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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Painter of Modern Life
By Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867)
 
From ‘L’Art Romantique’

THE CROWD is his domain, as the air is that of the bird and the water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is “to wed the crowd.” For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it is an immense pleasure to choose his home in number, change, motion, in the fleeting and the infinite. To be away from one’s home and yet to be always at home; to be in the midst of the world, to see it, and yet to be hidden from it; such are some of the least pleasures of these independent, passionate, impartial minds which language can but awkwardly define. The observer is a prince who everywhere enjoys his incognito. The amateur of life makes the world his family, as the lover of the fair sex makes his family of all beauties, discovered, discoverable, and indiscoverable, as the lover of painting lives in an enchanted dreamland painted on canvas. Thus the man who is in love with all life goes into a crowd as into an immense electric battery. One might also compare him to a mirror as immense as the crowd; to a conscious kaleidoscope which in each movement represents the multiform life and the moving grace of all life’s elements. He is an ego insatiably hungry for the non-ego, every moment rendering it and expressing it in images more vital than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive. “Any man,” said Mr. G—— one day, in one of those conversations which he lights up with intense look and vivid gesture, “any man, not overcome by a sorrow so heavy that it absorbs all the faculties, who is bored in the midst of a crowd is a fool, a fool, and I despise him.”  1
  When Mr. G—— awakens and sees the blustering sun attacking the window-panes, he says with remorse, with regret:—“What imperial order! What a trumpet flourish of light! For hours already there has been light everywhere, light lost by my sleep! How many lighted objects I might have seen and have not seen!” And then he starts off, he watches in its flow the river of vitality, so majestic and so brilliant. He admires the eternal beauty and the astonishing harmony of life in great cities, a harmony maintained in so providential a way in the tumult of human liberty. He contemplates the landscapes of the great city, landscapes of stone caressed by the mist or struck by the blows of the sun. He enjoys the fine carriages, the fiery horses, the shining neatness of the grooms, the dexterity of the valets, the walk of the gliding women, of the beautiful children, happy that they are alive and dressed; in a word, he enjoys the universal life. If a fashion, the cut of a piece of clothing has been slightly changed, if bunches of ribbon or buckles have been displaced by cockades, if the bonnet is larger and the back hair a notch lower on the neck, if the waist is higher and the skirt fuller, be sure that his eagle eye will see it at an enormous distance. A regiment passes, going perhaps to the end of the earth, throwing into the air of the boulevards the flourish of trumpets compelling and light as hope; the eye of Mr. G—— has already seen, studied, analyzed the arms, the gait, the physiognomy of the troop. Trappings, scintillations, music, firm looks, heavy and serious mustaches, all enters pell-mell into him, and in a few moments the resulting poem will be virtually composed. His soul is alive with the soul of this regiment which is marching like a single animal, the proud image of joy in obedience!  2
  But evening has come. It is the strange, uncertain hour at which the curtains of the sky are drawn and the cities are lighted. The gas throws spots on the purple of the sunset. Honest or dishonest, sane or mad, men say to themselves, “At last the day is at an end!” The wise and the good-for-nothing think of pleasure, and each hurries to the place of his choice to drink the cup of pleasure. Mr. G—— will be the last to leave any place where the light may blaze, where poetry may throb, where life may tingle, where music may vibrate, where a passion may strike an attitude for his eye, where the man of nature and the man of convention show themselves in a strange light, where the sun lights up the rapid joys of fallen creatures! “A day well spent,” says a kind of reader whom we all know, “any one of us has genius enough to spend a day that way.” No! Few men are gifted with the power to see; still fewer have the power of expression. Now, at the hour when others are asleep, this man is bent over his table, darting on his paper the same look which a short time ago he was casting on the world, battling with his pencil, his pen, his brush, throwing the water out of his glass against the ceiling, wiping his pen on his shirt,—driven, violent, active, as if he fears that his images will escape him, a quarreler although alone,—a cudgeler of himself. And the things he has seen are born again upon the paper, natural and more than natural, beautiful and more than beautiful, singular and endowed with an enthusiastic life like the soul of the author. The phantasmagoria have been distilled from nature. All the materials with which his memory is crowded become classified, orderly, harmonious, and undergo that compulsory idealization which is the result of a childlike perception, that is to say, of a perception that is keen, magical by force of ingenuousness.  3
 
 
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