DEAN KYTE is a Melbourne-based writer, artist, filmmaker and flâneur. A former Gold Coast film critic and the author of five books, more than 100 reviews, feature articles and essays have appeared under his by-line in magazines both in Australia and abroad.
In addition to publishing his own work, Dean also provides Bespoke Document Tailoring and Artisanal Desktop Publishing services to Australian and international clients via his website, https://deankyte.com.
Jay snapped me sans overcoat but otherwise suited up for winter as I swanned around summery Coffs, an unofficial ambassador of Melbourne moda bringing a soupçon of Collins street chic to Harbour drive.
The only unfashionable touch by your Melbourne Flâneur’s über-æsthetic lights: the muzzle (or ‘chin-sling’, as I call it) in my south paw, a fad which no one will ever convince me is elegant—even the flower-bedizened variety I reluctantly port.
Even when forced to hide my mug behind a mask, dear readers, the dandy in me indomitably prevails, and I must bring a touch of the æsthetic even to this despised item of bourgeois uniformity.
But whether I am airing my dial or have my mug camouflaged behind a floral mask, it seems I am instantly recognized in these parts. Even at the bus stop, preparing to decamp from Coffs to Bellingen, I was recognized by someone I had never seen in my life.
‘You’re going to Bellingen, aren’t you?’ the guy asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied, somewhat surprised. Perhaps, I thought, the bowtie I was wearing gave me away as the type of person who would be waiting for the bus to Bello.
‘Yeah, I’ve seen you there,’ he said.
‘It must have been a long time ago,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been there in five years.’
He seemed doubtful about that claim, as if it were more likely that he had last seen me only five weeks ago.
The encounter puzzled me until I alighted in Bello. Hardly had I squared away my luggage at the Diggers Tavern and taken my first fashionable flânerie in æons up one side of Hyde street, the Champs-Élysées of Bellingen, and down the other before I was recognized by John Ross, owner of the Alternatives Bookshop, who greeted me with the words: ‘We were just talking about you.’
That is a phrase I have heard repeated continuously. Five years may have passed, but my ‘celebrity’ in Bellingen (as John called it, introducing me to two passers-by) as its most dandistic resident remained undimmed by half a decade’s absence. Indeed, on Sunday, as I lounged on the grassy bank of the Bellinger River, relishing the sun (a dominical ritual of confirmed Bellingenites), two friends sitting at some distance and recognizing a jaunty Fedora worn rakishly askew inquired of their companions if it could be me and, more to the point, if they had lived in Bellingen long enough ‘to know who Dean is.’
I’ve become a fabled creature here, which I didn’t expect. If you have lived in Bello in the years ‘A.D.’ (‘After Dean’), you have clearly missed a spectacle as dazzling and memorable (in the annals of fashion, at least) as the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
I used to have a lady friend here, a cute little sculptress who lived up the hill in Dorrigo and who would come down to Bello on a Sunday to work a shift at the former Lodge 241 café. It never ceased to amuse her how, on our dates or after-work flâneries, we were forced to stop every few metres in our progress along Hyde street to acknowledge the friendly salutations of the most diverse people.
To her, I seemed to know everyone in town, but to me, it felt more like everyone knew me—even the people I didn’t know.
Conspicuous as I was in my day, I thought that when I departed Bello for Melbourne five years ago, I would be promptly forgotten. But it was I who had forgotten the curious phenomenon of ‘Bello time’, whereby a man can go away for five years and be greeted warmly by half the town as if the last time he had been seen in these parts was last week.
But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I am certainly not the only literary man to have passed a season or two in this town, and certainly not the most internationally celebrated, Peter Carey having lived in Bellingen and having set the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) in this landscape.
Moreover, journalist George Negus and I occasionally shared co-working space at ‘my office’, the Hyde, and one of the last times I imbibed a long black there before checking out, on a day when the café was particularly bondé de gens, Mr. Negus and I were forced to sit coude-à-coude at the counter and cement the distant intimacy of our long nodding acquaintance with some polite pleasantries about the political nouvelles du jour, that mustachioed gent never suspecting the local literary celebrity he was rubbing his grizzled elbow against.
I kid, of course.
But like all jests, there’s a zesty grain of truth in the observation that if these two literary gentlemen have more conspicuous clout in the world of letters than your presumptuous little flâneur, in the public imaginary of Bellingen, at least, with the rigorous rectitude and correctness of my dress, I have always fitted the image of an homme de lettres more thoroughly than my more famous colleagues—for all my friends and acquaintances here know that the hygiene of my deportment reflects the intellectual hygiene of a man who makes the most exquisite discriminations with words.
But I find myself in an odd—even an embarrassing—position, overwhelmed by the well-wishing of people who have never forgotten me and never, it seems, ceased to think well of me in my absence.
All the time I lived here, people predicted an imminent removal to Melbourne for me, telling me that, with my sens inné de la mode, I was meant more for Collins street than for Church street, but I think I defied even the most prevoyant forecast about that imminent departure date by staying nearly two and a half years in Bello.
When I did, finally, satisfy the prophecy which had attended me from the first and vamoosed to Victoria, it was with the deeply regretted sense that this beloved landscape had, indeed, been eventually exhausted for me as a source of flâneuristic exploit—particularly as regards the flâneur’s addictive habitude of æsthetically investigating the women of the cities and towns he prowls through.
The dandy is always seeking to crystallize his image, to make his outward appearance thoroughly congruent and consubstantial with his inward self, and in Melbourne, it’s true, I seemed to find and set in perfect place the last pieces of the puzzle to my character which I had been searching for in landscapes as various as the Gold Coast, Paris, and even Bellingen.
I will always be, first and foremost, a Parisian, proud citoyen of the first city of modernity, and hence of modernity’s most decadent product, fashion. But if I have integrated the high polish of the dandistic Parisian flâneur with a life spent wandering the streets of this benighted antipodean isle’s provincial capital of fashion, such that I have become a Melbourne flâneur, it is fair to say that without a couple of years of my life spent squinting still more tightly, trying to disengage and draw forth, like a fabulous perfume, the flâneuristic romance of marvellous novelty from Bellingen’s streets through half-closed lids, I would not have been able to see, as a living reality, a fragrant atmosphere which thoroughly surrounds and suckles me, the poetic Parisian substrate to Melbourne’s pedestrian actuality.
In other words, in Bellingen too (which I have occasionally described to the uninitiated as being like the whole of Melbourne folded up into two short streets) I found the lost quality of Parisian romance, of marvellous novelty, and in some sense the narrow circuit I traced for more than two years up and down Hyde and Church streets prepared me, as no place since Paris had, for the assiduous literary oisiveté of wandering the streets of Melbourne, on the perennial trail for tails and tales.
In fine, I think that, unacknowledged as my literary genius may be by the wider world as compared with Bellingen’s more famous scrivenly denizens both past and present, if I hold a special affection nei cuori dei Bellingeni, it is perhaps because they sense that, fitting the bill of an homme de lettres more perfectly, as one who uses words with the precision of a camera, I have seen the secret essence in this town, in real scenes set in its streets, and have recorded that invisible, fragrant essence which makes this town such a special place.
