Why There Are No Stars In Baudelaire

“Baudelaire’s abyss is starless…”
Walter Benjamin[1]

The light that obscures Baudelaire’s poetry is one that eluded him, and yet one that he could not fail to see. Its diffusion opens reading to darkness. There the Platonic sun is a myth, as is the world seen in the light of its good. The light neither burns nor shines, but lingers, distorted: a poetics of the afterglow, then[2]—of a light no longer to clear the opaque, to enlighten, to blossom in a photo-synthetic dialectic, resolving the darkness that turns against it. The chiaroscuro between the good light and opaque matter, the evil that resists it, no longer obtains. The morality play of good and evil reflected in specular metaphor, between light and darkness, day and night, sun and cave, work and prodigality, is itself doubled along the mirror’s edge that created it, put en abîme so that the opposition between good and evil is revealed to be already a reflection of the good, so that evil no longer therefore opposes the light, but issues from its redundancy. This light illumines the darkness not by clearing it away, but by suffusing with it in a cold modern lamplight, or in the gulf illumined by it of a shopwindow’s reflction where “tout est abîme,[3].

Worthless Poetry

Denis Hollier wrote, with regard to Georges Bataille, that “[i]t is no longer sufficient to open one’s eyes and greet the day; it is necessary to open them unto the night, to the point of opening up the day to the night and the night to the other night” (1990: 126). For Bataille, this chiaroscuro always carries with it moral as well as ontological consequences: “dualism will not oppose Good and Evil, but morality (where one does the good) and a moral rigor which is beyond good and evil” (Hollier, 1990:125). This is a “beyond”, however, that never lasts. There is no dead-God’s eye view of morality, from which one might revalue all values. Rather, Nietzsche’s insight can only last for a moment, the brief instant before a profane morality repeats itself: the instant, perhaps, in Benjaminian terms, of a “dialectical image”—a snapshot of moral breakdown. Only insofar as the good temporarily expends itself within its own economy can evil enter into being, let alone prevail in it (which strictly speaking it cannot): “Evil does not exist independently of the interdiction which is the limit of the Good; beyond this limit reigns only another Good; not Evil. Evil never reigns” (Hollier, 1990:130). This is Bataille’s Nietzschean influence, but also his departure from it. And it is no wonder that Bataille, in making this departure, turns to Baudelaire. The moral rigor through which morality itself is in this way exceeded cannot be the result of a decision (since a decision can only ever be toward another good, another utility, another Platonic ideal), but must instead come from a seduction, a fascination, a “perfect silence of the will[4]” that is exemplified in poetry.

In his essay on Baudelaire in La littérature et le mal, Bataille recalls two dichotomies outlined in the Journaux Intimes: the first between pleasure and work, and the second between God and Satan.[5] Bataille, of course, analogizes these two dichotomies, in order to draw a certain parallel between work and the profane, as well as the sacred and pleasure (1957: 55). This parallel, however, is not a simple relation, and Baudelaire proves to be its paradigm as well as its paradox. For Bataille, Baudelaire made each of these parallels intersect in a contradictory morality split between pleasure and work. He in one sense sought a life of poetic activity (Bataille, 1957: 55), preferring, for example, the inspired alacrity of drunkenness to the passivity of hashish. And yet, in spite of his commitment, what Baudelaire nonetheless epitomizes, for Bataille, is the aporetic fact that the desire to actively create eventually always comes up against the constraints of productivity, of the discipline that arrests the passions to order them in a work (of art, for example). One must subdue the present for the future, in what Elissa Marder calls a “collapse of pleasure into work” (2001: 21). Further (extending this logic to its social extreme), the historical period in which Les Fleurs du Mal was written was one of an austere bourgeoisie, of the damming (and damning) of unproductiveness (jouissances improductives[6]) in favor of networks of railways, machinic crescendos, and indefinite productive advancement (Bataille, 1957: 58). Baudelaire’s work thus finds itself in the industrial predicament of poetry: where can one find a locus of inutility in a world stripped of the counterproductive? How does one produce what must remain fundamentally unproductive? Or, how can one choose what is not already ensconced in an economy of the good? Such is the impasse that Baudelaire’s poetry typifies, an abyss that cannot be resolved by a decision, because decision already reflects the problem. This contradiction can then only give way to absentminded fascination and worthless melancholy, source of a jouissance morose (Bataille, 1957: 51) found at the limit of its ir-resolution. Therefore a perfectly silent will, a melancholic pleasure, a flawlessly crafted inefficacy: these are the chiasmatic names for the poète maudite who wrests evil from the good. And precisely in spite of the traditional moral images through which the dialectics of the good correspond to a shining, and evil to darkness, this curse is figured in Baudelaire by light itself, but obliquely,[7] appearing as the ally of a languorous and seductive entropy, the disappearance of the stars. This proposition, itself oblique, cannot be clarified. It requires hypocrisy of its reader.

