October 14, 2012

Birth of the modern

“La Folie Baudelaire” by Roberto Calasso, translated by Alastair McEwen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages, $35)

“La Folie Baudelaire” by Roberto Calasso, translated by Alastair McEwen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages, $35)

Let us lavish praise where praise is due: Roberto Calasso is the pre-eminent public intellectual of Western Europe, and perhaps the Western world.

His extensive writings aim at nothing less than the recovery and reappropriation of the foundations of civilization. And he pursues his aim by reshaping and redirecting our vision toward the often obscure, but profoundly rich, synthesis of art, philosophy, literature and cultural theory that lies at the root of our identities

Calasso towers as a colossus (no pun intended) of an ever-shrinking realm of prophetic erudition. Publisher of Adelphi Eidizioni books in Milan, Italy, he reigns as the consummate man of letters, a 21st-century Montaigne.

Among his works translated into English, “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” (1993) proves the most remarkable.

The recently deceased American writer Gore Vidal called it “a perfect work like no other.” In it, Vidal said, Calasso had re-created “the morning of our world”: the birth of the gods, beauty and transcendence.

Now, he turns his formidable intellect to the birth of an era closer to home: the modern.

Just as brilliant; just as pervasive in his studies; just as inventive in his narrative structure, Calasso is as at ease on the boulevards of Paris in the 1840s as he was among the Greek gods three millennia before Homer.

Always surprising, never predictable, Calasso picks a progenitor of modernity that none of us would suspect. Not Descartes or Galileo, not Cervantes or Kant, but the dandified poet of “Flowers of Evil” – Charles Baudelaire, the Parisian enfant terrible, emblem of decadence and damnation to the status quo.

Such eccentricity on Calasso’s part allows “La Folie Baudelaire” to shine forth as his most accessible, satisfying book.

Indeed, by making Baudelaire the guide through one of the peak eras of art history – the last half of the 19th century – Calasso shows us the stunning freshness and precision of the poet’s vision.

Long before any other critic, Baudelaire saw what made modernity tick: Everything material mirrors the spiritual from which it derives. A “magical and supernatural light” stands out against “the natural obscurity of things.” Only by paying attention to the accidental, do we behold the essential.

This theory of a kinetic fusion of the metaphysical and the mundane helped explain the power of Eugene Delacroix’s paintings, for instance: their vitality and sensuality, their visual “music,” re-imagining classical forms.

Baudelaire developed his radical aesthetic of modernity as a search for a canon of icons in the span of only four years, recording what he observed in the salons of Paris, rubbing shoulders with the bourgeoisie whom he intended to shock first, and then enlighten.

At first infatuated with Delacroix and Ingres (and not sensitive enough to Manet, in Calasso’s opinion), Baudelaire championed the little known sketch artist Constantine Guys as “the painter of the century.”

“Through Guys,” Calasso writes, “Baudelaire glimpsed an impudent, insolent art, which addressed only the ‘daily metamorphosis of external things’ . . . .”

Sounding more like a joke than a serious theory, Baudelaire’s fixation on Guys’ journalistic drawings was soon forgotten.

This, then, must be the “folie” – or folly – of Calasso’s title. But the term folie in 18th-century France meant a garden pavilion of beauty and delight. Baudelaire’s true folie, Calasso argues, was Paris, cultural capital of the world:

“No one had crossed that city so wisely and congenially, like some saturnine guardian; no one had made it breathe in his prose and poetry as Baudelaire had done.”

To study Baudelaire’s poetry reveals an unexpected loyalty to classical form. To read his art criticism displays his ever-acute eye for the electric impulses of the new, of the now, of the fugitive moment.

And to read Calasso’s beautiful synthesis of the age in which Baudelaire flourished is to understand the poet as a Virgil to our Dante – exploring the labyrinthine depths of modernity’s cult of endless images.

What Baudelaire first beheld was the future: our world today. And we still cannot see the world in any other way except through his eyes: birthing the new, always the new, eternally the new.

For we moderns, as Calasso elegantly and authoritatively demonstrates, and as Baudelaire foretold: The future is now.

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