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Berman - Baudelaire Modernism in the Streets But now...

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Unformatted text preview: Baudelaire: Modernism in the Streets But now imagine a city like Paris . . . imagine this metropolis of the world . . . where history confronts us on every street corner. —Gocthc to Eckermann, 3 May 1827 It is not merely in his use of imagery of common life, not merely in the imagery of the sordid life of a great metropolis, but in the elevation of such imagery to first intensity—presenting it as it is, and yet making it represent something beyond itself—that Baudelaire has created a : mode of release and expression for other men. —T. S. Eliot, “Baudelaire," 1930 IN THE past three decades, an immense amount of energy has been expended all over the world in exploring and unraveling the ’, meanings of modernity. Much of this energy has fragmented itself in perverse and self-defeating ways. Our vision of modern life tends to split into material and spiritual planes: some people de- vote themselves to “modernism,” which they see as a species of » pure spirit, evolving in accord with its autonomous artistic and 131 132 ALL THAT Is SOLID MEL-rs INTO AIR Modernism ifi the Streets 133 Baudelaire’s reputation in the century since his death has devel- :oped along the lines de Banville suggests: the more seriously West- :ern culture is concerned with the issue of modernity, the more we appreciate Baudelaire’s originality and courage as .a prophet and pioneer. If we had to nominate a first modernist, Baudelaire would surely be the man. . ' K And yet, one salient quality of Baudelaire’s many writings on modern life and art is that the meaning of the modem is surpris- Wingly elusive and hard to pin down. Take, for instance, one of his most famous dicta, from “The Painter of Modern Life”: “By ‘mo- dernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the contingent, the half of art Lwhose other half is eternal and immutable.” The painter (or nov- elist or philosopher) of modern life is one who concentrates his 'vision and energy on “its fashions, its morals, its emotions,” on ‘fthe passing moment and all the suggestions of eternity. that it contains.” This concept of modernity is meant to cut against the antiquarian classical fixations that dominate French culture. “We are struck by a general tendency among artists to. dress all their subjects in the garments of the past.” The sterile faith that archaic costumes and gestures will produce eternal verities leaves French art stuck in “an abyss of abstract and indeterminate beauty,” and ‘eprives it of “originality,” which can only come from “the seal . hat Time imprints on all our generations.”* We can see what Baudelaire is driving at here; but this purely formal criterion for modernity—whatever is unique about any period—.in fact takes ‘him directly away from where he wants to go. By this criterion, as Baudelaire says, “Every old master has his own modernity,” inso- far as he captures the look and feeling of his own era. But this empties the idea of modernity of all its specific weight, its concrete ' istorical content. It makes any and all times “modern times"; ironically, by spreading modernity through all history, it leads us ‘away from the special qualities of our own modern history.3 . The first categorical imperative of Baudelaire’s modernism is to intellectual imperatives; other people work within the orbit of “modernization," a complex of material structures and processes' —political, economic, social—which, supposedly, once it has got ‘ under way, runs on its own momentum with little or no input from human minds or souls. This dualism, pervasive in contemporary: culture, cuts us all off from one of the pervasive facts of modern " life: the interfusion of its material and spiritual forces, the intimate unity of the modern self and the modern environment. But the first great wave of writers and thinkers about modernity—Goethe, ' Hegel and Marx, Stendhal and Baudelaire, Carlyle and Dickens, Herzen and Dostoevsky—had an instinctive feeling for this unity; . it gave their visions a richness and depth that contemporary writ- ' ing about modernity sadly lacks. ' This chapter is built around Baudelaire, who did more than anyone in the nineteenth century to make the men and women of his century aware of themselves as modems. Modernity, modern life, modern art—these terms occur incessantly in Baudelaire’s work; and two of his great essays, the short “Heroism of Modern ' Life" and the longer “Painter of Modern Life" (1859—60, pub- lished in 1863), have set agendas for a whole century of art and thought. In 1865, when Baudelaire was living in poverty, illness and obscurity, the youthful Paul Verlaine tried to revive interest » in him by stressing his modernity as a primary source of his greatft ness: “Baudelaire’s originality is to portray, powerfully and origi- nally, modern man . . . as the refinements of an excessive;- civilization have made