Academic journal article The Romanic Review

A Cadaver in Clothes: Autobiography and the Dandy in Baudelaire

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

A Cadaver in Clothes: Autobiography and the Dandy in Baudelaire

Article excerpt

"Le Dandy ... doit vivre et dormir devant un miroir." Baudelaire

Baudelaire's work is far from self-evidently autobiographical. Les Fleurs du mal, for instance, cannot be easily compared to a self-declared poetic autobiography like Hugo's Contemplations where the poems are of decidedly personal inspiration, bear dates that attach them to experience, and lay out a plausible narrative of poetic development. In contrast, Baudelaire's undated poems appear impersonal and, in their emblematic character, untethered to experience. While the poet does give the collection the status of an expressive work in one letter to Ancelle: "Faut-il vous dire, a vous qui ne l'avez pas plus devine que les autres, que dans ce livre atroce, j'ai mis tout mon ceur, toute ma tendresse, toute ma religion (travestie), toute ma haine?"--it is only to take it back right away: "Il est vrai que j'ecrirai le contraire, que je jurerai mes grands Dieux que c'est un livre d'art pur, de singerie, de jonglerie." (1) Whatever the principle of the "secret architecture" of the collection, it is not "the growth of the poet's mind."

Nor are the individual poems clearly self-expressive. It is true that the "Spleen" poems seem to indicate mood, but the mood in question is a dubious one, where the poet's voice is cracked, incapable of striking anything but dissonant notes or sounding a death rattle. The enterprising reader who heads to a poem like "Confession" in search of a genuine autobiographical moment will be disappointed to discover that the confession consists of a discourse "overheard" in the false note of someone else's voice. Itis true that two of the poems--"Je n'ai pas oublie, voisine de la ville ..." and "La servante au grand ceur dont vous etiez jalouse ..."--are by Baudelaire's own avowal retrospective. And yet even there Baudelaire insists that he has done his best to generalize and to strip away the detAlls that might make the intimate scenes identifiable. (2) The famous poem on memory, "Le Cygne," starts out with a literary, not a personal reminiscence ("Andromaque, je pense a vous!" (3)) and moves on to recount an anecdote about an escaped swan wandering on a construction site that, although read by some critics as a literal event, has been thought by many too neat to ring true.

A similar situation obtains elsewhere in the work. Look to the Artificial Paradises for the soul-searching drug narrative of an experienced user, and you will be disappointed. Instead you find stories the author, acting as a sort of scientist, purports to have collected from others. In Le Peintre de la vie moderne, Baudelaire has eschewed the anecdotal style that his friendship with the painter Constantin Guys would have allowed, and has even effaced the name that would anchor the portrait to a referent. Baudelaire's biographers Claude Pichois and Jean Ziegler will occasionally wonder whether the most apparently unproblematical of autobiographical texts, Baudelaire's letters to his mother, are not those of a mountebank who poses even in his most intimate moments. (4) In Baudelaire's texts, the personal stylenot all but dispensed with. (5)

The Intimate Journals is a more promising place to look for an autobiographical subject. Indeed, the main piece, Mon cceur mis a nu, was projected as an autobiography perhaps unusual in tone, but not in structure--it was to tell the story of the education of an angry man. (6) But in the project as we have it, Baudelaire has avoided the narrative mode that Lejeune makes a crucial trait of the genre. (7) We don't find a story of the past events of a life, and the usual accouterments of the journal entry--names, dates, places that might somehow affix the fragmentary reflections to the happenings of a life--are mostly missing. Such names as do appear might as easily have been gleaned from a newspaper column as dug out of Baudelaire's own memory, so little do they tell that is personal. When, exceptionally, the poet dates a diatribe against the bourgeoisie, he dates from the century. …

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