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An Atmospherics of the CityBaudelaire and the Poetics of Noise$

Ross Chambers

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780823265848

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823265848.001.0001

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From the Sublime to the Subliminal

From the Sublime to the Subliminal

Fetish Aesthetics

(p.1) One From the Sublime to the Subliminal
An Atmospherics of the City

Ross Chambers

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Baudelaire’s early practice of fetish aesthetics is related as a fall from Romantic sublimity, and the topic of noise as a manifestation of time (entropy) is introduced via a metaphorics of the urban street as river and described as key to an atmospherics of the city.

Keywords:   fetish aesthetics, noise, entropy, atmospherics, urban poetry

Mobilized Attention

How to define an atmosphere? The word has a specific primary sense, of course, and a scientific definition. It is the invisible layer of breathable air that swathes the planet, sustaining life and exerting the variable pressure we register as weather. Weather is not irrelevant to a poetics of urban atmosphere. But to speak of the atmospherics of a city is also to activate a derived sense of the word, one in which atmosphere refers to the intuition one has, or rather the subliminal awareness, of a certain dimension of particularity, otherness, or strangeness that attaches to certain objects, places, or situations that in other respects are recognizable as ordinary, familiar, or not worthy (p.2) of special attention. To become aware of an atmosphere—and one of Baudelaire’s most important understandings of poetry is as an agent of such a becoming aware—is to become bafflingly conscious of something that one had been already aware of, somehow, but without knowing it. This is the sense of there being an ungraspable or even uncanny hinterland of things, a dimension that defies definition or analysis because it lies just beyond the domain of the intelligible, and endows them with a mysterious significance. Something like what we refer to when we speak of a city having “local color.”

Fetish objects, in particular, are ordinary things that have been strangely “promoted” in this way: an item of clothing, perhaps; or an object on display in a store; or some ugly-looking figurine that “buzzes” you when you approach it in an anthropological museum. Such objects have or have acquired an atmosphere—a fact that perhaps suggests that the word atmosphere is associated with the sublimation of desire that is at the root of fetish theory, and hence, ultimately, with forms of beauty and of the sacred. I am not far from saying, in fact, that they are or have become allegorized; and by that I mean that if they “speak” to us, it is to bespeak “otherness.”1 And that is why this phenomenon—whereby the familiar trappings of everyday existence, those that we normally pay little or no attention to, become strange and somehow alien when, for whatever reason, we are led to notice them, to attend to their existence and their presence—might be thought of as an effect of aesthetic fetishization. Independently of (specifically) erotic, consumerist, or religious desire, attention and the framing of an object that it requires activate in us a need for meaningfulness, and do so to the exact degree that the object has been previously perceived—or rather not perceived at all—as trivial. In becoming thus allegorized, the object then activates a libido intelligendi, a desire to understand, the strength of which is doubtless (p.3) a function of the Weberian “disenchantment” to which the modern world seems increasingly subject, since it is the unexpected perception of the everyday world as strange that activates it. Whence that frustrating, tip-of-the-tongue sense of a just-out-of-reach “meaning” that constitutes an atmospherics.

That Baudelaire was a prime mover in insisting on the indispensable role of the category of the aesthetic in the modern age is not a matter of dispute. My contention will be that it was in defining the practice of modern art as an atmospherics of urban life, and in practicing such an atmospherics as an allegorization of a vie parisienne that had become everyday reality for his readers, that he invented a new (or rather previously unacknowledged) function for the category of the aesthetic amid the utilitarianism of bourgeois modernity. Art, as a practice of atmospherics, was to enact something like the etymological sense of the word aesthetics; poetry as he practiced it was to function as an aesthesis capable of making sensible the dimension of strangeness inherent, most notably, in the “moving chaos” of the familiar urban street.2 It would be a way of channeling the “wonder” that “swathes and nourishes us like the atmosphere” but, in the absence of artistic intervention, remains invisible and goes unheeded. Art was to function, in other words, as an antianaesthetics, deploying poiesis as a practice of making capable of transfiguring the ordinary, the unremarkable, the ugly, and the apparently unredeemable because utilitarian, and thus—if not of reenchanting a world bereft of mystery and glamour—then at least of awakening the poet’s readers to the unconscious state of alienation in which they lived. (I employ the Marxian word unapologetically.3)

As early as the Salon de 1846, then, atmosphère was already a key term of Baudelairean aesthetics. Painting is superior to sculpture, he claims there, with his usual imperturbable assurance (and reserving as always his “droit de se contredire” [right (p.4) to self-contradiction]), and this is because the atmosphere of a painting—conveyed, in technical terms by its form, its particular deployment of color and light—can be taken in at a glance, and as it were, subconsciously. Statues, on the other hand, are too much like natural objects, which are only environnés d’atmosphère (surrounded by atmosphere) and, for that very reason, require a more exploratory and analytical approach, one that needs time in order to take in their spatial dimensions—something that Baudelaire judges to be “primitive” by comparison with the magical immediacy of painting’s directness. They are, in the only sense of the word Baudelaire recognized, “fetishes” (and sculpture, therefore is ennuyeuse [tedious, annoying]).4 The irony is of course that the inventor of modern art should not be able, in 1846, to foresee the enthusiasm for African and Oceanic masks and fetish objects that was to sweep the “capital of the nineteenth century” in the early years of the twentieth century and would signal a contribution to the invention of modernism. Nevertheless, Baudelaire’s invocation of atmosphere defined the very principle of that new aesthetics; and it will be important for us, therefore, to attend to his later, radically revised, judgment with respect to sculpture as I approach allegory in its relation to “fetish aesthetics” in chapter 3.

