There are several watersheds in human history, although I do not think very many. I tried to give an account of the watersheds of Western civilization from an “esthetic” point of view (today I would say, “scenic”) in Originary Thinking. The idea of describing Western history as a series of “esthetics” or differently structured relationships between individuals and their cultural scene facilitates understanding of the historical evolution of art and of the human community that realizes itself in it. Once we understand that this evolution is not driven by a desire, let alone a need to “improve” on earlier works, but by the evolution of the “civilized” human social order toward greater complexity and self-awareness, we free ourselves from the idea of “progress” in art that goes back well before Darwin to the Renaissance and the querelle des anciens et des modernes.

Of the several watersheds in human scenicity that these esthetics embody, the one that has most intrigued me since the beginning of my studies is that of the 1848 revolutions and their aftermath. This historical moment is often decribed, I think misleadingly, as a transition from the (early bourgeois) romantic era to modernity. I think the post-1848 era has an ethos and esthetic of its own that we may call postromanticism. The modernist esthetic, a product of the early 20th century, is much more assertive and anarchistic, much more like a new romanticism in fact, corresponding in the political sphere to a new (Marxist and fascist) anti-bourgeois revolutionary era.

The postromantic transition, more clearly marked in France than elsewhere as a result of its decisively disillusioning political revelations, is exemplified on the esthetic front by a novelist and a poet, Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire, born the same year (1821) and arguably the century’s most influential creators in their respective fields. Both also published their most important works in the same year (1857), and as a result were pursued in court for outrage aux moeurs, although Flaubert, whose scandal was less flamboyant, was acquitted.

Since as a student I was more comfortable with prose than poetry (which was a genuine specialty in those days), I wrote my dissertation on Flaubert. Entitled The Discovery of Illusion, it was a study of Flaubert’s posthumously published early writings. These works, mostly school assignments written between the ages of 15 and 17, displayed in hyperbolic form the romantic themes of the misunderstood hero, a helpless giant in a world of pygmies, victim of a cruel father (and older brother) but beloved of his mother, played out in a context that one need not be a Freudian to recognize as the bourgeois “family drama.” As a result, if not a logical consequence of this early activity, by the time Flaubert was ready to write real novels, he had exhausted the narrative-dramatic formulae that operated in the world of Balzac and Stendhal and after painful hesitation was obliged to create the new, postromantic form of narrative exemplified by Madame Bovary, certainly the most influential European novel of the 19th century.

I have remained a “Flaubertian,” sharing the true Flaubertian’s preference for the author’s less popular but certainly greater 1869 novel L’éducation sentimentale (a preference shared by Proust, if not by Nathalie Sarraute who, I fear, did not understand the novel’s point). But over the years I have been increasingly drawn to Baudelaire, whose Fleurs du mal have been as influential in the poetic sphere as Madame Bovary in that of narrative.

It is fairly simple to understand how Flaubert transforms romantic narrative. The key term of “free indirect discourse” exemplifies a technique that lets the “inauthentic,” illusory language of the character replace the all-knowing word of the Balzacian or Stendhalian novelist. The reader no longer has a sure guide to the objective significance of the heroine’s desires in the broader scheme of things; the narrative universe is held together by the “novelist” but no longer by the “narrator,” who with few exceptions lets his characters live and die in “their own” language, a mimetic jargon of pseudo-romantic empathy, whether that of the sentimental novels Emma read as a girl in her convent school, Rodolphe’s cynical discourse of “romantic” seduction, or the mealy-mouthed political discourses at the Agricultural Fair that Flaubert alternates with Rodolphe’s in his most brilliant scene. This kind of “realism” sets artistic achievement outside the realm of worldly desire; the novelist no longer expresses himself as a superior, transcendent but still recognizably human ego, but as one who renounces his own language of desire to construct a work from the illusory languages of others, implying that this extra-worldlypraxis is the only path to salvation: l’art pour l’art.


