Thursday, February 7, 2008

"À une passante" (or "un passant," as the case may be)

Michael got us off to a great start the other day, but what's a new blog without a proper introductory post? Apologizing for my tardiness--those who know me know that my sense of time can be a little decadent/Decadent--I mark our debut nonetheless.

With a mind to continuing our invocation of Baudelaire--the blog's title refers to the English translation of his "Le Peintre de la vie moderne"--I could have just as easily titled this post "Au Lecteur"; however, given the way most people surf weblogs, it seemed more appropriate to address the passer by.

So, dear Passer By, why should you linger here? What will this blog offer?

Painters of Modern Life purposes itself as a forum for the interdisciplinary study of all-things nineteenth-century. How does it do this? Why, through the lens of the period's literature, of course!

In "Le Peintre de la vie moderne," Charles Baudelaire argues, if you'll pardon my being reductive, that the charge of the artist is to depict his age: to distill in aesthetic form the desires, difficulties, joys, and anxieties that are tied to his or her immediate time and space. To this end, Baudelaire suggests that the artist (or, for our primary purpose, the writer) must necessarily focus on the "transitory, fugitive element[s]"--fashion or custom, for example--because they reveal more about the communities they describe than those things which are held as eternally true. "Eternal truths" belong to all ages and thus none at all; fashion and taste are particular.

While Baudelaire's essay, which is couched as a review of an art exhibit, is most often cited as one of the earliest calls for that alleged rebellion against Realism--l'art pour l'art, or art for art's sake--the beauty of it is that, perhaps in spite of the poet-critic's best intentions, it acts as an apology for the nineteenth century's other literary impulses as well.

Literary styles are transitory--textual fashions, if you will; nineteenth-century novels, poems, and essays are thus as much literary documents as they are historical documents that may help us to understand the past. For example, Realist texts, mirroring the economic and social changes under industrialization, often took for their subject the trials of the middle and working classes. Naturalist works, with their preoccupation with psychology and criminality, reflect the public's growing fascination with the period's "scientific" advances. One might say, then, that literature paints life in its modernity.

It is for this reason that we have titled our little book blog "Painters of Modern Life," for to study the literature and the authors of the nineteenth century is to study life in the nineteenth century as well.

Consequently, not only will we post original criticism/reviews of nineteenth century literature, but we will provide historical context as well. Key concepts, literary movements, and events--Darwinism, Transcendentalism, and the Paris Commune, for example--will be highlighted in our Introducing... series.

Also featured here: news about new editions and translations of nineteenth-century texts, and about contemporary research into/criticism about the period. Consider Painters of Modern Life your one-stop shop for all manner of nineteenth-century literary minutiae!

Our approach, as I've mentioned above, will be interdisciplinary. Though we are united in our study of the nineteenth century, we three contributors differ in our areas of expertise and interest. While I'm sure both Dave and Michael could do a better job of introducing themselves and their interests than I can, this post would be remiss of its intent if I didn't try to do this on my own.

Dave, who finds himself smack-in-the-middle of completing a Ph'D (just finished those pesky comprehensive exams!), is our resident Americanist. His special interest in frontier narratives goes beyond the works of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Twain, and Melville; his recent research includes positioning twentieth-century and contemporary alien abduction stories as the new horizon for the frontier tale. Dave has joked that he just does this nineteenth century-thing for his degree, that his real interest is in television. And while I don't doubt this, neither do I doubt his interest in the period to which this blog is devoted: he combines the two studies in his work on Deadwood, some of which has been published in Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By.

Michael is our Brit-lit aficionado. He has a passion for all things Brontë with a particular soft-spot for Ms. Anne. As of late, when he hasn't been working on his first novel, Michael has been--in his own words--"thinking about futurism and transhumanism and cyborgs and fables," but given his review of The Time Machine, that rather goes without saying, doesn't it? What doesn't go without saying, though, is Michael's moonlighting as a Canadianist. He has studied the oeuvre of Jane Urquhart, who is herself fascinated by the Brontës, with as much fervour as the pseudonymously-published sisters.

As for me, well, my training is as a comparatist, so while my expertise is in French and Italian literary Naturalism and Decadence, from time-to-time I can be expected to tread on David's and especially Michael's toes (Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure ranks as my all-time favourite novel, and I really enjoy the work of George Egerton, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Brontë.) In addition to Naturalism and Decadence, I'm preoccupied by the links between allegory and fetishism, the rhetoric of hysteria, and the period's anxieties surrounding women's education and literacy. Nascent interests include freakery and the nineteenth-century circus sideshow, and the representation of the nineteenth century in contemporary literature and film.

Still with us, gentle Passer By? Or, if you've come this far, might we now say "gentle Reader"? Dave and Michael have charged me with the task of introducing our little project, so on behalf of the three of us, allow me to welcome your many future returns!


Graeme said...

Dear Artists,

The foreground has been painted very well. I'm looking forward to the rest of the picture.

A gentle passer-by

Natalie said...

Looking forward to having our gaze returned!