Meanwhile, recalling M. H. Abrams’s famous characterization of the aesthetics of the sublime as “natural supernaturalism,” we might think of Baudelairean atmospherics as an urban, or artificial, supernaturalism—perhaps even a “subliminalism.”5 For the Romantic cult of the sublime appears as the principal forerunner of the mid-century turn away from Romanticism that I am interested in—the turn to an art of fetish-like “atmosphere” held to define “modern beauty,” and doing so in terms of a merveilleux detectable in the everyday world of urban modernity. This latter moment thus appears as a further stage, following (p.5) the era of the sublime, in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment history of the de-sacralization of art—a history that itself arises as an entailment of the aesthetic function’s newly acquired status as an agent of the reenchantment of the world. Turning away from the noble and stirring spectacles of nature that reveal themselves at the limen or threshold, connecting but separating the immanent world and the transcendence of the sacred, a new generation now looks for inspiration to an apparently barren cultural scene of manufacture, production, and trade. But there it discovers two things.

One of those things is the subliminality (if not the sublimity) of a simultaneously conscious and unconscious experience, the becoming aware of that of which one had been unaware. This is an experience not unlike that of the uncanny, but it resembles in its strangeness the Marxian experience of disalienation and is described by Baudelaire in terms of the city’s atmosphere. Such an awareness of the uncanny has historical roots, of course, in the aesthetics of the gothic and the fantastic, with their emphasis on mysterious intimations of a beyond. But the other discovery is that of the power of artistic shaping: of form and the labor of mise en forme. It is form that molds an object of representation, and by isolating and framing it as an object of attention reawakens in the observer a sense of wonderment and desire, an awareness of atmosphere, in the presence of something otherwise recognizable as familiar and ordinary—the very sense, that is, that the dailiness of city life tends to erode. In Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism, it is labor that transforms an object having only use value into one that enjoys the added attractiveness he calls exchange value. But the condition of such a transformation is that the crucial input of labor must be rendered transparent, and thus invisible. Similarly, artistic form, the mark of aesthetic labor, can reveal the atmospherics of its object as a practice of beautification and (p.6) agency of wonder, but only under the condition of becoming itself invisible. Such is the shamanistic sleight-of-hand of a fetishizing aesthetics—a magic that Baudelaire initially subscribed to, but in the end, came to challenge, as we shall see.6

Awakening to Noise

That challenge arose as a consequence of a lifelong evolution in the poet’s assessment of the value and significance of noise—of noise as an inevitable component of an aesthetics of fetish he had initially conceived as the necessary harmonizing of noisy everyday ugliness associated with city life, and the intimations of a timeless, ideal beauty, the sublimity that nature was held to offer. This essay offers a review of the evidence available to us in Baudelaire’s poetic writing of that extended and painful evolution, which itself manifestly occurred in response to the major social upheavals France was undergoing in his (short) lifetime. I mean on the one hand the brutal transition, if transition is the word, from a largely rural society to one dominated by a new industrial, urban, and capitalist economy increasingly devoted to bourgeois values—in other words, the traumatic coming of modernity—and on the other hand the political violence and other upheavals, most notably of the post-1848 period, that made the enthusiastic early socialist and harmonian dreams of the 1830s and 1840s seem like so many naïve and irresponsible fantasies. My outline of Baudelaire’s evolution will tell not only a story of disillusionment, but also of remarkable intellectual and aesthetic flexibility and adaptability. And although I will have to present it methodically, as if it were a straightforward and unidirectional movement forward, it will be worth remembering that while Baudelaire displays an astonishing thirst for new thought and fresh ideas, changing his mind with alacrity, he also seems never to have fully abandoned any aesthetic conviction (p.7) he once held, even as he kept moving on, new experiment by new experiment. (Whence, of course, his ardent if ironic defense of “le droit de se contredire.”) After all, the inventor of “modern beauty,” it should be remembered, was simultaneously among the last of France’s most classical poets: an inspiration to Rimbaud and, later, the Surrealists while admired and appreciated by the Parnassians. The story of his awakening to noise, then, was itself inevitably a noisy one, as indeed are most evolutions, although my brief essay cannot help but simplify and schematize it.

Given Baudelaire’s interest in atmosphere, a confrontation with noise was inevitable, if only because noise, in all of the word’s many possible senses, was and is the crucial constituent of any modern city’s atmospherics. Noise is both the deafening racket one cannot ignore—the “rue assourdissante” (deafening street) of “À une passante”—and the largely unnoticed, because persistent and familiar, background to city dwellers’ lives: that of which we become conscious only to realize that we had always been, in some sense, aware of it, without having known that we were (something that “Les sept vieillards” might be thought to allegorize). Both alienating and disalienating in this sense, noise is also a convenient metaphor for the many forms of disorder, disarray, distraction, and fragmented experience offered by the life of the street, like the “chaos mouvant” (moving chaos) of traffic—in Baudelaire’s day not yet regulated—so compellingly described in “Perte d’auréole,” or of course the innumerable busy chantiers, the messy worksites that disrupted the cityscape in the Haussmann era, as described in “Le Cygne” and represented in the extraordinary lithographs and photographs of the period (e.g., Daumier and Marville).7

Finally, the word noise today designates all the static or interference that arises in channels of communication, and by extension the entropy that similarly affects all functioning systems (p.8) and makes their smoothest operations secretly inefficient, a parasitic presence that is both necessary to life and the consumer of our energy and being. The laws of thermodynamics that include and enshrine the concept of entropy were formulated early in the nineteenth century as a direct consequence of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine; but Baudelaire seems unaware of this sense of the word noise. He does, however, recognize the phenomenon itself—in the disorderly energy, the “electricity” of the crowd, for instance, and in the alienated encounters, the failures to connect, that are dramatized in so many of the prose poems in Le Spleen de Paris. So finally we might recognize the devastating whistle that fatally interrupts the mime’s entrancing performance in “Une mort héroïque” as the poet’s most striking representation of noise’s destructive power, as well as of its direct relevance to art.

And if Baudelaire connects noise in all its possible senses to the brooding atmosphere that enshrouds the city of Paris, it is because, finally, he intuits its relation, not only to the pressure of weather with its threatening storms—le temps qu’il fait—but also to the passing of time, as well as the destructive force of devastating events and violent change that are sometimes generated out of the unheeded, moment-by-moment, temporal process and recognized as history: le temps qui passe. Tellingly, the noisy street, where one is exposed to weather and to passing time, is for Baudelaire both the site where the city’s atmosphere is most readily detected and the site where history happens. And that is doubtless why the many permanent denizens of the street—I mean those who eke out some kind of existence there and themselves form a crucial part of its noisy life—seem to be endowed with a special knowledge that escapes the busy passers-by who hurry from point A to point B. The ragpickers, beggars, prostitutes, and street performers of all kinds (mimes, saltimbanques, musicians)—the whole class of forains, those “on the (p.9) outside” (Latin foris)—both attract and intrigue the flâneur poet, himself an habitué of the street. They do so, I suggest, because on the one hand they form part of the city’s atmosphere, personifying its noisy life in their fringe existence, while on the other they appear to have acquired a wisdom from their exposed existence that indoor dwellers—a metaphor for the bourgeoisie—are unaware of. “Les Yeux des pauvres” is readable, perhaps, as an allegory of this tantalizing (un)readability of Baudelaire’s street people.8

All this city noise—alienating din, steady background hum, unruly disorder bordering on chaos but also a certain intriguing strangeness—contrasts, of course, with the supposed stillness, silence, and timelessness of “immutable” nature. (That nature is itself subject to entropy is a post-Baudelairean realization.) Baudelaire’s awakening to noise as the specific indicator of urban modernity and the crucial component of the city’s atmosphere is interestingly literalized in a recent novel by the Australian writer Gail Jones. Dreams of Speaking—a title that resonates with Baudelaire’s own pursuit of a language of noise—is an “Alice in Wonderland” novel, one that epitomizes our inheritance of a post-Baudelairean aesthetics of modernity as the sense of strange and indeed alien beauty associated with, specifically, urban civilization. It entwines the twin themes of disenchanted reenchantment—the unsuspected strangeness of the familiar and the similarly unnoticed noisiness of the world—in an exploration of the atmospherics of cities (Perth, Australia; Paris; Nagasaki, Japan), a poetics of technological gadgetry (interestingly akin to Baudelaire’s “Morale du joujou” [1853]), and finally an account of the strains and pleasures of alienated relations (an irritatingly persistent ex-boyfriend; the comfortable friendship of a young Australian woman with an elderly Japanese survivor of Hiroshima; the uncomfortable loving affections of an adopted daughter and her therefore unrelated parents and sister). Still jet-lagged from her long flight from (p.10) Australia, Alice awakens in the night in her Paris apartment in the Marais, near the Seine:

In the middle of the night she heard it again—the sound of the river. Then she listened carefully and once more found that she was mistaken. What she heard this time was the material commotion of the city: sirens, wheels, decelerating buses, footsteps, calls, mobile phones. There was the squeal of an almost collision and a cry of abuse. There was a plane overhead, dragging decibels in its wake. Vehicles of every kind. The snarl of a motorbike. The rumble of garbage trucks with their brute growling innards, the roll and click-clack of a late-night skateboard. All this activity in the air, this routine distortion. All this noisy encasement and mobilized intention. Alice wanted silence. She wanted the nullity of deep space. In her bed in Paris, she experienced a twinge of homesickness. Not the longing for a place, so much, as for a space into which her self could be poured, without erasure.9

Alice’s middle-of-the night awakening to noise has been carefully naturalized. Accustomed to the relative silence of her Perth neighborhood, she may find Paris’s brand of nocturnal noise especially disturbing; perhaps too she mistakes the “material commotion of the city” for the sound of the nearby Seine, because in Perth she lives near the Swan and windsurfs on its estuary-like bays. In her sleepy wakefulness, the two cities are unconsciously melded: one a lost space of heedless comfort “into which her self could be poured, without erasure,” the other one that threatens to “erase” that sense of self. The latter is the double space of disalienation, of awakening accompanied by a nostalgia for the alienated unawareness that preceded this new state of disorientation. In Baudelaire, we shall find something quite similar.10

