Beautiful Appearance

To move from Descartes to Baudelaire is not only to jump two centuries of intellectual, social, economic, and intellectual development, but also to encounter a profound change of heart. Baudelaire's understanding of vision reflects the dissatisfaction felt by many artists and intellectuals with the nineteenth century's optimism in scientific and technological progress, an optimism prefigured by Descartes'

enthusiasm for the telescope.4 While Descartes sought to generalize the technologically mediated sight of the telescope as the theoretical model for all vision, Baudelaire had to contend with the technological organization of appearances in urban modernity. And when generalized as the condition of vision in the modern metropolis, technology proved much harder to restrain within fixed and prescribed limits than Descartes had supposed. Baudelaire's Paris was perhaps the greatest urban centre of Europe, a city of intense industrial and commercial activity, which by the mid-nineteenth century had outgrown its medieval centre and was sprawling westwards. Like other urban centres, the city streets of Paris offered a visual scene which constantly reinvented itself, with new shop fronts, apartment buildings, dioramas, arcades, and streets signs appearing and disappearing according to the quickening rhythms of urban life. But the appearance of Paris was also being reinvented in a unique and singular way, and in the second half of the century it was systematically and deliberately recreated around the grand designs of the new prefect, Baron Haussmann. Even before Haussmann had entered the prefecture, Paris was undergoing a building boom, so that contemporaries complained that the city resembled a building site (Clark, 1973, pp. 32—5). The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire's central poetic work, was written in a city whose appearance was in the process of being recreated, with large areas transformed into wastelands of mud, debris, and construction materials: by 1858, the year after its first publication, the Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard Saint-Michel, the first of Haussmann's great web of avenues and boulevards, had been completed. The reconstruction of Paris revealed the nature of technology in a new and unprecedented way, as the capacity not simply to enhance visual definition or range, but to reorganize the visible world.

Just as for Descartes two hundred years earlier, for Baudelaire technology necessitated the rethinking of vision by breaking the immediate link between appearance and the image perceived; but for Baudelaire, unlike Descartes, the breaking of the self-evidence of vision

4 Significantly, the connection between scepticism towards scientific progress and the rethinking ot vision found in Baudelaire is also central to Nietzsche's Birth ofTragedj, 1993, pp. 4—S.

occurred at the level of visual experience rather than being restricted to cognition. In terms of experience, vision comes to involve not just questions of certainty and clarity, but also questions of recognition, orientation, and memory. Because of their incremental construction over the centuries, great medieval cities like Paris, with their narrow streets and closely packed buildings, offered a network of familiar locations within which personal and public associations and meanings were embedded. The appearance of the city was itself a storehouse of popular memory and public history, upon which public and personal experience were etched and entwined. The familiar face of the city therefore offered to its inhabitants not only a means of geographical orientation, but also a cartography of tradition, a semantic topography within which their own social, economic, and personal location was set within larger historical co-ordinates. With the destruction and rebuilding of Paris, the face of the city no longer bore the complex of urban histories embedded in the old city, but rather its appearance was formed by external dictates. The appearance of the city increasingly became ordered according to the imperatives of official memorialization and state grandeur, the commercial requirements of the new consumer society, and the changing dynamics of architectural and aesthetic fashion; but these imperatives played themselves out in a space organized by the eminently political designs of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. In the wake of the revolutionary street fighting of 1848, the long, wide boulevards which Haussmann drove through the working-class districts were designed to clear their populations from the centre of the city, provide speedy transit for troops, and make the erection of barricades impossible (Berman, 1983, pp. 150—2). For Baudelaire, the reconstruction of Paris meant quite literally the disappearance of tradition, in that the technological reorganization of the city obliterated the traditional meaningfulness of its appearance. But while this experience was lamented by Baudelaire, he also grasped the insights it offered into the condition of vision. In 'The Swan', for example, the lyric 'I' famously begins by lamenting that 'the form a city takes / More quickly shifts, alas, than does the mortal heart'; but while lamentation may appear uppermost here, the force of the poem lies in its exploration of the temporal complexity of vision and the activity of the subject in framing appearances (1993, p. 175). The emergence of a disparity between the appearance of the city — 'the form a city takes' — and the framing of appearances by the associations, memories, and desires of 'the mortal heart', makes palpable the active contribution of the subject's perception to visual experience. It is only when appearances no longer mesh so easily with their framing by the subject that the frame itself becomes manifest, although it does so as distortion, disorientation, and loss.

