Baudelaire, Allegory and the Aura.
[No. 7 in a Series.]
By ALAN WALL.
BENJAMIN TELLS US the allegorist so conquers the meaning of the texts or objects falling under his gaze that when he has finished they can appear merely the dead husks of themselves, having yielded the body of their inner meaning up to his intense hermeneutic scrutiny, as if to an intellectual seducer. The allegorist, as Benjamin reminds us, is not the same creature as the collector; the latter’s behaviour is a form of practical memory, permitting this unique constellation of items to be arranged into a unity, thereby cancelling the contingency of their previous discrete fates, and abolishing any prior use-values under which they might initially have travelled. They now find their meaning in terms of the hermetic lights of the collection, that ‘clarté des lampes’ at the beginning of ‘Le Voyage’.
The allegorist finds meaning even in wreckage and ruin, as that great allegorist Baudelaire found some of his most significant images in the refuse of the city, along with the chiffonier or rag-picker. As the ruah, or sacred breath, at the beginning of the Book of Genesis initially found tohu wa-bohu, or welter and waste, out of which it needed to begin fashioning all earthly forms, so it is with the allegorist encountering the petrified landscape of history. Where the baroque allegorist found himself staring into the vacant sockets of a skull, the modern allegorist can be a conquistador of the dead but glittering world of commodities. These he rescues into a posthumous circle of meaning; a meaning situated inside a constellation of related signs. And thus, in the world of critical thought, is the time redeemed, at least for the time being. Allegory is in the realm of thought, so Benjamin insisted, what ruins are in the world of things – that which remains after time’s ruination. The work, he insists, is the death mask of its conception.
Might anything be strong enough to resist the conquering gaze of this allegorical interpreter? Only perhaps the aura, which can return that gaze, with the steadfast focus of an obelisk. In a world of commodity fetishism, the auratic object or text still retains something of the potency of the original fetish: it announces its innate distance from all possessors, including the inquisitorial allegorist. The aura can be as strong as the gaze directed upon it, so that, like Medusa’s eyes, it stares back potently, even in death. But in the era of modernity the aura is decaying.
BAUDELAIRE WOULD NORMALLY have been described as a Symbolist, and his poem ‘Les Correspondances’ was viewed as an exemplary Symbolist text. It was Benjamin who insisted on describing him as an allegorist, though taking his cue here from the poet himself, who wrote in ‘Le Cygne’: ‘Tout pour moi devient allégorie.’ What Baudelaire allegorised was Paris, the city which Benjamin had placed at the centre of the nineteenth century. This urban landscape, undergoing Haussmann’s vast renovations, seemed to exemplify Marx’s perception, that under capitalism ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Baudelaire watched it being pulled down and then built up again. He sensed that the age was spelling out its meanings with every brick, every column, every demolition. Urban experience had become transitional, a phenomenological scaffold. He noticed that the modern city appeared designed to facilitate instantaneous perceptions, never to be repeated in the potency of their shock. In ‘A Une Passante’ he enshrines that modern urban instant – the encounter with a funereal beauty detectable only at that precise moment, at that particular point in the city. The woman the poet sees has no name, and she promptly disappears into the next moment, the next street, the next stanza. Her momentary presence is the obverse of which the whore is the reverse: a meeting entirely dependent on those same city streets which facilitate it. This is the fractured world of modernity. Such experiences skid through consciousness and then are gone for ever. This is the world of perception Benjamin called Erlebnis, distinguishing it from the deeper, longer lasting Erfahrung; the psychic tract thus prepared was like Haussmann’s boulevards, making speedy entrances and exits possible. Not merely possible, in fact, but obligatory. Here was modern beauty in its temporary salon. You needed to connect it up to the eternal, if modernity was ever to discover the beautiful in any mode that wasn’t merely pastiche.
ACCORDING TO DANTE’S exposition before Can Grande Della Scala, an allegorical text (in its exemplary form) exhibits a fourfold identity. We have the literal meaning; then we have the moral meaning, by which the individual choices of an individual life can be illustrated; we then have the allegorical meaning, by which individual agents in the narrative can be seen to embody or personify abstract meanings or qualities; lastly we have the anagogical, in which the ultimate fate of the soul, the four last things, the eschatological termini, are evoked. At any one moment only two aspects of this fourfold manifold might be present, but we would still be confronting an allegory. Meaning in this mode is polyphonic, not univocal. It expresses itself everywhere as a manifold not a monad.
Allegory as used by Benjamin is a capacious term; it is a way of seeing any object, image or text as multivalent, multi-faceted, polysemous. The world of meaning was not one-dimensional, as certain positivist propagandists at the time liked to insist. Baudelaire’s poetry exemplifies this multi-dimensionality to a remarkable degree, as Benjamin realised; any situation in the present will link dialectically with a situation in the past. Allegorization also permits the personification of forces, which might otherwise be thought of as abstract. It renders the statistical model dynamic. Benjamin had spent his childhood in such an allegorized psychic space. Whenever an accident occurred his mother would say, Ungeschickt lāsst grüssen. Mr Clumsy leaves his greetings. This persona transmuted in Benjamin’s mind into the little hunchback who in later life was always there, preparing his cocktail of misfortunes for the benighted scholar. And he found these personified figures constantly strolling in and out of Baudelaire’s verse. So he says in Convolute H of the Arcades Project: ‘One must make one’s way through Les Fleurs du mal with a sense for how things are raised to allegory. The use of uppercase lettering should be followed carefully.’ Prostitution receives such a capital in Baudelaire’s verse; it visits the capital with a preternatural force. It is not merely a scatter of people; it acquires a personified identity.
