Modernity and Inclusivity: Seeing it through "The Eyes of the Poor"

This week's reading for Cities, People and Poverty in the South had brought me to a few excerpts from a book titled "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air" by Marshall Berman. In this book, he expounds on the notion of consciousness in the pursuit of modernity. Even in the preface, Berman passionately laid out his criticism that in a constantly changing world, there is no mode of modernism that is ever going to be definitive. It is especially acute for modernism that forecloses or is hostile to change - rather, modernism seeks for one great change and then no more.

Bringing the conversation about modernity further out (in application) into how it plays a role in the design of a built environment - that it could either transform the urban realities into something 'dreamy and magical' (Berman) or it could strikingly show a contrast when reality creaks through - reminding us that the 'unpleasant' is never too far away. This argument is especially important in shaping my basic perspective and understanding about urban (in)equality - now that 'inclusivity', 'sustainability' and 'resilience' seems to be the buzz of words for urbanists today.

Berman illustrates this point with an excerpt from "The Eyes of the Poor" by Charles Baudelaire. Written in the 1860s, the Parisian urban environment made an impression with its boulevards which was a remarkable exhibit of modernity of the otherwise traditional city at that time. The prose stood out to me as it poetically carves out a certain guilty conscience about (mindless) lavish lifestyle in a modern city that isn't inclusive for everyone. The imagined and constructed modernity today still does not have a place for everyone's narrative to emerge equally - and perhaps this is a perennial issue (or an unsympathetic riddle) that urbanists will have to grapple with for yet another century to come.

"It was the evening of a long and lovely day that they had spent alone together. They sat down on the terrace “in front of a new cafe that formed the corner of a new boulevard.” The boulevard was “still littered with rubble,” but the cafe “already displayed proudly its unfinished splendors.” Its most splendid quality was a flood of new light: “The cafe was dazzling. Even the gas burned with the ardor of a debut; with all its power it lit the blinding whiteness of the walls, the expanse of mirrors, the gold cornices and moldings.” Less dazzling was the decorated interior that the gaslight lit up: a ridiculous profusion of Hebes and Ganymedes, hounds and falcons; “nymphs and goddesses bearing piles of fruits, pâtés and game on their heads,” a mélange of “all history and all mythology pandering to gluttony.” In other circumstances the narrator might recoil from this commercialized grossness; in love, however, he can laugh affectionately, and enjoy its vulgar appeal—our age would call it Camp.

As the lovers sit gazing happily into each other’s eyes, suddenly they are confronted with other people’s eyes. A poor family dressed in rags—a graybearded father, a young son, and a baby —come to a stop directly in front of them and gaze raptly at the bright new world that is just inside. “The three faces were extraordinarily serious, and those six eyes contemplated the new cafe fixedly with an equal admiration, differing only according to age.”

No words are spoken, but the narrator tries to read their eyes. The father’s eyes seem to say, “How beautiful it is! All the gold of the poor world must have found its way onto these walls.” The son’s eyes seem to say, “How beautiful it is! But it is a house where only people who are not like us can go.” The baby’s eyes “were too fascinated to express anything but joy, stupid and profound.”

Their fascination carries no hostile undertones; their vision of the gulf between the two worlds is sorrowful, not militant, not resentful but resigned. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, the narrator begins to feel uneasy, “a little ashamed of our glasses and decanters, too big for our thirst.” He is “touched by this family of eyes,” and feels some sort of kinship with them. But when, a moment later, “I turned my eyes to look into yours, dear love, to read my thoughts there” (Baudelaire’s italics), she says, “Those people with their great saucer eyes are unbearable! Can’t you go tell the manager to get them away from here?”

This is why he hates her today, he says. He adds that the incident has made him sad as well as angry: he sees now “how hard it is for people to understand each other, how incommunicable thought is”—so the poem ends—“even between people in love.”