Mauvais vitrier. Rather, weather designates the very atmosphere of (b) the everyday qua that which is so self-evidently close to us as to appear meaningless. Weather thus also “tropes” a haunting motif for Baudelaire, one that goes under the name of “Le Mal”; it is the “atmospheric [textual] manifestation of” (c) the remorseless, impersonal passage of time (124). Le temps qu’il fait, as Chambers shows, is a question about how humans “weather” le temps qui passe (ibid). Consequently, atmospherics is also a place-holder for (d) the intersection of history and poetry, of text and context. It is the way in which Baudelaire’s poems [End Page 157] persistently gesture towards “the product [of a city’s] collective life and history that can be signified but not stated” (158). As Chambers suggests, the poems of Les Tableaux parisiens and Spleen de Paris bear traces of alienation from the “atmosphere” that is their socio-historical context—traces which are “readable” as a kind of noise. Attention to the noise, whether formal (allegory) or semantic (irony), involved in a text’s dit (énoncé) just may draw our attention to the backdrop of non-dits and interdits that form its condition of possibility, its “readability.” The critical claim here is thus that an “atmospherics” (e) introduces formal and semantic “noise” into a text—noise that troubles the seamless epistemological “giveness” of the familiar systems of meaning-making, whether social, semantic, or historical (43, 58, 117, 123). At stake in atmospherics is nothing less than a pragmatics of poetry and of reading, a question of what poetry can do when it incorporates “noise” into its system. To the degree that noise triggers readings (i.e., the active, readerly complicity at the base of interpretation) it may also produce effects of “disalienation” (54–61).
Over the course of six chapters, Chambers detects and traces a poetic arc that progressively problematizes the “supernatural” aura of individual (that is, “fetishized”) poetic authority in Baudelaire, with the poetic persona/voice or subject displaced by the productive noise of the city before altogether losing its “halo” in “la fange” of broad urban boulevards and in the unsettling materiality and emancipatory anonymity of modernity. The narrative thus takes us through a series of masterful readings, beginning with Je n’ai pas oublié (27–31), a text emblematizing the “fetishized” poetic subject seeking to deny the irresistible work of le temps qui passe (“Time the enemy,” or “le Mal”) and coming full circle in the penultimate chapter’s reading of the ironic, anonymous urban poetic subject in La perte d’auréole’s dive...