Craig R. Medvecky

Creative Writer and English Teacher

Writing Samples: Nonfiction

High and Low: Photographic Strategies in Paris Spleen

from Sentence: a journal of prose poetics. No. 6. (Spring 2009): 234-45.

baudelaire photo

Étienne Carjat’s portrait of Charles Baudelaire (1863) now stands as the iconic historical image of the poet: supremely rueful and austere, aloof, if somewhat dandyish with a silk bow tie knotted loosely at the collar of a grey frock coat. Some might think it ironic as well that a photograph could so define a man who often vituperated against the medium in which “every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies” could take refuge (Art in Paris, 153). Yet there remains some aspect of justice in the longevity of Carjat’s masterpiece, for Baudelaire’s life and work offer, if anything, a study in the art of contradiction. As one of the original Decadents, he hews to Blakian axiom and follows the ‘path of excess to the palace of wisdom.’ Though he suffers crushing debts, poor health, opium addiction and syphilis, Baudelaire finds subsumed within the weakness of his body a moral reality that prompts T.S. Eliot to praise him as a Christian and Arthur Symons to describe his vision of life as a “beautiful and interesting disease.” In these self-evident and widely observed contradictions, not only the Carjat photograph, but photography in general offers a curious historical vantage from which to observe the fundamental combination of ‘high’ and ‘low’ that Baudelaire creates in his final work, Le Spleen De Paris / Petits Poèmes En Prose (1869).

There, as in photography, the collision of contradictory forms removes the essence of the expression to a realm beyond language and grants access only indirectly through the medium that conveys it. As a literary figure, Baudelaire sits on the cusp of a modern aesthetic that seeks to synthesize the dialectics of the previous generation within a broader ideal. While Baudelaire clearly allies himself with Poe’s philosophy of pure aestheticism over Wordsworth’s natural realism, Baudelaire is nonetheless reluctant to reject outright the possibility of moral hierarchy in Nature. Toward the end of his life, the pursuit of an ever more complex mode of depiction results in a desire to encompass the spirit of these contradicting aesthetics within one form: the prose-poem. In a letter to Arsène Houssaye, Baudelaire writes of Paris Spleen, It was out of my exploration of huge cities, out of the medley of their innumerable interrelations that this haunting ideal was born. In the same letter, Baudelaire also notes his admiration of Aloysius Bertrand’s all-but-forgotten Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), making much of Bertrand’s method for “depicting the old days, so strangely picturesque” (ix). In these attributions, the author locates a great poignancy in the contrasting extremes of an emerging modernity, wherein nostalgia for the rustic simplicity of the ‘old days’ is counterbalanced by civilization with its ‘innumerable interrelations.’ Further, the poet identifies his desire to pursue an idealized mode of aesthetic representation, through which he might investigate the appearance of this new urban reality and its (anti-)aesthetic forms.

In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Walter Benjamin poses an explosion of technology as a catalytic force behind the emergence of a secular art that blurs the Romantic distinction between so-called high and low forms. Referring to advances in audio, visual, and print technologies Benjamin identifies an explosion of craft objects and readily consumable artifacts and objects, which begin to gain a widespread popularity across Europe in the seventeen years between Aloysius Bertrand’s anachronistic Gaspard and Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen. In 1843, the invention of the rotary press permits print editions to increase from thousands of copies/day to millions. In 1857, Edouard-Leon Scott patents the first phonographic recording device. In the years between 1839 and 1871, photography comes into being, evolving from Daguerre’s limited methodology to Richard Maddox’s more practical silver gelatin process.

Indeed for Benjamin, photography is central to the birth of the modern aesthetic. On one hand, as a consequence of its accessibility, portability and reproducibility, the photograph is prominent among this new class of secular art objects. In the proliferation of easily decontextualized replicas, the photograph exists as art, but apart from the traditional and sacred viewing chapels of museum and cathedral, placing itself instead in homes and taverns and other secular locations. Given any number of equivalent copies, it makes no sense to think in terms of a single authentic print. Rather it is equally valid to think of each print as an original.

