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Modern and Post Modern – Baudelaire and Wittgenstein

Fifth Writing Assignment

The choice of essay for this fifth writing assignment were:-

Compare the approach to the ordinary in two of the following: Baudelaire, Woolf, Emerson and Wittgenstein.


How is the cultivation of self-reliance (in Emerson) a continuation of the Enlightenment tradition? Compare Emerson with at least one other thinker from the course.

Baudelaire par lui même

Baudelaire par lui même (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Baudelaire and Wittgenstein both express their approach to the ordinary through language. Baudelaire expresses himself through his poetry and prose. Wittgenstein expresses himself by dissecting how we use language in his published papers. Although they both loved language Baudelaire used it to express his abhorrence of the ordinary whereas Wittgenstein wanted to bring “words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” [1] back to the ordinary.

Baudelaire was known as a Dandy  and a flâneur he wanted to see and be seen. He, like his work, was a hybrid. His book of prose poems [2] breaks through conventions of poetry writing in that the poems are not what we would classically refer to as poems.  When the word “poem” is used in the ordinary context of the word as Wittgenstein would say we expect to see something rhythmical laid out in verses and metaphorical in meaning. Baudelaire certainly uses metaphor but rhythm and verse are missing. In the dedication to Arsene Houssaye at the beginning of this book he ‘confesses’ that “the idea came to me to try something analogous …Which of us has not {..} dreamt the miracle of a poetic prose.” The work is not ordinary but a ‘miracle’.

Wittgenstein, in the preface of his book [1] states “The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” This sentence is key, it explains much about his feeling about how misunderstandings in philosophy occur because philosophers distort or forget what words mean in everyday use. The aim of his book was to set a limit to the expression of thought using ordinary language. For him the meaning of words reside in their ordinary uses and that using abstractions, using words outside the context of the ordinary was where problems and misunderstanding lie.

Looking at “reality” Wittgenstein said that philosophers had debated its use for many years but there should be no debate. We should use the word with the ordinary meaning and debate is a waste of time.  Some people, he said, may say that “it may seem that X is the case but in reality Y is the case. This expression is not used to mean that there is some special dimension of being where Y is true although X is true in our dimension. What it really means is X seemed right, but appearances were misleading” [1] For Baudelaire ‘reality’ is something that changes, it is a moving truth. For him both X and Y can be the truth at the same time. In his prose poem “Crowds” he talks about the art of enjoying a crowd and how he can chose to “be himself or someone else as he chooses”. [2] In this piece we can that for Baudelaire the reality of ‘self’ can change as he chooses. He can be X – himself or Y – someone else.

The recurrent theme in ‘Le Spleen de Paris’ is that the poet seeks out the good and the ideal and that he doesn’t find these in the ordinary or in reality. The ideal is an escape from reality which consists of love, beauty, art wine and opium. Baudelaire is disappointed because his false ideal of reality is so often eclipsed by “the spleen”, the organ in your body that filters out the poisons in the blood.  His texts evoke the possibility that he can extract himself from the mediocrity and misery of the world escaping to the exotic or the dream.  This theme can be seen most strongly in the poems ‘Un hemisphere dans une chevelure’, ‘L’invitation au voyage’, ‘Les Projects’ , La Belle Dorothee’ and (quoted) ‘La Chambre double’.  “Compared to pure dream, unanalyzed impression, an art made definite, positive art, is blasphemy. Here everything has just enough clarity, and the delicious obscurity of harmony” {2}. For Wittgenstein truth, consciousness and reality are not things we can discover they are not variable in this way or something from which we can escape. For him it didn’t make sense to question what is real because what is real is obvious.

For Baudelaire language and indeed life was mundane in the ordinary. In his prose poems he wanted to show the world the capabilities of expression through unordinary use of language. He wanted to express a wealth of feeling in a few words.  For Wittgenstein if something couldn’t be expressed in a language that everyone understood as being the same thing, an ordinary language, then it shouldn’t be spoken of at all.

[1]  ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus-Philosophical Investigations.’ By Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922)

[2] ‘Le Spleen de Paris’ By Charles Baudelaire (1869)


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