- An Atmospherics of the City: Baudelaire and the Poetics of Noise by Ross Chambers
Ross Chambers's penetrating essay focuses on Baudelaire's late works: the major verse poems of Tableaux parisiens, which were included in the second edition of Les Fleurs du mal in 1861, and the prose poems of Le Spleen de Paris, an unfinished project at the time of Baudelaire's death in 1867. While still holding artistic beauty as a transcendent value (what Chambers terms "fetish aesthetics") like his contemporaries Gautier and Nerval, Baudelaire evolved in these late works towards a new conception of "supernaturalism" that moved from the natural world and the sublime to the artificial city and its strident chaos. The "natural supernaturalism" that, according to M.H. Abrams, characterizes Romantic aesthetics is thus subverted into a paradoxical "urban supernaturalism."
Historically, this turn in Baudelaire's poetics corresponds with the poet's disenchantment with politics, after the brutal crushing of the 1848 revolution and Louis Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'état of 1852; it also coincides with Paris's increasing overpopulation and poverty, and with the dramatic destruction of old neighbour-hoods under Haussmann's modernization project. Ever present in Baudelaire's late verse and prose poems, noise is an overwhelming fact of daily urban life, which anchors the works in the harsh reality of the poet's time.
Chambers reads time in Baudelaire's poetry on several interwoven levels: as the inner experience of ineluctable passing; as the continuous weight of violent historical events on that experience; and as absolute Evil, the destructive force of "le Mal," which Chambers strikingly equates with entropy. In Baudelaire's poems, he argues, subjective time and historical time are metaphorically interconnected with the weather, which, as scorching sun or violent storm, bears down on urban activities (notably on the flâneur's walks) and moods-a connection Chambers encapsulates in the phrase "the weather of time." Far from neutral, this connection is permeated with unease, [End Page 673] the diffuse sense that the everyday, though familiar, is strange and inscrutable. The inability to know what is familiar, precisely because it is familiar, a notion Chambers borrows from Hegel, saturates the atmosphere of the city: an alienating otherness lurks in the physical, emotional, and moral milieu that surrounds its inhabitants. In making the reader aware of this secret otherness, the poetics of noise, Chambers argues, has a disalienating effect.
In the great poems of Tableaux parisiens written between 1859 and 1861, the agent of disalienation is allegory, a trope that, in itself, enacts otherness. Chambers offers complex readings of some of these enigmatic and often discussed poems, "Le Cygne," "Les sept vieillards," and "A une passante" in particular, and shows how specific formal disruptions function as poetic noise, unsettling our reading and alerting us to the limits of our understanding. In these poems, fleeting encounters with perturbing figures amongst the deafening din, disorder, or stormy weather of the city weave together noise, atmospheric phenomena, and emotional shock into a melancholic recognition that the "empty sky" leaves us at the mercy of the malevolent action of time and death, the downward movement of history.
The prose poems of Le Spleen de Paris move from supernaturalism to irony. God's withdrawal from the world, Chambers argues, has abandoned it to an invisibly ironic and impenetrable immanence. Anonymity governs daily social relations. This "cruel but transparent irony that haunts the everyday" is made visible in the prose poems, in which seemingly transparent anecdotes of urban life turn ironically on to themselves, introducing interfering noise into interpretation. In "Perte d'auréole" and "Le Mauvais vitrier," for example, Chambers shows how, in the course of the poem, irony shifts undecidedly between the poet and the man he encounters (a fellow poet, a glazier), so that the lofty figure of the poet, and our reading assurance, end up lost in the gutter or shattered. Social distinctions are tumbled in a "poetics of anonymity."
Chambers pays particular attention to the fact that...