By Sunil Sharma
Modern Paris was discovered by Baudelaire in his avatar as the flaneur. And Walter Benjamin made this figure intellectually respectful as a field of study.
In a recent visit to Paris, I hovered between two allied states of being a flaneur and a gawking tourist. I had come as a sightseer from Mumbai, India, allured by the tales and well-crafted image of a mythic Paris, drinking in the street flavours on those May days, passively registering the wide monuments and boulevards and palaces and towers in one clean and clear sweep — almost like a wide-angle shot in a Stanley Kubrick film. Spring had set in and the Paris of May 2014 was full of eager tourists from nations as wide apart as China and the USA; Africa and Middle East and Latin America. A bouquet of the ethnicities strung together.
Then, I became a flaneur, making a neat switch, in a single instant.
I became Baudelaire.
Different terms can make you look differently at a similar set of things or a common setting.
Of course, I did not have the urge to write a new millennium version of The Flowers of Evil. At best, you can parody a sacred text but you cannot re-write it, howsoever Borges-like you might be.
I am neither of the two.
Like Mallarme and Verlaine, you can carry forward an idea by expanding it further but cannot imitate with complete fidelity to the original.
So, not in a mood for a cheap replication of a master praised by Proust so profusely, I took on the stance of a flaneur and became a connoisseur of the street-life.
Was it possible?
Assuming the role of a figure long dead or supposed to be dead? Replaced by a tourist? Solo or in a group?
Armed with a camera or a cell phone, in casuals, the modern tourist — guided by brochures and online information and a city map — looks at the urban skyline vicariously familiarized by prior research. Or, could it be at a professional polyglot guide spewing bits and pieces of history like a typical street performer or an amateur actor? A mass tourist consuming the city, architecture, culture, food, arts and clothes — public life — in a predictable way and sequence largely decided by the tourist industry. A few breaks are possible in that routine.
But to resurrect the role and agency of the classic flaneur, you have to take on a different position and way of seeing.
And what was that?
I could not become a dandy—detached, arrogant, inheritor of a small fortune, an idler walking a tortoise on a Paris street of the nineteenth century. Even if I had the means, I could get arrested for an act of animal cruelty!
Those were different times!
So what can be done?
The clues lie in The Flowers of Evil, perhaps.
Will this title be acceptable today? With changing definitions of evil? With life becoming more liberal and open?
Baudelaire was a dandy and a cultivated flaneur—the painter of modern life; a gentleman stroller of the city streets. Part of, yet apart from, the crowds.
But then, not every dandy is a flaneur and every flaneur, a dandy?
Again, dandy is a historical invention, a social-engineering, manufacturing of a social type for a particular age.
Perhaps, a metro-sexual male, now no longer fashionable.
Is he a voyeur?
Perhaps, we all are, given the nature of our society.
Or, a keen participant, an acute observer, a chronicler?
For me, the answer lies in the personality of Charles Baudelaire who in turn was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. But that would be complicating things further.
Let us stick to our central figure Baudelaire. His genius lies in radicalizing the trope of the French flaneur. A theme that fascinated Walter Benjamin who, in the twentieth century, tried to essay the same role performed so well by Baudelaire in the industrialized Paris of the nineteenth century. The former could not capture the underlying passion of Baudelaire in this unfinished project.
In fact, by the late 1990s and start of the 21st century, author-flaneur proved an impossible figure.
Market forces, on global level, have incorporated author as a producer of kitsch or dystopia. Dissidents were slowly and subtly disenfranchised.
We are all sellers!
Baudelaire resisted this initial process in Paris. Beckett was next. Sartre and Camus too tried.
Then the flow stopped.
The Flowers of Evil mounts a challenge to the order and morality of the Second Republic.
The poems challenge the bourgeois morality and conception of order and beauty and aesthetics in a radical way. The book talks of evil and implies that the source of evil lies in its origins — capitalism.
In that simple gesture of observing, participating, recording of street life, Baudelaire liberates himself from his historical position and becomes a true artist. By talking of prostitutes and vampires, the poet shows the underbelly of capitalism. His creations provide the material basis for highlighting these themes and give credence to outcasts from the system that feed on the blood of the innocent and the gullible.
The Flowers of Evil is the greatest indictment of the French bourgeoisie by a person deeply embedded in it as a bourgeois but a radical one that unveils the brutal face of a system that once talked of revolutionary slogan of liberty, equality, fraternity!
An evil society can produce evil flowers!
Vampires are for real!
That Baudelaire had not died in 2014 was proven on a street near the Eiffel Tower on that memorable trip.
A Roma girl, bold and audacious, stole my son’s cell phone from his shirt pocket. She returned it after a cop intervened.
I could smell evil in the air. The disenfranchised and the ethnic Roma are still the threat — like the prostitute and the vampire, the perpetual outsiders.
The Paris of Baudelaire is not safe.
The shoot-out at the Charlie Hebdo proves that.
The vampires are out.
This time round, Baudelaire the flaneur has disappeared. There is no one to warn us of these sinister presences.
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
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