Walter Benjamin's two essays on Charles Baudelaire — “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” (1938) and “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939) — are regularly taken as profound readings of that poet's work. This essay argues that, whatever claims may be made for Benjamin as a philosopher, mystic, correspondent, revolutionary, martyr, memoirist, or stylist, his readings of Baudelaire are inadequate. The essay, proceeding in three parts, first offers an account of the surprisingly uncritical reception of Benjamin as a reader of Baudelaire. Second, it examines Benjamin's crude methodology and peremptory interpretations in his two essays on Baudelaire. Finally, it offers a close comparative reading of Baudelaire's lyric “The Swan” and Benjamin's ninth aphorism in “On the Concept of History,” staging an unexpected and revealing correspondence between the two works to argue that “The Swan” is no less a thesis on the concept of history and affords rather more stunning illuminations of the modern condition. Both the poem and the aphorism feature incapacitated winged creatures, debris, bad weather, and, most strikingly, a speaker who stands in the present, considers the past, and ponders the endurance of human disaster. However, the ethics and aesthetics that emerge in Baudelaire's lyric could not be more inhospitable to Benjamin's messianism. And ultimately, this essay claims, to endorse Benjamin's vision of modernity is to refuse an alternative genealogy of modernity that could well take, once free and clear of Benjamin's shadow, Baudelairean “contingency” as its watchword and Baudelaire's complex staging of irresolvable psychic and social antagonisms as its praxis.

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