Thursday, December 01, 2005

Week 15, Baudelaire and Arnold

Notes on Charles Baudelaire and Matthew Arnold

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.”

Notes on Matthew Arnold

Arnold is a “culture-monger,” or guardian of culture. He’s actively engaged in a project of resisting that “hostile and dreaded censorship,” that smug self-satisfaction exhibited by the bourgeoisie in its own unexamined views and values. Arnold insists that we need culture and criticism. Contra Pride. Mostly, we need to step back from the fray and the buying and selling of ideas, and just examine them in a detached and calm manner. This is to import the Enlightenment and Hellenizing strain in favor of self-development, self-perfection. Arnold has little against pleasure, but he doesn’t see it as the aim of life, at least not by itself. And like Mill, he thinks it is of great consequence what things give us pleasure -- this is a matter for education, without which we are in essence beasts, and probably worse. I would defend Arnold here because people seldom realize just how fragile our humanity is -- look around you and you will see, even in the C21, genocide, war, and all sorts of horrifying effects of stupid brutality. It would be nice to “let the ape and tiger in us die,” as Tennyson says we should, but they’re too deeply entrenched. Culture seems to me a miracle -- that we should want it at all, and that it should work such wondrously “humanizing” effects upon us, taking us outside our narrow interests and making us see the value in helping others. I can’t bring myself to accept the “pomo” dismissals of humanism too lightly because they never offer anything with which to replace old-fashioned ideas about progress and humanity. Bring up Adorno’s dislike for the “culture industry” and the rejection of enlightenment rationality as a totalizing ideology that brooks no dissent.
Post-It Notes

Initial note: Matthew Arnold addresses some very modern problems -- first, the status of art and culture in relation to economic and class arrangements. We find in him the paradox of Anglo-American humanism: “they also serve who only stand and wait.” But more particularly, the paradox consists in having to defend the arts and criticism by rejecting the suggestion that they should be immediately useful. Second, he addresses the specific relationship between art and criticism, a concern of interest to theoreticians today.

807-08. Arnold admits that art is, as Wordsworth claims, higher than criticism in the vulgar sense of essays that explain poetry and so forth. But on page 808, Arnold, who distrusts romantic pretensions to priestly status, insinuates that Wordsworth is being elitist when he disregards the lower, critical activity.

808. The second thing to keep in mind here is Arnold’s “man and moment” argument: art expresses cultures idea’s, and it may arrange them into a beautiful synthesis, but culture must provide or “discover” the material first. Art is not mere expression of emotion -- a passing thing -- it involves intellect, thought. Art should not be about the individual artist’s problems or spiritual struggles. It should work towards universal models for action. Arnold condemned his own poem Empedocles on Aetna because it failed in that regard. Artists should be inspired by the culture around them.

808-09. To continue, if that vital, freewheeling atmosphere is lacking -- if Shakespeare does not have his vibrant city of London, or Sophocles doesn’t have glorious Athens in its heyday (so that he can write about Apollonian calm and objectivity leading to action), then “the critical power” is required for the moment. “Make straight the way of the Lord!” -- Arnold plays the prophet. Arnold accepts that sometimes art is not organically related to or close to the artist’s society. If that is the case in the 1800s, then we need genuine criticism to help create a healthy environment that makes a broadly appealing art possible. Sometimes you have to be an elitist of sorts to be a man of the people in the long run. Criticism should serve as a bridge to eventual practice -- as Rev. Jesse says, “keep hope alive!”

810-11. Reading books is not a replacement for a vital national culture or a vital international culture, but engagement with past authors and cultures at least makes such a culture imaginable for the critic or the artist. For Arnold, culture is something that transcends the immediate social and political context. “True” ideas can be true forever, always out there as touchstones for us. But our times may make us unable to appreciate them -- at least, most people will be out of touch.

811-13. Edmund Burke versus the French revolutionaries. Arnold agrees with Burke that the revolutionaries tried to impose a radical, artificial, universal set of ideals upon a people who were not mature enough yet to live by such ideals. The French tried to go too far too fast, and did not respect the fact that society (its codes and its institutions) evolves slowly, organically. Therefore, their glorious ideals resulted in an epoch of concentration -- i.e. in reactionary measures against anyone interested in liberty. Burke believed in slow growth leading to inevitable progress without loss of order.

