The Flâneur

Library > Decadent Art and Freedom > Chapter 3 - The Decadent Response II



The previous chapter outlined some of the main themes of the Decadent Movement. It was established that Decadent artists challenged bourgeois hypocrisy, and the insistence on didactic/useful art and the productive and useful life. For the Decadents, art, which exists merely for pleasure, reconciles the futility of existence. I will now expand on these themes by analysing the Decadent artist's antagonistic relationship with bourgeois capitalist society. It will be shown that the reclusive life is not the only method of contradicting the bourgeois capitalist world. I will begin by discussing Charles Baudelaire's conception of the idle and purposeless life of the dandy and the flâneur, who were individuals that consciously placed themselves outside of the norms of bourgeois society by negating the purpose of city living. I will then turn to Edgar Allan Poe's influence on Baudelaire's depiction of the modern city's underside in his collection of poems titled Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). Also, the depiction of the underside of city life will be discussed in conjunction with the British counterparts to the Decadent movement. I will mention the influence of Walter Pater's The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873) on the British Decadent/Aesthetic Movement, before ending this chapter by examining the Yellow Book, and its inclusion of another figure at odds with the bourgeois capitalist world: the New Woman.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, Huysmans' protagonist, Des Esseintes, chose to withdraw from society rather than attack it. Conversely, Charles Baudelaire confronted bourgeois society through his public, eccentric life. Jonathon Culler (1993) presents Baudelaire's life as unconventional and non-conformist: "fleeing creditors, hanging out with prostitutes, living in cheap hotel rooms" (p. xxiv). Culler (1993, p. xxiv) believes that Baudelaire created the modern conception of the 'poet' as an unconventional, social misfit. The image of Baudelaire that emerges from his work, and from biographies of his life, is one of a man who enjoyed his status as an outsider whilst amongst bourgeois society. Bernard Howells (1996) states that for Baudelaire "true greatness is the greatness of the pariah" (p. 114). Baudelaire's dandy is one such figure who adopts the status of the pariah and, unlike Des Esseintes, confronts and shocks bourgeois society on its own territory.

Baudelaire was, therefore, eccentric and non-conformist whilst being amid bourgeois society. I will now discuss the dandy, a persona that Baudelaire adopted himself, who is a figure placed antagonistically within society as a reaction to "the rising tide of democracy, which … reduces everything to the same level" (Baudelaire, 1863, p. 422). According to Max Beerbohm (cited by Calloway, 1997, p. 45), the philosophy of the dandy originated in Regency England through the figure of Bea Brummell (1778-1840). The self-centred Brummell dedicated his life to grooming and fashion, and lived idly and hedonistically. Stephen Calloway (1997) states that mid-Victorian society objected to the 'Brummell era' (late eighteenth century) and the "Dandies' languid self-centredness and their amoral, hot-house culture" (p. 36). Therefore, the figure of the dandy is by nature at odds with bourgeois society, due to the dandy's selfish rejection of productivity and usefulness.

In his essay 'The Painter of Modern Life' (1863), Baudelaire discusses his conception of the dandy. Although Baudelaire's dandy shares analogies with the life of Beau Brummell, the dandy is an ideological function for Baudelaire as much as a method of dressing - dress is used for the "pleasure of causing surprise in others" (Baudelaire, 1863, p. 420). However, Baudelaire's dandy does echo Brummell's life in the sense that both men existed merely for pleasure. In a similar manner to Gautier also, who happens to be a good friend of Baudelaire's (Baudelaire dedicated his Les Fleurs du Mal to Gautier), the dandy has "no occupation in life but to chase along the highway of happiness" (Baudelaire, 1863, p. 419). The dandy is "the lover of life" (Baudelaire, 1863, p. 400), he lives merely for pleasure, and, as mentioned above, his way of life is completely at odds with bourgeois society's insistence on the individual's productivity and contribution to the capitalist system. Thus, happiness is the one and only goal for the dandy, yet, unlike Brummell, there is another aspect that the Baudelairian dandy takes on: the figure of the flâneur.

The Baudelairian flâneur is a dandy who negates the purpose of city life by idly, and purposelessly walking the streets of a major city (originally Paris). It was mentioned in the first chapter that the Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on society; one such effect was the modernization and expansion of towns and cities. Factors such as the expansion of the population in major cities led to the installation of pavements and sidewalks and, as a consequence, city life was transformed, as people were able to walk the metropolis with more ease. The Industrial Revolution, therefore, is responsible for the emergence of the flâneur - the flâneur is a product of urbanization. Without sidewalks and pavements, the flâneur would be unable to make his protest against purpose. Although Baudelaire attempts to subvert the purposiveness of bourgeois capitalist life through the flâneur, he nevertheless requires the advancements of the capitalist system to make his point. Marx and Engels (1998) state that "The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself" (p. 9). It appears then, that Baudelaire is using the 'weapons' of the bourgeoisie in order to challenge their way of life. Baudelaire's relationship with modernity, therefore, is conflicting, something which Walter Benjamin discussed some years later in his essay 'On Some Motifs in Baudelaire' (1939); the flâneur is a product of progress and modernization, and relies on modernization, yet is also a protest against it.

Baudelaire (1863) states that the flâneur "aspires to cold detachment…His passion is to merge with the crowd" (p. 399) but not to be a part of the crowd. As mentioned above, the dandiacal flâneur contradicts the purpose of modern city life by walking without aim or intention - he is 'detached' from the purposeful lives of those around him. Ford Madox Brown's painting Work, which was mentioned in the first chapter, depicts an urban street scene in which everyone seems to have a goal or purpose; conversely, the flâneur is a purposeless idler amongst those people. The goals and purposes of the people depicted in Brown's painting are aimed towards the progress of capitalist society. According to Michael Gibson (2006), the Decadent Movement symbolises the rejection of progress: "Everyone else was climbing onto the bandwagon of progress; the decadent chose to stay behind" (p. 27). The flâneur chooses to stay behind - he refuses to be part of the capitalist endeavour for progress. The flâneur is merely a voyeur who detachedly views the sights and scenes of the modern city, which brings me to my next point: the depiction of the underside of the modern city.

Before turning to Baudelaire's depiction of the modern city's underside in his poetry, it is worth mentioning the American author Edgar Allan Poe, as many of Poe's themes and motifs influenced Baudelaire's work. Also, Poe is an important figure in the development of the Decadent Movement as a whole; David Van Leer (1998) states that Decadent writers viewed Poe as "the cursed truth-teller unwelcome wherever commercialism and bourgeois morality reigned" (p. x). Therefore, it is not surprising that there are many similarities between Poe and the Decadents. In a similar manner to Gautier, for example, Poe believed in the autonomy of art; Poe (1850) states that a poem is written "solely for the poem's sake" (para. 20). Poe's life, likewise, shares analogies with the Decadent life of misconduct: Leer (1998) states that "history remembers his [Poe's] college gambling [and] … his West Point court martial for neglect of duty and disobedience of orders" (p. viii). Hence, Poe's conception of art's autonomy and his unconventional life shares analogies with the Decadents, and further emphasises the link between non-conformity and the belief in of art's autonomy.

Poe also had a profound influence on Baudelaire's understanding of urban life. Poe's short story, 'The Man of the Crowd' (1845), shows the extreme contrasts inherent in the modern urban city. The narrator of Poe's story spots a mysterious man walking amongst a crowd of people in a busy London street. The narrator is so taken aback by the man's uncanny visage that he decides to follow the man around the city. This walk results in seeing the varieties of the urban metropolis. The incongruities of city life are depicted: gamblers and respectable bank clerks walk the same streets together. Likewise, the respectable areas of the city are in close proximity to the deprived areas where, Poe's narrator states, "every thing [sic] wore the worst impress of the deplorable poverty, and of the most desperate crime" (Poe, 1845, p. 90-1). However, unlike Dickens and Gaskell, Poe believed in art's freedom from didacticism; therefore, Poe's depiction of poverty cannot be read into as a plea for social change.

