Summary of Part III: Modernity
In this section, there is a strong feeling of Benjamin’s mode of composition of the essay from his clippings gathered in the Arcades Project. You can see him gathering his clippings and quotations into groups, first under the higher headings (Bohemian, Flaneur, Modernity), then here, under "Modernity," into further subheadings (writing as work/fencing, the ragpicker, the apache, antiquity as modernity, etc.) which he strings along in turn. Since he rarely gives an overall summary of how these are related to each other, the reader is left to infer this for themself.
The first point has to do with Baudelaire’s writing and representation of the city as a kind of dangerous, even perilous labor. Baudelaire saw writing poetry as work, and Benjamin compares it to the labor of Guys in painting (as described by Baudelaire in the Painter of Modern Life). Though Baudelaire wrote favorably of the flaneur, he himself was not one. The [modern hero or representer of the city] is distinguished from several types of "observer:" first the flaneur, also the "amateur detective" and the badaud, or rubbernecker (98-9); observation is a "priggish habit," per Chesterton. In contrast, Baudelaire and Dickens are absent-minded dreamers who wander the city: "Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind; he stamped his mind on these places."" (99, quoted from GK Chesterton)
Benjamin uses the language of "shocks" and "parries," and fencing, though not referencing urban environment but events of Baudelaire's life, and his writing in response:
The shocks that his worries caused him and the myriad ideas with which he parried them were reproduced by Baudelaire the poet in the feints of his prosody. Recognizing the labor that he devoted to his poems under the image of fencing means learning to comprehend them as a continual series of tiny improvisations. (99)
For Baudelaire the street became a place of refuge from creditors, this he made a "virtue of necessity":
But in flanerie, there was from the outset an awareness of the fragility of this existence. It makes a virtue out of necessity, and in this it displays the structure which is in every way characteristic of Baudelaire's conception of the hero. (100)
Baudelaire was "overtaxed," and lacked control over his own means of production, or an apartment, good clothes, etc. Through an emphasis on Baudelaire’s hard work and penury, Benjamin establishes links between Baudelaire as poet and the lumpen, "dangerous classes" etc. – though he will later pull Baudelaire back from this linkage, in a sort of dialectical move. In any event Baudelaire portrayed proletarians in their everyday lives as being as brave as gladiators.
Benjamin discusses the idea of suicide as a noble gesture, practiced by the proletariat as a form of resistance to the brutality of modernity; according to Benjamin, this is different than how suicide was seen in ancient times, in which the suicides were somehow noble or exceptions of some kind. Suicide is a distinctly modern thing; [though this complicates the opposition Benjamin has already made between Baudelaire and Balzac etc. as [realist-era] moderns in an opposition against the preceding "romantics," of whom who could be more a clear example than Goethe's Young Werther?]
Benjamin gives a nuanced discussion of how somber blacks and greys came to dominate men’s clothing during the 19th Century. This is on the one hand part of the beautiful aspects of the specifically modern which Baudelaire wants the painter of modern life to illustrate: yet there is also a mocking aspect to his description of a nation of everyone dressed as undertakers, as if “We are all attendants at some kind of funeral” (106). Benjamin describes the later critique of men's fashion by Friedrich Theodor Vischer and its similarity to Baudelaire’s in emphasizing the ridiculousness of modern somber fashion as also at the same time somehow democratic, or at least moreso than the earlier eras when the wealthy emphasized their difference through the richness of their clothing [procession to circulation here]. [Nevertheless there is a contradiction here which Benjamin does not seem to fully emphasize, not to mention that while he situates the origin in the contest between democratic and monarchist regimes in 19th century France, there is an earlier history coming from the Protestant Reformation. I am thinking of Rembrandt's group portraits of Dutch bourgeois men, all nearly identical in their somber democratic Protestant black, which they nevertheless distinguish by the finery of their textiles, showing that they are in fact wealthy and not commoners. Or in the 19th and 20th Century American cities, in which most men dressed practically identically in suit, tie, and hat, but the wealthy are wearing tailored suits from prestigious makers, and the poor are wearing mass-produced suits off the rack. Or in 21st Century Silicon Valley, etc. culture, which adopts the democratic hoodie and jeans, but then these are super-expensive designer hoodies and jeans, and so on.]
Benjamin turns to how Baudelaire and writers like him celebrated the “apache” (an urban ne'er-do-well) or the chiffonier or ragpicker as hero; [the key question is, how is this personage presented differently as "hero," than in the panoramic/flaneuristic literature? The difference appears to be that there is a parallel between the ragpicker and the poet who is describing them, in terms of their activity: Baudelaire sees himself in the ragpicker, or vice versa? There is apparently at least a respect for these urban characters as “heroes,” as opposed to the flaneuristic representation of them as images for bourgeois consumption, but frankly Benjamin may assert this but does not go far to demonstrate it.]