Well, if we cannot have revolution, what will be our agent of change? Certainly not radical politics or radical art in alliance with it. Rather, a shaping force is needed. That force would be criticism, which engages with a realm of culture not to be identified with “public opinion.” Karl Marx and Matthew Arnold would disagree on nearly everything, but not on the notion that ideology consists in treating as natural and eternal the class or political hobby horses most beneficial to oneself and one’s group. As Alexander Pope says, “whatever is, is right.” Of course, Marx would say that Arnold’s promotion of disinterestedness amounts to ideology, to fiddling while Rome burns.

We might say that Burke and Arnold would be willing to sign off on decades of injustice and repression. Arnold thinks “force” can prepare the way for right -- perhaps, if you take as your model enlightenment monarchy or bureaucracy. But force quickly becomes its own reason, doesn’t it? Refer to George Orwell’s 1984 and to Franz Kafka.

816-17. Critics must be willing to step back from politics and live by ideas, sifting the excellence of those ideas in their universal dimension. Arnold holds a developmental, organic conception of humanity, like the German authors he has been reading -- Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schiller, and Goethe in particular. Our purpose is to develop as human beings -- to develop our full individuality, not merely what pertains to our bourgeois desire to accumulate things and satisfy pleasures. (The moral condemnation implied here can be found much earlier -- see Shakespeare’s line “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action.”) This development must take place within a vibrant society that encourages self-discovery.

Criticisms burden at present is to keep open a space for the free play of mind, for the pure entertainment of ideas for the sake of ideas, until the right kind of social and political environment can become established. Democracy, in the bourgeois sense, promotes only property and pleasure -- not improvement. The mind needs “freedom and variety of situations,” and if the 19th-century critic must play a more dispassionate version of Shelley’s isolated nightingale singing to itself, so be it. They also serve who only stand and wait, to borrow a line from Milton.

817-19. In Arnold’s claim about “the mass of mankind” seems aloof and even elitist. Some would say he makes “apolitical” thinking too much of a virtue, and permanently divorces art and criticism, the realm of thought, from “the general practice of the world.” This would be a sad admission or concession to make for a man who takes as his ideal ancient Greece and Shakespeare’s England, where, supposedly, art and life were vitally connected.

Ultimately, Arnold wants to say that thought, whether art or criticism in the broadest sense, must resist commodification and the vulgar interests of class and party politics. But the question is, does this non-political stance amount merely to a bourgeois liberal “laissez-faire” viewpoint on current affairs? Is it a virtue to consider one’s thought as ideology-free, to think one has stepped outside the Plato-realm of worldly illusion in order to get at the truth with a capital T? Arnold may be playing out Schiller’s script about how the advance of civilization alienates sophisticated thought from ordinary affairs and people, in which case the artist and the critic figure as mandarins and philosopher kings.

Arnold recognizes that ideas are being used as brick bats for narrow, selfish, cynical political and economic interests. To be fair, he does have a conception of the kind of state that would be better than either aristocracy-saturated Toryism or laissez-faire bourgeois rule or working-class radical socialism. Arnold’s state would be like a large critic -- free of all narrow interest. But his trickle-down or slow-spread theory of cultural improvement is not entirely satisfying as an answer if we are asking how to get there from here.

The class system he opposes generates an overwhelming imperative for people not to think for themselves, so while removing oneself from the fray is a noble ideal, it may not produce the results Arnold hopes it will.

Good journalism might be an example of what Arnold is calling for. A good discussion point would be the role of fine journalism and the public intellectual in contemporary American and European society. It seems to me that the public intellectual is not a dead phenomenon. Consider, for example, Susan Sontag or Edward Said. Jacques Derrida also seems to have fit into this role, especially towards the end of his life. Retired politicians or businesspeople can also function as public intellectuals.

823. Arnold’s defense of critical autonomy claims that it will serve society by helping to create the conditions necessary for a healthy, vibrant intellectual life and a more just form of government, one free of petty class interests. Arnold links his free-thinking critic to a fair-minded, disinterested state.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.

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