The Painter of Modern Life ; Baudelaire
Disclaimer: My logic may be hard to follow towards the end… Not sure if it makes any sense but I would love a response if you can follow it, and to know if perhaps I’m just misreading Baudelaire at some point…
In the Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire theorizes about the idea of modern, “particular” beauty—stressing that beauty that emanates a certain aesthetic feel of an era is what he is interested in—which consequently explains his interest in the flâneur and fashion (because both rely on the “essential quality of being present”). (1) He explains that beauty is always in flux, and is made up of dual components—“an eternal, invariable element… and a relative, circumstantial element,” and without that temporal quality, beauty would be solely composed of the eternal, infinite element, and would be incomprehendable. (3) “The duality of art is a fatal consequence of the duality of man—” because we are made up of components analogous to what constitutes beauty, we can create beauty (by attempting to capture and translate that eternal quality into something particular, temporal, finite) and comprehend it. (ibid)
Essentially, Baudelaire’s definition of beauty is something that is composed of a fleeting, transformative element, and an infinite, unchanging element—the soul of beauty is that eternal quality, and the body is that transformative element. “Beauty is nothing else but a promise of happiness,” Baudelaire contends—admitting that such a definition perhaps is a bit simplified, but still is more accurate than most previous ideas of beauty. (ibid) Baudelaire returns to this definition and provides support for it, when he expounds on art, the flâneur, nature, and reason.
Because Baudelaire is interested in beauty that so obviously has a temporal component, he is fascinated by the flâneur— even more so than he is fascinated by the artist (despite how aesthetically inclined he is). He sees the flâneur as someone greater than the artist—as “a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and lawful reasons for all its uses… an observer, philosopher… the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains—“ a curious soul. (4) He goes on to explain different aims of the flâneur, including the aim of observing modernity—and to set out on the task of distilling from the modern that which is mysteriously beautiful—of identifying that “transitory fugitive element” in order to “understand the special nature of present- day beauty.” (13)
Again, Baudelaire is interested in temporality, modernity—so he goes on to explicate that artifice is another factor contributing to beauty, because artifice is a product of modernity and temporality, and it helps to reveal the present. He defends fashion and artifice in the name of modernity, beauty, and aesthetic. In the seventh section, titled In Praise of Cosmetics, he explains how artifice is also evidence of human’s morality, reason, and spirit. “Everything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation,” claims Baudelaire—while explaining that Nature is nothing but the voice of our own self interest and may compel men to things such as murder, cannibalism, and other evils—therefore philosophy and reason virtuously contribute to beauty by controlling Nature, and this virtue manifests itself physically in fashion. (32) Of course, his definitions of “Nature” and “Reason” are a bit ambiguous here, and this is partially where I began to diverge from some of Baudelaire’s claims.
I concur that “Nature” or instinct unchecked can lead to horribly distasteful violence and crime, and that a balance between instinct and logic is necessary—that often, “Nature” can be “a bad counsellor in moral matters, [with] Reason as a true redeemer and reformer”—and I see his logic behind his viewing fashion, make up, and more as a “sign of the primitive nobility of the human soul.” (ibid) Also, I completely understand how adornment allows a human to be “lifted above Nature” and results in the beauty that he so adores—a beauty composed of artifice (which infers “Reason” as well as temporality, modernity and a taste for the ideal) and something more eternal behind such artifice– and allows one to transform into something beautifully supernatural, or a piece of art. As Baudelaire claimed earlier—“beauty is nothing else but a promise of happiness.” He continues to support this definition with these theories about make up and women. Adorning oneself with make up is almost a “duty,” he believes—again, because it elevates her above nature, as well as transforms her into a sort of “light, a glance, an invitation to happiness,” and challenges the “evil” aspect of “Nature.” (31)
He goes on to claim that “it matters but little that the artifice and trickery are known to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible.” (33) Essentially, he believes artifice is justified because it creates beauty and irresistibility (stemmed from the always mysterious quality of the temporal). But here, it seems contradictory that Baudelaire wouldn’t care that such beauty is only an illusion. Perhaps the perception of beauty is subjective (which he previously purports, when he explains that the perception of beauty lies in this temporal, flux, impossible to pin down quality—and theorizes that beauty is dual, subjective phenomena rather than a traditional, objective phenomena)—but if beauty is completely demystified, then how is it able to maintain its enthralling quality which partially constitutes its “being”? Why does it matter little if the trickery that constitutes something beautiful is known to all? Wouldn’t it then (partially) dissolve (Baudelaire speaks so much about the importance of beauty’s mysterious quality)?
Or, another way to think about it—does the appearance of beauty matter more to Baudelaire more than the actual existence of some sort of beauty? And of course, this launches us into the horrible canyons of trying to discern what actually being beautiful means, but—it seems that up to this point, Baudelaire’s preoccupation is with more thorough, deeper definitions beauty, yet with this section, he jumps into a seemingly more shallow definition (from what I can discern).
I understand the logic behind why Baudelaire believes makeup and artifice make a woman more beautiful—but shouldn’t he also be interested in the other factor that contributes to such beauty? The factor that accompanies the makeup—that “spark of sacred flame” he claims exists in beautiful women, that other beauty that artifice serves (because he admits there is beauty without such artifice, when he says that “artifice cannot lend charm to ugliness and can only serve beauty”)? (34) Isn’t he focusing on the wrong element of what constitutes a woman’s beauty when he begins to analyze artifice (not to say that such an analysis lacks depth– it just seems off point)? If he’s so interested in what constitutes beauty, why does he support make up which—sure, may serve to make a woman exponentially more beautiful, but also serves to mystify and mask that lesser beauty which he has yet to pin down? Basically, why isn’t Baudelaire concerned with the fallacy of artifice? Is the fact that the show of artifice challenges the vices of “Nature” enough to justify its fraudulence in all cases where it lends a hand to the creation of beauty? Doesn’t auch artifice serve other (harmful) functions beyond portraying human virtue and manifesting ideals to oppose “evil?”