In The Writer of Modern Life, Michael Jennings presents all of Walter Benjamin's essays on Baudelaire together, in their English translations, for the first time. In addition to Benjamin's own notes he provides a very thorough and helpful set of his own, identifying individual writers, artists, politicians, businessmen, inventors whose names figure in the essays, as well as particular books, historical events, cultural objects and trends. It is instructive and a pleasure to read Benjamin's Baudelaire texts in this format, and in the light of Jennings' Introduction. His admirable edition emphasizes that Benjamin's great originality as a reader of Baudelaire lies in his analysis of the poet as a striking representative of his age: a figure "scathingly" symptomatic of urban capitalist modernity.
The title of the volume - The Writer of Modern Life - refers to an essay by Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life," which claims that an artist's work captures the character of his era and makes it present. Among the chief questions Jennings raises and discusses in his Introduction is this one: how does Baudelaire's poetry represent capitalist modernity - since Benjamin never suggests (quite to the contrary) that the poet possessed any social or political insight at all or held to a single conviction; he was deeply duplicitous and best compared to secret agents, idlers, prostitutes and buffoons.
A closely related question among those that Jennings treats at the outset bears precisely on Benjamin's re-conception of art's capacity to represent an era, and on the critical practice required to do justice to it. For Benjamin was intent not so much on portraying Baudelaire's work in the context of its age as in discovering its "quality of being present." Which is to say, its ability to speak to us now, in our own age, breaking into the drone of our confident discourse and setting the conditions of our life before us anew, in disturbing and illuminating configurations. It is wonderful to read the five texts on Baudelaire collected in this volume with such questions, in their fuller and very compelling articulation by Jennings, in mind.
If Baudelaire is representative in Benjamin's analysis, he is nonetheless a complex, inconsistent figure. Not really a genius who rises above the contradictions and seductions of commodity capitalism to "distill" the essence of the age, but a person who can't get his balance in it, and who is too susceptible not to surrender to its glamour and its shocks. So Benjamin pictures Baudelaire among motley bohemians with their "blunted state of revolt against society" and their "more or less precarious future" (11). He notes the poet's kinship with professional conspirators in the bohemian milieu and observes that he was given to their type of outrageous provocation, their mystery-mongering and impenetrable irony. He was no real ally of the social poet Dupont "whose work strives for a direct [. . .] engagement with the political events of the day" (12); he was rather a littérateur with no social function at all save the enjoyment of the plush merchandise he dimly foresees he is himself destined soon to become. Already [End Page 350] he is calculating how much he will fetch when he goes on sale. He is a man reduced to that by modern life and not inclined to hide it. A hero, in this regard.
But Benjamin also links him to the ragpickers that appear in his poems: handlers of waste, dealers in disused objects that have come unstuck from the myths that justify the glossy order of things; he is well acquainted with the decrepitude that the capitalist process engenders.
It is as an allegorist, in other words, that Benjamin reads him and shows him capturing the essential character of his age. The slippage and displacement introduced by his unstable tropes show the lonely spots where monuments still manage to look proud; his allegories expose the dust and the rubbish where meaning is supposed to gleam. It is on this account that his...