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The Epitome of Modern

Baudelaire and his legacy

Nov. 28, 2012
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“Modernity” is the central theme of Roberto Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which, among many other things, explores the origins of the word as defined and executed by Baudelaire between 1852 and 1863. This concept that is used so often in literature, music and all the arts, sometimes without knowledge of where the aesthetic began, reveals itself with inventive scholarship in this comprehensive book.  Calasso smartly underlines that it was Baudelaire who introduced Poe to France through his translations of the American writer so misunderstood in his homeland. In Poe modernity is spotted.

With this in mind, one can’t help but notice the references that abound in such rock ’n’ roll futurists as Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, citing Baudelaire as though his presence is the epitome of modernity. The word itself, we discover in Calasso’s immensely detailed text, enters the dictionaries via Baudelaire’s consistent use. A hundred years later Dylan is citing Baudelaire more often than Allen Ginsberg and Smith treats Baudelaire as though his work is seminal to expanding possibilities in rock music.

La Folie Baudelaire
offers a crucial history of French artists, circa 1852 to 1863, who crafted the theory and art that turned Paris into, as philosopher Walter Benjamin put it, “the capital of the nineteenth century.” A true polymath, Calasso weaves culture and art into a story of epic proportion. His examination of French modernists spirals into a larger sense of discovery and influence. So this is not a book for literature in translation classes alone, but a rune stone for all that we hope to say when using modernity as our term of reference.

Calasso leads into as many areas of human thought and conduct as there are in modern times, and does so with the expediency and precision that is so terribly lacking in our Wikipedia Age, which gives us license to behave as though learning was democratic. It is not. We need authors and editors. Social media is not going to get you anything but the demise of quality intellectual history. We do not end here on a tangent.

Calasso’s revealing historic definition of modernity reminds us—in our age of chronic memory loss—to use the term in ways that don’t defy its origins. He is a philosopher whose work matters, not only for its exploration of Baudelaire but also for its appreciation of his legacy.

 

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