A History of the Now: Charles Baudelaire and Virginia Woolf

In this essay I compare the use of memory and history in works by Charles Baudelaire and Virginia Woolf, mainly focusing on Le Spleen de Paris and To The Lighthouse. I argue that they use these concepts in different manners, namely Baudelaire reflects on his observations in ‘the now’, while Woolf reflects on the events that shaped us and our continuous journey of reconciling the past with the now. Their insights meet in anti-foundationalism and the rejection of convention. Neither finds a satisfactory truth in rigid value systems; they instead explore the art of relating to the people around us.

Charles Baudelaire, in Le Spleen de Paris (1869), captures beauty and despair in a reinvented Paris after the 1848 revolution the June Days uprising. In a new Paris, people of all walks of life are no longer bound to their neighbourhoods; instead, they venture into the city, and meet people they would never have met, had it not been for the revolution. Baudelaire’s role as a poet is one of wanderer: observing a great diversity of people and their interactions is the inspiration for his writing: “What oddities one finds in big cities when one knows how to roam and how to look! Life swarms with innocent monsters.”History and the conventions that it holds are pushed aside to make room for intensity and a fascination with the novel society that was created, and the potential that society held. This intensity is the key to pleasure (“But what is an eternity of damnation compared to an infinity of pleasure in a single second?” 2), but it is also the key to dealing with the hardships of life and the cold reality of inequality that has become more visible in the city as its people mingle: “Be always drunk. […] If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually.” 3 Even though the city has changed, in a way it is still tied to its history by a social order crafted over many preceding decades.

Virginia Woolf also focuses on relationships and social convention, but in a much more intimate setting in To The Lighthouse (1927). The novel illustrates a continuous struggle to reconcile our pasts and our present realities, while maintaining that there never really is one truth, and that what we know is by nature transient. All there is, is perspective, and a constant exercise in recalibration. For example, when Lily is back at the house she reminisces about past summers at the house, “It was some such feeling of completeness perhaps which, ten years ago, standing almost where she stood now, had made her say that she must be in love with the place.”, and, “She felt that if they […] demanded an explanation, why was [life] so short, why was it so inexplicable, […] beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” Objects and actions are never singular in meaning; they may have different meanings to different people, or to the same people at different times. These themes – time, change, and struggling to conform to a social order – are prevalent in Woolf’s works, such as Clarissa Dalloway’s reflections on her childhood in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Orlando’s inability to finish his/her poetry in Orlando (1928), and James’ difficult relationship with his father in To The Lighthouse. James is so angry he wants to “take a knife and strike [Mr. Ramsey] to the heart”, but he is at the same time desperate for his approval.

Le Spleen the Paris is a collection of observations, without chronology or order. In a way, Charles Baudelaire describes the world around him similar to how Virginia Woolf’s characters describe the world around them through their thoughts and reflections. Baudelaire rejects the focus on formal hierarchies like Woolf rejects the rigidity of knowledge systems as a way to find truth and meaning. But where he seems preoccupied with the present and hardly concerned with memories of another time, this is a major theme in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, where our past experiences are a great part of how we experience the present.

1 Original text: “Quelles bizarreries ne trouve-t-on pas dans une grande ville, quand on sait se promener et regarder? La vie fourmille de monstres innocents.” (Le Spleen de Paris : XLVII – Mademoiselle Bistouri).
2 Original text: “Mais qu’importe l’éternité de la damnation à qui a trouvé dans une seconde l’infini de la jouissance?” (Le Spleen de Paris : IX – Le Mauvais Vitrier).
3 Original text: “Il faut être toujours ivre. […] Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve. […] De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous.” (Le Spleen de Paris : XXXIII – Enivrez-vous).

Baudelaire, C. (1869). Paris Spleen (L. Varèse, Trans.). New York, NY: New Directions Publishing.
Baudelaire, C, Blin, G. (2006). Spleen de Paris: Petits Poèmes en Prose. Paris: Gallimard Education.
Froula, C. (2004). Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde: War, Civilization, Modernity. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Woolf, V. (2000). Mrs. Dalloway. London: Penguin Books.
Woolf, V. (1995). Orlando. Ware: Wordsworth Classics.
Woolf, V. (2013). To The Lighthouse. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

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