Baudelaire au féminin
Le sens, ce sens en question, est toujours de l’autre, dans tous les sens de cette expression.
A violence undeniably accompanies writing about signatures, an aggravation of the movement of expropriation which cannot be made more acceptable by noting the inevitable necessity of that movement. On the other hand, neglecting the signature’s trace is hardly more benign. Only the unsigned work seems to provide a reprieve from the dilemma, as if the author had delivered his or her prior pardon for the erasure of signature that the reader will perform. This is largely wishful, of course, as the case of Rousseau can once again illustrate: his insistent fretting over the fate of his signature did not exempt, on the contrary, the fate of his “unsigned” novel, La Nouvelle Héloise. But what if one were to juxtapose this text with other “unsigned” works that it recalls or repeats? Would it not then appear that some kind of permission for this gesture has been sought in the conditional absence affecting the signature? Although I ask the question in view of a certain generalization about reading signatures, I offer it first autobiographically, having myself elsewhere assembled for study five texts, including La Nouvelle Héloise, which all disturbed in some fashion the simple attribution of authorship.1 While I was interested by the circumstance that none of the texts was unequivocally signed, I did not then interrogate the coincidence of the five absent signatures which I had brought about. Since then and unexpectedly, I found myself confronted with this coincidence while puzzling over what seemed a particularly cryptic assertion in Paul de Man’s essay “Autobiography as De-Facement.” The assertion, I discovered, became more accessible only after it had turned the tables on me, so to speak, and given me some access to my own encrypted fascination with missing signatures. De Man writes: “Any book with a readable title page is, to some extent, autobiographical.”2 I cannot say what prompted me to read this sentence “autobiographically,” but once I had done so I also noticed something that should have stood out from the first: the work is autobiographical, asserts de Man, to the extent that its title page, the place of the signature, is readable. That is, the minimum criterion for autobiography concerns the readability of proper names, more precisely of signatures. It therefore points to the necessary deviation of the name from what it properly signifies, necessary if the name is to become readable or iterable.
But what, then, is a readable autobiography? Or rather, whose autobiography does one read when reading signatures and the texts they sign? It now seems that what is problematic in the sentence “any book with a readable title page is autobiographical” is less the difficulty of consenting to such an all-inclusive assertion than the difficulty of facing up to the way it upsets a basic certainty about the autobiographical work and its signature. By making it a function of readability, de Man does not so much dissociate autobiography from writing and the writer as place it between writer and reader, writing and reading. Thus the same gesture both allows one to assert that any text is more or less autobiographical and prevents a certain attribution of autobiography to reader or writer. Autobiography is an all-inclusive genre precisely to the extent that it remains impossible to conclude whose life is being written—or read.
The implications of generalized autobiography would have to be taken into account whenever a relation between signature and work is at issue; whenever, that is, readable title pages are considered part of the work to be read (and to a certain extent, as de Man would say, they always are). This, of course, is easier said than done, since what has to be taken into account by definition cannot be fully calculated or predicted by any one reading or writing subject.3 Yet not ever fully knowing what is going on when one reads and writes does not mean that the complications, the co-implications of signature simply disappear when one’s purpose is to construct some theory of its workings. This double bind leaves its mark whether one knows it or not. Such a setting aside or ignoring of co-implications would, however, be necessary to transfer any formal aspect of the signature to the text of the work it signs. If, for example, this move were to take one from the fact of a male or rather a male’s signature on certain theoretical texts—those, for instance, that have so complicated thinking about signatures—to the notion of something called “male theory,” then one would have effected the sort of transfer from form to meaning which de Man describes according to patterns of metaphor and metonymy. These are patterns whose epistemological reliability is not necessarily enhanced by being pressed into the service of political or other programs. On the contrary. Specifically, the move from the signature of a male to a “male signature,” and from there to something called “male theory,” transfers a formal, known attribute from one “thing” to the nonappearing, nonphenome-nological “thing” that is the meaning of a text.4 As in the psychoanalytic situation of transference, the interpreter is at high risk in this situation of plugging her or his own “content” into that space presumed to be full of meaning which is a text.
Yet, if we recall the aphorism about title pages, it would seem that this kind of “autobiographical” or transferential operation is also what allows a text to become readable. It is thus, to some extent, inevitable. Is this not, therefore, a circle of some sort—hermeneutic, vicious, or solipsistic? The answer to that question can never be a simple yes, precisely because there is autobiography circulating through all the transfers of meaning. The circulation of readability, of iterability, is the circulation of a deviation and of autobiography as always already the autobiography of the other.5 Or, in still other terms, one could say that there is autobiography of a “we” given by the division, the deviation, and the sharing of voices. With these terms, I am trying to translate the title page of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Le Partage des voix and especially the sense of the circle it traces, which, paradoxically, makes no sense unless it is open:
Hermeneuein names that to which every hermeneutic circle, whether it wants to or not, is paradoxically opened insofar as it is a circle. Opened, that is, to that alterity or that alteration of meaning without which the identification of a meaning—the circle’s return to the same—could not even take place.
The opening of hermeneuein is in this sense the opening of sense and to sense as other. Not to some superior, transcendent or more original ‘other’ sense, but to sense itself as other, to an alterity defining sense.6
This somewhat roundabout introduction brings me to the circulation or sharing of voices in a work whose signature—“Charles Baudelaire”—one should perhaps not rush to read as in any simple sense “male.” When I say “one should not,” you of course already understand that it is I who am in no rush to do so, in part for the principal reasons I have just outlined but also no doubt for more obscure, even autobiographical reasons that I would share if I could.
To hear the deviation in Baudelaire’s voice, not so as to tax him (or anyone else) with it, or to pretend to heal it over, but rather to share in its address and perhaps to readdress it: this will require activating the silent pole of a dialogue, taking up a position that, at first and even second glance, will not appear very promising. But I promise at least to return to what is promising, even if the route may not be exactly circular.
In 1856, an observer of the Parisian literary scene who wanted to illustrate Baudelaire’s eccentricity reported that the poet regularly insisted on reading his verses to “his young Creole mistress.” “The lady,” remarked the observer, “does not find this diet to her taste and from time to time revolts against her lover’s tyranny. ‘Just hold your tongue,’ he answers, throwing five francs at her. ‘I know you’re a silly goose, but I need to read my verses aloud and I insist on their being heard.’”7 In a note, Claude Pichois, editor of Les Fleurs du mal, refers this piece of gossip to one of the poems (“Sonnet d’automne”), at a point where, precisely, the poet directs an abrupt “Tais-toi!” (Shut up!) to an inquiring feminine figure. The point the editor seems to be making with his reference is that, regardless of the anecdote’s authenticity, Baudelaire at least fueled his own legend when he staged this moment in the poem, the moment at which the poet tells a woman to shut up and listen.8 What is more, Pichois also implies that the anecdote accurately reflects Baudelaire’s contempt not only for Jeanne Duval, his illiterate companion of many years, but for women in general. The implication is clear when, without transition or comment, Pichois simply juxtaposes to the anecdote the following quote from Mon Coeur mis à nu, just one of many he might have chosen from that text to illustrate its author’s categorical disdain: “I have always been amazed that women are allowed to enter churches. What conversation could they possibly have with God?” With that gesture, Pichois, inadvertently perhaps, invites every woman to put herself in the place of Jeanne Duval when confronted with Baudelaire’s verses. That is, every woman should hear herself addressed by “Shut up, silly goose, and listen.” Taceat mulier in ecclesiam.
It might seem that the place of such an addressee is the least promising position from which to hear or read this poetry. Yet if that is so, then it would be not so much because it is the place of nonreaders like Jeanne Duval (or any of the Fleurs du mal’s other mistresses) but rather because these addressees are curiously positioned by a kind of double gesture that the anecdote neatly brings out. What Jeanne Duval was ordered to listen to over her objections were poems that, very often, included a form of address to some feminine figure. That is, she had to sit still for the address of this address, for a doubled address that, on both levels, talks, so to speak, over her head.9 However, one assumes perhaps too quickly that her impatience with this maneuver can only be a sign of her dull imperviousness to Baudelaire’s verse. One assumes, that is, that no link is possible between her exasperation in this situation and an understanding of the poems which would be more than just a passive hearing of them. But what if Jeanne Duval’s naive petulance were also the sign that just such a link has and should be made between the address in the poems and their address to an unwilling listener? Who, in fact, can say that Jeanne Duval has not understood what she heard?10
Jeanne, of course, supplies raw material for a Baudelairean thematics of woman—woman in the raw. Yet, as Michel Deguy has pointed out, woman figures as a theme in Baudelaire only because she is first what he calls the poem’s milieu, its medium, that by which it names and measures the appearance of whatever appears. In his article “Le Corps de Jeanne,” Deguy writes:
For Baudelaire, woman is the Pascalian body; or, in terms of poetics, she is the oxymoron. … She—or he/it = her body—is the milieu in the sense of the division between high and low, converter of high and low into one another. She can operate this distension and this exchange by being herself aggrandized or made smaller. But first one must pass by way of her in order to see: her microcosmic unfurling gives the measure, the scale of reference.11
To call Jeanne a milieu is to place her at the heart of the poetic operation. And indeed it is to the operation of the word sein—breast or bosom, but by metaphor or metonymy also heart—that Deguy turns his attention. This move is completely consistent with the poems’ own working through of these rhetorical possibilities, which Deguy draws out subtly and surely. I wonder, however, whether it is not almost too consistent, too closely joined with the movement it is tracing or describing, to be able to remark, rather than just repeat, all that may be at work here, including certain resistances. Deguy’s term milieu, when taken in the sense of poetic medium, may also name a point of resistance that has been assumed uncritically or unknowingly by the commentary. To call Jeanne or woman the poetic medium is to implicate her with the poem’s language or speech. Yet the body with which Deguy finds Baudelaire concerned is often rendered speechless.
