I’ve been feeling a little grouchy lately.
Perhaps it was not wise, then, to read Baudelaire. Baudelaire, the French Romantic poet, was the writer of the spleen–intellectual 19th century France’s emo. Really though. For Baudelaire, le spleen was about expressing “profound boredom and weariness about existence” (my translation from the French wikipedia entry). Etymologically, the French spleen is taken from the English word because the spleen is the location of the production of black bile in medieval thought. Not exactly uplifting stuff.
I picked up my Baudelaire anthology hoping for some old fashioned wisdom. You see, I’ve been feeling grouchy for petty personal reasons, surely, but beyond this, the 20th century theory I’ve been reading has left me feeling like something’s missing. The thinkers I’ve been reading–and I’m thinking of Foucault and Derrida, among others–are ultimately incomplete if they are viewed alone.
Their writings amount to critiques of reason and classical truth. This deconstruction, which is brilliant and must be considered in any serious social analysis going forward, is fundamentally missing something, however.
In this deconstructed world, I don’t see how one creates ethical imperatives or, more importantly, finds authentic meaning. There is the death of the text, the death of the author, the death of authentic truth, the death of the autonomous subject.
The first poem I read, “L’albatros” is about the poet’s agonizing estrangement from the everyday world. This was Baudelairian romanticism at its best, spleen and all. Yes.
Another poem I read told the story of a dream about the Parisian arcades. The poet wakes up at the end of the dream and thinks about time and the sadness of the rain-soaked dark world:
La pendule aux accents funèbres
Sonnait brutalement midi
Et le ciel versait des ténèbres
Sur le triste monde engourdi.
Ultimately, as you can see, Baudelaire doesn’t achieve stable transcendence–a lot of his writing is quite miserable. And yet one can find a certain solace in his project. In the exercise of the flâneur. In the idea of engaging in the world around you in order to find meaning.
After I read Baudelaire, I read another chapter in my book on flânerie. Stefan Marawaski concludes his section by talking about flânerie as a protest:
The greater the triumphs of the post-modern mentality and lifestyle, the louder the artistic (intellectual) protest paraphrasing in its own way Luther’s famous adage: “Hier steh’ ich, ich kann nicht anders.” [Here I stand, I can do no other]
And so the flâneur continues the search for meaning in the world. The flâneur is one who can do no other.
So did Baudelaire make me feel less crabby? Not immediately, no. It’s hard for me to read Baudelaire for more than fifteen minutes at a time. But I see a lot of optimism in the the flâneur.
In the past few weeks, when I haven’t been feeling grumpy, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. The future in the typical sense of thinking about what I want to do with my life. But also the future in the sense of finding comfort in the idea of doing things that set up for my future self.
I think the flâneur is fundamentally forward-looking. The very idea of setting out to find meaning in the world–which is at the heart of flânerie–is predicated on a positive projection of the future, on optimism.
So here we go–forward for meaning. Here I stand; I can do no other.