As such photography complicates the notions of authenticity and originality, around which the construct of ‘high art’ is fashioned. Indeed, it might be called subversive in this respect. Nonetheless, Benjamin argues that photography also reclaims the high authenticity of painted portraiture by invoking the “cult of remembrance” through its pre-occupation with the mysteries of the human countenance. Further the photograph operates within the purist aesthetic of l’art pour l’art by upsetting generic classifications and privileging the non-aesthetic subjects with the status of aestheticism. At the same time, the prints bring to light aspects of the original that are unavailable to the naked eye thereby suggesting the primacy of the simulacra over the real or the phenomenal. (Collected Works, Vol. 4, 254-8). Owing to its dualistic nature, photography then encompasses a striking synthesis of 'high' and 'low' ideals within a single aesthetic object.

Despite having looked askance upon photography a decade earlier, by 1867 Baudelaire nonetheless seems to describe its mechanism precisely as a formal metaphor when, he christens Paris Spleen, a little work, of which no one can say without doing it an injustice, that it has neither head nor tail, since on the contrary everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally (ix). This reciprocity is most often observed in fusion of documentary journalism and atemporal lyricism, through which Baudelaire offers his new form as a means to reach an complex representation of the dualistic tension within early Modern society.

By incorporating not only opposing textual styles, but also a myriad of other reciprocal tropes into both the form and content of Paris Spleen, Baudelaire absorbs the collision of cultic and exhibition values within the idealized duality of the prose poem and presents his readers with an album that evokes the accidental or verité portraiture of the photograph. The Eyes of the Poor, The Old Clown, Wag, The Stranger, and many others, reveal subjects who are unaware of the voyeuristic artist on the other side of the lens. Repeatedly, Baudelaire exploits textual focalizations in parallel with a photographic sensibility, specifically in the austerity of his imagery, frequent use of framing devices, and sudden contextualizing realizations that emulate (seemingly) the click of the shutter.

Consider how The Old Woman’s Despair evokes the photograph as formal metaphor. To begin, the austere compactness of the narrative establishes a starkness of mood. In each discreet paragraph the focalized image is re-composed as if in a series of vignettes. The first describes the approach the old woman as she comes upon the baby. The second provides a close-up of the old woman’s smile. The third shows the infant’s reaction, and the fourth suggests that the location has changed because the old woman is now alone. With each, the poet seeks to contextualize and capture an exact point in time, one at which the wizened old woman gladdened and gay (2) realizes that she is an object of horror to the very child that inspires her joy. In the process, the narrator creates a sense of photographic starkness as he lurks behind spare phrases such as, [t]he old woman went back into her eternal solitude and wept alone (2). Not only in the colorlessness of tone but also in the flatness of the prose, Baudelaire’s depiction of the old woman is external, distant and somewhat impenetrable, for how can one go inside solitude?

Baudelaire’s voyeur or flâneur, whose very mode is ritualized observation, has been likened to a detective, a criminologist, even a botanist (A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, 37-43). While this mode of quasi-scientific viewing goes hand-in-glove with the motifs of early documentary photography, the manner in which Baudelaire’s text mediates point of view is even more revealing of the link between the two arts. Occasionally, as in The Old Woman’s Despair, it is the narrator who interposes himself as a transparent, camera-like eye of a distant third-person focalization. More often, however, the texts call attention to subjectivity through a variety of physical lenses. In Windows the pane of glass is the lens through which the flâneur observes a room lit from within at night. In The Poor Child's Toy the bars of the iron fence are a physical medium through which the subject appears somewhat altered, in the evocation of incarceration. In still other prose poems, such as The Generous Gambler and Vocations the point of view extends through various characters and nested narratives in a manner that directs attention to the subject matter as a depiction and to focalization itself as a mediating factor.

In addition to Baudelaire's self-conscious focalizing, the formal metaphor of photography also appears in his frequent use of epigram as a framing device to further re-enforce the content as composition. For instance, the old woman of The Old Woman's Despair translates her experience into a pithy summation in the last two sentences of the poem: "Ah for us miserable old females the age of pleasing is past. Even innocent babes cannot endure us and we are scarecrows to little children whom we long to love" (2). Similarly, in Artist's Confiteor Baudelaire closes with another such pointed expression. The study of beauty is a duel in which the artist shrieks with terror before being overcome (3).