What I want to begin to explore is this silencing that gives voice to the poem. Silencing and not simply silence. Indeed, only the difference between an unequivocal absence of speech and a silencing of speech can make it potentially interesting to sit up and listen when feminine figures are made to speak in Baudelaire’s poems. Because they are made to speak all through Les Fleurs du mal, as we shall see. The point, then, is not that this medium is a speechless body but that its speaking in the poem and by the poem is stamped by a kind of equivocation or double gesture: both a giving and a taking away of voice.12
Les Fleurs du mal opens, in fact, with two women screeching to the heavens their intentions to make the Poet suffer. Such an opening scene sets up a kind of sounding board against which many of the voices of Les Fleurs du mal resonate. First, even before the Poet speaks for himself, “Bénédiction,” the initial poem, cites the speech of the Poet’s mother. In a caricatural parody of the Virgin Mother, her invective invokes God to call down a curse and a blight on the son who is her punishment for unnamed crimes.13 Next, the opening poem invokes the Poet’s woman—“Sa femme va criant sur les places publiques”14—who vows to usurp the place of divine honor in his heart, then to rip it from his chest and throw it to her dog. “Bénédiction” concludes with the Poet in his own voice humbly thanking God for the suffering he has endured at the hands of all humanity, represented principally by the speech of mother and mistress.
The figures of feminine voice or voice attributed to feminine figures are numerous and diverse enough to require a much longer study if one were to propose an exhaustive census of them all. Such a study, moreover, would have to set out a sure and decisive criterion for distinguishing among the poems’ different voices, for establishing where one ends and another begins, in order to enumerate all those that the Poet attributes or lends to feminine figures. I suspect that such a criterion will always finally elude the most patient research, and, what is more, it may be precisely because the criterion allowing one to distinguish one voice from another is in default that conventional solutions risk being too easily welcomed to take its place.15 Any procedure for separating out a feminine voice or voices in Les Fleurs du mal has to consider the possibility that there is a defensive component to its reaction in the face of a mixed voice, a middle voice, or even a doubled and undecidable voice, a voice that both is and is not the Poet’s own, that both is and is not the voice of an addressee, destinataire, or interlocutor. It may be that unless one suspends as far as possible this defensive reaction, one has no chance to determine how it is working within the poetry itself, no chance to hear what sounds like a wound in a voice trying to heal itself by expelling or expressing the instrument of its injury. The question, however, is whether this impossible expression is not precisely what gives the Poet his voice. One thinks, for example, of these lines from “L’Héautontimorouménos” (The self-tormentor):
Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C’est tout mon sang, ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Ou la mégère se regarde.
Je suis la plaie et le couteau!
Je suis le soufflet et la joue!
Je suis les membres et la roue,
Et la victime et le bourreau!16
The shrill “elle” who is “dans ma voix” does not refer to the woman who presumably is addressed by the poem’s first line, "Je te frapperai sans colère” (I will strike you without anger), but rather to voracious Irony, “la vorace Ironie,” of the stanza preceding the ones cited. “Elle” is but an allegorization that takes advantage of grammatical gender to turn Irony into a shrew.17 Likewise, all the images of ironic doubling in the final lines confront masculine- with feminine-gendered nouns. The voice of gender has thus been extended well beyond the apparent limits of woman’s or man’s speech. At the very least, these lines thematize the obstacle that would confront the attempt to separate different voice strands from each other along some dividing line between genders.
Still, there are poems in Les Fleurs du mal, indeed many of them, that represent some feminine or feminized speaker. If, however, one insists on the strictest criteria for determining what constitutes represented speech, then such poems would have to be counted as rare.18 And even where one encounters what seems to be a dialogue that puts in play a woman’s speech or voice, one can never dismiss the possibility that a defensive dissimulation or projection of the ironic doubling featured in "L’Héautontimorouménos” may be at work. The opening of the sonnet “Semper Eadem,” for example, which appears to be a question put to the Poet by his mistress, should perhaps be read as already a displacement out of the echo chamber of selfquestioning. Yet the fact that the poem adopts at the outset the device of another, feminine speaker remains interesting if for no other reason than that this voice is invoked only to be silenced.
This sonnet opens with the citation of a question put to the Poet by a mistress in what we must imagine to be a light, perhaps even a mocking tone. The first six lines then articulate the pair question/answer with another pair: joy/pain.
“D’où vous vient, disiez-vous, cette tristesse étrange,
Qui monte comme la mer sur le roc noir et nu?”
—Quand notre coeur a fait une fois sa vendange,
Vivre est un mal. C’est un secret de tous connu,
Une douleur très simple et non mystérieuse,
Et, comme votre joie, éclatante pour tous.19
That a pain is said to be like a joy because both are “éclatante pour tous” might seem to be an abuse of metaphor until one begins to suspect that the forced resemblance is a kind of cover thrown over what is actually a metonymic relation of cause and effect between the terms. That is, the questioner’s joy does not resemble the Poet’s pain; it inflicts that pain. The point of their exchange, the place where both of them burst out, is clearly named in the next stanza with another metonymy: the woman’s mouth. It is her childishly laughing mouth, her “bouche au rire enfantin,” that the poem twice commands to be silent with a repetition of “taisez-vous” on either side of the sonnet’s principal division:
Cessez donc de chercher, ô belle curieuse!