My last book, Follow Me, My Lovely…, was set here, the history of a night and a morning when I navigated a gorgeous Norwegian tourist I picked up at the backpackers through a flurried flânerie of streets and scenes, and my next novel is also set in the same streets, where the ghost of the former girl—(and of others, bien entendu)—lingers over the marvellous novelty of my romance with another.
In my last post, datelined Wagga, I wrote that I was coming to the end of the second draft of that novel, and there was a moment, in my assiduous painting and repainting of the scene, set in the little park in front of the Bellingen library, where I and that other began a slow escalation of each other which would lead, inevitably, to a transcendent experience in the bedroom, when I felt again the palpability not merely of her body, but of the place and the hour.
On Sunday, not a block west of the library, I beheld her face—a face I had striven through five years to hold firm in my mind, and which I had believed I would never see again—and her neat little body, that body I had held tenderly in the park.
There she was, at some short distance from me, dear readers, at a tantalizing inconjunction of space and time which made it possible for us both to pretend that we had not seen each other, or that, seeing each other, we did not recognize each other. But I know she knew me at a glance, despite the obfuscating bowtie (a foppery I didn’t port in those days), just as I knew her at a glance, swaddled in the faux-fur collar of her velour jacket.
Oui, there she was, one of the feminine ‘Elect’, one of that modest corpus of dames who have undressed your Melbourne Flâneur, who have divested him of his fashionable armour and have laid him out in state, and who have had the dubious honour of beholding the holiest of holies behind that implacable front.
I’ve said that one of the few things which sustained me through our extended Melbourne lockdown was the ability, in concentrating on this novel, to escape the limited vision of the restricted present, and take flâneries through my memories of Bellingen, repainting with precision the Memorial Hall, the walk across Lavenders Bridge and up the path above the skate park, No. 5 Church Street, and Church street itself before the camphor laurels had been removed and replaced.
But when I saw my palpable paramour’s face once again, slightly longer and narrower than I remembered it, she who had led me, arm-in-arm, on months of painstaking promenade through my memories of the streets of Bellingen as perhaps the Eternal Feminine essence of the place, consubstantial with it—for it was her even more than here that I have been trying, through five years, to paint perfectly with words—I saw in her face the slight, painterly distortion, the fault of perspective I had made in my painting of the place.
That slight lengthening and narrowing of her actual visage (as compared to my lovingly beheld memory of it) was like all the slight displacements I have discovered in re-walking these streets I have loved and written lovingly about.
The streetlight in Short Street lane is white, not yellow as I remember it, and the strangler fig under which we exchanged our first kisses ‘feels’ further down the lane, towards Church street, than I have pictured it—even with assiduous referral to Google Maps to aid and orient me.
Most significantly, it was not until I sat on the bank of the river on Sunday afternoon, remembering all the women with whom I had passed a tender moment on that spot, that I realized, for all my concentration on precisely rendering the actuality of the place, how much the palpable, experienced memory of pleasure in Bellingen—how much I used to enjoy sitting on that riverbank, whether alone or in company—has lain buried, sleeping deeply in my unconscious for five years.
Through all my restless movement through places and scenes—not just in Melbourne, but in all the towns and cities my flâneries have taken me to—the memory of the place where I was, for the longest time in my life, most consistently happy has lain buried and is, perhaps, unpaintable, as closely as one might approximate the essence of it.
I recall a quote by M. Degas, who says:
‘C’est très bien de copier ce qu’on voit, c’est beaucoup mieux de dessiner ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire. C’est une transformation pendant laquelle l’ingéniosité collabore avec la mémoire. Vous ne reproduisez que ce qui vous a frappé, c’est-à-dire le nécessaire. … Voilà pourquoi les tableaux faits de cette façon, par un homme ayant une mémoire cultivée, connaissant les maîtres et son métier, sont presque toujours des œuvres remarquables.’
‘It’s all very well to copy what you can see, but it’s even better to draw what you can no longer see, except in memory. A transformation is worked upon the base material of actuality in which genius collaborates with recollection. You only reproduce what has struck you, which is to say, that which is essential to the image. … That is why paintings made in such a manner by a man with a cultivated memory, one who knows both the Old Masters and his trade, are almost always remarkable works.’
—Edgar Degas (my translation)
Follow Me, My Lovely…, written in this landscape, while I still had immediate visual access to every point in the parcours, while I could still see and measure the relative distances between every spot through which I had escalated the Norwegian in our nine-hour flânerie around Bellingen, has a very different quality and character to the one this next novel, Sentimental Journey, will have.
It’s a book I began writing almost immediately after I left Bello five years ago, and being reliant on my memories of the place, and of the woman, slight distortions and displacements—those qualities that M. Degas calls ‘remarkable’—have crept into my rendition of Bellingen, such that, between the essential traits of the image—and even within them—an imaginative collaboration of genius with memory has inadvertently occurred.
I suspect that, at the deepest level, the reason why the good burghers of Bello hold me in a regard I feel I have hardly earned is that they sense, despite my punishing exactitude, despite my dandistic subscription to absolute, rigorous perfection in everything—the sincerity of my dedication to my art which flows out from it through all my life—before reality I fail to get it ‘quite right’—and in that tiny failure, that loophole where the genius of imagination intersects with a rigorously cultivated memory of the place, the inestimable ‘essence of Bellingen’ emerges in my writing about my remembered experiences here.
Other, more celebrated men of letters may have written about this place, but I think i Bellingeni know that their presumptuous little flâneur has observed and absorbed the essence of the living reality of this place, and in his Parisian hallucination of it, will one day present a startling snapshot of the town in tableau at a moment of its most recent history.
What esprit de flânerie had drawn him here he could not say. But the image of it,—the rusted tracks, their ties overtaken by the marauding verdure; the red, unrolling rollingstock blocking tracks which vanished in the horizon of ruinous green,—seemed an apt metaphor for his life with women.
As afternoon segued to evening with the savageness of a cut, he saw himself as an empty, twilit platform where no woman would again alight, the unchalerous shell of a darkened station which would no more warmly receive the transitory train of her ambassade through the embassy set over the foreign country of his interior life. A lamp which illuminated nothing; a sign which apprised no one of nowhere; a bench conveniently placed, and upon whose convenience no one rested and refreshed themselves:—Sometimes places, in their abstraction, resemble us more closely than do other people.
—Dean Kyte, “駅の物語” (“Conte de gare”)
I’ve always had a fascination with trains and train stations. You might think train travel a rather contradictory passion for a flâneur, the most freewheeling of voyageurs: Why should this epic pedestrian, drawn in his dreamy dérive by lines of random desire which sing out to his eye from every street corner, be inexorably attracted to the most restrictive and linear mode of movement through space, one which offers only limited scope for him to exercise his predatory passion for æsthetic investigation?
Hélas, if, like Walt Whitman, I contradict myself, then, dear readers, I contradict myself. As I hope the video and prose poem above attest, I contain multitudes. My soul is as large, as empty and as cryptic a labyrinthine structure as that palatial tomb which lounges alongside the Yarra, receiving and debouching visitors to Melbourne.
And it is certainly no coincidence that as a Melbourne flâneur, I should equally be an aficiónado of that kissing cousin of the train, the tram.