With cases such as these, the epigrammatic sentiment physically borders the text in the sense that it occupies the last line; and, in functioning as a Wordsworthian moral, it also re-interprets the text thereby framing it within the explicit context of a lesson learned. In placing the framing epigram in the voice of his characters as opposed to the voice of the flâneur, with quotation marks where appropriate, Baudelaire distinguishes his mode of representation from the interpretative translation of painted portraiture and places it squarely in the realm of photographic replica. As trope, the photographic sensibility continues to present itself through the implication of mediation, where the essence of the life is presented or realistic— as in, somewhat real, but yet unreal. Baudelaire’s flâneur remains separate from the old woman, just as the old woman remains separate from the true experience of life, both in the sense of mankind's disunity with the spiritual and in the sense of the modern world as merely a symbolic representation of an invisible, unreachable essence. Further, for the flâneur his perception is a reproduction of the first-hand experience of the old woman. As such it is emblematic of his disconnection from reality and a source of angst for the modern man who observes but does not feel. Yet as portraiture, the flâneur is re-united with his authentic or sacred self through the cult of remembrance. Consequently, Baudelaire defeats the utility of too-easy truth by infusing the prose poem with a dualistic contradiction of authenticity inherent in photographic representation.

Even on the level of genre, Baudelaire plays with this anxiety. Throughout Paris Spleen the prose poetry is both of and about the masses and crowds of urban life. It is not arcane, highly subjective, or overtly symbolist. Rather it would appear a highly consumable expression suitable for a wide range of audiences, requiring, seemingly, a minimum of literacy. Yet, through its sensitivity to the concerns of the individual, the poem evokes a cultic sense of sacred authenticity in remembrance. Indeed, the work itself is a remembrance in Baudelaire’s appreciation-by-imitation of Bertrand's strange pictures of the past. This spirit of revival follows the early history the prose poem; it is the Decadents who then revive Baudelaire, and subsequently, William Carlos Williams who revives the Decadents. As the prose poem moves into maturity in the twentieth century this cult of remembrance gradually sublimates itself within the notion of modern intertextuality—a concept that still evokes the tension between photographic originality and photographic reproduction. If one accepts the photographic metaphor as a model of formal duality, and further accepts duality as a method of presenting the contradiction inscribed in the concept of a prose poem, then it becomes the trope of the photograph that most noticeably conveys Baudelaire's thematic interest contradiction and antithesis as content.

Returning to The Old Woman’s Despair one can appreciate how Baudelaire presents essential opposites on several levels. At the level of the image, the prose poem places a beautiful new baby next to an ugly old woman. At the level of the enactment, he contrasts the externality of the narrator’s subject/object experience (the compressed poetic image of the woman weeping) with the old woman's internal experience (her prosaic epigram). The flat, colorless imagery is both coldly impersonal and yet sits side by side with the intense emotion the poet represents through the old woman's experience. Within herself she loves, but outside herself she is not permitted to love because her emotion for the child is constrained by her strange ugliness. In the broadest sense the poem could also be read as an allegory that depicts a society in transition from pastoral to urban and superimposes the unchecked wonders of a newly born modernity against the dark effects of this transformation on the people and communities who are brought into conflict with this new way of life. It would seem that on all levels, thesis is counterbalanced by antithesis. With the juxtaposition of black and white, the poet captures within the single totalizing image of the prose poem a sense of life as comprised of distinct but inseparable opposites. Similarly, the framing epigrams—though they resemble Wordsworthian formulations of moral Truth—exist as self-contained expressions of irreconcilable duality. The old woman's epigram reveals her as a scarecrow to her loved ones; and the artist's epigram describes beauty as simultaneously horrible and irresistibly attractive. This duality is reinforced with a pun in the closing line from Artist's Confiteor, where in the original, Baudelaire chooses the French word duel with its play on the English dual. On one hand, it conveys the sense-meaning of duel as death-struggle and on the other the duality of any aesthetic object as simultaneously beautiful (thesis) and horrific (antithesis).

While at first this might seem to present a rather peculiar ontological conclusion: that horror and beauty are locked in relation to such neither can ever reign supreme. Yet, Baudelaire recognizes suffering as the heart of redemption, and it is through this paradox that Baudelaire believes beauty can gain access to the spiritual or transcendental. In that self-opposing duality, which is the essence of Baudelaire’s form in Paris Spleen, the poet regards the modern art object both with suspicion—as object that offers an impenetrable mimesis of reality— and with wonder, for its ability not only to reveal but also to embody the dichotomy of exhibition and cultic values which so fascinates him.