Et, bien que votre voix soit douce, taisez-vous!
Taisez-vous, ignorante! âme toujours ravie!
Bouche au rire enfantin! Plus encor que la Vie,
La Mort nous tient souvent par des liens subtils.
Laissez, laissez mon coeur s’enivrer du mensonge,
Plonger dans vos beaux yeux comme dans un songe,
Et sommeiller longtemps à l’ombre de vos cils!20
The imperative command “taisez-vous” makes way for the gentler imperative of the final stanza: “Laissez, laissez mon coeur,” and so on, which brings the poem to a close with what is the most characteristic—not to say obsessive—of all attitudes in the face of the feminine figures mustered in the pages of Les Fleurs du mal: the Poet dreamily drinking in to the point of drunkenness the light (or shadow) of her eyes. “Semper Eadem” is interesting in this regard because it installs the dreamy attitude only after imposing silence on the woman’s childlike speech. Her question, in effect, betrays a forgetting, and as such it marks a return to the child’s ignorance of the simplest truth: Death has a better hold on us than Life. This poem, therefore, not only situates the poet’s dreaming in the woman’s eyes but locates them as a displacement of her mouth “au rire enfantin,” a displacement that is a forgetting or a repressing of her forgetting.
If, however, the movement traced from mouth to eyes and from speaking to dreaming is one that goes toward a forgetting, then what exactly is so painful about the woman’s question, which, as I said, betrays a forgetting? One answer might be that, precisely, it betrays forgetfulness, that is, it is a reminder of what one wants to forget, whereas forgetting only works when one forgets that one is forgetting. But the poem perhaps gives another hint of what is so painful in this woman’s happy or mocking question. Since it is said that the two states—pain and joy, but also remembering and forgetting—are linked by the fact of their being “éclatante pour torn,” there may be a veiled reproach in this image of indiscriminate jouissance made available or promised to anyone.21 These two motifs of reproach that fuel the repetition of “taisez-vous” can moreover be joined if one understands the woman’s question as betraying her lack of memory and therefore the likelihood of her future infidelity.
The mensonge italicized in the last stanza would be a lie, then, about the woman’s memory. Specifically, it covers over her forgetfulness, which always threatens to give the Poet a preview of his own death or an advance taste of his own disappearance for the other, in the eyes of the other. No sooner does she open her mouth than the poet is reminded of the world of others to which she belongs by her speech, almost as if she had spoken only in order to welcome a throng of partygoers into the privacy of their lovers’ chamber. The intrusion, however, comes less from others than from the otherness of the woman that speaks a separation of their voices, their memories, their bodies, and their deaths.22 It is this separation, this difference, and this otherness that the lie is called upon to dissimulate, although obviously it cannot do so very satisfactorily. The italics situate both an emphatic will to override or faire taire difference and, by a gesture that has to call attention to itself, a reminder of precisely the difference the Poet wants to forget.
If one were to plot further this conjunction of lying, memory, the Poet’s death, and woman, a point adjacent to “Semper Eadem” would have to be the poem titled “L’Amour du men-songe,” where all these terms are laid out in a similar way.23 Since, however, it contains no explicit instance of a feminine figure made to speak and/or be silent, the latter poem risks diverting us from our primary concern. Still, two of this poem’s metaphors can provide a brief but useful transition from the suppression of feminine speech in “Semper Eadem” to the unsilencing of feminine voice in Baudelaire at which we are trying to arrive.
The poem is a long question about a woman’s memory and the reliability of its signs. Eyes, even the most melancholic eyes, may deceive one into thinking that they contain precious secrets when in fact they resemble lockets without relics, “médaillons sans reliques” (l. 19). This image makes explicit the two senses of memory which were already crossing and getting confused in “Semper Eadem.” The souvenir locket meant to keep safe relics of the dead—a miniature portrait, a lock of hair—figures at once the faculty of memory and that which memory remembers or, as we tend to say, contains. It is her memory of him, his memory in her, a pocket of internalization but worn on the outside as a reminder of her memory of him, his memory in her—an external reminder to interiorize the other, to keep him alive in memory, to keep his memory alive.24 That the locket may be purely decorative, containing nothing of significance, that “médaillons” and “reliques” remain dissociable within the very metonymy that associates them, leads the poet once again to embrace rather unconvincingly the lie with which metaphor promises a more reassuring assimilation of one term by the other. As in “Semper Eadem,” eyes as pure appearance, silent melancholic eyes, are thus preferred to any knowledge of what those eyes may or may not conceal. To attain this knowledge, to open the locket and gain access to the woman’s memory, would require that she first open her mouth; it requires, that is, that she be desired to speak and desired as speaking rather than just appearing. But this poem, which concludes with the line “Masque ou decor, salut! J’adore ta beauté,”25 has silenced even the silencing that installs the theater of feminine decoration.
