Aside from his role as le poète par excellence of the Decadent period, Charles Baudelaire demonstrated a keen critical eye, evident in his artistic and literary criticism. (Perhaps Baudelaire took to heart Shelley’s insistence that poets function as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. However, I would wager that we are better off with poesy anarchy than with a society that parades Toni Morrison, Tupac, and Jewel as poets. While only God can judge me, I do know why the caged bird sings, but who will save your soul?) In his essay “The Painter of Modern Life” in which he discusses the merits of Constanin Guys as the painter of modernity, Baudelaire elliptically works in his thesis concerning The Dandy, who lethargically reigns as my topic of interest for this post.
What makes a man a dandy? (Yes, a male phenomenon. I trust, however, that something Platonic can explain this sensitive gender exclusivity.) Baudelaire: “The man who is rich and idle, and who, even if blasé, has no other occupation than the perpetual pursuit of happiness…”. The reason that Baudelaire maintains that one be rich follows from his conviction that dandies must “have no other calling but to cultivate the idea of beauty in their persons, to satisfy their passions, to feel and to think. They thus possess a vast abundance both of time and money, without which fantasy, reduced to a state of passing reverie, can hardly be translated into action. It is sad but only too true that without the money and the leisure, love is incapable of rising above a grocer’s orgy or the accomplishment of a conjugal duty.” While I am not completely assured I know what a grocer’s orgy is (and I fear its visualization) and while I definitely do not intend to disparage the conjugal duty, let us still attempt to understand Baudelaire. Up until relatively recently, only those with wealth and leisure in which to luxuriate in wealth could educe poetic nuances from daily affairs. However, given the relative wealth and leisure of most people in the industrialized world (that is, if one considers wealth in terms of being able to buy items that are not brute necessities, and leisure in terms of possessing time during the week that one does not have to devote to the acquisition/accomplishment of brute necessities), the possibilities of transforming oneself into a dandy may now be better than previously allowed by economic circumstances, given that most of us now have (too much?) time and resources to devote to the cultivation of ourselves—notwithstanding whether we have the actual inclination to actualize such potentialities.
Yet, do we live amid in such a rarefied community of dandies? Certainly not. Why? Baudelaire might simply reply: living the dandy life is much like pimpin’—it ain’t easy. Dandyism features “rigorous laws which all its subjects must strictly obey, whatever their natural impetuosity and independence of character.” Most of us are not capable of the requisite self-discipline, for dandyism “is first and foremost the burning need to create for oneself a personal originality, bounded only by the limits of the proprieties.” Most people cannot summon the courage to cultivate a personal originality, or, if they attempt such, they do so recklessly, thus not abiding by the limits of propriety. Of course, though a dandy’s conception of propriety may differ radically from common sense notions, this should not concern us; what should concern us is that the dandy stands by his convictions like the samurai of old: whether or not such resolve brings success. In fact, resolve may reach the sublime only when it leads to destruction. Contrary to the popular conception of the dandy as a hedonist, the dandy’s beauty and vigor find refinement ultimately in suffering—a suffering that is accepted with the same dispassionate approach by which he slinks into all of life: “A dandy may be blasé, he may even suffer; but in this case, he will smile like the Spartan boy under the fox’s tooth.” Reflect upon this image: a stoic in silk pajamas and a dressing gown.
In fact, Baudelaire makes this very connection: “It can be seen how, at certain points, dandyism borders upon the spiritual and stoical. But a dandy can never be a vulgarian. If he committed a crime, it would perhaps not ruin him; but if his crime resulted from some trivial cause, his disgrace would be irreparable. Let not the reader be scandalized by this gravity amid the frivolous; let him rather recall that there is a grandeur in all follies, an energy in all excess.” This ability to accept grandiosity cannot take root in the soil of a society that seeks to make itself immune from all struggle, conflict, and risk and to reduce citizens to an inane democratic mediocrity. A willingness to fail—and to fail spectacularly—must be encouraged, but in this overly-tolerant society, all things are tolerated save for romanticism and failure and true spiritual greatness.
As Western civilization skips into an X-box oblivion and reality TV senescence, a new generation of prophets of dandyism may cry out from the wilderness or, as the case is more likely to be, from their chaise lounges. in From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun comments that signs that a society has entered into Decadence are that such a society is “peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance…The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable results. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.” Possibilities for cultural advancement no longer register with, let alone inspire, the general populace (or, as more accurately stated, the elect cognoscenti). The odor of ennui cannot be washed out of one’s hair. Radical traditionalists such as René Guénon and Julius Evola would contend that we have entered into the Kali Yuga stage, a stage comparable to Hesiod’s Iron Age, a stage of great strife and moral anarchy and human devaluation, all attributable to a loss of the sense of the transcendent. Far be it from to me to proffer heavy-handed cultural indictments, so suffice it to say: we are doomed.
Until a principle of integration is (re)introduced and the great saints who, as St. Louis de Montfort stated in his True Devosion to the Blessed Virgin will usher in an era of renewal, roam the earth calling to those with ears to hear, perhaps the sanest course of action might be a severe and stern turning inward. Growth no longer ranks as a goal; rather, at this point, those who still linger after the GT&B (Good, True, and the Beautiful), seem—much like those living on the banks of the Mississippi at this time—preoccupied with merely not losing ground. This is where the dandy sashays his way into one’s boudoir. While the principle of integration eludes him, neckwear and an implacable sense of self do not. Lest the reader think that I push an effeminate vision upon men, take note that the dandy need not be effeminate (though, such makes for better photo ops). Sure, we have examples such as Huysmans’s Jean des Esseintes or Oscar Wilde, but we may also refer to the actor David Niven, poet/soldier Lord Byron, or even the late decadent Sebastian Horsley, who voluntarily submitted to crucifixion in the Philippines in order authenticate a series of paintings he was doing on the topic. Visit this sight and then tell me that you can threaten such providers as agents of the culturally epicene. Men, gird your loins with tweed plus fours and let the petite vulgaroisie shimmy their way into the next circle of hell. As Baudelaire proclaims, when such notice you (if they are able to peel their glazed and lifeless eyes away from their iPhones), let them think, “ ‘A rich man perhaps, but more likely an out-of-work Hercules!’ ”