A Poetics of Incompletion: Baudelaire’s Late Fragments – Michigan Quarterly Review

A Poetics of Incompletion: Baudelaire’s Late Fragments

“What the mind creates is more alive than matter” – Charles Baudelaire, Flares

This isolated phrase, the third entry in Charles Baudelaire’s aphoristic, incomplete collection Flares, takes on a new meaning in the context of a reader’s approach to this new translation of and introduction to Baudelaire’s late work undertaken by Richard Sieburth and forthcoming from Yale University Press. As Sieburth tells us in his remarkably thorough introductions to the various pieces of this collection, the vast majority of this work was unfinished, and, save for a few prose poems, unpublished at the time of Baudelaire’s death. 

We might ascribe this to what Sieburth describes in his preface as Baudelaire’s “own habits of procrastination,” so palpable in his work that they risked infecting the translator himself with a kind of “mimetic contagion.” Indeed, while the prose poems offered in this collection are complete, even polished, the better part of this collection of late works is comprised of feuilles volantes (scattered pages): a combination of unfinished manuscripts, notes for the same manuscripts, titles for nonexistent drafts, and even newspaper clippings that Baudelaire intended to address and/or incorporate into the finished work. 

Flares, Hygiene, and My Heart Laid Bare are unfinished forays into the epigrammatic style which, Sieburth writes, Baudelaire was in the habit of using in this period—part philosophical, aesthetic, political, and ethical musing, part authorial notes-to-self. The Prose Poems are late examples of the work Baudelaire was preparing for the unfinished Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen), intended to be a collection of one hundred stories in prose to rival Les Fleurs du mal’s (or The Flowers of Evil’s) one hundred poems. 

Belgium Disrobed, in some ways the most challenging piece in the collection, is partly a tour of the culture and landscape of Belgium and partly a bitter, satirical, and at times, outrageously absurd and playful invective against the nation and its inhabitants. (France does not emerge unscathed, either.) One of the most interesting and tantalizing sections of the book is simply labeled Projects, and it features lists of titles and notes written out by Baudelaire, often organized by genre categories, countless planned novels, short stories, poems, etc. that never came to fruition. Given the incompleteness of most of these works, it has been tempting for readers of late Baudelaire to leave them to scholars, to be approached as artifacts, like diaries, which shed light on Baudelaire’s process but are not to be taken seriously as aesthetic works in themselves.

Sieburth does something different. He joins a tradition of writers who have been drawn to these late, largely unfinished works as aesthetic and/or philosophical objects worthy of engagement in their own right, not just for their capacity to shed light on Baudelaire himself. This tradition includes the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, W.H. Auden, and others, each of whom have their own idiosyncratic perspectives on the unfinished texts collected here. 

Sieburth is unfailingly thorough and meticulous in his contextualization of these works—their composition, the historical, political, geographical, and biographical atmosphere in which they came to being, and their afterlives. Sieburth’s treatment of everything from the political debates that dominated nineteenth-century France and Belgium, particularly in literary circles, to Baudelaire’s fraught publication history, to his feuds with Victor Hugo as well as other writers, publishers, and journalists, to his more shocking, and often quite upsetting, moments, is a welcome complement to Baudelaire’s largely unedited and previously unpublished work. 

Indeed, a major draw of this book is not merely the opportunity to approach translations of these texts by Sieburth, but also the wealth of insight into Baudelaire’s late work and its fascinating contexts in his general introduction and introductions to each section,. By situating these works historically and theoretically, Sieburth also raises important aesthetic questions that go beyond the works themselves. What is “late style” (here, Sieburth builds on the work of Edward Said, Theodor Adorno, and others) and how should we approach an author’s late works? How can the aesthetic of the fragment inform our understanding of Baudelaire’s late pieces? What if what we have is even less than a fragment?

Sieburth is known for his beautiful renderings of French verse into English, with careful attention to the music of prosody. His translations of Louise Labé and Maurice Scève are indispensable. Here, Sieburth is no less attentive to the sounds of language, but he is approaching a vastly different challenge in Baudelaire’s later works. By this period, as Sieburth writes, Baudelaire had abandoned “the harmonies of the traditional lyric” for “the disjunctions of prose” to create something that is still poetic but follows a different notion of poetics. It is perhaps fitting that Baudelaire’s late unfinished fragments are marked by a similarly fragmentary prose style. These pages are filled with rhythmic stops and starts, as well as with actual sentence fragments, yet, as with the epigrammatic style, there is an iterative fluidity to this series of shards. 

This shard-like quality reaches its height in the Projects section, in which we have, not works, but ideas for works that for the most part do not exist. And yet, when presented together  they become, not a list of works, but a composite work in its own right—a gallery of phantom stories, unreal save for in the mind of the reader. They become something akin to what Baudelaire describes in, “Elegy for Hats,” an unfinished prose poem and one of the highlights of this collection,:

“The hats make one think of heads, a gallery of heads. Because every hat by its specific features evokes a head in the mind’s eye. Severed heads. How sad it is, all this solitary frivolity. The depressing sensation of mindless carefree ruin. A monument of gaiety in the desert. A wanton frivolity.” 

The hats are like the disembodied titles in the Projects section themselves, like the jagged, fragmentary sentences of Baudelaire’s prose. They make us think of a body (the text), and, in doing so, they appear in a ghostly light. They invite us to imagine the body of the text underneath them, encourage us to create the text where Baudelaire never did. Certain titles, such as “Grove Inn” and “Prisoner in a Lighthouse” lead us to imagine places, scenes, stories, becoming springboards for visual, almost cinematic, flight. Other titles include parenthetical notes by Baudelaire which offer further tantalizing glimpses into pieces that never were—for example, “Stairs (Vertigo. Great curves. Suspended men, a sphere, fog above and below.)” or “Sentenced to Death (for a misdeed forgotten by me but suddenly regained, after the Sentence).” 

In translating these and presenting them alongside Baudelaire’s other late works which are nearer to completion, Sieburth offers them as more than relics—as experiments in a new genre. It is not the poetics of the fragment, for these are not even fragments. Rather, it is the poetics of inventories, to-do lists, notes, hypotheses—a poetics of incompletion, or in some cases, things that never were, are not, are only posited. A poetics of le néant (nothing[ness]), even, or le gouffre (the abyss)—in particular, in the Pascalian sense, which, Sieburth writes, was a thematic preoccupation to which Baudelaire often returned in his writing. 

In the end, Sieburth tells us, Baudelaire fell into an  “an abyss of language” at the end of his life, brought about by his illness.  Almost entirely unable to communicate, the poet was left with only the repetition of a few isolated words, devoid of their contexts. It is a similar abyss into which one falls at various points in this collection, as we engage with the gaps in these fragmented, unfinished works—the places where they don’t speak, the silences. Yet “what the mind creates” is, according to Baudelaire at least, “more alive than matter,” and is therefore not silent. What is most interesting is the way in which the absences in this collection of late works often become as moving as the presences.

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