The dialectical image involves the past and the present moment of perception; the past offers itself up for illumination at the precise moment that the present needs it – otherwise the perceptual transaction could not take place. When it does so, it is in a flash, a timeless moment which brings dialectics to a standstill in a stillstand of luminosity. These moments occur frequently in Baudelaire. The flâneur allegorizes all that appears before him, since he is disengaged from all activities but gazing; and such an intellectual gaze turns the perceptual ruins of the modern city into an allegory. That is, one might say, the flâneur’s assigned work, and it never found a more zealous artisan than Baudelaire, who walked the streets of Paris as a dutiful curator might pace the corridors of the Louvre. The dialectical image also exists on the threshold of dreaming and waking, and Baudelaire constantly negotiates that liminal terminus: his poems frequently investigate either twilight or dawn.
Symbolism can be viewed as a poetic form of what philosophy would call nominalism. Here identity represents a contingent occurrence of that meaning which is bestowed by the act of naming. The opening lines of ‘Au Lecteur’ can be read as both symbolist and allegorical:
La sottise, l’erreur, le peché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps…
We can see these personifications striding across the page, like medieval vices, hands joined, making their way through a medieval pageant.
Commodity and Allegory
IT IS PRECISELY the arbitrariness of the assignment of meaning in allegory that makes it so appropriate for Benjamin; appropriate not merely for its baroque incarnations, but for modernity too, including the modernity of Baudelaire. We discover in ourselves the alienated capacity to create meanings, including the meaning that we call ourselves. Although this could result in a Dionysian frenzy of self-celebration, Nietzschean man making himself up as he goes along, it actually results in melancholy, as we perceive the hollowed-out quality of our symbols and emblems, noticing how empty they are, left to themselves, of any intrinsic value. They contain only the meanings we assign to them; anything else we imagine we might discover there is by way of historicist nostalgia.
The commodity enacts its own allegorical encoding when it transmutes use value into exchange value. Thus does it translate the native tongue of its productive origin into the Esperanto of the universalized object of sale, as it glitters beguilingly, exhibiting the price of its possession as its true identity. Marx spends the whole of Chapter One of Capital tracing this process, a form of transvaluation which he finds as beguiling as any ever sought by the alchemists themselves. In industrial capitalism, all production – however diverse or heterogeneous – issues in a commodity value, which is to say an exchange value. This is ultimately related to the labour time required to materialise an object as a commodity, as well as to conditions of scarcity and market peaks and troughs.
On this reading (one not available to Baudelaire, but available increasingly to Benjamin) the supreme allegorical displacement in modernity can be seen to be the commodity itself. And hence the peculiar significance of the figure of the whore in the early arcades. The prostitute sells herself, offers her own body, as a commodity. She displays her sexuality for procurement under the aegis of money. She has become an exchange-value, and therefore exemplifies that process Marx called reification, whereby relations between human beings become relations between things; they appear immoveable. This is the obverse of the other process known as commodity fetishism, whereby the products of humanity are displaced from their begetters, seeming to stand over against their own makers in a monolithic display of independent power. Before the cocottes were banished from the arcades, in a periodic fit of public hygiene by the Parisian authorities, reification and commodity fetishism could be observed at close quarters inside the arcades: human bodies commodifed as flesh for sale, standing before the glass panes behind which commodities gleamed come-hitherishly, as though about to come alive. The manikins that Atget photographed in those arcades display their own erotic potency.
Baudelaire spends his days gazing upon this cityscape, and every item in it starts to become emblematic of something or someone else – sometimes a figure from antiquity, sometimes a virtue or a vice out of the schemata of the spiritual life. In ‘Le Cygne’ he sees a swan in dawn light and thinks of the tragic widow Andromache. Or perhaps, he thinks of Andromache, and then invents the swan. The dialectic between them makes the present and the past one.
And in ‘Les Sept Vieillards’ Baudelaire has a nightmarish vision in which an old man simply reproduces himself. He is replicated over and over again, like a coin being hammered out from the presses of the mint. Or a commodity, since all commodities advertise their own fecund reproducibility. The old man appears thing-like in his reproducibility: an allegory of reification in a world of commodity fetishism. He is immortal, as are the inhabitants of hell.
UNDER THE TWIN signs of allegory and melancholia, Baudelaire observes this world, and we might note that both these categories are pre-modern. Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood should have finished for ever any credible claim on the part of the doctrine of the four humours to control the human body, and therefore dictate its humoral dispositions under the astral signs of our fates. And art historians tend to agree that the last credible allegorical painting was Delacroix’s Liberty at the Barricades of 1830. After that the mode becomes merely wearisome and academic, an outmoded longeur employed only by clapped-out Academicians. And yet Baudelaire is devoted to both modes of perception and portrayal, as was Benjamin. And both modes find their supreme expression in Dürer’s small engraving, Melencolia 1.
