Friday, June 19, 2009

On Baudelaire and modernity and ambivalence

In the June 8, 2009, issue of The Nation, Joshua Clover has a review (full review is for subscribers only, which I am not) of a new translation by Keith Waldrop of Baudelaire's collection of prose poems, Paris Spleen. In his review, Clover discusses the "contradiction that charges" the collection:
The individual is endlessly threatened by the gravity of the social whorl, by the maw of the masses and the tinsel seductions of the marketplace. And yet he is an individual only insofar as he is part of this new configuration, the very grounds for this new sort of person. He has no being beyond it.
Exploring this further, he writes:
For all his hate, it is the mass of people, each more unfortunate that the last, to whom he keeps returning. In "Solitude," perhaps the book's most paradoxical poem, he seems to renounce any rapprochement with the crowd. "The unfortunate inability to be alone," he bemoans, and "practically all our mishaps come from not staying in our room"--summoning the exhausted wisdom of La Bruyère and Pascal. By the end he has in his sights "all the fools searching for happiness in movement and in a prostitution I would call fraternalistic, if I wanted to speak in my century's uppity tone."

These last two words are an unconventional translation to "belle langue"... The common phrasing has long been "the beautiful language of my century"[...]. Waldrop's willingness to alienate the language, to make it dance again, cannot help but be striking to any reader of Baudelaire. It now suggests something of the poet's contempt for the honeyed talk of the bourgeoisie and its new cadre of captive intellectuals, and Waldrop gets this exactly right.

What slips away in this rendering, however, is the extent to which Baudelaire did wish to speak the beautiful language of his century, to wrest it from the salon and the Académie. Again and again he goes looking for it; the secret he knows is that it is to be found exactly "in movement and in a prostitution." The passage is the stroll of the flâneur, that jaundiced inspector of modernity, walking through the market but imagining himself not quite of it: the private citizen invented by public existence. This is the daily or nightly course for which Paris Spleen's lyrical movements and undulations find form.
It occurs to me that, if Clover appeared more often in The Nation, I might be persuaded to re-subscribe. (Of course, I'd be vastly more likely to re-subscribe if the quality of that rag's political analysis in any way resembled Clover's own, as known by me through his jane dark guise; see, for example, such recent entries on The New York Times and Tiananmen Square, on world-system hegemons, on the economic downturn and race, and so on.) Anyway, Clover's review reinforces my desire to read Baudelaire. I'm thinking of picking up The Flowers of Evil, along with Paris Spleen, as well as Benjamin's Baudelaire writings, handily published together now as The Writer of Modern Life (also mentioned in the review). Presumably the latter collection includes the relevant Benjamin I've already read, which reading put Baudelaire on my personal map in the first place.

I am intrigued by Clover's analysis, in the passages quoted above, of the different translations of the two words "belle langue" and, by implication, Baudelaire's conflicted relationship with modernity. I go back and forth on translation, worrying about choosing the best when multiple versions exist, worrying about getting the real experience, lamenting my monolingualism, and so on. Of late, my tendency is to not worry about it too much. The translation is simply that, and we do the best we can, and something of the original shines through. Here, though, I'm again struck by my loss. For it seems clear that what Baudelaire is saying is to be found at the intersection of the two versions (since, again, I am not likely to read him in the original).

We encounter few authors with zero preconceptions. With Baudelaire, my conception is of him as Benjamin's writer of modernity. One senses a writer struggling to give voice to the modern, to witness it, to see it as fully as possible. Perhaps, in the context of the problems of modernity, I have overplayed in my mind the extent to which he celebrates the modern, a celebration which might strike me as suspect. But, of course, as noted, I've not yet read him and my conception is, in fact, based on very little. So, given my ongoing concerns here, it will be seen that, as a reader, I am ripe for an interpretation of Baudelaire that highlights his "contempt for the honeyed talk of the bourgeoisie and its new cadre of captive intellectuals". Not so fast, Clover says. This contempt is "exactly right", but it misses something. It misses the love.

And I'm off and running, considering my own ambivalence about modernity, critiques of technological society, complaints about distraction. I am all too aware that, though I rail against the modern world, I am nonetheless of it, and that, in some respects, modernity enables my own opposition to it (for instance, I have a blog; I have a Twitter account, God help me). I'm reminded of problems I have had with Marshall Berman's conception of modernism, in which modern art is needed to allow us to become more suitably modern, to engage with the changes of modernity (for another take on Berman, see Aaron Bady's excellent post from last September on All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, in which Aaron asks questions about who gets left out of that conception, whose work is needed to make modernity function). My preference has been to think of literary modernism less as the obsessive drive to "make it new" (which does indeed seem to always require that we be rushing ahead, like modern life, always rushing, always impatient, demanding we adapt, keep up, be up for the next challenge) than as an awareness that certain forms are now suspect, suspect because of what's been learned, or perhaps exposed, in this drive forward. It is not that modernism should help make us, readers, modernists, that is to say, adapted to modernity, in all its complexity, but instead that modernism reflects that, in the move towards modernity, old verities have themselves been rendered suspect, verities on which certain narrative forms relied. The distinction is perhaps fine; I can see that it's possible we can include both sorts in a broader umbrella of modernism (a dialectic?). Not in a desire for inclusiveness but to embody an ambivalence. And yet it seems to me that the version I prefer is a necessary corrective to the more widely held version, that it's more suited to our current predicament.

Ambivalence! Literary ambivalence is nothing in the face of ambivalence about modernity itself. If Baudelaire explored, with excitement and repulsion, the condition of modern life (how convincingly I say that: you'd think I'd read his work), what do we have to say after 150 years more of development, of decay, of deepening adaptation? Now we have no excuse but to know that, not only does our way of life depend on the current privations of millions caught living in the wrong part of the world (how unfortunate to live in a country with vast reserves of oil), but that that way of life is also built on centuries of murder and destruction. Knowing this, but also knowing how unprepared we are for that way of life to disappear, though knowing that disappear it must. Liking the comforts of modern, technologically-enabled life, indeed loving aspects of it, but knowing that the idea that all could share in such comforts has always been a pipedream (though, surely, hating the job needed to maintain it, hating especially the pointlessly long commute, hating the noise, hating the idiocy, hating the polity). The globe simply can't support it--and anyway, the resources have to be extracted from somebody, the labor has to be done somewhere, the waste has to go somewhere. There is no getting around the fact that people continue to die for it. Not so they can share in it, but so we can laze about in it, continuing to not do what needs doing, voting instead for "change" that is no kind of change at all.

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