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  • Reframing Baudelaire: Literary History, Biography, Postcolonial Theory, and Vernacular Languages
  • Françoise Lionnet* (bio)

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf quips: “History is too much about wars; biography too much about great men;” literary history, she might have added, is too much about sons murdering their fathers. Canonical readings of the canon have often insisted on the vaguely Freudian (if not biblical) model of literary creation susceptible both to “anxieties of influence” and to creative revisions imposed by strong misreadings. Criticism has followed the same reactive pattern in order to clear new ground for further research: the debate between “traditionalists” and proponents of “cultural studies” all but repeats this familiar and combative dialectic. Between formalist and sociopolitical readings, French texts have been mined by many different critical trends; but the perspectives that do not fit neatly into one or the other of these agonistic moves tend to be left out. Dominick LaCapra has suggested that “one issue for readers today is whether a different, ‘noncanonical’ reading of the canon, which resists symbolic resolutions as well as narrowly formalistic interpretations, may be one force in reopening texts to the[ir] broader sociopolitical effects” [731].

In the case of Baudelaire, the way to do this “noncanonical” reading might well be to go back to a discursive field which includes biography and oral histories, and to resist the temptation either to eulogize the innovations of the poet of modernity or to denounce the patent racism of his images. The challenge today is to return to the scene of writing and the conditions of production of the early poetry—in other words, to look at the text from outside of conventional literary, critical or cultural history, to reclaim it for our side, that of a more global francophonie. To do so might mean to map out once again the contested terrain of culturally and politically sensitive readings such as the ones Christopher Miller and Gayatri Spivak claim to do. Their readings, however, do not take into account the residual cultural element of the poetry, that is, the vernacular language it appropriates. This language is all but buried beneath the emergent theoretical practices of postcolonial criticism and its vaguely nationalist agendas. 1 Critics have tended to look for [End Page 63] symbolic resolutions and to settle cultural scores at the expense of historical and geographical specificity, despite claims to the contrary.

The facts of Baudelaire’s youthful travels in the Indian Ocean have remained relatively obscure. While doing research in the islands of Mauritius and Réunion on two separate occasions during the past few years, I came across written documents and watercolors that helped me reconstruct the historical and visual contexts that appear to have been Baudelaire’s in 1841. By re-examining the criticisms that have been lodged against the exoticizing rhetoric of his poetry, I want to foreground the links between the Creole culture with which Baudelaire became familiar and the now canonical texts he produced. These links can allow us to bypass the sterile opposition between “literary studies” and “cultural studies” or between aesthetics and politics; they demonstrate the urgency of re-visioning the canon not just from the perspectives of its margins, but as an important source of muted cultural knowledge. The questions with which I begin, then, are the following: where did Baudelaire actually go on his travels in 1841? and why does this matter to the field of French studies?

Il faut en finir avec la légende de l’Inde parcourue par Baudelaire. Elle était séduisante, Gautier l’a adoptée, Banville ne l’a pas négligée. . . . Mais la vérité vraie est que Baudelaire, embarqué malgré lui, brûla la politesse à l’Inde. . . . Peut-être Baudelaire abandonnait-il complaisamment au commun public ces bruits de longues pérégrinations en pays fabuleux, parce qu’il en tirait, avec des couleurs de mystère, l’air de revenir de loin. Dans tous les cas, il ne nous parlait jamais de ces voyages. A peine, à son retour, nous dit-il quelques mots d’une station dans l’île Maurice ou l’île Bourbon. 2

[It is time to put a stop to...