New book looks at the true face of French poet Charles Baudelaire

What is the true face of 19th-century French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire? That is what York French studies Professor Melvin Zimmerman delves into in his upcoming book Baudelaire & Co., being launched next Tuesday.

Baudelaire has been defined as anti Jean-Jacques Rousseau and pro Blaise Pascal, but Zimmerman says the truth is more complicated.

The launch of Baudelaire & Co. (Éditions du GREF, 2009), originally published in French and translated into English by its author, will take place on March 2, from 4 to 6pm, in the Senior Common Room, 305 Founders College, Keele campus.

Zimmerman, a Senior Scholar at York, has written extensively on 19th-century literature and art, concentrating on Baudelairian studies. He is also the author of the first edition of the book originally in French, Visions du Monde: Baudelaire et Cie (Éditions du GREF, Toronto, and Paris, Nizet, 1991).

Zimmerman examines how the poet stands vis-à-vis Rousseau and Pascal, whom he calls excellent foils for Baudelaire. “At times Baudelaire is close to Pascal, for whom the ego is detestable; at others he is close to Jean-Jacques, who lauded, as we know, self-love,” Zimmerman writes in the book’s foreword. “This research led us to perceive in Baudelaire a pattern of opposition between mask and face which was to lead us to the unveiling of traits concealed under outward appearances.”

Baudelaire even claimed “the right to contradict oneself” and preached the pleasures of inconsistency, says Zimmerman. At times he claims a libertine lineage, while still "showing deep affinities with ‘the sentimental’ Rousseau’.”

Right: Melvin Zimmerman

One must keep in mind, Zimmerman says, that much of Baudelaire’s writing took place after the coup d’état of 1851 in a police state when original writers were suspect and spied upon. Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary was put on trial for obscenity in 1857 during Baudelaire’s time, as was Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil. It is therefore not surprising, that Baudelaire’s style is characterized by irony.

In a postface, a paper on Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s black companion, and La Belle Dorothée, whom he met in Réunion, exoticism, misogyny, racism and post-colonial issues are touched upon.

The launch is sponsored by Éditions Du GREF, Glendon’s French-language publishing house  and the York University Bookstore.

Those wishing to attend should RSVP to Michael Legris, York University Bookstore marketing & special events coordinator, at or ext. 22078, today.