Editor’s Note: Charles Baudelaire was a proto-Modernist. The same was true of Henri Murger and Théophile Gautier. The forerunners of Modernism include a bunch of people we will be looking at in the weeks to come. The 1890s are the key decade in which Modernism blooms but it had been stirring and developing out of cultural currents for several decades before that in France.
In the troubled life of the mid-19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire, we see the development of some of the key themes of Modernism:
- Being a social outcast, feeling like an “outsider” and being alienated from society
- Rejection of bourgeois norms
- Debauchery (Baudelaire was fascinated with evil and man’s descent into evil)
- Transgression against bourgeois norms
- Living a socially irresponsible bohemian lifestyle
- Rejection of the past
- The belief that art should capture what is beautiful about the present, particularly life in the city, as opposed to nature or classical forms. To every age its own art
- The celebration of the ephemeral and contingent as opposed to the timeless form
- The capture and retrieval of experience
- Experimentation with sex and drugs
- The combination of reactionary (Joseph de Maistre) with anarchist influences (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon). Modernists are elitist cosmopolitans
Once again, it needs to be stressed here that this is a rejection of bourgeois norms. This is not how the average person typically lived in France in the 19th century. These are people who are living a life devoted to art on the margins of society. Respectable people were socially responsible. The proto-Moderns defined themselves against the values and beliefs and social norms of the bourgeois.
The following excerpt comes from Peter Gay’s book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy:
“No single poet, no single painter or composer can securely claim to have been the “onlie begetter” of modernism. But the most plausible candidate for that role was Charles Baudelaire. For the history of modernism, he is – along with a chosen few like Marcel Duchamp or Virginia Woolf, Igor Stravinsky or Orson Welles – absolutely indispensable. His original, intensely stimulating art criticism, his candid autobiographical ruminations, his influential translations of Edgar Allan Poe’s dark tales for a French audience, his defiance of accepted boundaries in his deeply personal poetry – above all, that poetry – bear the stamp of a founder. …
The shift took time. In the decades after his death in 1867 at forty-six, the author of Les Fleurs du mal gradually came to command an extraordinary following. Looking back in 1935, that once highly regarded American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who had translated some of his verses, could call Baudelaire without fear of contradiction “the most widely read poet in France today.” She might have added that he was not only a highly readable poet but also one highly esteemed by the cognoscenti. And his public was international.
The elevation of Baudelaire to the literary canon was in short a strictly posthumous affair. In December 1865, profoundly disheartened by the French public’s indifference or implacable hostility to his work and overwhelmed by debts, he had written from self-imposed exile in Belgium as an outcast aware of his loneliness: “I like nothing so much as being alone.” He had little choice. True, he enjoyed an extensive acquaintance among poets, musicians, and painters, talked literature with seasoned professionals and promising beginners, attended salons and soirées. Baudelaire was no hermit; as his acquaintances had good reason to know, he was loyal, generous, and open to the world. But in his lifetime that larger world never quite retained the compliment.”
In his own lifetime, Charles Baudelaire was impoverished, rejected by society and was driven into exile in Belgium. This is true of most creative founders. He was charged with disturbing public morals and was censored. It was the enormous cultural impact he had on European artists, poets and writers that followed him in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that makes him important.
Henri Murger was another French contemporary of Charles Baudelaire who lived in Paris and in 1851 published the book Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life). The book is about starving artists who live in the Latin Quarter in Paris. They live a bohemian lifestyle, which is to say, they live like gypsies from Bohemia. In doing so, they are answering a very important question. Liberalism has no answer to this question because it leaves it up to every individual to decide. In the 19th century, the bourgeois filled in this blank with their traditional religion and with nationalism.
What is the meaning of life? The Modernist answer is that you shouldn’t live your life devoted to your family or your race or your nation and especially to your faith or any type of collective structure that imposes duties and obligations upon you. Instead, you should live in the present and in the moment. You should capture and savor every experience of your life that makes it meaningful and rich. A meaningful life is a liberated one in the companionship of a small group of self chosen friends.