Yet an earlier line in the poem will have warned the reader not to take this final cavalier dismissal of uncertainty too seriously. It occurs in the fourth stanza, which poses a series of metaphors for the woman’s memory, the faculty of containing and holding the Poet’s memory. One of these metaphors, more than the rest, brings out the container/contained topos of dissociable difference and, in effect, bars the flight into self-delusion which the Poet seems so eager to take. The line asks: “Es-tu vase funèbre attendant quelques pleurs” (l. 14),26 a question that, because it asks about a future, promptly leaves the realm of truth or lying conceived as a system of correspondences or signs. It asks in effect: Will you hold my memory? and it is thus the sort of question that cannot be answered by a corresponding yes or no but only by a promise. This poem would thus suggest another understanding of the Baudelairean figure of the mourning woman. She is a figure for the melancholic poet—a “soulmate,” as one critic puts it27—but the identification would be based less on resemblance than on a wished-for promise of remembrance. She is, in other words, a desired container or preserver of the Poet’s memory.28
Both “Semper Eadem” and “L’Amour du mensonge” suppress, in different ways, the other voice that at the same time they call up or call for. Each concludes with an attempt to cover over or dismiss the difference that has been evoked, yet neither can do so satisfactorily. But “L’Amour du mensonge” at least leaves room in its margin for the feminine addressee to speak in a way—the promise—that may not fall back immediately onto the stage of emptied appearances. What of this other voice that is not to be heard even if the Poet’s own voice can be heard calling for it?
If one looks elsewhere in Les Fleurs du mal for promising women’s voices, the most insistent examples are negative either because they are threats rather than promises, such as the vows made by mother and mistress in ‘’Bénédiction” to humiliate and destroy the Poet, or else because they are empty, false promises. This latter category would be headed by the Sirenlike promises in “Les Métamorphoses du vampire” spoken by the vampire woman, who, once she has had her fill of lovemaking, appears first as a bag of pus and next as a pile of bones. It may be, however, that it is not so much to a promise made in the poem that one has to be attentive, but precisely to that which no poem can represent of itself: the promise to keep the poem’s voice in memory and to keep giving it voice. Voices represented, attributed, or assumed in the poem can, in the best of cases, give one to hear or understand—in French, elles laisseraient entendre—the absent voice, the absence in the voice marking the place of the promise—and the place of the other.
One late poem from Les Epaves puts a promise in its title: "Les Promesses d’un visage” (The promises of a face). It is one of the least noticed of any poem now figuring in the complete works.29 Most of its twenty lines are speech attributed to a woman’s eyes according to the familiar prosopopoeia. Although this device seems to situate the poem steadfastly in the realm of promising appearances that may always be deceiving, there is—how to say it?—a ring of truth to these promises which moves the composition closer to the edge of the visible stage and to what might be called off-voice, to the other who has yet to enter or has already left the theatrical realm of the visible.
J’aime, ô pale beauté, tes sourcils surbaissés,
D’où semblent couler des ténèbres;
Tes yeux, quoique très noirs, m’inspirent des pensers
Qui ne sont pas du tout funèbres.
Tes yeux, qui sont d’accord avec tes noirs cheveux,
Avec ta crinière élastique,
Tes yeux, languissamment, me disent: “Si tu veux,
Amant de la muse plastique,
Et tous les gouts que tu professes,
Tu pourras constater notre véracité
Depuis le nombril jusqu’aux fesses;
“Tu trouveras au bout de deux beaux seins bien lourds,
Deux larges médailles de bronze,
Et sous un ventre uni, doux comme du velours,
Bistre comme la peau d’un bonze,
“Une riche toison qui, vraiment, est la soeur
De cette énorme chevelure,
Souple et frisée, et qui t’égale en épaisseur,
Nuit sans étoiles, Nuit obscure!”30
The composition, all in black, sets out from the shadows of lowered eyebrows31 and moves to the eyes, which, “quoique très noirs, m’inspirent des pensers / Qui ne sont pas du tout funèbres.” This initial conjunction of shadowy eyebrows and dark eyes states the nonfunereal principle that will be repeated several times: an accord or agreement that is a repetition which owes nothing either to metaphorical resemblance or to a metonymy of container/contained. These eyes are not windows into some interiority, and thus they do not evoke a lost time or a hidden place. They are rather nothing more (or less) than points of articulation on a differentiated surface that is not a surface covering or hiding something else. The principle of simple accord is stated directly in the second stanza, which also transfers voice to the other’s eyes:
Tes yeux, qui sont d’accord avec tes noirs cheveux,
Avec ta crinière élastique,
Tes yeux, languissamment, me disent:
What these eyes will call their “véracité” is nothing other than the posing side by side—the accord—of different features without any claims made about their sense in some larger signifying whole. No relations of signification are claimed to exist between any of the parts: both the metaphoric and metonymic principles, resemblance and contiguity, have been emptied of their sense-making potential. These eyes promise, but they do not promise a future meaning. They promise, rather, only to go on promising.
The prosopopoeia, the eyes’ speech, begins:
… “Si tu veux,
Amant de la muse plastique,
“Suivre l’espoir qu’en toi nous avons excite,
Et tous les goûts que tu professes,
Tu pourras constater notre véracité,
Depuis le nombril jusqu’aux fesses.”