him, modern man with his acute and vi-n brant senses, his painfully subtle spirit, his brain saturated with j tobacco, his blood burning with alcohol. . . . Baudelaire portrays this sensitive individual as a type, a hero.”1 The poet Theodore dc, Banville developed this theme two years later in a moving tribute at Baudelaire’s grave: He accepted modern man in his entirety, with his weaknesses, his aspirations and his despair. He had thus been able to give beauty to sights that did not possess beauty in themselves, not by making them romantically picturesque, but by bringing to light the por- tion of the human soul hidden in them; he had thus revealed the sad and often tragic heart of the modern city. That was why he haunted, and would always haunt, the minds of modern men, and move them when other artists left them cold? 3 Marx, in the same decade, was complaining, in terms surprisingly similar to Bau- 'dclaire‘s, about classical and antique fixations in the politics of the left: “The tradi- ;‘ ion of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the livmg. And just when men seem engaged in revolutionizmg themselves and things, in reating something entirely new . . . they anxiously conJure up the spirits ofthe past nd borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the . ew scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed lan- "; age." The Eighteenth Bmmaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1851—52, MER, 595. 134 ALL THAT Is SOLID MELTS INTO AIR orient ourselves toward the primary forces of modern life; but Baudelaire does not make it immediately clear what these forces are, or what our stance toward them is supposed to be. Neverthe- less, if we go through Baudelaire’s work, we will find that it con- tains several distinctive visions of modernity. These visions often 7 seem to be violently opposed to one another, and Baudelaire does not always seem to be aware of the tensions between them. Still, he presents them all with verve and brilliance, and often elaborates them with great originality and depth. Moreover, all of Baude- , laire’s modern visions, and all his contradictory critical attitudes toward modernity, have taken on lives of their own, long past his death and into our own time. This essay will start from Baudelaire’s most simplistic and un- critical interpretations of modernity: his lyrical celebrations of modern life that created distinctively modern modes of pastoral; his vehement denunciations of modernity, which generated mod- ern forms of counter-pastoral. Baudelaire’s pastoral visions of modernity would be elaborated in our century under the name of “modernolatry”; his counter-pastorals would turn into what the twentieth century would call “cultural despair.”4 From these lim- ited visions, we will move on, for most of the essay, to a Baude- lairean perspective that is far deeper and more interesting—— though probably less well known and less influential—a perspec— tive that resists all final resolutions, aesthetic or political, that wres- tles boldly with its own inner contradictions, and that can illuminate not only Baudelaire’s modernity but our own. Pastoral and Counter- Pastoral Modernism LET us start with Baudelaire’s modern pastorals. The earliest ver— sion occurs in the Preface to Baudelaire’s “Salon of 1846,” his Modernism in the Streets 135 critical review of the year’s showing of new art. This preface is Eentitled “To the Bourgeois."5 Contemporary readers who are ac- customed to think of Baudelaire as a lifelong sworn enemy of the I- bourgeois and all their works are in for a shock.6 Here Baudelaire * not only celebrates the bourgeois, but even Hatters them, for their - intelligence, willpower and creativity in industry, trade and-fi- ’ nance. It is not entirely clear of whom this class is meant to conSist: ' “You are the majority—in number and intelligence; therefore you . are the power—which is justice." If the bourgCOiSie constitutes a 3 majority of the population, what has become of the working class, 5 let alone the peasantry? However, we must remind ourselves, we _ are in a pastoral world. In this world, when the bourgems under- . take immense enterprises—“you have combined together, you ’% have formed companies, you have raised loans"—it is not, as some might think, to make lots of money, but for a far loftier purpose: '2. “to realize the idea of the future in all its diverse forms—political, industrial, artistic.” The fundamental bourgeois motive here is the i desire for infinite human progress, not just in the economy, but - universally, in the spheres of politics and culture as well. Baude- , laire is appealing to what he sees as their innate creativity and universality of vision: since they are animated by the drive for Z, progress in industry and politics, it would be unworthy of their ;; dignity to stand still and accept stagnation in art. . . Baudelaire also appeals, as Mill will appeal a generation later (and even Marx in the Communist Manifesto), to the bourgems belief in free