The Initial Expression is the Final Impression: The First Sentence of Baudelaire’s “Le Peintre de la vie moderne”

In his “Études sur Poe,” Charles Baudelaire makes the following provocative remark: “Si la première phrase n’est pas écrite en vue de préparer cette impression finale, l’œuvre est manquée dès le début.” This essay seeks to disinter the dialectical contradictory logic at the core of this sentence—its identification of first and final in the work of art—by submitting the injunction contained within it to Baudelaire’s own work. Attending to three underexplored elements of the first sentence of “Le Peintre de la vie moderne,” I claim that the 1863 text provides us with the paradigmatic example of Baudelaire’s response to the injunction. The first sentence is replete with an entanglement of unresolvable contradictions that are constitutive of the forms of perception, experience, and subjectivation immanent to modern life. The “impression finale” of the work is that it extends this entanglement of contradictions to the level of a general systemic operation of irony. What the exaggerated, anatomical analysis to the opening sentence will show is that at the center of the text is the attempt to give sense to the possibility of holding fast to the experience of modern life as an experience in a constant state of disappearance that plays out at the level of form.

Hammam Aldouri
Temple University