pierre bourdieu on how to read charles baudelaire reading charles baudelaire

. . . then, ‘the critic, the viewer’ (as Baudelaire himself puts it) is able to bring about within himself a transformation, which is something of a mystery’, and, by a phenomenon of will-power acting on his imagination, can learn to share in the life of the society that has given birth to this unexpected bloom

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How to Read an Author


I fear that my critique of the lector’s reading will fall victim to the derealizing neutralization that this reading precisely performs. And, that here I am touching on the very foundation of scholastic belief, I would like not only to explain, or prove point, but make it felt, and in that way overcome routine, or lift by using, as a kind of parable, the case of Baudelaire, who, through successive readings and rereadings, has, more than any other writer, suffered the effects of canonization, an eternization that dehistoricizes and derealizes, while making it impossible to recreate ‘the inimitable grandeur of beginnings’ to which, in a quite different context, Claude Levi-Strauss refers.


With Baudelaire we are faced with a problem of historical anthropology as difficult as those that arise for the historian or ethnologist from the deciphering of an unknown society. But, because of the false familiarity we derive from long academic frequentation, we are not aware of it. One of the most hackneyed topics of the discourse of celebration of the ‘classics’, which has the effect of sending them into limbo, as if outside time and space, far away, in any case, from debates and battles of the present, consists paradoxically in as our contemporaries, those closest to us – so contemporary and so close that we do not doubt an instant the apparently immediate understanding (in reality mediated by our education) that we think we have of their work.


Yet we are, without realizing it, perfect strangers to the social universe in which Baudelaire found himself, and in particular to the intellectual world with which and against which he evolved and which, in return, he profoundly transformed and indeed revolutionized, by helping to create the literary field, a radically new world, but one for us, is self-evident. Being ignorant of our ignorance, we efface the most extraordinary aspects of Baudelaire’s life, namely the efforts he had to make to bring about that extra-ordinary reality, the literary microcosm as the ‘economic world reversed’. Like Manet, another great heresiarch, Baudelaire is the victim of the success the revolution he brought about: the categories of perception that we apply to his actions and his works, and which are the product of world resulting from that revolution, make them appear normal, natural, self-evident; and the most heroic breaks have become the inherited privileges of a caste, now within scope of every hack writer intent on transgression and the most mediocre celebrant of the academic cult of anti-academicism.


This exhortation to a genuine historical anthropology of Baudelaire can draw support from a text by Baudelaire, who wrote, in his first article on the Universal Exhibition of 1855: ‘I ask any man of good faith, provided always he done a little thinking and travelling: what would a modern Winckelman (we are full of them, nation is with them and lazy people adore them) — what, I say, would a modern Winckelman do, what would he say, at the sight of a Chinese product, a strange product, weird, contorted in shape, intense in colour, and sometimes delicate to the point of fading away? yet this object is a sample of universal beauty; but if it is to be understood, the critic, the viewer, must bring about within himself a transformation, which is something of a mystery, and, by a phenomenon of will-power acting on his imagination, he must learn by his own effort to share in the life of the society that has given birth to this unexpected bloom. Few men have received — in full — the divine grace of cosmopolitanism; but all men may acquire it to a greater or lesser degree. The most richly endowed in this respect are the lone travellers … No scholastic veil, no academic paradox, no pedagogic utopia has interfered with their vision of the complex truth. They know the admirable, the immortal, the inevitable relation between form and function. They are not ones to criticize; they contemplate, they study. If instead of a pedagogue I were now to take a man of the world, an intelligent one, and were to transport him to a distant land, I feel sure that though his surprises on disembarking would be great, though his process of acclimatization might be more or less long, more or less difficult, his sympathy would sooner or later become so keen, so penetrating, that it would create in him a whole new world of ideas, a world that will become part and parcel of him and accompany him as memories until his death. Those odd-shaped buildings that began by offending his academic eye (every people is academic in judging others, every people is barbaric when being judged) … this whole world of new harmonies will slowly enter into him, penetrate patiently.*


Baudelaire, the auctor par excellence, sets out clearly the principles of a reading which ought to incite the lectores that we always are to some degree to perform a reflexive analysis of the social position of the lector and make a critique of the ‘academic eye’ a preliminary to every reading, and especially to the reading of auctores. The lector

is indeed never more exposed to structural misreading than he is dealing with the auctor auctorum, the writer who invented the writer. In this case, the effects of ignorance of the historical and distance between the literary world that Baudelaire found and the one he left us are redoubled by the effects of ignorance of the social distance between lector and auctor: the derealization, the dehistoricization and the ‘banalization’, as Max Weber says of the priestly treatment of prophetic charisma, that are performed by the routine, scheduled repetition of scholastic commentary have the effect of making bearable what would be unbearable, of gaining universal acceptance for what would be unacceptable, at least for some people.

