Baudelaire as a Literary Critic
The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays
While writing his classic criticism of the tyranny of the majority and the disappearance of genius in America, Tocqueville nevertheless went out of his way in 1830 to compose a lyric passage about “how the Americans inject a kind of heroism into their way of engaging in commerce.” Baudelaire hated the creed of progress and the commercial spirit of his age with a deep-seated spleen that Tocqueville never tasted. Yet in his first published articles fifteen years later, Baudelaire declares his faith in “the heroism of modern life.” Did that sprawling century of materialism really achieve anything akin to heroism? Tocqueville meant the energy and resourcefulness of Atlantic coast merchants; Baudelaire meant the elegance, crime, and vice of Parisian boulevardiers and voyous. By the time he died he had become the first major French poet since Villon to have discovered the secret of attracting by repelling. But Baudelaire the critic concerns us here, in whom it is still surprising to run across terms like “americanize” and “magic realism” carrying the very meanings we know today. I shall have to come back to the matter of heroism.
Clean-shaven in a century of hirsutes, Baudelaire made his debut as an art critic, added to his fame as a translator, and earned his reputation as a poet only in his mid-thirties. Today the ruling position of his poetry at the source of modern sensibility interferes with his importance as a critic. An excellent book in English on his criticism published twenty years ago by Margaret Gilman provoked more mutterings about his impressionistic method and lack of formal analysis than about the nature and scope of his achievement. The French have been equally reluctant. To some extent the standard text-book version of Baudelaire’s thought makes it difficult to reach his criticism. All too frequently his ideas are reduced to a semi-diabolic catholicism redeemed by the doctrine of correspondences, the latter conveniently set down in a famous sonnet of the same name. Because of his classic prosody and “evil” themes, one can easily miss the essential value of modernity in Baudelaire’s verse. And his bold use of analogy that detects connections everywhere obscures the rigor with which he dissociates certain ideas like Beauty, Truth, and Good, or Art and Morality. The prose helps correct our vision, and Baudelaire is simply too good a critic to lose sight of. His leaps and balks show us a mind able to generate real excitement in performance.
Except in the two superb essays on Poe, and in a few minor pieces, he was not primarily a literary critic. Yet his work remains consistently one, and every significant text on the arts (On the Essence of Laughter, The Salon of 1859, The Painter of Modern Life, Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris, and The Life and Work of Eugène Delacroix) devotes considerable space to literature and develops ideas as pertinent to literature as to art. Any Baudelaire scholar worth his salt has insisted on the unity of Baudelaire’s …