Alice’s new alertness to “this activity in the air, this routine distortion” that constitutes the atmospherics of Paris is (p.11) Baudelaire-like too in its pairing of “material commotion” with “mobilized intention,” a phrase that refers, I take it, to the purposefulness of street traffic in all its decibel-laden vehicular variety, from planes overhead to skateboards, but which also suggests the intentness of Alice’s own awakened attention: her mobilized noticing of a commotion that by day had seemingly gone unheeded. It is as if the threat represented by the now-awakened awareness of noise as entropy, the danger of erosion and eventual erasure that means the death of the self, is balanced by a negentropic counterintentness, as if the value of the mobilized awareness compensated for the energy lost unconsciously to noise. Lucidity, or—as he puts it in his own-terms “la conscience dans le Mal”—is surely for Baudelaire not only the supreme virtue to which modern man can aspire but perhaps also the only value to which one can aspire (see “L’Irrémédiable,” poem 84 of Les Fleurs du Mal).

Such lucid attention is what the passage suggests, on Alice’s part, in its deployment of the wealth of words that the lexicon of English makes available, its frequently onomatopoeic registration in language of noise’s variety as well as its constant presence. It is as if language itself offers evidence of a widely shared noise anxiety, like Alice’s and Baudelaire’s, that may not often surface in the way it does here but is active in the linguistic unconscious and offers the detached observer a means of exploration and analysis in the way that Inuit languages are fabled for their complex terminology of snow. And if, as I am suggesting, noise anxiety is akin to, or even a version of, time anxiety—our simultaneous denial and unconsciousness of time’s erosion (but also unending renewal) of life—there is another Baudelairean aspect to this passage, one on which I want to expand a little. It is, of course, the equivalence of streets and rivers.

This is the second time Alice has been awakened by the river, only to realize that what she was hearing was traffic (p.12) noise. But the first time her attention had stayed focused on the noise’s riverine quality: perhaps, she had reflected, it was the “idea of the river that seemed somehow audible.” What this means is hinted at when she goes on to evoke the “mystery of nature”: “Energies beyond machines. Beyond petrochemical drive.” This riverine “idea” in Alice’s understanding, is something antecedent to modernity, then, with its traffic and the Xerox-machine to whose sound she had originally compared the “rhythmic, thunderous sound” of the Seine—the Seine which itself, when she had first seen it, had likewise impressed her with the antiquity of its own “venerable, khaki-coloured” rift, “older than Europe” or if you will its own premodern “idea.” Baudelaire’s (necessarily pre-Xerox) figure for this same riverine ideality—the ancient, obstinate, rhythmic noise attributed to the drift of time—is the autumnal thud of logs being unloaded in a courtyard, as in “Chant d’automne” (poem 57): “J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres / Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours” (I hear them chopping firewood in our court / the dreary thud of logs on cobblestone). But in Baudelaire this funereal sound has no apparent connection with the drifting flow of rivers: the Parisian poetic tradition Alice’s apprehension of the Seine indexes is, of course, not that of the mid-nineteenth century, but that of Apollinaire (“Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine” [Below the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine]), and of Apollinaire-like successor poets such as Raymond Queneau and Jacques Roubaud.

As a poet of Paris, Baudelaire is of another era, then, and the Seine, perhaps surprisingly to modern readers, occupies an insignificant and well-nigh undetectable place in his vision of the city—the same being true, mutatis mutandis, not only of Balzac, his great predecessor, but also of his own contemporaries, Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval. The Seine, to them, is not a factor. A hint as to why this is so is offered, however, by (p.13) yet another member of Baudelaire’s generation, Gustave Flaubert, in the memorable opening page of L’Education sentimentale in which Frédéric Moreau departs from Paris, amid much noise and bustle, aboard the paddleboat on which he is about to encounter for the first time Mme Arnoux. Until the spreading network of railroads gradually replaced them, rivers in France mainly functioned as thoroughfares, and were consequently associated with traffic, commerce, and industry. In Paris, the Seine was to all intents and purposes, a kind of city street, then—something that Flaubert broadly hints at by showing us the objects of Frédéric’s attention as the boat moves upstream in the direction of Nogent. At first, warehouses, building sites, and factories “populate” the two banks; then, as the boat continues to move, the familiar urban tangle of Paris now disappears into the fog:

A travers le brouillard [Frédéric] contemplait des clochers, des édifices dont il ne savait pas les noms; puis il embrassa, dans un dernier coup d’oeil, l’île Saint-Louis, la Cité, Notre-Dame; et bientôt, Paris disparaissant, il poussa un grand soupir.

(Through the fog Frédéric watched the bell towers and buildings whose name he did not know; then in one final glance he took in the Île Saint-Louis, the Cité, and Notre-Dame, until soon, as Paris disappeared, he heaved a great sigh.)

L’Éducation sentimentale, 1

This fog, picking up on the departure scene of frenzied activity whose noise (tapage) is absorbed into an all-enveloping whitish cloud of hissing steam, suggests that, in its own way, Flaubert’s novel is defining itself, like Baudelaire’s poetry, as an atmospherics of the city of Paris, and doing so in terms both industrial and meteorological.

