2017年1月19日 星期四

The Eye of Baudelaire. Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

The Eye of Baudelaire

November 25, 2016 | by 
A new exhibition looks at the upheaval in the visual culture of Baudelaire’s Paris.

François Biard, Four Hours at the Salon, 1847.
In puritanical America, the intellectual tradition is in exile from the luxury of the senses: Americans hold steadfast to the idea that the right kind of knowledge comes from the Word of books. Harold Bloom’s omnipresent theory of the anxiety of influence would have you think that writers did nothing else but read the work of their forefathers in Oedipal distress, ignoring the sensual theater which makes a part of any lived life. In post-revolutionary Paris, where the optic regime underwent a series of explosive changes as the Romantics and post-Romantics pressed against all limits of language, to ignore the visual influence on literature is to misread it. Images flooded homes in books, keepsake albums, lithographs, small paintings, and photographs; they plastered the streets with, as Baudelaire described it, a “monstrous nausea of posters,” and crowded shop-windows and studios. They covered museums like doilies covered the bourgeois interior; they were in the dark rooms of stereoscopes, erotic printers, and panoramic theaters. It comes as no surprise that the theories of literature of the era made metaphoric use of mirrors (Stendhal), decals (Sand), and screens (Zola).
At the Museum of Romantic Life, in Paris, curators have set about trying to capture this flurry of imagery. “The Eye of Baudelaire,” commemorating the 150th anniversary of his death, recreates the visual culture in which he was immersed with a collection of paintings, photographs, sketches, and frontispieces. The museum, a stone’s throw from Pigalle, occupies the house where George Sand lived, wrote, and wore her men’s clothes. The rooms, painted in rich, warm colors of burgundy and deep red, replicate the look of an old salon; the architecture, virtually untouched, requires that you cross the courtyard and climb several spiral staircases to enter. 
Baudelaire spent his childhood visiting artists’ studios; his father, a priest by profession, sketched and painted in his spare time. “When I was young, I couldn’t feed my eyes with enough printed or engraved images,” Baudelaire wrote of this picture-drunken reverie. “I thought these worlds would have to end and their ruins strike me before I would ever turn into an iconoclast.” But iconoclast he would become. Though he hated the press for its thoughtless dogmatism (a Satanic “black beast,” he called it), he took up his first job as a journalist and art critic in the 1840s, and the experience of looking hard at paintings shaped his aesthetics just as much as the experience of translating Edgar Allen Poe. Ingres, whose realism he likened to the new false positivism, he didn’t like; nor did he like the “ever so pretty” portraits of bourgeois housewives by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin. He enjoyed Eugène Delacroix, whose fury of brushstrokes escaped the “tyranny of straight lines.” In his small exile of an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis, Baudelaire hung Femmes d’Algers dans leur appartement, an allegorical head representing Pain, and the series of Hamlet lithographs (with whom, if it wasn’t already obvious, Baudelaire self-identified)—all by Delacroix, who he deemed “the poet of painting.”

Frontispiece for Les fleurs du mal, by Félix Bracquemond. Baudelaire didn't like the image and chose to publish the book with his photograph instead.
The difference between Baudelaire and the generation before him was the loss of hope (“Hope, vanquished, weeps”) and the general sense that material improvements for some did not make for the good of all. The revolution of 1848 destroyed the belief in the bourgeois-middle class as progressive, along with the illusion of language as a realist reflection of the world. Baudelaire ridiculed Victor Hugo, godhead of French Romanticism, and his “belief in progress, the salvation of mankind by the use of balloons, etc.” But even as he founded the tradition that Wallace Stevens dubbed “the poetry of the poor and dead,” Baudelaire—something of a military milksop—remained “physiquement dépolitiqué,” as he put it. His only direct action during the turmoil was to fire one shot, at random. Later he tried to siphon off revolutionaries for the collaborative murder of his stepfather. (The plan was not successful.)
This was a time when new democratic ideals, social mobility, and a succession of ideologically conflicting regimes overthrew the visual status quo, upsetting the given meaning of physical cues and gestures. The way one interpreted this semiotic chaos—the way you looked at the world—took on profound political import. In this context, a gaze—or the gaze, I should say, as it was pretty much ubiquitously upper-class and male—came to constitute authority. Visual description—of the woman’s body, of the workman’s hands—was thought to be one and the same with moral and medical prescription. Sociologists claimed that prostitutes could be expected to behave themselves only if they were kept under vigilant watch. The destruction of the old Paris and its replacement with broad, straight boulevards was implemented not only under the pretense of improving hygiene and sanitation, but so that the maintenance of such could be properly surveyed by those that lived in the apartments above them.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1865.

