The Rise of Modernity, part II

by Reinaert de V.

"Portrait de Charles Baudelaire", 1844, by Emile Deroy 

Monsieur Guys, Man of the Crowd

“Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.”

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”

When reading The Painter of Modern Life” (PML, Phaidon Press; 2nd edition, 1995) one gets a feeling of almost unbridled joy, a sense of life overflowing with itself, that makes you want to jump out of your chair so as not to miss another second of it as it passes you by. This exuberance, so hard to resist, which aims at participation by carrying you along with its enthusiasm, speaks volumes of the many wonders modernity had already wrought, and was working by the time Charles-Pierre Baudelaire (1821-1867) came along. It is, I think, the advent of the ‘event’, that peculiarly modern phenomenon that makes people want to be caught up in – and disappear into – something as it is happening, something bigger than they are, that is, they have an “‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’” (PML, p.10). But because in Baudelaire’s case everything seemed to be changing, he meant to be part of something even bigger, namely that particular moment in Time in which he lived, which was an important transitional phase, since modernity was coming into its own. A moment and a sensation he wanted to encompass and experience in its entirety, and to express – or perhaps sing – to the fullest of his capabilities. He was like a child who “sees everything in a state of newness [for] he is always drunk.” (PML, p.8)

He was of the opinion that this newness, this explosion of life he witnessed around him, could no longer be adequately captured by traditional artists, whom he describes in quite unflattering terms, such as: “highly skilled animals, pure artisans, village intellects, cottage brains”, or more precisely as “a man wedded to his palette like the serf to the soil.” (PML, p.7). The problem as he saw it, was that these traditional artists were still too much hung up on bygone ideals of classical and eternal beauty. That is, they were stuck in the past, having chosen to close their eyes to what was happening around them. With their interests so severely limited, they were not really living, and therefore could have no real connection with – nor sense or feeling for – life as it was unfolding. Nor were they, had they wanted to, sufficiently equipped to capture these fleeting and ephemeral moments. Which is why Baudelaire is in search of a new type of artist, whom he finds in the talented and ever so modest Constantin Guys (1802-1892), the sketch-artist he refers to as Monsieur G., since, like all modern people, Monsieur G. prefers to keep his anonymity. A man he describes as a ‘pictorial moralist’, who sometimes “is a poet; more often he comes closer to a novelist or the moralist; he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.” (PML, p.5). And not surprisingly this modern day artist works for a newspaper, called the Illustrated London Times.

But the reason this man is better suited, is not simply because times have changed and we have to ‘get with it’. It has to do first and foremost with Baudelaire’s groundbreaking conception of beauty, which is closely bound up with his idea of modernity. In his eyes the ‘modern’, all that is present at a particular time, and which he calls “the external life” (PML, p.14) of an age, or the “outward show of life” (PML, p.24), always has the potential – with time – of becoming a new ‘antiquity’, if, and only if, its essence or soul finds its full expression in art. Which means that the opposite holds true as well, that what we call ‘antiquity’ was originally felt and experienced as a ‘modernity’, as a full presence, by the artists living at that time. As he sees it, great artists manage to turn ‘modernity’ into ‘antiquity’ (PML, p.13), by fully embracing their age and capturing what is lasting and beautiful in it, namely that what holds it together and therefore expresses it most clearly, and makes it distinctively human. Which is why Baudelaire compares the artist to a convalescent, for he has to be ‘reborn’ to his ‘modernity’, that is to say, he needs a “childlike perceptiveness” which is “acute and magical by reason of its innocence,” (PML, p.11) in order to grasp it down to its smallest details.

"Ladies on the Balcony", 1855-60, by Constantin Guys

Beauty, however, is closely related to that aristocratic reserve called distinction, which is man’s ability to pursue his own happiness by fashioning a life ‘suitable’ for himself. It is this drive of man to distance himself from his immediate surroundings in order to create room for human life to flourish, that, according to Baudelaire, will always and forever express itself “under the direction of nature and the tyranny of circumstance.” (PML, p.14) – adding to beauty’s growing indeterminacy due to the constant change of circumstance. A distance that is a direct result of man’s ability to lay down rules for himself: “Everything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation.” (PML, p.32) At the same time, though, beauty reflects a duality or conflict in man (PML, p.3), for it not only expresses his hunger or longing for the eternal and stationary that, forever frustrated, is forced to dress itself in the fashions of the fleeting present “whose metamorphoses are so rapid.” (PML, p.9), and thereby infuses them with an “invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine” (PML, p.3). But it also shows man – under nature’s direction – as enamored with change, the dramatic and transitory, the endless masquerade which breathes life in a world grown stale and constricted with convention. What we can sense from classical works of art therefore, but also from such cultural paraphernalia as fashion plates” (PML, p.1), is this inherent tension or authenticity, which expresses a way of life that was truly lived – not least of all, by the artist himself. And it is this authenticity that makes artworks into harmonious wholes, as if the things they show belong together of necessity.

