Evans on Hadeh (2015)

Hadeh, Maya. La Mythologie dans l’œuvre poétique de Charles Baudelaire. New York: Peter Lang, 2015. Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures, 234. Pp. xii + 286. ISBN: 978-1-4331-2725-0

The field of literary mythocritique has seen many studies in French over the last thirty years—by Pierre Albouy, Georges Dumézil, Mircea Eliade, Gilbert Durand, Marc Eigeldinger, and Pierre Brunel, author of over a dozen works on the topic—all of which provide reference points throughout the present volume. Maya Hadeh offers a broadly structuralist reading of Baudelaire’s verse and prose poetry which, after a brisk definition of myth as sacred and symbolic, considers the poet’s treatment of classical, biblical, and secular literary myths such as Don Juan or the vampire.

While these various myths provide a fil conducteur of sorts, part one, “Mythologie de l’Univers,” is more concerned with reading the familiar cornerstones of Baudelaire’s poetic universe from a structural perspective. Dealing with the space and time of Les Fleurs du Mal, it offers a Bachelardian analysis of the temple and the home interior, the sea and the sky, islands and deserts, and hell, or the underworld, as well as of “Mythologies du Temps” such as day and night, memory and dream. Myth, then, is taken to mean not only the presence of mythical intertexts in Baudelaire’s writing, but also, more figuratively, the key images which make up its symbolic landscape. A more accurate title for this section might be “Mythologies de l’œuvre poétique de Baudelaire,” such as the “Mythification de Paris” (64–75) by which he presents the capital as labyrinth, Babylon, and Babel. This overview will be familiar to many readers, and does not avoid certain commonplaces such as “La mer, donc, est un ciel à l’envers” (30), “la chevelure s’affilie aussi à la mer par l’ondoiement” (32), or “l’aspiration à l’infini est inhérente à la poésie de Baudelaire” (34).

Part two, “Biographèmes et Mythologèmes: l’autre et le moi,” reads the lyric subject as a mythical figure whose various avatars function “comme autant de fragments de lui-même” (134). It examines figures of poetic inspiration—Sappho, Beatrice, and Baudelaire’s modern, malfunctioning Muse—and figures of the poet’s exile and solitude, such as the classical reference to Andromache, as well as the swan and the albatross, the dandy, the étranger, and the saltimbanque. A chapter on the mythical bestiary and female monsters considers the sphinx and Medusa, satyrs and nymphs, as well as the female vampire and the question of monstrous, hybrid forms. Part three, “Mythologie et Métaphysique,” examines myths of blame and punishment, hubris and revolt, in which Icarus, Ixion, Phaeton, Sisyphus, Cain, and Satan—a literary myth shaped by John Milton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—illustrate the tragic destiny of the artist condemned to strive for an inaccessible ideal. The final chapter, very short by contrast, devotes ten pages to the mythology of death, via the mère terrible and the femme stérile, ending with the Homeric odyssey of “Le Voyage.”

There are some insightful readings here, which identify mythological presences and intertexts which might not at first be evident to the contemporary reader, such as Endymion in “Les Bienfaits de la lune” (105), the Parcae in “Les Fées” (120), Artemis and Acteon in “Causerie” (242), or Phryne in “Allégorie” (244). Yet while the author engages with a broad range of excellent criticism, the back cover blurb promises “une nouvelle approche” which the analysis does not quite deliver. We are told that “un mythe pouvait, au cours des différentes récritures qu’il subit, connaître un bouleversement radical” (181), yet the conclusion seems to be that these myths function simply “comme modalité opératoire de l’œuvre et comme le signe d’une écriture poétique qui traduit la pensée imaginaire de l’écrivain” (252). Whereas Myriam Robic’s Hellénismes de Banville: mythe et modernité (2010) engages in depth with the wider context of classical mythology in nineteenth-century French cultural life, and explores the poetic significance of new amalgams of classical and modern, the present study offers a rather flat reading of “un genre qui reflète les préoccupations et la poétique de l’auteur” (253), concluding simply that “l’emploi du récit mythique à une fin personnelle devient donc le signe d’une écriture moderne” (254). While the analysis might not live up to the author’s stated ambition, the book does, however, provide a survey of key images useful as an introduction to Baudelaire’s poetic universe.