“Fevers of Curiosity” Charles Baudelaire and the Convalescent Flâneur
This month marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Baudelaire’s birth, the French poet famous for his descriptions of the flâneur: a man of the crowd, who thrived in the metropolis’ multitude. Following Baudelaire through 19th-century Paris, Matthew Beaumont discovers a parallel archetype — the convalescent hero of modernity — who emerges from the sickbed into city streets with a feverish curiosity.
April 8, 2021
We are used to thinking of Charles Baudelaire’s most famous archetype, the flâneur who saunters through the metropolitan city, as a supremely self-confident inhabitant of the mid-nineteenth century streets — a “passionate spectator” of their multifarious life-forms. The flâneur, after all, was a middle- or upper-middle class man who, fascinated by the multiplicity and variety of city life, freely resided “in the heart of the multitude”, as Baudelaire put it in “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), “amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite”.1 He could afford to savour its constant, contradictory stimuli not least because he stood, or strolled, at a slight distance from the hustle and bustle of its everyday life. Relishing its rhythms and rhymes, the Baudelairean flâneur read the metropolis as if it unfurled before him like an immense, complicated poem.
The role Baudelaire ascribed to his “passionate spectator” was to act as an exquisitely tuned instrument for monitoring but also conducting the contradictory energies of capitalist modernity. This phenomenon — capitalist modernity — was a state of permanent social and existential transformation. In Paris, its experience had been decisively shaped by the urban reforms that Emperor Bonaparte and his prefect Baron Haussmann forcibly introduced in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution. For, in “blasting a vast network of boulevards through the heart of the old medieval city”, as Marshall Berman puts it, they turned it into a theatre both of military pageant and — in the context of the arcades and, later, the department stores — of consumerism.2
But the flâneur glorified by Baudelaire was never in fact the comfortable, complacent bourgeois stroller that had been so fashionable in the 1840s in those illustrations and journalistic sketches known as the Physiologies. As late as 1867, the French historian and journalist Victor Fournel was presenting flânerie, which he sketched in terms of “drifting along, with your nose in the wind, with both hands in your pockets, and with an umbrella under your arm, as befits any open-minded spirit”, in positively seraphic terms.3
In “The Painter of Modern Life”, by contrast, Baudelaire was already emphasising the flâneur’s restless, unsettled experience both in the metropolitan street and in his own skin. Baudelaire’s often peripatetic life as a bohemian poet in Paris, shaped by privation, rebellion, and a taste for narcotic substances, lies behind his reconfiguration of the flâneur. This is neatly captured in a “Self-Portrait under the Influence of Hashish” that he sketched in the early 1840s — for there, standing in the nocturnal city, a scruffily dressed Baudelaire stares suspiciously at us from beneath a cloud of intoxicating black smoke.
Baudelaire’s famous metropolitan archetype, then, was far more haunted or even hunted than the one purveyed in the contemporary illustrated periodical press.4 This can be glimpsed in a poem like “Le Soleil”, from the Tableaux Parisiens section of the second edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1861). There, the impoverished poet describes venturing out alone (“Je vais m’exercer seul”) in search of the poetry of the city’s streets: “duelling in dark corners for a rhyme / and stumbling over words like cobblestones”.5 Like the French language, here the French capital is a distinctly hostile environment. So is the poet’s own body. By this point, racked by debt, Baudelaire was addicted to laudanum; mentally and physically ill. The writer as walker has become an embattled, almost tragi-comic figure.
It is those pedestrians who, like the struggling poet of “Le Soleil”, find themselves damaged and discomfited as they negotiate the city’s streets that interest me here. The frailer kind of flâneur, so to speak… In particular, I am concerned with one of those alternative archetypes useful for capturing the experience of metropolitan modernity with which Baudelaire complicates the flâneur — the convalescent. And my focus is on the moment when the urban convalescent, in spite of frail nerves, takes his first, reckless steps in the city from which he has been temporarily exiled, and experiences a sense of freedom at once tentative and abrupt. The streets — which he approaches cautiously, still a little feverishly, at first perhaps as an observer who must half-protect himself from the impact of the city — are the site of the convalescent’s groping re-engagement with everyday life.
