The Magazine

God in the Details

Is the decadent Baudelaire the answer to the bourgeoisie?

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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In Tiepolo Pink (2006)—the title alludes to a chromatic effusion of Proust’s—Calasso turns to an 18th-century Venetian painter, Giambattista Tiepolo, who is poised between ancient and modern. Among the modern features Calasso has in mind is “the variegated image of equivocal beauty” that Charles Baudelaire would rhapsodize in his contemporary, Constantin Guys: “The Painter of Modern Life,” according to Baudelaire, must master the art of portraying courtesans, and even their less exclusive fellow professionals. A much finer artist than Guys, and bound by the taste of his time to make a career of divinities, Tiepolo brought a louche, proto-modern touch to the goddesses he depicted: “Tiepolo’s goddesses belong to the demimonde of the heavens—and this takes away none of their splendor.” After all, the Greek sculptor Praxiteles reputedly modeled his nonpareil Aphrodite of Cnidos on the prostitute Cratina, for whom the lovelorn artist was mad.

So Tiepolo consummated the European artistic tradition that incorporated every conceivable being: “And it was the sky of Europe—the only sky capable of embracing, with impartial benevolence, all images, of gods and men, saints and Nymphs, Olympus and Bethlehem. Scepsis and mysticism: Tiepolo welcomed all .  .  .” Already, however, skepticism was driving out the mystical—and in the name of the earth’s new master, who had recently discovered how eminently rational he could be.  

The advancement of learning, to use Francis Bacon’s 17th-century phrase, foretold the eclipse of the gods, and of God: As Calasso writes in Tiepolo Pink, “every kind of humanism is unsuited to grasp the divine, precisely because of its bias in favor of the human.” Yet in K. (2002), his study of Franz Kafka, Calasso rejects the idea that the sacred has simply been dissolved “by some outside agent, by the light of the Enlightenment.” Rather, religion has been absorbed by the “self-sufficient” behemoth that is “content to be described as society.” And in Literature and the Gods (2001)—not one of his six panels, but based on his Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford, and an important element of his oeuvre—Calasso indicts modern society for this ultimate moral perversion: 

The power and impact of totalitarian regimes cannot be explained unless we accept that the very notion of society has appropriated an unprecedented power, one previously the preserve of religion. The results were not long in coming: the liturgies in the stadiums, the positive heroes, the fecund women, the massacres. Being antisocial would become the equivalent of sinning against the Holy Ghost.

This is not entirely a novel observation, yet there is something new and subtle about it: Calasso sees totalitarianism not as an aberration but as an inevitable consequence of society’s having engulfed sacred authority. Liberal society remains in peril of barbarism as long as it forgets traditional sanctity.    

La Folie Baudelaire pits the poet’s traditional Roman Catholic sense of sin, which hounded him throughout a profligate life that ended in syphilitic paresis at 46, against the popular belief in endless social progress. Baudelaire wound up having the better end of that argument, though it would take the unprecedented hecatombs of the 20th century to demonstrate how right he was—and he was dead by 1867. During his lifetime, respectable persons scorned him, as though his tortured religious sensibility were simply the spirochetes talking. Calasso takes his book’s title from an article by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most influential mid-19th-century French critic, that explained why Baudelaire was quite unsuitable for the august Académie française: To the pedants and politicos convinced that their pursuits were the only serious ones—and to a timid critic anxious not to compromise his respectability—someone like Baudelaire was a freak who had constructed “a bizarre pavilion, a folly, highly decorated, highly tormented, but graceful and mysterious .  .  . toward the extreme part of the Romantic Kamchatka.”  

Of course, society’s freak has his own idea of what is bizarre. The French word bête means both “beast” and “foolish,” and it was one of Baudelaire’s preferred terms of abuse for the bourgeois multitude, among whom the pudding-headed King Louis Philippe was primus inter pares. The bourgeoisie believed themselves to be the most extraordinary people who had ever lived, and, to quote a Frenchman of another sort, they knew that every day, in every way, they were getting better and better.