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Baudelaire, art and life
on 15 February 2013
In this non-linear, potpourri of a book, Roberto Calasso meditates on Baudelaire and the post-Romantic emergence of Modernism in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Paris. If you haven't read Calasso before, you should be aware that he's a polymath writer who takes much for granted: this book, for example, assumes we're already familiar with the life and background of Baudelaire as well as with his texts, beyond the famous Les Fleurs du Mal. It also quotes in Latin and French, not extensively, but without translation, and skips blithely along an intellectual arc from Plato to Proust taking in Virgil, Flaubert, Gautier, Mallarmé and Nerval en route.
This isn't biography, or `literary criticism', or even art criticism, though it does combine elements of all of those, and spends some time analysing a dream which Baudelaire wrote down.
There are moments of insight, but also moments of opacity: `For Baudelaire, poetry was not a commando of life... nor was it something unbreathable... For Baudelaire, poetry occupied more or less the same place it had always occupied, as for Horace or Racine' - um, `not a commando'?, `unbreathable'? do we know what `place' poetry occupied for `Horace or Racine' and could it really be the same in C1st CE Rome and C17th France?
Even more confusingly is this oddly under-theorised statement about appropriation from other poets: `by this I do not mean functional plagiarism... but the other kind, based on admiration and a process of physiological assimilation that is one of the best protected mysteries of literature' - given the crucial centrality of intertextuality to poststructuralist/postmodern theories of the text, it can hardly be said to be a mystery.
So this is a book which encourages dialogue, which prompts questions and refutations, rather than a slavish acceptance. Like the Baudelairean figure of the flâneur himself (and gender is important in this book: women are whores and muses, men are artists and geniuses), Calasso takes an excursus around nineteenth-century Paris and leaves us feeling like we've experienced the encounters in our own right.
This probably isn't for anyone new to this period, but is rewarding to those already familiar with the art, literature, and cultural movements emergent in Paris between the Romantics and the fin-de-siècle.
ps. The book is a beautiful material object, weighty and with good colour reproductions.