chapter  1
Mors immortalis
Pages 31

Although the term did not by any means originate with him-its first recorded use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1627-it was Baudelaire who first gave vogue to the idea of ‘modernity’ in his essay The Painter of Modern Life, written in 1859-60. His definition is a celebrated one: ‘modernity is that which is ephemeral, fugitive, contingent’. Baudelaire himself understood by modernity simply the quality of contemporaneity or presentness; all enduring works of art, he sought to establish, were so in part because of their ability to capture ‘the stamp that time imprints upon our perceptions’, to ‘extract the eternal from the ephemeral’. In this sense ‘every old-time painter had his own modernity’ (1986:37-9). But the idea of modernity has since taken on rather different connotations. It has come to define the present in opposition to the past, to designate an epoch. Ephemerality, fugitiveness and contingency are no longer the attributes of any present, but qualities thought specific to ‘the modern world’, in contrast to all its predecessors.