The relation between the eyes and the lower torso is articulated here like a sign: the one pointing to the other and arousing an expectation. The expectation is answered, however, in a markedly circular form: “Tu pourras constater notre véracité / Depuis le nombril jusqu’aux fesses.” If the eyes can be said to point to—or promise—the lower torso, then it is because the lower torso points to the eyes’ veracity in appearing to point to the torso and so forth. Each feature promises the other with a kind of redundancy that is perfectly stable because it keeps turning in a circle. Other features can be brought into the picture in the next stanza without substantial alteration to this pattern.
Only the final two lines seem to make a gesture off in another direction:
“Tu trouveras …
Une riche toison qui, vraiment, est la soeur
De cette énorme chevelure,
Souple et frisée, et qui t’égale en épaisseur,
Nuit sans étoiles, Nuit obscure!”
Do these last lines promise an equivalent or a substitute for the depth of night? If so, then the eyes’ speech breaks with its own principle of veracity, its pattern of nonsubstitution and nontotalization. It would thereby come very close to echoing the sort of promise made by the vampire before she undergoes her metamorphoses. She says: “Je remplace, pour qui me voit nue et sans voiles, / La lune, le soleil, le ciel et les étoiles.”32 “Les Promesses d’un visage” may be hiding another face of the vampire.
One detail of these concluding lines we have yet to mention. At the same moment at which the eyes’ discourse falls into promising the moon and the stars, it also turns to address the dark night: “et qui t’égale en épaisseur, / Nuit sans étoiles, Nuit obscure!” What difference, if any, does this detail of address make in the promising structure of the poem?
The answer lies in a deep fold along which the poem opens and closes like a mouth or an eye, its two lips or lids joining and parting. The final apostrophe to dark night is spoken by the dark eyes, which are themselves made to speak by apostrophe and prosopopoeia of darkness. Thus the final apostrophe restates the initial one: the poem’s lower edge meets and joins its upper one in a circulation for which there is no end in sight and no promise of final meaning. Specifically, it cannot be said that the poem’s initial voice, attributed to the poet, contains or encloses the other voice, atributed to a woman’s eyes. Rather, the meeting or joining of the two voices makes of each the other’s container and contained. Each holds the memory of the other and promises its return. This is its ring of truth.
One could ask, finally, why this poem has received so little critical notice. I am tempted at least to wonder whether readers have not always sensed something distinctly un-Baudelairean in the voice which, once invoked, takes over the poem. I am thinking of what could be called its flatness, the fact that it remains on the surface and exposes the superficial relation not only of the signs it speaks but of the very sign that it is assumed to be by the Poet’s address. This flatness is something quite different from the depth of those eyes in “L’Amour du men-songe,” which may be “plus vides, plus profonds que vous-memes, 6 Cieux.”33 In “Les Promesses d’un visage,” the transcendent, celestial backdrop drops away and with it the promise of metaphor’s final revelation, its corps mis a nu. And this despite the central topos of the striptease, which has been not so much turned inside out as turned back on the spectator, mocking the “amant de la muse plastique.” The mocking tone is to be heard in the distinctly prosaic line “Tu pourras consta-ter notre véracité,” as well as in the interjected “vraiment,” a mocking that aims at the Poet’s predilection for the lie of metaphor, for women who are like decorative souvenir lockets or for eyes whose dark depths seem to promise that of night. When this very Baudelairean figure is invoked, therefore, in the last lines, has it not been taken over and exposed in its turn as a lie imposed by a willing blindness? And thus, is it even possible still to hear it in Baudelaire’s “own” voice?
One may want to make these questions go away and, along with them, the noninteriorizable other who, I am suggesting, has somehow managed to get out in this poem. One may, that is, want to conclude that the mockery is simply self-inflicted or calculated and thus recuperable to what is being mocked. To do so, however, would be to seal off Baudelaire’s signature, to make it finally, for us, today, unreadable. If, on the other hand, it is precisely the recuperative or totalizing power of any one voice that has been given the lie in this poem, then an opening still remains and a chance for readdress, even—who knows?—for redress. In the end, this belying effect cannot be made in any simple sense internal to the lie’s calculation. Some other voice will have had its say in “Les Promesses d’un visage.” If this voice promises a return and lends to the poem its ring of truth, it is because of the deviation imposed or inflicted on the circular return of the same by the other. The only sense of this circle comes from the opening onto the sense of the other, the sharing, dividing of voice.
1Peggy Kamuf, Fictions of Feminine Desire: Disclosures of Heloise (Lincoln, Nebr., 1982]. The other four texts are the letters of Heloise and Abelard, Les Lettres portugaises, La Princesse de Clèves, and Les Liaisons dangereuses.
2De Man, Rhetoric of Romanticism, 70.
3A text such as Jacques Derrida’s Glas, whose author obviously calculates to an entirely new power the autobiographical back and forth between readable signatures, is at the same time a persistent demonstration of the necessary failure of that calculation, the unsaturable context of any text that makes for its interest. “But you can take interest in what I am doing here only insofar as you would be right to believe that—somewhere—I do not know what I am doing” (64R).