This almost morbid state of sensitivity to the city, associated with the aftermath of a sustained illness, typifies the experience of what I want to characterise, in a deliberately Baudelairean formulation, as the convalescent as hero of modernity. The convalescent, and especially the male convalescent — who for social reasons to do with the restrictions imposed by patriarchal society, becomes less physically restricted than the female convalescent, less confined to the domestic domain — is in spite of his infirmity and decrepitude not necessarily confined to the sick room. He moves out into the world, albeit tentatively, and is temporarily free to relate to it in terms that are almost purely aesthetic.
The idea of convalescence as an aesthetic disposition probably originates in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817). There, the convalescent’s experience of his environment is often directly compared to that of the child, because the convalescent’s delicate receptiveness to life — a helpless openness to unexpected or half-forgotten sensations — has something of childhood’s brittle innocence. For Coleridge, convalescence also has an innate poetic intensity. In the first volume of the Biographia, he characterises genius as the capacity “to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day, for, perhaps, forty years, had rendered familiar [sic]”. The “prime merit” of genius, he continues, and “its most unequivocal mode of manifestation”, is “so to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them, and that freshness of sensation which is the constant accompaniment of mental, no less than of bodily convalescence”.6
In convalescence, then, the whole world is made strange. In this state even the most ordinary individual relates to life like a Romantic poet. Coleridge — at times an almost full-time convalescent himself, especially when living in Highgate, outside London, in the final, drug-addicted decades of his life — captures precisely the state in which I am interested when he refers, rhapsodically, to “the voluptuous and joy-trembling nerves of convalescence”.7
For Baudelaire, with his focus on modernity, the convalescent is explicitly an urban poet, albeit one indebted to the rurally-inflected Romantic tradition. Convalescence, as he argues, “is like a return towards childhood”, for “the convalescent, like the child, is possessed in the highest degree of the faculty of keenly interesting himself in things, be they apparently of the most trivial”.8
Baudelaire primarily derives his interest in convalescence from Edgar Allan Poe, specifically his “The Man of the Crowd”, a short story first published in Graham’s Magazine in December 1840. This strange fantasia, set in London, where Poe had lived and been educated between 1815 and 1820, is the preeminent instance of urban convalescence in literature. Poe himself, incidentally, probably derived his theoretical interest in the convalescent from Coleridge, whom he read with passionate attention, and whose conception of convalescence he deliberately urbanises and modernises.
The narrator of “The Man of the Crowd” first recalls the convalescent state he has recently inhabited in the story’s second paragraph:
Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow window of the D– Coffee-House in London. For some months I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui – moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs […] and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its every-day condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in everything. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.9
This is an exact description of convalescence as an aesthetic; a state of unpredictable, half-repressed euphoria in which, because he is temporarily exempt from the routine demands of everyday life in the city, the individual’s “electrified” senses are preternaturally attuned to experience. The film has departed from his mental vision but he nonetheless peers at the street through “smoky panes”. His empty, appetitive mood is at once both the opposite of boredom and oddly characteristic of its restless calm: it is “the converse of ennui”; or its obverse. His consciousness processes the shocks of urban life, the traffic on the roads and pavements, as concussions that seem almost exquisite because he can remain detached and half-insulated from them.
Poe’s urban fable locates his convalescent on the margins of a mass of people. Detached from the “dense and continuous tides of population” that rush past the café as evening closes in, and from the rhythms of routine production they collectively embody, his convalescent describes his fascination with the people he sees commuting home. He is soon lost in contemplation of them: “At this particular period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion”.10
Initially he examines in the abstract the mass of human forms that pass him. He is particularly interested in those that seem unconfident on the street, those that “were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around”.11 These are the people for whom everyday life in the city is a kind of sickness or fever.