As an aristocrat of the gutter, a gentleman who makes his home in the street, to park my wheels momentarily in the tram, democratic chariot of Melburnians of every caste and class, and exercise my penetrating gaze over Collins or Bourke or Flinders streets from the very midst of them is to enjoy a flâneurial delectation which no other city in the world can offer to as extensive an extent. Verily, to make one’s royal procession up Bourke street on the back of one of these reines de la rue, shaking her bells at the milling mallers who make deferential way for her, is really to get a recherché experience of one of the world’s great thoroughfares.
I’m not quite sure what it is about trains and stations that has always attracted me to them, except that, as Sig. De Chirico seemed to apprehend in paintings such as Gare Montparnasse (1914), both the station and the train are places of dream.
Like Cole Porter, I get no kick in a plane. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do. But lay me down in the gently rocking berceau of a roomette and let me nurse my dreams on that flux of images flying by the window, towns known and unknown, and I will feel myself swaddled in a womb of contentment.
Soon my month-long sojourn in Wagga Wagga ends and I reboard the train, bound for the destinations which are the purpose of my three-month voyage in NSW—Coffs Harbour and Bellingen.
Of course, the destination is a woman. Or women, as the case may be.
I’ve been nursing the dream of seeing Bello again since our second, soul-destroying lockdown in Melbourne last year. In the four months I was under house arrest in a West Melbourne hotel room, my restless esprit ennuyeux de flâneur confined to perambulations through dreams and memories inspired by old photographs and footage taken, as in the video above, during other voyages, writing the second draft of my current work in progress, set in Bellingen, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, was one of the few things that kept me sane.
When our ‘Dear Leader’, Mr. Andrews, deigned to release us last November, dangling a tentative morsel of liberty before us (albeit one bounded by a radius of 25 kilometres), my experience of coming out of deep freeze was the inverse of what my Melburnian confrères had complained of all through lockdown: I had lived tensely on my nerve endings for so many months that I felt a sudden crash in energy and an onset of depression at being abbreviatedly free, whereas most of my fellow Melburnians had had their dose of depression in the prison of their homes.
Almost the first thing I did as soon as I was out of the cage was to re-open lines of communication with a woman, the thought of whom, like Dulcinea, had been one of those few things which kept my windmill-wizened brain sane when it seemed eminently possible that the Victorian Government and Victoria Police would go full Stasi on us.
And, as you can imagine with these undependable dames, even a polite inquiry into one’s health was met with radio silence.
That, and freedom, and the American election all coinciding at once seemed to soak my vibe of every adrenal ounce I had needed to endure four months of lockdown in a state which had descended with frightening rapidity towards totalitarianism.
And it was in that state of physical and emotional exhaustion that I made the video above and penned the attendant prose poem.
Trawling through my footage, I seemed to find in the abandoned Trentham train station an image of my soul at that desolate moment. Trentham’s a little town, about halfway between Woodend and Daylesford, which reminded me a great deal of Bellingen when I had stayed there about two years before. As refugees from Newtown in Sydney ‘tree change’ to Bellingen, imagining a verdant, paradisal embassy of inner-city liberalism in the country, so Fitzrovians fleeing Melbourne are steadily driving the property prices in Trentham up above a million dollars.
I’m told you can follow the old railway ties, half-buried in the verdure, from the station to quite a good pub in the next town, but that was a flânerie too energetic for yours truly, being more in the way of a ‘hike’, and my Italian-shod soul demands a nature denuded by copious asphalt and good paving to support it. I probably walked no further towards the slaking refreshment of that mythical pub than where you find my camera set up in the first two shots of the video.
But in the image of an abandoned country railway station at dusk, and in the ghostly sound of a spectral steam train puffing along a ruined route down which no train could nowadays pass, I saw an image of myself, shagged and fagged and fashed on the threshold of middle age, my days as a ladies’ man now well behind me down that ruined pike, having decided that there was one woman left for me in the world to conquer or none at all, one whose tardy silence to my text seemed to leave me, like my camera in the video, lingering restlessly for a train that had been infinitely delayed—and maybe even derailed long before I had arrived at the terminus of this moment of realization that there was but one woman in the world I would deign to travel to the end of the line with.
That sense of the mood—and often the melancholy mood—of empty places which I have elsewhere called ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’, a dark, ponderous sadness about the unpeopled spaces of the city, the unfathomable, heart-breaking mystery of the real and manifest and visible which I and my cameras seem very sensitive to, was potent for me then.
I did eventually hear from the lady in question, and her perky obliquities were worse than if she had left me mired in my tristes mystères of unknowing and Jamesian speculation upon the multiple potential motives of her silence.
And I admit that, since November of last year, I haven’t been quite myself, and I certainly haven’t been at my best. I haven’t entirely recovered from that triple blow of sudden decompression from lockdown, a conversation unresolved and infinitely deferred, and the latest (as it then was) apocalyptic twist to the devolving screw of Western civilization which an American election in the time of Coronavirus represented.
Mostly since then I’ve just tried to beat back my spleen, tamp it down by blows and kicks and cudgels until such time as I could get on that train and find out for myself what goes on with this dame.
Now the train of months has just about drawn up to the platform, and I’m about to find out if this whole trip to NSW, assiduously planned, was worth the price of knowing the truth, or whether I would have been happier trying to decipher unhappy mysteries from the distance of another state.
The train and the station seem quite significant symbols for me in my writing, as in my life. My latest work in progress, a memoir of seduction, is about an occasion when I took the XPT from Bello (or Urunga, to be more precise) to Brisbane, partly to catch the last few days of David Lynch’s exhibition at GoMA, Between Two Worlds, and partly to slay myself in the kind of unfettered Daygame you can’t do but covertly in a small town.
I was all set to get on the train at around 11:00 that night when, an hour or two before I was due at the station, I had the romantic encounter, right there in Bello, I was going to Brisbane for.
I almost missed my train: the lady in question was showing me such a good time I almost blew off a whole trip to Brisbane just to finish what I had started with her. I didn’t sleep that night—and not because it’s damn difficult to do blanket duty on the overnight XPT: I nursed the memory of her kisses as the train rocked and rolled me to Briz Vegas, tried not to let their reality dissolve into dreams until such time as I would be able to write this totally unexpected victory down verbatim in my journal.
I’m now 93% through the second draft of that book, and last week I had a chance to get down to the commencement of the finale, my second round with the redhead, when I was back in Bello, finishing off the pleasure I had deferred for the love of art.
Possibly it makes a difference to be on this side of the border, to be this much closer to the place, both in space and time, for there was a moment, in rewriting the scene, when the sensual reality of the experience—not just her hand in my lap and mine under her dress, but the little park before the library with its globes of yellow light giving it a Parisian air, and the delicious freddezza of Bello in June, made more delicious still when you have the warmth of a woman in your arms—produced the same sensual frisson in me as I felt that night so many years ago.
I could see the place and hear it again. I could feel the chill, valley night which I’ll know again, after so many years’ distance, in another week or two. Having taken me away from a place where the spectres of myself in scenes of dead love with various women are still vivid in my memory, the train will take me back there.