4Alice Jardine, in Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), refines somewhat each of these steps. Still she retains the positions in their integrity and speculates on what a “female signature” would look like (185).
5On this notion of the “autobiography of the other,” see Derrida, in McDonald, ed., The Ear of the Other, 50–51: “Nietzsche’s signature does not take place when he writes. He says clearly that it will take place posthumously … when the other comes to sign with him, to join with him in alliance and, in order to do so, to hear and understand him. … In other words … it is the ear of the other that signs. The ear of the other says me to me and constitutes the autos of my autobiography. When, much later, the other will have perceived with a keen-enough ear what I will have addressed or destined to him or her, then my signature will have taken place.”
6Nancy, Partage des voix, 39–40.
7Quoted by the editor in Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1975), 1:948; all further references will be included in the text.
8If indeed this is Pichois’s point, it is not particularly well taken about “Sonnet d’automne,” where a question put to the poet is put off because it is too probing rather than too stupid. The remark would have been better placed as a note to the “Taisez-vous” of “Semper Eadem,” which is discussed below.
9’’Apostrophes are embarrassing,” writes Jonathan Culler in “Reading Lyric,” Yale French Studies 69 (1985), 99, an article that is very helpful in elucidating Paul de Man’s reflections on Baudelaire’s lyric in “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric,” in Rhetoric of Romanticism. De Man also notes the embarrassment of apostrophe when he remarks about the opening stanza of “Obsession”: “We are all frightened by windy woods but do not generally make a spectacle of ourselves talking to trees” (255). Culler, particularly, suggests that absurdity or embarrassment may help explain why apostrophe is so often neglected by readers, leaving relatively untouched its trope of anthropomorphism, whose workings de Man is concerned to lay out. The point, however, would be that anthropomorphism is better hidden but no less at work when apostrophe seems “reasonable,” when, that is, it is another talking creature, rather than woods, that is being addressed. Indeed, the violence that may be implied or entailed is all the more effective by appearing more reasonable.
10The initial reporter in the 1856 journal article, Raymond de Breilh, betrays what may itself be a kind of naive understanding of Jeanne’s naïve—or at least unformulated—understanding. When he writes that “la dame ne trouve pas le regime a son gout” (the lady does not find this diet to her taste), his language suggests that this situation of address is to be compared to a forced feeding. The metaphor may even have prompted the use of the epithet “goose,” which, besides having connotations of silliness and femininity (is it because geese are monogamous?), is also regularly subjected in the French countryside to gavage, or forced feeding. In any case, the image of the violent or at least unwelcome address implies a kind of interiorization when it likens listening (or reading) to eating. Although it’s too early to judge, the comparison to interiorization may be telling more than it means to say about the violence of address.
11Deguy, “Le Corps de Jeanne,” Poétique 3 (1970), 338.
12Barbara Johnson has also noticed that “something strange soon happens” when Baudelaire’s verse addresses a feminine figure and gets her to talk. See “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion,” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986), esp. 30–31.
13This is the first and last time in Les Fleurs du mal that the word “mere” is employed in its primary, biological sense. Sima Godfrey, however, has argued persuasively that the “mere des souvenirs” is a figure close to the source of Baudelaire’s lyricism and should also be read literally; see ‘“Mère des souvenirs’: Baudelaire, Memory, and Mother,” L’Esprit Créateur 25(2).
14“His woman goes screeching through the public squares.” All translations from Les Fleurs du mal are my own and are meant only to give a sense of the rhetorical patterns that are the focus of the readings proposed here. The specificity of these patterns tends to disappear in the published translations.
15This could explain why, for example, one could propose to speak of “dialogue” in these poems and then be forced to recognize that one of the dialogue’s interlocutors is almost always silent. Russell S. King, in “Dialogue in Baudelaire’s Poetic Universe,” L’Esprit Créateur 13(2), writes: “Dialogue … is here defined as that portion of a poem contained between inverted commas, representing the conversational element. Usually only the addresser’s speech is present, with the addressee remaining silent” (115).
16She is in my voice, this screeching one! / All my blood is this black poison! / I am the sinister glass / In which the shrew looks at herself. / I am the wound and the knife! / I am the slap and the cheek! / I am the limbs and the wheel, / The victim and the executioner!
17“Elle est dans ma voix” might be called a parasitical or inverted prosopopoeia since, instead of lending voice to the figure of Irony, the poet’s own voice is here infiltrated and taken over by “la criarde.”
18Consider, for example, the poem “Confession,” about which Jean Prévost remarks: “This is more or less the only time in Baudelaire’s whole opus that the beloved woman is treated as a thinking being.” Baudelaire (Paris, 1953), 205. The poem stages the scene of a courtesan (Mme Sabatier is usually taken to be the model) confessing to the Poet a despair that, as a woman of the world, she must keep hidden. The eleven lines of this confession are between inverted commas and are specifically attributed to her voice (rather than to her eyes, for example), more precisely, to a dissonant note in her voice. Yet the syntax of the quoted lines indicates indirect rather than direct discourse and thus effects a curious mixing of reporting and reported voices, of addresser and addressee: “Pauvre ange, elle chantait, votre note criarde: / ’Que rien ici-bas n’est certain, / Et que toujours …’” (Poor dear, your grating note sang: / “That nothing here below is certain, / And that always …”).
