Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Baudelaire’s Modernité [Invited Essay]

The concept of modernity remains a crux for literary studies because it attempts to combine historical categories with principles of form. Modernity refers to a moment of change: change in history and change in aesthetic forms indissociable from it. This essay examines the privileged case of Baudelaire, where a reflection on modernity—“Le Peintre de la vie moderne”—is doubled by writings regularly taken as examples of modernity—especially Les Fleurs du Mal and Le Spleen de Paris. Is it possible to identify the formal element in Baudelaire’s writing that distinguishes it as “modern”? After juxtaposing the incompatible responses offered by Paul Valéry and Walter Benjamin, the essay considers “Le Thyrse” as a particular case in point. The reading discloses how only a radically “prosaic” element—though one equally at work in the verse and prose poetry—could prove adequate to a “modernity” at one and the same time poetic and historical. 

Kevin Newmark
Boston College
Volume 44.1-2