Writing in Pain: Baudelaire’s Urban Poetics



Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have argued that “the body cannot be thought separately from the social formation, symbolic topography and the constitution of the subject. The body is neither a purely natural given nor is it merely a textual metaphor.”1 Elaine Scarry is similarly attentive to what she calls “the socialization of sentience” (BP 255). Locating the body’s capacities and needs at the origin of material culture, Scarry contends that human sentience is inevitably restructured by the very objects it produces. In other words, those objectifications of the body that comprise the made world—from the minutest physical or verbal artifact to that vast collective artifact called “civilization”—return as percepts and concepts to their source in the body, where they reside as the fundamental constituents of somatic (self-)experience.


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  1. 2.
    Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” trans. Harry Zohn, in his Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Fontana/Collins, 1973), 167.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, in “Le Peintre de la vie moderne”: “j’affirme que l’inspiration a quelque rapport avec la congestion, et que toute pensée sublime est accompagnée d’une secousse nerveuse, plus ou moins forte, qui retentit jusque dans le cervelet” (I would even assert that inspiration has something in common with convulsion, and that every sublime thought is accompanied by a nervous shock, more or less violent, that reverberates deep within the brain) (Oeuvres completes, 2: 690). But Baudelaire is well aware that pain also threatens creativity, for he fears “de voir s’user et péricliter, et disparaître, dans cette horrible existence pleine de secousses, l’admirable faculté poétique, la netteté d’idées, et la puissance d’espérance qui constituent en réalité mon capital” (seeing used up, depleted, and disappear—in this horrible existence full of shocks—the admirable poetic faculty, the clarity of thought, and the power of hope that in fact constitute my capital) (Charles Baudelaire, Correspondance, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. [Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1973], 1: 327).Google Scholar
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    On Baudelaire’s “decadent” rhetoric of sickness and of convalescence, see Barbara Spackman, Decadent Genealogies: The Rhetoric of Sickness from Baudelaire to D’Annunzio (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 33–104; for another, more biographical interpretation of the relation between venereal disease, art, and politics in Baudelaire,Google Scholar
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  18. Lloyd Spencer, “Allegory in the World of the Commodity: The Importance of Central ParkNew German Critique 34 (Winter 1985–1986): 66–68; Charles Bernheimer, Figures of Ill Repute, 1: 71–74; Bersani, Baudelaire and Freud, 8–15; Bersani, “Boundaries of Time and Being,” 69–86; Walter Benjamin, Central Park, trans. Lloyd Spencer with the help of Mark Harrington, New German Critique 34 (Winter 1985–1986): 40–41, 52–53; and Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 55–57, 166, 171.Google Scholar
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    Baudelaire’s irony, like Flaubert’s, must, I believe, be understood as metairony—as the ironic relation and, at the same time, as the ironization of the relation between irony and the sublime. But in the absence of that magisterial asyndeton and epic vision of history that, as we saw in the previous chapter, transmutes Flaubert’s metairony into a consoling (if temporary) metasublime, Baudelaire’s metairony remains aporetic, painful, or pained. This reading is fundamentally in accord with the critical consensus—from Suzanne Bernard, Le Poème en prose de Baudelaire jusqu’à nos jours (Paris: Nizet, 1959),Google Scholar
  23. to Barbara Johnson, Défigurations du langage poétique: la seconde révolution baudelairienne (Paris: Flammarion, 1979),Google Scholar
  24. to J.A. Hiddleston, Baudelaire and Le Spleen de Paris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)—that the encounter in Le Spleen de Paris between irony and lyricism only yields more irony. Of course, these critics’ conceptions of irony differ, and Barbara Johnson even avoids using the term irony. Yet her deconstruction of the boundary between lyricism and cliché constitutes both an ironic reading and, implicitly at least, a reading of irony. Two important books on Baudelaire’s irony and oppositionality appeared after I had published a condensed version of this chapter as “Writing in Pain: Baudelaire, Benjamin, Haussmann,” Boundary 2 23, no. 2 (1996).Google Scholar
  25. The first, Sonya Stephens’s Baudelaire’s Prose Poems: The Practice and Politics of Irony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), focuses on Baudelaire’s use of genre, puns, commonplaces, and caricature.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. The second, Debarati Sanyal’s The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony, and the Politics of Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) is a penetrating exploration of irony, trauma, and violence in politics and art. While neither of these studies discusses the textual mediation of pain to the extent that I do, both fruitfully complement my approach here, particularly in their attentiveness to the dialectical relationship between literary text and social praxis.Google Scholar