Then Poe’s convalescent examines the passersby in more concrete detail, as if they inhabit some grimy aquarium. Sliding down “the scale of what is termed gentility”, as the light thickens, he classifies their physiognomies, their clothes and step, carefully sifting through the aristocrats, businessmen, clerks, artisans, “exhausted labourers”, pie-men, dandies, conmen, pickpockets, beggars and prostitutes.12 From the café he sees innumerable drunkards — their countenances pale, their eyes a livid red — who clutch at passing objects “with quivering fingers” as they stride through the crowd.13
It is “thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob”, his forehead pressed against the glass beside his seat, that the convalescent glimpses the “decrepid old man” whose physiologie he is completely unable to taxonomise.14 He stumbles into the street, his curiosity heightened by the snatched sight of a diamond and a dagger beneath the old man’s cloak, resolving in a moment of heated decision to follow him. “For my own part I did not much regard the rain”, he notes, “the lurking of an old fever in my system rendering the moisture somewhat too dangerously pleasant”.15 Convalescence itself is a “dangerously pleasant” state.
Poe’s narrator then traces the man’s mysterious movements, throughout the night and into the day, as he roams the city, in an apparently futile attempt to understand what motivates him; but he finally only tracks him back, on the evening of the second day, to the coffee house from which he had first set out. The old man, who appears completely unconscious of the narrator, seems to be more than human — as if his labyrinthine path through the streets had traced not the arbitrary trajectory of an individual but the secret form or logic of the corrupt, decrepit metropolitan city itself. So, the convalescent abandons his pursuit, making this declaration of defeat: “He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds”.16
The old man incarnates the industrial capitalist city in its anti-heroic rather than heroic form. In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939), composed exactly one hundred years after this short story was first published, Walter Benjamin decides that he cannot finally identify Poe’s “man of the crowd” as a flâneur, mainly because in him “composure has given way to manic behavior”. Instead, according to Benjamin, he exemplifies the destiny of the flâneur once this intrinsically urbane figure has been “deprived of the milieu to which he belonged” (a milieu, Benjamin implies, that London probably never provided).17
The same might be said of Poe’s convalescent, in whom composure must compete with a positively monomaniacal mood. Indeed, it can be argued that “The Man of the Crowd” allegorises the process by which, in the hectic conditions of a metropolis like London in the mid-nineteenth century, the flâneur splits apart and produces two further metropolitan archetypes, one almost pathologically peripatetic, the other static to the point of being a sort of cripple. The former is the nightwalker, a disreputable, indeterminately criminal type who embodies that half of the flâneur characterised by a state of restless mobility. The latter is the convalescent, who embodies the half of him characterised by a state of immobile curiosity. For Poe, these characters are spectral doubles.
What about Baudelaire? The French poet’s discussion of “The Man of the Crowd” is contained in the third section of “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), his encomium to the artist Constantin Guys, “a passionate lover of crowds and incognitos”.18 He portrays Guys there as someone whose genius resides in a childlike curiosity, which he characterises in terms of “the fixed and animally ecstatic gaze of a child confronted with something new, whatever it be”.19
Like the child, who actually “sees everything in a state of newness”, and who is consequently “always drunk”, Guys is exquisitely susceptible to impressions.20 For him, “sensibility is almost the whole being”.21 Ordinarily, Baudelaire emphasises, adults can only recover this spontaneously poetic disposition temporarily when they are in a state of convalescence. Guys, however, positively personifies this disposition, because he is “an eternal convalescent”.22 “Imagine an artist who was always, spiritually, in the condition of that convalescent”, Baudelaire concludes, “and you will have the key to the nature of Monsieur G”.23
It is implicitly Poe, however, and not Guys, who embodies in the end the spirit of convalescence in “The Painter of Modern Life”. Baudelaire identifies Poe’s convalescent as his inspiration for this claim:
Do you remember a picture (it really is a picture!), painted – or rather written – by the most powerful pen of our age, and entitled The Man of the Crowd? In the window of a coffee house there sits a convalescent, pleasurably absorbed in gazing at the crowd, and mingling, through the medium of thought, in the turmoil of thought that surrounds him. But lately returned from the valley of the shadow of death, he is rapturously breathing all the odours and essences of life; as he has been on the brink of total oblivion, he remembers, and fervently desires to remember, everything. Finally he hurls himself headlong into the midst of the throng, in pursuit of an unknown, half-glimpsed countenance, that has, on an instant, bewitched him. Curiosity had become a fatal, irresistible passion!24
It is immediately apparent from this paragraph that Baudelaire’s principal interest does not lie in the drama described by Poe’s narrative. Instead, he seems more interested in the scene in which the story is initially set. He insists on representing Poe’s narrative, in fact, as a relatively static picture, as if he is himself examining the convalescent through a frame.
