Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The "Poet-Philosopher" and the "Physician-Philosopher": A Reading of Baudelaire's Prose Poem "Assommons Les Pauvres!"

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The "Poet-Philosopher" and the "Physician-Philosopher": A Reading of Baudelaire's Prose Poem "Assommons Les Pauvres!"

Article excerpt

In his poetry, Baudelaire frequently reflects upon his poetic activity and identity. To this end, he draws on allegorical figures such as acrobats, gypsies, dandies, rag pickers, prostitutes, and dogs, through which he lays bare the paradoxes and contradictions of the poetic condition. (1) These figures mirror the marginality of the poet, who has no proper place in society except as fool or public entertainer. They also express Baudelaire's desire to look at the world--without the blinkers of bourgeois comfort--from the viewpoint of the "eclopes de la vie" (1: 292).

For present purposes, I would like to focus on a figure who does not serve as another allegorical representation of the poet, but, on the contrary, as a symbolic foil: the figure of the physician. Physicians rarely appear in Baudelaire's work. And when they do, they are the target of sarcasm and derision. Yet, this figure plays the decisive role of an ambivalent countermodel in relation to which Baudelaire refines his own understanding of the poet.

On the one hand, Baudelaire creates a "poet-philosopher" who in several respects echoes and emulates the eighteenth-century figure of the "physician-philosopher." Like a "physician-philosopher," the "poet-philosopher" is able to identify symptoms, make a diagnosis, propose therapies, and speculate on human nature. On the other hand, the "poet-philosopher" denounces the philosophical ambitions of contemporary alienists who regard themselves as the heirs of the former "physician-philosophers." (2) In the prose poem "Assommons les pauvres!" Baudelaire challenges an alienist named Lelut who has written a book on Socrates's insanity.

In this essay, I will first describe what I call the "ideal of the physician-philosopher" and examine how this ideal still pervades the alienists' self-understanding in the second half of nineteenth-century France. Then I will focus on the main thesis of Lelut's book Du demon de Socrate and analyze Baudelaire's riposte. Finally, I will investigate the links between the medical subtext of this prose poem and its political dimension.

Baudelaire's ambivalent stand toward medicine is closely related to his quest for artistic autonomy. Baudelaire aims to free artistic and intellectual activity from the grip of medical diagnosis. Physicians who assimilate artists or thinkers with lunatics ignore the importance of mastery in literary creation. "Assommons les pauvres!" is a masterful calling into question of the all too easy equation between genius and insanity.


The nineteenth century is known for being the golden age of medicine, and more particularly, of mental medicine. (3) Mental medicine slowly became a powerful and well-structured profession in France. Little by little, alienists managed to oppose quackery and to supersede the authority of the clergy, which had previously run insane asylums. The medical expert, who relied on scientific knowledge, replaced the priest, who cared for the insane in a spirit of compassion and charity. The expertise of physicians had also begun to play an increasingly important role in legal medicine. Physicians were expected to determine the legal responsibility of the accused. In 1843 the first issue of the Annales medico psychologiques appeared. This journal would become the main organ of mental pathology. In 1852, the Societe medico-psychologique was founded. Many dictionaries and encyclopedias published throughout the nineteenth century had become important reference books and had begun to reach an audience beyond the circles of specialists.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the figure of the "physician-philosopher" greatly contributed to the growing prestige of medicine. The physician-philosophers' first objective was to create a "science of man." Their main object of study was the relationship between the "physical" and the "moral." In their view, both dimensions were grounded in a common principle: "sensibility. …

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