(p.14) Flaubert’s “deux berges, peuplées de magasins, de chantiers et d’usines” (two riverbanks, crowded with shops, worksites, and factories)—located in the very heart of the city—also confirms the idea that rivers, including the Seine, are not so much absent from Les Fleurs du Mal as they have been subsumed into the city’s streets, which—as themselves sites of drift and flow that make visible as well as audible the steady disorder of time’s endless passing—function like rivers no longer natural but man-made, rivers that are the product of human artifice. If, as Heraclitus famously put it, no one steps twice into the same river, the same is true of streets, those noisy urbanized channels and arteries that are sites of pedestrian flow and vehicular chaos, and where also the city’s atmosphere—readable in the eyes of the poor and the litter of seedy humanity with whom Baudelaire associates the poet and the work of poetry—becomes palpable in the electric energy of the crowd. But if, like rivers, streets make manifest the noisy process of passing-by that is the movement of duration, they differ from rivers in that, as sites of human life, they are also places where some-event times, out of the flux of process, an can emerge. History can happen in the streets, whether it be in the form of the poet’s strange encounters with spectral old men, stray swans, or elegant widows whose glance strikes like a hurricane—encounters that can lastingly change an individual’s existence—or of the collective political uprisings whose memory still remains associated, in French, with the very word rue and the street’s riotous, surging crowds: events that change the life of a society, and in Baudelaire’s eyes, rarely if ever do so for the better.

For descendre dans la rue (to step into the street)—a phrase that refers both to an everyday action and to political recourse to l’émeute—is an act charged with symptomatic significance. The verb descendre, itself suggestive of decline, figures in the standard French version of Heraclitus’s dictum: “On ne descend (p.15) pas deux fois dans le même fleuve” (One does not step twice into the same river); but it also inscribes the downward direction that is as characteristic of Baudelairean spleen as upward movement is the marker of l’idéal. “Bientôt nous descendrons dans les froides ténèbres” (Soon we shall descend into the cold darkness) is the opening line of “Chant d’automne,” and the steady rhythm of the woodblocks resounding “sur le pavé des cours” (on the cobblestones) is that, not only of autumn, but also of a funeral march. I will follow a similar downward movement, from a kind of pseudotranscendence to an ultimate embrace of immanence, as I trace the direction of Baudelaire’s aesthetic evolution—an evolution simultaneously revolutionary and downward-turning, and thus twice inscribed in the street, as is la beauté moderne (modern beauty) itself in relation to la beauté idéale (ideal beauty) of the optimistic 1830s and 1840s (the concept to which Gautier, for instance, was to cling throughout his long life).11 But finally, too, downward movement for Baudelaire—and increasingly so after the events of 1848–51—is the inevitable direction followed by human civilization itself; that is, the direction of a history of decline as opposed to nature’s supposedly unchanging permanence. And the city street, where history happens, emerging out of process time in the way that the elegant widow of “À une passante” with her devastating glance emerges from the crowd, is thus, for the poet, the very sign of this inescapable decadence of human civilization, the evidence of our fallen state.

If Baudelaire’s noise-filled streets are displaced rivers, then it is that very displacement that suggests their most crucial significance. The word rue, it is true, echoes an old word for stream (un ru) as well as the verb ruer (to rush), and this riverine echo resonates, for example, in “Les sept vieillards,” where the fog transforms an ordinary street into a flooded river, a “rivière accrue.” But in “Le Cygne,” the “nouveau Carrousel” becomes a (p.16) place of memory, where “ce petit fleuve, … Ce Simoïs menteur qui par vos pleurs grandit” (that … mimic Simoïs salted by your tears) bespeaks Andromache’s fall, from the sublimity of the epic into the reality of historical time, and with it into the baseness of the trivial, the ordinary, and the everyday—the site both of deceitful artifice (“Simoïs menteur”) and of what, punning on la ville (the city), Baudelaire had already identified, in “Le Soleil,” as “le vil” (the vile). But these swollen rivers, too, are brimming, not only with the accumulation of historical time but also with the imminence of a more particular revelation: the spectral apparition of the ghostly old men, or the unexpected connection made in the poet’s mind between ancient Andromache and the modern exile of the swan, stranded in the dust of an urban gutter, out of place and far from water of any kind, be it lake or river. So, it is finally the emergence of “la passante,” she who passes by, out of “la rue assourdissante” (the deafening street) that represents the crucial instance of such a revelation, signifying as she does just such an emergence of the historical, in the form of a devastating event, out of the noisy crowd and the ongoing process of temporal drift, the time of the everyday. For such events are moments that bring a tantalizing sense of partial insight. As such they are not the concern of nature, although natural rivers too may flood. They are the product of human society, the polis: the city as cité as well as ville, the civitas that accompanies the urbs.

For where there is history, there is also—and necessarily so, as Walter Benjamin so fruitfully argued—allegory.12 Allegory is a reflection on the ruins—the devastation, the dispersal, the noisy residue—that are themselves a seemingly interpretable remainder, partly of time per se, but also of history’s destructive power. If Baudelaire’s streets, in their guise of “fallen” rivers, are swollen with imminent revelation, then—a form of readability—it is not that they promise access to actual knowledge. (p.17) It is rather that humanity’s fall into history permits only the kind of frustrated recognition of our nonknowledge that composes the significance of allegorical thought. The word for such a recognition, which one might think of as the wisdom of the street, is, I suggest, disalienation—that is, the recognition of human alienation, something that is not the same as becoming in some miraculous way unalienated. Allegory, then, can and does dispel illusion, but it does so, as we shall see at greater length, without installing in its place the possibility of knowing. As in “À une passante,” it is exactly the figure of a missed encounter with actual knowledge, a rencontre manquée:

  • Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
  • O toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!
  • (Of me you know nothing, I nothing of you
  • whom I might have loved and who knew that too.)

