Roberto Calasso

from la folie

vulgarité is a word introduced by mme de staël in 1800. We come across Modernité in Théophile Gautier, 1852. But in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe, published in 1849, the two words are found juxtaposed in the same sentence, with regard to problems the author had had at the customs post in Württemberg: “The vulgarity, the modernity of customs and passports.” As if the two words were fated to keep each other company. And before? Before there were vulgar people, but not vulgarity. And modern people, but not modernity. So how was it possible to think and feel without the help of these two potent categories, branches that we now know were somewhat slow to sprout?

Modernity: a word that emerges and rebounds between Gautier and Baudelaire in the space of a little more than ten years during the Second Empire, between 1852 and 1863. And this was always done with caution, with the awareness of introducing an alien notion into the language. Gautier, 1855: “Modernity. Does this noun exist? The sentiment it expresses is so recent that the word may very well not be in the dictionaries.” Baudelaire, 1863: “He is looking for that something we shall be allowed to call modernity; since there isn’t a better word to express the idea in question.” But what was this idea that was so recent and feeble that it still had to become fixed in a word? What was modernity made of? The malicious Jean Rousseau immediately declared it was made up of bibelots and female bodies. Arthur Stevens responded to him in defense of Baudelaire, defined on the occasion for the first time as “he who is the inventor, I believe, of this word modernity.” Through painting and frivolity, modernity burst into the dictionary. But it was destined to remain and spread, following progressive campaigns of conquest, accompanied by devastation. Soon no one would remember these frivolous and modest beginnings. In Baudelaire, however, the word remained enfolded as in a mist of perfume and face powder.