If I were to connect the psychological network map of my amoursmorts, I think I would discover that women and trains and stations all seem unconsciously connected to me, and that, indeed, I can plot the points of some of the stations of my experience as equally the terminuses of my affairs with several women.
There was the French girl, never to be forgotten, and never, I fear, to be sufficiently honoured in the pearl-like words of peerless prose her soul deserves, whom I kissed goodbye with the heart-breaking knowledge that I would never see her again in this life at the turnstile to the Métro in Belleville.
A few hours hence, I would be getting on the Eurostar to London, and thence, by tube, to Heathrow, carrying the sacred chalice of her kiss across continents and time zones as I wrote the memory of her down in my journal.
The last girl who was of any significance to me before I gave up Daygame, I also saw off on the Metro—at Eltham Station in Melbourne. A Dutch girl of Persian descent, I still see her pretty, dark face framed with ringlets becoming as small as a postage stamp through the pane of the door as it flies away from me, back to Holland.
And as for the object of my fact-finding mission north of the border, the last time I saw her was when we were on a train together in Brisbane, far removed from the climes in which we had known each other in Coffs.
I remember writing to her in a belated birthday card about a year after that last rendez-vous that, when I had gotten off the train at Roma Street, I had not looked back at her—had not been able to look back at her—because I was looking forward to the next time I would see her.
After a lot of near misses in the intervening years, the moment I have been looking forward to may be imminent. The tragedy would be to discover that that last moment of loving vision I sacrificed for this next moment, and which I have looked forward to with anticipation, was really the end of our relation; that I missed my connection with her; and that, for years, I have been wandering around the tomb of Roma Street, not even realizing that I am in the terminus of love.
People are different at night. Under cover of its camouflage, their true, lupine colours show through.
But after experiencing the giallonoir lights of Paris, I seemed to lose my fear of night and the city. And over time, I learned to love to bathe in golden shadows. For things other than fleurs du mal bloom at night:—I love the lights, which, like penetrating rays of consciousness, flashes of inspiration blossoming in the black soil of the subconscious, require the loam of deep darkness to spark the oneiric reverie of their fiorrific flames.
In time I understood, like reading the rebus of a dream, what the clairobscure image of night and light was telling me: the lonely tiges of these solitudinous sentinelles, aureoled in melting platinum and nodding in la notte, were images of my own sombre soul burning tygerbright fra le selve oscure della gente.
—Dean Kyte, “Nightflowers”
When I lived in Bellingen, I earned an epithet which never quite escaped me.
Every year, around the Queen’s Birthday, Bellingen hosts its annual Readers & Writers Festival, and the highlight is the Poetry Slam on the Saturday night, an event which draws as competitive a murmur around town as the Melbourne Cup. Form of certain contenders is compared and bruited abroad in the days and weeks leading up to it, a noise which gathers to a crescendo as the poetic nags prance up to the gate of the Mem Hall.
My first year living in Bello, I charged out of nowhere, surging out of the pack from six lengths behind at the turn, like a dark horse whose form was utterly unknown in those climes, to carry off the big novelty cheque bestowed upon the runner-up. It was a complete fluke, but after that night I was known around town as ‘The Poet’—an utterly undeserved appellation, as I had used up about half of all the poems I have ever written in my life that night.
Most of my ‘poetic output’ is, strictly speaking, not my own, but translations from French, Italian and Spanish. My reputation around town as a translator of Baudelaire contributed somewhat to the capital T, capital P appellation, and perhaps inheriting his credentials as a spiritual sire gave me the thoroughbred look of a literary man born to the saddle of poetry.
I have never regarded myself as being ‘a’ poet, let alone ‘the’, but I could never shake off the definite article designation after that, despite polite explanation that I’m a ‘writer’, not really a ‘poet’ per se. To my ear at least, the vocation of ‘writer’ has an all-around, tradesmanlike sound to it, one which indicates a general maestria of the manifold forms of written language (most of which are prose), rather than the specific expertise of the ‘poet’.
I admire poets enormously, but however masterful I am at hammering out a well-turned sentence, I don’t consider myself to be anywhere near their priestly rank in the hierarchy of writers. Poetry, it seems to me, is not something that you write: it is something that is written through you, a message from God that you channel. People who have their antennæ turned towards and tuned in to receive the celestial communication on a more than hit-or-miss basis have my admiration.
If I have written a dozen poems worthy of the name in my entire life, I would be surprised to discover such prodigious production from a soul who, like M. Flaubert, suffers to turn one golden word from the dross of his mind.
Most of the poetry I have ever written was written in a few months, on Parisian soil, when the fecund inspiration of ‘the reality of experience’, as Mr. Joyce calls it, interpenetrated the soil of my soul, made ready for it by thousands of hours of toil in another, antipodean atmosphere.
To carry on the metaphor, a poem is like a flower: it grows within you of its own volition, the natural product of soil and light and air, and you are the gardener charged by God with gathering this bud in the ephemeral fullness of its flowering. I have expressed this conviction more fully in a memoir yet to be published, recalling the moment, in the cours La Reine in Paris, when I felt the first thing I could honestly call a ‘poem’ germinate and spring to sudden life within me:
This was the truly rare thing, the thing which had made Orfeo despair of ever ‘being’ un poète rather than le prosateur he knew himself, aucœur, to be:—for he knew innately that this natural emergenza, this illuminating insight, this sudden, lucid pénétration de la conscience into la vraie nature des choses which takes sudden, stunning shape in a small number of perfect words perfectly arranged, could not be forced, could not be le produit d’un moi, of a mind consciously writing to ‘produce’ un poème, but was itself un acte gratuit de la Nature as rare, as long an odd as that interpénétration des individus which yet produces a third, equally unique, equally irreplaceable individu from that contingent comingtogether….