Baudelaire's sensitivity to the distinction between appearance and its subjective framing was sharpened by another important nineteenth-century technological development, photography. Using the older technology of the camera obscura alongside new chemical processes, fixed photographic images were produced from at least the late 1830s by, among others, the French collaborators Daguerre and Niepce, and the Englishman William Fox Talbot. Initial reactions to photography were divided, and generated debates about its status as art or science, about the relationship between them, and about the nature of visual and artistic truth (see Scharf, 1974 and Freund, 1980). However, what was common to both photography's proponents and its detractors was an awareness of the difference between the photographic image and the traditional representational techniques of visual art.5 This observation was made as early as 1840 by Arthur Parsey in the second edition of his work The Science of Vision: Parsey pointed out that the extremes in perspectival scale which are often involved in photographic images — for example, the apparently disproportionate enlargement of foreground objects or the exaggerated foreshortening of extended objects — appeared to a contemporary audience as distortions because they jarred with their visual expectations (Scharf, 1974, p. 193). This observation was echoed as a criticism by a number of artists, who added to it their disapproval of the camera's lack of selectivity within its visual field and blanket reproduction of visual detail, which seemed quite alien to the tenets of aesthetic tradition (ibid., p. 147). Baudelaire was a passionate contributor to these debates as we shall see, but while he was hostile to the intrusion of photography onto the terrain of the

5 However, as Peter Galassi has argued, this difference needs to be qualified given the extensive role of the camera obscura in painting prior to the development of photography; see his Before Photography, 1981.

fine arts, he also saw important lessons for thinking vision in the gap that emerged between them. For Baudelaire, the difference between the photographic and the aesthetic image testified to the fact that vision was not a matter of the blank duplication of appearances or the passive recording of the visible world, but involved the active framing or construction of appearances in visual experience.

This active conception of vision as the production of form in visual experience lies at the heart of Baudelaire's famous essay 'The Painter of Modern Life', written towards the end of 1859 or early in 1860 (1972, pp. 390—435). Here he offers a description of the visual processes underlying the aesthetic practice of the illustrator Constantin Guys which stresses the agency of vision in terms of the active role of memory in the recognition and production of form. According to Baudelaire, 'all true draughtsmen draw from the image imprinted in their brain and not from nature', a shift that makes perception itself a productive act, rather than a passive registering of external stimuli. The raw material of Guys' practice is not a more or less accurate mental reproduction of the visual scene, but a pattern of 'impressions' which already isolate and select in 'the culminating features or highlights of an object', while selecting out those of lesser significance; and in turn, these features may themselves be exaggerated or enhanced according to their associative meaningfulness in memory. Yet if the essay recognizes the activity of aesthetic perception, it also ascribes a dynamism to the visible world, so recognizing its contribution to visual experience. In a striking passage, the urban scene is animated as a 'riot of details', so animated in fact that they press their demands on the perceiving eye, 'demanding justice, with the fury of a mob in love with absolute equality'. The visible world of modernity becomes dynamic, and is itself no longer the passive object of observation, but an active participant in visual experience which draws the eye and demands attention. Having said this, the essay also makes it clear that the visible world is not an equal partner: as the Hobbesian tone of the passage indicates, the animation of the visible is understood as a threat to the sovereignty of aesthetic perception. According to this logic, to accede to the demands of the mob would be to revert to the state of nature and its war of all against all, where 'any form of justice is inevitably infringed, any harmony sacrificed', where 'a multitude of trivialities are magnified', and where 'a multitude of little things become usurpers of attention' (ibid., p. 407). If aesthetic perception is able to recognize the dynamism of the urban scene, it holds to itself the sovereign right to legislate form to the riot of visual detail, since the coherence and harmony of the image cannot emerge from within, but must be supplied by the form-giving imagination. Paradoxically, despite their apparent animation, the riot of details are in another sense dead, in that they are without inherent significance or relation. They must therefore await the messianic power of the artist, whose 'resurrecting and evocative memory', in the words of the essay, 'says to every object: 'Lazarus, arise' (ibid., p. 408).