Baudelaire's self portrait, 1860. "Here the mouth is better," he wrote in the margin.
Baudelaire revolted against this omniscient frame of vision—what he called “the modern lantern which throws its gloom against all objects of knowledge”—with shadow. The apertures of his poems are circumscribed, with obsessively recurring images giving the sense of a narrowing line of sight, as if the speaker were going blind or close to death. There’s light there, but it’s indirect, seeping through a fog or disappearing with the day’s end, another reverie turning out to be mirage. At the exhibit, I was struck by what I could not see, the half-lit figures and sharply detailed foregrounds fading into sky or chiaroscuro. Whenever I picked out Baudelaire’s favorite paintings in a given room, they seemed to be the ones that most forcefully kept their secrets.
Because the material world was used to classify and control, to turn subjects into objects, it was the unseen which came to constitute a radical subjectivity. “When I look at a good portrait,” Baudelaire wrote, “I guess (divine) at that which is self-evident, but I also guess at that which is hidden.” An empathy rooted in the imagination was the only means of relating to the human being interred beneath the fleshy materialism and false market values of the age. “How convenient it is to declare that everything is totally ugly within the habit [dress] of the époque, rather than applying oneself to extract from it the dark and cryptic beauty, however faint and invisible it is.” Neoclassical ideals and ideas about what did and did not merit artistic treatment still ruled strong; in this context Baudelaire insisted that every culture’s signs are relative, as are its aesthetic criteria. “What is a critic schooled in the traditions supposed to do in front of a modern product from China?” he would ask.
This kind of embodied vision had its basis in Descartes, who had rooted the process of perception in the retinae’s film rather than in the “pure” senses. Goethe, whom Baudelaire read fastidiously, discovered that when he was shut in a dark room, images stayed in his eyes even when he looked away from them. The turn from emission-based, corpuscular theories to wave-motion explanations of sight further embedded the mind in the body. Baudelaire incorporated these ideas into his work, but he didn’t lose himself in the relativist inferno—“the abyss, the unbridled course”—as the Romantics had, with their extreme subjectivity. He seems to locate truth in the relationship mediated by a reciprocal gaze, between subject and object; between the painting, its painter, and the viewer; between two people walking past each other on the street. Rather than the omniscient, Minerva-like sight implicit in much of Western art, Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols” looks at you “with familiar eyes.”
This quality would characterize two of the biggest art scandals of the era. Édouard Manet was one of Baudelaire’s closest friends, and though the poet made a point never to write about his art—Manet was presumably too close of a semblable-frère—he would complete the revolution in paint that Baudelaire had started with words. In Olympia and Déjeunersur l’herbe, it was not the nakedness of the woman deemed offensive; it was her reversal of the viewer’s gaze, reminding him that she “cannot be [visibly] understood from any point of view” as Théophile Gautier observed. Unknowable, she guards her subjectivity; only she can understand herself. Manet and Baudelaire were not feminists—I still cringe when I read the poems in which the speaker bites, scratches, or gets drunk off of a woman’s hair. But the essentially private, clouded nature of their subjects would be crucial for the idea that the flâneur-about-town maybe didn’t know all that much about what he was observing on the streets.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to look at other people in a “post-truth” world, as would be the state of things according to the recent election and confirmed by the OED’s late word of the year. Once, going uptown on the New York subway, a friend told me that he didn’t like the people-watching on public transit. The crowd was ugly; to stare was to become a voyeur, often motivated by Schadenfreude. I found this so sad, imagining a city in which everyone blindfolded themselves in public, stumbling through the streets guided by noises and banisters, removing their masks only when alone or in the presence of people they knew. This isn’t so far from the reality in our world of strangers-as-passersby, where a capitalist infrastructure prescribes most social exchanges. It’s hard to see, really see, someone else from behind the windshield of your car, in the rush from job to gym to supermarket, surrounded by people who are doing the same, all the while being comforted by the intimacies afforded by Facebook. Speaking about the Baudelairean moment, Walter Benjamin would define modernity in terms of the loss of the ability to look.

