The postmodernist vision of history through Baudelaire’s ‘Le Charogne’ (I)

Having recently read Gabrielle Spiegel’s The Past as text, I realised how important it is to reflect on the articulation of text and reality. The more recent poststructuralist views that everything is textuality may ultimately be a foolish experiment, but it has the potential to cast light on some of the problems arising from the attempt to recover a textual past, particularly relevant to historians working with written sources. As a medievalist, I am fully alert to the tension between, say, a medieval chronicle and the world that the text tries to signify and reflect. If we add the fact that the text is the sum total of the experiences, many of them textual, of the conscience (author) behind it, then we get a sense of the importance of considering different theories on the nature of reality, the relevance of causality, the extent of human agency, etc, in brief, the unresolved tensions contained in that piece of text. In what follows, I would like to reflect on the relationship between a postmodernist view of history and the metaphor of the carcass in Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le Charogne’ to see if one can place, aesthetically, postmodern textuality in the realm of silent putrefaction.

My favourite description of the postmodern world(view) is that offered by Ihab Hassan:

Postmodernism is ‘indeterminacy and immanence; ubiquitous simulacra, pseudo-events; a conscious lack of mastery, lightness and evanescence everywhere. a new temporality, or rather intemporality, a polychronic sense of history; a patchwork of ludic, transgressive or deconstructive approaches to knowledge and authority; an ironic parodic, reflexive, fantastic awareness of the moment; a linguistic turn, semiotic imperative in culture; and in society generally the violence of local desires diffused into a terminology of seduction and force.”

It may not be difficult to find most of these attributes predicated on the world around us. The displaced person, the hero of this age, is the alienated subject of his own objectivity, a silent hero condemned to forget about any notion of condemnation, locked in a nostalgic cage whose absent object of desire belongs to a world outside the cage that cannot exist and never truly existed. This figure generates a sense of history based on a past world that seems to be within reach but in fact never existed, or if it did, may never be recovered, or if recoverable, may never reach a stability of meaning capable of true signification. As Jacques Derrida put it, there is no outer text, no arbitrator, no system of value one can reach out to for a sense of this-is-true-while-that-is-false. Everything falls back on itself, history collapses into self-referentiality, the past becomes an impossibility, for the text, the only means of establishing a nostalgic relationship to the past, is itself constitutive of that nostalgia and seems, moreover, to push its object further into the past, the more we attempt to get closer to it. The only way to approach this tyrannical yet precarious text is to dismantle it, or, as it has become fashionable nowadays to say, to deconstruct it. Gabrielle Spiegel has warned against the dissolution of history under the torrid sun of deconstruction, and this is where Baudelaire’s metaphor of the carcass, set under the burning sun of our hypertrophic awareness, starts to become more or less commensurate with some postmodernist vision of history.

Rappelez-vous l’objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d’été si doux:
Au détour d’un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux,

Les jambes en l’air, comme une femme lubrique,
Brûlante et suant les poisons,
Ouvrait d’une façon nonchalante et cynique
Son ventre plein d’exhalaisons.

The text is poison, containing within it a tournament of rival interpretations, each competing for a piece of stable meaning. The relics of the historical past are sentenced to slow decay, unless the historian turns his attention to the mournful silence of the dying body. Turning the signifier upside down, ‘les jambes en l’air’, the observer-historian takes note of the multiplicity of signification that the relic of the past may present upon a closer examination, remembering that a poisonous contradiction (‘d’une façon nonchalante et cynique’) governs all attempts of revealing and understanding what the text may conceal. The dismantling of the text into an endless chain of interpretations, each pointing to complementary and conflicting possibilities, reveals the semblance of life that the historian bestows on his dead patient. In an act of resuscitation, we catch a glimpse of what-was-but-never-truly-was, because the deconstructionist historian produces a double effigy, one that preserves the seeming unity of the supposed expression of the past, and another which displays the multilayered-ness thereof:

Les mouches bourdonnaient sur ce ventre putride,
D’où sortaient de noirs bataillons
De larves, qui coulaient comme un épais liquide
Le long de ces vivants haillons.

Tout cela descendait, montait comme une vague
Ou s’élançait en pétillant;
On eût dit que le corps, enflé d’un souffle vague,
Vivait en se multipliant.

To be continued.

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