But now le miracle de la Nature was taking its course in him: the event longwaitedfor, almost despaired of, the spontaneous, paroozianic excrescence of something real, something that was meant to be, and to have une vie propre dans le monde indépendant d’Orfeo, the way any authentic poème which has survived to be repeated by successive générations des êtres humains as expressing in some perfect, immediately apprehendable way l’essence tragique de notre condition has lived, whether it emerges from la sensibilité unique of a Keats, a Coleridge, a Rimbaud, a Baudelaire, a Wordsworth, a Goethe, a Blake; and which we immediately sense, on the reading of it, the profound interaction of une conscience unique avec ce monde, such that these words in this form must be;—must take their life, separate de leur créateur and without propriety anymore than un enfant est la propriété de son parent; to strike their harmonious accord within him and then to vibrate outwards to touch des autres âmes à travers le temps as the apprehension—sudden, lucid, clear—of some vérité éternelle de notre relation avec la Nature. Le poème was, in fine, necessary dans l’histoire du monde: it must be, just as those œuvres—les Manet, les Courbet—Orfeo had seen au musée d’Orsay,—et toutes les autres œuvres which he had been privileged to see all this extraordinary semaine de sa vie,—were fated by this same poetic inevitability to be. They spoke to something essential dans la condition de l’homme, and those luminous, irridescent traits dans le bouquet de l’Olympia, no less rude and irregular than these crude lines taking spontaneous shape sous la main d’Orfeo, were, comme les enfants d’une vision formed in its own kink, et perversité de l’esprit, et particularité to see ces traits où les autres, avant Manet, could not, no less essential a fleuring in that concatenation de l’histoire than the flowering de l’orchidée rare qui était Manet luimême, budded up from the sterile staff d’un juge bourgeois out of the unpropitious field of une fille de diplomate. Our presumptuous little hero had the grave and awful sense pour la première fois dans sa vie that what he committed here, en ce jour, dans le cours la Reine, would echo long into l’éternité: The great grave bell had been struck, and the peal of his fame, that of our ridiculous little dandy, cloaked in the conspicuous sable of his ostentatious anonymity pendant sa vie, would resound from this moment of sincere sentiment when he had abased son âme devant l’Olympia, would echo, growing—ironically, paradoxically—louder, not dimmer and more muffled as this instant of time slipped further from him, the words he now committed à la page slipping further from his hand to become no longer his property, but something dans le patrimoine de toute humanité, to take its place, alongside the most essential art, in the vast, grand jardin du domaine public. If he did nothing more with his life than what he did on this day, Orfeo had ascended, accédé à l’Académie des Phares with this cri which emerged, déchirant, de son cœur: It would be taken up, cette torche, par mille sentinelles, par mille portevoix, passed, de main en main, d’âge en âge, only to flicker and die à la dernière syllabe of recorded time, at the last rippling ondulation of its écho, au bord de l’éternité. Here was la poésie, in this osmotic interaction of that which was without Orfeo with that which was within him; it emerged, unforced, unbidden, by this mysterious alchimerical interaction, as rare a transubstantiation as lead into gold, and if the effect was rather, from a more objective standpoint, the imposition, by Orfeo, of his sensibilité sur la nature, as of a pathetic fallacy upon this indifferent scene, it had rather the effect upon him that he was discovering some profound truth latent in the design of what appeared to be un chaos harmonieux.
—Dean Kyte, Orpheid: L’Olympia
The babel of that quotation gives you some sense not only of how little I consider myself to be a poet, but, suffering like M. Flaubert from the knowledge that my antennæ are not turned, on balance, towards the celestial, poetic realm, but towards the prosaic, terrestrial world, how much, in compensation, I have sought to make my prose scintillate with that ‘speaking in tongues’ natural to the priestly poets.
With a deep bow of reverence to Howard Nemerov’s provocative entry on poetry in the Encyclopædia Britannica (which is worth repeated readings), one might almost say that prose is the ‘science’ of literature and poetry the ‘art’ of it.
Like science, prose is a purely descriptive account of nature. I often call written language ‘the algebra of thought’, and like the workaday symbology of algebra between scientists, prose is intended to get an idea, a descriptive account of external reality, out of one mind and as neatly, efficiently, and accurately into another.
Poetry, on the other hand, does something even more abstract with the abstract symbology of language than prose. It attempts to make music out of units of concrete meaning.
I have always been of the view that the highest demonstration of artistic genius is when an artist takes his medium and makes it do the opposite of what it is intended to do as, for example, when Robert Bresson suggested that the highest end of cinema was to ‘film the invisible’. In some sense, music (which it appears to have co-evolved with) is the contrary of language, and the poetic attempt to void words of their workaday meanings and make them into abstract sounds—the music of the spheres—is, in my view, the highest form of literary expression.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed two neat equations, stating that ‘prose = words in the best order’ and that ‘poetry = the best words in the best order [my emphasis].’ The latter equation implies concision as a corollary, and concision seems to be a natural feature of poetry, from the haiku to the epic: If a poem constitutes the best words arranged in the best possible order, it naturally excludes from itself any words which do not cumulatively contribute to the peerless effect it produces.
I think this sense of concentrated concision native to poetry, which expresses the essence of living reality without superfluity, and yet transcends the purely descriptive account of prose, such that whatever description it does supply abstractly transcends the material so that multiple meanings operate simultaneously on multiple levels, is what makes even such fastidious craftsmen of prose as M. Flaubert and myself despair of ever being ‘poets’ in the priestly sense I have described above.
Though the modern prose poem was officially inaugurated by M. Baudelaire, arguably it is his contemporary, M. Flaubert, who is the first modern ‘poet in prose’. He suffered, as he wrote to Louise Colet in 1852, to write a style of prose ‘qui serait rythmé comme le vers, précis comme le langage des sciences’.
And as much as the recluse of Croisset was held, in the middle-class circles he despised, as a literary freak, dangerous to bon sens et bonnes mœurs, even M. Flaubert’s most tory critics had to concede that, despite the apparently insane ends to which he turned the French language, hardly anybody writing during the Second Empire had as firm a reign on words, nor could they polish each part of a prosaic sentence up to the point of being something akin to poetry.
M. Flaubert’s writing process has become legendary for its redundant exactitude, and when one reads of the tireless synopses, synopses of synopses, drafts and drafts of drafts that he went through, one almost feels as though the greatest writer of French prose in his day were conducting himself like an absolute neophyte, a perpetual student of bonne forme.
As his good friend, George Sand, wrote to M. Flaubert, chastising him for his grumbling over the negative reception of L’Éducation sentimentale(1869):
Au fond, tu lis, tu creuses, tu travailles plus que moi et qu’une foule d’autres. Tu as acquis une instruction à laquelle je n’arriverai jamais. Tu es donc plus riche cent fois que nous tous ; tu es un riche et tu cries comme un pauvre. Faites la charité à un gueux qui a de l’or plein sa paillasse, mais qui ne veut se nourrir que de phrases bien faites et de mots choisis. Mais, bêta, fouille dans ta paillasse et mange ton or. Nourris-toi des idées et des sentiments amassés dans ta tête et dans ton coeur ; les mots et les phrases, la forme dont tu fais tant de cas, sortira toute seule de ta digestion. Tu la considères comme un but, elle n’est qu’un effet.
In the final analysis, you dig, you work harder than myself and a whole host of other writers. You have acquired an erudition to which I shall never attain. You are a hundred times richer than the rest of us; you are rich and yet you cry poor! You want that I should dispense alms upon a beggar whose cup is full of gold, but who does not want to feast except on well-turned phrases and the choicest of words? Dummy, dig in your cup and eat your gold! Nourish yourself upon the feelings and ideas hoarded in your head and heart! The words and phrases, the ‘form’ over which you make such a fuss, will emerge naturally from your digestion. You consider ‘form’ to be an end in itself, but it’s merely an effect.
—George Sand to Gustave Flaubert, 12 January, 1876 (my translation)
Mme. Sand’s maternal whipping is a quote I come back to whenever I beweep my outcast state as a prosateur, aspiring, like le Grand Ours who predominates the firmament of French literature, to turn machine-tooled sentences as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.
Precision, by Coleridge’s definition, is the mark of both the prose stylist and the poet: both know the multifarious tools of written language to an extraordinarily intimate degree, and yet there is something altogether different—and missing in M. Flaubert’s sensibility, as in mine—between shaping the prosaic table of a sentence, which must bear all kinds of objects in carefully arranged orders upon the sturdy, yet elegantly turned, legs of grammar, and fashioning, as in Exodus 27, the high altar of a poetic strophe or stanza, which both comes from God and praises God in its infinitely rich design.