Etienne Carat, Baudelaire with etchings, 1863.
When Baudelaire was on his deathbed, speechless and in the late stages of syphilis, his mother, looking for answers in his overcoat, found two photographs of her son; apparently he’d been keeping these on his person. It’s surprising that he let himself be photographed at all; he likened the camera’s lens to “a dictatorship of opinion,” interrupting the active self-questioning required on the part of the viewing subject so as to prevent his thinking he had mastery over the perceived object. A politics of sight encrypted in the medium itself—physiquement depolitiqué. In the pictures, he seems to be trying to compensate for this perceived defect. He stares at the camera with inflamed black pupils, his eyes making him appear aggressively unhinged, as if trying to pierce through the lens itself. The escape from the mise en abime of flat images and surfaces—what Angela Merkel recently called “the dangers of digitization,” which she likened to the social disruptions of Baudelaire’s own Industrial Age—hinges on the embodied vision for which he once asked. A gaze that appears to be physically depoliticized is dangerous precisely because it is political. The way you look at the stranger who passes you on the street matters; it determines whether or not you let her look back.
L'oeil de Baudelaire” is on display through January 29 at the Le Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris.
Madison Mainwaring is a graduate student at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, where she studies the way women responded to French Romantic ballet in the early nineteenth century. She has contributed to The Atlantic, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and VICE Magazine, among others.

We Love Paris

In 1900, Émile Zola climbed to the second platform of the Eiffel Tower, camera equipment in tow, so he could photograph Paris from every angle — because only photographs could record the panoramic city he had reconstructed in his novels. In 1940, Adolf Hitler, believing he too stood at the center of something, rose from the seat of his car as it slowly circled the Place de la Concorde before dawn; later, from the top of the Parvis du Sacré-­Coeur, he gaped at the city he had fantasized about since boyhood, when he studied street maps and dreamed of reconstructing Paris in the heart of Berlin.
Heinrich Hoffmann, from “Parisians”
Adolf Hitler in Paris, 1940.


An Adventure History of Paris
By Graham Robb
Illustrated. 476 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $28.95
Unlikely bedfellows though they are, Zola and Hitler are denizens of Graham Robb’s “Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris,” a valentine to the City of Light. Robb is no stranger here. The acclaimed British author of biographies of Hugo, Balzac and Rimbaud, he first experienced the city as a boy, when his parents treated him to a week’s holiday as a birthday present. But, as Robb learned, Paris is too volatile and complicated, too historically dynamic, to be illuminated by any one person’s life. His solution: to write, as he explains it, “a history of Paris recounted by many different voices,” a series of character studies arranged to commemorate the shifting streets and sundry plot lines that give meaning to the city.
雨果傳/ Victor Hugo: A Biography ( Graham Robb)

