- Reimagining the Flâneur:The Hero of the Novel in Lukács, Bakhtin, and Girard
In the wake of Walter Benjamin's critical writings, it has become common to point to the Paris of the mid nineteenth century as the historical matrix of modernity. According to this conception, it was Paris that first gave rise to a radically new kind of sensibility and urban experience that was to find its characteristic expression in modernist art and literature.1 Despite frequent references to this phenomenon, however, it has proven to be difficult to conceptualize and almost impossible to reconcile with contemporary social or aesthetic theories. Occasionally juxtaposed to the abstract philosophic inheritance of the Enlightenment, the modernity of the urban experience has remained an amorphous and anomalous category, which can only be envisioned as the "other" of more familiar social and political conceptualizations of the modern. It represented, as Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman put it, another modernity, "not of Rousseau's Geneva of natural rights and volonté générale, but instead of Baudelaire's Paris of the fleeting, the transient."2
How can we capture this important yet elusive cultural phenomenon? Is there a body of literary or philosophic theory that can provide a positive, rather than a merely negative, depiction of its characteristic gestures and goals? Despite superficial resemblances, Benjamin's vision of modernity was not synonymous with what Lionel Trilling had labeled the adversary culture. It rejected, in other words, the familiar dualism of both modernist and romantic theorists, who postulated a diametrical opposition [End Page 747] between an interiorized realm of wholeness and integrity, on the one hand; and the external world of institutions and production, on the other. The modernity toward which Benjamin gestured was a single field of fluid perception and experience, rather than the repository of non-utilitarian values and perceptions marginalized by conventional society. It was the site of radical freedom and indeterminacy, where art and thought no longer reflected the pre-existent harmony of the universe, but helped create the preconditions for morality, beauty and intelligibility. Above all, it was a radical and transgressive realm, which posed a powerful challenge to all stable or foundational categories associated with social and political modernity.
The fundamental incompatibility between the two modernities was already apparent to Baudelaire in the middle of the nineteenth century. In his Salon of 1859, he strikingly characterized it as a mortal combat between two ambitious men, "who hate one another with an intrinsic hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give way."3 Although Baudelaire referred to this allegorical battle as the conflict between Poetry and Progress, the stakes were much higher than aesthetics. Indeed, one of my main arguments in this essay will be the need to liberate the concept of modernity from its vague associations with aestheticism and to reconnect it with the philosophic tradition of existentialism, phenomenology, and, ultimately, of everyday life. This task will involve a certain degree of defamiliarization and a shift away from an exclusive association of modernity with the cultural landscape of nineteenth-century Paris. I hope to show that Baudelaire's cultural vision, which first suggested this association, was the prototype of a more abstract theoretical and philosophic discourse about the novel and popular culture that was carried out in the twentieth century by critical thinkers such as the young Georg Lukács, Mikhail Bakhtin, and René Girard and others.
Undoubtedly, modernity as a cultural idea found its earliest, and still paradigmatic, definition in Baudelaire's much-quoted essay of 1860, "The Painter of Modern Life" and it still provides a useful entry into our discussion. "By 'modernity'," Baudelaire famously wrote, "I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable."4 Baudelaire's use of quotation marks around the concept of modernity signals the provisional and uncertain status of this idea for his time. Significantly, it was not synonymous with the familiar notion of modern times (les temps modernes), which had been in circulation since the seventeenth century and referred to a historical period that followed the...