Friday, July 11, 2008

Beaudelaire & E. A. Poe

Thinking about romanticism some more, I notice a signature trait of certain 19th century writers especially when they are writing in prose. 'Beauty' is a very big word and so are 'soul', 'eternal', 'spiritual,' 'redemption', 'evil,' 'god', etc. Whether practising christians or not (I don't know if Baudelaire was one), the residual effects or emotional habits of christianity retain a powerful hold over them. Modernity is the enemy; though they don't use this word as I do, so as to mean a qualitative change so fundamental in the economic and political conditions of ordinary life, and coming so fast, as to create a sort of historical discontinuity between the Modern Age and all the ages that had preceded it. (Henry Adams knew what was going on and felt compelled to posit Christianity as a countervailing force to the energy of the modern dynamo [capitalism] that was remaking the world. See the chapter on The Virgin and The Dynamo in The Education of Henry Adams.)

The word 'modern' for Baudelaire just meant whatever is going on now, in the present. So far as I can see, he has no sense of history. All he knows (in 1852) is that things are going badly and will probably get worse. Worst of all, the middle-classes (the Bourgeoisie) were growing fat and becoming more numerous and more powerful. The Aristocracy at least had some taste; the Bourgeoisie had none. Forced to choose, Baudelaire--an admirer of Joseph de Maistre--prefers aristocracy, anytime.

Democracy in the U.S could only mean one thing, the tyranny of the bourgeoisie. Edgar Allen Poe, accordingly becomes for him a martyr to the cause of Art and Beauty, a victim (in effect) of modernity. (See the chapters on Poe in The Painter of Modern Life And Other Essays

I remarked, some time ago, that romanticism is a reaction to modernity. (I freely admit that this idea is not based on deep or wide-ranging historical scholarship; it is an inference I've drawn from the little I've read.) This definition strikes me as especially relevant to mid-19th century France and especially to the poets and artists of that time and later. The novelists of that time in France seem not to have entirely shared the hatred that the poets felt for the bourgeoisie, as the agents and beneficiaries of change; like Balzac (and Dickens) they were as fascinated as they were appalled by the death-throes of the world that was dying and the birth-pains of the one that (in Matthew Arnold's words) was struggling to be born. Though Arnold invented the term 'philistine' (meaning your ordinary, brutish, uninformed consumer of--mostly--cheap, mass-media art), he by no means intended to limit its application to the middle-classes; he was, after all, a middle-class intellectual himself. (Virtually all important writers, artists and scientists since the Renaissance have come from the middle-classes. Only in 19th century Russia will you find serious, first-class thinkers and writers among the nobility--Tolstoy, for example--and, in the 20th century, Stravinsky, Nabokov, Pasternak. Have I got that right?)

Baudelaire's essay(s) on Poe (written, I think, in 1852--the 'editor' of this collection supplies no dates! Infuriating.) give us an unusual opportunity to examine, in a short time and space, how political attitudes and literary theory reinforce each other in the mind of a major poet--i.e. Baudelaire.

It is immediately apparent that Baudelaire is not particularly interested in Poe's stories or poems. The only poem he singles out--for perfunctory treatment--is (of course) The Raven (that stupid bird, as one of my students once neatly noticed. It is just a bird, as Moby Dick is just a whale.)

What mainly interests Baudelaire is Poe's essay The Poetic Principle, and the political prejudices recorded in his Marginalia and Fifty Suggestions. For example, Poe regarded Progress (I quote Baudelaire who is frequently paraphrasing Poe), "that great idea of modern times, as an idiot's delight." And: "Material activity, inflated to the form of a national form of madness, leaves the American mind with very little room for the things which are not of the earth.... among a people without an aristocracy the cultivation of Beauty could only be corrupted, cheapened and must finally disappear.... [Poe] believed only in the unchangeable, the eternal, the 'self-same'...." "The People"--says Poe--have nothing to do with the laws but to obey them." And: "The nose of a mob is its imagination. By this, at any time, it can be led."

A society of this kind [says Baudelaire]was hardly made for poets. What even the most democratic of Frenchmen understands by the word 'State' would find no place in the mind of an American. For any citizen of the old world, a political state has a center of activity which is its sun and its brain, ancient and glorious memories, long poetic and military annals, an aristocracy to which poverty, daughter of revolutions, can only add a paradoxical lustre; but that?! That rabble of buyers and sellers, that nameless thing, that headless monster, that convict deported beyond the seas, a State?!....

It will always be difficult to pursue at once nobly and fruitfully the profession of man letters without laying oneself open to the slander and calumny of the impotent, the envy of the rich--that envy which is their punishment!--and the vengeance of bourgeois mediocrity. But what is difficult enough in a benevolent monarchy or a regular republic becomes well nigh impossible in a kind of nightmare chaos in which everyone is a police constable of opinion...[there, in]the noble
land of Franklin, the inventor of the ethics of the shop-counter, the hero of an age dedicated to materialism....

A social environment of this kind is bound to beget corresponding literary errors. It was against these errors that Poe reacted as often as he could, and with all his strength. We should not be surprised therefore that American writers, while recognizing his singular powers as poet and story writer, should always have sought to invalidate his worth as a critic. In a land where the idea of utility, which is the most hostile of all to the idea of beauty, outweighs and dominates everything [serious criticism, like poetry, must cease to exist.]

For Poe the Imagination is the Queen of the Faculties, but by this word he understood something greater than what is understood by the generality of readers....The Imagination is an almost divine faculty which perceives at once, quite without resort to philosophic methods, the intimate and secret connections of things, correspondences and analogies....

But there is yet another heresy which, thanks to the hypocrisy and to the dullness and vulgarity of minds, is much more to be feared... I refer to the heresy of The Didactic... a whole host of people imagine that the aim of poetry is some kind of instruction--that it ought now to fortify the conscience, now to perfect manners, now to demonstrate some aspect of utility....But we have only to descend into ourselves, to look into our own see that Poetry has no other aim or object but herself.... On pain of death or decay, Poetry cannot transform herself into a branch of science or ethics; her object is not Truth but only herself. The modes of demonstration of Truth are other and elsewhere. Truth has nothing to do with Song....

It is this admirable and immortal instinct for Beauty that makes us consider the Earth and its shows as a glimpse, a correspondence of Heaven. The unquenchable thirst for all that lies beyond, and which life reveals, is the liveliest proof of our immortality. It is at once by means of and through poetry, by means of and through music, that the soul gets an inkling of the glories that lie beyond the grave....Thus the Poetic Principle lies, strictly and simply, in human aspiration towards a supernal beauty....

From here, as you can see, it is but a hop, skip and a jump to symbolism.

1 comment:

  1. I can't remember anything in Baudelaire's poetry explicitly about the middle class or the aristocracy. His major obsession was something he called "spleen," a French word borrowed from English, which in French, at least to Baudelaire, meant something like murderously opporessive boredom.