19“From where, you were saying, does this strange sadness come over you, / Rising like the sea onto the black and naked rock?” / —Once the heart has had its harvest, / Living is an evil. It’s a secret that everyone knows, / A very simple and unmysterious pain, / And, like your joy, obvious to everyone.
20So stop looking, o beautiful, curious one! / And, even though your voice is sweet, be quiet! / Be quiet, ignorant one! Always ecstatic soul! / Childishly laughing mouth! Even more than Life, / Death often has a subtle hold on us. / Let my heart get drunk on a lie, / Dive into your beautiful eyes as in a dream, / And sleep for a long time in the shadow of your lashes.
21besides some thematic parallels with “Semper Eadem,” the poem “A Celle qui est trop gaie” (To her who is too gay) suggests yet another displacement of the laughing, mocking mouth to “ces lèvres nouvelles / Plus éclatantes et plus belles” (these novel lips / More striking and more beautiful) which the Poet dreams of opening in the woman’s flank.
22See Deguy for a superb reading of “La Mort des amants,” a poem that fantasizes the simultaneous death of the lovers.
23The fact that the two poems were first published together in the same issue of a journal (Revue Contemporaine, 15 May 1860) before they were both included in the second, 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal suggests a renvoi between the lie in the one and the other.
24In “Getting Versed: Reading Hegel with Baudelaire,” Cynthia Chase analyzes the poetic process with reference to memory in the two senses that Hegel distinguishes: Erinnerung, interiorizing remembrance, and Gedächtnis, thinking memory, but also the rote memorization of signs. Decomposing Figures: Rhetorical Readings in the Romantic Tradition (Baltimore, 1986), 113–38. It may be possible to read the poems concerned with the faculty of woman’s memory as thematizing in effect an attempted suppression of Gedächtnis so as to preserve Erinnerung from potential erosion by exteriority, the other’s speech.
25Mask or decoration, greetings! I adore your beauty.
26Are you a funeral urn waiting for some tears.
27Richard Stamelman, “The Shroud of Allegory: Death, Mourning, and Melancholy in Baudelaire’s Work,” Texas Studies of Literature and Language 25(3), 395. Like other treatments of Baudelaire and mourning, Stamelman draws on Walter Benjamin’s analysis of widowhood as an allegory for the condition of modern, urban life. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1973).
28A more detailed reading of this poem would have to begin by correcting a frequent mistake concerning the lie that has to be sustained. This is not the lie of the woman’s beauty in spite of her age. If anything, it is precisely the contrary that is asserted, since only the suggestions of her maturity can offer an apparent support for the desired illusion of a massive memory—“Le souvenir massif” (l. 10)—which is said to crown her. Baudelaire, in fact, may have been the first misreader of his poem, as the initial version carried an epigraph from Athalie (later deleted) which pointed to age as what had to be dissimulated: “Même elle avait encor cet éclat emprunté / Dont elle eut soin de peindre et d’orner son visage / Pour réparer des ans l’irréparable outrage” (She even had still that borrowed bloom / With which she was careful to paint and decorate her face / So as to repair the irreparable outrage of time). Sima Godfrey’s reading, although it does not refer to this poem, enforces the link between the mourning woman and the container by placing the period of Mme Baudelaire’s mourning at the matrix of the melancholic fantasy. Of this period, Baudelaire writes to his mother: “Mais j’étais toujours vivant en toi; tu étais uniquement à moi” (But I was still living in you; you were uniquely mine); cited by Godfrey, 35.
29As far as I have been able to determine, only Jean Prévost has given any sustained attention to this poem and then only to dismiss it as sournois (shifty) (285).
30I love, pale beauty, your lowered eyebrows, / From which shadows seem to flow; / Your eyes, although very black, inspire me with thoughts / That are not in the least funereal. / Your eyes, which agree with your black hair, / With your elastic mane, / Your eyes, languidly, say to me: “If you wish, / O lover of the plastic muse, / To pursue the hope that we have aroused in you, / And all the tastes that you profess, / You can certify our veracity / Between the navel and the thighs; / You will find at the end of two fine heavy breasts, / Two large medals of bronze, / And beneath a smooth belly, soft as velvet, / Brown as the skin of a bonze, / A rich fleece which, in truth, is the sister of that enormous head of hair, / Supple and curly, and which is you, equal for darkness, / Starless night, obscure Night!”
31These “sourcils surbaissés” led George Heard Hamilton to wonder whether Baudelaire’s “pâle beauté” was not also Manet’s “Chanteuse des rues,” since, when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1863, the painting drew hoots from one critic for what he took to be eyebrows on either side of the bridge of the figure’s nose. See Manet and His Critics (New York, 1969), 40, n. 4.
32For whoever sees me naked and without my veils, I take the place of / The moon, the sun, the sky and the stars.
33Emptier, deeper than yourselves, O Heavens.