I don’t read as much as I used to, but over this holiday season I have been taking pleasure in the translation of Walter Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire, The Writer of Modern Life, and acquainting myself with Les Fleurs du Mal (I know, embarrassing that I haven’t done so before this, right?). I’m glad to have a bilingual edition of the latter–while Robert Howard’s English translation is poetically appealing, it elides Baudelaire’s singular and discomfiting French.
Anyway, reading Benjamin has put me back in mind of the overlap between the modern sensibility and the emergence of spiritualism. In many ways, it is sensible to talk of them as two intertwined avenues through which a common inspiration moves and I wish I had a better way to get at that entanglement. Right now, though, I feel I am reduced to pointing at it vigorously and trying to keep them from collapsing into each other. There is an occultism of the literary material and a literary quality to the occult material, but it seems like the literary and the occult nonetheless remain distinct from each other.
(The geomantic figure of Populus seems a good descriptor, a buzzing dark movement from which both forms dimly arise.)
So, here is me vigorously pointing. All of these quotes are from The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire.
For [Victor] Hugo, the immense throngs of the spirit world are…primarily an audience. The fact that his work absorbed motifs of the talking table is less strange than the fact that he customarily produced it in front of this table. The unstinting acclaim provided by the Beyond while he was in exile gave him a foretaste of the boundless acclaim that would await him at home in his old age. (94)
This bowls me over. Here we have one of the most famous writers of the day writing for the dead. The crowd of the city and the crowd of the dead overlap, moving and moved by each other.
And that is part of it, the transformation of the city as a material entity seems bound up with the transformation of the city as a spiritual entity. I need to see if Warren Ellis has published that book of his on ghost tracks yet.
The long series of eccentric or appealingly simple or severe figures which the physiologies presented to the public in character sketches had one thing in common: they were harmless an perfectly affable. Such a view of one’s fellow man was so remote from experience that there were bound to be weighty motives for it. The reason was an uneasiness….peculiar to big cities. (69)
It was indeed the mos obvious thing to give people a friendly picture of one another. Thus, the physiologies helped fashion the phantasmagoria of Parisian life in their own way….[but] people knew one another as debtors and creditors, salesmen and customers, employers and employees, and above all as competitors. In the long run, it seemed quite unlikely that they could be made to believe their associates were harmless oddballs….[still] they assured people that everyone could–unencumbered by factual knowledge–make out the profession, character, background, and lifestyle of passers-by….Delvau…claimed that he could divide the Parisian public according to its various strata as easily as a geologist distinguishes the layers in rocks. (70-71)
This presses up agaist the precise differentiation of spiritual types that occurs within Spiritism; it is perhaps no accident that this practice has its roots in France, too . This differentiation reaches its apex in the urban phenomenon of Brazilian Umbanda, where some of the same social pressures are at play.The division of spirits into Indians and Africans, enlightened and unenlightened, seems one more aspect of this concern with physiognomy…right down to the involvement of spirits with the process.
Again, I wouldn’t identify the occult differentiation of spiritual types with the literary differentiation of spiritual types, but I can’t disentangle them from each other, either.
The modernity to whihc Benjamin refers, too, seems so modern, too, down to the concern with the corruption of the press (the difficulty in distinguishing advertisement from the punchy short news summaries) and the centrality of the arcades, those precursors of the modern mall.