Some of the figures in Robb’s Paris are familiar: Marie Antoinette, Baron Haussmann, Charles de Gaulle, even Nicolas Sarkozy. Some of Robb’s characters may be less well known — like Henry Murger, author of “La Vie de Bohème,” whom Robb satirizes as a proto-blogger dishing up “intimate slices of his life” and becoming, in effect, the “literary pimp” of his doomed mistress. Her unhappy life, the basis of his book, was his ticket out of the Latin Quarter and into a grand apartment on the Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette, a “new street with no history and a smooth asphalt surface,” as Robb pointedly notes, “built on wasteground at the point where the Right Bank rises up towards Montmartre.”
Though Americans may not have heard of the ingenious criminal Eugène-­François Vidocq, his portrait lies at the symbolic heart of Robb’s book. Employed by the police to track down other crooks, Vidocq spent 16 years as head of the Sûreté Brigade and then founded the Bureau of Universal Intelligence, a detective agency with a huge database of information on thousands of citizens. When the bureau closed in 1843, most of the documents vanished, as did the wily Vidocq. A master of surveillance and disguise, he turned up here and there, supposedly spying on Louis Napoleon even as he was advising him. After Vidocq died, his coffin was opened — to reveal not the master criminal but the body of an unknown woman.
To Robb, the disappearance of Vidocq’s body and of his extensive files, some of which landed in secondhand bookshops, represent the nature of Paris itself, whose very streets come and go. The city was built on sand and swamp and from plugged-up sinkholes. Only a man like Vidocq would know “how many obscure dramas were wiped from the history of Paris by demolition and urban renewal.”
No reliable map of Paris existed until the end of the 18th century. When Marie Antoinette fled the Tuileries in 1791, her carriage became lost as soon as it left the palace, turning right instead of left, crossing the Pont Royal to the dark lanes of the Left Bank. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Paris carrying a map marked with nonexistent streets. By 1853, as Napoleon III, he had employed Georges-Eugène Haussmann to lay waste entire neighborhoods and construct open vistas with broad, leafy boulevards. Napoleon III “buried acres of history,” Robb writes. “A boulevard named after a battle obliterated the mementos of a million lives, and at the end of his reign, the Archives Nationales went up in flames.”
Yet Robb is less interested in Napoleon III than in Charles Marville, official photographer of the Louvre, who was commissioned to photograph the quartiers Haussmann would soon demolish. “It might be seen as an archaeology in reverse,” Robb wryly notes. “First the ­ruins, then the city that covers them up.” However, in Marville’s photographs the streets are empty. Perhaps long exposures would have reduced any movement to a blur; maybe that’s why he chose to take his pictures in the early morning. In any case, the people of Paris have eerily evaporated, just as Marville would. He sold his business and was never heard of again. “Every living city is a necropolis,” Robb writes, “a settling mountain of populations migrating downwards into the soil.” We retrieve what we can.
A  century later, the president of the French Republic, Georges Pompidou imagined a Paris of tall towers (to him, the spires of Notre-Dame were too short) made of high-tensile steel, along with a modern museum that would look like an oil refinery. While the Pompidou Center was being built, the historian Louis Chevalier wrote his masterpiece, “The Assassination of Paris,” in a room at the Hôtel de Ville above the one in which Haussmann remapped the city. Yet Chevalier did more than denounce the wreckers and planners. He reconstructed his beloved city from memory. “Left to itself, History would forget,” he explained. “But fortunately, there are novels — loaded with emotions, swarming with faces, and constructed with the sand and lime of language.”
Although Robb often narrates various sections from the point of view of his characters, inhabiting them and fudging, to a certain extent, the line between traditional history and make-believe, his characters don’t sound alike, which can be a hazard when a historian affects the pose of a novelist. Robb claims he wrote with “a flavor of the time in mind,” and insists he didn’t insert anything artificial into his stories. That “Parisians” required as much research as his earlier, more conventionally structured book “The Discovery of France” is evident on every page. Yet if “Parisians” resembles Simon Schama’s “Dead Certainties,” which is also about the limits of historical knowledge, Robb, in employing the techniques of the novelist, animates his characters mainly for “the pleasure of thinking about Paris.” That pleasure is also the reader’s.
The Pompidou family inhabited a town house on the Île Saint-Louis next to the building Baudelaire lived in as a young man. It’s no accident that Robb mentions this, for the poet and the novelist (as well as the historian and the photographer, the con man and the archivist) are the true protagonists of his always changing, ­always vibrant Paris.
Robb even imagines a Proust “acquainted with the law of modern life according to which one’s immediate surroundings remain a mystery while distant places seen in guidebooks and paintings are as familiar as old friends whose material presence is no longer required to maintain the friendship.” And so the miracles of modern life also include a novel, “À La Recherche du Temps Perdu,” that can’t be read between stops on the Métro and that, like Robb’s delightful mapping of Paris, captures living persons in time past, time passing and even time to come.
Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of “White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.” Her anthology, “Nineteenth-Century American Writers on Writing,” will be published next fall.

Books of The Times

A Pointillist Tour, Revolution to Riots

From “Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris”
“Barricade on the Boulevard Saint-Germain near Rue Hautefeuille, May 1968,” a photograph by Alain Dejean.

If you’d like a status update on Britain’s tangled feelings about its neighbor France, you could do worse than study The Sunday Times of London’s current hardcover nonfiction best-seller list. At No. 9 is the book in front of us now: the British historian Graham Robb’s admiring “Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris.” More beloved by English readers, though, at No. 4, is a book by Stephen Clarke with this impish title: “1000 Years of Annoying the French.” Garçon, there’s some snark in my soup.