In other words, according to Baudelaire artworks and cultural objects have both an artistic and a historical value. Which explains why fashion plays such a dominant role in his essay, because given this premise, art and the way it changes over time looks suspiciously like fashion – as do politics and morality for that matter – and thus by studying fashion we can learn a lot about art as well. And this is where Monsieur G. comes in, because as a ‘reporter’ who has an interest in anything and everything, what we take away from his sketches is a lively and detailed impression of what life at that time, in all its many facets, was like – or must have felt like. He captures its beauty as well as its blemishes, making it all the more beautiful for its unvarnished truth. By that same token, though, the task traditional artists had set for themselves was bound to fail, because they tried to distil what had already been distilled (PML, p.13). They tried to grasp from an age that was no longer present what in essence is an indeterminate beauty that changes over time. For approaching the present with an ideal of beauty from the past, not only puts the artist out of gear with the present, and the soul out of sync with the body (PML, p.14), but makes ‘mistranslations’ very likely to occur – that is, reading something into the present which is not necessarily there, and thereby missing out on what is worthwhile. This is why Baudelaire says that, as an artist, you should only study the ancients for their technique, but that you should never “renounce the rights and privileges offered by circumstance – for almost all our originality comes from the seal which Time imprints on our senses.” (PML, p.14)

"2 Lorettes at the Theatre" & "Prostitutes", ca. 1850, Constantin Guys

Of course, it goes without saying that Monsieur G. is Baudelaire’s man of the crowd. It is not only the man who, like the flâneur, sets “up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infinite” (PML, p.9), and is therefore a man of the world – a passionate but impartial observer, an independent mind, a great traveler, someone who is interested in the world as a whole. But also the man who, in order to give expression to the multitude of pictures teeming in his brain, decided at the magical age of forty-two (PML, p.6), to fling himself in the crowd so as to partake of life. All because of a curiosity that “had become a fatal, irresistible passion” (PML, p.7), namely a passion to pursue a “half-glimpsed countenance” that goes by the mysterious name of modernité. However, this highly elusive entity, cloaked in ever-changing guises, would prove very difficult to pin down, since “the eternal part of art will be veiled and expressed if not by fashion, at least by the particular temperament of the artist” (PML, p.3). Whereas in the past, due to life’s uncertainty and precariousness, there was a clear preference for the eternal and unchanging, which made it much easier to recognize art’s inherent duality, because being an authentic expression of the life it represented, art took on a relatively stable form under those circumstances: “the ingredient of eternal beauty [revealed] itself only with the permission and under the discipline of the religion to which the artist belongs.” (PML, p.3) Modernity on the other hand, thanks to its very flexibility and procedural techniques, was not only able to provide real stability and security in contrast to pre-modern times, but also succeeded in harnessing nature by adapting and emulating its changing processes, leading art to become more fluid (and diffused) as well. One could therefore say that the past is best characterized by various forms of restriction or containment, whereas modernity, by the future and the infinite.

And here one can already sense some of the problems Baudelaire has with modernity – where modernity casts its foreboding shadow. For example, in order to bring to a successful synthesis “all the raw material with which memory has loaded itself” (PML, p.11), the artist has to quite literally flee the scene so as to find refuge from modernity’s constant bombardment of sounds and images. Which is why the artist works his magic in the dead of night, in total silence and seclusion. When everybody is fast asleep, and the only sounds are those of his pencil and brush working at a frantic speed, for fear “of letting the phantom escape before the synthesis has been extracted or pinned down.” (PML, p17). The process of synthesis itself he describes as a struggle “between the will to see all and forget nothing and the faculty of memory” (PML, 16) – which breaks everything down, reassembles it, and brings it back to human proportions. Because to achieve the desired result the artist must first suppress “a riot of details clamouring for justice with the fury of a mob in love with absolute equality. All justice is trampled under foot; all harmony sacrificed and destroyed; many a trifle assumes vast proportions; many a triviality usurps attention. The more our artist turns his impartial eye to detail, the greater is the state of anarchy.” (PML, p.16) To put it slightly different and less anti-democratic: the artist must make what seems like a random and therefore ‘unjust’ selection out of a myriad of details clamoring for attention – all of which in principle deserve equal recognition – in order for them to “undergo that forced idealization” (PML, p.11).

Because only by subjecting the details to an arbitrarily imposed rule or form – which necessarily generates criteria for selection – can the artist hope to forge a viable whole out of them, always with the unintended but inevitable consequence that “many a trifle assumes vast proportions.” In fact one can argue, as Baudelaire seems to do, that it is precisely this “trifle” that defines society as a whole (stamped upon it, as it were) and ultimately makes art, art. For that indeterminate quality of beauty which expresses itself time and time again throughout human history, is in some ways the ‘inconsequential’ raised to law, or man’s hubris to assert himself in the face of life’s transience. Baudelaire suggests therefore, that it is mankind’s tragic fate only to be able to unite by making what is essentially trivial and passing into law – thereby enshrining and beautifying it – but always to the detriment of something else, something left out, something that allows for contrast. This is the reason why the eternal can be found in the smallest detail of an age, which is, as it were, saturated by it. However, it is (among other things) the “faculty of memory” – which is essentially a screening process – that enables the artist to make a natural or organic whole out of what, strictly speaking, is merely an articificial unity. All this seems to echo Hegel’s statement, that “memory automatically succeeds in clothing characters, events, and actions in the garments of universality.” (Aesthetics, p.189) In any case, it helps explain why the eventual synthesis arrived at, is a thoroughly human product.