There is a certain point where precision turns towards analysis, and at this point prose and poetry would appear to diverge.
Though he had a poet’s command of his tools, M. Flaubert had an analytic sensibility, and he wielded words like a scalpel, not merely to gouge and dissect his eternal enemies, the bourgeoisie, but to layer on the tiny couches of colour which are the myriad details and objects he populates his canvas with.
The concision of the poet is, in some sense, a function of the holistic God’s eye view he taps into in a moment of inspiration. Analysis of detail is antithetical to this macro-level vision. But the writer of prose, the novelist or short story writer, is firmly on the ground. He gazes ahead and about himself, seeing a maze to be dissected by induction and deduction, not the mandala which the whole world forms when viewed from on high.
In this plodding, linear movement through the environmental and Balzacian social maze, the prosaic, purely descriptive account of phenomena is called for as a compass. Poetry won’t get you far when confronted with a Rastignac.
The modern poets of novelistic prose, M. Flaubert, Mr. Joyce, are very much in this naturalistic world which has its roots in the ‘social scientific’, analytic prose style of M. Balzac. Moreover, in the supremely artificial phenomenon of the City, these novelists no less than a prose poet like M. Baudelaire see in the multitude of details they microscopically describe and analyse some macrocosmic totality like unto the poet’s God. Mr. Joyce, of course, claimed to be an atheist, but the whole Dublin of Ulysses (1922) is pervaded with an atman-like oversoul which proclaims, echoing the throwaway pamphlet that Mr. Bloom sends sailing into the Liffey, that ‘Elijah is coming!’
It’s the great misfortune of a writer’s life to come upon Joyce and Ulysses too early, as I did at a tender, precocious age. You’re ruined for straight-talking, undemonstrative, definitely unpoetic, Hemingwayesque, prosy prose after that. When you see the peerless example that Mr. Joyce, battling both poverty and blindness, made to make every word of his prose shine with the celestial lustre of poetry, you must forge each word in the smithy of your soul under his heavy shadow, just as he forged words under M. Flaubert’s.
And it’s no disrespect to this all-around writer, this supreme homme de lettres who is the easy (and only) equal for verbal inventiveness to Shakespeare in our language, that he, like M. Flaubert, is not really a poet. There are a few charming lyrics in Chamber Music, and his long, Rabelaisian broadsides against the bourgeoisie of Dublin ought to be better known and widely recited for the comic masterpieces they are, but apart from “Ecce Puer”, almost none of Mr. Joyce’s poems are memorable.
We know Shem the Penman, il caro Giacomo, as the formidable maestro of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (1939), two epic novels which render a city by day and again by night, and as the author of those vignettes in Dubliners (1914) which, in the tart cleanliness of their prose, out-Hemingways Hemingway well-avant la lettre.
In his exquisite workmanship with words, which do multiple functions and have multiple meanings even in the relatively straightforward short stories of Dubliners, Mr. Joyce follows the Flaubertian example of making every single word in every single sentence the best possible word in the best possible order. It is a mark of his poetic sensibility détourné de la poésieelle-même that Mr. Joyce finds poetry (which he called ‘epiphanies’) in the most prosaic moments of Leopold Bloom’s day—like letting go his bowels.
That analytic, microscopic, naturalistic vision of life, which parses reality and excludes no part of it, finding the poetic totality in the prosaic banality of describing everything, is where the great reconciliation between prose and poetry occurs in Mr. Joyce’s œuvre. He find the epiphanic God of poetry in everything: he has Stephen Dedalus call Him ‘a shout in the street’. He finds Him as present in Mr. Bloom’s merde as in the bar of Sweny’s lemon soap in his pocket.
Today we commemorate the 117th anniversary of Mr. Bloom’s immortal flânerie around Dublin (or equally, the 117th anniversary of Mr. Joyce’s first flâneuristic date with his future wife and muse, Nora Barnacle, the Galway lass who would ‘stick’ to him). In his encylopædia of Dublin on the day of June 16th, 1904, he shows us how prose—the unprosiest prose possible on what Arnold Bennett called ‘the dailiest day possible’—can be ineffably poetic. The God-like macrocosm is contained within the microcosm of Dublin, all time contained within the grain of sand of a single day, and poetic totality contained within the prosaic banality of everything.
At 8:30 this morning, your Melbourne Flâneurought to have been on a train to Wagga Wagga to commence three-and-a-half months of housesitting in slightly warmer NSW.
The dreary, year-long winter we’ve been suffering in Melbourne was one good reason to get out for a stretch. The other was the omnipresent threat of another totalitarian lockdown, always in abeyance, but the boom ever-ready to be lowered on us.
I had my ticket on the 8:30 XPT from Melbourne to Sydney booked on 10 March—more than two months in advance. But we had had a snap five-day lockdown less than a month before, in February, and there seems to be a pattern to these things: we get two-, or two-and-a-half months of freedom, and then the paternalistic ‘Powers-That-Be’ slam the steel shutter down statewide.
I figured there was a good chance I wouldn’t make my train.
I had just got back from Euroa, where the photograph above was taken, a rare exercise in colour for me and a kind of cry in the soul over the two, Proustian directions in which my life would be pulled in the month of May—towards Sydney, a ‘summery winter’, and freedom; and towards Melbourne, my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, but a place predictively poised to tumble back into being East Berlin—when it was announced that after three months of no cases, another breach in hotel quarantine had occurred.
I was nervous. For two weeks, I kept my beady beads posted on two governments’ websites—on both sides of the border, monitoring what kind of extroverted sensing hoops I would have to jump through in order to be safely on the Sydney side on Friday 28 May.
Until Monday afternoon, all was quiet on the eastern front, the Melbourne side of Checkpoint Charlie, but my epic introverted intuition had told me well in advance that my luck couldn’t hold until Friday. When the Victorian Minister for Health, Martin Foley, announced with a barely restrained bourgeois glee on Monday afternoon that the two weeks of quiet had been a false flag under which the enemy among us had circulated, that ‘sleeper cells’ of Coronavirus cases had been activated in the community to simultaneously detonate terror among us, I felt a bomb go off underneath me.
My introverted intuition began deep calculations I was hardly conscious of. It had observed the pattern from three previous lockdowns, and this seemed just like our epic Lockdown 2.0—even down to the coincidence in date: ‘The Authorities’ (over whom, pray tell…?) had failed to get on top of the mysterious Wollert case; they had dithered around for two vital weeks; they would dither around for a few days more, playing around with ‘COVID-safe settings’ as they pretended to give a damn above the citizenry’s personal liberties; and then, at an arbitrary moment and without prior notice, they would panic and slam us back into lockdown.
From Monday afternoon to Friday morning seemed too far a leap to count on freedom—and my luck—holding. On Tuesday a.m., when I amscrayed out of my last scheduled Victorian housesit—in the City of Maribyrnong, begad!—and booked back to The Miami Hotel, there was a line of cars backed up past Ballarat road to get into the COVID testing station in Hampstead road.
