Abbott on Pearson (2021)

Pearson, Roger. The Beauty of Baudelaire: The Poet as Alternative Lawgiver. Oxford UP, 2021, pp. xvi + 653, ISBN 9780192843319

Pearson’s substantial new study of Baudelaire explores the poet’s propensity to think differently. In being different, Baudelaire provides alternatives to the literary and societal status quo, characterized in this study as an act of alternative lawgiving, because rules are newly formulated and applied in poetic writing. Baudelaire’s aesthetic theory places emphasis on extracting new forms of beauty that resist conformism and promote non-compliance, advancing society through advocacy of imagination and creativity as “important social values” (26). In his resistance to adhering to existing moral, social, or religious norms, Baudelaire is at times “a contrarian poet-lawgiver” (122) who sees melancholy, sadness, suffering, and degradation as inherent to human nature, rather than innate goodness. For the poet writing out versions of himself and his interactions with others—whether women, animals, or figures he encounters within nature or traversing cityscapes—the contrarian approach enables him to uphold a form of personal integrity which requires searing self-knowledge. This reflexivity, examining feelings and motives for writing and engaging with the world, is also suggestive of a relativizing position in relation to the self and conceptualization of what it means to be beautiful. Because beauty, as Baudelaire indicates in the Salon de 1846, is never absolute and fixed, but evolving in such a way as to enable moral and societal progress that reshapes judgments of the self.

Whether Baudelaire is commenting on painting, poetry, sculpture, music, or fashion, Pearson observes how there are “gradually evolving expectations of beauty” (317) shaped by “slowly shifting intellectual and moral attitudes” (317), continually relativizing what beauty is. In this sense beauty is also necessarily dismissive of convention, and this explains why Baudelaire’s famous statement from the Exposition universelle “Le beau est toujours bizarre” underpins his aesthetics of “alternative lawgiving,” moving beyond established frameworks and norms by being strange, unsettling, unthought, and unlegislated for (32). As much as Baudelaire’s critical writing elucidates this position, so too does he enact this in his use of language and prosody within his poetic writing, which fundamentally offers “the alternative legislation of beauty” (363).

To unpack how Baudelaire has reached this position, repeatedly, over the course of his career, Pearson adopts an approach to analyzing his written works in terms, too, of their evolution over time. In the early chapters of the study, Pearson draws attention, for example, to the conceptualization of Baudelaire’s first collection of verse poetry as Les Lesbiennes through to their publication as Les Fleurs du Mal and a subsequent revised volume post-trial, first in 1857 and then in 1861. Emphasizing the chronological evolution of Baudelaire’s works also prompts fresh consideration of the supposed “architecture” of the collection. Pearson rejects the idea of any formal or rigid patterning (along the lines of Lawler’s well-known 1997 study on Baudelaire’s “secret architecture” which suggested a strict numerical arrangement of the poems) in favor of a “new poetry” (185) which is designed to express a “new beauty” (198). This newness is founded on relations between poems, through contiguity, and thematic resonance, which are also characterized by “the suggestion of a quasi-musical progression of theme and variation” (185). A metaphorical thread of music as a more suggestive art form also infuses Pearson’s analysis of Baudelaire, such that an entire section is dedicated to “Music, or the Beauty of Shape” in which he analyses the prose poem “Le Thyrse” (578–86) and foregrounds the importance of poetic craft in enhancing the verve of inspiration.

The reflexive, relativizing, and flexible nature of Baudelaire’s crafting of alternative forms of beauty also means moving beyond traditional binaries (e.g. beautiful/ugly, contentment/melancholy) towards creative acts that are more free and freeing, and enable the poet to “compose or recompose new worlds from the debris of our melancholic plight” (229, Pearson’s emphasis). It is perhaps for this reason—the recomposing of debris—that Pearson’s analyses of the prose poems come later in the study, acknowledging that in some regards the prose poems recompose Baudelaire’s prior verse pieces, which are themselves part of a continuous evolution of rulemaking in the poetic craft.

Throughout the study, Pearson rehearses Baudelaire’s responses to important aesthetic interlocutors in the form of writers, artists, and musicians who came before and after, including Hugo, Vigny, Delacroix, Wagner, Banville, Guys, Poe, and Eliot. This situatedness is important in terms of signalling the endurance of Baudelaire’s interventions in the world of artistic beauty, as one which is more suggestive, more conjectural, and resists normative conventions. Throughout Pearson’s study, he offers careful and vibrant readings of Baudelaire’s verse and prose poems, which rarely settle on one facet, but allow competing ideas to be kept in play. This approach accounts for how, ultimately, Baudelaire’s endeavor is to change the way we look at the world (383), creating poetry as a “travel ticket” (606) to go beyond the already thought into an “alternative dimension of existence” (606).

Absent from the study may be a sufficient critique of Baudelaire’s status in the literary canon, or why, still, we continue to need and read Baudelaire. Pearson navigates this issue, perhaps, by indicating the ambivalence with which Baudelaire interacts with the protagonists in his writing, who are sometimes sublimated, sometimes presented with cautious empathy, and sometimes violently scorned. The multi-faceted nature of Baudelaire’s interactions with others is particularly prominent in the prose poems, in which Pearson observes a form of polyphony staged by Baudelaire, which he characterizes as “the adoption by the poet of a range of different voices, opinions, attitudes, and personas” (505). It is perhaps for this reason that Pearson argues that “readers should ignore him and think for themselves” (512).

If there is one quibble about this study, it is that the extensive quoted material is left in the original French, which means that the book remains less accessible to those outside of French studies. Evidently this is in fact a study in poetic beauty which has significance and relevance well beyond those with specialist French-language and literature knowledge. That minor point aside, this may be the modern Baudelaire book we all need—it navigates a summary of the writing about and thinking on Baudelaire, while offering an up-to-date vision of Baudelaire’s poeisis.

The conclusions that can be drawn from Pearson’s detailed study cohere around how to understand the seemingly undemanding concept of “beauty” from the perspective of today’s fractured society, undergoing existential threats of the climate crisis, a pandemic, and wider geopolitical events. Pearson, following Baudelaire, suggests that the significance of beauty is its ability for redress or redemption. By electing to follow the “omnipotent governing body we call the creative imagination” (617) it should be possible to use beauty as a form of resistance, refusing to go with the flow.

Helen Abbott
University of Birmingham (UK)