Ramla Bédoui (Yale University)

“Decolonizing Baudelaire: Mediating Poetry in the Arab World”

This paper aims at recontextualizing Baudelaire within the French Colonial Empire and analyzes the latter’s reaction to his work. Although Baudelaire opened up new ways of seeing exotic worlds and of turning them into memory places, he also ceded to a colonial imaginary through his poetic voyages. And yet within what one would expect to be a traditional racial colonial discourse, his positions are more nuanced. More pertinently for the Global South, colonial and post-colonial subjects will read Baudelaire’s poems differently. On the one hand, in the Maghreb and in Arab countries, the francophone tradition of poetry and prose influenced by Baudelaire has hewed closer to the author’s texts, as we can see in the work of the very Baudelairian Mario Scalesi (1892-1922), a Tunisian of Sicilian descent. On the other, from as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, poetry in Arabic from the former colonies has read and rewritten Baudelaire from a colonial perspective, where the new “Spleen” is the suffering of the colonial subject and where the “Indigène de la République”, or the “Damné de la terre” (to reference Fanon), can be said to be the real and new “Poète Maudit.” I therefore propose a double colonial reading of Baudelaire. First, I suggest that the imaginary of the Indies was also a stand-in for France’s expanding colonial space, extending some of the critical work that has been done in this area. Second, I propose that Maghrebi and Arab poets have mediated and reconfigured Baudelaire, adapting his œuvre to fit colonial and post-colonial realities within their own works.

R. Howard Bloch (Yale University)

“Atomic Baudelaire

Beginning from a report that Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, read Baudelaire the night before Trinity, the first atomic test, and used a line from a Baudelaire sonnet to signal to his wife its success, I will explore the demonic power of poetry and of science to change the world in which we live. I may head in the direction of Baudelaire and explosions, as in “Le Mauvais vitrier,” or perceptual flashes, “À une passante,” as well as venturing a guess about the signaling sonnet—the whole inflected by speculation about the inner psychic state of America’s most famous scientist at the dawn of the atom age and Christopher Nolan’s recent blockbuster “Oppenheimer.”

Laurent Dubreuil (Cornell University, Tsinghua University)

“Colonial Worlds and Beyond”

Baudelaire’s conception of world plurality is profoundly related to the “modern” colonial, and tropical, experience. This characteristic should now be obvious, although it has long been—and still often remains—obscured or relegated. Now, where do we go from there? I intend to show that, despite, and perhaps beside, Baudelaire’s exoticizing and imperialistic rhetoric, his poetry also indicates a path toward the literary inflection I called a “francophone becoming.” Time permitting, this transformative event will be read both from within (in Les fleurs du Mal, in particular) and without (in Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, more specifically).

Paul Grimstad (Yale University)

“Notes on Baudelaire and America”

I’ll discuss the importance of Baudelaire’s translations of Edgar Allan Poe, not only for understanding Baudelaire’s own aesthetics but for the emergence of the symboliste aesthetics that catalyzed American modernism (in figures such as T.S. Eliot who wrote two distinguished and illuminating essays on Baudelaire).  Along the way I may also have things to say about lesser-known connections between Baudelaire and American literature, such as the entries in his Journaux intimes on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Conduct of Life; on Baudelaire and Wagnerian aesthetics; and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s well-known affection for Les Fleurs du mal.

Michèle Hannoosh (University of Michigan)

“‘The beautiful is always bizarre’: Baudelaire and the Universal Exhibition of 1855”

The Universal Exhibition of 1855 is one of the most curious essays of Baudelaire’s entire œuvre.  On the one hand, the opening chapter develops an elaborate aesthetic seemingly influenced by the variety of objects and exhibits from across the world. As he states, works that seem strange to a French eye, such as those in the Exhibition’s “Chinese Museum,” are examples of beauty for a “cosmopolitan” sensibility capable of entering into the works’ milieux.  Baudelaire then extends this idea to create his famous formula, “the beautiful is always bizarre.” After this opening that links the idea of beauty to other worlds beyond the French and European tradition, however, the essay fails to deliver: the definition of the bizarre remains stubbornly vague, even tautological, and Baudelaire abandons his interest in the foreign to devote the rest of the essay to the most emblematic representatives of French art — Ingres and Delacroix. In my paper, I will examine this contradiction to explore what the essay can tell us about Baudelaire’s concept of the bizarre and its relation to his own, and other, worlds.

Elissa Marder (Emory University)

“Baudelaire’s Black Notebooks”

If Baudelaire continues to speak to a diverse set of readers, thinkers, poets, and artists who are worlds apart from one another, it is at least in part because his poetic images remake the world by reconfiguring our vision of it. However, some of his most famous—and arguably politically subversive and suggestive—poetic images emerge from very dark places in his thinking. In this paper, I propose to show how Baudelaire connects a theologically inflected (antisemitic) allusion to the figure of the Jew as “blind witness to a truth he cannot see” and “carrier of a book he cannot read” to photography, printing, and other technological forms of prosthetic memory. On the basis of this connection (via “Les sept vieillards”), I also will show how Baudelaire repurposes the figure of the Jew into a poetic model for bearing witness to the undocumented lives of those who have been “oublié[s] sur la carte”: the exiled, the homeless, and the many unnamed others who populate his poems and who occupy the margins of the social order: widows, decrepit old ladies, lesbians, prostitutes, and formerly enslaved women. I will argue that there is a direct line between the hateful antisemitism in Baudelaire’s black notebooks and the witness borne by the widows in black and the labor of other black bodies in the “Tableaux parisiens” and Le Spleen de Paris.

