Modernity begins in the early 19th century—the Romantic era—as a sense of the irrevocable or of how we can’t go back to where we were, but by mid-century it’s acquired a very different sense. Now it’s no longer about the irrevocable but about the passing of time and our falling behind. One of the best places to see this is in Matthew Arnold. I begin with a famous passage from his Essays in Criticism that expresses quite well the mid-century sense of modernity:
Modern times find themselves with an immense system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, rules, which have come to them from times not modern. In this system their life has to be carried forward, yet they have a sense that this system is not of their own creation, that it by no means corresponds exactly with the wants of their actual life, that, for them, it is customary, not rational. The awakening of this sense is the awakening of the modern spirit. (Lectures & Essays in Criticism, p. 109)
I have to confess I’ve come to see Matthew Arnold a bit differently in recent years from the way I saw him before. I used to think of him as holding out for a kind of objectivity. Toward that end the touchstones were meant to act as reference points, and all the philological criticism of the Old Testament and New Testament from his later years pointed to an effort to establish what we can know objectively about these texts and the background circumstances from which they arose. Well, not any more. What I’ve now come to feel is that Arnold is much more about subjectivity. If we think about his famous dictum on the function of criticism—“to see the object as in itself it really is”—maybe we ought to put the emphasis in a different place: not on “the object as in itself it really is” but on the seeing. After all, whether we see it or not doesn’t have any effect on the object. It is what it is. But our seeing it “as in itself it really is” can affect us in a very significant way.
One of the reasons I’ve come to see Arnold differently has to do with his affinity for Heinrich Heine, subject of the essay I’ve quoted from. As I’ve gotten to know Heine better, I’ve come to realize he’s also very much about subjectivity of a particular kind, one where you keep trying to pressure the world out there to be what you want it to be. One of the best places to see that is in his description of the funeral procession for Napoleon when his body was brought back from the island of St. Helena in 1840 for burial in the Hôtel des Invalides. A contemporary illustration captured the moment:
ine had a very complicated relation to Napoleon. On the one hand, Heine clearly didn’t like any regime that was too authoritarian—and the First Empire was definitely that, to put it mildly. On the other hand, Heine very quickly came to see how Napoleon I could be used to criticize the doings of Louis Philippe, the “citizen king.” As the century moved deeper and deeper into everyday drabness, everyone— including Heine—probably couldn’t help yearning for the glory of the First Empire. All this and more comes out quite clearly, I think, in the description from Lutezia I of the funeral cortege of Napoleon:
But this mist dissolved miraculously, as soon as the cortege reached the Champs-Elysées. Here the sun broke suddenly out of the dark clouds and kissed for the last time its favorite, and strewed rosy light over the imperial eagle that preceded it, and as if with soft compassion shone over the poor, meager remnant of those legions that once at the double-quick conquered the world, and now, with disappearing uniforms, weary limbs and altered manner, staggered along behind the hearse as mourners. Between ourselves, these disabled veterans of the Grand Armée looked like caricatures, like a satire on glory, like a Roman mockery of a dead Imperator! (Sämtliche Werke 13/1: 110)
Notice how the passage moves from the soft glory hovering over the imperial eagle to the decrepit appearance of the mourners. Like much else in Heine, this passage begs to be taken reflexively, as referring back to himself. If these disabled veterans look so bad, it’s because they’re clearly past their time. And that’s the way it is with Heine, who clearly wishes he were back in the glory days. So this is what modernity looks like at mid-century: a sense or feeling that time has somehow passed us by, left us behind in such a way that we can no longer feel right about it. Unlike Arnold, then, Heine isn’t looking forward to the future. But the effect is the same: we’re out of joint with our time.
Paris in 1840 was clearly a place where you could feel out of joint with your time: in the French capital, things kept moving. After 1848, however, they started to move even more quickly. Unlike Louis Philippe, Napoleon III—who emerged from the revolutionary tumult—was totally into empire building. With the help of Baron Haussmann as chief planner, the Second Empire witnessed a massive and sweeping renovation of Paris that brought a completely different look to the city: broad, straight avenues in place of narrow, winding streets and a uniform architectural style imposed on all new residences. One area targeted for revamping was the Place du Carrousel within the Louvre complex, which up to this time had managed to hold onto its odd, ramshackle collection of old buildings.
As the city planners saw it, these buildings in effect blocked the vista as well as the throughway from the Louvre to the Tuileries and beyond, all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the Champs-Elysées. To the city planners, then, it seemed like an easy, natural move to just sweep these old buildings away.