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    Georges Haussmann, Mémoires du Baron Haussmann, 3 vols., 3rd ed. (Paris: Victor-Havard, 1890–1893), 3: 54–55.Google Scholar
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    On the rebuilding of Paris as profitable industry, see T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 54; and Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture, 767.Google Scholar
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    As Karl Marx has shown in volume 1 of Capital, the commodity refers not to the physical labor of the producer but to other commodities; not to its own material properties but to the general equivalence of the money form; not to use-value but to price. In other words, the significance of commodities—the pain that they preempt (in the consumer) as well as the pain out of which they are born (in the producer)—is always elsewhere. The violence of commodities, therefore, is double: on the one hand, they “forget” the body of the producer; on the other hand, they displace the self-awareness of the consumer from the sentient experience of shock to inorganic objects, objects that function as the mirror of a permanently new—infinitely renewable—body. The “illusion of novelty,” says Benjamin, “is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the illusion of infinite sameness. The product of this reflection is the phantasmagoria of ‘cultural history’ in which the bourgeoisie enjoyed its false consciousness to the full” (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 172). Modern renewal—whether the ritualistic renewal of money and fashion or Haussmann’s renewal of the capital of fashion—suppresses difference (the otherness of pain) beneath a structure of specular repetition. Novelty, then, is the bourgeoisie’s complacent belief that there will never be anything new, that each new turn in history will bring only the return of the same class interests and control. On the relation between novelty and history, see Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing; and Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin, or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (New York: Verso, 1981). On the etymological, psychological, and economic connections between specularity and speculation, see Bell, Models of Power, 59–61, 73–74.Google Scholar
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    Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained, 15. See also Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 106, 101, 90.Google Scholar
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    I borrow this definition of legibility from Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: The Technology Press and Harvard University Press, 1960), 2, 89. Compare Fredric Jameson’s concept of mapping in his “Postmodernism,” 89–92.Google Scholar
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    For a reading of Baudelaire’s theory and practice of the sublime, see Suzanne Guerlac, The Impersonal Sublime: Hugo, Baudelaire, Lautréamont (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 68–122. Guerlac notes that Baudelaire receives Kantian and Longinian notions of sublimity from Edgar Allan Poe (especially from his “Poetic Principle”) and from Thomas de Quincey. Elements of the Burkean sublime descend to Baudelaire from Diderot’s aesthetic writings. And, explains Guerlac, Baudelaire follows Poe in using beauty as sometimes inclusive of what would later become known as the sublime (Impersonal Sublime, 68–69, 206 nn. 1, 3, 5). I should mention here that Guerlac explicitly distinguishes the philosophical ground of her study (a study that is, she says, in dialogue with the work of Jean-François Lyotard) from precisely that American tradition (represented by, among others, Harold Bloom, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Weiskel) that informs my approach to the sublime. The result of this difference is that, in her critical analyses, Guerlac treats as forms of sublimity the kinds of irresolvable textual tensions that I read as (or in the theoretical context of) irony.Google Scholar
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    On the technological evolution of the streetlight during this period, see David H. Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 72–74. That public lighting had long been associated in the popular mind with the repressive authority of the state is demonstrated by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, “The Policing of Street Lighting,” Yale French Studies, no. 73 (1987): 61–74.Google Scholar
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    Compare Paul de Man’s characterization of irony as “the undoing of the deconstructive allegory of all tropological cognitions, the systematic undoing, in other words, of understanding. As such, far from closing off the tropological system, irony enforces the repetition of its aberration” (Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figurai Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979], 301).Google Scholar
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© Vaheed Ramazani 2007

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