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  • Baudelaire’s Satanic Verses
  • Jonathan Culler (bio)

Paul Verlaine was perhaps the first to declare the centrality of Baudelaire to what we may now call modern French studies: Baudelaire’s profound originality is to “représenter puissament et essentiellement l’homme moderne” [599–600]. Whether Baudelaire embodies or portrays modern man, Les Fleurs du mal is seen as exemplary of modern experience, of the possibility of experiencing or dealing with what, taking Paris as the exemplary modern city, we have come to call the modern world. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Baudelaire is indeed the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language, for his verse and language is the nearest thing to a complete renovation that we have experienced. But his renovation of an attitude towards life is no less radical and no less important” [426]. And outside the field of literature we find such affirmations as Harold Rosenberg’s dating of “the tradition of the New” to Baudelaire, “who exactly one hundred years ago invited fugitives from the too-narrow world of memory to come aboard with him in search of the new” [11]. Baudelaire, writes another critic, “did more than anyone else in the nineteenth century to make the men and women of his century aware of themselves as moderns. . . . If we had to nominate a first modernist, Baudelaire would surely be the man” [Berman 132–33].

There seems to be considerable agreement on this point, but, surprisingly, there is great difference of opinion about what it is that makes Baudelaire modern and worthy of special attention. Is it, as Albert Thibaudet and Walter Benjamin argue, that he was the first true poet of the city, the first to take the alienated experience of life in the modern city as the norm? Or is it, as Leo Bersani claims, that Baudelaire discovered and displayed the mobility of fantasy and of the desiring imagination? Or is it, as Paul de Man maintains, that Baudelaire invents modern self-consciousness about poetry itself, producing poems that allegorically expose the operations of the lyric?

There are many competing accounts of what is most particularly modern and important about Baudelaire, but the one thing on which contentious critics seem to agree is that there is a side of Baudelaire that is of no interest today, that belongs to a bas romantisme and is the very antithesis of Baudelaire’s modernity, of Baudelaire the founder of modern poetry: this is the Baudelaire who invokes demons and the Devil. Most critics today pass over this in silence, but even those who explicitly address this Baudelaire seem to find him an embarrassment. Even the author of a book entitled The Demonic Imagination: Style and Theme in French Romantic Poetry begins his chapter on Baudelaire: “Baudelaire has, by now, ceased to interest us for the reasons which once appeared important: his diabolical Catholicism is a familiar, historical mode of sensibility which neither shocks nor has morbid appeal . . .” [Houston 85]. And Fredric Jameson distinguishes the modernist and the postmodernist Baudelaires—both worthy of our attention—from what he calls the “second-rate post-Romantic Baudelaire, the Baudelaire [End Page 86] of diabolism and of cheap frisson, the poet of blasphemy and of a creaking and musty religious machinery that was no more interesting in the mid-nineteenth century than it is today” [427].

But Baudelaire called his collection “Les Fleurs du mal” and opens it with a poem that declares, “C’est le Diable qui tient le fils qui nous remuent [it’s the Devil who holds the strings that move us]” [OC 1: 5; FE 5]. Can this be dismissed as an irrelevancy—something mistakenly appended to this quintessentially modern poetry? That critics of such different orientations should agree in shunting aside the Satanic Baudelaire suggests that there is something worth investigating here, something disquieting and embarrassing, which may not in fact be merely trivial—which may complicate the story of modernity that has come to depend on Baudelaire as its originator. Perhaps the Satanic Baudelaire would tell us things about modernity we don’t want to know.

Certainly the idea of the Devil seems fundamentally at odds with accounts of modernity. Even Christianity itself seems to...