Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Walter Benjamin: The Writer of Modern Life – Essays on Charles Baudelaire (1939)

Another dispatch just in from Tunisia-based German orientalist and biblical commentator Johann Weiß, this time on Walter Benjamin's The Writer of modern Life- Essays on Charles Baudelaire:

Chapter II: The Flâneur (p. 68-81)


“Physiologies”, a genre most popular in the early 1840s, investigated the human types that a person taking a look at the marketplace might encounter. Baudelaire’s generation went through this, but to Baudelaire himself it didn’t mean much. Benjamin calls it a “petty bourgeois genre” for philistines with a limited horizon. “Innocuousness (harmlessness) was of the essence”, and Benjamin observes that it was typical in the time of  Louis Philippe, the time of a sated reactionary regime. But, the leisurely quality of the descriptions of the physiologies fits the style of the flâneur who goes "botanizing on the asphalt."

Physiologies and the big city:

The physiologies had one thing in common: they were harmless and perfectly affable. The reason was an uneasiness of a special sort. People had to adopt themselves to a new situation, one that is particular to big cities. In big cities, interpersonal relationships become less personal, above all because of modern means of public transportation. In buses, trains, etc. people have to look at each other for a long time without communicating. These new situations were, as Simmel recognized, not pleasant; anybody could be an unknown enemy. The physiologies were just the thing to brush such disquieting notions aside as insignificant. It was the most obvious thing to give people a friendly picture of one another.

But in the long run, it seemed quite unlikely that physiologies could make the people believe their associates were harmless eccentrics. So, these writings advanced. They made people believe that now anyone could make out the character of passers-by. E.g. Balzac: “Genius is so visible in a person that even the least educated man walking around in Paris will, when he comes across a great artist, know immediately what he has found.” People who believe in the ability of man to recognize a person’s character by just looking at him will find living in big cities less disquieting.

Baudelaire: Dupe and Connoisseur of human nature.

Baudelaire divides city people into two categories: The dupe and the connoisseur of human nature. A dupe is a victim, a person who is cheated and fooled. Its antithesis is the connoisseur of human nature. He knows enough about human nature and thus is able to operate in a big city. The more alien a big city becomes, the more knowledge of human nature one needs to operate in it.


The arcades:

“Flânerie could hardly have assumed the importance it did without the arcades.” “It is this world that the flâneur is at home.” The arcades are something between a street and an intérieur. The street becomes a dwelling place for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the house facades as a citizen is within his four walls.

The masses of the big city as asylum for asocial people

Literature which was concerned with the disquieting and threatening aspects of urban life emerged. This literature, too, dealt with the masses, but its method was different from that of the physiologies. It cared little about the definition of types; rather, it investigated the functions which are peculiar to the masses in a big city. One of these claimed particular attention. The masses appear as the asylum that shields an asocial person from his or her persecutors. Of all the menacing aspects of the masses, this one became apparent first. It lies at the origin of the detective story.

The flâneur as unwilling detective

In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in the position of having to play detective. Flânerie gives the individual the best prospects of doing so. Baudelaire wrote: “An observer is a prince who is everywhere in possession of his incognito.” If the flâneur is thus turned into an unwilling detective, it does him a lot of good socially, for it legitimates his idleness. He catches things in flight; this enables him to dream that he is an artist.

Influence of Cooper on Dumas, Féval, Balzac: the big city as wild prairie

(James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) - first major U.S. novelist, author of the novels of frontier adventure known as the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring the wilderness scout called Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye)

-       Alexandre Dumas (Mohicans de Paris) combines forensic knowledge with the pleasant nonchalance of the flâneur.

The hero decides to go in search of adventure by following a scrap of paper which he has given to the wind as a plaything. No matter what traces the flâneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime. The very title of the book promises the reader that it will open a primeval forest and a prairie for them in Paris – a wild, undiscovered space in the big city.

-       Paul Féval (Les Mystères de Paris) promises that his heroes from the Parisian underworld are “no less removed from civilization than the savages who are so splendidly depicted by Cooper.”

-       Honoré Balzac never tires of referring to Cooper as his model. “The poetry of terror that pervades the American woods, with their clashes between tribes on the warpath – this poetry which stood Cooper in such good stead attaches in the same way to the smallest details of Parisian life.” à The pedestrians, the shops, etc. – all this was of the same burning interest to the Parisian reader as the environment was to the reader of a Cooper novel.

Poe’s influence on Baudelaire

The translations of Edgar Allan Poe introduced the genre of detective stories into French literature. With the translations of these models, Baudelaire adopted the genre (although Baudelaire did not write detective stories). According to Benjamin, Poe was one of the greatest technicians of modern literature, because in his work, science and philosophy, i.e. the scientific story, the modern cosmogony and the description of pathological phenomena were put together and harmonized. In Les Fleurs du mal Baudelaire incorporated three of its decisive elements: the victim, the murderer and the scene of the crime.

The detective story: obliteration of the individual’s traces in the big city

The original social content of the detective story focused on the obliteration of the individual’s traces in the big-city crowd. One example is Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget.

