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Writing in Pain: Baudelaire’s Urban Poetics

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Abstract

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
  2. See also Ross Chambers, “Are Baudelaire’s ‘Tableaux parisiens’ about Paris?” in On Referring in Literature, ed. Anna Whiteside and Michael Issacharoff (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 95–110. In reference to the “Tableaux parisiens,” Chambers notes that Paris is the “illocutionary context, or code, … metaphoric of the modern,” that gives “point” to the poetic utterance (102, 99).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Charles Baudelaire Oeuvres completes, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1975–1976), 1: 275–276.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Leo Bersani, “Boundaries of Time and Being: Benjamin, Baudelaire, Nietzsche,” in his The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    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
  6. See also the discussion of pleasure and pain in Leo Bersani, Baudelaire and Freud (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), and “Boundaries,” 71–73.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    For a detailed analysis of the ways in which Baudelaire’s writing registers the effects of private and public history—the emergence of market society and the poet’s financial dispossession at the hands of his stepfather; the usurpation of the democratic ideals of 1830 and 1848 by the authoritarian regime of Napoleon III—see Eugene W. Holland, Baudelaire and Schizoanalysis: The Sociopoetics of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). “History,” says Holland, “is … related metonymically to a text in two different ways: both as its context (producing effects) and as its referent (produced in response)” (Baudelaire and Schizoanalysis, 262).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 7.
    On allegory, see Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977); on irony and allegory, see de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” 187–228. For suggestive studies of the interaction between irony and allegory in Baudelaire’s verse poetry, see Ross Chambers, “Memory and Melancholy,” in his The Writing of Melancholy, 153–173; and Nathaniel Wing, “The Danaides Vessel: On Reading Baudelaire’s Allegories,” in his The Limits of Narrative, 8–18.Google Scholar
  9. Clarifying work on allegory in Le Spleen de Paris has been done by Marie Maclean, Narrative as Performance: The Baudelairean Experiment (New York: Routledge, 1988).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    On the meaning and etymology of the terms Erlebnis and Erfahrung (both of which are translated as “experience”), see Jonathan Arac, “Walter Benjamin and Materialist Historiography,” in his Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 182. As Bersani points out, Benjamin’s historicization of Freud’s theory of the relation between perception, unconscious memory, and traumatic dreams gives to the unreflective an emphasis and a value that are not found in Freud’s discussion. Yet Freud’s argument (in Beyond the Pleasure Principle) is “not invulnerable to a certain historical translation” (Bersani, “Boundaries of Time and Being,” 52).Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: NLB, 1973), 171.Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    Regarding the influence of the newspaper on Baudelaire, see, in addition to Benjamin (“Motifs,” and Charles Baudelaire, 27–34), Terdiman, Discourse/Counter-Discourse, 117–146; Jonathan Monroe, A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 96–97;Google Scholar
  13. and Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 147–148.Google Scholar
  14. 23.
    My understanding of opposition as an appropriative practice arising from and within power itself is informed by Foucault (see especially Discipline and Punish; The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley [New York: Random House, 1978], 92–102; and Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, and Kate Soper [New York: Random House, 1980]); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); and by Ross Chambers’s brilliant theoretical extension and critical implementation of both Foucault and Certeau in Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    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
  16. see Michel Butor, Histoire Extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire’s, trans. Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), 40–47, 74–84, 136. For useful social and psychological insights into Baudelaire’s aesthetics of prostitution,Google Scholar
  17. see Jonathan Arac, “Charles Baudelaire,” in The Romantic Century: Charles Baudelaire to the Well-Made Play, vol. 7 of European Writers, ed. Jacques Barzun and George Stade (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985), 1332;Google Scholar
  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
  19. 27.
    This perception is discussed by Stallybrass and White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 131–136; Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 36–37;Google Scholar
  20. Louis Chevalier, Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses à Paris pendant la première moitié du XIXe siècle (Paris: Plon, 1958); Barrows, Distorting Mirrors. Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture, 5th ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 275.Google Scholar
  22. 32.
    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
  27. 36.
    Georges Haussmann, Mémoires du Baron Haussmann, 3 vols., 3rd ed. (Paris: Victor-Havard, 1890–1893), 3: 54–55.Google Scholar
  28. 39.
    Jeanne Gaillard, Paris, la ville, 1852–1870: l’urbanisme parisien à l’heure d’Haussmann (Paris: Champion, 1977), 39.Google Scholar
  29. 44.
    Françoise Choay, The Modern City: Planning in the Nineteenth-Century, trans. Marguerite Hugo and George R. Collins (New York: George Braziller, 1969), 18.Google Scholar
  30. 46.
    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
  31. 49.
    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
  32. 53.
    Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained, trans. Don Barry, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia Spate, and Morgan Thomas (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 13.Google Scholar
  33. 54.
    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
  34. 62.
    On the privatization of the street, see François Bédarida and Anthony R. Sutcliffe, “The Street in the Structure and Life of the City: Reflections on Nineteenth-Century London and Paris,” in Modern Industrial Cities: History, Policy, and Survival, ed. Bruce M. Stave (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1981), 21–38.Google Scholar
  35. 64.
    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
  36. 65.
    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
  37. 67.
    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
  38. 71.
    Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), 82.Google Scholar
  39. 79.
    For an examination of the reasons why the rate of death from disease remained high among working-class Parisians despite Haussmann’s public health policies, see Anthony Sutcliffe, The Autumn of Central Paris: The Defeat of Town Planning 1850–1970, Studies in Urban History, vol. 1 (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), 103–105.Google Scholar
  40. 83.
    B. Friedmann, Die Wohnungsnot in Wien (Wien, 1857), quoted by Niethammer, “Some Elements of the Housing Reform Debate,” 138.Google Scholar
  41. 92.
    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
  42. 94.
    Anthony Vidier, in The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), uses the terms homely and unhomely to translate heimlich and unheimlich, respectively.Google Scholar

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© Vaheed Ramazani 2007

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