Walter Benjamin famously declared Paris the “capital of the 19th century,” an appellation that Roberto Calasso happily repossesses in this exploration of Charles Baudelaire’s incendiary aesthetics. Paris in the era of Louis Philippe, the Second Republic, and then the Second Empire appeared to observers at the time to be the locus of the new. When he arrived in the city in the 1830s, the German journalist Ludwig Börne called Paris the “telegraph of the past, the microscope of the present, and the telescope of the future.” The German places Börne had left behind had only Geschichten (“stories”), but Paris incorporated history and thus direction and knowability. Political and legal reforms, technological innovations, the establishment of a bourgeois sensibility, and the sight of Paris alternately wrecked and rebuilt gave the city an unmistakably modern stamp.
Paris was also the home of the new because it held up so many different ways to encounter and describe the world. Börne’s telegraphs, microscopes, and telescopes suggest quantitative refinements, but Calasso examines novel ways of responding to contemporary life through feeling, immediacy, and surprise at the expense of tradition, hierarchy, or system. Baudelaire, Calasso writes, superimposed a “new nervous system” featuring “frequent, minimal shocks and spasms” with the result that “a lethargic and barren sensorium is forced to reawaken.”
Calasso regards Baudelaire’s writings on mid-19th-century painters as the most effective way to understand him. He expands on these unsurpassed essays in long, digressive excursions of his own, allowing readers to follow the poet as he strolled through the salons of Paris, pointing out the shock of Ingres’s colors, the fleeting immediacy of Constantin Guys’s lines, the ugly point-blank detail in Degas’s ballerinas. Baudelaire enlisted the painters as fellow navigators of modern life who shared his horror over “philosophical apostasies,” who also felt hemmed in by the altars and temples of fine art and sought out the dust and perfume of everyday life. Baudelaire’s peers, Calasso writes, believed the responsibility of art was to “make everything breathe, down to even the most desolate and unrelated detail.” This meant the abandonment of hierarchies and systems.
Calasso illustrates the point nicely by quoting Baudelaire on Guys: a “riot of details, all of which demand justice with the fury of a crowd infatuated with absolute equality. Inevitably, all justice will be violated; all harmonies destroyed, sacrificed; the slightest trifle, a usurper.” In Balzac, every character, even the concierge, “is ready to explode,” remarks Calasso. Baudelaire sought to “study the crime in his own heart,” which led critics such as Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve to fault him for giving up on the search for “good souls.” But this was precisely what Baudelaire considered life-threatening: for him, adequate pictures of the world needed to be “unscathed by sentimentality.” Baudelaire is an audacious fellow, and Calasso appreciates him for being so. He introduces the poet’s “strangely new beauty” (to quote Mallarmé on Degas) in often arresting images. But he is so interested in finding Baudelaire a place in Calasso’s own temple of art that he ends up rebuilding the very hierarchies that Baudelaire rejected. Skidding across the archive of Baudelaire’s reviews, his women, and his humiliations, Calasso identifies Baudelaire as the only artist who had “access to a region of the purest pathos.” Indeed, Calasso organizes his book as if he himself were Baudelaire, picking up this and that on a nocturnal stroll to demonstrate the spectacular folie Baudelaire. He shies away from straightforwardly examining Baudelaire’s ideas about representing modern life: his mistrust of nature, that penchant for surface, and his evocation of a new time that cheated both tradition and reform. The notions themselves are questionable. In Calasso’s hands, la folie Baudelaire remains a declaration, not an investigation.
Paris is clearly important as the fertile soil for Baudelaire’s collection Les Fleurs du mal, but Calasso does not say very much about the extent to which the volatile physical layout of the city stamped Baudelaire or the extent to which Baudelaire exposed the city. Modernity was a jumble of sensations to be experienced, not something to be achieved, and Baudelaire struggled to craft a description of the world in which the shocks of everyday life could vibrate. In his essay “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin was much better at suggesting how the movement of city crowds coaxed and swayed Baudelaire’s verses. As Calasso notes, “Baudelaire’s customary tone … was that of a hounded man.” He was a “writer of nerves,” in the words Baudelaire used to introduce Edgar Allan Poe to French readers, not because he was a genius or a madman but because he was willing to shift perspective to catch a glimpse of what was obsolete, obscene, and out of place, and to face the falseness of sentiment.