Similarly to Poe, Baudelaire depicts the underside of the modern urban city in his collection of poems titled Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). Culler (1993) states that city life is not presented by Baudelaire as a place of "modern inventions, commerce, and progress" (p. xxviii), but as a dangerous and mysterious place. The supposed rational bourgeois values of progress and development are contradicted by Baudelaire's depiction of the irrational aspects of urban life. Also, Baudelaire seems to glamorize vice and crime in the attempt to make it desirable. In the poem 'The Ragman's Wine', for instance, Baudelaire conflates the life of a poet with that of a drunkard:

One comes upon a shaking ragman, who
Staggers against the walls, as poets do,
And disregardful of policemen's spies (5-7)

Baudelaire's drunkard is 'disregardful' of his inebriation - he shares Baudelaire's rebellious and nonchalant demeanour. Also, in the poem 'Gaming', which portrays gambling in a seedy establishment, the speaker of the poem is "Envious of these men's [the gambler's] tenacious lust" (17). Baudelaire, therefore, portrays vice and crime as something attractive and desirable.

Thus, Baudelaire rejected bourgeois insistence on moralizing art by depicting vice and crime as glamorous and desirable. Culler (1993) states that "The repudiation of sentimental themes is major aspect of Baudelaire's modernity. Baudelaire complained of Hugo's prostitutes with hearts of gold and criminals with consciences" (p. xxviii). However, as a consequence of his disregard for depicting criminality without sentimental themes, Baudelaire's poems were seized by the police and he was prosecuted for the crime of offending public decency (Culler, 1993, p. xviii). Yet, this is not the only incident in which the authorities have interfered with Decadent artists and their art, as shall be seen shortly with the court case between J.M Whistler and John Ruskin, and in the next chapter with the famous trial of Oscar Wilde.

The British painter Walter Sickert - who is not strictly a member of the British Decadent/Aesthetic Movement, but adopts the Decadent view of art's autonomy (which will be discussed below) - shared Baudelaire's preoccupation with depicting the underside of the modern urban city. Sickert painted scenes of life in the poorer areas of London. In 1908, Sickert painted a series of paintings collectively titled 'The Camden Town Murder'. Each painting in this controversial series depicts a clothed man and a naked woman in dingy surroundings. Yet, the paintings refuse narrative: the title of the series insinuates that the paintings concern murder, whilst the paintings themselves are ambiguous. Shearer West (2007) states that "Sickert reconceived contemporary subject matter so that viewers looked in vain for any narrative, morality or indeed meaning" (p. 136). Sickert, therefore, shares the Decadent artist's repudiation of the insistence on moral commentary and didacticism in art.

As mentioned above, Sickert adopted the Decadent view of art's autonomy. Sickert was a friend of the painter James McNeill Whistler, who was a member of the Aesthetic Movement. The Aesthetic Movement can be seen as the British equivalent to the Decadent Movement in France, as it shares many of their concerns and opinions regarding both life and art. One such opinion is the notion of art's autonomy, which the painter J.M Whistler adopted. Whistler believed that art is "selfishly occupied with her own perfection only - having no desire to teach" (cited by Gibson, 2006, p. 84). Whistler's implementation of his aesthetic views in the painting: Nocturne in Gold and Black: The Falling Rocket (1874) resulted in a public debate with John Ruskin, who, it was argued in the first chapter, was a supporter of didactic and useful art. In reference to Whistler's exhibition of Nocturne in Gold and Black, Ruskin stated that Whistler had "flung a pot of paint in the public's face" (Ruskin, cited by Gibson, 2006, p. 85). In response to this comment, Whistler took Ruskin to Court. Although Whistler won the case, Gibson (2006) states that the miniscule damages Whistler was awarded "suggests where the court's true sympathies lay" (p. 85).

