Saturday, February 18, 2012

In praise of the uncomfortable...

Benjamin & Baudelaire, shock & spleen

Comfort isolates…it brings those enjoying it closer to mechanization. (Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Baudelaire)

We live in a “culture of entertainment” where hours, days and eventually lives are spent with “extremely merry things viewed by extremely sad people who do not know what to do with them” (Max Scheler, quoted by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World). This is why we have universal remote controls and limitless supplies of pharmaceuticals.

There is an abyss between the walls of our consciousness, the halves of our brains, a widening gap between the intuitive and the cognitive, between success and fulfillment. None other than Albert Einstein registered the chasm thus:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

Might the comfortable be the enemy of the authentic? Might our society’s brokenness bemoaned by the strident right and whiny left (the adjectives are interchangeable) be connected to the same unchecked drives that brought the so-called “American Century” to the fore? Does anyone still read Shakespeare? History?

Pathos, which in modernism is replaced by Angst, becomes in post-modernism just a joke. (McGilchrist)

Hungering for new stimulation, obsessed with the latest version of the latest technology, the fastest, easiest, most “user-friendly” app available, no one notices the cloaked stranger smiling in the corner of the room, brandishing his scythe.

We confuse novelty with newness (McGilchrist). We mistake surface for substance, volume for intensity and packaging for content, culturally afflicted as we are.

Walter Benjamin was an intellectual prophet whose time may be now, if we are to save civilization from imminent destruction wrought by technology and reality TV. His critique of modernity was not as reactionary as the preceding sentence(s) might aver. In the years between the world wars he anticipated the “commercialization and final alienation of the intelligentsia…the gradual denaturing of art…and the replacement of experience by the new concept of information” (Michael Jennings, introduction to The Writer of Modern Life). Art may be our final hope.

The loss of humanity and the mechanization of life through the unchecked march of technological “progress” is the stuff of apocalyptic sci-fi lit, post-modern speculative fiction, and films from the Nouvelle Vague to last summer’s lamentably forgettable Hollywood “blockbusters.” The latter’s generalization does not require elaboration, further proof of the disconnect between our souls and the stuff we feed them.

Reading would be a good start. Literacy and open intelligence are required “to fathom the full meaning of the breakdown.” Benjamin’s reading list didn’t necessarily start with the splenetic proto-modernist Charles Baudelaire, but he circled back to the poet of Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, contemporary with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, another seminal and career-defining, ever-evolving single body of work).

I am fond of the Janus-faced figure. Not in the pejorative “two-faced” sense, but in the visionary sense of looking back to the past while envisioning a way forward. Baudelaire was one such figure, the one Benjamin credits with being the first to recognize society “was about to annul its contract with the past.”

One of the means Baudelaire uses towards this end was spleen. Benjamin again:
Baudelaire was a bad philosopher, a good theoretician, but only as a brooder was he incomparable…his perpetual readiness each time to put the image at the beck and call of his thought… The brooder, as a historically distinct type of thinker is at home among allegories. He perforce must dwell in shadows, and be familiar with discomfort.

Benjamin uses an allegory with the Old Testament figure of Joshua, whose sun-stopping accomplishment was “to interrupt the course of the world.” Benjamin cites this aim as “Baudelaire’s deepest intention… From this intention sprang his violence, his impatience, and his anger.”

If we recall Benjamin’s younger cousin Thomas Bernhard’s definition of “genius,” then Baudelaire (and Benjamin) are full members of a prickly, unpopular company. Bernhard’s splenetic artist Reger is both alter ego and anti-hero.

A good mind is a mind that searches for the mistakes of humanity and an exceptional mind is a mind which finds these mistakes of humanity, and a genius’s mind is a mind which, having found these mistakes, points them out and with all the means at its disposal shows up these mistakes (from Old Masters).

Along with Baudelaire’s sui generis brooding, Benjamin cites his location of the “shock experience at the center of his artistic work.” Thus, like Bernhard’s mistake-seeking malcontent, “Baudelaire’s poetic production is assigned a mission.”

The shock is nothing less than the abyss between the persona and the soul, the artist and society, or the human being and the authentic life (recall that “the good life” used to refer to one balanced by intellectual commerce across the humanities, with science / technology playing supporting roles: the epitome of the erstwhile “Renaissance man”).

Enlightened or authentic consciousness is the protective shield against the threatening danger of shocking stimuli, to paraphrase Freud and psychoanalytic theory. Baudelaire registers the shock experience with his poetry, connecting back to Poe (who is more appreciated in Europe than at “home”), paralleling Dostoyevsky while looking forward to Kafka and Beckett. That these writers can be loosely grouped under umbrella descriptors like “difficult,” “disturbing” or “dystopian” should stimulate deeper reading rather than easy escape.

What is difficult and disturbing is the real-life challenge of gaining enough consciousness to first register the shock and then absorb it into one’s self without grievous bodily harm resulting.

Baudelaire has portrayed this process in a harsh image. He speaks of a duel in which the artist, just before being beaten, screams in fright. The duel is the creative process itself.

Benjamin uses a Poe tale, “The Man of the Crowd, ” translated by Baudelaire, to illustrate both sides of shock‘s coin and the numbing effects of modern society on the individual. From the assembly line in the industrial revolution to contemporary “plugged in” lives absorbed by an endless variety of screens, a mislabeled “connection” to society results in isolation. Alienation is an even graver danger, distinct from isolation as shame is more insidious than guilt. Benjamin weaves these strands into an apt illustration of an ever-present imbalance.

Poe’s text helps us to understand the true connection between wildness and discipline. His pedestrians act is if they had adapted themselves to machines and could express themselves only automatically. Their behavior is a reaction to shocks. “If jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers.”

Poe’s line is echoed by one of Baudelaire’s diary entries, itself tinged with irony (and a reminder that biting wit is both arsenal and defense in the hands of the poet):

Lost in this base world, jostled by the crowd, I am like a weary man whose eye, looking backward into the depths of years, sees only disillusion and bitterness, and looking ahead sees only a tempest which contains nothing new, neither instruction nor pain.

So what to do? Battle the crowd like Baudelaire, “with the impotent rage of someone fighting the rain?” That image more closely resembles a polemic politician, evangelist, or a spoiled child. The medium and the message must meet in context.

Dylan Thomas put it memorably, mustering strength and channeling willpower:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

An ancient Chinese proverb reminds us it is “better to light one candle than curse the darkness. ” Despite the apparent contradiction in these aphorisms, the essentially affirmative nature of artistic creativity makes them kin. Light the candle while cursing the “madding crowd,” but move on to the poetry reading, please. Let’s start with Auden: All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie (from September 1, 1939).

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