Bound up in Baudelaire's art criticism, then, is a conception of vision which registers the dynamic nature of visual experience in modernity. The vista of the city is animated and enlivened by its condensation of time and space, a condition within which the scene of appearance and the time of apprehension are constantly renewed. The visible world is no longer inert but creates new contexts for visual experience, producing transformations and combinations which demand attention and force new juxtapositions upon the viewer. In turn, vision is conceived of as an active process of selection and synthesis, which forms and organizes visual experience in terms of the spatial and temporal co-ordinates of human meaning. But, significantly, such a conception of vision is only possible for Baudelaire within the limits of art — as aesthetic perception — and this limitation of the activity of perception has a number of profound consequences. Most obviously it leads to a radical distinction between two different kinds of seeing: between an aesthetic vision which masters the animated vista of the visible world on the one hand; and on the other, a utilitarian or instrumental vision which fixes its gaze on the incoherence of objects, at once turning them to use while at the same time succumbing to their disconnection and meaninglessness. This first kind of seeing is identified with those who are removed from the immediate concerns of practical industry and social action, and who are therefore able to adopt a mode of perception freed from the contingent imperatives of immediacy: with the distracted gaze of the Jlaneur, whose leisurely perambulations discover vital moments of perception in the city's disconsolate appearance; with the individualistic eye of the dandy, whose aristocratic sensibility expresses itself as sartorial distinction; and of course, pre-eminently with the artist, whose technique has a singular ability to render or actualize aesthetic perception in the beautiful image. The second kind of sight is identified in this essay with the 'strict utility' of the businessman's gaze, and elsewhere in Baudelaire's art criticism with photography, and is understood as a mode of perception in which 'the fantastic reality of life becomes strangely blunted' (ibid., p. 406). Driven by the pursuit of profit, the businessman sees the world as a disparate series of objects available for manipulation, exploitation, and exchange, but which therefore lack any intrinsic significance or connection. Within such a regime of perception, vision is trapped in the contingency of things, endlessly registering the shifting intensities of the visible but unable to discover a proportion or unity from within the endless flux of visual experience.

Vision is thus split into an aesthetic perception which promises transcendence, and a utilitarian gaze which remains locked in contingency. And in turn, this division points at another level to a more deep-seated ambivalence towards the visible and towards its role in visual experience. For while the visible contributes actively to visual experience in aesthetic perception, generating new contexts for the perceiving subject to master and bring to order, the goal of aesthetic perception is to triumph over the very accelerations and variations of intensity that constitute modern, urban experience. Baudelaire's aesthetic thus energetically throws itself into the swirl of appearances in the modern city, but only in order to master and so escape it. On the other hand, the utilitarian vision which abides within the contingency of visual experience only ever reproduces the contingency it confronts, and so its passive reproduction of appearance remains bereft of meaning or coherence. The dynamism of the visible is thus at once the condition of aesthetic vision, what makes its transcendence possible, but also precisely that which is to be transcended. The bifurcation between aesthetic and utilitarian vision is a manifestation of this ambivalence: Baudelaire wants to ascribe an agency to perception, but he also wants to circumscribe the contribution made by the visible to visual experience, because he understands it to threaten the coherence and unity of the subject's perception. Consequently, he restricts visual agency to aesthetic perception because he understands beauty to figure a meaningfulness or harmony which is fundamentally artificial or humanly produced, rather than deriving from the appearance of things. As we shall see, this ambivalence towards the visible, and the splitting of vision in which it results, produces a series of oppositions and contradictions in Baudelaire's art criticism; however, it is important to realize that it is this conception of the aesthetic which allows Baudelaire to reinvent visual experience. While there are certainly problems involved, Baudelaire's opposition between utilitarian and aesthetic perception is not simply capricious or arbitrary, but signals a significant reformulation of the conceptual terrain marked out by Cartesian vision.

