Reflections on the Aesthetic &
Literary Figure of the Dandy, Part II
Translated by Greg Johnson
Part 2 of 3. Part I: here
The Mission of the Artist According to Baudelaire
For the dandy, it is necessary to reinject aesthetics into this barbarism. In England, John Ruskin (1819–1899), the Pre-Raphaelites with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, went to work. Ruskin elaborated architectural projects to embellish the cities made ugly by the anarchic industrialization of the Manchesterian era. Specifially, this led to the construction of “garden cities.” Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta, Belgian and German Art Nouveau or Jugendstil architects, took up this torch. But all the while, in spite of these concrete achievements—for architecture more easily allows concrete realization—the gulf between the artist and society never ceased growing. The dandy is like the artist.
In France, Baudelaire, in his theoretical writings, sets the artist up as the new “aristocrat,” whose attitude must be stamped with distant coldness, whose feelings should neither be excited nor irritated beyond measure, whose principal quality must be irony, along with the ability to tell pleasant anecdotes. The artistic dandy takes a distance from all the conventional hobby-horses of society.
Baudelaire’s views are summarized in the words of a character of Ernst Jünger’s novel Heliopolis: “I became a dandy, who makes the unimportant important, who smiles at the important” (“Ich wurde zum Dandy, der das Unwichtige wichtig nahm, das Wichtige belächelte”). Baudelaire’s dandy, following the example of Brummell, is thus not a scandalous and sulfurous character like Oscar Wilde, but a cold observer (or, to paraphrase Raymond Aron, a “disengaged spectator”), who sees the world as a mere theatre, often insipid, where characters without real substance move about and gesticulate. The Baudelairian dandy has a bit of a taste for provocation, but it remains confined, in most cases, by irony. These later exaggerations, often mistaken for expressions of dandyism, do not correspond to the attitudes of Brummell, Baudelaire, or Jünger.
Thus Stefan George, in spite of the great interest of his poetic work, pushes aestheticism to the point of self-parody. For George, it is a small price to pay in an era when the “loss of every happy medium” becomes the rule. (Hans Sedlmayr explained this loss of the “happy medium” quite clearly in a famous book on contemporary art, Verlust der Mitte.) Sedlmayr clarifies this urge to seek the “piquant.” George found it in the revival of classical Greece.
Oscar Wilde ultimately put only himself on stage, proclaiming himself “aesthetic reformer.” Art, from his point of view, is nothing more than a space of contestation destined ultimately to absorb all social reality, becoming the only true reality. The economic, social, and political spheres are devalued; Wilde denies them all substantiality, reality, concreteness. If Brummell retained an entirely sober taste, if he kept his head on his shoulders, Oscar Wilde posed from the start as a demigod, wore extravagant clothing, with loud colors, a bit like the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses of the French Revolution. A provocateur, he also started a negative process of “feminization/ devirilisation,” walking through the streets with flowers in his hand. One can regard it as a precursor of today’s “gay pride” parades. His poses are pure theatre, far removed from Brummell’s tranquil feeling of superiority, of virile dignity, of “nil admirari.”
Self-Satisfaction & the Expansion of the “Ego”
For Otto Mann, this quotation from Wilde is emblematic:
The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring: I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterisation: drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram. Along with these things I had things that were different. (De Profundis)
The patent self-satisfaction, the expansion of the “ego,” reach the point of mystification.
These exaggerations kept growing, even in the orbit of the stoic virility dear to Montherlant. He too strikes exaggerated poses: as practitioner of an extremely ostentatious bullfighting, being photographed wearing the mask of a Roman Emperor, etc. Lesser followers risk falling into flashy “lookism” and bad taste, formalizing to the extreme the attitudes or postures of the poet or the writer. In any case, they are not a solution to the phenomenon of decadence.
As regards dandyism, the only way out is to return calmly to Brummell himself, before he sank under financial vexations. Because this return to Brummell is equivalent, if one remembers the earlier exhortations of Addison and Steele, to a more modern—more civil and perhaps more trivial—form of paideia or humanitas. But, trivial or not, these values would be still be maintained, would continue to exist and shape minds.