 

Icarus Inverted

“The sun, from the human point of view (in other words, as it is confused with the notion of noon) is the most elevated conception. It is also the most abstract object, since it is impossible to look at it fixedly at that time of day. If we describe the notion of the sun in the mind of one whose weak eyes compel him to emasculate it, that sun must be said to have the poetic meaning of mathematical serenity and spiritual elevation. If on the other hand one obstinately focuses on it, a certain madness is implied, and the notion changes in meaning because it is no longer production that appears in light, but refuse or combustion, adequately expressed by the horror emanating from a brilliant arc lamp” (Bataille, 1985: 57). So there are two suns: a Platonic sun and a rotten sun. And the myth of Icarus, as Bataille describes it (1985: 58), can be used to delineate the two. The first sun is the halcyon giver of light, a heaven of perfect form, and thus the one that gave Icarus the bright idea in the first place. It is the traditional face of the sun as a god or as the good, a model of perfect understanding. The mythical face of the solar deity, however, is complemented by its very impossibility (and subsequent seduction). This rotten sun tempts Icarus toward the impossible, in spite of himself. Prolonged exposure to its burning renders him delirious, compelling him to hurl his body toward it in a fit of mania. As he gets closer, the burning of the sun replaces its abstraction, and it consumes him. Icarus is in this way a casualty of confronting the expenditure of the sun, a victim of contradictions that destroy whoever would attempt to reach them and to understand them, since the light is itself born of an unreadability. Such a confrontation necessarily fails, the sun ultimately receding from view as one falls away from it, unable to approximate its brilliance, like Icaraus, into the abyss.

A similar, and perhaps even more radical take on this theme occurs in Baudelaire’s take on the Icarus myth: “Les Plaintes d’un Icare”. In Baudelaire, hubris is never a choice; its consequences are always already drawn. The poem begins and ends with the fall, his lament. In its second stanza, the sun’s light is already only a memory.

C’est grâce aux astres nonpareils,
Qui tout au fond du ciel flamboient,
Que mes yeux consumes ne voient
Que des souvenirs de soleils.[8]

Here the Icarian sun is already split. Temporally, it burns away the very instant of its apperception in anyone who looks at it, so that it can exist for them only as a memory, a glowing afterimage. But what is more, in the sun’s fire, it is already fundamentally non-self-present. In its blaze it is spread out in the light of so many “astres nonpareils”, stars that are unequalled but also not themselves—an infinite semiosis of light fractured across space and gravity as well as time and memory: “En vain j’ai voulu de l’espace / Trouver la fin et le milieu”.[9] The sun diffuses itself in a crowd of stars, relinquishing the principle of organization by which it became a sun. In Baudelaire’s traumatic flight, this retreat of light itself opens into an abyss (rather than resulting from a fall into an abyss):

Je n’aurai pas l’honneur sublime
De donner mon nom à l’abîme[10]

This abyss is a vertigo of the sun, a stretching of its light beyond the point at which it can be read or used to read a name in the symbolic order, giving Platonic form to it in a relation to the good and its mores. The sun falls away into stars, and the stars into an abyss, where their light leaves the poet, no longer a beacon of sense or morality.