trade, and demands that this ideal be extended to the i sphere of culture: just as chartered monopolies are (presumably) a drag on economic life and energy, so “the'aristocrats of thought, . the monopolists of things of the mind,” Will suffocate the life of “s the spirit, and deprive the bourgeoisie of the rich resources of 2 modern art and thought. Baudelaire’s faith in the bourgeome ne- glects all the darker potentialities of its economic and political . drives—that is why I call it a pastoral vision. Nevertheless, the naivete’ of “To the Bourgeois” springs from a fine openness and : generosity of spirit. It will not—it could not—surVive june 1B4B i or December 1851; but, in a spirit as bitter as Baudelaire s, it is '_ lovely while it lasts. In any case, this pastoral vision proclaims a 7 natural affinity between material and spiritual modernization; .ll holds that the groups that are most dynamic and innovative in if economic and political life will be most open to intellectual and 136 ALL THAT Is Sour) MELTS INTO AIR artistic creativity—“to realize the idea of the future in all its diverse forms’; it sees both economic and cultural change as unprob~ lematical progress for mankind.7 Baudelaire’s 1859—60 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” pre- sents a very different mode of pastoral: here modern life appears as a great fashion show, a system of dazzling appearances, brilliant facades, glittering triumphs of decoration and design. The heroes of this pageant are the painter and illustrator Constantin Guys and Baudelaire‘s archetypal figure of the Dandy. In the world Guys portrays, the spectator “marvels at the . . . amazing harmony of life in capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained amid the turmoil of human freedom.” Readers familiar with Bau- delaire will be startled to hear him sound like Dr. Pangloss we wonder what’s the joke, until we conclude ruefully that there isn’t any. “The kind of subject preferred by our artist. . . is the pag- eantry of life [la pompe de la vie] as it is to be seen in the capitals of the Civilized world; the pageantry of military life, of fashion and of love [la vie militaire, la vie élégante, la vie galante]." If we turn to Guys’s slick renderings of the “beautiful people" and their world we Wlll see only an array of dashing costumes, filled by lifeless mannequins w1th empty faces. However, it isn't Guys’s fault that 1115 art resembles nothing so much as Bonwit’s or Bloomingdale’s ads. What is really sad is that Baudelaire has written a f that go only too well with them: P ges 0 Prose He [the painter of modern life] delights in fine carriages and proud horses, the dazzling smartness of the grooms, the expert- ness of the footmen, the sinuous gait of the women, the beauty of the children, happy to be alive and well dressed—in a word he delights in universal life. If a fashion or the cut of a garmeni has been slightly modified, if bows and curls have been sup- planted by cockades, if bavolets have been enlarged and chignons have dropped a fraction toward the nape of the neck, if waists have been raised and skirts have become fuller, be very sure that 1115 eagle eye will have spotted it.8 If this is, as Baudelaire says, “universal life,” what is universal death? Those who love Baudelaire will think it a pity that, as long as he was writing advertising copy, he couldn’t arrange to get paid for it. (He could have used the money, though of course he would never have done it for money.) But this modeof pastoral plays an Modernism in the Streets 137 important role not merely in Baudelaire’s own career but in the century of modern culture between his time and our own. There is an important body of modern writing, often by the most serious writers, that sounds a great deal like advertising copy. This writing sees the whole spiritual adventure of modernity incarnated in the latest fashion, the latest machine, or—and here it gets sinister— the latest model regiment. A regiment passes, on its way, as it may be, to the ends of the earth, tossing into the air of the boulevards its trumpet—calls as winged and stirring as hope; and in an instant Monsieur G. will already have seen, examined and analyzed the bearing of the external aspect of that company. Glittering equipment, music, bold, determined glances, heavy, solemn mustaches—he absorbs it all pell-mell, and in a few moments the resulting “poem" will be virtually composed. See how his soul lives with the soul of that regiment, marching like a single animal, a proud image of joy and obedience.9 These are the soldiers who killed 25,000 Parisians in june 1848 and who opened the way for Napoleon III in December of 1851. On both those occasions Baudelaire went into the streets to fight against—and could easily have been killed by—the men whose animal-like “joy in obedience” so thrills him now.10 The passage above should alert us to a fact of modern life that students of poetry and art could easily forget: the tremendous importance of military display—psychological