Baudelaire and the Decline of Experience

The second foundational figure of literary Modernism, along with Flaubert, was Charles Baudelaire. Both French writers were fascinated by urban experience. Flaubert incorporated it into his narrative form, while Baudelaire made urban experience the subject of his poetic practice. Baudelaire was a practicing flâneur. For long stretches he didn’t own a writing table. He made aimless wandering through Paris a method of productive labor. Although he was immersed in the street life of the city, Benjamin noticed that the city rarely figured directly in his poem. Rather, the city was “the scene of their action,” the setting for imagistic renderings of encounters Baudelaire “suffered” through.

Baudelaire asked, “What are the dangers of the forest and prairies next to the daily shocks and conflicts of civilization?” He fought off the jolts of street life like a fencer (“I walk alone, practicing my fantastic fencing/Sniffing at every risk-filled corner for a rhyme”). Baudelaire so keenly registered the shocks experience of daily life that experience, the accumulations shaping memory and wisdom, becomes “withered” instead, Benjamin claimed. For Benjamin Baudelaire was among the first writers to articulate the decline of meaningful experience in modern life, its graduate decline into an empty repetition of the same.

The excitement of urban life is generally held to be simulative, if stressful. In “The Metropolis and Mental Life” George Simmel had claimed that because of the encounter with so much stimuli, urban life is more sophisticated. The urbanite forms barriers against stimuli, “reacts with his head rather than his heart.”  The urbanite has to become more intelligent than his more laid-back country cousin in order to protect himself, yet at the same time his intellect expands to accommodate diversity of urban life.

Simmel’s view of urban life remains part of the myth of urbanism. All those galleries and coffee houses make for more evolved people. However,in Baudelaire’s poems, the first truly great urban poetry, the peregrinations of the flâneur turn into a kind of work. There is no rest for the Baudelairan flâneur. His double vision enables him to see the degradation of labor into endlessly repeated empty moments even as he knows the city offers up glimpses of a world we pretend doesn’t exist. Baudelaire’s poetry is full of fleeting glimpses into the grotesque and the immeasurably ancient lurking in the center of Paris, the most modern city of the nineteenth century. Benjamin describes Baudelaire’s poem “Seven Old Men” as an “anxiety-filled phantasmagoria” based upon a chance encounter with an old man in the streets of Paris.

He was not bent, but broken, and his spine
Formed such a sharp right angle with his leg
That his walking stick, perfecting his demeanor
Gave him the contour and the clumsy gait
Of some lame animal . . .

His likeness followed: heard, eye, back, cane, tatters,
Spawned from the same Hell; no trait distinguished
His centenarian twin, and both these baroque spectors
Marched with the same tread toward an unknown goal.

To what infamous plot was I exposed,
Or what evil luck humiliated me thus?
For seven times, as I counted minute to minute
This sinister old fellow multiplied!

The speaker of “Seven Old Men” is no dandy taking in the sights. The flâneur recognizes a uniquely repulsive old man, only to suddenly find him everywhere in the industrialized city. Baudelaire has no recourse to the compensatory transformations of narrative, like Flaubert. Baudelaire’s images are searing, but they go nowhere. If experience is to mean anything, it must take the form of something alienating and strange. In other words, it must take the form of a commodity.

More on that in my next post.


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