Consequently, it is vital in Paris Spleen that Baudelaire does not seek a resolution to the conflict of opposites. Rather he presents contradiction as constant, inseparable, and essential to being: horror as fundamental to beauty. Literary historian Arthur Symons reports that in 1861 when Baudelaire saw Cladel’s manuscript of Les Martyrs Ridicules he was so excited and intrigued by its antithetical constructions that he sought Cladel’s acquaintance (Baudelaire: A Study, 90). Further, Pierre Emmanuel in his book, Baudelaire: the Paradox of Redemptive Satanism, argues that for Baudelaire, coming to terms with the complex of contradictions between imagination and understanding, spirit and matter, mercy and justice was a life-long and irremediable problem (130). In that light, a linguistic appropriation of photographic form makes sense both in terms of the medium and the message. As object made of duality, this new form of prose poem then becomes Baudelaire's expression of beauty, but also an observable object, and as such an inadequate symbol of the unattainable essence he seeks to represent.

The Old Clown serves as a quintessential example. It begins: Holiday crowds swarmed, sprawled, and frolicked everywhere. It was one of those gala days that all the clowns jugglers animal trainers and ambulant hucksters count on long in advance to make up for the lean seasons of the year (25). In the diction of gala and frolic, as in the promise of soon-to-be re-distributed wealth, one sees that the poem holds no hostility toward the good or the happy. Indeed the poem reminds us that this type of popular jubilee is the very event on which clowns depend for their livelihood. And yet, it is not the successful happy clowns that hold the narrator’s attention. Even though at first it seems that [t]here was nothing but light, dust, shouts, joy, tumult (26) the narrator’s eye very soon drifts, finding an old clown.

Here absolute misery, and misery made all the more horrible by being tricked out in comic rags[….] He was not laughing, the poor wretch. He was not weeping; he was not dancing, he was not gesticulating, he was not shouting; he sang no song, sad or gay, he was soliciting nothing. He was mute and motionless. He had given up, he had abdicated. His fate was sealed. (26)

This clown is beyond even the status of failed clown; he is the very antithesis of being. He is so utterly destitute of life and hope that he can only be characterized by a long list of what he is not. And yet it is this clown and no other that makes a profound and unforgettable impression on the narrator, who, upon seeing this abject specimen, feels the terrible hand of hysteria grip [his] throat (26).

In discovering such depth of passion through a subject that clearly has no value to itself or anyone else, the narrator begins an aesthetic process of revaluing the valueless. At first, the clown is the equivalent of human debris. He has abdicated in all respects of his personal appearance and wallows in a condition of repulsive misery. His curtain is tattered. He sits in foul shadows. However, in the notion of valorizing the downtrodden or the worthless, Baudelaire exploits the duality of the prose poem for its ability to create an anti-aesthetic. In the case of The Old Clown, the interpretive re-valuation of the clown leads the narrator to recognize his own transience within the devalued object. The narrator then connects the clown’s depression to a conception of his own future, saying, I have just seen the prototype of the old writer who has been the brilliant entertainer of the generation he has outlived (27).

Here, the narrator's focalization, acting like a camera, has within it the redemptive value of its discretion. This is the special power of the documentary photograph. Unlike a painted portrait, it implies a subject that has been spontaneously chosen and spontaneously captured. The improvisational implication is key to Baudelaire's sense of l'art pour l'art because it values its subject without having to explicitly reveal the purpose behind the selection. It is enough that the narrator chooses to depict this clown above all the rest.

By the power of selection alone, he imputes value to the formerly valueless, remembers the forgotten, and reclaims the discarded. Unlike the painted portrait the event is non-transactional; the experience has not been bought and paid for by the subject; the artistic product does not present itself as a service but as a good. Further, in the process of including horror, ugliness and/or other anti-aesthetic elements, the photographic trope creates a second connection to sacred authenticity. By aestheticizing the world’s so-called trash—the things that cannot be commoditized, objects disconnected from mass production—Baudelaire’s prose poems resonate with the mythic and ritual be-attitudes of Judeo-Christian spirituality, where it is the meek who inherit the earth, the poor who pass into the kingdom of heaven.

In The Old Clown, not only is the sinner redeemed by the camera-eye, but the proud poet is humbled by virtue of the objective worth that lives with in everything, even the monetarily valueless or socially forgotten. Thus the poet manages to find moral homily in an idealized ordering of Nature while at the height of an art-for-art's-sake aesthetic.

As creator of a form, Baudelaire’s aesthetic and thematic interests have infused the genre through his reciprocal construction. Both in its unique combination of prose and poetry and in its realization of the prose poem as a simultaneity of aesthetic and anti-aesthetic representations, Baudelaire creates a self-contradicting yet self-sustaining paradox. Arsène Houssaye, to whom Baudelaire dedicated Paris Spleen, calls the prose poem the concrete juice, the osmazome of literature, the essential oil of art. Given Houssaye's sense of the form as the osmazome of art, it is not a far leap from self-contradicting duality to Harold Rosenberg's concept of the anxious object, wherein the value of the contemporary art object is said to stem from its ability to provoke the question, what is art? One cannot but feel that if Houssaye's assessment of the prose poem is true, it is due to the relationship of Baudelaire's form to self-contradiction, where it is uncertainty that assumes a new basis of authenticity for high art created in the age of mechanical reproduction. In taking the form of an object, somewhat trashy and unsure of itself, Baudelaire’s prose poems, like the photograph of the 1850s, pre-figure an all-encompassing aesthetic that questions what society values and why.

It is the elaboration of the concepts inaugurated in Baudelaire's Paris Spleen that one sees reflected in subsequent Western aesthetic movements, of which the development of the prose poem is an integral part. The coincidence of the Surrealists, the absurdity of the Dadaists, the performance of the Abstract Expressionists, the commercialism of Pop Art, the Modernist fragment, the post-Modernist collage—all reach for authenticity by embracing a counter-balancing anti-aesthetic (horror, ugliness, accident, verité) of anxious marginalization. All of these expressive modes have their parallel in the evolution of the prose poem. Whether it is tension between onomatopoeic play and declarative assertion in Gertrude Stein and Harryette Mullen, the conflict between object and environment in Bly, or the oneric combination of realities in Jolas and Edson and Simic, the prose poem of the twentieth century continues to be built on the syncretism of opposing paradigms.

Key to preserving this state of anxious being, however, is honoring the irreconcilability of those reciprocal structures, however their articulation may vary from poet to poet.

Certainly it is difficult to argue that Paris Spleen invokes horror to subvert beauty, simply because of the poet's refusal to deny or undermine what is good. The silver sea still shimmers and God-castle clouds still float; it is only that these conventional representations of goodness must share the stage, and their nature as well, with the banged up soul that lies behind or beyond. To pursue a resolution to this conflict, through one label or another, seems to miss the essential, authentic ozmazome-ness of the prose poem.

Further, it constrains the form quite narrowly to a condition of political use value that operates to resolve its essential legacy of contradiction. Again, this is not to deny the existence of subversive aspects or attitudes within these movements, but rather to question the extent of their nature as subversive objects. In the process of historicizing, one cannot help but wonder about the degree to which their essential reciprocity looms as a mitigating factor. In describing the prose poem as a mathematical inverse, Baudelaire flirts with nullification and forever complicates the perception of Truth through a conflation of counter-balancing aesthetics. As much as he may subvert the strictures of the alexandrine, he reclaims in equal measure the precepts of high art by returning Truth to the unknowable realm of the divine.

Works Cited

  • Baudelaire, Charles. Paris Spleen, trans. L. Varèse., New York: New Directions, 1970.
  • Benjamin, Walter. The work of art in the age of its technological reproduacbility in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings.
  • Vol 4., 1938-1940, ed. M. Jennings, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 251-283.
  • Burton, Richard. Baudelaire and the Second Republic: Writing and Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
  • Emmanuel, Pierre. Baudelaire: The Paradox of Redemptive Satanism. trans., Robert T. Cargo University City:
  • University of Alabama Press 1967, 1970.
  • Jennings, M., ed. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Vol 4., 1938-1940, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Symons, Arthur Charles Baudelaire: A Study. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1920.