And therein lies the significance of an atmospherics of the city, for an atmosphere is that which, like noise and like allegory, can be both perceived and rendered perceptible to others, but without such a revelation giving access to actual or positive knowledge: it disalienates, in that way, and it heightens awareness—but it does not, and cannot, abolish alienation itself. For alienation is a given. And if the readability of allegory is the rhetorical instrument of disalienation, then, dispelling illusion without producing knowledge, it is never entirely free of that other rhetorical figure de pensée that is irony—the irony inherent in perceiving that one can be disillusioned without achieving genuine knowledge. Such, then, is the nature of the foggy atmosphere, exemplified perhaps by the one described in “Les sept vieillards,” into which modernity—experienced as a becoming conscious of humanity’s long fall into the nightmare (p.18) of history—has plunged us and in which we are condemned to live. An atmosphere, however, that Baudelaire persists in believing can inspire a form of beauty.

The Noisy Fetish

The process that brought Baudelaire to a poetics of allegory and of irony—that is, to an alliance with noise and its principal locus, the riverine streets—began in the fetishizing aesthetics of ideal(izing) beauty that he initially shared with other writers of his generation: such figures as Gautier, Nerval, and even, in his own deeply ironic way, Flaubert. For, being itself the product of urban artifice, the dynamics of fetish is inevitably complex and unstable.

In the case of aesthetic fetishism, such instability arises from the idea of art as redemptive in relation to the ordinary, the banal, the everyday, and the ugly: the familiar reality of disenchanted, that is, modern, urban existence. Such an idea presupposes an artistic engagement with precisely the dreary features of noisy materiality out of which the harmonious ideality of the beautiful is held to emerge. Attention, framing, the work of form can endow an old shoe or a block of wood worked into an interesting shape, be it incongruous or elegant, with the acquired aura that (re)defines it as a fetish object, desirable in certain cases, awesome in others. But it remains true nevertheless that the material object in question is and remains just a piece of well-worn footwear or potential firewood. The fetish is a noisy phenomenon because its structure ensures in this way that it is at odds with itself. To put it in twentieth-century terms, the negentropy of (structured) harmony and the entropy of (unstructured) materiality are mutually entailed, locked in a kind of embrace, negentropic harmony and entropic noisiness being each crucial to the other’s definition. Simultaneously beguilingly (p.19) attractive (or fearsome) and self-evidently banal, vulgar, and even repellent, the fetish object is an inherently noisy phenomenon in that it combines into an inseparable embrace qualities—such as the beautiful and the ugly, the desirable and the undesirable—that are normally understood to be incompatible (although, as Derrida would add, they are in reality only different, as the fetish itself demonstrates).

Baudelaire is conscious of this paradoxical character of the fetish and, always delighted to épater le bourgeois, makes use of it in some “explosive” epigrams, what he calls pétards or firecrackers. Aware, for example, that the atmospherics of color, gloss, and light is not limited to the art of painting, he claims that a gaudily painted wooden toy provides the beginning of a child’s aesthetic education. Elsewhere he implies strongly that at the theater the chandelier may be a much more compelling object of attention than the goings-on on stage.13 His point might be formulated more laboriously as follows. If, as I have argued, it is thanks to the factitious character of urban existence as a historical phenomenon—its substitution of streets for rivers—that the artificial supernaturalism of fetish aesthetics comes to define the character of art, superseding the natural supernaturalism of the Romantic sublime, then this would be precisely because, as a man-made environment, the city can offer, as substitutes for the nature that is now absent, only such categories as the material, the useful, and the ordinary. Such categories (exemplified by the street) are already one step away from nature and, by that token, closer—in all their ugliness—than natural objects might be to the modern art that seeks to transcend them and to endow them with a saving aura or atmosphere, and is able to do so, moreover, only by means of a further artifice—a purely material intervention—of its own: the work of form. Ergo, utilitarian objects like toys and chandeliers can, on occasion, themselves mimic the effect of a work of art and exert a fascination comparable (p.20) to that of a painting or a statue at the Salon, or indeed a poem, which is the burden of Baudelaire’s pétards. But conversely, art itself cannot be fully separable from the everyday objects that it seeks to transform.

In short, there is not only a complex juggling of the everyday and the beautiful, the harmonious and the noisy, to be performed, but also a range of possible emphases within that dynamics, more or less noisiness implying less or more harmony. Thus, Baudelaire begins, as we will see, by stressing the magic of form, of poiesis and aesthetic shaping as a negentropic force, in the task of redeeming the distressing formlessness of the material world of modernity, a world perceived as the domain of the antisublime, that is, of the ordinary, the ugly, the vulgar, the noisy. At this stage he is close, in particular, to the kind of aesthetic idealism of which Gautier was the most prominent proponent. But under the impact of political events of considerable violence—the uprisings of February and June 1848, and the bloody repression of the latter of the two together with their increasingly distasteful sequel and the installation of a bourgeois-controlled and capitalistic Second Empire—Baudelaire’s tune changes. His awareness of the street—and of the power and strange atmospheric beauty, the compelling force, of a world now seen to be governed by the presence, sometimes occult sometimes manifest, of that which you and I might now term entropy but which Baudelaire describes as history—begins to push him in the direction of a supernaturalism still, but a supernaturalism of noise, or of what more judgmentally he calls “le Mal.” And he therefore launches in his late poems into the pursuit of a form that would, paradoxically enough, be attuned to the threatening disintegration, the becoming-formless, of the world he now sees around him.