An Adventure History of Paris
By Graham Robb
Illustrated. 476 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $28.95.
Jerry Bauer
Graham Robb
The appearance of one of Mr. Robb’s books on an English best-seller list, or any best-seller list, says good things about the state of British-French relations. It says even better things about the state of literary culture. That’s because Mr. Robb, over the course of a half-dozen books, including excellent biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, and a volume called “The Discovery of France,” has proved himself to be one of the more unusual and appealing historians currently striding the planet. In a better world his books would be best sellers everywhere.
To observe that Mr. Robb’s books are unusual is to say several things at once. Most obviously, they sometimes apply hardy, free-range kinds of research. “The Discovery of France” was given a jolt of life by his back-road explorations on a bicycle. (“This book,” he wrote, “is the result of 14,000 miles in the saddle and four years in the library.”) They also take unusual forms. In Mr. Robb’s new book one chapter is written like a screenplay, while another employs witty question-and-answer sections that function like lemon juice squeezed over a platter of oysters. Clearly Mr. Robb is restless, and he has little interest in being a droning, by-the-numbers tour guide.
It’s not hard, however, to think up ways to write stunt history. What’s truly unusual about Mr. Robb is the amount of real feeling and human playfulness he smuggles into his books, those unmistakable signs of a mind that’s wide awake and breathing on the page.
Did I mention that he is also jaggedly funny? His prose approximates Ian McEwan’s by way of Anthony Lane. In his new book a group of Parisians in the Latin Quarter in the 1840s don’t die from disease, they die from “various illnesses known collectively as ‘lack of money.’ ”
“Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris” arrives with an odd subtitle (adventure history?) that makes it sound as if it were written on a skateboard and sponsored by Mountain Dew. Here’s what this book really is: a pointillist and defiantly nonlinear history of Paris from the dawn of the French Revolution through the 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois, told from a variety of unlikely perspectives and focusing on lesser-known but reverberating moments in the city’s history.
Among the set pieces here is an account of a young Napoleon losing his virginity to a prostitute in the Palais Royal; a portrait of the man who created the catacombs; and an investigation into how Marie Antoinette, while attempting to flee the city to save her life, became lost just a few yards from home.
There’s much more: disquisitions on police work and photographers and playwrights and France’s strange DeLillo-ish history of faked political assassinations; a portrait of Émile Zola’s long-suffering wife; an inquiry into the links between alchemy and the early days of nuclear fission; an account of Hitler’s short tour of Paris’s landmarks; a view of the affair between Juliette Gréco, the actress and later singer, and a young Miles Davis; an assessment of the 1968 student riots; and a glimpse at the politics of Nicolas Sarkozy and the roiling discontents of recent French immigration.
Mr. Robb builds his histories from small piles of angular details. The section on Napoleon begins by observing “the army of wet nurses who left their babies at home and went to sell their breast milk in the capital.” During an account of one policeman’s search for a criminal who is also a hunchback, Mr. Robb can’t help noting the difficulties: “there were something in the region of 6,135 hunchbacks in Paris.” Once Zola discovered cameras, he writes, he tended to “behave as though he was always about to be photographed.”
Mr. Robb’s prose is fleet and ingenious. He describes the “sucking sound” of modern French police sirens, the “snickering” of certain neon signs, the melodious “parping of automobiles.” His good humor is infectious. When young men were finally allowed to visit young women in Parisian college dormitories in the 1960s, he writes that they brought “wine, cigarettes, Tunisian pâtisseries, hot dogs and erections.” Describing the soulless towers in immigrant suburban Paris, he notes dryly: “The planes coming in to land at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle always missed them, but the towers were falling apart anyway.”
Mr. Robb pores over old newspapers, tour guides and photographs. (About one favorite picture, he writes: “So much information is contained in that split-second burst of photons that if the glass plate survived a holocaust and lay buried under rubble for centuries in a leather satchel, there would be enough to compile a small, speculative encyclopedia of Paris in the late second millennium.”)
He is just as familiar with resources like CNN and eBay, and into a discussion of Quasimodo’s climbing abilities, he casually drops a mention of parkour.
He extends his embrace to Paris’s new wave of Arab immigrants. “Their Paris was a rap litany of place names that only the most exhaustive guide book would have recognized as the City of Light: Clichy-sous-Bois, La Courneuve, Aubervilliers, Bondy,” he writes. But he adds: “They, too, were children of Paris, and, like true natives of the city, they expressed their pride in angry words that sounded like a curse.”
Mr. Robb’s animating idea during the composition of “Parisians,” he declares, “was to create a kind of mini-Human Comedy of Paris, in which the history of the city would be illuminated by the real experience of its inhabitants.”
Through friends in Paris, Mr. Robb writes, he learned things: “a certain Parisian art de vivre: sitting in traffic jams as a form of flânerie, parking illegally as a defense of personal liberty, savoring window displays as though the streets were a public museum.”
He goes on: “They taught me the tricky etiquette of pretending to argue with waiters, and the gallantry of staring at beautiful strangers.” His book — argumentative, gallant, parked athwart oncoming historical traffic, as if on a dare — is as Parisian and as bracing as a freshly mixed Pernod and water.