By way of a practical illustration of what the effect of ‘resurrection’ (the Kabyles say that ‘to cite is to resuscitate’) produced by a real historicization might be, I would like to offer a somewhat particular way of reading a text of Baudelaire‘s taken from a commentary on Promethie dilivre by Senneville (the pseudonym of Louis Menard): ‘This is philosophical poetry. – What is philosophical poetry? – What is M. Edgar Quinet? — A philosopher? — Er, er! — A poet? — Oh! Oh!, To reactivate the quite extraordinary violence of this text, one only has to transpose it to the present (as in exercises in old grammar books where one had to put a sentence ‘into the present’), with the aid of an intuition of the homologies: ‘This is philosophical poetry. — What is philosophical poetry? – What is Mr X (enter here the name of a present-day poet-philosopher) or Mr Y (a contemporary philosopher-poet or philosopher-journalist)? — A philosopher? — Er, er! — A poet? — Oh! Oh!’ The effect of ‘debanalization’ is striking; so much so that I could not cite the names of contemporary writers that spring to mind without appearing somewhat scandalous, or indecent. Thus, the actualization — in the sense of making present, actual- performed by structural historicization is a genuine reactivation. It helps to give the text and its author a form of transhistoricity which, in contrast to the derealization associated with eternization by academic commentary, has the effect of making them active and effective, and available, when the case arises, for new applications, especially thoseperformed by the auctor, who is capable of reviving in practice a practical modus operandi, in order to produce an opus operatum without precedent.


But how does such a reading differ from the wild projection, based on vague supposed analogies, to which the lector so often surrenders (especially when he wants to play the auctor by conceiving and experiencing his reading as a second ‘creation’)? The effort to put oneself in the place of the author is only valid if one has acquired the means of constructing that place as such, as a position, a point (the basis of a point of view) in a social space that is nothing other than the literary field within which the author is situated. Then, ‘the critic, the viewer’ (as Baudelaire himself puts it) is able to ‘bring about within himself a transformation, which is something of a mystery’, and, ‘by a phenomenon of will-power acting on his imagination’, can learn to ‘share in the life of the society that has given birth to this unexpected bloom’. And he may even, as I have in my exercise of socio-logical grammar, expose a strategy that can be observed in different states of the fields of cultural production, the strategy of seeking to combine the properties and profits associated with membership of two different

fields (the philosophical field and the literary field, or the philosophical field and the journalistic field; etc.) without combining the competences and accepting the corresponding costs (which is what Baudelaire’s ‘Er, er!’ and ‘Oh! Oh!’ say in their terribly economic way).


Thus, to be able really to understand Baudelaire’s work, and to participate actively, without the true or false modesty of the lector, in the ‘creative’ activity, one has to acquire the means of ‘sharing in the life of the society that has given birth’ to this unprecedented oeuvre, in other words the literary universe in which and against which the ‘creative project’ took shape, and, more precisely, the space of artistic (poetic) possibilities objectively offered by the field at the moment when the author was working to define his artistic intention. This is an inaugural moment, when one has more chance of grasping the historical principles of the genesis of the oeuvre, which, once its difference is invented and affirmed, will develop in accordance with its

internal logic, which is more independent of the circumstances.

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* C. Baudelaire, ‘The Universal Exhibition of 1855: the Fine Arts’, in Selected Writings on Art and Artists, tr. P. E. Charvet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 115-17.


One would no doubt find many occurrences of this critique of the professorial in the same text on the Universal Exhibition, for example, there is a condemnation of the ‘pedantry’ and ‘erudition’ (ibid., p. 119) of the ‘sworn professors’ that had already been seen in the sur Poe‘: ‘But the point these pundits professeurs have not thought of is that in the life process, some complication, some combination of circumstances, may arise which their schoolboy wisdom has not reckoned with’ (‘Further notes on EdgarPoe‘, in Selected Writings on Art and Artists, p. 189). And we know that Baudelaire often condemned didacticism both in painting and in art criticism (cf. for example ‘The Salon of 1859’, in ibid., p. 318).

C. Baudelaire, Œuvres completes, ed. C. Pichais (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), vol. 2,




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