 

Celestial Bodies or the Heat Death of the Universe

The transference and dispersion of energy that is made apparent in this Icarian flight points to a broader economy of light in Baudelaire’s poetry that might help to show why the stars have been evacuated from his universe. Bataille discusses this economy of light in his essay “Corps celestes”, which outlines the theoretical implications of the expenditure of the sun and then that of galaxies. Stars, moving together in a “mouvement d’ensemble” (Bataille, 1970: 516), project their light and heat outside of themselves, in a perpetual giving of their own power, an abandonment of their energy that obscures their embodied existence. They become more or less concentrated loci of light and heat that no longer belong entirely to them, even if they are the nucleus for this energy: “Cette perte prodigieuse est le fait du Soleil en tant qu’étoile” (Bataille, 1970: 517).[11] Thus, wild loss is the qualification of the star. Bataille compares this loss, or self-sacrifice, to a galactic festival (1970: 519). On the other hand, the Sun, a stellar capital, becomes what it is through a recuperation of its starry expenditures in a productive system (of planets), making sense out of space, giving gravity to it. And only then, thanks to the sun’s gravity and its losses of light and heat, can the earth come to support life—not to mention humanity, which nonetheless sets itself above all the stellar gifts that have coalesced for it to come into being. To come into being, or rather to create the myth that it is, is the unfortunate qualification for humanity: to make an anthropocentrism out of heliocentrism, to set itself up as the repository for the freely given energy of the star that is its sun, hoarding a small part of it to turn a profit (but this binding of energy is in fact a double bind, locking humanity in its world of productiveness, making tools out of the users, means from the ends): “Ils ont limité au sein des univers libres un monde de l’ «utile» replié sur lui-même, isolé et enchaîné, dont les ustensiles, les matières de production et le travail forment la structure. Ainsi n’ont-ils plus d’autre fin que celle d’une avidité impossible à assouvir” (Bataille, 1970: 519).[12] The heat and light of the sun are each appropriated into a system of total work. Heat and its energy are appropriated by industry, turned into physical work and put to use for human ends (the human energy of labor power especially). Light is correlatively changed into the means of theory, made to serve knowledge, which sets itself apart from the world that it makes into its object: specularity becomes speculation. Thus a certain sort of thinking (penser) becomes the negation and arrogation of the expenditure (dépenser) of the universe. Hollier writes: “The Earth is thus a cosmic hole in which the truth of the universe (expenditure, communication, glorious manifestation) gets drained, sucked in, sacrificed” (1990: 135).

The earth is the hole, the abyss, the vacuum that sucks in the energy of the universe. It is the vanishing point of the stars, the fallacious negation of the negation that turns loss into gain. This is why Benjamin can say that “Baudelaire’s abyss is starless; it should not be defined as a cosmic space. But even less is it the exotic space of theology. It is a secularized space: the abyss of knowledge and of meanings” (1999: 271). Baudelaire’s abyss of meaning is the earth that binds light and energy[13] into a restricted economy of knowledge and work, absorbing the ruin of “astres inutiles”,[14] which, as Marder argues, only thenceforth appear in the eyes of women: misogynistic Baudelairean symbols to replace the firmament (2001:30). Industrial lamplight pollutes the atmosphere, so the stars disappear, while Icarian science, staring toward the stars, loses sight of them in constructing its insights, which eliminate excess in order to think.

With its energy under the yoke of (capitalist) productivity, and its light coopted by a knowledge equally subjected to utility, the sun in Baudelaire freezes, and gives off a cold light. For example, in “De Profundis Clamavi”, there is “Un soleil sans chaleur”, and a “froide cruauté de ce soleil de glace”. In “Harmonie du soir”, “Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige”. In “Une Gravure fantastique”: “Le cimetière immense et froid, sans horizon / Où gisent, aux lueurs d’un soleil blanc et terne…”. In “La Musique”, there is the appearance of a “pale étoile”. In “Chant d’automne”, the polar hell of the sun freezes the poet’s heart into a block of ice: “comme le soleil dans son enfer polaire, / Mon Coeur ne sera plus qu’un bloc rouge et glacé”. As Benjamin notes, Baudelaire was indeed, and at least, a poet of autumn (2006: 158). Perhaps this is also an autumn of the stars, the turning away from the unproductive like the earth’s axis turns it away from the sun.[15]