Théophile Gautier, another French poet and contemporary of Charles Baudelaire and Henri Murger, put it this way. The following except comes from American Salons: Encounters With European Modernism, 1885-1917:
“For a time, the great role model seemed to be E.T.A. Hoffmann, who as draftsman, caricaturist, and musician appeared in several stories, and whose career inspired writers like Gautier to the articulation of the basic themes of the genre; the artist as an unconventional genius, ambitious yet despairing, fighting the bourgeois; the lack of recognition when a person was actually creative; the hostility of established institutions; the success in unconventional love; and the irony of posthumous fame. By the 1870s, Gautier could insist that the aims of his petit cénacle were clear: “To develop freely every intellectual fancy, whether or not it shocks taste, conventions, and rules; to hate and repulse to the utmost what Horace called the profanum vulgus, and what moustachioed, long-haired rapins mean by ‘shopkeepers,’ ‘philistines,’ or ‘bourgeois’; to celebrate the pleasures of love with a passion capable of scorching the paper on which we record them, insisting upon love as the sole end and sole means of happiness; and to sanctify and deify Art, regarded as second Creator.” These were the underlying ideas of the program which each artist, according to his strength, tried to practice – “the ideal and secret ordinances of Romantic youth.
Other figures, especially Alfred de Vigny and Alfred de Musset, filled in the general picture. As a young bohemian student, Whistler had a mistress named Héloïse who used to walked around with a volume of Musset’s poems; as “Fumette” she appeared in The French Set, and her temperament earned her the nickname of “la Tigresse” among Whistler’s friends. But more to the point, Whistler was familiar with the work of the writer Henri Murger, and knew the author casually. Whistler’s biographers disagree as to whether he read Murger in Washington before coming to Paris, or discovered the work only after his arrival, but the dispute hardly matters. The point is that the Murger picture of artistic life, Scènes de la vie de bohème, did more to define the type than any other. The book made no great aesthetic point, but it pinpointed the south side of the Seine in the area around the Sorbonne as a “bohemia” in which a new class had developed. Students and artists there had no money, wore poor clothes, lived in shabby quarters, drank when they could, had sexual partners who came and went, delighted in swift repartee and bad puns. Life around the Café Momus was disorderly, but one of such disorder came new ideas and new works of art.”
Charles Baudelaire was a self conscious decadent who believed in Original Sin and his poetry was largely a reflection on his own damnation. He flaunted bourgeois norms, but it was the people who came after him like Gautier and a host of others who took the new sensibility in an anti-bourgeois direction. It wasn’t enough to reject the culture of the stolid bourgeois. It had to be attacked and torn down.
The great rebellion of the artists, poets, philosophers, musicians and men of letters – the vanguard, the avant-garde – against the bourgeois and the masses created a new Western culture in the late 19th century which became our “mainstream” culture in the 20th century.
From Peter Gay’s book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy:
“These searches for approving and stimulating company were eased by shared hatreds as much as by mutual affection: few modernist groups were more stable than those formed around a single enemy – the Academy, the censors, the critics, the bourgeoisie. In the history of modernism, such alliances of convenience and fondness were potent agents for advancing the good cause. In the protracted debates that late in the nineteenth century raged in the better periodicals over the merits of tradition-minded artists compared to those of the innovators, avant-gardes were the self-appointed spokesmen for the new.
There is something singularly apt about the name “avant-garde,” which troublemakers among artists, writers, and philosophers began to give themselves, or had bestowed on them, well before mid-nineteenth century. In a time of dramatic change, artistic avant-gardes prided themselves in pointing their culture in the right direction. Indeed, this metaphor, evoking brigades of subversive painters or poets in martial action, was so appropriate because it was, of course, borrowed from military usage. It called to mind the spirited vanguard of an army on the way to battle, sounding the trumpet and flourishing the flag. Cultural avant-gardes were nothing if not bellicose, stoutly proclaiming the merits of their cause, the perils of their exposed position, and the fatal shortcomings of the smug establishment that dared to oppose – and vastly outsell – them. In a time of successive enlargement of the prosperous middle classes, when the very nature of patronage significantly became more and more the business of the bourgeoisie, artists could spread their cultural and political wings more widely than ever.”
The revolt against the bourgeois philistines begins in Paris in France among artists and poets in the mid-19th to late-19th century. It wouldn’t arrive for decades in deeply Protestant, deeply bourgeois America in New York City and Chicago until the years between 1900 and 1920.