The central conceptual shift underlying Baudelaire's notion of aesthetic perception is its insistence on the production of form: rather than locating form prior to experience, Baudelaire envisages its production within visual experience, so locating the configuration of form within historical time. This shift involves a reconceptualization of the temporality of both visual experience and the image, but in a broader sense it also implies a reconceptualization of the nature of human meaning and of historical time. This broader dimension is best illustrated through a comparison with Cartesian vision and its understanding of the providential teleology underlying the certainty of rational form. Visual experience becomes certain for Descartes because of the correspondence between the rational form of mental perception and that of the visible world, a correspondence which precedes visual experience and which is guaranteed by God. Thus, although Descartes claims to evacuate sensible nature of final causes, in a larger sense the Cartesian universe is providential and is ruled over by a benevolent deity, and not by a malevolent demon. In 'The Painter of Modern Life' Baudelaire demonstrates a keen awareness of the relationship between Enlightenment conceptions of providential nature and the model of representation which such conceptions of nature imply. As the 'source and prototype of all possible forms of good and beauty', providential nature demands 'truth to nature', and so installs verisimilitude as the paradigm of representation. Baudelaire refuses to accept the primacy of verisimilitude, but in doing so he argues we must also replace the providential nature underlying it, complaining that is was 'the rejection of original sin [that was] responsible for the general blindness' of the Enlightenment. What is at stake here is much more than a difference in taste or the arbitrary preference for one stylistic mode over another, but the derivation of form and therefore of the spatio-temporal co-ordinates of vision. Because of this larger framework, the essay's rejection of verisimilitude is articulated primarily in theological rather than aesthetic terms: the Enlightenment's providential nature is replaced by an idiosyncratic doctrine of original sin whose conception of a fallen and broken cosmos is bereft of intrinsic significance or unity. In this light, verisimilitude's 'truth to nature' becomes a misplaced subservience to nature which misrecognizes it both morally and aesthetically: as the essay argues, it is crime that is natural while 'virtue ... is artificial', and it is 'evil [that] is done without effort, naturally while 'good is always the product of an art' (ibid., p. 425).

Baudelaire's rejection of the providential nature underlying verisimilitude involves a rejection of its temporal structuring of vision as an infinite series of discrete and integral moments. The formal unity of Cartesian vision is not subject to variation according to the contingency of circumstance, but is always already present in cognition, identically and without variation. It is therefore static, in the sense that each moment of mental perception is conceived of as self-present and discrete, as the instantaneous apprehension of a frozen world of extension under the unvarying co-ordinates of rational cognition. Time is external to the moment of perception, simply providing a linear trajectory as the framework for an endless and infinitely repeatable succession of such moments, which are otherwise indifferent to and unaffected by it. This is why Cartesian vision is principally concerned with the three-dimensional spatial relations of Euclidean geometry, which brackets time and its potentially disruptive contamination of pure space. For all its idiosyncrasy, Baudelaire's theology of fallen nature robs perception of its temporal homogeneity because it locates the question of form within the contingency of visual experience. In conceiving nature as irretrievably sinful and broken, Baudelaire must confront a creation which has been abandoned by God and from which the divine guarantee of form has been withdrawn, and so this premodern theological setting underlies his aesthetic modernism. While the ultimate destination of Baudelaire's aesthetic theory will be the traditional goal of the harmonious proportion of beauty, his radical insistence on the activity of aesthetic perception and the production of form invests his conception of the aesthetic image with a particular temporal complexity. Without a fixed configuration of form prior to experience, form must be produced within experience; and this relocation in turn reinvents the conditions of formal correspondence. On the one hand, the subjective framing of visual experience is no longer temporally isolated and self-present, but is haunted by the memory of other moments of vision which evoke myriad associations and meanings. And on the other, the scene which confronts the subject is no longer a discrete field of appearance, but is shot through with the resonance of other times and places, its unity ruined by the discordant mêlée of resemblance. For Baudelaire, visual experience can no longer be imagined as the simple synchronicity of a self-present subject confronting a temporally unified space, but occurs as the coincidence of nonsynchronous moments within which the achievement of unity or meaningfulness becomes a fraught, and even unlikely, prospect.

