Week 12, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé
Notes on Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé
General Notes on Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life
We can use Pater’s impressionism to draw out Baudelaire. It’s only the roughness of the eye that makes two things look identical. The point of Baudelaire’s ideas about art is that it’s getting harder to perceive anything in a fresh, accurate way. The artist’s task is to defend that capacity without rejecting modernity. To lose this ability is to lose your soul— Baudelaire borrows a lot from Christianity (original sin, the fallenness of perception, etc.) So he employs technological metaphors for moral purposes. Seeing is itself a moral act for Baudelaire. The Greek middle/passive verb Aisthanomai means “I perceive for myself” (not as others try to make me perceive or understand). Expressive poetics aside, this is not unlike what the romantics argued when they said it was vital to clear or strip away the ”film of familiarity” so that we might see things anew.
But Baudelaire doesn’t tell us to desert the urban site of spiritual corruption. Rather, he says we have to begin by seeing clearly what is all around us in our cityscapes. Artists should wrest from the Parisian boulevards with all their businesslike evanescence something of permanent value, something that will make them see what is all around rather than accept stale, conventional perceptions. Denaturalization is the key term here: art denaturalizes us to our surroundings, makes us see them as if we were wide-eyed, highly intelligent children with fine expressive capacity.
Baudelaire’s dandy does something different from the flâneur: he rejects life in order to maintain a perhaps archaic, but nonetheless valuable, principle of excellence. One can either embrace modernity or remain dispassionate and understand it, and the dandy does the latter in a somewhat haughty way. Here, the goal seems to be to maintain a sense of permanence and quality even as one is surrounded by the temporal and the evanescent. The flâneur's aim is to obtain clarity for an instant and to make art register that clarity in a clear thought or image. Impressionism in painting explains much in this regard; see also Pater’s literary impressionism.
Baudelaire captures the way modern art is of two minds about its relationship to the era. On the one hand, there’s immersion; on the other, there’s ekstasis. In neither case is there any question of simple realism. Even the flâneur as artist treats life as his raw material. It is a point of honor to create or capture beauty in the evanescent cityscape. It seems that Baudelaire’s “doubleness” would be a good way to describe modern art, its two tendencies: and literary modernism involves both of them.
Page-by-Page Notes on Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life
793. Artists don’t always have to privilege or represent the past, any more than they need to go back to nature and rustic language.
Beauty is a double phenomenon: an eternal element and a circumstantial element that depends on “the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.” Beauty is both here and now, a kind of fashion and democratic realm, and aristocratic, aloof, ideal, standoffish. It is here for us but also leads us beyond the here and now. Artist experience themselves in dualistic terms—the pull of the body and the aspiration of the spirit.
794-95. The artist is a “photojournalist” and child. To make it new, you first have to see it new. Again, the artist’s task isn’t to abandon the present with disdain. the flâneur enters the hustle of modern commercial life, but keeps something, some portion of his or her being, always in reserve. This is not romanticism—individuals with their own “passions and volitions” coloring the world with subjectivity or rejecting it stormily. Rather, it is closer to the model of a roving, voracious photographer—the camera as “eye,” taking in everything as it is, this instant. To photograph is not simply to copy, and to repeat is not simply to copy.
Baudelaire is offering a new model of subjectivity that seems drawn indirectly from technology. The eye captures fleeting opportunities for clear images, the way a good photographer can catch the ineffable and render it permanently evocative in its ephemerality. Impressionism (cf the reference to Manet) is an enduring model. How does an “I” open to the world perceive the world just for this moment? Pater and Baudelaire are both insightful on this matter. And how best to “paint” my perception? Baudelaire posits a mind engaged with a modern, seemingly unaesthetic world, a world in flux yet entirely capable of offering up its beauty one instant at a time. Baudelaire’s “kaleidoscope” must be set over against high-romantic solipsism, the Byronic man.
796. Modernity? Well, it is the mutability of one’s age, one’s social life, and so forth, that matters. There is a modernity to be captured in every society: the ephemeral. Ignore it and you lose the chance to capture beauty whole, like a portrait of a nineteenth-century person in seventeenth-century dress. Only if you capture your era accurately in all its fleeting details and qualities will it pass into eternity, and become a worthy and true “antiquity” in its own right. Rejecting the present as one’s element is a mistake, just as surely as vulgar realism or mere copying would be. Beauty needs context; it isn’t a mere ideal. As Blake says, “eternity is in love with the productions of time.”
798-99. Dandies like Beau Brummel are a product of their times who seek to transcend them by imitating certain aspects of them in concentrated form. Dandified self-commodification is an attempt to keep the principle of aristocracy alive, to maintain the effect of distance from the crowd. Birth and wealth once afforded this, but “fashion,” a commodity realm, now generates the effect of aloof individuality and uniqueness. How utterly utter! Even today, we can’t stand to see someone else wearing exactly the same article of clothing as we are wearing. Imitation, yes, but not simple copying or homage. Self-commodification or dandyism is also a mode of criticism. When Brummel quipped in response to someone who asked him about his favorite lake in Wordsworth country, “I say, Robinson, which lake do I prefer?” he criticized the aristocracy’s belief that one could farm out one’s aesthetic judgments to a trained lackey, just as we pay people to make our clothing and other useful items.
