Sep 20, 2011

B.A. Seminar Lecture #2: Elissa Merder

The third lecture in the B.A. Seminar series (but only the second that I've covered) is by Elissa Merder, an academic emissary from Emory University. Her talk, delivered from the sumptuous Blodgett Oak Room last Friday, was entitled Criminal Jouissance: Baudelaire's Poetry by Other Means.

LL: First, would you say that Baudelaire wrote from the perspective of entend du mal as a form of protest? Do you think that the political tension was conscious or a natural by-product of his passionate poetry?

EM: Baudelaire certainly saw himself as in a position of "revolt" in relation to the culture, politics and mores of his time.  However, it is not exactly clear whether or not this position of "revolt" was politically reactionary rather than being politically revolutionary.  Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, wrote a scathing condemnation of Baudelaire as a narcissistic and reactionary figure.  For Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire is politically interesting because he tears the veil off a certain image of the nineteenth century.

LL: Social strife is glaringly exposed in sexual relations: do you agree with Baudelaire on this, and if so what does that indicate about the sex lives of people on both sides of the malentendu conflict Baudelaire found himself in?

EM: Baudelaire was extremely misogynistic.  He wrote some truly shocking things about women.  He also frequented prostitutes and contracted syphilis.  He never married and never had any children.  However, in his writings about prostitutes (and even other women), he does manage to offer some compelling and thought-provoking images of the commodification of sex and the pressures on love in the modern world.  In other words, by reading Baudelaire, we can gain a better understanding of how love itself has undergone changes in response to modernity.

LL: In your opinion, to Baudelaire's prose-poems truly rupture the poetic harmony of his habitual form, or do they function just as well in their own right?

EM: The prose poems are amazing poetic works. They are innovative and haunting and shocking and beautiful.  They are, however, formally very different from many of the verse poems.  In the verse poems, Baudelaire uses traditional forms (such as the sonnet), but fills those traditional forms with very modern themes and images (such as: traffic, homeless people, prostitutes, the isolation of city life). Both poetic forms are innovative and worth reading.

LL: How does the message of "The Bad Glazier" and Baudelaire's general societal insurgence relate to other social, political, and artistic movements such as Surrealism, Existentialism, and Dada (you can pick all or none or some of these, by the way -- all just conjecture)?

EM: The movements you mention are all twentieth-century phenomena.  Those twentieth-century movements mostly came about in response to multiple assaults on consciousness and self-presence.  These include: the first World War, the development of psychoanalysis, the invention of the cinema. As I remarked above, Sartre was against Baudelaire as he felt that Baudelaire embodied a kind of anti-existential figure.  For Sartre, Baudelaire was self-indulgent and failed to act freely and in an engaged manner.  In short, Sartre believes that Baudelaire manifested "bad faith" in his life and politics and that this bad faith saturated his poetry as well.  Having said this, Baudelaire anticipated many of the radical changes in the modern world long before they actually became dominant.  For this reason, his writings enable us to see something about modernity in its emergence.

LL: You said that Baudelaire's poems are more like happenings or performance pieces than actual poems because of the shocks they inflict on the reader, as well as their visceral vivid quality. Could you explain that a bit more?

EM: My point about the “theatrical” nature of Baudelaire's poems refers specifically to the prose poems.  They are like happenings because they are not primarily descriptive: they are themselves "events" that make something happen.  Like street theater, Baudelaire's prose poems blur the line between the world created inside the poem and the world in which that poem is situated.  As I mentioned during the discussion, some people actually thought that Baudelaire actually beat up a bad glazier.

LL: How was your experience working with the students at Simon's Rock compared with other colleges and other academic arenas you've been involved with?

EM: I had a lovely time at Bard College at Simon's Rock.  I was impressed by all the students I met.  The atmosphere is very alive and crackles with intellectual energy.  It was delightful to speak to so many students who are eager to learn and crave intellectual challenges.  I would like to thank everyone I met for this wonderful experience.

1 comment:

  1. I wish that I was in a place that "crackles with intellectual energy"!