Baudelaire, Charles


The modern social imaginary is … both active and contemplative. It expands the repertory of collective action, and also that of objective analysis. But it also exists in a range of intermediate forms. In speaking … about the typically modern, horizontal forms of social imaginary, in which people grasp themselves and great numbers of others as existing and acting simultaneously I [mention] the economy, the public sphere, and the sovereign people, but also the space of fashion. This is an example of a fourth structure of simultaneity. It is unlike the public sphere and the sovereign people, because these are sites of common action. In this respect, it is like the economy, where a host of individual actions concatenate behind our backs. But it is different from this as well, because our actions relate in the space of fashion in a particular way. I wear my own kind of hat, but in doing so, I am displaying my style to all of you, and in this, I am responding to your self-display, even as you will respond to mine. The space of fashion is one in which we sustain together a language of signs and meanings, which is constantly changing but which at any moment is the background needed to give our gestures the sense they have. If my hat can express my particular kind of cocky yet understated self-display, this is because of how the common language of style has evolved among us up to this point. My gesture can change it, and then your responding stylistic move will takes its meaning from the new contour the language takes on.

The general structure I want to draw from this example of the space of fashion is that of a horizontal, simultaneous, mutual presence, which is not that of a common action, but rather of mutual display. It matters to each of us as we act that others are there, as witnesses of what we are doing and thus as codeterminers of the meaning of our action.

Spaces of this kind become more and more important in modern urban society, where large numbers of people rub shoulders, unknown to each other, without dealings with each other, and yet affecting each other, forming the inescapable context of each other’s lives. As against the everyday rush to work in the Metro, where others can sink to the status of obstacles in my way, city life has developed other ways of being-with, for instance, as we each take our Sunday walk in the park or as we mingle at the summer street festival or in the stadium before the playoff game. Here each individual or small group acts on their own, but with the awareness that their display says something to others, will be responded to by them, will help build a common mood or tone that will color everyone’s actions.

A host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication. My loud remarks and gestures are overtly addresed only to my immediate companions; my family group is sedately walking, engaged in our own Sunday outing; but all the time we are aware of this common space that we are building, in which the message that cross take meaning. This strange zone between loneliness and communication fascinated many of the early observers of this phenomenon as it arose in the nineteenth century. We can think of the paintings of Manet or of Baudelarie’s avid interest in the urban scene, in the roles of flâneur and dandy, uniting observation and display.

– Charles Taylor. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004: 167-68.

When I last ran him to earth, I saw at once that it was not precisely an artist, but rather a man of the world with whom I had to do. I ask you to understand the word artist in a very restricted sense, and man of the world in a very broad one. By the second I mean a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and lawful reasons for all its uses; by the first, a specialist, a man wedded to his palette like the serf to the soil. Monsieur G. does not like to be called an artist. Is he not perhaps a little right? His interest is the whole world; he wants to know, understand and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our globe…. [He is a] spiritual citizen of the universe.

– Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 7.

In the vast picture-gallery which is life in London or Paris …. And so they run on, those endless galleries of high and low life, branching off at intervals into innumberable tributaries and backwaters.

– Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), pp. 37 and 39.

Fashion should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-à-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain: as a sublime deformation of Nature, or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation. And so it has been sensibly pointed out (though the reason has not been discovered) that every fashion is charming, relatively speaking, each one being a new and more or less happy effort in the direction of Beauty, some kind of approximation to an ideal or which the restless human mind feels a constant, titillating hunger. But if one wants to appreciate them properly, fashions should never be considered as dead things …

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 33.

… [In] the eighteenth century…. Nature was taken as ground, source and type of all possible Good and Beauty…. [but] we shall see that Nature teaches nothing, or practically nothing. I admit that she compels man to sleep, to eat, to drink, and to arm himself as well as he may against the inclemencies of the weather: but it is she too who incites man to murder his brother, to eat him, to lock him up and to torture him…. Everything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. Crime, of which the human animal has learned the taste in his mother’s womb is natural by origin. Virtue, on the other hand, is artificial, supernatural…. Good is always the product of some art.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 32.

Dandyism appears above all in periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all-powerful, and aristocracy is only just beginning to toter and fall. In the disorder of these times, certain men who are socially, politically and financially ill at ease, but are all rich in native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy, all the more difficult to shatter as it will be based on the most precious, the most enduring faculties, and on the divine gifts which work and money are unable to bestow. Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence…. Dandyism is a sunset; like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy. But alas, the rising tide of democracy, which invades and levels everything, is daily overwhelming these last representatives of human pride and pouring floods of oblivion upon the footprints of these stupendous warriors.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), pp. 28-9.

Once more to attempt a definition of the kind of subjects preferred by our artists, we would say that it is the outward show of life, such as it is to be seen in the capitals of the civilized world; the pageantry of military life, of fashion and of love.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 24.

The eye wanders from the banks of the Danube to the shores of the Bosphorus, from Cape Kerson to the plains of Balaclava, from the plains of Inkermann to the encampments of the English, French, Turks and Piedmontese, from the streets of Constantinople to the hospital wards and all the splendour of religious and military ceremonial.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 18.

It is the fear of not going fast enough, of letting the phantom escape before the synthesis has been extracted and pinned down; it is that terrible fear which takes possession of all great artists and gives them such a passionate desire to become masters of every means of expression so that the orders of the brain may never be perverted by the hesitations of the hand and that finally execution, ideal execution, may become as unconscious and spontaneous as is digestion for a healthy man after dinner.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 17.

[There is] … a need to see things broadly and to consider them above all in their total effect. It is by no means out of place here to remind my readers that all those painters whose vision is synthesizing and abbreviative have been accused of barbarousness — M. Corot, for example, whose initial concern is always to trace the principal lines of a landscape — its bony structure, its physiognomy, so to speak. Likewise Monsieur G. brings an instinctive emphasis to his marking of the salient or luminous points of an object (which may be salient or luminous from the dramatic point of view) or of its principle characteristics, sometimes even with a degree of exaggeration which aides the human memory; and thus, under the spur of so forceful a prompting, the spectator’s imagination receives a clear-cut image of the impression produced by the external world upon the mind of Monsieur G. The spectator becomes the translator so to speak, of a translation which is always clear and thrilling.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863). In Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Jonathan Mayne, trans. (London: Phaidon, 2006), p. 15.

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