Jones on Kelly (2021)

Kelly, Dorothy. The Living Death of Modernity: Balzac, Baudelaire, and Zola. Legenda, 2021, pp. 172, ISBN 978-1-78188-650-2

In this meticulous and engaging study, Dorothy Kelly explores the ubiquitous image of the living dead in the works of Balzac, Baudelaire, and Zola, drawing attention to how this phenomenon throws new light on nineteenth-century depictions of modernity. The introduction sets out Kelly’s main preoccupation in the volume: to understand how and why literary texts returned to the image of the living dead character or to the idea of a dead past that continues to haunt the present despite (or indeed because of) the processes of industrialization and modernization that affected the period. Kelly defines the living dead in broad terms, focusing on the “paradoxical union of life and death” (1) rather than specific images of paranormal figures prevalent in the popular imagination such as ghosts or zombies. Doing so allows Kelly to range across a variety of characters, figurations, spaces, and historical periods more often considered disparate from one another but that are instead united here by the spectre of the past. Further, Kelly’s analysis draws out a new facet of modernity’s most pernicious effects by pointing out how phenomena like commodification, industrialization, and urbanization provoked crises in ontological and thanatological outlooks to which literature responded, and indeed that it went on to shape itself.

Balzac, Baudelaire, and Zola all receive their own long chapter, each sub-divided into sections that focus on one novel or poem respectively. This structure facilitates Kelly’s thoughtful and generative close readings. Chapter one (“Balzac and the Living Death of Modernity”) surveys a range of the author’s most prominent novels including La Peau de chagrin, Le Colonel Chabert, as well as Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. Kelly argues that, for Balzac, living death is best understood as a form of social death, caused by crises in the social and political world, that results in the symbolic death of a character, place, or idea. In Balzac’s works, the pre-1789 past is also figured as a form of living death that haunts modern France, and is itself often manifested in spatial terms as well as temporal. Kelly’s close reading of the opening of La Peau de chagrin is particularly interesting since it deftly draws attention to how the “phantasmagoria of merchandise” (27) and commodity fetishism are analogous with a quintessentially Balzacian desire to ignore or to reverse modernity, thereby consigning characters to a form of living death.

Chapter two (“Baudelaire: Woman, the City, and Living Death”) explores how the ambiguous state of liminality between past and present is used to unveil the poet’s understanding of both his own position and that of the general human experience of modernity. Kelly offers compelling readings of poems that the reader may expect to be covered by this chapter, such as of the verse poems “Une Charogne” and “Le Cygne,” but she also engages in fruitful comparative readings of more critically neglected works like “Le Léthé” and “Une martyre.” The penultimate section of the chapter briefly considers the endlessness of living death in poems such as “Le Squelette laboureur” and “La Rançon” from Les Épaves, arguing that Baudelaire’s semantic field of labor draws attention to the futility of the interminable tasks of life and death. Given the richness of this theme, this section might have been productively expanded to comment on the how the prose poems equally engage with the theme of endlessness and haunting thanks to their open-ended structure and subversive use of irony, as recent work by Maria Scott has demonstrated. Kelly also draws pertinent attention to the bearing of her work on the enormous field of research on Baudelairean allegory, indicating how the structural dimension of allegory can tease out the underpinning epistemology of other themes in Baudelaire’s poetry.

The final chapter (“Zola: Heredity and Social Living Death”) focuses on how living death in Zola’s novels “symbolizes the death of humanity in a society dominated by money and commodities” and operates “as a figural representation of the new knowledge gained about heredity” (95) that gave rise to the idea that the living cannot escape the effect that the dead have on them. This idea is clearly borne out in well-known novels such as La Fortune des Rougon and La Bête humaine, and Kelly’s analysis contributes to the rich scholarship on these novels. In the course of her argument regarding the living death effect caused by the reification inherent to a modern capitalist economy, Kelly also makes engaging use of the understudied novel Le Docteur Pascal, observing how this novel returns to key themes set out in the earlier Rougon-Maquart novels, although even greater and perhaps more accurate reference could have been made.

The richness and ingenuity of Kelly’s close readings is facilitated by the monograph’s tight organization around the corpus, although this structure somewhat limits the opportunity for synthesis or comparison of sub-themes across Kelly’s chosen authors, such as commercial capitalism and the motif of shopping in novels such as La Peau de chagrin and Au Bonheur des Dames, which Kelly innovatively draws out as relating in surprising ways to the concept of the living dead. Nonetheless, this limitation points towards the wealth of material present in this volume rather than its shortcomings. More importantly, The Living Death of Modernity makes a case, and indeed is itself a case, in favor of close literary analysis as a critical and aesthetic project. Kelly’s lucid prose and meticulous structure guide the reader through some of the century’s most important and intricate texts from an enlightening new perspective.