Arthur Eddington, whom Bataille discusses in “Corps celestes”, helped to popularize the scientific theory of the expanding universe; though, as Hollier writes, Bataille’s interpretation of it “would rather deserve the name of [the theory of the] expending universe” (1990: 134). It is not until one considers Baudelaire that this theory is poetically pushed to its deathly consequences. One could say that Bataille interprets this theory through a general economics of a cosmological sovereignty, whereas Baudelaire’s poetry reflects the ultimate entropic state of this sovereignty: what is, in scientific terms, called the heat death of the universe. According to this theory, the total amount of energy in the universe will have reached an ultimate state of dispersion and as such will no longer be able to sustain life: cold light, indeed. A homogenous dispersion of dim light and cooled energy is already characterized by Baudelaire’s algid autumnal sun; however, this poetic heat death is not simply the result of a cosmological entropy, but of human doing. At the plateau of Western industrial society, Baudelaire’s poetry expresses a situation in a world where all energy has been put to use, all light made to penetrate the darkness, all of the present subordinated to the future, toward an indeterminate progress, toward the “avidité impossible à assouvir” of which Bataille spoke. Light and air pollution, wage labor, the taxonomization of anything and everything: all contribute to the anthropocentric forgetting of expenditure, of loss, and of the meaning and consequences of accumulation. This is what obliterates the stars, which are still there, but whose communicability has been ousted from the industrial and post-industrial era. In short, this world is the abyss, and not the space in which it flounders as an accident. Baudelaire writes (in his “Horreur sympathique”):

De ce ciel bizarre et livide,
Tourmenté comme ton destin,
Quels pensers dans ton âme vide
Descendent? Réponds, libertin.

—Insatiablement avide
De l’obscur et de l’incertain,
Je ne geindrai pas comme Ovide
Chassé du paradis latin.[16]

Here Baudelaire describes a pale, bizarre sky: a sky, in other words, emptied of its celestial bodies. He speaks to an equally empty soul, a libertine who is the only one who can respond in this abyssal situation, as the one who operates outside of morality, outside its ideals, and its productivity: in evil. An insatiable greed (“insatiablement avide”) has quite literally won the day, prodding into the obscure and the uncertain, relying on it to prove its revealing power. However, the poet refuses to mourn this emptiness, to bemoan the loss of the heavens, to which Ovid said the gods made human heads turn in order to communicate.[17]

The absent starlight is assimilated in the streetlight, or given to telescopes; sunlight is absorbed by industry: a human-made heat death. The remaining, theoretical, investigatory light on the earth, which seeks out the obscure in order to enlighten it, turns the world into a special sort of chasm where the stars cannot shine. This chasmal light cannot be mourned, since the celestial objects that it absorbs and replaces were already uncertain (or were perhaps uncertainty itself); instead, it gives rise to melancholia, in the infinite reflecting of a selfsame productive hell:

Et vos lueurs sont le reflet
De l’Enfer où mon coeur se plait.[18]

 

Melancholia Mirrors The Abyss

Since the industrial impetus is to channel all energy toward production, sapping it from life, and to turn the visible back on itself, having (only apparently) ferreted out the darkness, light no longer has anywhere to turn. It becomes mirrored, without cease. The abyss, then, the world, is both literally and figuratively a mise-en-abîme. It is a repetition of light that eliminates chiaroscuro, so that light can only mirror light, in an endless repetition of an ever-opening pit of enlightenment, from which there is no escape. The sun, the good, that which keeps the earth in line, in orbit, becomes chained to its productivity. It becomes a principle of work, while the stars themselves recede. All energy is put to use for one good or another, and the abyss thus opens through the reflected repetition of these goods. This mirroring of the good, however, itself has no specific object, and no end, since one mirror is only the reflection of what is seen in the other, and that mirror a reflection of what is seen in it, ad infinitum. With the good now turned back upon itself, there is no loss except the loss of loss, which gives rise to Baudelaire’s modern melancholia.