Baudelaire’s contribution to the postromantic universe is much harder to grasp. The more obvious aspects of his work, those most scandalously present in his own time, reflect his origins in le bas-romantisme, the “low” romanticism common in the 1840s when French romanticism, itself a late development in continental terms, was already over 20 years old and forced new, younger writers into paradoxical positions. That the principle of romanticism is that the Self suffices as the repository of the public scene of representation does not make any less true Girard’s critique that human desire is in the first place mimetic. If their post-revolutionary historical situation allowed the first-generation romantics, without even asserting their uniqueness, to simply affirm their desires as a new source of meaning, those who followed found it increasingly difficult to avoid repeating the tropes of their predecessors. Years ago I wrote a book on Alfred de Musset, born in 1810, like Gautier and Nerval a member of the “second generation” after Hugo and the others, who found a narrow and temporary path to a kind of literary salvation by a highly self-conscious theatrical splitting of the “free” romantic self into the naive-romantic lover and the cynical libertine who can only act in the world by taking on voluntarily the lover’s limitations. But by the 1840s there was no more room for such maneuvers. Baudelaire, like Flaubert, would come into his own only with the 1848 revolution, whose failure revealed for all to see the failure of the romantic politics of compassion and hence of the “Hugolian” principle of romantic literature, in which a dominant consciousness organizes the world and guides our sympathies while arousing no essential conflict with the subjectivities of his readers.

In “Baudelaire et la douleur de la signification,” published as a chapter in my 1974 Essais d’esthétique paradoxale, I attempted to construct a model of the evolution of 19th century French poetry. Romantic poetry is based on the poet’s confidence in language to depict a shared universe and to transmit “authentic” feelings; a romantic poem, as a rule, paints a coherent picture within which all its elements are integrated. The romantic poet, like Victor Hugo in the preface to Les contemplations, could claim “when I speak of me, I speak of you . . . [you are] mad to think that I am not you.” I called this, in Saussurean terms, the “utopia of the signified.” Because all speakers of a language understand the meanings (signifieds) of the signs of language (signifiers), their very use in the public language of poetry creates a poetic utopia where we all share each other’s feelings in a celebration of communal unity. It is not altogether an exaggeration to speak of the first (February) phase of the 1848 revolution as the political expression of this attitude: Alphonse de Lamartine, the inaugurator of French poetic romanticism, was the Second Republic’s first president, and Victor Hugo, the romantic movement’s leader since the late 1820s, a major parliamentary figure.

If the romantic poet thought that egos could interact without rivalry, the poets who followed Baudelaire, whose poetics I called “the utopia of the signifier,” tended toward impersonality, as exemplified in Stéphane Mallarmé’s later poetry from which the first person has been all but expelled. As opposed to Hugo’s idea that he was given language to express his own thoughts and feelings as exemplarily equivalent to everyone else’s, Mallarmé insisted on a “death” of the self that would “give a purer sense to the words of the tribe.” The signifier was to be purified of the ego’s narrow application of it to the contents of his own experience and would thus retrieve its true collective function. This is anything but absurd in the context of generative anthropology. On the contrary, if language originates as the deferral/sacralization of a common desire, the search for a pre-egoistic vision embodied in language itself is indeed a kind of discovery principle, and in Mallarmé’s empty rooms and post-mortem seascapes we have a glimpse of a kind of anthropogenic poetry. It is a poetry that seeks through the effort to eliminate all prior content from the poet’s scenic imagination the invariant tropes most fundamental to this scene: the shipwreck/drowned siren of “A la nue accablante tu,” the raped/sacrificed nixe of “Ses purs ongles,” the “might have been born” self in the parental bed of “Une dentelle s’abolit.”

Yet if Hugo strikes us as hubristic in his easy assimilation of others’ feelings to his own, Mallarmé is equally so in claiming to expel his own ego from his poetic universe. As my terminology was meant to suggest, the poetics of both are equally utopian in their dismissal of the “original sin” of the desiring self. Hugo embodies the romantic hubris that would lead to the failure of the Second Republic and the hard rule of Napoleon III; Mallarmé reflects the tranquillity of the Third Republic and of the European Belle Epoque that could begin to grasp originary violence (“nature red in tooth and claw”) but not anticipate the human violence of the twentieth century.


From the utopia of the signified to the utopia of the signifier, from Hugo’s I, which is everywhere, to Mallarmé’s, which is nowhere, the transformation is clear enough. Yet Baudelaire, on whose example the later generation depended, was of all poets the most sharply aware of the tension, moral as well as simply “esthetic,” inherent in using (impersonal, immortal) language to share (personal, mortal) representations with one’s reader, and hence of the lyric’s potential for staging the problematic relationship between egos in the modern, “secular” world.

