The Crowd is his Element

In Baudelaire’s celebration of “the crowd” in his “The Painter of Modern Life” we see all of the electrified urban energy of Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” and none of the madness. Poe’s flaneur is enchanted, in all the senses of the word, by the crowd and an apparition, which may or may not be his reflection in the window, that disappears into the crowd. The flaneur becomes obsessed, chasing this figure through the night, thinking he spots him only to lose him again in the crowd. Poe ends the story with the flaneur being unable to stop his pursuit. He is ruled by the crowd, driven on by the hope of what he may find there. But the crowd is only the crowd; it is a mass of humanity in constant movement. For Poe, to try to find a particularity, to try to separate self and other from the crowd, is to engage is a futile endeavor.

For Baudelaire, the crowd lacks this sinister element. It is the source of life and energy; the location/event where the artist can find “the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements” and then cast about to find his subject. The crowd is timeless and eternal (in the city the crowd never disappears; it may thin to a trickle or the throngs of people may disappear, but its trace is ever-present) but the elements are ever-changing to reflect the present. The crowd represents all the elements of the present, all the material manifestations and articulations of the present’s attempt to achieve the ideal. It is important to note that the crowd can only be found in cities, in constructed locations where nature has been subjugated or effaced. The crowd represents humanity, that which resides and gives life to the city, and the city is a macrocosmic attempt to transcend the base elements of nature.

The crowd is also modern, “modernity” constituting one half of Art and Beauty. Baudelaire’s Art and Beauty are comprised of the eternal and the transitory, and the transitory represents each society’s embodiment of the ideal during its age. Without transitory artifacts, whether they be fashion or sea ships, we cannot access the eternal ideal; it would be beyond “our powers of digestion or appreciation.” It is through the temporarily beautiful and the relatively beautiful that we can glimpse and comprehend the eternal. All that is temporary and relative (and, I would argue, artifactual) is modern. The ephemeral crowd, the crowd that displays and hides and changes and is representative of everything at that time, is not only thoroughly modern, it also contains all that is modern.

It can be imagined that when Baudelaire says, “The aim for [C.G.] is to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory,” he is in direct conversation with both Elizabeth Barrett Browing and Matthew Arnold. Browning would, I believe, agree with Baudelaire. There is something innately feminist in Baudelaire’s dismissing the priority of history as that which came before. When Baudelaire says history, he means era, and his historical envelope isn’t the one and only classic envelope of the Greeks and Romans; rather his historical envelope is one of many, each representing its age, each attempting to achieve the artistic or aesthetic ideal, and no one envelope doing a better job than any of the others (I just mixed my metaphors there, but you get the idea). All of the envelopes contain the same eternal poetry; its just the the appearance of the envelope has changed. The Greek envelope dressed up in its iconic tragedies and comedies contains the same eternal poetry as a modern envelope dressed up in an Oscar Wilde play. This is not to dismiss the significance of the envelopes, as each envelope is necessary for its time. Modern people can only access eternal poetry by opening up the modern envelope; they can only access eternal poetry through their own temporality and materiality.

Browning would agree not with the idea that people can only access the eternal through the artifacts of their own era, but she would agree that the manners and artifacts and hierarchies of beliefs of an era (or of a gender in that era, or of a class in that era) are just as significant and laden as those that came before. While there may be a singular eternal ideal, there is not a singular way to capture it and understand it. The eternal can be felt and understood and communicated, Browing asserts, as much in the parlour as in the university. The difference between Browning and Baudelaire is that Browning still couches her discussion in the elemental; i.e. the internal generative nature of women, which artifacts and attitudes represent. Baudelaire is talking about artificiality, which is represented by artifacts and attitudes and which transcends nature.

Arnold would think this all poppycock. What is temporal and relative and modern is trivial. It is separate from the eternal, from the “excellent actions” of man. There is only one envelope that contains eternal poetry and that is eternal poetry, which has already been written and which we can only hope to imitate.


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