Freud writes of melancholia that it is “mentally characterized by a profoundly painful depression, a loss of interest in the outside world, the loss of the ability to love, the inhibition of any kind of performance and a reduction in the sense of self, expressed in self-recrimination” (2006: 311). Further, for Freud melancholia involves “the loss of an object that is withdrawn from consciousness, unlike mourning, in which no aspect of the loss is unconscious” (2006: 312). For the melancholic, then, the loss cannot be entirely signified. In this vein, Julia Kristeva calls melancholia “the institutional symptomatology of inhibition and asymbolia that becomes established now and then or chronically in a person” (1989: 9). This asymbolic aspect of melancholia, an unconscious loss, perhaps a loss of the unconscious, or of options for libidinal investment, can be shown to characterize the Baudelairean dilemma, in that everything that the poet any longer can see or say has already been coopted by an institution that puts it to work. The world is already mirrored by the symbolic, in a simulation that leaves nothing for poetic-libidinal investment. All cathexes must thenceforth relate to technocratic progress,[19] and therefore the only thing left for the poet to do is to do nothing. Or, more precisely, the only thing that the poet can do is to stare into the mirrors, to put himself into the abîme so that he might, in his fascination with its reflections of reflections, reveal the abyss for what it is: a darkened, starless tautology.[20] The repetitions of the same throughout Paris life are themselves reflected and distorted in Baudelaire’s melancholy: “Paris change! Mais rien dans ma mélancolie / N’a bougé!…” (“Le Cygne”).[21] The poet turns himself into a vehicle of distortion, through which the infinite reflections of industrial Europe are transformed through the melancholia that they produce and of which, at the institutional level, they are also the symptom. Perhaps for this reason, mirrors in Baudelaire are very often paired with sadness, darkness, or evil. For instance, consider the “Pauvre et triste miroir” in “Le Cygne”, or Baudelaire’s characterization of da Vinci as a “miroir profond et sombre” in “Les Phares”. Or, consider his depiction in “La mort des amants” of “Les miroirs ternis et les flames mortes”, or the “grand miroir / De mon désespoir” in “La Musique”. Baudelaire even considers his own position as a distorting, melancholic mirror: “Je suis le sinistre miroir” (“l’Héautontimorouménos”). Baudelaire’s mirrors attempt to refract the ever-expanding cold light of technocratic reason by revealing to it its own melancholia, by revealing the worthless, tautological abyss inherent in its teleology, the scatology that lurks in its eschatology. The silent yet sad fascination with the good light of progress shows its good to be the evil that it always already is. Bataille put it well in La littérature et le mal: “Baudelaire ouvrit dans la masse tumultueuse de ces eux la dépression d’une poésie maudite, qui n’assumait plus rien, et qui subissait sans defense une fascination incapable de satisfaire, une fascination qui détruisait” (1957: 62).[22] An unsatisfying fascination is Baudelaire’s response in the face of the mirrors of modernity.

The “dépression” of which Bataille speaks above—taken as both melancholia and a (topologically) low point, or even a hole (abyss)—is facilitated by a specular méconnaissance in Baudelaire’s subjectivity about which he can do nothing, and through which he is already submitted to an order that subsumes him in its current, even if he refuses to swim in it’s crowds, if at best he can resist its flow like a rock against water, staring at the tumult around him. Along these lines, Leo Bersani writes of Baudelaire’s poem “Les sept vieillards” that “the poet doesn’t recognize himself in these seven repetitions of the same, but it is nonetheless as if they were a theatrical representation of that separation of the self from itself which is the basis of specular self-identification” (1977: 122). And in a similar manner, Bataille argues that “he [Baudelaire] could not even decide whether the opposition was his own, within himself (between pleasure and work) or external (between God and the devil)” (1987: 21). Thus both Bersani (in psychoanalytic terms) and Bataille (in religious and economic terms) show the poet’s realization of the symbolic recuperation of the self as an industrial “good” (in both senses of the term). Baudelaire, in other words, already realizes the impossibility of his separation from the system that would appropriate his art for its progress. Already within the abyss of reflections of the good, Baudelaire can only attempt to ally himself with its mirrors and refuse to be its object, instead meeting its specularizations with a gaze that makes the mirrors only mirror themselves. For example, in his prose poem “Le Miroir”, a “horrible man” looks at his own reflection from the point of view of the state, and proves himself to be the same as anyone. Baudelaire’s character’s fascination with this separation of the man from himself reveals the reflective, simulated nature of the man’s modern identity. One might also consider this mirroring from the opposite perspective. Why, for example, in “Le Mauvais vitrier”, is it a glazier who suffers Baudelaire’s wrath? It is probably not an accident that this person puts up glass, the transparent yet subtly reflective material of the mirror. This cold glass is also the stuff of capitalism, the vitre, the storefront window, which presents passersby with new desires, reflections of themselves in a better life, offering the repressive desublimation that ensures productivity. Is it any wonder that the otherwise calm, speculative thinker flies into a frenzy at the sight of this glass? And is it any wonder that Baudelaire chooses, for the person who would put an end to this crystallization of desire, one who is normally “incapables d’accomplir les choses les plus simples et les plus nécessaires”[23]? This idle thinker springs to life, Baudelaire says, in the name of beauty; but this beauty certainly lies outside the realm of the productive. Baudelaire’s character, however, chooses not to break the window itself (even if it ends up breaking under the glazier’s fall). Instead, he lets the glass incite the evil that in its reflections it usually converts into repetitions of the good. In other words, by directly critiquing this abyss, Baudelaire would only set up another good within its hall of mirrors; but by letting himself be seduced by this seemingly unprovoked, absurdly evil act, Baudelaire forms a relation of continuity between the reflections of the good and the evil it inspires; this evil is the lightning that breaks the glass. Baudelaire’s melancholic, distortive mirroring of the state of things thus reveals them for what they really are: in Benjamin’s words, “the catastrophe” (1999: 473).

