- Twenty-First Century Baudelaire? Affectivity and Ecology in “Le Crépuscule du soir”
In the heated debates that followed the publication of Sur Racine (1960), Roland Barthes was accused of many sins, not least that of dehistoricizing Racine. One of Barthes’s responses was to dedramatize: “We should not be surprised that a country should periodically review in this way the things which come down from its past and describe them anew in order to find out what it can make of them: such activities are and ought to be normal assessment procedures.”1 This article takes its cue from Barthes’s sentence and considers what we can do with Charles Baudelaire today: how does Baudelaire’s poetry speak to the present?
Formulated in this manner, the question is likely to set off alarm bells. It seems reductive to look for something like the contemporary use value of Baudelaire because it invites an instrumental approach to literature whose limitations have been pointed out by many—Baudelaire and Barthes included. Furthermore, this guiding question is politically suspect: the singular form of “present” necessarily simplifies a much more complex set of circumstances, violently excluding many other relevant aspects of the contemporary situation(s). It is therefore appropriate to begin by setting out which particular version of the “present” this article will be referring to.
Since the late 1990s, a plethora of new theoretical approaches has emerged in literary studies as well as in the humanities and social sciences more widely. Labels such as “affect theory,” “new materialism,” “object-oriented ontology,” “animal studies,” “eco-criticism,” “post-humanism,” “cyborg theory,” and “speculative realism” have been coined. Even if this proliferation of labels [End Page 689] also testifies to well-known logics of fashion and the marketable, it is difficult to deny that collectively these many new approaches speak to important mutations in current scholarship. In 2015, Richard Grusin attempted to bring together this diverse set of theoretical formations under the umbrella term “the nonhuman turn.”2 For reasons that will become clear later in this text, I prefer the (no doubt less elegant) term “nonanthropocentric,” but Grusin’s effort to bring out what these writings all share is still very helpful. He sees them as responses to some of the major societal challenges facing us today—above all, global warming and rapid developments in the (bio)technological sciences. In other words, these theoretical texts aim to reconsider the place of the human in a world where ecological and technological developments prompt us to push the questioning of the human in directions other than those pursued during the years of post-structuralism.
Literature and other forms of art offer a wealth of material to scholars who are critical of anthropocentrism. Science fiction, object-oriented poetry, avant-gardist experiments with chance, and many other forms of literature invite us to engage with a world that escapes us, and at the same time emphasize our bodily entanglement in nature and other environments. Literature therefore also plays a key role in a number of these newer writings.3 The present article argues that some of Baudelaire’s writings can contribute to these current debates. It therefore stages an encounter between the non-anthropocentric dimensions of Baudelaire’s texts and selected developments in this contemporary critical landscape.
Needless to say, the very broad picture outlined above cannot be fully addressed in the present text. This article will focus on the prose version of “Le Crépuscule du soir” in Le Spleen de Paris—and a limited number of recent texts associated with “affect theory” and (less explicitly) “new materialism.” It will closely read selected passages from Baudelaire’s poem, thereby attempting to demonstrate what can be gained from reading Baudelaire non-anthropocentrically. The first part of the article brings Brian Massumi’s writings on affectivity into dialogue with Baudelaire’s poem; the second and third parts step back and seek to clarify how a non-anthropocentric reading of Baudelaire’s text differs from two other (and to some extent related) readings of Baudelaire: Georges Poulet’s Baudelaire chapter from Les Métamorphoses du cercle (1961), and the more recent volume by Ross Chambers, An Atmospherics...