The poet and the ragpicker are linked in an “extended metaphor.” Even their gait or way of movement through the city is equated:
This is the gait of the poet who roams the city in search of rhyme-booty; it is also the gait of the ragpicker, who is obliged to come to a halt every few moments to gather up the refuse he encounters. (108-9)
According to the translators, Benjamin here borrows a term from Brecht, "Gestus," to describe this gait or characteristic [in the original German, but translated out as “gait?” It is unclear]. (252n221).
Baudelaire felt some need for modernity to become antiquity, meaning apparently to achieve greatness in art etc., sufficient to be admired by later epochs. This is linked to his valuation of modern life as subject matter for art, and the idea that antiquity should “serve as a model only where construction is concerned; the substance and the inspiration of a work are the concern of modernity." (110) In the Guys essay, Baudelaire defines modernity as "the transitory, fleeting beauty of our present life." [Benjamin’s interest in drawing out and emphasizing Baudelaire’s juxtaposition and mixing of modernity and antiquity is perhaps an example of his practice of the dialectical image, a way of destabilizing the categories of modern and ancient, more particularly the modern?]
Baudelaire's theory of beauty, from the Painter of Modern life, regards the interaction of two elements: one is "constant, immutable," and the other is "relative, limited," derived from the current milieu (i.e., the modern) (110, quoted from Baud). Benjamin adds, hysterically: "One cannot say that this is a profound analysis" (111). Benjamin criticizes Baudelaire's theory of art as not living up to his own work, and being inadequate for the time: the poem "Le Cygne" is presented as an example, with the city as brittle and changing, with the famous line about the city changing faster than a mortal's heart. Benjamin quotes Peguy about Hugo, to show what Baudelaire wanted: Hugo could see in the beggar on the street, the ancient beggar; in the modern fireplace the ancient hearth, etc.
Benjamin discusses the Victorian fascination with visions of Paris, London, etc. as future ruins, and also the city as doomed [Baudrillard's much later concept of “exposure” a la the WTC fits here] and as involving some impeding urge to suicide, which is the "passion moderne" (114). Maxime Du Camp has a vision of Paris as future ruins, and is moved to write a description of the city as the ancient authors had failed to write of their now ruined cities, in the past. Benjamin links this to the concurrent destruction and rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann. [Thus it is the changing nature of the modern city which compels the writers to try and capture it for the future; there is a need for a sense of fragility and vanishing, in order for this momentary capture to be understood as desirable or necessary/urgent]. This is in fact what Benjamin means by an "image":
"Les poetes sont plus inspires par les images que par la presence meme des objets;" said Joubert. The same is true of artists. When one knows that something will soon be removed from one's gaze, that thing becomes an image. Presumably this is what happened to the streets of Paris at that time. (115)
However, Baudelaire himself is not impressed with the future ruins image so much but the idea of [a living?] antiquity springing directly out of modernity, and thus he prefers the detailed engravings of Charles Meryon that gave a sense both of detailed lifelikeness of the modern, and the timelessness of antiquity. Benjamin makes a reference to "allegory" as the form or means of "interpenetration of antiquity and modernity":
For in Meryon, too, there is an interpenetration of classical antiquity and modernity, and in him, too, the form of this superimposition – allegory – appears unmistakably. (116)
Modernity's constant renewal and consuming of itself means that the modernity of Baudelaire's time is indeed already antique:
To be sure, Paris is still standing and the great tendencies of social development are still the same. But the more constant they have remained, the more everything that stood under the sign of the "truly new" has been rendered obsolete by the experience of them. Modernity has changed most of all, and the antiquity it was supposed to contain really presents a picture of the obsolete. (118-9)
The next pile of clippings Benjamin assembles are on the subject of lesbians as modern heroes (119). He links this to Saint-Simonianism which celebrated the image of the androgyne or hermaphrodite, and discusses Claire Démar's early Saint-Simonian feminism, and her plan to abolish motherhood through a [Spartan] style system (119-20). Benjamin situates this historically, talking about the "masculinization" of the "feminine habitus" through factory work, and in "higher forms of production." Baudelaire had a fascination with this, his stance was ultimately contradictory, as revealed through his poems. Benjamin quotes Lemaitre on Baudelaire’s contradictory attitude toward women and to modernity; yet, according to Benjamin, this contradiction was what Baudelaire was aiming for:
To present this attitude as a great achievement of the will accorded with Baudelaire's spirit. But the other side of the coin is a lack of conviction, insight, and steadiness. In all his endeavors, Baudelaire was subject to abrupt, shock-like changes; his vision of another way of living life to extremes was thus all the more alluring.
[The overall fascination Benjamin has with Baudelaire and his time seems to be with its incompleteness or unachieved possibility. Baudelaire achieves partial insights but then draws back from them or rejects them. This was prefaced earlier in the essay in the context of Baudelaire’s class position and his linkage with the bourgeois “professional conspirators,” who, not truly linked with or representing the truly revolutionary class, were doomed to fail. This link will return at the end of this section when Baudelaire is compared again to Blanqui, whom Benjamin treats as the exemplar of this conspiratorial type, both admirable and pathetic at once.]
The subject of poetic rhythm comes up in a discussion of Baudelaire’s poem, “L'Invitation au voyage:”
This famous stanza has a rocking rhythm; its movement seizes the ships which lie moored in the canals. To be rocked between extremes: this is the privilege of ships, and this is what Baudelaire longed for. (124)
[In this reference to rhythm Benjamin contradicts Bakhtin's claim, according to which rhythm is a form of stylization which removes the poem from reality, and monologizes it under the voice of the poet. Here, in contrast, rhythm is affective, an impress of the actual view or experience of the rocking boat, into the poem, and into the experience of the reader or listener [i.e., something analogue is carried through]. This in turn perhaps demonstrates Baudelaire's susceptability, his openness to shocks, etc., and even a place for the non-human in the “polyphonic” and “heteroglossic.”]
The image of the boats is significant to Benjamin’s argument, because they embody a contradiction, in that that they are tied up, yet beckoning to sail away; this is like the modern hero:
The hero is as strong, as ingenious, as harmonious, and as well-built as those boats. But the high seas beckon to him in vain, for his life is under the sway of an ill star. Modernity turns out to be his doom. There are no provisions for him in it; it has no use for his type. It moors him fast in the secure harbor forever and abandons him to everlasting idleness. Here, in his last incarnation, the hero appears as a dandy.
[With this description of the hero as dandy, we are of course reminded that we are in the Second Empire, in which there is considered no hope, no room for innovation or advancement, etc. [one of the “No Future” generations, at least in Benjamin’s telling]. This somewhat constrains the overall applicability of the "modern hero" as described here, to other stages or periods of the modern, does it not?]
Benjamin describes the modern hero with a quote from Baudelaire: "a Hercules with no labors to accomplish" (124). Benjamin links dandyism to bourgeois merchants, who desire to avoid or not show the shocks of trade, and changing fortunes [it is a pretense or artifice that covers one up]; Baudelaire himself was not a successful dandy because he was too strange, when it requires a balancing act. [The discussion here of the dandy is very short, and little of the complex class issues are gone into]. The point seems rather to raise and then dismiss the equivalence of the writer-as-modern-hero with the dandy (whom Baudelaire had described as the last of the heroes) because the "modern hero" is in fact not a "hero":
Because he did not have any convictions, he assumed, ever new forms himself. Flaneur, apache, dandy, and ragpicker were so many roles to him. For the modern hero is no hero; he is a portrayer of heroes. (125)
So now we see the list of (proletarian and bourgeois) heroes, oppositional to modernity (apache, ragpicker, flaneur and dandy) are pulled back away from the modern hero, who either fails to become one or never could have been one of them. The “extended metaphor” ends here.
Turning to the subject of poetic language, Benjamin asserts that Baudelaire, like some other writers in his time, fought against the "segregation" of words into those worthy of lyric or tragic poetry ("elevated speech") and those words which were not, being too urban, modern, intimate, or crude. Baudelaire also pursues this line in his use of words and images for allegories and metaphors, which is part of what makes his writing surprising and effective. Benjamin ends this section by comparing the effect of Baudelaire’s writing to a protest march by Blanqui and his forces in 1870 during the funeral procession of Victor Noir (about a year and a half before the Commune): "Baudelaire's poetry has preserved in words the strength that made such a thing possible." (129)
With this comparison of these two figures that Benjamin had begun the essay by contrasting, the image of the modern hero becomes that of someone produced by, trapped in, and fighting against their own time:
But the differences between [Baudelaire and Blanqui] are superficial compared to their profound similarities: their obstinacy and their impatience, the power of their indignation and their hatred, as well as the impotence which was their common lot. (129)
[It seems there may also be something in this regarding Baudelaire and Blanqui being limited to their own class perspective and position, despite their empathy for the proletariat.]