 

Irredeemable Starlight

In “l’Irrémédiable”, the starlight trapped in this earthly abyss of mirrors crystallizes into a poem, through which Baudelaire reveals this light to bleed into darkness, so that only at best an opaque grey sky remains from which to clarify his poetry:

Une Idée, une Forme, un Etre
Parti de l’azur et tombé
Dans un Styx bourbeux et plombé
Où nul oeil du Ciel ne pénètre;[24]

This idea, form, or being—the ontotheological presence that the sun is supposed to guarantee—falls away into Hades, a fallen angel, where the sun, the eye of heaven, cannot see it (or see with it). However, in beginning this way, Baudelaire’s poem is not merely eulogizing the loss of ideality, of Platonic form and its being in modernity’s crowded streets. Rather, form itself descends into darkness and in doing so makes a light out of the dark. Darkness and evil become their own sort of clarity, obscuring the false dichotomy between good and evil. Evil, which will arise from the revelation of the tautological, substitutive, mirrored nature of the good, is what becomes necessary to illuminate the trompe l’oeil of the abyss. Bersani writes, of this poem’s sixth stanza, that “the phosphorescent eyes of viscous monsters make a ‘light’ which is an intensification of the surrounding darkness. Visibility is the result of a greater blackness emerging from a lesser blackness” (1977: 94). The demonic, worthless melancholia spawned in the accursed poet—in the face of the productive taxonomies that confuse speculation and the specular, putting all light and heat to work—becomes the blind spot of progress, the obscurity that distorts the infinitely mirrored light of modern industrialism, reveling in the aberrations and confusions that result from its systematic appropriation of (solar) energy. Unable, however, to deal directly with the industrial appropriation of heat for work, Baudelaire’s predicament is more accurately characterized as a moral, epistemological, or even hermeneutical problem: a problem which might be summed up in the ending of “L’irrémédiable”:

—Emblèmes nets, tableau parfait
D’une fortune irrémédiable,
Qui donne à penser que le Diable
Fait toujours bien tout ce qu’il fait!

Tête-à-tête sombre et limpide
Qu’un Coeur devenu son miroir!
Puits de Vérité, clair et noir,
Où tremble un étoile livide,

Un phare ironique, infernal,
Flambeau des graces sataniques,
Soulagement et gloire uniques
—La conscience dans le Mal! [25]

Why do the “emblèmes nets” and the “tableau parfait” of the symbolic order, a “fortune irrémédiable”, evoke thoughts of the devil? This is a devil that has done his work in the symbolic, and set it to work in and toward a good that is never definable as such, opening an abyss of mirrors in the process, which illuminates the world through a profane system of signifiers whose teleology is (an Icarian) enlightenment. This enlightenment pollutes the stars and evacuates their deific burning from any coherent articulability, submitting light to science and moving forward toward what it believes to be its own godlike comprehension, but simultaneously falling away from the stars, since these celestial bodies can only be thought in their expenditure—the expulsion of which is the precondition of science and the modern episteme. This is a devil that “Fait toujours bien tout ce qu’il fait”, a devil that uses the light of the good to do his evil: an evil that can never come to light as such.