This mix of good sense and the dandy aesthetic would make it possible to pursue a practical political objective: to defend the school in the classical sense of the term, to increase its power to transmit the legacy of Hellenic and Roman antiquity, to envisage a new and effective pedagogy, which would mix the idealism of Schiller, traditional methods, and the methods inspired by Pestalozzi.
Return to Religion or “Unhappy Consciousness”?
The figure of the dandy must thus be put back in the context of the 18th century, when the ideals and classical models of traditional Europe were being battered and destroyed under the butcher’s blows of leveling modernity. The substance of religion—whether Christian or pre-Christian under Christian varnish—becomes hollow and exhausted. The Moderns take the place of the Ancients. This process led inevitably to an existential crisis throughout European civilization.
Two paths are available to those who try to escape this sad destiny: (1) The return to religion or tradition, important paths that are not our topic today, to the extent that it represents an extremely vast continent of thought, deserving a complete seminar to itself. (2) To cultivate what the Romantics called Weltschmerz, the pain caused by a disenchanted world, which amounts to assuming an attitude of permanent critique toward the manifestations of modernity, developing an unhappy consciousness that generates a self-marginalizing culture where the political spirit can formulate an opposition to the mainstream.
For the dandy and the Romantic who oscillate between the return to religion and the feeling of Weltschmerz, the latter is most deeply felt. In the interiority of the poet or the artist this feeling will mature, grow, develop. To the point of becoming immune to the power of the unhappy consciousness to cause both languid and violent emotions. In the end, the dandy must become a cold and impartial observer in control of his feelings and emotions. If his blood boils at “economic horrors” it must quickly cool, leading to impassiveness, if he is to be able to face them effectively. The dandy who underwent this process thus reached a double impassibility: nothing external can shake him any longer; but neither can any interior emotion.
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle was never able to arrive at such a balance, which gives a very peculiar and seductive note to his work, quite simply because it reveals this process underway, with all its eddies, calms, and advances. Drieu suffers from the world, is tested on the front lines, is seduced by the discipline and “metallic” aspects of “immense and red” Fascism, on the march in his time, mentally accepts the same discipline in the Communists and Stalinists, but never really becomes a “cold and impartial observer” (Benjamin Constant). The work of Drieu La Rochelle is justly immortal because it reveals this permanent tension, this fear to falling into the ruts of a barren emotion, this joy at seeing vigorous alternatives to modern torpor, like Fascism or the satire of Doriot.
Strengthening Mind & Character
In short, the deconstruction of the ideas of ancient paideia and the deliquescence of immemorial religious substantialities beginning at the end of the 18th century, is equivalent to an existential crisis throughout all Western countries. The response of intelligence to this crisis is double: either it calls for a return to religion or it causes a deeply rooted pain in the depths of the soul, the famous Weltschmerz of the Romantics.
Weltschmerz is felt in the deepest interiority of the man who faces this crisis, but it is also in his interiority that he works silently to rise above this pain, to make it the material from which he forges the answer and alternative to this terrible loss of substantiality that is presided over by a deleterious economicism. It is thus necessary to harden the mind and character against the pangs entailed by the loss of substantiality without inventing out of whole cloth a rather lame substitute for what has been lost.
Baudelaire and Wilde think, each in his own way, that art will offer an alternative to the old substantialities that is almost identical in all ways but more flexible and moving. But in this case, art need not be understood as simple aestheticism. The toughening of the mind and character must serve to combat the ambient economicism, to fight against those who incarnate it, accept it, and puts their energies in its service. This toughness must be used as the firm moral and psychological base of the ideals of political and metapolitical struggle.
This toughness must be the carapace of what Evola called the “differentiated man,” he who “rides the tiger,” who wanders, unperturbed and imperturbable, “among the ruins,” the one Jünger called the “Anarch.” “The differentiated man who rides the tiger among the ruins” or the “Anarch” are described as impartial, impassive observers. These tough, differentiated men rise above two kinds of obstacles: external obstacles and those generated from their own interiority. That is to say, the impediments posed by inferior men and the weaknesses of a soul in distress.
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