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  • “An Immoderate Taste for Truth”: Censoring History in Baudelaire’s “Les bijoux”
  • E. S. Burt (bio)

In May 1949, a French Court of Appeals reversed an 1857 decision condemning six poems from Les fleurs du mal for obscenity, in a signal case of a public lifting of a ban against some lyric poems. 1 Among the several interesting features of this case not the least is the decision to proceed against the work in the first place. For lyric poetry does not appear an attractive target for censorship. Its subject matter and formalism remove it far enough from the experience of most readers that Gustave Flaubert, fresh from his troubles with the court over Madame Bovary, could express his surprise at the government’s attack: “This is new,” he wrote to Baudelaire, “this pursuit of a volume of verse.” While Flaubert’s comment was in point of fact inaccurate, he puts his finger on a problem worth considering. 2 Here we have a work that must seem naturally exempt from state intervention, by virtue of a deliberate retreat from risky political subjects, and it nonetheless did get censored by the state. Can anything be learned about “normal” state censorship from this exceptional case? [End Page 19]

A key factor in the government’s decision to pursue the book, according to the prosecutor Pinard, was that these poems would prove accessible to a large audience: 3 “An immoral book that had no chance of being read or understood would not be pursued” [1208], he states. In his argument, as in the judgment by the court that the condemned poems “lead necessarily to the exciting of the senses by a coarse realism offensive to modesty” [1182], the assumption is that the work is extraordinarily available, its pictures immediately referable to ordinary experience. In the six condemned poems, language is judged to be not a veil but a tool, and a sex tool at that. “Despite an effort of style” [1182], the poetic situation—in most of the poems that of the boudoir—is painted in a language insufficiently flowery. 4

A further interesting feature in the case is that when it comes up again, under DeGaulle’s Fourth Republic, the court summarily dismisses the 1857 judgment of coarse realism as just one possible interpretation, and a forced one at that. Instead, the 1949 court finds that the poems are self-referential, symbolic entities that do not represent ordinary experience:

If some pictures, on account of their originality, were able to alarm some minds upon first publication and appeared to the first judges as offensive to morality, such an appraisal, attaching itself only to a realistic interpretation of the poems and neglecting their symbolic meaning, has proved to be of an arbitrary character, unratified by public opinion or by the judgment of the literary world.

[St. John-Stevas 249]

The shocking representations of 1857, outraging morality, are now understood to deliver the Wordsworthian “shock of mild surprise” by which we recognize the original work of art. In 1949, the poems are precious artifacts; their language is not realistic but symbolical; its sensuous forms reveal an inner, spiritual meaning.

A crucial resemblance can be discerned between the actions taken by the two courts: both make their judgments in terms of a “reading pact,” a set of “artificial rules” [1206] that are presumed to govern reading and to have currency in the context. Les fleurs gets policed in the name of this generic purity, with the prosecutor Pinard calling “the judge . . . a sentinel who must not let the border be crossed” [1206] and the 1949 decision confirming the opinion of the literary world that the supposed transgression against public morality was in point of fact a transformation in the rules regulating the narrow confines of lyric poetry. 5

This concern that texts be framed by a reading pact aimed at constraining their interpretation is worth considering in any discussion of censorship that wants to move from the level of pragmatics to that of theory. It leads to queries about the possibility of getting rid of state censorship entirely and about the state’s interest, as guardian and overseer of the archive, in the institutionalization and...

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pp. 19-43
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