At least one Paris resident wasn’t terribly happy about it, however. He made his feelings evident in a poem entitled “Le Cygne” [ The Swan ] which was published within a collection he called Les Fleurs du Mal:
Andromaque, I think of you! This tiny stream,
Poor and sad mirror where formerly shone
The immense majesty of your widow’s grief,
This lying Simois swollen by your tears,
Suddenly fed my fertile memory
As I crossed the new Carrousel.
Old Paris is no more (the form of a city
Changes more quickly, alas, than the heart of a mortal);
I see only in my mind all this camp of barracks,
This heap of half-formed capitals and barrels,
The grasses, the big blocks of stone greened by puddles of water,
And, gleaming at the endpoint, the confused bric-a-brac.
There spread out formerly a zoo;
There I saw, one morning, at the hour where under skies
cold and clear Work awakens, where the road network
Launches a somber storm-cloud in the silent air,
A swan who had escaped from its cage
And, with its webbed feet rubbing the dry pavement,
On the rough ground dragging its white plumage,
By a streambed without water the bird opened its beak
Bathing nervously its wings in the dust,
And said, its heart full of the beautiful lake where it was born,
“Water, when will you gush again? when will you rumble, thunder?
I see this unfortunate, strange and fatal myth,
Toward the sky occasionally, like the man in Ovid,
Toward the sky ironic and cruelly blue,
On its convulsive neck craning its thirsty head,
As if addressing reproaches to God! (Oeuvres complètes I, pp. 85-87)
Because of its length, I’ve given only the first half of the poem here. Baudelaire starts off by invoking Andromache, widowed by the death of Hector and subsequently taken to Greece as one of the spoils of war after the fall of Troy. At first it almost looks as if we’re in for one of those 18th century imitations of classical verse, complete with all the accompanying antique place-names. But then, suddenly, the scene shifts to Paris and we’re very much in the present, in real time. Baudelaire even gives us a whiff of construction dust as well as other inconveniences, like those parts of columns left lying around getting green with mold because the city planners’ schemes seem to be racing far ahead of the capacity of their workforce. At this point, we get another shift as the speaker’s attention turns to a swan from the now-defunct zoo who’s been left behind. But the swan can’t shake off its old habits or practices: it’s still looking for water where it used to find it. Unlike a lot of animals, though, the swan isn’t just going to accept this altered situation. Instead, it voices a complaint: “Water, when will you gush again? when will you rumble, thunder?” As it does that, we suddenly realize that this isn’t just any ordinary bird, that it’s clearly taken on an anthropomorphic quality. In the very next line, in fact, the poem confirms that explicitly, referring to the swan as “this unfortunate, strange and fatal myth.” So we need to take what the swan’s saying seriously. Interestingly, the swan doesn’t just ask why it’s not getting any water, but rather when the water will come back again—as if it has a sense of time, and even of cyclicality. In addition, it appears to be associating water with something like spiritual renewal, asking not just for water but for thunder and, implicitly, rain. And now we’ve got the bird turning toward the sky “like the man in Ovid” (more anthropomorphic) and as if “addressing reproaches to God.” So now we’ve gone outside the classical frame. But you can’t just keep increasing anthropomorphism indefinitely. At last we realize: this swan is simply Baudelaire himself. Finally, then, it’s Baudelaire who feels he’s out of joint with time, wanting a return to what he apparently saw as better days. Of course he isn’t going to get it, which he knows perfectly well. So “Le Cygne” becomes a lament for the passing of time, which in this way is associated with modernity.
Baudelaire also voiced his feeling about the passing of time in other places as well. One of the most memorable can be found in his description of the work of Constantin Guys, whom he very much admired. Since Guys doesn’t figure much in surveys of 19th century French art these days, it’s worth looking at one of his pictures more closely:
In the past, I always used to feel a bit puzzled by Baudelaire’s admiration for Guys. Looking at Guys’s work, I just wasn’t able to find much in it. Thinking about it in terms of Baudelaire’s feeling for time passing, however, makes its qualities come out a bit more clearly. After all, what “Leaving the Theater” is about is that transitional moment when we’re merely between one thing and the next: no longer engrossed in the play, but not home yet either. The way Guys portrays the moment works to amplify this point: the faces barely sketched so we don’t really see their expression very clearly, the washed-out sepia-like tone of the clothing of the men, and even the women in just a slightly stronger blue. None of this, however, needs to be seen very clearly, because we’re simply moving on. And that’s how we get the feeling of time passing: by having our experience of it recalled via one of those particularly typical instances. Thinking about Guys and his typical subject matter, Baudelaire in “The Painter of Modern Life” [ Le Peintre de la vie moderne ] can then frame very explicitly his own sense of modernity as awareness of time passing:
Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, that half of art of which the other half is the eternal and immutable. There was a modernity for each antique painter: the majority of the beautiful portraits that remain to us are clothed in the costumes of their epoch. They’re perfectly harmonious, because the costume, the hairstyle, and even the gesture, the look and the smile (each epoch has its way of carrying itself, its look and its smile) form a whole that’s completely vital. This transitory, fugitive element whose metamorphoses are so frequent, you don’t have the right to scorn or pass by. In suppressing it you automatically fall into the void of an abstract and indefinable beauty like that of the one woman before Original Sin. If for the costume of the time, which necessarily imposes itself, you substitute another, you get into a misinterpretation which can have no excuse except in the case of a fashionable masquerade. Thus the goddesses, nymphs, and sultanas of the 18th century are portraits that psychologically resemble each other.(Oeuvres complètes II, p. 695)
One way of summarizing what Baudelaire’s trying to say here would be that you can’t neglect your own time. But the reason you can’t neglect it isn’t finally because of the beauty of its costume or dress but because by neglecting it you don’t experience and so can’t convey the feeling of time passing. Baudelaire says modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent. More significantly, he goes on to claim every period has its own modernity. And the reason it does is because each period dresses itself in a costume it knows to be ephemeral. But that’s okay—because what each period is doing is getting up its own style or way of expressing itself, which it does by people finding a particular way of carrying themselves, by the way they look, how they smile, etc. They know these won’t last, that another period will find another style, but that’s okay too, because the ephemerality of this style (like that of fashion) is precisely what they want. By experiencing that ephemerality they experience what life is all about: the sense of time passing. So the only unpardonable sin is dressing your people up in the costume of another period, because then what you’re doing is trying to deny that feeling of ephemerality by being above time. In doing that, however, you’re not really facing up to what your period—or any period— is really about, which is precisely its own ephemerality. For Baudelaire, then, modernity is modern in the sense that it’s aware of its own time. And the heart of that awareness isn’t the sense of being more modern than the period before it, but rather of being aware of the transience of time, of its perpetually passing away.
However that may be, it offered Herman Melville (native New Yorker) a chance to reflect on the problem of modernity from a highly original, even unique viewpoint. In his writing—as in his life—Melville always took chances. For that reason, maybe, he didn’t go for the obvious way of treating modernity—which he could’ve done so easily with a story set in New York. Which is to say: he didn’t go for it as a way of commenting on the urban scene. Yes, I know “Bartleby the Scrivener” lends itself to this kind of treatment very easily. But I think what Melville was really after was something much deeper, something that wasn’t to be found in the stone and concrete appearance of Wall St. but that had to do, rather, with the way its people had evolved over time. In her book Confidence Men and Painted Women the American historian Karen Halttunen shows how New York and other places had gradually achieved modernity: by becoming places where people didn’t really know each other because they didn’t know where others had come from, what their roots or backgrounds were, and so couldn’t hope to know what people really were. And that’s the situation we find in “Bartleby”: the narrator doesn’t really know Bartleby, doesn’t know where he came from. To some extent, I think, Melville sees this process as inevitable: given how big modern cities come to be what they are, you can’t really expect everybody to know everybody. That’s perhaps an inescapable condition of modernity. For him, though, the important question is whether we can find a way of getting over that. So we’ve got all the high walls, both physical and psychological, separating people from each other so that each remains trapped within his or her own individual subjectivity. Significantly, Bartleby makes an appeal to the narrator. Of all the instances of his famous preference (“I would prefer not to”) the only one that isn’t negative is “I would prefer not to leave you.” In other words, in a very indirect way, what Bartleby’s asking for here is something like friendship, acknowledgment of a shared humanity. And that’s precisely what—sadly—the narrator can’t seem to give him. Maybe the narrator’s not even fully aware of the kind of appeal Bartleby’s making. But the deeper reason, I think, is one we can glean from a clue the story leaves at the very end: the Dead Letter Office. There are many ways of reading it, but one (given Melville’s familiarity with the Bible) strikes me as inescapable. We recall the famous dictum of St. Paul: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6). There are of course plenty of ways of reading this too, but the one I think Melville was likely to have had in mind was that if we live by the letter of the law, we’re all condemned. But if we live by the spirit— in other words, by that charity or generosity that goes beyond the letter—we can hope to survive. This charity or generosity, however, is precisely what the narrator can’t find it within himself to give. As a result, Bartleby goes down. For Melville, then, this is perhaps the deep problem of modernity. Because of so many unavoidable factors (money, among others) cities are destined to grow, and with them the problem of our no longer knowing each other. The question, though, is whether we manage to find a way of overcoming that problem which will allow us to come to terms with our modernity.