Academic journal article French Forum

Surgical Imprecision and the Baudelairean Poeme En Prose

Academic journal article French Forum

Surgical Imprecision and the Baudelairean Poeme En Prose

Article excerpt

Though Baudelaire's "Dedicace Arsene Houssaye" provides a dubious manifesto of the prose poem genre, (1) it more importantly builds a network of repeated images and allusions from which, along with the other prose poems in the collection (Le Spleen de Paris or Petits Poemes en prose, 1869) the reader may piece together the prose poems' poetics. Of these, the presence of the snake, and the invitation to perform multiple surgeries on it, are among the most intriguing. Now exceedingly familiar to readers of Le Spleen de Paris, Baudelaire's serpent might be considered, in literary circles at least, a dead metaphor. Yet by reading beyond the anticipated symbolic power of the snake (the power of evil, the power of the phallus), and of surgery (a masculine vocation, an act of precision), one begins to understand the serpent as not just an ambiguous simulacrum of the prose poems, but a simulacrum of the prose poems' ambiguity. In Le Spleen de Paris, modulations of recognizable and ostensibly masculine acts and images not only erode articulations of gender throughout the prose poems' narrative, thematic and metaphorical systems, but in so doing, accentuate the genre ambiguity implicit in the poeme en prose.

Baudelaire's serpent has become a well-known figure in the French literary menagerie, playing a crucial, metaphorical role in the characterization of would-be textual operations in Le Spleen de Paris:

Mon cher ami, je vous envoje un petit ouvrage dont on ne pourrait pas dire, sans injustice, qu'il n'a ni queue ni tete, puisque tout, au contraire, y est la fois tete et queue, alternativement et reciproquement. Considerez, je vous prie, quelles admirables commodites cette combinaison nous offre tous, vous, a moi et au lecteur. Nous pouvons couper ou nous voulons, moi ma reverie, vous le manuscrit, le lecteur sa lecture; carje ne suspens pas la volonte retive de celui-ci au fil interminable d'une intrigue superflue. Enlevez une vertebre, et les deux morceaux deette tortueuse fantaisie se rejoindront sans peine. Hachez-la en nombreux fragments, et vous verrez que chacun peut exister a part. Dans l'esperance que quelques-uns de ces troncons seront assez vivants pour vous plaire et vous amuser, j'ose vous dedier le serpent tout entier. (OCI, 275) (2)

The versed reader has already encountered sundry endangered species in Baudelaire's metaphorical bestiary, among them the tortured albatross, the displaced swan, the mentally imprisoned cat (Miner 1997, 105) and the disoriented bat. It is tempting at first to rely upon this serpent, passively waiting to be clinically segmented and reattached by the reader cum surgeon, as a viable if vulnerable analog of the prose poem collection. Baudelaire's serpent appears to embody vital signs for reading the genre and the text. In fact, the characterization of the serpent and reader is at first so convincing, one easily forgives a zoological inaccuracy: while some small worms (planaria) will regenerate if cut lengthwise, no snake could survive the sort of vivisection Baudelaire prescribes.

Poetic license justifies such biological imprecision, yet the figure of the serpent still conceals the anatomy of the prose poems. For the reader who approaches Le Spleen de Paris as a group of poems, the metaphor of the serpent seems in itself superfluous, more a decoy than a model for reading the collection. While Baudelaire did specify in a letter to Vigny that the second edition of Les Fleurs du mal had a beginning, an end, and a lexical order, (3) readers do not necessarily feel bound to follow poetry collections methodically from the first poem to the last. Baudelaire's references to the serpent and to the "interminable thread of a superfluous plot" represent a rejection of the boundaries normally imposed upon prose, not poetry, specifically the narrative prose of the novel and the short story.

Even if we consider each element in the collection to be a short prose piece, the suggested dynamics of surgeon and snake, reader and text, are not obvious. …

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