800-02. Oscar Wilde is obviously on the same page as Baudelaire on many issues. On art’s relationship to nature, for example—Wilde, like Baudelaire, places art higher. That is a defiant posture, but it retains a tie to Schiller’s tradition of culture as an improving power. It also remains tied to romanticism’s emphasis on self-consciousness, even if the model of the self is not that of the romantic expressive individual. Wilde also writes that artifice is a virtue—it is natural for human beings to be “as artificial as possible.”
Page-by-Page Notes on Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Crisis in Poetry”
Mallarmé is anti-utilitarian and anti-instrumentalist: poetry is an encounter with language as language. We might, of course, ask whether or not this Mallarméan scheme takes anti-instrumentalism and impersonalism too far. It amounts to a complete divorce between ordinary language and poetic language, and perhaps therefore repeats on the level of pure language the isolation of the romantic poets from their society. At least, that’s one way of looking at the matter.
Music, for Mallarmé, is orderly and yet liberatory. We align ourselves as listeners with its successive notes, with its unfolding, and we should experience music as pure play. We should not reaffirm our personal or “tribal” power over nature, but instead connect by means of music and poetry with something beyond ourselves. Mallarmé refers to this realm as “impersonal,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is devoid of passion. Poetry is a supplement—it supplies a lack in the ordinary.
845-47. The “French Revolution II” is the movement from the Alexandrine verse of Racine and Corneille to free verse, vers libre. This change is no doubt allied with a shift in social and political arrangements from monarchical, semi-feudal to modern, parliamentary, commercialist nineteenth-century society. Mallarmé isn’t in favor of middle-class vulgarity and self-satisfaction, but the breakup of the Alexandrine is an opportunity not to be missed. It’s an opportunity for poetry to become what it ought to be—both sensuous and ideal, an order that liberates all who come to it. It ought to be personal and yet lead us beyond personality.
The Alexandrine imposed a false decorum and order upon language, taming and imprisoning it. Language was therefore used to ratify conservative French values. Mallarmé’s poetics are anti-instrumentalist, just as he is anti-Cartesian more generally—against the preeminence of mind as opposed to matter, reason as opposed to passion. As for ordinary language, we “use” it to express our feelings and ideas (romanticism) and to refer to things in the external world (realism, everyday living). Both uses are instrumental, and they falsify experience and even the meaning of being human. Language thereby becomes a mere tool shed full of implements, not the House of Being.
But Mallarmé considers language more worthwhile than the fake “autonomous individual” who supposedly uses it to shore up a narrow sense of self and world, more worthwhile than the everyday business that can be transacted with it or within its sphere. This anti-middle-class sentiment makes language the new principle of aristocracy, the ennobling force, the power that lets us keep contact with mystery, with “play” (jouissance, as in Barthes and Derrida) and with the holy (Heidegger). Yet, the realm of Language isn’t an empty externality, a metaphysical far-away place we can command. The goal isn’t facilely to get there from here since that would be to commit the same error as instrumentalists commit.
848-49. As the Beckett character says, “what matter who is speaking?” Ordinary speech disappoints us because it doesn’t correspond to real-world qualities when we expect it to. We aren’t gods and cannot achieve a one-to-one correspondence between words and things. (Perhaps this is what Paul de Man refers to when he says that even Mallarmé leaves the supremacy of nature untouched.) But poetry liberates us from such selfish demands for pedestrian intelligibility; it’s an impersonal language where the Ideal is at play. It creates an order that we can enter, a sort of mystical realm. There is no need, as far as Mallarmé is concerned, to turn to the “author-function” (as Foucault calls it) as a principle of interpretive stability.
Evocation and suggestion are better than fact. In somewhat plain terms, we might say that they lead us to a better realm than the everyday one we usually inhabit. Mallarmé might be described as a Platonist, but again that would be rather misleading. He isn’t really pushing a movement from a deluded “here” to a metaphysical “there.” In his view, it seems, language itself is the realm of purity; language is a here-realm of pure play, not a beyond of the sort that philosophical realists posit. Even so, it seems that Mallarmé invests a great deal in this order of language. The Symbolists generally treat language as having magical incantatory power, and (following Schopenhauer), as a refuge from human will and strife. Yeats describes the city of Byzantium in this manner; the holy city disdains “All that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.”
851. Mallarmé’s flower example implies that what Nietzsche calls the abstraction-making power of language (its tendency to lie about the referential world), ought to be turned to account as music, as suggestibility that creates its own order. Mallarmé is not out to shore up the triumphant individual ego, the narrow shopkeeper-self in us all. Instead, he wants to see the triumph of language with a capital “L,” language as its own order, one that liberates us into what Heidegger will later call “the light of Being.” Language isn’t a tool shed; it is the dwelling-place of all that is most valuable in humanity.
Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.