Benjamin on Baudelaire



Yes the ragpicker is also a figure for Baudelaire, for the poet who draws on the detritus of the society through which he moves, seizing that which seems useful in part because society has found it useless. And finally, the ragpicker is a figure for Baudelaire himself, for the critic who assembles his critical montage from inconspicuous images wrested forcefully from the seeming coherence of Baudelaire’s poems. Here and throughout Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire, we find a powerful identification with the poet: with his social isolation, with the relative failure of his work, and in particular with the fathomless melancholy that suffuses every page.

Benjamin concludes this first constellation by contrasting Baudelaire with Pierre Dupont, an avowed social poet, whose work strives for a direct, indeed simple tendentious engagement with the political events of the day. In contrasting Baudelaire with Dupont, Benjamin reveals a “profound duplicity” at the heart of Baudelaire’s poetry–which, he contends, is less a statement of support for the cause of the oppressed, than a violent unveiling of their illusions. As Benjamin wrote in his notes to the essay, “It would be an almost complete waste of time to attempt to draw the position of a Baudelaire into the network of the most advanced positions in the struggle for human liberation. From the outset, it seems more promising to investigate his machinations where he was undoubtedly at home: in the enemy camp … Baudelaire was a secret agent–an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule.” … By the late 1930s Benjamin was convinced that traditional historiography, with its reliance upon the kind of storytelling that suggests the inevitable process and outcome of historical change, “is meant to cover up the revolutionary moments in the occurrence of history … The places where tradition breaks off–hence its peaks and crags, which offer footing to one who would cross over them–it misses.” … Benjamin thus seeks to create a textual space in which a speculative, intuitive, and analytical intelligence can move, reading images and the relays between them in such a way that the present meaning of “what has been comes together in a flash.” This is what Benjamin calls the dialectical image.

In the central section of “Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” titled “The Flaneur,” Benjamin turns to an extended consideration of the reciprocally generative relations between certain artistic genres and societal forms. In the crowded streets of the urban metropolis, the individual is not merely absorbed into the masses: all traces of individual existence are in fact effaced. And popular literary and artistic forms such as physiologies (literary and artistic exemplifications of physiognomic types) and panoramas (representations of “typical” tableaux in Paris) arose, Benjamin argues, precisely in order to quell the deep-seated unease that characterized this situation: through their “harmlessness” they suggested a “perfect bonhomie” devoid of all resistance to the social order of the day, and in so doing contributed to the “phantasmagoria of Parisian life.”

…Physiologies are in this sense deeply complicit with phantasmagoria, in that they fraudulently suggest we are in possession of a knowledge that we do not in fact have. As Benjamin says, physiologies “assured people that everyone could — unencumbered by any factual knowledge — make out the profession, character, background, and lifestyle of passers-by.” …

If Baudelaire’s poetry is neither symptomatic of social conditions (as were the physiologies) nor capable of providing procedures for dealing with them (as did the detective story), what exactly is the relationship of that poetry to modernity? Benjamin champions Baudelaire precisely because his work claims a particular historical responsibility: in allowing itself to be marked by the ruptures and aporias of modern life, it reveals the brokenness and falseness of modern experience. At the heart of Benjamin’s reading is thus a theory of shock, developed on the basis of a now-famous reading of the poem “A une passante” (To a Passer-By). The speaker of the poem, moving through the “deafening” street amid the crowd, suddenly spies a woman walking along and “with imposing hand / Gathering up a scalloped hem.” The speaker is transfixed, his body twitches, wholly overcome by the power of the image. Yet, Benjamin argues, the spasms that run through the body are not caused by “the excitement of a man in whom an image has taken possession of every fiber of his being”; their cause is instead the powerful, isolated shock “with which an imperious desire suddenly overcomes a lonely man.”

This notion of a shock-driven poetic capability as a significant departure from the understanding of artistic creation prevalent in Benjamin’s day and in fact still powerfully present today. The poet is, in this view, not a genius who “rises above” his age and distills its essence for posterity. For Benjamin, the greatness of Baudelaire consists instead in his absolute susceptibility to the worst excrescences of modern life: Baudelaire was in possession not of genius, but of an extraordinarily “sensitive disposition” that enable him to perceive, through a painful empathy, the character of an age. And for Benjamin, the “character of the age” consisted in its thoroughgoing commodification. Baudelaire was not simply aware of the processes of commodification from which the phantasmagoria constructs itself; he in fact embodied those processes in an emphatic manner. When he takes his work to market, the poet surrenders himself as a commodity to the “intoxification of the commodity immersed in a surging stream of customers.” The poet’s role as a producer and purveyor of commodities opens him to a special “empathy with inorganic things.” And this, in turn, “was one of his sources of inspiration.” Baudelaire’s poetry is thus riven by its images o a history that is nothing less than a “permanent catastrophe.” This is the sense in which Baudelaire was the “secret agent” of the destruction of his own class.

…Baudelaire’s spleen–that is, his profound disgust at things as they were–is only the most evident emotional sign of this state of affairs.



Poetry Politics

AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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