Reading Baudelaire While Grouchy

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.

So I picked up Baudelaire.

I was hoping for some romanticism, for a world in which the author, the subject, exists and strives for transcendence.

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.

An attempt at flânerie in San Francisco: Part I, The Idea

I started the day restless and angsty: I made the mistake of going online first thing in the morning. My house in San Francisco now has wifi, so I did the standard online circuit of email, Facebook, newspaper sites and blogs before even getting out of bed.

For a variety of reasons, this left me feeling like shit. Facebook made me feel like a low-grade stalker, the news was about the death of Ted Kennedy and election fraud in Afghanistan, and email added to the list of things I have to do.

After eating breakfast I was even more frustrated. I have about 50 pages left in the book I’m reading, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, but I couldn’t decide whether I felt like reading them or if I felt like trying to relax by doing something lighter. Meta-stress about being stressed out was setting in when I had an idea. I would embark on a bit of a project: I wanted to go on a stroll in San Francisco. Like really go on a stroll. Walk through San Francisco, the city of multiculturalism, natural beauty, and tourism; a past of earthquakes, jazz, the beats, and the hippies; and now home to a new generation of hipsters, yuppies, immigrants and going green. I would engage in 21st century flânerie.

I first became interested in flânerie on my plane flight to Paris for my time abroad. On the plane, I read a book my aunt had given me, Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris. The book was mostly a historical and personal account, but White’s allusions to the philosophical concept of flânerie really stuck with me.

Flâner (the verb form of flânerie) can be loosely translated from French to “to stroll.” Edmund White’s book didn’t go into depth about the philosophy of flânerie, but he would occasionally provide teasers into this concept such as, “Why must we always imagine the flâneur as sad?”

Over the course of my time in Paris, I would learn more about flânerie. To begin with, I lived a few blocks from some of the most well-known passages in Paris. Built in the 1830’s, the passages (translated into “arcades”) are covered walkways lined with shops. They are at the heart of the idea of flânerie, a notion first developed by the poet Baudelaire and reexamined by many including the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. The idea is more or less to lose oneself in walking in a city.

So my idea is to try to do some Baudelairian flânerie in San Francisco sometime in the next week. But I want to really do it right, so there’s a lot of theory on flânerie I want to read up on.

We’ll see how this project turns out. This idea sprung out of a desire to not feel stressed out and conflicted, so hopefully I won’t end up feeling out of place on my walk. But even if I do, I think this will still say something about me, flânerie and maybe even our time.

I think San Francisco will provide an excellent backdrop for my experiment. For Benjamin in his analysis of Baudelaire, the social and historical context of flânerie in 19th century Paris is key. I’m thinking of doing the walk in Chinatown or the Mission.

Anyway, stay tuned, and here is a picture I took of one of the passages near where I lived in Paris: