Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Baudelaire is Melting

This post continues a series summarizing Marshall Berman’s thought-provoking book, All That is Solid Melts into Air (Penguin, 1988 rev ed.). In this book, Berman explores the phenomenon of modernity, highlighting its characteristics across multiple disciplines and through the eyes of many different participating figures.

Baudelaire: Pastoral, Counter-Pastoral and What?

Berman begins his chapter on Baudelaire with a couple of important descriptions of where he is going both in the book and in his underlying sociology. He writes:

Our vision of modern life tends to split into material and spiritual planes: some people devote themselves to "modernism," which they see as a species of pure spirit, evolving in accord with its autonomous artistic and 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 writings and thinkers about modernity ... had an instinctive feeling for this unity; it gave their visions a richness and depth that contemporary writing about modernity sadly lacks.

Baudelaire, he says, is one of these first writers.

By examining Baudelaire, Bergman hopes to get at some of the aesthetic, the emotive, the psychological side of modernity. "[Baudelaire's critiques] contain several distinctive visions of modernity," he says. First, celebration, or as he calls it, pastoral modernism or modernolatry; then denunciation, counter-pastoral and cultural despair; and, finally . . . well, Marshall doesn't give this one away quite yet.

At any rate, the first vision of modernity to be explored is pastoral modernism. This perspective is represented in Baudelaire's earliest works. In them, Baudelaire paeans the bourgeois. Theirs is not a backward-looking stagnation, but a realization of the idea of the future in all its diverse forms: political, industrial, artistic. The fundamental motive is the desire for infinite human progress in every sphere, including the arts. "It would be unworthy of their dignity to stand still and accept stagnation in art." "Baudelaire's faith in the bourgeoisie neglects all the darker potentialities of its economic and political drives--that is why I call it a pastoral vision." This pastoral vision "proclaims a natural affinity between material and spiritual modernization; it holds that the groups that are most dynamic and innovative in economic and political life will be most open to intellectual and artistic creativity --'to realize the idea of the future in all its diverse forms'!" This is a grand adventure, sparkling, dazzling, youthful, glittering and triumphant, "a harmony in the turmoil of human freedom." Pastoral modernism, not only in Baudelaire but among many of his contemporaries, "sees the whole spiritual adventure of modernity incarnated in the latest fashion, the latest machine, or--and here it gets sinister--the latest model [military] regiment."

Here, modernity is naive, taking the glitter of sharpened swords for the glow of hope and human betterment; "modernity without tears." Marshall points out the irony that Baudelaire misses his own erasure. This beautiful modernity gets rid of dissonance. It cleans up "the street"--that environment which nurtures Baudelaire's artists and Baudelaire himself. It attempts to gets rid of the darker side of human nature, its social and spiritual turbulence, with the blinding dazzle of an outward show.

Baudelaire's counter-pastoral notes are sounded even in the middle of his pastoral ones. Baudelaire didn't seem to notice the change, even as he began to discern a hegemony of beauty. Where beauty is static and enforces its aesthetic like a spiritual policeman, there can be no alternative visions. There is a confusion of material order with spiritual order, a confusion spread by the romantic story-utopia of Progress. The development of better technology is mistaken for the deepening of human moral and spiritual life.

Unfortunately, instead of resisting this trend and re-asserting the artist's place in the whirl of the modern world, Baudelaire disconnects him. "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." The artist derives his art, now, from himself, a walking Ding-an-sich, dualistically floating freely above it all. [How different is this from Schleiermacher’s use of theology?] Baudelaire divorced discussions of beauty from discussions of truth, finding in truth that modern reality which is "utterly loathsome, empty not only of beauty but of even the potential for beauty." Art divorced from reality is "pure." Along with it goes a contempt for modern human beings and their lives, a contempt which, as Marshall says, cripples Baudelaire's aesthetic. Marshall writes, "what makes this pastoral, and uncritical, is the radical dualism, and the utter lack of awareness that there can be rich and complex relations, mutual influences and interfusions, between what an artist (or anyone else) dreams and what he sees." Baudelaire doesn't begin to suspect that the artists whom he lifts above the earth to the clouds are in actuality human and as deeply implicated in la vie moderne as anyone else. Ironically again, Marshall points out that Baudelaire himself could not follow his artistic prescriptions. His own art was too bound up with the everyday life of the Paris streets, its confluences of people and its night life, its cellars, pubs, cafes and the concrete of its time and place. [This is why I like to write and work in public.] "Baudelaire must have known this, at least unconsciously; whenever he is in the midst of sealing off modern art from modern life, he keeps reaching out to trip himself up and bring the two together again." Marshall concludes: "The lesson for Baudelaire ... is that modern life has a distinctive and authentic beauty, which, however, is inseparable from its innate misery and anxiety, from the bills that modern man has to pay."

This entire series can also be read as a single document.

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