One paper, Le Commercial, expressed the view that Marie Roget was done away with immediately after she left her mother’s apartment, because it would be impossible that a person so well known to thousands should have passed three blocks without someone having seen her. By contrast, Poe points out, it was more than probable that Marie Roget might have proceeded, at any given period, at any of the many routes between her and her aunt’s residence, without meeting a single individual whom she knew, or by whom she has known, because of the disproportion between the personal acquaintances of even the most noted individual in Paris and the entire population of Paris itself.

Baudelaire: A une passante / To a Passer-By

This central poem out of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal does not present the crowd as the refuge of a criminal but as the refuge of love which flees from the poet.

à Love as being stigmatized by the big city

La bourgeoisie / French society in general in the days of Louis Philippe

The bourgeoisie has endeavoured to compensate itself for the fact, that private life leaves no traces in the big city. It sought such compensation within its four walls by accumulating commodities (pocket watches, cutlery, velvet and plush covers, etc.) The real or sentimental value of these objects thus preserved is emphasized.

On the other hand, society became more and more controlled. Houses are numbered, “the whole country, down to the smallest plot of land, will soon be registered” (Balzac). Since the French Revolution, an extensive network of controls had been bringing bourgeois life ever more tightly into its meshes. According to Benjamin, this web of registrations was a government’s means of compensating for the elimination of traces that take place when people disappear into the masses of the big cities.

In Baudelaire’s time technical measures had to come to the aid of the administrative control process, especially the process of identification, first established with the person’s personal signature, then by the invention of photography: photography made it possible for the first time to preserve permanent and unmistakable traces of a human being.

Baudelaire’s struggle for his menaced private sphere  

Baudelaire found this effort as much of an encroachment as did any criminal. He tried to defend his private sphere. He went to public places like cafés or reading circles, sometimes he had two domiciles at the same time, and, to hide further, he often spent the night at a third place with friends. Benjamin writes, that “in this time, the city had long ceased to be home for the flâneur.”

The flâneur for Poe

In Poe’s famous tale The Man of the Crowd, there is an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd. This unknown man is the flâneur. For Poe, the flâneur was, above all, someone who does not feel comfortable in his own company. He seeks out the crowd to hide in it. Poe purposely blurs the difference between the asocial person and the flâneur. The harder a man is to find, the more suspicious he becomes: the flâneur, the suspect as the man of the crowd.

The flâneur for Baudelaire

Baudelaire also understood the flâneur to be a man of the crowd, “l’homme des foules.” Baudelaire needed a city where he could stroll around, where he could be a flâneur. He loved solitude, but not the kind of solitude one finds in remote nature, but the solitude one finds in a crowd.


The flâneur in “Tableaux parisiens” (Britannica)


“Tableaux parisiens” was added to the 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal and describes a 24-hour cycle in the life of the city through which the Baudelairean traveler, now metamorphosed into a flaneur (idle man-about-town), moves in quest of deliverance from the miseries of self, only to find at every turn images of suffering and isolation that remind him all too pertinently of his own.


The flâneur, having gone through the city forever meeting himself, turns successively to drink (Le Vin), sexual depravity (Fleurs du mal), and satanism (Révolte) in a quest of the elusive ideal. His quest is predictably to no avail, as the final section, entitled La Mort, reveals. His journey is an everlasting, open-ended odyssey that, continuing beyond death, will take him into the depths of the unknown, always in pursuit of the new, which, by definition, must forever elude him.


                            Some biographical information:

Baudelaire Charles (1821–1867)


Although his early childhood appears to have been happy, Charles Baudelaire became sullen and withdrawn after his elderly father died in 1827 and his mother remarried. This experience may have produced the melancholy temperament that drove him to become an art critic and introspective poet. He would later earna high place in French literature and international renown as a symbolist poet. He also wrote an autobiographical novel, ‘La Fanfarlo'erotic ‘Les Fleurs du mal' (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), and critical essays that were collected in such books as ‘L'Art romantique' (Romantic Art, 1868) and ‘Curiosités esthétiques' (Aesthetic Curiosities, 1868), and volumes of essays, journals, and letters. His preoccupation with horror and the macabre never lessened his reputation. 

In the 1850s Baudelaire first read the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer. The years he spent translating and analyzing Poe's works ensured his reputation as a literary critic. His own writings, however, were not well received during his lifetime. He was prosecuted for obscenity and blasphemy, and some of his poems were banned.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), man of letters and aesthetician, now considered to have been the most important German literary critic in the first half of the 20th century.


Born into a prosperous Jewish family, Benjamin studied. He settled in Berlin in 1920 and worked thereafter as a literary critic and translator. His half-hearted pursuit of an academic career was cut short when the University of Frankfurt rejected his brilliant but unconventional doctoral thesis, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1928; The Origin of German Tragic Drama). Benjamin eventually settled in Paris after leaving Germany in 1933 upon the Nazis' rise to power. He continued to write essays and reviews for literary journals, but upon the fall of France to the Germans in 1940 he fled southward with the hope of escaping to the United States via Spain. Informed by the chief of police at the town of Port-Bou on the Franco-Spanish border that he would be turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin committed suicide.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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-Ming Ren