as well as political importance— and its power to captivate even the freest spirits. Armies on pa- rade, from Baudelaire’s time to our own, play a central role in the pastoral vision of modernity: glittering hardware, gaudy colors, flowing lines, fast and graceful movements, modernity without tears. ‘ Perhaps the strangest thing about Baudelaire’s pastoral vision —it typifies his perverse sense of irony, but also his peculiar integ- rity—is that the vision leaves him out. All the social and spiritual dissonances of Parisian life have been cleaned off these streets. Baudelaire’s own turbulent inwardness, anguish and yearning— and his whole creative achievement in representing what Banville called “modern man in his entirety, with his weakness, his aspira- tions and his despair"—-are completely out of this world. We 138 ALL THAT Is Sour) MELTS INTO AIR should be able to see now that, when Baudelaire chooses Constan- tin Guys, rather than Courbet or Daumier or Manet (all of whom he knew and loved), as the archetypal “painter of modern life," it is not merely a lapse in taste but a profound rejection and abase- Baudelaire’s most vivid counter-pastoral images of modernity belong to the late 18505, the same period as “The Painter of Mod- emerges in an 1855 essay “On the Modern Idea of Progress as Applied to the Fine Arts.”” Here Baudelaire uses familiar reac- tionary rhetoric to pour scorn not merely on the modern idea of progress but on modern thought and life as a whole: There is yet another and very fashionable error which I am anx- ious to avoid like the very devil. I refer to the idea of “progress." This obscure beacon, invention of present—day philosophizing, licensed without guarantee of Nature or God—this modern lan- tern throws a stream of chaos on all objects of knowledge; liberty melts away, punishment [chétiment] disappears. Anyone who wants to see history clearly ,must first of all put out this treacher- ous light. This grotesque idea, which has flowered on the soil of modern fatuity, has discharged each man from his duty, has de- livered the soul from responsibility, has released the will from all the bonds imposed on it by the love of beauty. . . . Such an in- fatuation is a symptom of an already too visible decadence. Here beauty appears as something static, unchanging, wholly ex- ternal to the self, demanding rigid obedience and imposing pun- ishments on its recalcitrant modern subjects, extinguishing all forms of Enlightenment, functioning as a kind of spiritual police in the service of a counter-revolutionary Church and State. Baudelaire resorts to this reactionary bombast because he is wor- ried about an increasing “confusion of material order with spiri- tual order" that the modern romance of progress spreads. Thus, Modernism in the Streets 139 Take any good Frenchman who reads his newspaper in his cafe, and ask him what he understands by progress, and he will answer that it is steam, electricity and gaslight, miracles unknown to the Romans, whose discovery bears full witness to our superiority over the ancients. Such is the darkness that has gathered in that unhappy brain! Baudelaire is perfectly reasonable in fighting the confusion of ma- terial progress with spiritual progress—a confusion that persists in our century, and becomes especially rampant in periods of eco- nomic boom. But he is as silly as the straw man in the cafe when he leaps to the opposite pole, and defines art in a way that seems to have no connection with the material world at all: The poor man has become so Americanized by zoocratic and industrial philosophies that he has lost all notion of the differ- ences between the phenomena of the physical world and those of the moral world, between the natural and the supernatural. This dualism bears some resemblance to the Kantian dissociation of the noumenal and phenomenal realms, but it goes a lot further than Kant, for whom noumenal experiences and activities—art, religion, ethics—still operate in a material world of time and space. It is not at all clear where, or on what, this Baudelairean artist can work. Baudelaire goes further: he disconnects his artist not only from the material world of steam, electricity and gas, but even from the whole past and future history of art. Thus, he says, it is wrong to even think about an artist’s forerunners or the influences on him. “Every efflorescence [in art] is spontaneous, individual. . . . The artist stems only from himself. . . . He stands security only for himself. He dies childless. He has been his own king, his own priest, his own God.” '2 Baudelaire leaps into a transcendence that leaves Kant far behind: this artist becomes a walking Ding-an-sich. Thus, in Baudelaire’s mercurial and paradoxical sensibility, the counter-pastoral image of the modern world generates a remark- ably pastoral vision of the modern artist who floats, untouched, freely above it. The dualism first sketched here—counter-pastoral vision of the modern w...
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