Perhaps it is most accurate to state that Baudelaire reconstructs the story as a sort of diptych. In the first panel, the convalescent is passively seated in the coffee house. As he observes the street life through the glass, he simultaneously introjects the scenes outside, assimilating them to his consciousness, and projects his consciousness outward, assimilating his consciousness to them. He is “pleasurably absorbed in gazing at the crowd, and mingling, through the medium of thought, in the turmoil of thought that surrounds him”.25 The convalescent “rapturously breath[es] in all the odours and essences of life”, making the surface of his body seem absolutely porous, even as the solid pane of glass that he sits beside has apparently been rendered completely permeable.26
In the second panel, Baudelaire’s description captures Poe’s narrator, as if in a photograph, in the act of flinging himself into the street — like the Baudelairean protagonist who, according to Benjamin, “plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of energy”.27 He is freeze-framed, so to speak, as he “hurls himself headlong into the midst of the throng”.28 The convalescent thus metamorphoses into a nightwalker. It is in effect an image of the convalescent as hero, actively seeking to satisfy his feverish curiosity, even if it is finally fatal to do so.
Poe’s spectral convalescent, more spiritually decrepit than Baudelaire’s, and less rapturous, is not so deeply indebted to the Coleridgean tradition, in spite of the fact that Baudelaire probably encountered this tradition through the mediation of Poe. But, like Poe’s, Baudelaire’s convalescent remains terminally peripheral to the life of the street, in contrast to the flâneur. The flâneur, according to Baudelaire, in the same section of “The Painter of Modern Life”, is situated “at the centre of the world” even though he also “remain[s] hidden from the world”.29 In this respect, as in others, he is like the commodity, which is so pervasive as to be invisible. The convalescent, Baudelaire implies, by contrast resists the performative aspect of the flâneur’s life in the streets and refuses the spectacular logic of the marketplace.
Baudelaire had first referred to what he so evocatively describes as “convalescence, with its fevers of curiosity” in “Edgar Poe: His Life and Works” (1853).30 In this piece, which subsequently reappeared as the introduction to his translations in the Histoires extraordinaires (1856), Baudelaire locates the “single character” that populates Poe’s numerous narratives as “the man of razor-sharp perceptions and slackened nerves”. He concludes that “this man is Poe himself”.31
This description perfectly captures the constitution of the convalescent, who is acutely sensitive to the life of the streets but at the same time oddly anaesthetised to it. The poetics of convalescence that are perceptible in Poe, and which Baudelaire elaborated, make him absolutely central to the process by which Romanticism, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, became urbanised. Poe is for Baudelaire one of the patron saints of metropolitan modernity because, as “the writer of the nerves”, he too is a perpetual convalescent.32 In the urban sensorium described by both authors, the sick are too sensitive to cope with the shocks of everyday life, and the healthy are constitutionally insensitive to its secret aesthetics.
Paul de Man grasps the importance of the convalescent for Baudelaire when, in a discussion of him and Nietzsche in “Literary History and Literary Modernity”, he offers this compelling claim:
The human figures that epitomise modernity are defined by experiences such as childhood or convalescence, a freshness of perception that results from a slate wiped clear, from the absence of a past that has not yet had time to tarnish the immediacy of perception (although what is thus freshly discovered prefigures the end of this very freshness), of a past that, in the case of convalescence, is so threatening that it has to be forgotten.33
The convalescent is not necessarily confined to the sick room, or to some bucolic scene of refuge, in spite of their infirmity and decrepitude. They embody the experience of modernity. Indeed, it might be said that, in order to be absolutely modern, as Rimbaud demanded, one must be convalescent.