Therefore, in Britain, as well as in France, individualistic non-conformity was linked to the disengagement of morality and utility from art. It is worth mentioning the influence of Walter Pater's The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873) on the Aesthetic Movement and its (the Movement's) adoption of the art for art's sake doctrine. Pater shared Gautier's belief in the "love of art for art's sake" (Pater, 1998, p. 239). According to Calloway (1997), Pater's articulation of the art for art's sake doctrine in the conclusion to his Renaissance had a remarkable appeal for artists wanting to "escape from the … stifling confines of Victorian painting and writing; from those arts weighed down by an ever increasing burden of moral, social and sentimental baggage" (p. 37). In a similar manner to Schopenhauer, Huysmans and Gautier, Pater saw art as reconciling the fact of life's futility. Whilst quoting Victor Hugo, Pater (1998) states that

we are all under the sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve…we have an interval, and then our place knows no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among 'the children of this world', in art and song. (p. 238)

However, Pater was not as rebellious as other writers who proclaimed art's autonomy: when the public began to equate the aesthetic theories of his conclusion to Renaissance with immorality, Pater attempted to make his Christian beliefs public (Denisoff, 2007, p. 36), and even eradicated the conclusion to his second edition of the text.

Before moving on to an analysis of Oscar Wilde, it is worth considering one more important moment for the Aesthetic Movement: the collaboration of Decadent artists in The Yellow Book (1894-1897). Although the Yellow Book included the contribution of many artists, Walter Sickert being one of them, Aubrey Beardsley's name is synonymous with the journal. According to Denisoff (2007), Beardsley "had the greatest influence on British visual decadence" (p. 43). Like Baudelaire, Beardsley depicted risqué subjects and sexually infused scenes without the fear that Pater felt at being seen as immoral or irreligious. Also like Baudelaire, Beardsley lived an unconventional and controversial life. For instance, Beardsley associated with Oscar Wilde and other homosexuals, a point which will be expanded on in the next chapter.

The Yellow Book also included another subversive and individualistic group that resided outside the norms of bourgeois society: the New Woman. Denisoff (2007) states that the Yellow Book had a "proliferation of 'New Woman' short stories" (p. 49). Before the Yellow Book, Decadent literature was associated with misogyny. Des Esseintes, for example, shares Schopenhauer's view of the "innate foolishness of women" (Huysmans, 1997, p. 80). Yet the New Woman shared Des Esseintes' negation of family life and reproduction. In fact, New Women, according to Denisoff (2007), were attracted to the Decadent and Aesthetic movements' interest in "undermining conventions regarding sex, gender and sexuality" (p. 48), but the misogyny of Decadent literature needed to be addressed and the "Yellow Book offered the opportunity" (Denisoff, 2007, p. 48). Therefore, the Decadent Movement gained another ally in its repudiation of bourgeois capitalist values.

This chapter has shown that Des Esseintes' withdrawal from the world is not the only method by which an individual can contradict the bourgeois way of life. The dandy and flâneur, for instance, have an antagonistic relationship with bourgeois society due to their conscious purposelessness and repudiation of progress. Linked to the figure of the flâneur is the importance of the modern urban city on the life and work of the Decadent artist. The vice and crime that accompanies modern city life is depicted in Decadent art as both a rebellious rebuttal against bourgeois morality, and as a contradiction of bourgeois notions of progress and development. The modern city symbolically represents the culmination of industrial progress and development, yet the irrational forms of vice and crime which emerge from within the city, contradict the rationalistic capitalist process. Also, I mentioned the art for art's sake doctrine in conjunction with the Aesthetes, who are the French Decadent Movement's British counterpart. The Aesthetes shared the same concerns and anxieties of their French equivalents, including the notion of art's autonomy. Therefore, Decadent art and life have been shown again to intertwine. Now, with these views in mind, I turn to an individual who adopted many of the above themes, and whose imprisonment can be seen as the symbolic end to the nineteenth century Decadent way of life: Oscar Wilde.

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