- Baudelaire the Frequent Flyer: Prostitution, the Press, and How the Prose Poem Almost Sold its Soul
Accompanying the publication of the first installment of Charles Baudelaire’s “petits poèmes en prose” in La presse on 26 August 1862 was a dedication in the form of an open letter addressed to the newspaper’s literary editor, Arsène Houssaye. The text has frequently been referenced to explicate Baudelaire’s conception of the prose poem, or as Baudelaire calls it here, poetic prose: “Quel est celui de nous qui n’a pas, dans ses jours d’ambition, rêvé le miracle d’une prose poétique, musicale sans rythme et sans rime, assez souple et assez heurtée pour s’adapter aux mouvements lyriques de l’âme, aux ondulations de la rêverie, aux soubresauts de la conscience” (I, 275–76). It is well known that Baudelaire couldn’t stand Houssaye, and goes on to mock the editor’s own attempts at writing poetic prose. Given the ironic undertow of the letter, we might ask to what degree Baudelaire actually includes himself as partaking in the universal dream of “the miracle of a poetic prose.” Here, I would like to suggest that his position becomes clearer when we consider the phrase that follows: “C’est surtout de la fréquentation des villes énormes, c’est du croisement de leurs innombrables rapports que naît cet idéal obsédant” (I, 276). Specifically, I shall demonstrate how Baudelaire’s project to realize poetic prose in the form of the “little prose poem” can be more precisely understood through an examination of the substantive “fréquentation,” that is, frequentation or the act of frequenting, and its application to “enormous cities.”
Although frequentation is often perceived in a predominantly spatial sense, as I shall demonstrate below, I would like to begin by considering the word in its temporal sense, according to which it describes a habitual action, in which the subject repeatedly goes to a given place or visits a person or group of people. Gonzague de Reynold, for example, evokes Baudelaire’s [End Page 463] “fréquentation” of the “great Delacroix” (393). In the nineteenth century, frequentation could be a euphemism for courtship, as it described the repeated visits of the suitor to the family of the desired bride before her hand could be requested in marriage (“fréquentation” Littré II, 1776). It also possessed a specifically Christian application, as Littré notes, indicating the frequent recourse of an individual to the sacraments of communion and confession. Beyond these variations of repeated visitation, however, frequentation could also indicate a state of more sustained physical presence, a state similar even to that of habitation – or perhaps more accurately “inhabitation,” understood in Christian theology as the mode in which the Trinity is present in the soul of the righteous man or woman. It is a presence without presence or, as Goetz describes it, a “habitation without habitation, a habitation without habit” (103). It is with something like this sense that Baudelaire seeks to employ the verb “fréquenter” in his verse poem “La muse malade,” for example, when the voice wishes that his sick lover’s chest were always frequented by strong thoughts:
Je voudrais qu’exhalant l’odeur de la santé Ton sein de pensers forts fût toujours fréquenté(I, 14)
Read in isolation, “toujours fréquenté” might appear oxymoronic. It is the nature of frequentation to be intermittent, not permanent. It is only when we understand this syntagm in the context of the speaker’s desire – as something projected but eternally unrealized – that we begin to understand the construction not as paradoxical, but as capturing the notion of presence without presence, of “habitation without habitation.”
It is not clear, however, that these various understandings of “frequentation” can be usefully applied to its appearance in the letter to Houssaye. Meltzer pays particular attention to the “frequentation of enormous cities,” but, instead of analyzing “frequentation,” opens up the unicity of the city implied in the word “ville,” by identifying the presence of multiple overlapping spaces: “The city is this crossing of connections that continue in their trajectory, like the passante...