Anne Higonnet, 1996

— Hypocrite Lecteur, — Mon Semblable, — Mon Frère! — Hybrid Viewer, — My Difference, —Lorraine O’Grady!

by Anne Higonnet, 1996

Both my mother and father insisted Baudelaire was theirs. Neither could let go, year after year, each claiming true ownership of those beloved volumes: the George Eliot, the Mallarmé, the Pléiade complete works edition of Baudelaire. My mother argued that her father’s money had paid for the books. My father argued that it had been his idea to buy them, and he needed them for his work. Finally, the issue was settled. I was awarded full custody.

The Baudelaire was mine. I treasured the book because it represented my family role: the mediator between differences. I also savored what was in the book because it represented difference itself, the difference that defined my cultural identity. I could understand those words, those poems. I was really French. I couldn’t forget the words had also been someone else’s, because scattered along the margins were my father’s elegantly penciled, cryptic marks. I wondered if inheritance justified erasing all traces of his reading, but filial piety overcame defiance.

When I first read Baudelaire as an adolescent, he seemed absolute. No compromises, no conformity—a call to leave, to be elsewhere, L’Invitation au voyage. In graduate school, I wanted to buckle Baudelaire down to business, the business of being a French nineteenth specialist. In the Yale course catalog, alluringly outside my designated field of art history, I spotted a course title: Art Theory from Diderot to Baudelaire. Professor Paul de Man. I hadn’t anticipated a seminar in which three hours could be devoted to one sentence. Everything I thought I knew about Baudelaire was turned back into words, into figures of speech, into the possibilities and impossibilities of language. De Man taught me how language would close in on itself, only always to rupture. My romantic investment in Baudelaire’s freedom had given way to Baudelaire’s professional potential only to give way in turn to an awareness that Baudelaire’s language was at once free, limited, and limiting.

Like many of his students, I was taught the same lesson by de Man long after I had left his seminar, but again differently. After his death, it was revealed that at the start of his career he had contributed to magazines sympathetic with Nazi doctrine. ( … )

 

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