Coming face to face with this demon of the good, Baudelaire realizes that its work is transparent (“limpide”). If this devil did its evil in a traditional darkness, then light could clarify it; but since it works in the light, Baudelaire’s poem delves into the darkness[26]—certainly not to join the side of the good, but precisely because this evil is the good. He must illuminate this limpid evil-good with a monstrous darkness, a darkness that arises out of a melancholic distortion of the good that makes it redundant. He must himself become the distortive mirror of this devil-god. He must enter these “puits de Verité, clair et noir” to reclaim the pale star trembling therein, in order refract its ironic, pale light outside of the abyss; here Baudelaire does what little he can to undo the constraints on light and energy without by doing so setting up another teleology. This is the last remaining torch of, ironically, the sacred (taken in the Bataillean sense) that rests within the abyssal world of proliferated meanings: “la conscience dans le Mal!” As Bersani notes, this is consciousness in evil, not of it (1977: 95). Since consciousness—and conscience (as the French term carries both meanings)—of evil is only really consciousness of another good, this Baudelairean consciousness must exist in evil, in the black sun[27] of the subjectless, objectless, useless, worthless melancholia that the poet recognizes in the abîme of modernity: cold streetlight, life frozen in names, entropic repetition of the good, death of stellar energy. This is the true dis-aster.[28] These stars can never again be seen for Baudelaire, except accursedly, lingering in the fascination of an autumn melancholy, and in the evil of heavens so darkened that they obscure the abyss.

 

 

Bibliography:

Bataille, Georges. (1970). “Corps celestes”, in Oeuvres Completes: Tome I. Paris, France: Gallimard

Bataille, Georges. (1985). “Rotten Sun”, in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Allan Stoekl (Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Bataille, Georges. (1957). La littérature et le mal. Paris, France: Gallimard.

Bataille, Georges. (1987). “A Perfect Silence of the Will”, in Charles Baudelaire. Harold Bloom (Ed.). New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers.

Baudelaire, Charles. (1964). Les Fleurs du Mal. Paris, France: Garnier-Flammarion.

Baudelaire, Charles. (1987). Le spleen de Paris, et La fanfarlo. Paris, France: GF-Flammarion.

Benjamin, Walter. (1999). The Arcades Project. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (2006). “Central Park”, in The Writer of Modern Life. Michael W. Jennings (Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bersani, Leo. (1977). Baudelaire and Freud. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Eigeldinger, Marc. (1991). “Le soleil de la poésie: Gautier, Baudelaire, Rimbaud”, in Langages: Études baudelairiennes, 8 (5). Boudry-Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Editions de la Baconnière.

Freud, Sigmund. (2006). “Mourning and Melancholia”, in The Penguin Freud Reader. Adam Phillips (Ed.). London, England: Penguin Books.

Hollier, Denis. (1990). “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille”, in Yale French Studies, 78, “On Bataille”. New Haven, MA: Yale University Press. pp. 124-139.

Kristeva, Julia. (1989). Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Leon S. Roudiez (Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Marder, Elissa. (2001). Dead Time: Temporal Disorders in the Wake of Modernity (Baudelaire and Flaubert). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Meltzer, Françoise. (2011). Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


[1] See Benjamin (1999), p. 271.

[2] Françoise Meltzer’s Seeing Double (2011) explores the temporality of Baudelaire’s “A une passante” as a “ghost economy” (122) of the afterimage that operates in his writing: “The woman [in “A une passante”], then, is an afterimage; a scopic phantom whose vivid emergence from the crowd remains in the mind after the ocular stimulus has occurred. All the necessary elements for retinal retention that make for the afterimage are there: a bright flash of light and a lingering vision—a kind of daguerreotype of which the iodine-sensitive silvered plate is the mind” (88-89).

[3] From Baudelaire’s poem “Le Gouffre [The Abyss]”: “—Helas! Tout est abîme,—action, désir, rêve / Parole! [—Alas! All is abyss—action, desire, dream / Speech!].” “Sur le fond de mes nuits Dieu de son doigt savant / Dessine un cauchemar multiforme et sans trêve. [On the substance of my nights, God with his subtle finger / Traces a protean, never-ending nightmare]

[4] This “perfect silence of the will” is the last line of Bataille’s essay on Baudelaire in La littérature et le mal, and became the essay’s title in the standalone version of its translation into English.

