Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Charles Meryon and Charles Baudelaire

The two men had an elective affinity to each other.

by: Walter Benjamin

An extract from 'The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire'

in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in The Era of High Capitalism,

New Left Books, 1973

'Poets are more inspired by the image than by the actual presence of objects'1. ('Les poétes sont plus inspirés par les images que par la présence méme des objets'), said Joubert.2 The same is true of artists. Anything about which one knows that one soon will not have it around becomes an image. Presumably this is what happened to the streets of Paris at that time. In any case, the work whose subterranean connection with the great remodelling of Paris is least to be doubted, was finished a few years before this remodelling was undertaken. It was Meryon's engraved views of Paris. No one was more impressed with them than Baudelaire. To him the archaeological view of the catastrophe, the basis of Hugo's dreams, was not the really moving one. For him antiquity was to spring suddenly like an Athena from the head of an unhurt Zeus, from an intact modernism. Meryon brought out the ancient face of the city without abandoning one cobblestone. It was this view of the matter that Baudelaire had unceasingly pursued in the idea of modernism. He was a passionate admirer of Meryon.

The two men had an elective affinity to each other.3 They were born in the same year, and their deaths were only months apart. Both died lonely and deeply disturbed — Meryon as a demented person at Charenton, Baudelaire speechless in a private clinic. Both were late in achieving fame. Baudelaire was almost the only person who championed Meryon in his lifetime. Few of his prose works are a match for his short piece on Meryon. Dealing with Meryon, it is a homage to modernism, but it is also a homage to the antique aspects of Meryon. For in Meryon, too, there is an interpenetration of classical antiquity and modernism, and in him the form of this superimposition, the allegory, appears unmistakably.4 The captions under his etchings are of importance. If the texts are touched by mildness, their obscurity only underlines the 'meaning'. As an interpretation, Meryon’s verses under his view of the Pont Neuf are, despite their sophistry, closely related to the 'Squelette laboureur':

Ci-gît du vieux Pont Neuf

L'exact ressemblance

Tout radoubé de neuf

Par récente ordonnance.

0 savants médecins,

Habiles chirurgiens,

De nous pourquoi ne faire

Comme du pont de pierre.

(Here lies the exact likeness of the old Pont Neuf, all recaulked like new in accordance with a recent ordinance. O learned physicians and skilful surgeons, why not do with us as was done with this stone bridge.)

In seeing the uniqueness of these pictures in the fact 'that, although they are made directly from life, they give an impression of expired life, something that is dead or is going to die. Geffroy understands the essence of Meryon's work as well as its relationship to Baudelaire, and he is particularly aware of the faithfulness with which the city of Paris is reproduced, a city that was soon to be pockmarked with rubble fields. Baudelaire's Meryon essay contains a subtle reference to the significance of this Paris antiquity. 'Seldom have we seen the natural solemnity of a great city depicted with more poetic power: the majesty of the piles of stone; those spires pointing their fingers to the sky; the obelisks of industry vomiting legion of smoke against the heavens; the enormous scaffolds of the monuments under repair, pressing the spider-web-like and paradoxical beauty of their structure against the monuments' solid bodies; the steamy sky, pregnant with rage and heavy with rancour; and the wide vistas whose poetry resides in the dramas with which one endows them in one's imagination - none of the complex elements that compose the painful and glorious décor of civilization has been forgotten. Among the plans whose failure one can mourn like a loss is that of the publisher Delâtre who wanted to issue Meryon's series with texts by Baudelaire. That these texts were never written was the fault of the artist; he was incapable of conceiving of Baudelaire's task as anything else than an inventory of the houses and streets depicted by him. If Baudelaire had undertaken that assignment, Proust's remark about 'the role of the ancient cities in the work of Baudelaire and the scarlet colour which they occasionally give it would make more sense than it does today. Among these cities Rome was paramount for him. In a letter to Leconte de Lisle he confesses his 'natural predilection' for that city. It probably stems from the etchings (veduta) of Piranesi 5 on which the non-restored ruins and the new city still appear as one.


1. Benjamin's brief discussion of the "elective affinity" between Charles Baudelaire and Charles Meryon follows passages on the urban redevelopment of Paris by Baron von Haussman. The paragraph immediately preceding the passage extracted above reads:

"Haussmann set to work in 1859. His work had long been regarded as necessary and the way for it had been prepared by legislation. 'After 1848,' wrote Du Camp in the above-mentioned work, 'Paris was about to become uninhabitable. The constant expansion of the railway network . . . accelerated traffic and an increase in the city's population. The people choked in the narrow, dirty, convoluted old streets where they remained packed in because there was no other way.' At the beginning of the fifties the population of Paris began to accommodate itself to the idea that a great face-cleaning of the city was inevitable. It may be assumed that in its incubation period this clean-up could have at least as great an effect upon a good imagination as the work of urban renewal itself."

2. Joseph Joubert, Pensées précédées de sa correspondance, Paris, 1883, vol. 2, p. 267

3. "Elective affinities" (Die Wahlverwandschaften) was the title of a novel by Goethe which was the subject of Benjamin's first major essay in literary criticism (1923). Goethe took the term from the chemistry of his day.

4. Antiquity, modernism, allegory. Compare Benjamin's notes collected under the title 'Central Park' in New German Critique No. 34 Winter 1985

5. cf. the dark gothic prison scapes and scenes of urban decay of Piranesi.

Further notes

In 1936 Benjamin confided in a letter to his friend, Werner Kraft:

I am currently devoting any time I can find for my book to research in the Cabinet des Estampes. This is where I came across the most splendid portraitist of the city of Paris, Charles Méryon, a contemporary of Baudelaire. His etchings are among the most amazing that a city has ever inspired; it is an immense loss that, as a consequence of Méryon’s whims, the plan to have them printed with a commentary by Baudelaire was not carried out. (Walter Benjamin, Letter 274 To Werner Kraft January 30, 1936)

In the notes to Central Park (collected together around 1938) Benjamin has two further notes on the work of Meryon.

Meryon: the sea of houses, the ruins, the clouds, the majesty and fragility of Paris.(section 7:2) [and] Meryon’s Paris streets: abysses, over which high above the clouds pass.(section 33:3)

No comments:

Post a Comment