Such a form would no longer be at the service of an illusory comfort. Rather it would be the aesthetic equivalent of (p.21) an ethical “conscience dans le Mal” that, as I have said, has by his final years become the poet’s abiding principle. The name of this form, still fetishistic in its supernaturalism but now a fetishism of noise understood as the perceptible face of an occult force of evil and destruction manifested in history, is allegory. In the great poems of “Tableaux parisiens” written around 1859–61, poetic allegory as an agent of disalienation has displaced the illusory harmonian fetishism of an earlier, more optimistic and utopian moment, now dismissed (although it remains, of course, as the very source of the new mood of in-Les Fleurs du Mal tense disillusionment, in the way that in spleen displaces but does not supplant the ideal, which itself supplements but never fully substitutes for spleen).

And that same ideal-spleen relation of interchangeability—of difference without disconnection—governs Baudelaire’s partial turn, begun in the middle to late 1850s, to prose poetry and its concomitant figure of irony. Both allegory and irony are tropes of recognition, figures de pensée (figures of thought) in the terminology of French rhetoric, as opposed to figures de mots (verbal figures). Each, that is, is textually inexplicit, allegory optionally so but irony obligatorily—a matter not of statement (“this is an allegory,” “I am working an irony here”) but of implication, that is of readability. But in Baudelaire’s perspective, irony (and poetic prose) seem to lie at the spleen pole of what is in any case more a continuum than a dichotomy, while verse poetry and allegory occupy the ideal end, irony being understood as “writing made noisy” while the allegorical function of Baudelaire’s late verse makes the noisiness of the world its object of indexical reference much more than its medium. The verse medium itself, in these allegorical poems, remains broadly speaking harmonian, given its continued adherence to conventions of rhythm and rhyme, so that its reference to the cosmic noisiness that governs the historical world (p.22) occurs within an overall frame of orderly writing in which strategic outbreaks of local disorder subserve an indicative function and provide interpretive clues.14

So the reader of allegorical verse recognizes noisiness as the ugly and frightening dimension of a reading experience that presents itself as shrouded in the still beautifying, redemptive, “upward-turning” atmospherics of poetic beauty, an atmospherics still reminiscent, therefore, of the idealizing function of Baudelaire’s earlier, largely pre-1848, aesthetics. But in the case of poetic prose, irony—assuming it is perceived—makes reading itself a direct experience of noise, and thus a directly disalienating (or consciousness-raising) encounter with an actual experience of alienation, a foreshadowing of the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. Atmospherics, here—that of the text and that of the city—is now a purely immanent phenomenon, without obvious transcendent implication, and thus what I would term a downward-trending phenomenon, in that it is understood as confined to the level of daily experience. The city’s atmosphere arises now merely as a consequence of such a defamiliarizing perception, whereby the aura of strangeness that may attach to ordinary things no longer necessarily implies a transcendental beyond.

It follows that the famous aphorism of Fusées XI—“Deux qualités littéraires fondamentales: surnaturalisme et ironie” (OC 1:658; two fundamental literary qualities: supernaturalism and irony)—is itself deeply ironic, given that the two qualities declared to be fundamental to aesthetic writing are so dissimilar as to be inimical, the one implying (for Baudelaire) a transcendental structure of the world, the other its possible or probable absence. It is thus the famous “droit de se contredire” that allows one to alternate between them, as does Baudelaire in moving between verse and prose. Nevertheless, this tension of the ironical and the allegorical modes—one associated with (p.23) prose, the other with verse—is fundamental to the work of the late Baudelaire and to its significance, making the corpus itself a noisy one, and showing him to be an inheritor not solely of Wordsworthian sublimity (at first reduced to the artificial supernaturalism of fetish aesthetics and later transformed in the allegorical poems into a transcendentalism of the malign) but also of German Romanticism, with its insistence—whether formulated as Hölderlin’s “alternation of tones” (Wechsel der Töne) or as Friedrich Schlegel’s more famous “permanent digressivity” (permanente Parekbasis)—on the constant breaking of the frame that is irony.