I tried to keep a cool head that day—not easy for as neurotic a customer as yours truly. Anything that smacks of extroverted sensing—of dealing with the world as a physical reality in real time—gets my pulse and respiration up. I consider having to deal with government dictats as being an ‘extroverted sensing activity’, because it wrenches me out of the world of abstract dreams and ideas, the platonic, Matrix-level reality I usually inhabit, and back into my body, back into the sensory here and now.
True to form, by Wednesday morning, case numbers and exposure locations had metastasized and exploded, and those deep calculations told me that today was untenable. By 6:00 p.m., there would be a lockdown.
The Government was mooting that more drastic action than Tuesday evening’s ramp-up in settings had not been ruled out—which my intuition told me, based on their past form in three previous lockdowns, was as positive a statement as they would make that they planned to lock us down or close the border before they actually did it.
Moreover, it was the tone of the Victorian Opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, that told me something was deeply up and some heavy hinkiness was due to go down. Despite the mandarinical statement of our grinning Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, on Tuesday evening, who said we would not ‘necessarily’ require a lockdown with the more stringent settings he had advised, and the statement of the Acting Premier, James Merlino, on Wednesday morning, who stressed that these restrictions were merely to buy contact tracers ‘time’ in order to get the situation well in hand, I sensed a yelping desperation in Mr. O’Brien’s voice when he said that, by now, Victorians know how this usually goes, and we would like, in this instance, a different outcome to the three previous lockdowns.
That tone of desperation carried more weight with me, intuitively, than the mandarinical assurances of the State Government. In this regard, Mr. O’Brien is right: these guys have form; they smile reassuringly like mandarins in the morning, and by nightfall they have you in the hoosegow.
The point with regards to ‘form’ in imposing the ‘final solution’ of lockdown is this: The Victorian Government is like a poker player that cannot mask his tells. After three rounds of this, if your intuition is on-point, you can read in their mandarinical assurances, and in the pattern of days of dithering beforehand and then arbitrary panic when its too late, where the tenor of the Kahunas’ thinking is tending.
At 11:59 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I booked a ticket on that evening’s XPT out of Southern Cross, bound for Wagga. I still expected that before I could feel the wheels turning under me at 7:50 p.m., I would have been in lockdown at The Miami for nearly two hours—or worse still, they would turn me away at the station, telling us the border was closed.
Certainly, in those deep calculations, as my intuition assessed the Government’s tells, I knew that getting on the train today would not be an option. The situation couldn’t hold steady till then, and they would certainly call a lockdown before the weekend to curtail movement on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
For someone who hates extroverted sensing activities, and who had consequently had his life planned for an 8:30 a.m. departure two days hence for months beforehand, I don’t know what spirit possessed me in those six hours to get myself in order to roll under the wire for a great escape from Victoria on Wednesday night.
It was the introverted intuitive’s equivalent of a James Bond manœuvre: somehow, I predictively read an emergent situation and reacted to it, ahead of it, with an innovative, spontaneous evasive action in the physical here and now. That’s not bad for a guy who’s more like Woody Allen than James Bond.
I was not even reassured when, at 6:10, my prediction of a lockdown announcement was proven wrong. I ordered a cab, checked out of The Miami, asking them to hold my room in case there was some unforeseeable craziness between then and 7:50 which caused me to come back, and some ten minutes later I was in the cab at the corner of Bourke street, waiting for the lights to change, when a friend and client called me.
‘I’m going now,’ I said. ‘I’ve been spooked and I’m not waiting till Friday morning. They’re too quick to lock us down.’
My client/friend agreed. His view: they would wait to see Wednesday’s figures on Thursday morning, and then lower the boom.
I was not even reassured when I made it on the train. Five minutes from take-off time, the conductor came back on the line after delivering her usual spiel, but her usual sing-song delivery was replaced with new hesitation as she made an extra announcement.
This is it, I thought. They’re going to tell us we’re in lockdown and that we have to get off the train and go home.
Fortunately, she merely came back on to remind us of Mandarin Sutton’s indoor mask mandate of the day before.
When I saw the stately colonnade of Albury Station filing by the window round about eleven, I was filled, momentarily, with a wonder that had, for once, little to do with the cinematic possibilities which the longest railway station platform in NSW usually inspire in me: It had been a little over two years since I had last passed this way, and I had been plotting a break-out of East Berlin for nearly the last one.
Albury became my Checkpoint Charlie at that moment: I had defected; I was now in the West, out of the hideous, totalitarian nightmare which Victoria has devolved back into for the past year, as regularly and predictably as clockwork.
I had been looking forward to this seasonal stint in a slightly warmer winter for months. Like many people in Victoria today, I would have been devastated if this day, which I had planned months beforehand to start in Melbourne and end in Wagga, had been aborted by the Government.
I use the extended metaphor of the Cold War to describe the state of Victoria ‘lightly’ (though you can probably hear the poisonous venom dripping through the freezing irony of my voice, dear readers), but I mean it in deadly earnest, and if I didn’t treat the matter lightly with a Flaubertian burlesque against the bourgeoisie, I would certainly eviscerate the Government with my wit.
Even in the last month, where I have sampled a range of Victorian life from Euroa, to Geelong, to Melbourne, the State Government’s intrusions into privacy and liberty have become progressively so intolerable that, towards the end, like a child, I was literally counting the sleeps to this day.
With the Bond manœuvre, I stole a march on the lockdown, even got well-under the wire of its extension into NSW for incoming Victorian travellers. The issue is this: though I’ve got an ‘alibi’ for every scene of the crime the Government has so far listed, I’m happy to go along with my less fortunate confrères south of the border and comply with the stay-at-home directives in solidarity with their seven-day lockdown.
But I would much prefer to do it on this side of Checkpoint Charlie—exactly where I planned to be today.
Having the choice makes a big difference. I have to live and work in NSW for the next three-and-a-half months: I don’t want to start off the working holiday by being a bearer of bad juju, running amuck among the good burghers of Wagga with my unmasked mug. I’d rather lay low in the airlock and come out breathing easy next week, but being an Aquarian, I don’t like to be told what to do—especially by the Government.
So, the Melbourne Flâneur goes ‘on tour’ for the first time in nearly two years. I’ll be here in Wagga for the whole of June, so I’ll have plenty of time to walk the streets after I come out of the airlock next week. From what I saw of it by night, it looks like a beautiful town. My cameras are locked and loaded and ready to do some night-shooting.
Then, to my friends in Bellingen and Coffs Harbour, you will once again see my chapeau’d silhouette striding along Hyde street for two-three weeks in July. Then it’s on to Lake Macquarie and Sydney in August, and Nowra in September.
Hopefully, I will not have to do another Bond roll to slide back under the steel shutter into Victoria, red lights blinking and klaxons clanging.
“Dreidel”: A short story by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through headphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur, a treat for you: no video, chers lecteurs, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted what I call an ‘amplified flânograph’—that is, one of the photos I occasionally take on my flâneries amplified by an atmospheric soundscape of the location.
The last amplified flânograph I posted on The Melbourne Flâneur was in March last year, when we still had our heads stuck in the sand over Coronavirus. It featured my photo of Uniacke court, a laneway off Little Bourke street, which formed the basis for a soundscape and a super-short story.