Baudelaire's conception of vision is rooted in this understanding of its temporal dividedness and heterogeneity, but at the same time his theology of the Fall casts this disunity as sinful and lacking grace, and demands that it be redeemed by an ordering or arrangement which is not natural but humanly created. This dynamic underlies the description of the aesthetic image provided by his salon review of 1859, which combines Baudelaire's theological and aesthetic conceptions of creation (1972, pp. 285—324). The review explains that 'the whole visible universe is nothing but a storehouse of images and signs, to which man's imagination will assign a place and a relative value' (ibid., p. 306). Consequently, 'a good picture must be created like a world' and not ordered according to the tenets of verisimilitude, which would simply be the blank replication of the purely contingent spatial arrangement of heterogeneous appearances. The first task of aesthetic creation is to disrupt the arbitrary simultaneity of appearance, while the act of recomposition that follows in its wake effects a rearrangement that is temporal as well as spatial, so that 'the creation we see is the result of several creations, the earlier ones being completed by the later'. The beautiful image is therefore not an immediate unity, but 'a series of superimposed pictures' with 'each fresh surface giving reality to the dream, and raising it one degree towards perfection' (ibid., p. 305). Its beauty is not a function of the contingent arrangements that might occur within arbitrary acts of superimposition, but lies in the arrangement of the contingent debris of the visible 'according to rules whose origins can be found only in the deepest recesses of the human soul'. The beautiful image thus integrates temporally heterogeneous moments within a spatial arrangement, whose simultaneity orders the disconsolate appearance of fallen nature within the terms of human perception and its patterns of association, resemblance, relation, and unity. The aesthetic image does not capture a unity or truth lying in nature, but 'creates a new world', or at least 'the sensation of something new' (ibid., p. 299).

Baudelaire's aesthetic theory liberates aesthetic technique from its subservience to nature, whether understood in terms of a neo-classical aesthetics of verisimilitude and 'truth to nature', or in terms of the Romantic impulse to discover the unity of consciousness and nature. And in so doing, it reinvents the temporality of aesthetic perception by redescribing the kind of return which it offers. Underlying verisimilitude is a conception of vision as the passive registering of nature's order and meaning; in Romanticism, however, vision is ascribed an active role, and so the gaze can be thought of as a projection which discovers in the scene that confronts it a sensuous arrangement which corresponds to its own patterns of perception. Romantic vision thus describes a return which confirms the perceiving subject's harmony with the world, through its discovery of a formal proportion in nature that anticipates the configuration of its own perception. For Baudelaire, this kind of return is no longer possible because nature has no inherent order or meaning: the eye looks out onto a vista that is broken and without intrinsic form, and which can only return the arbitrariness and contingency of its fallen state. His aesthetics must therefore radicalize the active element of Romantic vision by conceiving of aesthetic perception as a transformation: the aesthetic gaze reorders the scattered and empty 'images and symbols' of nature according to a properly human configuration of form, so that the image reflects back to the perceiving subject a coherence or meaningfulness which anticipates the terms of its own gaze. This unity is of course not cognitive, since it does not grasp a 'reality' or meaning which exists in the external world; nor does it provide the subject with a sense of its affinity with a larger universe or order of meaning, for what is returned is a humanly derived form. What it does offer, though, is an experience of the creative power of the imagination, which underlies the possibility of meaningfulness by ordering the inert and arbitrary space and time of sensuous matter within properly human co-ordinates.

The radical implications of this conception of vision for aesthetic technique are perhaps most clearly articulated by Baudelaire in another critical essay from about the same time, 'Richard Wagner and Tannhau-ser in Paris' (1972, pp. 325—57). Although not directed primarily at the visual, this essay is particularly relevant in this context because of its celebration of the spatio-temporal unification of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or integrated work of art. Wagner's aesthetics are understood by Baudelaire to match his own, and thus to transcribe his conception of the activity of vision into a broader account of human meaning in the face of an indifferent universe. Just as his own art criticism understands the beautiful image in terms of a spatio-temporal unity, Baudelaire sees this conception of beauty underling Wagner's description of legend or myth, which the essay quotes at some length. 'Whatever the epoch or nation it belongs to', writes Wagner, legend has the advantage of incorporating exclusively what is purely human in the given epoch or nation, and of presenting it in an original and very striking form, thus intelligible at the first glance. A ballad, a popular refrain, are enough to evoke this character for you in the twinkling of an eye, in the most clear cut and arresting form . . . The nature of the scene and the whole tone of the legend combine to transport the mind to a dream-state that quickly carries it on to a perfect clairvoyance, and the mind discovers a different concatenation of phenomena, which the eyes could not perceive in the normal state of waking (ibid., pp. 339—40).

Crucially for Baudelaire, myth is not the articulation of the inherent meaningfulness of nature or the cosmos, but 'an allegory created by a people', a work of artifice which subsumes nature under the Ideal. Baudelaire's essay thus translates Wagnerian legend into his own theology of fallen nature: 'just as sin is everywhere', it notes, 'so is redemption everywhere, so is myth everywhere'. Myth is the redemptive transformation of fallen nature into the unified spatiotemporal co-ordinates of human meaningfulness; just as his own conception of beauty transforms the scattered and transient moments of the visible into a unity, so Wagner's legend transforms the broken historical world into 'the sign of a common origin, the proof of the irrefragable relationship, provided we look for that original exclusively in the ultimate source and common origin of all being' (ibid., p. 348). Aesthetic technique is therefore granted an activity inconceivable in the terms of neo-classical or even Romantic thought, but its transformative activity is ordered according to the pure interiority of the imagination, which is described as the 'source' and 'origin' of 'all being'. And this pure interiority orders technique according to a telos in the Ideal that lies in opposition to the world, and which must violently suppress and order the world. The telos of the Ideal is here quite nakedly 'despotic', for 'every single detail must concur to a total effect', and every technical means must be directed to 'this imperious ideal' (ibid., p. 337).

When translated back into visual terms, Baudelaire's conception of the aesthetic explains the ambivalent conception of visual experience we have already identified. While it grants to vision an active role which contrasts markedly with Cartesian thought and its inert conception of visual experience, it also necessitates a hostility to the visible as inherently tied to the meaninglessness and contingency of fallen nature. This hostility underlies the Hobbesian tone of the description of Guys in 'The Painter of Modern Life', a tone which is itself revealing. For what it indicates is that the essay's conception of beauty is not one of unforced harmony, but of the suppression of contingency under the despotic ordering of the Ideal. Baudelaire's aesthetic vision has a political dimension, which is attested to by the essay's glorification of Napoleon III and French colonial militarism. Both aesthetically and politically, Baudelaire betrays his more radical insights in the search for a sovereign subject who will bring the world to order. Yet at the same time, his understanding of vision also suggests a much more complex account of the visible, one which in many ways anticipates recent accounts of its animation within the technological conditions of contemporary culture. For Baudelaire the image is not an immediate unity, but is inhabited by resemblances which allude to other moments of vision and other scenes of appearance. Therefore, it is to be conceived as being composed of temporally heterogeneous moments, like inscribed but transparent leaves superimposed one on top of the other. And in turn, the apprehension of the image is seen to involve memory, so that the activity of vision becomes a process of recognition inhabited by associations and memories that recall earlier moments of visual experience. Yet if Baudelaire could find this temporal complexity and perceptual activity in the aesthetic image, his understanding of the purely integral and interior nature of the imagination led him to see the image-making capacity of the camera as a threat, since in his eyes it offered a mode of visual experience that is inherently non-human. But what makes Baudelaire's writing on photography interesting is that, despite his hostility, his account of the photographic image can be understood as qualifying and extending this conception of visual experience. Despite his ostensible aims, Baudelaire's account of the technologically mediated image of photography comes to ascribe an agency to the visible which is unavailable both within the co-ordinates of Cartesianism, and within his own conception of aesthetic vision.

0 0

Post a comment