Some books I can read over and over—such is the case with good poetry and certainly with the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Considered by many to be the father of modern French poetry, Baudelaire published verse and prose poetry, essays, and art criticism. Among the first to celebrate the beauty of urban experience, Baudelaire captured even the sordidness of city life. Some of his poems about religion, sexual desire, and death in The Flowers of Evil so shocked his contemporaries that he was put on trial for public indecency. His work still resonates with me today because of its complexity and probing irony. The fact that, when reading Baudelaire, I rarely feel like I have completely mastered the meaning of his poems, even after years of reading and rereading, adds to their appeal and explains why they have stayed with me so strongly and so long.
My first in-depth encounter with The Flowers of Evil was in a graduate seminar with Jonathan Culler on the Devil in Baudelaire’s imagination. In the opening poem of The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire cautions readers that
C’est le Diable qui tient les files qui nous remuent!
Truly the Devil pulls on all our strings!
Forcing us to confront the dark side of every ideal, Baudelaire ponders what—who?—is responsible for our actions, especially those that we would be quick to disavow. In an age when religious faith was increasingly contested, Baudelaire’s consciousness of evil recasts the relationship between theological, ethical, and aesthetic questions in profoundly new ways, as Joseph Acquisto shows in The Fall Out of Redemption: Writing and Thinking Beyond Salvation in Baudelaire, Cioran, Fondane, Agamben, and Nancy (Bloomsbury, 2015).
In his new book, An Atmospherics of the City: Baudelaire and the Poetics of Noise (Fordham University Press, 2015), Ross Chambers refers to this understanding of the world governed by forces that are “sometimes occult, sometimes manifest” as the “supernaturalism of noise” and the “atmospherics of urban life”. Atmospherics “make sensible the dimension of strangeness inherent in the ‘moving chaos’ of the familiar urban street”. Baudelaire’s poem “À une passante” aptly conveys the booming atmosphere of noisy streets that surrounds the speaker.
La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Around me roared the nearly deafening street.
Noise not only surrounds and deafens but compels recognition of human alienation as an effect of entropic energy generated by the modern city.
In my latest book, City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris, I use noise in a different way from Chambers, but we share an attention to how noise makes sense of the disquieting nature of modern urban experience. It is not hard to imagine that nineteenth-century Paris was deafening and full of noxious sounds—the rattle and clank of horse-drawn vehicles on rough stones, the calls of coachmen amid traffic noise, barking dogs, church bells ringing, boys shouting out the news, the cries of small-scale tradespeople and the clamor of street musicians.
It can be hard to hear the muted soundscape of nineteenth–century Paris in the scholarship on modernity because of its privileging of vision over and above the other senses. Paris, the so-called City of Light, has inspired numerous fascinating studies that focus on the visual, including most recently Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetics: The Gaze of the Flâneur and 19th-Century Media by Marit Grøtta (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Yet, modernity was also a period of heightened awareness of sound. While many of the noises I listed above had existed for centuries, we often do not realize that people’s tolerance for street noise changed with the coming of modernity. City of Noise makes sense of changing attitudes and strong affective reactions toward street noise, especially the shrill cries of peddlers. Flâneurs and visitors to Paris who wrote about their strolls through Paris orchestrated their sensorial experience with references to the long-standing tradition of the Cries of Paris.
The perceived shrillness of street cries is the subject of Baudelaire’s poem “Le Mauvais Vitrier” (“The Bad Glazier”). The prose poem describes the perverse effect of hearing a glazier’s cry in the early-morning hours, allegedly prompting the speaker to perform an impulsive and “brilliant action.” He calls the glazier upstairs only to drop a flowerpot on his head shattering his panes of glass. The demonic effects of stridency in the poem recall “To the Reader” quoted above: why did he do it? The truth is that the poem does not tell us why.
Poems like these, which spur me to think and rethink their meaning and purpose, keep me coming back to Baudelaire’s work. Since they do not offer definitive answers and challenge us to think critically about the truths that we took for granted, the poems open up endless possibilities that keep me supplied with writing projects.
Aimée Boutin is Professor of French in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University. Her most recent book is City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris (University of Illinois Press, 2015).
The image used at the beginning of this post is by monkey magazine.