[5] First: “A chaque minute nous sommes écrasés par l’idée et la sensation du temps. Et il n’y a que deux moyens pour échaper à ce cauchemar,—pour l’oublier: le Plaisir et le Travail. Le Plaisir nous use. Le Travail nous fortifie. Choississons” (Baudelaire, Oeuvres Completes, p. 669). Second: “Il y a dans tout homme, à toute heure, deux postulations simultanées, l’une vers Dieu, l’autre vers Satan. L’invocation à Dieu, ou spiritualité, est un désir de monter en grade; celle de Satan, ou animalité, est une joie de descendre” (Baudelaire, Oeuvres Completes, p. 1277).

[6] See Bataille (1957), p. 58.

[7] Consider the “soleil oblique” in “Les Hiboux”, or the “oblique rayon” in “Le Coucher du soleil romantique”, both of which obscure the opposition between light and dark (in favor of darkness), finding in a sidelong approach to light exactly what it does not intend to show: its relation to the night.

[8] [It’s thanks to the disparate stars,
All blazing at the base of the sky,
That my burned eyes don’t see
But the memories of suns.]

[9] [In vain I scoured space
To find its limit, its element]

[10] [I will not have the sublime honor
Of giving my name to the abyss]

[11] [This prodigious loss is the act of the Sun inasmuch as it is a star.]

[12] [They are limited, within an unbound universe, to a world of “utility”, turned in on itself, isolated and enchained, of which tools, resources, and work form the structure. Thus they have no other end except that of an insatiable greed.]

[13] Consider also the psychoanalytical concept of bound energy.

[14] From poem XXVII [Avec ses vêtements ondoyants…] in Les Fleurs du Mal.

[15] Marc Eigeldinger (1991), in Etudes baudelairiennes, presents a very impressive survey of light in Baudelaire, and, among other things, notes a preference for cold light in his poems. However, Eigeldinger’s interpretation is essentially over-romantic—for instance, when he writes of Baudelaire that “il se dérobe à la chaleur dévorante et à la pure incandescence pour se réfugier dans la sphere de la lumière douce et tamisée, qui recèle les semences de la spiritualité” (81).

[16] [From this strange and pale sky,
Tormented like your fate,
What thoughts to your empty soul
Descend? Answer, libertine.

—Insatiably greedy
For the obscure and uncertain,
I will not moan as did Ovid
Chased from his Latin heaven.]

[17] Consider also Baudelaire’s more famous reference to the same Ovidian myth in “Le Cygne”, as analyzed by Marder (2001: 25).

[18] [And your dim light is the reflection
Of the Hell where my heart belongs.]

[19] This holds almost as true for a certain naïve idea of revolution, which sets up a teleology with which it opposes an equally naïve idea of capitalism.

[20] These themes might also be found in Baudelaire’s poem “Le Gouffre”: “Je ne vois qu’infini par toutes les fenêtres, / Et mon esprit, toujours du vertige hanté, / Jalouse du néant l’insensiblité. [I see naught but infinity through all these windows / And my mind, forever haunted by vertigo / Envies the senselessness of nothingness.]”

[21] [Paris changes! But nothing in my melancholy / Has moved!…]

[22] [Baudelaire uncovered in the masses of these tumultuous waters the depression/ditch of an accursed poetry that no longer assumes anything, and that subjects itself without condition to an unsatisfying fascination, a destructive fascination.]

[23] [incapable of accomplishing the simplest and most necessary things]

[24] [An Idea, a Form, a Being
Departed and fallen from the azur sky
Into a miry, leaden Styx
Where no eye of Heaven can see;]

[25][—Crystal symbols, perfect picture
Of an irredeemable fortune,
That make one think that the Devil
Always makes good whatever he does!

Face to somber limpid face,
A heart become their mirror!
Pits of truth, clear and black,
Where a pale star trembles,

A lone light, ironic, infernal,
Torch of satanic grace,
Singular glory and solace
—consciousness in Evil!]

[26] This might also be why Baudelaire seeks out the starless night in “Obsession”. The stars, which have left the sky, taken to earth and put to work, leave only a night that subverts the way in which they have been annexed by capital.

[27] Julia Kristeva (1989) likens melancholia to the iconography of a black sun (via Nerval).

[28] Not to mention the problems that this retreat of the constellations poses for politics and history. One would no doubt want to turn to Benjamin’s analyses of Baudelaire and allegory in order to flesh out these problems, which are far too large for the scope of this project.