From Colonial Reality to Poetic Truth: Baudelaire’s Indian Ocean Poems
Correcting the early Manichean interpretation of the abundant Baudelairian image of the black, later criticism tends to downplay the realist slavery framework and put emphasis on the psychological and philosophical dimension of the relationship between the master and the slave. My historicized analysis of “A une dame créole” uncovers evocations of slavery, violence and revolution in the vocabulary and imagery of the poem. By inscribing into the Ronsardian tradition a former French slave colony whose ruling elite never embraced revolutionary ideas, I argue, the poem puts the colonial enterprise into the perspective of France’s nation building and problematizes both. The 1863 prose poem “La belle Dorothée” in which Baudelaire refers back again to his experience in the Mascarene Islands, exposes the crude nature of the French policy that pretended to give the slaves freedom while forced them to live in idleness, poverty or prostitution. If Baudelaire’s oft discussed exoticism manifests a rejection of the society of his time, his longing for Africa and the Indian Ocean should not be dismissed as escapism.