We do not know if Baudelaire knew of this work; Benjamin most certainly did. It begins to obsess him. Like Klee’s Angelus Novus, it is an image Benjamin starts to live with. In it a dark and distracted angel sits, crippled seemingly by melancholy, gazing away into middle distance, surrounded by the accoutrements of science. These are scattered about and are not being employed. They include an hourglass, a pair of scales, a pair of tongs. There is also a magic square, and a furiously scribbling putto. The emblematic figure of the melancholic state sits, entranced by her acedia, her desiccation of the spirit, illuminated by the light of a comet, a light that would appear to augur nothing good. A bat squeaks. Black bile in excess proportion produces this state, which all too frequently accompanies genius. And the allegorical figure is not merely suffering from melancholy; she has now become its personification.
In the scattered tools we see a philosophical premise shared by both Baudelaire and Benjamin: a detestation of the notion of progress as a universal and vouchsafed vector of social and political life. Baudelaire mocked any such notion all his life. In the light of this, his summoning of fallen angels could appear less of an appeal to the Satanism that gained great intellectual credibility in nineteenth-century France, and more of an allegorizing of those forces of darkness that are never dispelled by the lights of reason, however brightly they shine. To leave out the demons is to leave out too much information regarding the narrative of our earthly existence. That applies as much to Blake as to Baudelaire, and it certainly applies to Milton. The last text Benjamin ever writes (as far as we know) is his Theses on the Philosophy of History, a savage denunciation of the lethal confidence in historical progress, which had betrayed the German proletariat, and helped lead Europe to Nazism.
Paris, the allegoric capital
MARX SAW ALIENATION as the condition of the producer in nineteenth-century industrial society. Allegory, in its Baudelairean form, can be seen as the enunciation in poetry of that alienated practice in industrial production. Just as the worker becomes a ‘factory hand’, so in Baudelaire the mourning passer-by momentarily becomes the centre of the perceptual world, the swan becomes an ancient widow, the Seine a weary parody of a Homeric river. An old man is re-coined, in all his hideous and endless reproducibility. And the prostitute is here portrayed as a redeemer. Baudelaire talks often of angels, particularly fallen ones. Another aspect of his supposed Satanism – perhaps. Though once again this might be read simply as a technique for viewing the diversity of spiritual powers, the array of potencies which the poet constantly invokes, allegorically. And such invocations involve a perception about language itself.
The ‘speaking other’ which is embodied in the word allegory – that allegoria is built into that notion of personification and displacement, just as it is built into the word parable – links up this particular artistic and literary practice with so many other crucial human creations: symbolic logic, algebra, the Sybil’s pronouncements, ventriloquism, symbolism in all its many and varied forms. As the nominalists effectively acknowledged, allegory as a perceptual mode is built into our language, and that means that it is also built into our thought. We might take a simple enough example from Alice Through the Looking-Glass. Alice announces to the King that she sees nobody on the road. ‘I only wish I had such eyes,’ the King replies. ‘To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light.’ The author Lewis Carroll was also the Mathematics Don, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson of Christ Church College, Oxford, and we are witnessing him playing a logical game here, but it is a serious one nevertheless. As far as our language’s grammar is concerned, Nobody is as real as Charlemagne: otherwise it could not command a verb, or be in its turn commanded by one. The non-entity being indicated has the sovereign status of a full substantive. Its ontology is as valid in the sentence as that of Dodgson himself. And whenever anyone remarks that love is blind, then linguistically a Venus in a blindfold is being conjured backstage, however subliminally. In Pompeo Batoni’s allegorical painting Time orders Old Age to destroy Beauty, of 1746, it is the Italian language that has gendered these three personifications. Both la bellezza and la vechiezza are feminine, but il tempo takes a masculine grammatical form. And so it is in the sexing of the figures in the painting. Language itself is structuring the perception, even as the perception allegorizes itself into visualization.
Now Baudelaire is endlessly aware that New Paris stands on the grave of the Old Paris buried beneath it. Baudelaire’s poetry at times takes the form of a prosodic archaeology. Haussmann is merely the latest conqueror of its urban topography. If his boulevards are designed to permit speedy transit, they are also intended to prevent revolution. And in the buildings, the streets, the passers-by, the prostitutes, Baudelaire constantly finds parallels with antiquity. The ancient flashes up and meets the new in a single and unique image of illumination, which must be seized now or lost for ever. This is what Benjamin called profane illumination, and it is also an example of his dialectical image, that redemptive moment when the past finds a crack in the present through which it might shine, however briefly. Hell is inescapable here; it is part of this city’s topography, all too visible in that repetition which commands the human, in the street theatres of fashion and commodity fetishism. Paradise is part of the cityscape too; its artificiality, for both Baudelaire and Benjamin, was a necessary part of its virtue.
As for the genuinely auratic face of the city, the true gaze that could return your own, it would appear momentarily from the crowd, only to disappear back into it once more.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint.