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Contemporary and opposite essays : The Painter of Modern Life by Baudelaire and Walking by Thoreau

November 6, 2022 11 comments

The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire (1863) Original French title: Le peintre de la vie moderne.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau (1862) French title: De la marche. Translated by Thierry Gillyboeuf.

I’m still doing The Non-Fiction Reader Challenge and I had picked books from the TBR for it.

Among my choices were The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire and Walking by Henry David Thoreau. I had randomly decided to read them in September and October and actually did them within the same week.

Without this timing, I don’t think I would have noticed that these two essays were published at the same time (1862 and 1863) or how opposite they are. I enjoyed both as they each speak to a different part of me. I read Baudelaire, excited about my next visit to Paris and its museums and I started Walking on a picnic break while hiking in the Estérel mountains.

Thoreau and Baudelaire were contemporaries but, according to their bios, couldn’t be more different. A nature lover vs a city-dweller. An American for whom civilization meant England vs a Frenchman. A man who lived in a cabin in the woods vs a dandy.

The Painter of Modern Life is a collection of essays about Baudelaire’s vision of art and Beauty.

He sees Beauty in art and here, he writes specifically about painting. He was an art critic, went to painting Salons and was deeply involved in the contemporary art world.

Baudelaire rejects the official art, what we call in French l’art pompier. Baudelaire argues that contemporary paintings shouldn’t picture Ancient Rome or Greece sceneries like Ingres but real life. He’s anti-Ingres and his Illness of Antiochus. Classic story, Ancient temple and clothes, you see the drift.

He says that what we consider classics now was contemporary art in their time, with their architecture and fashion. These works of arts stayed with us through the centuries because their contemporary side was only half of the artwork. The other half was that universal quality that makes us relate to them now. We see their fashion as historical information and their universal side speaks to us. Their beauty lies in a perfect combination of the two:

La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable.Modernity is made of transitory, of fleetingness and contingency; it’s half of art whose other half is eternity and permanence.

The actual painter of modern life of the title is Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire loved because his art captured the present. He painted what he saw, Paris and its life but also the Crimea War battlefields. Baudelaire uses Guys’ art to write an ode to modernity which consists in urban life, fashion, frivolity, artifice and make up.

Talk about someone totally opposite to a Thoreau who went to live in a cabin in the woods. Can you imagine Baudelaire in Walden? Not really, eh?

In Walking, Thoreau explains how walking is essential to his well-being. If I understood him properly, he tries to keep alive a link between us as part of the natural world and Nature.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.

Cheeky me immediately thought he wasn’t living in the Louisiana bayou rife with alligators or in the Great Dismal Swamp and its moccasin snakes.

He thinks we forget to turn to Nature as a source of beauty.

While almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to Nature. In their reaction to Nature men appear to me for the most part, notwithstanding their arts, lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation, as in the case of the animals. How little appreciation of the beauty of the land- scape there is among us!

He wants us to retain our freedom of being, our untamed side and not to yield immediately to human laws. Walking is a way to ground oneself, to think freely, a moment to just be, leave other worldly occupations at rest. Being in communion with Nature is a way to reach a certain state of mind that opens people to their surroundings, to learning new things and simply be curious.

Thoreau sees the source of beauty in Nature while Baudelaire sees it in city life.

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire explains that we should find beauty in our quotidian and to me, he opens the door to the Impressionist movement. He implies that it is noble to paint ballerinas and guinguettes.

And they will paint cities, their streets, their theatres, their parks and their people. I see paintings by Caillebotte as witnesses of life in the 19th century but I also see the permanence of human condition and that’s a bond between the people on the paintings and me. They reached Baudelaire’s goal to paint their modern life and create universal beauty.

But the Impressionists will also paint a lot outside. They’ll picture gardens in the country, people walking in fields, the light on the sea, the boating and all kind of outdoors activities.

Thoreau died in 1862. He might have enjoyed Monet’s research on light in Impression, soleil levant, in the Nymphéa series or on the Rouen Cathedral series as they capture beauty in the quotidian and in nature. There’s a quest here to paint the quiet beauty of a sunset on the Seine, on the Mediterranean or on the Channel.

I see in Thoreau’s walks a quiet time to refuel on one’s own, something he needed. It’s a way to collect one’s thoughts and be “in the moment”. And Baudelaire seems to praise all activities that will distract one from their thoughts. Thoreau enjoyed being with himself while Baudelaire’s to use modern life to run away from himself. I wonder where a conversation between the two would have taken them.

I think neither disposition is sustainable for the mainstream. Thoreau could afford to walk four hours a day to clear his head and think because he had no family obligations. He only had to earn his keep. Baudelaire could afford his whirlwind and dissolute Parisian life for the same reason.

But the rest of us, we have people who depend on us and jobs to keep. And we refuel as best we can and try to lift our heads from the daily grind and catch a sunset here and there. We steal moments to contemplate beauty in museums and during occasional hikes and live vicariously through Nature Writing books.

And now, with all the attempts at destroying beautiful paintings in the name of Nature, I’ll get Civil Disobedience and read from the source.

From Proust to Baudelaire

May 20, 2010 8 comments

 I’m re-reading Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. During the first evening Swann spends with Odette at the Verdurin’s, he hears the Vinteuil sonata for piano. This imaginary sonata has a phrase which particularly caught Swann’s attention and gave him a great pleasure. This phrase appears several times in the piece and lingers in his mind after he went home. To describe the longing Swann has for this phrase, Proust compares it to a passer by :

Il était comme un homme dans la vie de qui une passante qu’il a aperçue un moment vient de faire entrer l’image d’une beauté nouvelle qui donne à sa propre sensibilité une valeur plus grande, sans qu’il sache seulement s’il pourra revoir jamais celle qu’il aime déjà et dont il ignore jusqu’au nom”

which means, (my flawed translation, sorry) :

He was like a man in whose life a passer-by he once saw just made enter the image of a new beauty which gives to his own sensibility a greater value, without his even knowing if he will ever have the chance to meet her again, she, he already loves and whose name he ignores”

This sentence reminded me of Baudelaire’s beautiful poem A une passante

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son œil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

I looked for translations of the poem and I found four, none of them fully satisfying. Of course, it is almost impossible to translate and keep the music of the original poem, the 12-foot verses, the rhymes, the alliterations and the twists in the syntax. So I chose the one which I think the closest to the original :

The deafening street around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the hem and flounces of her skirt,

Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
As for me, I drank, twitching like a crazy man,
From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,

A lightning flash… then night! O fleeting beauty,
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?

Somewhere else, way too far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
For I do not know where you flee, you don’t know where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Both the passer-by and the phrase of the sonata are transient. They are among a stream of people or a flow of notes and yet, they are so singular as to catch the eye of the poet or Swann’s attention. Baudelaire’s poem expresses the flash of the moment, as a photograph would capture it, and in the same time, the words, the punctuation, the syntax of the sentences picture the movement of this woman on the street, haughty and swiftly walking. As for the phrase of the sonata, it seems to fly above the other notes, like a butterfly above a field of wild flowers, musing, leaving, coming back. They are a tiny part of a whole scenery and yet will be better remembered than the entire sonata or the street that day. Proust often writes about memory, how our mind builds, stores and gives back memories.

For more on Swann’s Way, see http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/marcel-proust-swanns-way/

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