(ii) Baroque culture

'And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of Fire is quite put out;
Thus Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to looke for it.
And freely men confesse that this world’s spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seeke so many new....
....’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation;
Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinkes he hath got
To be a Pheonix, and that then can bee
None of the kinde, of which he is, but hee.
from John Donne’s ‘An Anotomie of the World’ 1611

'At the very moment when ‘classical science’ was establishing itself - a science which, from Galileo to Descartes..., was highly critical of the powers of metaphor - poetry and theatre were asserting the claims of universal metaphor. For a time, the world as representation organised by ratio coexisted with the world as hieroglyph....'
Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason, SAGE 1994 p134

The culture of the Baroque grew out of the problems encountered in working out a relationship between restless motion and enduring order, and was fundamentally a culture of spectacle geared to stirring the emotions of the masses in an attempt to bring about their commitment to absolute monarchies. Perhaps no other style has ever been quite so spectator-oriented. It was a conservative culture designed to manipulate the masses through fantastic imagery and elaborate music, twisted columns and dramatic changes and contrasts, hoping to bring about their conformity through pleasure. The Baroque church was an arena within which a militant Catholicism struggled for the souls of men. In royal courts such as Versailles,'grander and more magnificent than the palaces of the emperors and the popes,'(as the sculptor Bernini reputedly said to the King of France,)72 the Baroque was intense emotion and the grandeur of sheer scale - put to political effect.

The Baroque was, in some ways, an heroic attempt to transcend the contradiction between order and motion, but its primary image was that of the ruin, an image which encapsulates its sense of artificiality, its manipulation and construction of social reality, and also the overriding sense of melancholy that permeated Europe in the wake of the Reformation. It was the culture of absolutism, pitted against the rise of liberalism, self-conscious and anxious, and obsessed with death.


In keeping with the theme of performance which threads through the many strands of the argument in this paper, alongside the birth of opera in Italy and ballet in France, it is the phenomenon of the German tragic drama, the Trauerspiel, which is central to an understanding of the Baroque. Trauerspiel can be translated literally as 'mourning play,' and was principally quite literally that, differing from Greek tragedy in that the sacrifice of the hero, rather than permitting the reconstitution of order, represents the sufferings of the world, "a decadent, Saturnian history of mourning and melancholia,"73 in which the hero simply dies.

The politics of the counter-reformation are dramatically represented in this theatrical form: sovereign power is represented as that which decides in moments of crisis. The message seems to be: "Absolute power rises upon the basis of catastrophes, in order to avert catastrophes."74 There is no law, no norm, no mediaeval chain of authority upon which this power rests, merely the violence of a sovereignty imposed in a state of emergency. That emergency was the threat of Protestantism and liberalism, and the response was the single-minded perfection of the machinery of government. In the words of the 17th century's most famous despot, Louis XIV, whose 72 year reign - the longest in European history - epitomised the politics of absolutism, "I am the State."75

In this historic transitional crisis between the static mediaeval world and the constantly changing world of the modern individual-in-history, Baroque drama takes place in a temporality that is neither universal, nor individual. The dead become ghosts, and the tensions between this world and the world of transcendence are highlighted; the very nature of theatre, its mirror upon the world, is itself a part of the world of the Trauerspiel. Thus the events which unfold in a Trauerspiel are allegorical schemes, symbolic images of another play. Existence is portrayed as Theatre, almost as if an understanding of selfhood as performance prevailed in the world of the Baroque.


It is important to grasp the meaning of allegory in the Baroque context, for by the end of the 18th century, with the modern already firmly established in the Classical order of the world, Goethe was ready to define allegory as moving from the abstract general to the particular, embodying well-known ideas such as Justice or Truth, as opposed to the symbol, defined as moving from the particular to the general, an image "in which the Infinite becomes finite."76

Baroque allegory was of quite a different nature, as pointed out by Benjamin. Rather than embodying an abstract idea, Baroque allegory was a kind of emotional writing, a representation of the unrepresentable, an image like "a fragment, a rune."77 This fragment, moreover, is ambiguous, containing a multiplicity of meaning, and rather than representing some generality, breaks up reality, breaks up image, breaks up language to represent time and experience by hieroglyphs and enigmas. These glyphs 'stir the emotions,' and their ultimate character is - and can only be - mourning. What Baroque allegory ultimately reveals is the dizzying effect of the Present, of the Now, having gained power over the 'complementary world' of theology, ghosts, and the supernatural. The absolute power of the monarch is derived not from God, but from the catastrophe of the Now which must be averted.

Religion versus Reason, Rationality versus Irrationality, the Baroque intellectual fusion is essentially a theatricisation of existence, a place of oxymoron and paradox, where "representation is itself subject a backward movement towards a missing centre.."78 There is, indeed, no centre, no fixed point of reference in the Baroque world, for the great chain of being has become unhinged, and the identity and centre of the Subject has yet to hold sway. It is this instability and movement which is so evident in Baroque art, and underpins the melancholy and "great disorder of the cosmic disaster of the end of the world so dear to baroque poets."79

The themes of the Baroque identified here: the culture of spectacle, the manipulation of the social order to support absolutism, the oxymoron of movement and order, the sense of melancholy, an allegory of fragments and enigmas bespeaking a multiplicity of meaning and depth of feeling, and the lack of centre, we shall return to later in this paper. At this point, however, we must turn to the establishment of modernity, to the origins and construction of the Individual Subject out of the ambivalence and metaphor of the Baroque, to the birth of the Age of Man.