This is made explicit from the start in “Au lecteur,” the liminal poem of Les fleurs, which ends with the archetypal Baudelairean line “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère” [hypocritical reader, my fellow, my brother]. From the perspective of the first person plural (Baudelaire is the only poet of the century to regularly say “we”; he will again use “we” exclusively in the final poem of the collection, its longest, “Le voyage”), “Au lecteur” describes our fallen state and above all our susceptibility to ennui, which is in this context a culturaldisponibilité, the state in which we read (write?) poetry as what Pascal called a divertissementto distract from our fallen condition.

To understand Baudelaire we must understand his continued attachment to the bas-romantisme of his origins, shared with others of his “late” generation. Flaubert occupied a different place in this generation; as a fils de famille not aristocratic/fallen but simply bourgeois, he had no use for the Bohemia that Baudelaire, always in debt and disgrace, frequented and cultivated. In political terms, this means that Flaubert could deal with the romantic illusions that he attributed to his characters through a wholly distanced and ironized nostalgia. Flaubert’s passage to the postromantic took the form of a conversion. The transition from the first (1849)Tentation de Saint Antoine to Madame Bovary reflected a fairly straightforward suppression of his earlier tendencies to romantic self-indulgence. In contrast, Baudelaire never simply denied romanticism but worked through it to a new state. This never-completed dialectic retained an extreme tension that in the best poems was realized in a synthesis of experience and language. With the partial exception of certain early works that embody the superficial Bohemian faith in the lower classes, each poem of Les fleurs begins anew from a bas-romantique desire that knows itself to be guilt-laden and “late,” lacking in the pseudo-excuse of newness. The writer addresses his hypocrite lecteur as one who is not seeking à la Hugo the assimilation of the latter’s cultural energy. This might be said to be nothing but a ploy to dominate all the more, but it is earned through the admission of our shared guilt in indulging our desiring imagination and above all by the poet’s implied promise that the beauty of his language will both oblige us to share his desire and purify it of any narrow egoism.


The Fleurs cannot usefully be discussed as a whole beyond what we may call their overall intention, to extract “flowers” from the “evil” of mortal life. It is a collection of poems, some of which are masterpieces, but all of which benefit from their place in the work’s biographical architecture and from our knowledge that Les fleurs is not a collection among others but the poet’s life-work. (To quote his most celebrated statement about Les fleurs, written to his financial guardian Ancelle on February 18, 1866, barely a year before his death: “Need I tell you that in this horrible book I have put all my heart, all my tenderness, all my religion (falsified), all my hatred?”) To understand Baudelaire’s poetics we must examine the individual poems, bearing in mind that the pathos that attends their multiplicity is diminished if not eliminated by their collocation. In contrast with Hugo’s long poems destined to serve as metaphysical syntheses (leading him to produce vast unfinished volumes, La fin de Satan, Dieu…) but whose very proliferation shows the poet’s inability to “conclude” (“Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre” is only one of several 700+ line poems in Les contemplations), Baudelaire’s concluding “Le voyage” doesn’t seek a cosmic synthesis but remains credibly within the autobiographical arc of Les fleurs, ending with death and the exhortation to go beyond it to seek the new in the unknown (“Au fond de l’inconnu pour trouver du nouveau“).

Many, perhaps most of Baudelaire’s poems leave an impression of either banality or excessive horror, reflecting the bas-romantique origins he rarely lets us forget. Yet his best poetry achieves a level of integration found nowhere else. As in all good poetry, but I think in his case more so, language seems to reinvent itself on the originary scene of deferred desire. In order to create meaning, as at the origin, one must need it as an antidote against potentially conflictive desire. This creation in Baudelaire’s case is explicitly understood as guilt-inducing since it forces the poet’s object of desire on the reader, whose hypocrisy is expected to enjoy this as an entertainment, a kind of literary pornography. Beyond the few openly pornographic or titillating poems, six of which were condemned in 1857, are many others that emphasize horror and violence, even necrophilia (“Une martyre”). But these illustrate Baudelaire’s esthetic only superficially, extracting beauty from le mal, whereas his best poems construct an esthetic correlative of the historical situation to which the poet bears witness.


