Reading Baudelaire With Adorno: Dissonance, Subjectivity, Transcendence

By | September 13, 2023

To speak of Baudelaire is to speak of paradox and contradiction.  It is to speak of a poet who is modern, amodern, and antimodern, one who vaunts transcendent correspondences and lets his poet’s halo remain trapped in the mud of the urban street.  Baudelaire’s works defy any attempt characterize them except by way of a seemingly infinite set of qualifications not because his poetics is incoherent but because he inscribes doubleness into the heart of those poetics in their conjunction with something we could call an epistemology, metaphysics, or psychology.  What he—metaphorically? literally?—aligns with God and Satan in the “deux postulations simultanées” present at all times in all people is also a spatial metaphor that appeals to the transcendent by means of the (metaphorical? literal?) material world.  “L’invocation à Dieu, ou spiritualité, est un désir de monter en grade ; celle à Satan, ou animalité, est une joie de descendre” [“the invocation to God, or spirituality, is a desire to ascend; the one to Satan, or animality, is a joy of descent”] (1: 683). To try to grasp and enumerate the way these contradictions manifest themselves in Baudelaire is perhaps to give in to the “joy of descent,” to pursue the potentially endless ways in which his poetry challenges, but also depends on, what comes before him, in ways that have proven tremendously influential for poetics ever since.  The excitement that comes the attempt to say something adequate about a Baudelaire poem comes partly from the realization that individual poems always send us back to other poems and encourage us to read them in groups that alter the meaning of each individual poem in the light of the other poems we have in mind as we read.  The parts and wholes start to reconfigure themselves in ways that resist easy description as we pursue the joy of descent into the art of interpretation, and their unity can seem both intuitively obvious and absolutely questionable. 

Moreover, any move toward interpretation soon becomes imbricated in larger questions of our relation as readers to the poem, the way it may shape us just as much as we shape it in our attempts to give form to a meaning, appealing to conceptual reflection while being aware of the rift between what conceptual reflection can provide and the experience of the work of art that always surpasses it.  We may find ourselves tempted, in that Satanic joy of descent, to claim an overarching unity by which we could make some sort of definitive claim about Baudelaire.  We might even come to see that “as soon as unity becomes stable, it is already lost,” because “unity and multiplicity are internal to each other.”  That claim comes not from Baudelaire but from Theodor Adorno, arguably the foremost thinker of the role of dissonance in what we have come to call modern art in the broad sense. It will be my claim in this study that Baudelaire’s poetry effects a key transformation in lyric subjectivity that Adorno’s conception of subject-object relations both in his esthetics and his wider philosophical project can help illuminate, while at the same time the poetry of Baudelaire resists, as Adorno recognizes that all genuine artworks do, totalizing attempts to subsume the artwork under the conceptual.  Rather, the artwork impels conceptual reflection but also always surpasses it, as it sends us, we might say, further down on the joyous descent.

Adorno’s approach to aesthetics and to theory resonates with Baudelaire’s work, not in the sense of providing a specific and easily summarized conceptual lens, but rather by dynamically mapping a space where ideas and artworks mutually inform each other and cannot exist independently of one another.  This is a space that is informed by, but not determined by or reduced to, the social context in which the artist creates, and it is one that takes the autonomy of the work of art and its formal tensions seriously. For both Baudelaire and Adorno, the autonomy of the work of art, properly understood, follows from its social relations rather than being opposed to it. Adorno intervenes meaningfully in a “modern” approach to the artwork that Baudelaire could be said to have played a key role in inaugurating and leads us to key questions about what remains of a certain view of the power and potential of art that Baudelaire inherited, but now from the perspective of the ruins of the horrors of the twentieth century. […]  Baudelaire, too, is important in no small part because his simultaneous preservation and transformation of approaches to the literary artwork that came before him situate him at a crossroads where he encourages readers to ask how artistic creation and interpreters’ understanding of that creation need to be transformed, but will not for all that be annihilated, in the changed social circumstances in which that art is produced. 

Sometimes Baudelaire’s story is told as a simplified and simplifying move from the elevation of the poetic discourse of the earlier verse poems to the cynical urban visions of the prose poems.  Such a linear view is symptomatic of a modern approach to time and artistic development but is hardly faithful to the complexity at work, often simultaneously, in Baudelaire’s creative output as the tension between an older and newer approach is one of dynamic or dialectical tension, or what I will call dissonance.  Adorno’s essay-like approach to aesthetics allows for a dialectical approach to art and philosophy that shows them to be mutually illuminating in ways that underscore the insufficiency of either one on its own when it comes to making meaning from works of art.  In important ways, both Baudelaire and Adorno, while separated from each other by a century and from us by fifty years beyond that, can still be said to be writers of “our” moment insofar as we can still claim their pertinence for the “modern” world we could still be said to inhabit.  In other words, they played a role in illuminating or creating some of the artistic and conceptual categories through which we appeal to thought and literature to illuminate experience. 


Joseph Acquisto, author of Reading Baudelaire With Adorno, is Professor of French at the University of Vermont, USA. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Poetry’s Knowing Ignorance (Bloomsbury 2021), Proust, Music, and Meaning: Theories and Practices of Listening in the Recherche (2017), and The Fall Out of Redemption: Writing and Thinking Beyond Salvation in Baudelaire, Cioran, Fondane, Agamben, and Nancy (Bloomsbury 2015).

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