Mills, Kathryn Oliver. Formal Revolution in the Work of Baudelaire and Flaubert.
In this brief but ambitious inquiry into the problem of novelty in the works of Baudelaire and Flaubert, Kathryn Oliver Mills seeks to correct a wide range of critical positions. She rejects the idea that Baudelaire and Flaubert's contributions to modernity consist in "an innovative ability to modulate traditional forms in order to express the inadequacy of those forms in the face of modern times" (5). To the contrary, Mills proposes to reorient the critical discourse by arguing that untraditional forms like Baudelaire's prose poems (rather than Les Fleurs du mal) and Flaubert's Trois contes (rather than his novels) achieve a fusion of prose and poetry that embodies a truly modernist aesthetic.
Chapter one accordingly offers a reading of Baudelaire's "Le Voyage" that challenges the consensus view of the poem's conclusion. Mills argues that the poem's voyagers are doomed, that "the form and subject matter of 'Le Voyage,' far from announcing a novel journey, or a new beginning in death, masterfully announce yet another dead end" (16). Mills rightly suspects the esthetically progressive implications critics have claimed for the poem. She finds a different kind of new beginning in its "exemplary" failure "on practical, existential, linguistic, and literary grounds" (27). A key element in this failure is the naming of the voyagers' goal, "l'Inconnu," since, as Mills puts it, "to name something is to know it" (23). And this naming/knowing puts the entire voyage--and by extension the entire poem--in a self-contradictory position. In my view, the semantically dubious equation of naming with knowing ignores the conditional aspect of "Le Voyage" and the likelihood that "l'Inconnu" belongs in the category famously described by Donald Rumsfeld as "known unknowns." Mills might have made a stronger case for her excellent grasp of the nihilistic possibilities lurking in the poem by tracing Baudelaire's back-references to other poems in Les Fleurs du mal, all in keeping with the ideological self-critique he carried out on the earlier edition of 1857.
Chapters two, three, and four unfold an argument for Baudelaire's evolution from a Romantic idealist to a modern realist. His encounter with Constantin Guys, coupled with the possible influence of Joseph de Maistre's philosophy of language, led to the formulation of a new esthetic, one that no longer refused (like poetry) to accept the conditions of life. What this acceptance means for Mills is that Baudelaire rejected "the crippling formal structures" (56) of lyric poetry in favor of prose. Mills thus finds "Perte d'aureole," revised from its earlier version in which the poet picks up his halo to the final version where he leaves it in the street, an allegory for Baudelaire's new worldview in Le Spleen de Paris, one defined by "humanity and reality, as opposed to beauty and art" (80-81).
Chapters five and six shift the focus to Flaubert. Mills mines the correspondence to suggest an esthetics wherein Flaubert sought to balance two elements of his being, the lyrical and the materialist (90). Failing to do so in Madame Bovary and L'Education sentimentale (Mills sees Emma and Frederic as "unable to reconcile reality with their dreams"), Flaubert finally pushes on to meet George Sand's challenge that he merge the "reel" with the "poetique" (110,127). The resulting Trois contes attains an esthetic mysticism (141), "a fusion of poetry and prose" (148).
In the conclusion, Mills nuances her large and sometimes slippery categories of idealism and realism ("mot vague et elastique," according to Baudelaire) and offers a discriminating appraisal of important differences between the two modernists. She points out that, while both saw poetry in prose as an ideal, Baudelaire recognized the dangerous liberty inherent in this formal revolution (164). Mills ends by considering our current crisis, brought on by the increasing divorce between "high" literary forms and the "ordinary life" in which Baudelaire and Flaubert sought to find the miraculous.
The argument that makes formal revolution depend on the transcendence of generic boundaries tends to discount the innovations that brought the censors down on Baudelaire and Flaubert. Were Les Fleurs du mal, Madame Bovary, and L'Education sentimentale little more than the literary dead-ends Mills relies on to promote the modernity of the prose poems and Trois contes? The need to make such sharp distinctions leads to somewhat uninspired readings of Flaubert's two major novels and an occasionally contentious arraignment of critics for failing to undertake a project like the author's. When Mills turns to close reading, however, her analyses are often fruitful and provocative. Her scrutiny of "Le Voyage" and her adroit interweaving of critical commentary with her own insights regarding the Trois contes show an inventive and clear-sighted intelligence at work. An appendix provides a lucid translation of "Le Voyage."
William Olmsted, Valparaiso University
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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