"Queen Isabella of Spain receiving military officers", Constantin Guys

This specific combination of elements – law, selection, separation, beauty – we find reflected in Baudelaire’s powerful descriptions of such characters as the military man, “whose general character is truly heroic.” (PML, p. 26), and whose profession “derives its external beauty from the moral laws to which it is subject.” (PML, p. 25) But most of all, we recognize it in his memorable treatment of the dandy. According to Baudelaire, the dandy represents the very quintessence of character, for he is someone who has “no other calling but to cultivate the idea of beauty in [his] person, to satisfy [his] passions, to feel and to think.” (PML, p.27) The way the dandy does this is through distinction, which he prices “above all things.” (PML, p.27) He wants to astound others without being astounded himself, which is why the dandy is always blasé. But this devotion to the trivial to the exclusion of all else, this refinement of manners and self, aimed at fortifying the soul, comes at a high prize. For although dandyism is “an institution beyond the laws, [it nonetheless] has rigorous laws which all its subjects must strictly obey, whatever their natural impetuosity and independence of character.” (PML, p.26) Here we should recall what Hegel said about art’s fascination with the rich and idle, namely that “it does so not, because it is aristocratic and loves the gentry, but because of the perfect freedom of will and production which is realized in the idea of royalty.” (Aesthetics, p.192)

It is the Hegelian paradox all over again: modern man is simultaneously more and less free than his pre-modern counterpart. Unsurprisingly the dandy is a relic of the past, the last of a dying breed, who “appears above all in periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all-powerful…” (PML, p.28) For even though he is rich and powerful and therefore seems able to do as he pleases, he still operates within the bounds of society like everyone else. However, by subjecting himself to a strict code of conduct or identifying with a royal lineage, the dandy tries to cultivate a more substantial character. And it is from this attitude of standing firm in the face of change – “this gravity amid the frivolous” (PML, p.28) – that his beauty stems: “They are representatives of what is finest in human pride, of that compelling need, alas only too rare today, of combating and destroying triviality” (PML, p.28) by taking the trivial serious. In short, for Baudelaire the dandy personifies what is ‘eternal’ in beauty, he is an essential part of the equation that  threatens to get lost. Which is why this ancient and mysterious institution, represents the last bastion against the rising tide of modernity, it is “the last spark of heroism amid decadence.” (PMP, p.28) 

Like the French aristocrat Alexis De Tocqueville (1805–1859), Charles Baudelaire clearly had mixed feelings about modernity. To a certain extent they both feared democracy “which invades and levels everything” (PML, p.29) because it leaves no room for distinction, or qualitative and substantial difference: since it trivializes everything. It should therefore come as no surprise, that Baudelaire declared himself a fervent disciple of Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1753–1821), whom he described as his maître à penser. But as we saw, it is not just the dandy who needs to separate himself from the humdrum, the artist too needs a moment respite from the daily bustle, so as to catch his breath, conserve his energy, and distill the eternal from the transitory. The general overflow of information and activity, however, not only makes those moments most rare – and concentration to reflect increasingly hard – but in time, it simply tends to dissolve (meaningful) differences. Which would make the task the artist set himself, of carefully tracing the minutest developments in fashion, in order to extract from it “whatever element it may contain of poetry within history” (PML, p.12), into a pointless exercise. Since everything would become interchangeable in an ever-changing environment, and therefore no longer be an authentic expression of life, but merely empty (re)packaging. The sheer amount of material generated would make it an impossible feat to accomplish anyway.

But worst of all would be the disappearance of those colorful characters Baudelaire holds so dear, and along with them “those deep, impetuous desires, war, love…” (PML, p.24) for which modernity has no place. For the tragic and the transitory seem to cancel each other out. After all, the fleeting and unstable relationships that characterize modern society, demand greater resilience to change and the inevitable disillusion and disappointments it entails, leading to relativity as the proper mode to cope. Baudelaire believed that disinterestedness and forgetfulness would soon follow, which is why he compared dandyism to a “declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy”, and said that democracy can only pour “floods of oblivion upon the footprints of these stupendous warriors.” (PML, p.29) But, to end on a slightly more positive note, and consistent with his philosophy, even democracy contains beauty to some degree “however slight or minimal that element might be.” (PML, p.12)

"Promenade au Bois", by Constantin Guys

We will complete the series next week, when we turn to Michel Foucault, another illustrious French thinker with strong views on modernity and the peculiar predicament we find ourselves in. See here for my previous discussion of G. W. F. Hegel.