One lightning flash…then night! Sweet fugitive
Whose glance has made me suddenly reborn,
Will we not meet again this side of death?
Far from this place! too late! never perhaps!
Neither one knowing where the other goes,
you I might have loved, as well as you know!*
It was in Paris, around the mid-19th century that Baudelaire the poet roamed in the streets, searching for encounters as beautiful and as short as his lines. Today, the fleeting encounters remain similar, although the pace of the metropolis has quickened. Reading (and struggling with) Baudelaire over the past few months, I have become fascinated (and tortured) by his depiction of the metropolis. However, cityscapes have changed a great deal. In my fantasy, my mind flows away from my book, picturing Baudelaire the Londoner, ambling in today’s London. How would he experience such modernity?
…there must be many potential encounters, during those signal failures…
As a Londoner, Baudelaire must have his own Oyster card. Indeed, with a simple beep, the tube will take him almost anywhere in the city. The stroll in the streets, his flânerie, is turned into an underground one. Oh, and we should not forget about all the strikes, delays, and regular closures – such quintessential modernity. Moreover, as the poet who famously writes about his bath of multitude in “Crowds”, he would certainly adore rush hour: the terrible smells, tired faces of the commuters, and tourists with their cameras. Of course, there must be many potential encounters, during those signal failures and unpredictable stops, with people reading, daydreaming, and complaining. In the end, he would find himself staring at his own reflection in the window, thinking about anything but poetry. Or maybe it was exactly this type of loneliness – being in the crowds but feeling solitary – that inspired him to compose experimental poems which were ahead of his time.
…he would think that London is at the same time seductive and vital.
How he would miss his Parisian boulevards! Leaving those encounters buried in the underground nightmare and finding the correct way out to street level, the poet-stroller would enjoy the London streets, which are, without a doubt, wonders of the world. There are all kinds of shops, department stores, vendors and crowds. Whereas Baudelaire found 19th century Paris intoxicating, he would think that London is at the same time seductive and vital. Unlike the female passer-by at whom Baudelaire gazed, modern women are strong characters in the streets. They are not out to be seen, but to shop and fight for the latest trend! Baudelaire would be amazed, if not shocked. Women shopping, children crying, and men staring at their smart phones, sighing; the shopping scene is another sight of modernity. Baudelaire used to meander in the arcades and among the cafés, but now he would be pushed around by the crowds of Oxford street.
Perhaps modern London is not the place for a poet, or, perhaps nowhere is better than London to experience modernity. One thing is certain: exhausted and frustrated as Baudelaire may be, he would go back to his room, turn on his computer and log on to Facebook and Twitter, or whatever social network. After all, this is the place for a 21st century encounter!
*To A Woman Passing By Charles Baudelaire