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Baudelaire's 'Le Spleen de Paris': Shifting Perspectives.

Baudelaire's 'Le Spleen de Paris': Shifting Perspectives. By MARIA C. SCOTT. (Studies in European Cultural Transition, 29) Aldershot: Ashgate. 2005. 238 pp. 47.50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-7546-5111-8.

The principal aim of this study of Baudelaire's prose poems is an examination of the shifting perspectives on the viewpoint of the narrator, who, we are frequently reminded, must not be confused with the poet himself. It comprises five chapters on perspectives current in recent criticism: caricature, prostitution, morality, allegory, and aesthetics. The author makes no claim to being exhaustive. Indeed, her approach is consciously limited and partial, focusing on about two-thirds of the collection. The emphasis throughout is on the poet's taste for mystification and the consequent narrative, aesthetic, and moral uncertainties that have stimulated the ingenuity of recent commentators. By her own confession she rarely ventures a totalizing explanation, being forced by the nature of the subject to perpetuate the sense of uncertainty. The author appears in total command of the critical corpus that has grown round Le Spleen de Paris and her erudition is nothing if not impressive, but the reader cannot on occasion avoid a sense of frustration at the emerging critical stasis. The commentaries abound with qualifying expressions such as 'it may be that', 'it might be', 'possibly', 'it is possible that', 'it would seem', so much so that one is led to wonder what exactly has been gained by so many tentative interpretations. For example, the chapter on prostitution contains a fascinating discussion of the social and legal conditions in nineteenth-century Paris. This together with an account of Regnier's satire, which Baudelaire mentions, leads to a possible 'alternative perspective' (p. 72) that Mademoiselle Bistouri's obsession with doctors and surgery could have had something to do with abortion. Scott stresses that such a diagnosis is purely hypothetical, but justified because it underlines our 'incomplete knowledge of "Mademoiselle Bistouri" and of its author's intentions' (p. 72). But there is confusion here between the poem, which is relatively transparent, and the character, who remains a mystery. Any one explanation would greatly diminish the impact and the scope of the poem, and go counter to the poet's intention, which is to convey the scandal and mystery of madness and of the 'monstre innocent'.

Echos from other works are sometimes made to influence the possible reading of a poem without due regard to context. The title of 'Le Chien et le flacon' recalls the prologue to Gargantua, which compares the diligent reader to a dog that will be able to penetrate to 'la substantificque mouelle' (p. 123) of the book. No doubt, but the echo is one of contrast, not of similarity, and cannot justify the admittedly tentative suggestion that the prose poem 'may thus disguise its intertextual complexity: what seems excremental on the surface may be refined inside' (p. 124). The commentary goes on to evoke Daumier's caricature of the Gargantuan Louis-Philippe, which is said to resemble Menippean satire, and to conclude that since 'Le Chien et le flacon' 'embeds a reference to Daumier and to Rabelais's prologue' (p. 125), it constitutes an 'artful allusion' (p. 125) to this kind of satire, which is then said to preside over the Spleen as a whole. Clearly, the argument is insufficient to sustain the conclusion.

On occasion the commentary is marked by the kind of linguistic legerdemain and strained parallels found in some recent criticism: 'cut', 'abortive', and the narrator's 'clinical' observation in 'Mademoiselle Bistouri'; printing presses (tir/tirage) conjured up in 'Le Tir et le cimetiere'; the cut-up snake and, with the help of etymology, the 'volonte retive' (p. 37) of the reader in the 'Dedicace' are made to recall respectively the guillotined Pierrot in De l'essence du rire and the donkey in 'Un plaisant'. In addition, there are some odd translations from the French, and uncertainty about the nature and function of 'le comique absolu' which is said to pervade the prose poems.

All this is a pity because there are many pieces of perceptive and nuanced criticism. In particular, Scott is adept at identifying the narrator's blindness to his own blameworthiness, as in 'Le Gateau' and 'La Fausse Monnaie' (in which, incidentally, she takes Derrida successfully to task), and she handles with great dexterity the problem of the flawed narrator whose pronouncements make it difficult or impossible to determine the poet's own stance. The exhaustive and wide-ranging analysis of 'Les Foules' and related passages in Le Peintre de la vie moderne and Journaux intimes also stands out as a valuable contribution.


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Author:Hiddleston, J.A.
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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