June 7, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Review of Antoine Compagnon’s Baudelaire devant l’innombrable
Department of French and Francophone Studies
Antoine Compagnon. Baudelaire devant l’innombrable. Paris, PUF, 2003.
Antoine Compagnon has an uncanny ability to take on received ideas surrounding canonical figures. As we saw inNous, Michel de Montaigne (Seuil, 1980), Proust entre deux siècles (Seuil, 1989) or in Le Démon de la théorie, Compagnon’s Baudelaire devant l’innombrable, leaves no stone unturned to take on the critical clichés that are passed on from generation to generation. Not only should this latest offering please those with a predilection for Compagnon’s incisive (and often iconoclastic) approach to literature, it should also become compulsory reading those who wish to discover the limitations of Baudelaire scholarship as well as come to terms with a heretofore unexplored theme of “the number.”
In a brief introduction, Compagnon begins with quote from Michel Leiris, who qualified Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal as “irréductibles.” This irreducibility or resistance, explains Compagnon, is due to the impossibility of confining Baudelaire or his work to the simple, trite—what he calls mythical—categories of academic parlance, as well as to the irreducibility of the number within his poetry. In defense of this claim, he cites from Baudelaire’s journal intime Fusées, which reads: “Tout est nombre. Le nombre est dans tout. Le nombre est dans l’individu. L’ivresse est un nombre” (6).
In his first chapter, “Légendes des Fleurs du Mal,” Compagnon confronts various reductionist clichés of academic criticism and cogently introduces the many (often contradictory) methods of classifying the work of Baudelaire. This introduction alone is worth the price of the book and is an exceptional tool for anyone seeking initiation into the current and historical schools of Baudelairian Studies. In crystalline prose, Compagnon explains the claims and virtues of each classification before dismantling them and exposing their weaknesses. Compagnon refutes damning claims of realism and decadence that surrounded the Fleurs du Mal trials of 1857, and attacks Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson’s structuralist characterization of Baudelaire as the superpoète. While providing insight into various theoretical apparatuses, Compagnon shows concisely that Baudelaire is neither Satanist nor Catholic; Classic nor Modern; Reactionary nor Postmodern, finally insisting that the real Baudelaire is not to be found in hegemonic systems. He claims that “le vrai Baudelaire reste toujours celui dont il n’a pas encore été question, celui que chacun des mythes succesifs a laissé de côté” (38). Compagnon thus pushes aside existing theories in order to found his own theory of Baudelaire based on the indivisibile, eternal and infinite number.
The four themes that constitute chapters two through five of this study—l’éternel, l’infini, la mer and la rue—are connected by a preoccupation with the number that resurfaces continually in Baudelaire’s world. In Chapter II, “L’éternel miniscule,” Compagnon presents a new reading of the relation of the éternel to the transitoire in Baudelaire’s Peintre de la vie moderne. Although insisting on the impossibility of such a duality, Compagnon explores the potential meanings of Baudelaire’s éternel, reading it, for example, alongside the poet’s formulations of le beau and la modernité. Citing other impossible pairs—multitude/solitude, ciel/enfer—pairs that have been previously studied by Bersani, Benjamin and Jauss, Compagnon decides that “Le mot reste un mystère impregnable car la pensée de Baudelaire ne se fige pas” (76). The theme of l’éternel remains as eternally indivisible and infinite as the omnipresent number, which, according to Baudelaire, pervades everything.
The French “infini” as both adjective and noun pervades Baudelaire’s poetry. In Chapter III, “Les deux infinis,” Compagnon focuses on the unfathomable and sublime expanses of le gouffre, heaven and hell, intoxication, space and illusion. Acknowledging Pascal’s influence on Baudelaire, this chapter is probably the most mathematical and systematic in its treatment of number and its irreducibility. The Sea (the subject of Chapter IV) is likewise compared to a gouffre, and Compagnon shows its importance in the Baudelaireian imaginary, not only in his voyage poems, but also in its eternal and irreducible dimensions. Chapter V, “La rue passante,” assimilates the city street and its urban masses to the sea, while also touching on ideas of mimesis, prostitution and phantasmagoria found within the city’s foule. Viewed together as a “matrix of juxtaposition,” the street and the sea correspond in their infinite expanses and their ability to absorb the passer-by. Starting from the most basic metaphor and building to the most concrete, Compagnon draws the eternal, the infinite, the sea and the street together as progressive models of the indivisible number in the work of Baudelaire.
The sixth chapter, “Le démon du contretemps,” contemplates anachronism as it applies to the work of Baudelaire. Time, another infinite eternal, is examined with the aid of Spinoza, de Maistre, Sartre and Blanchot. Baudelaire, argues Compagnon, seemed to swim against the current of time, and is, in this sense, portrayed in a paradoxical position as an antimoderne. Rhyme and its relation to number are also evoked in this chapter, where Baudelaire is seen as a poetic innovator with his coupe lyrique and syncope that Compagnon explains as foreshadowing the direction French poetry would take decades later. Antimodern in content and proto-modern in form, Baudelaire’s ironic place in time is likewise presented in terms of the eternal and elusive number.
Allegory is examined in the seventh and final chapter. Here, Compagnon questions the allegorical readings of Baudelaire’s poetry by Benjamin, Jauss and De Man. At the same time, he makes a comparison between symbols, metaphors and the very possibility of allegorical systems. Underscoring Baudelaire’s general méfiance of systems, Compagnon is content, in the end, to consign allegory, and its endless possibilities in Les Fleurs du Mal, to the realm of non sequitur.
Compagnon’s volume is one of the most original, erudite and thought-provoking works on Baudelaire in recent years. For the uninitiated reader and the seasoned Baudelairian alike, the first chapter is a useful tool for cataloging, tracing and understanding the many currents of Baudelaire Studies over the past 150 years. Although acknowledging the contributions of his predecessors, Compagnon presents a fresh, insightful reading of the French poet and the innumerable possibilities opened up by Les Fleurs du Mal.