Friday, July 24, 2009

Crime is by origin natural. Virtue is artificial - Baudelaire and Modern Life

"Everything that is beautiful and noble is the product of reason and calculation. Crime, which the human animal took a fancy to in his mother's womb, is by origin natural. Virtue, on the other hand, is artificial, supernatural, since in every age and nation gods and prophets have been necessary to teach it to bestialized humanity, and since man by himself would have been powerless to discover it." Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life," 1862.

I find it hard to know when to take Charles Baudelaire's pronouncements, of which there are many, seriously and when to try to tamp down his hyperbole. This passage I take as something close to a true vision of the world for the poet. It's hidden in section XI of his influential essay "The Painter of Modern Life." The section is titled "In Praise of Make-up," and Baudelaire means that, too.

It seems unlikely that the real Baudelaire, whatever that might mean, is on display in a piece of writing praising make-up. Quite the reverse, really. The Penguin Classics collection Selected Writings on Art and Literature I read contains Baudelaire essays on Edgar Allan Poe, Théophile Gautier, Madame Bovary, Richard Wagner, and many visual artists, especially Eugène Delacroix.

Every piece is about its subject - Baudelaire's reputation as a critic is deserved, and his writing, if rhetorically quite different than modern critical writing, is insightful - but also about Baudelaire, and the poet's views on the proper functioning of and approach to art. In this way, his appreciation of the epic works of Wagner is not so different than his enthusiasm for Poe, his poetic soulmate ("And then - believe me if you will - I found poems and short stories that I had thought of, but in a vague, confused, disorderly way and that Poe had been able to bring together to perfection," letter to Armand Fraisse, 18 Feb 1860).

"The Painter of Modern Life" is nominally about the artist Constantin Guys, now best known as the subject of this essay, but at the time an illustrator for the Illustrated London News. "Illustrator" is not quite right, since he was more like a photojournalist in water colors - some of his best known pictures are from his coverage of the Crimean War for that magazine.

Ma femme warned me that Guys's work may not be what I expected, following Baudelaire's praise. See left and judge for yourself; I also found an old volume titled The Painter of Victorian Life, 1930, that consists of Baudelaire's essay interspersed with dozens of black and white reproductions of Guys. I see what she means. Guys is deft and likable, but is not the neglected rival of Édouard Manet. Baudelaire praise Guys for being what he says in the title - not Modernist, which did not exist, but modern. He sees the details of dresses, carriages, uniforms, makeup, and mustaches and gets them right. Other painters in other times did the same thing. Baudelaire's aesthetic program is more important than his particular esteem for Guys.

I'm not sure I've gotten any closer to Baudelaire here, to his poetry or to Paris Spleen. Ah well, I'll try again some time. Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, who knows. The whole nerve-wracking crew.


  1. Maybe some absinthe to steady the nerves?

  2. I'm looking to having my nerves wracked by this crew. But first, some silly fun with Dumas!

  3. I'm looking forward, Colleen, to your attack on The Three Musketeers. But I've gotta say, I did not find the fun especially silly or pure. It was surprisingly, hmm, hmm, complicated.