Maurice Samuels (Yale University)

“Après Coup:  Baudelaire’s Politics”

Baudelaire declared in a letter that “Le 2 décembre m’a physiquement dépolitiqué” [I have been physically depoliticized by December 2] but scholars have long refused to take him at his word. This paper reconsiders Baudelaire’s reaction to the coup d’état of December 2, 1851, in the light not only of his famously ambiguous political pronouncements but also of his repeated requests for subsidies from the Second Empire regime. It concludes with a reading of the prose poem “Assommons les pauvres!” (1865) as a belated response—a response produced, as it were, après coup—to the violence of “le 2 décembre,” an event with uncomfortable but perhaps instructive parallels to our own political moment. 

Andrea Schellino (Università Roma Tre)

“Baudelaire Primitivist”

In my talk I would like to seek in Baudelaire the traces of a reflection on primitivism, whose ambiguity lies in the dynamic that is established with his criticism of the Rousseauist state of nature. Through his art criticism, and in particular his review of the Universal Exposition of 1855, which announces Tristes tropiques of Claude Lévi-Strauss and praises the native force of so-called primitive civilizations, Baudelaire subverts the ethno-aesthetics of his time.

Patrick Thériault (University of Toronto)

“Baudelaire in Belgium (1864-1866): The Experience of the Modern World as ‘Uninhabitable’”

Belgium Disrobed includes material of the satirical book on Belgium that Baudelaire had endeavored to compose during his stay in Brussels (March 1864-May 1866). This bulky collection of notes and newspaper clippings tells us as much about the alleged scandalous truth of the young and economically dynamic Belgium of the 1860’s as about the sad faith of the “very late Baudelaire.” It reveals the state of an author who is going through a deep creative and subjective crisis; an author to whom, by his own admission, the world seems to have “become uninhabitable.” In Brussels, embittered by his failed attempts to secure auctorial gains for himself, Baudelaire is prey to paranoia, on verge of a kind of madness that many critics (Burton, Sieburth, Thélot) have legitimately qualified as mimetic, given the obsessive focus of his discourse on motives such as copy, reproduction, forgery, and mimicry. For him, Belgians are not only the epitome of conformism, the image of a humanity deprived of cultural, political, or ontological singularity. They are also, and more dramatically, dangerous doubles threatening the property of his Self, maleficent creatures able to counterfeit his identity and to absorb his subjective substance into their ontologically undifferentiated world.

Drawing on the works of René Girard and his fruitful dialogue with nineteenth-century literature and philosophy, I show that Baudelaire’s Belgium is symptomatic of modern society as a world if not “uninhabitable” then at least rendered inhospitable by the mimetic crisis to which it gives rise. As I will suggest, in view of the rich testimony it provides, Belgium Disrobed deserves perhaps to be considered as one of these “extreme works” that reveal, according to Girard, the schemes and mechanisms of social mimetism “in and by the delirium” of their authors.

Seth Whidden (University of Oxford)

“On Voices in the World (Baudelaire, Glissant, Métellus)”

In his famous question to Houssaye, Baudelaire wonders about the ideal poetic prose — the kind that ambitious dreams are made of — and its ability to adapt to the subject’s soul, reverie, and consciousness. A reading of “Le Thyrse” both confirms this and points beyond: to a poetics of voices in the margins, not mediated by a poetic or speaking subject. Writers such as Glissant and Métellus offer their own examples of voice in a prose that is musical without rhythm and rhyme: traces they inherit from that singularly different poetic something that Baudelaire created in Le Spleen de Paris.

Catherine Witt (Reed College)

“Baudelaire, Man of the Clouds”

This paper explores a new avenue for thinking about the notion of translation in Baudelaire’s poetic and aesthetic theory, starting with a consideration of his nebulous use of the word “traduction” to describe not only his own praxis as a poet and translator (of Poe and De Quincey), but also the process of artists he admires on account of their ability to produce impressions of the world around them that are filtered through memory and the imagination. The exploration begins with a consideration of the striking recurrence of references to clouds (nuage, nue, nuée) in Baudelaire’s writings around 1859 and 1860. Such references occur in many of the poems he composes in view of the second edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, such as “Les Tableaux Parisiens” and “Le Voyage,” and in Petits Poèmes en prose, but also in his seminal works of art criticism. The 1859 Salon, for example, Baudelaire’s most probing investigation into the workings of imagination in contemporary art, hinges on recollections of skyscapes: the evocative horizons of Delacroix’s paintings, the fleeting atmospheric impressions recaptured by Boudin in his pastel seascapes, and the tumultuous skies of Méryon’s etchings of Paris. In The Painter of Modern Life, references to clouds morph into crowds (foule), multitudes, and veils (voiles) through a complex process of translation between and within languages (French, English, Latin, among others) that unfolds throughout the essay. The word cloud, it would seem, no longer refers to a specific thing or idea, but rather points towards something nameless that never assumes a lasting form even while its appearance, like that of a cloud, repeatedly displays elements of likeness to other forms and words. Understanding the cloud in Baudelaire’s work as an intention towards language, figuration, memory, knowledge, and the unknown is a way of thinking the process of likeness, alteration, and self-alteration that characterizes the creative work of translation.