Friday, August 10, 2007

A Few Words on Baudelaire

I’m interested in the idea, expressed by Sartre, that Baudelaire was afraid of himself and always wanted to be somewhere he wasn’t, always wanted to be something he wasn’t.

I suppose this interest appears tangential to the active thematics of the Enlightenment Underground, but if so please remember Foucault's use of Baudelaire in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” where Baudelaire is used as a kind of paradigm of modernity.

Foucault’s discussion of Baudelaire echoes Sartre’s. I think Foucault would say that Baudelaire does fear himself and does always want to be where he is not. Foucault says,

“His transfiguration does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom; “natural” things become “ more than natural,” “beautiful things become “ more than beautiful,” and individual objects appear “ endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of [their] creator.” For the attitude of modernity, the high value of the present is indissociable from a desperate eagerness to imagine it, to imagine it otherwise than it is, and to transform it not by destroying it but by gasping it in what it is. Baudelairean modernity is an exercise in which extreme attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it.”

A little later, Foucault adds this,

“ This ironic heroization of the present, this transfiguring play of freedom with reality, this ascetic elaboration of the self—Baudelaire does not imagine that these have any place in society itself, or in the body politic. They can only be produced in another, a different place, which Baudelaire calls art.”

This can be interpreted as Baudelaire not wanting to be where he is. Foucault also says,

“The deliberate attitude of modernity is tied to an indispensable asceticism. To be modern is not to accept oneself as one is in the flux of the passing moments; it is to take oneself as object of a complex and difficult elaboration: what Baudelaire, in the vocabulary of his day, calls dandysme. Here I shall not recall in detail the well-known passages on ‘vulgar, earthy, vile nature”; on man’s indispensable revolt against himself; on the ‘doctrine of elegance’ which imposes ‘upon its ambitious and humble disciples’ a discipline more despotic than the most terrible religions; the pages, finally, on the asceticism of the dandy who makes of his body, his behavior, his feelings and passions, his very existence, a work of art. Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself.This modernity does not 'liberate man in his own being'; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.”

To not seek the self, its secrets and hidden truths might seen as a form of fearing oneself. To wish to transfigure oneself might be an extreme form of hating what one is. It might be seen as a way of negating oneself entirely.


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