Modern antiques and artificial eternity


“The atrophy of individual culture through the hypertrophy of objective culture is one reason for the bitter hatred which the preachers of the most extreme individualism, above all Nietzsche, harbor against the metropolis.” Simmel

Charles Baudelaire by Frantisek KupkaBaudelaire casts the city and the modern as a kind of paradox. History is the transitory stretched out in eternity. The modern or contemporary consists of the most ephemeral aspect of the wastage of time’s passing. To be a great modern artist is to capture this excess as though it were eternal rather than to trap it within the cliches of the Historical or Classical. To be modern is to live within the specific gaits and gestures of one’s time, that is, to prepare to be an antique. The painter “makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory.” But the modern individual is no more than an animated antique. Their external life is all artifice, but this is the very material that constitutes them and which the artist captures (an artist only captures artifice and this is the ‘truth’ or the ‘soul’ of the matter). And from this matter Baudelaire spins more paradoxes: the nobility proper to artifice; the savagery found in civilization; the evil devoid of any spirituality. And each member of this trinity finds itself diagrammed out upon the body of the city and its inhabitants with their “emaciated flesh of consumption or the rounded contours of obesity, that hideous health of the slothful.”

In assessing this “swarming ant-hill of human life itself” the poet claims that “[h]e will find nothing …but pure art, by which I mean the special beauty of evil, the beauty amid the horrible.” And the horrible beauty of the modern metropolis is what both Benjamin and Simmel stumble on (more accurately, Simmel stumbles and Benjamin trips). Both are concerned with the erosion of the division between the interior and exterior, between the individual and the ephemeral mass they are part of. Benjamin claims that Baudelaire lacked distance from the masses, that they seeped into him to the point that they became indescribable. Still, the poet regarded them with contempt and consigned them ‘to oblivion’ while unable to shed “their essentially inhuman character.” It is here that Benjamin finds another paradox. Though the masses are a writhing and dense anonymity, they are also a ‘secret presence’ or a ‘silence’; at once optimal saturation and transparency. And it is this transparency that is only noticeable as a widow’s veil, providing an atmospheric sense that can preserve the ‘enchantment’ of the urban world of crowds. Benjamin pathologizes this as, “The sexual shock that can beset a lonely man.” The French poet is spared fulfillment and resigned to something between yearning and mourning.

220px-Against_the_Grain_1926_CoverBaudelaire misses something in the value of manneristic artificiality (whether it is what will be called ‘camp’ or actively insincere, it hardly matters). He presents the irony that the most au courant is the most artificial and, therefore, is the most eternal. Yet, the most anachronistic is also the most artificial and the most eternal, but it is suspended in the eternity of mannerism rather than of habit. It is an eternity that hasn’t been lived in, that has no durée as Benjamin would say, following Bergson. It is this inorganic eternity that is ultimately more severe – not a modernity or a contemporaneity, but a never that is always. Beside the world of the crowd, with all of its mechanical qualities and its social realism, there is the no less artificial and eternal world of des Esseintes, the protagonist of Huysman’s À rebours.





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