As for Baudelaire’s succession, it necessarily includes the modernist fascination with cities (Joyce, Eliot et al.) as well as the tradition of Paris poetry that runs through the twentieth century, from Apollinaire to Roubaud and Réda. But more appositely, in the context of an atmospherics of noise, there are those who have invested, poetically or otherwise, in the power of disorder, dissolution and waste: Rimbaud’s visionary “dérèglement de tous les sens” (disruption of each and every sense), or Bataille’s commitment to a sovereignty, beyond the mastery-subjection dialectic and achievable through expenditure, or dépense. Finally, those closest to Baudelaire are doubtless the many modern poets—as well as painters and musicians—who have dedicated their art to a paradoxical engagement with what Baudelaire would have called “l’Ennemi” and identified with the city. I mean the inventors of a poetics of the antipoetic—of negativity, disharmony, distress, destruction. These are more concerned with a certain need to bear witness than with the impossible construction of an aesthetically and philooeuvre sophically harmonious supposedly exempt from the ravages of the real—of time and its noisy partner: entropy. For a poetics of noise such as the one we will follow Baudelaire in the process of inventing, is necessarily dedicated to a certain (p.24) kind of failure, but a failure that is also—in its own way and as a demonstration of what is entailed in the pursuit of veracity—a certain kind of testimonial success. In this respect, Paul Celan is in a tradition of poetic witnessing whose founder was Baudelaire.

However, my present concern is not so much to trace the long and complex becoming-noisy of nineteenth- and twentieth-century aesthetics, via the turn from nature to the city and the fetish aesthetics it engendered. More simply, I want to reflect on the stakes of Baudelaire’s particular engagement with noise as the key to an atmospherics of the city. My reflection will take the form of careful readings of a small group of poems, all of which were assigned by Baudelaire to the new “Tableaux parisiens” section that he introduced in the 1860 edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, or else formed part of the Nachlaß of prose poems that were collected, after his death, in the volume now most frequently referred to as Le Spleen de Paris.

It is evident that such a project cannot be a Rankean how-it-really-was history, given the scatter of poems and other documents that remain to us as evidence of a career passionately devoted to art at a time of painfully rapid and indeed traumatic historical and cultural transition: the transformation of a France still largely rural at the time of Baudelaire’s birth into a bourgeois, capitalist, industrial, and urban civilization, amid political and social upheavals to match the violence of economic and cultural change. Think of the chapters that follow, then, as constituting an ’istoria in the ancient sense—an after-the-event “investigation” into “what happened” in an imaginable but otherwise fundamentally irretrievable past. Or as a Benjaminian allegory, a melancholic reflection or Andenken pursued among some surviving fragments that bear witness to the disaster that Baudelaire lived as the modernization of France.


(1.) Etymologically, allegory (Greek allo+gorein, to speak) means speaking other(wise).

(2.) “Chaos mouvant” is quoted from “Perte d’auréole” (Le Spleen de Paris, poem 46).

(3.) Les Paradis artificielsClaire Chi-ah Lyu, A Sun Within a Sun. The Power and the Elegance of Poetry (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006).

(4.) Fétiche was imported into French, via Portuguese feitiço (fabricated object) to designate the ceremonial figures brought back to Europe from West Africa by traders; and it retains that sense throughout the greater part of the nineteenth century, although Rétif de la Bretonne had identified his own foot fetishism as such at the turn of the century. See Amy Wyngard, “The Fetish in/ as Text: Rétif de la Bretonne and the Development of Modern Sexual Science and French Literary Studies,” PMLA 121, no. 3 (May 2006): 662–86. Marx famously identified commodity fetishism in Das Kapital (1867); but “fetish aesthetics” is my own coinage to designate the idealizing aesthetics common to the generation of Gautier, Nerval, Flaubert, and Baudelaire, and often imagined by them in the framework of a country-city contrast (cf. Nerval’s “Sylvie” and (p.174) Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). For expanded discussions of fetish aesthetics, see my “On Inventing Unknownness: the Poetry of Disenchanted Reenchantment,” French Forum 33, nos. 1–2 (2008): 15–36, and “Modern Beauty: Baudelaire, the Everyday, Cultural Studies,” Romance Studies 26, no. 3 (July 2008): 249–70.

(5.) M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).

(6.) Michael Taussig, “Viscerality, Faith and Skepticism. Another Theory of Magic,” in Walter Benjamin’s Grave (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

(7.) David Harvey’s Paris Capital of Modernity (London and New York: Routledge, 2006)

(8.) Patrick Greaney, Untimely Beggar. Poverty and Power from Baudelaire to Benjamin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), esp. chap. 2.Paris Capital of Modernityforains

(9.) Gail Jones, Dreams of Speaking (Sydney: Random House, 2006).

(10.) See my discussion in chapters 3 and 4 of “Le Cygne,” “Les sept vieillards,” and “À une passante.”

(11.) Baudelaire remained interested in Gautier as a poet, despite his own new aesthetic (and political) orientation. “Les sept vieillards,” for example, owes something of its atmosphere—as well as some verbal echoes (“spectre(s) en plein jour”)—to Gautier’s very Bonapartist “Vieux de la Vieille. 15 Décembre” (in Emaux et Camées).

(12.) See Walter Benjamin, The Origin of the German Tragic Drama (London: Verso, 1975), “Allegory and Trauerspiel,” 159–235. (Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1963]).

(13.) See Mon coeur mis à nu, X (OC 1:682): “Ce que j’ai toujours trouvé de plus beau dans un théâtre, dans mon enfance, et encore maintenant, c’est le lustre—un bel objet lumineux, cristallin, compliqué, circulaire (p.175) et symétrique.” (What I’ve always thought most beautiful in the theater, both in my childhood and still now, is the chandelier—an object beautiful, luminous, crystalline, complex, circular and symmetrical.)

(14.) “Daylight Specter,” Yale French Studies nos. 125–26 (2014): 45–65.