Leaving the analysis of complete poems for the second part of this essay, I will conclude thisChronicle by examining a single line of Baudelaire’s poetry. For the genius of poetry lies in the details of language, and no one has shown himself capable of more beautiful poetic lines than Baudelaire.

My favorite example, perhaps Baudelaire’s best, is found in “Le goût du néant” [The taste for nothingness]. After telling us that “l’amour n’a plus de goût, non plus que la dispute” [love has no more savor, nor does argument] we find the line:

Le Printemps adorable a perdu son odeur! [the adorable spring has lost its odor!]

The consonantal harmony of this line is remarkable. The consonants of “le Printempsadorable” reappear in reduced form in “perdu son odeur,” save that if “perdu” repeats the consonants of “printemps,” the “t” becoming softened to “d” (while the “z” of “[z]adorable” is devoiced to the “s” of “son”) “adorable” loses its ending in becoming “odeur,” thus embodying the loss of the the adorable quality of the odor itself in the very word that designates it. This self-referential, paradoxical irony reflects the interactive meaning of the line in the “conversation” between poet and reader. Although the loss is stated objectively, it is clearly meant as subjective: spring has lost its odor for me. “Adorable” spring, once a source of romantic idealization and mock-adoration, is now odorless, adorable no longer. Among other evidence, the poet’s self-description as boudeur [sulking] in the preceding line makes clear that this is a voluntary role rather than a truly pathetic one. Yet the physical loss of sounds that illustrates the loss of adorable/odor makes it impossible to dismiss the explicit declaration of Spring’s loss of odor as a mere attitude.

The postromantic here goes beyond the bas-romantique, who would have had us share pathos rather than irony. Can we cry for the sulking poet-dandy? Yet we cannot mock him either, since the strength of the line, quite simply, its beauty, is its demonstration of the reality of his loss. This is in miniature an example of la douleur de la signification. Baudelaire is neither painting a picture of horrors nor letting the words themselves become the picture. The words guarantee their meaning as signifiers that “lose” their substance in becoming the word (odeur) that denotes what was lost, in contrast with the “beautiful” but ultimately empty word “adorable.” The romantic subjectivity that would impose the adorable quality of the spring suffers a loss that is “objective” only in the substance of the poem itself—a substance chosen by the poet, which therefore in worldly terms appears necessarily willful and ironic, as its location in the domain of Spleen suggests. This is no longer straight romantic pathos, but nor is it Verlainean complicity à la “Il pleure dans mon coeur” or “Les sanglots longs…,” where the language simply conforms to the poetic subject’s pathos at the expense of its “objectve” meaning (what else are “sanglots longs des violons de l’automne” [long sobs of the violins of autumn] other than an “impersonal” use of language that imposes on natural reality the poet’s subjective sentiments?)


In a follow-up Chronicle I will attempt to deal with Baudelaire’s poetics on the scale of the individual poem, choosing one “happy” and one “unhappy” example—and noting that in Baudelaire’s poetry the question of the subject’s happiness in the poetic world he creates is, in contrast with that of either the romantic (who, however existentially sad, is always happy quapoet) or the symbolist (for whom poetic creation transcends the mortal human condition), is not merely exemplified but constructed by the poem itself. The line we analyzed above, for example, is part of an “unhappy” (Spleen) poem, albeit one of the most overtly ironic or (as some say) “comical.” The spring’s loss of its odor is preliminary to the poet’s terminal request “Avalanche, veux-tu m’emporter dans ta chute?” [avalanche, will you take me along in your fall?], where the hyperbole of the violence requested entails the ironic conclusion that it is posturing and therefore reflects less suffering than it pretends.

This constant ironic avowal of hypocrisy and manipulation is unique to Baudelaire and uniquely problematizes the poet’s and his readers’ mutual hypocrisy. But the beauty of poetry’s embodiment of this paradoxical situation is also unique to Baudelaire, one might say because only he needs such beauty in order to realize his poetical gageure of extracting flowers from evil—in the Jansenist sense of evil banalityLes fleurs du mal.

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This Chronicle (and, hopefully, its sequel) is dedicated to Carolyn, Cristina, Dorthea, Hope, Louise, and Nanar, the students in my just-concluded seminar on Hugo’s Les contemplationsand Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal.