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Newmark, K. (1991). Traumatic Poetry: Charles Baudelaire and the Shock of Laughter. Am. Imago, 48(4):515-538.

(1991). American Imago, 48(4):515-538

Traumatic Poetry: Charles Baudelaire and the Shock of Laughter

Kevin Newmark

for P.E.N.

Faced with the difficulty of explaining what he considers to be the undeniable loss of contact suffered in modern times between lyric poetry and the experience of its readers, the literary critic and philosophical thinker Walter Benjamin wonders whether this is because the structure of their “experience” itself is no longer what it once was, or was believed to be (1969, 156). In conformity to a historical scheme that recurs in many of his writings, Benjamin identifies such a transformation in the structure of experience with the “decreasing likelihood” that the modern subject will be able to assimilate with any degree of success all the data with which he is confronted by the tumultuous world around him. Since “experience” (Erfahrung) in the strict sense, for Benjamin, always consists in the coordination of individual elements within a larger pattern or tradition, such experience would be possible only where “certain contents of the individual past combine with material of the collective past” (159). But in an age of information like ours, this associative structure of experience is threatened from the very start by an opposite tendency on the part of consciousness. Assaulted on all sides by unheard of numbers and kinds of impressions, consciousness learns to protect itself against the injurious effects of these invasive stimuli by preventing them from ever entering into real contact either with the subject's own past or with the unified tradition in which he would otherwise find himself.

What happens to the subject's experience in the modern world, then, at least in Benjamin's version of it, would be a kind of “atrophy” (Verkummerung) in its ability to provide the necessary links or connections (Zusammenhänge) between individual and collective patterns of memory.

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