But what about those citizens less able to roam the metropolis in a state of rapturous, febrile curiosity? If the convalescent’s power comes from a unique experience of modernity — being at once immersed, with refreshed senses, in the spectacle of the modern city and cautiously set off from its events, as though behind a pane of glass — it was a power and position not accessible to all. Like the flâneur, the convalescent relied on a certain invisibility in the streets, one afforded by a kind of visibility within the social order. On the boulevards of Baudelaire’s Paris, this was very much the privilege of the bourgeois white male, and the leisure time afforded by his class position.
As Erika Diane Rappaport reminds us, there is no denying that, as distinct from a man’s, “a woman’s freedom to ‘walk alone’ in the city was constrained by physical inconveniences and dangers as well as by social conventions that deemed it entirely improper for a bourgeois lady to roam alone out-of-doors”.34 The flâneuse — as distinct from women who, for professional or social reasons, simply in order to travel from here to there, passed through the streets of the metropolis — is not a common phenomenon. But her painful, paradoxical sense of simultaneously being both too invisible and too visible in the city streets was characteristic of all women in these fundamental circumstances.
It must be added, though, that the male territory to which Rappaport refers is by no means homogeneous or socially uniform — except, no doubt, in so far as it marginalises female pedestrians. Many male pedestrians of the period, far from feeling entitled in the streets, find them distinctly hostile, for a range of different reasons. They are the city’s internal exiles, even if their sense of unbelonging is from the start far less fraught, far less freighted with histories of exploitation and oppression, than that of women, or of men and women of colour. Numerous residents of the city could not afford to function, in Baudelaire’s beautiful description of the flâneur, as “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness”.35
The female convalescent is for the most part denied Baudelaire’s privileged re-engagement with the public sphere. In Bleak House (1853), for example, Dickens’ heroine Esther Summerson records that, in recovering from what is probably a case of smallpox, she “became useful to [her]self, and interested, and attached to life again”; but the role she assumes is confined to the private sphere and her re-attachment to life is conceived in terms of utility rather than some form of gratification.36
“The body after long illness is languid, passive, receptive of sweetness, but too weak to contain it”, wrote Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room (1922).37 Woolf was of course supremely sensitive to the aesthetics of convalescence, but she was also acutely conscious of the extent to which, historically, women have been excluded from leisurely enjoyment of the city’s public spaces. It is no accident that, in “Street Haunting” (1927), her delightful celebration of “rambling the streets of London”, she pretends to need to purchase a pencil in order to justify what is in effect a purposeless stroll through the city.38 If Woolf was “the greatest flâneuse of twentieth-century literature”, as Lauren Elkin writes, then she was nonetheless not as free to practice flânerie as her confrères.39
In Mrs. Dalloway (1925), a novel that celebrates the comparative freedom afforded to its eponymous heroine in the metropolis by the business of shopping, Woolf offers a systematic critique of the patriarchal politics of the Baudelairean flâneur. There, Mrs. Dalloway’s old friend Peter Walsh at one point follows a young woman, to whom he momentarily feels attracted, through the streets of central London. Woolf uses Peter’s predatory mode of walking to demonstrate, in Benjamin’s compelling formulation from his essay on “The Return of the Flâneur” (1929), “how easy it is for the flâneur to depart from the ideal of the philosopher out for a stroll, and to assume the features of the werewolf at large in the social jungle”.40
Peter is Baudelaire’s “passionate spectator” — exploiting his freedom as a middle-class man to treat the life of the metropolis as a form of spectacle — as a raptor or stalker. He is one of those “wild beasts, our fellow men”, comfortably inhabiting “the heart of the forest” that is the city, to whom Woolf refers in “Street Haunting”.41 For Woolf, as a feminist, the Baudelairean flâneur is, in the end, the “werewolf at large in the social jungle” that Benjamin feared it might become.
Matthew Beaumont’s most recent book is The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City (2020). He teaches in the Department of English at UCL, and is a co-director of the UCL Urban Lab. He is also the author of Utopia Ltd. (2005), The Spectre of Utopia (2012), and Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (2015) and the co-author, with Terry Eagleton, of The Task of the Critic (2009). He has edited several essay collections, including Restless Cities (2010).