I know how much you enjoy these evocative short stories based on my photographs, so I took the photograph above (which you can also find in The Melbourne Flâneur zine) and used it as the jumping-off point for a soundscape and short story set in O’Donnell Gardens, an espace vert next door to Melbourne’s world-famous Luna Park.
The main feature of O’Donnell Gardens, as you can see in the photo, is an impressive sandstone fountain in Art Déco style erected in 1935 as a memorial to Edward O’Donnell, who was a municipal councillor for the then City of St Kilda. According to Monuments Australia, Cr. O’Donnell served ‘without interruption for over forty years’, being first elected to council in 1888, serving as mayor of St Kilda on six occasions, and eventually losing the election of 1932, a year before his death.
As far as I know, the memorial no longer operates as a functioning fountain, but it’s a thoroughly photogenic piece of public sculpture in the high style of Art Déco, and on the grey, rainy day I snapped two half-frozen and depressed-looking pigeons using its niches as the one warm place to shelter, the grizzly griffins gave this 1930’s Déco memorial a very grim and Gothic air.
You wouldn’t believe it (unless you live in Melbourne, where any absurdity is possible, weather-wise), but I took this picture on 1 December, 2019—the first official day of summer, where my journal entry for that day notes that we reached a wintry top of just 17 degrees.
My journal also grumpily notes that I ‘made the mistake of not taking my overcoat as I set out to take a flânerie around St Kilda’ (which I had not visited in over a year) on that day. I remember being very sick of the way that winter was dragging on that year, so I evidently decided that ‘enough was bloody enough’ on what was supposed to be the first day of summer, and tried to get away with just wearing my trusty trenchcoat as a topcoat on what turned out to be a windy, wintry, rainy day.
Yes, even experienced Melbourne flâneurs make these optimistic rookie errors, dear readers.
But despite being underclad to the tune of two couches of wool, I was, as ever, everything the well-dressed flâneur ought to be in my greenish-grey double-breasted suit, lime-coloured shirt, aqua tie, and grey Stetson Whippet. Apart from putting my Pentax K1000 camera on the leash for a walk around St Kilda, seeing if anything photogenic would pop out at me in that locale and under those weather conditions, I was doing a bit of Daygame en passant, and I was evidently a picture myself to the feathered, fur-shawled Dutch girl I tied into in Carlisle street, whose return remark to me when I laid the genuine compliment on her was: ‘You look like a movie.’
It was a movie-ish kind of day.
There are days in Melbourne when weather and architecture combine suggestively and, seen through half-closed lids, the streets look vaguely Parisian or San Franciscan. As you know, I’m an analogue purist, shooting on film—black-and-white film at that. I think the analogue photo above—the only shot I snapped that day, the only image to which I deigned to commit a frame of film—shows that surreal, suggestive quality—an Australeuropean, Californated Gothic Déco—which, in evoking other places, is entirely, uniquely Melbourne’s own.
Melbourne must surely be one of the greatest cities for flâneurial street photography in the world. To a certain sensitive sensibility able not only to see but to imagine—and to paint its imaginings in the veritable reality that is seen and photographed—it possesses the cinematic, surreal qualities that Paris had for Atget and Brassaï, albeit in a vestigial, adulterated form.
That vestigial adumbration, adulteration and attenuation is what requires the ‘sensitive sensibility’ not only to perceive it but to draw it out in photography, and to my mind, only the discipline of film—the additional difficulty of getting good results with the medium—can really do it. I occasionally take a picture with my phone, flicking on the grey-scale filter (which is as close as a digital camera can come to velvety blacks and silky whites) beforehand. But the image is never as good, never as poetic as the picture my Pentax would see in pure black-and-white, through the mist of film grain.
That’s more like how I see Melbourne: it’s not a city meant to be seen sharply, as through the Hi-Def lens of a DSLR. It’s meant to be seen as in a dream, through half-closed lids. Nor is it, I think, a city meant to be seen in colour, despite the garish street art which helps to give it its surreal quality. To me, Melbourne’s a black-and-white city, a city of film, like Paris.
At the beginning of 2020, when the bushfires in Gippsland were so huge and so intense that they drifted their pall over Melbourne, there was one extraordinary afternoon when it was both rainy and smoky, so that it seemed as if the city was blanketed in a San Francisco fog.
I took my Pentax out and prowled around the CBD, getting some once-in-a-lifetime shots: a view of Eureka Skydeck from Bond street, for instance, its top half fading into invisibility. The trams along a misty Swanston street. The clock tower of the Town Hall and, a mere two blocks further up Collins street, in the Paris End, the iconic tower of No. 120 half-shrouded.
On that afternoon more than at any other time when I have captured aspects of this city on black-and-white film, Melbourne seemed to me like a city of dreams, a surreal, poetic city seen through half-closed lids, evoking other places with its mélange of architectural quotations and native elements, like weird weather and clanging trams, all its inimitable own.
In a post last year (also available in The Melbourne Flâneur zine), I called flânography, this dreamy style of film photography, contingent and yet decisive, that I occasionally practise as I wander the streets in my psychogeographic dérives, ‘the poetry of photography’.
And if I flatter myself that there is actually some extractable poetic content in images like the one above, it’s the poetry of amplification in the imagined audiostory I’ve attached to it—which in turn was ‘extracted’ from the soundscape I made to amplify and evoke my memory of the image I actually photographed that day.
Like nested boxes, the soundscape came out of the photograph, and the story out of the soundscape.
As in my videos and films, the story, or ‘script’, you might be surprised to learn, was actually the last part to be created. Like the surround sound you experience in a cinema which adds depth to the two dimensions of the image on the screen, I merely wanted to amplify the world of O’Donnell Gardens beyond the edges of the frame, and out of the ‘image’ of that environment of sound, a story unconsciously emerged—nothing I witnessed that day, but authentic elements of Melbourne life which my writer’s eyes and brain have seen and filed away only to emerge years later, jumbled together like the displaced symbols of a dream, in the story inspired by the photograph above.
I mentioned in a recent post that during our second Melbourne lockdown, when opportunities for flânerie were curtailed by cops and curfews, I went deep into this dreamlike state, re-membering in fiction the places and people I had encountered in some of my most baffling experiences as a pocket-edition Casanova tying into dames on the streets of Melbourne. That project is still highly classified and marked for my eyes only, but consider “Dreidel” another provocative down-payment on the dark plot I’m plotting, where the wide-awake world of Melbourne is not at all what it appears to be…
If you’ve enjoyed this ‘amplified flânograph’ and are interested in hearing more audiostories based on my photos on a more regular basis, you can support my work by putting some coffee-money in the fuel fund below. I have some postcards featuring the photo above, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Dreidel” for $A5.00, I will wave the magic wand of my Montblanc over a postcard, write a personalised message to you on it, sign it, stamp it, and send it to you with all the compliments of your Melbourne Flâneur.
(Please note that the postage of one  diamond-encrusted dreidel to you will cost extra.)
“Dreidel” MP3 audiostory
An unusual gift exchange occurs near Melbourne’s Luna Park in this intriguing and atmospheric short story by Dean Kyte, inspired by one of his photographs. Purchase the MP3 and receive a complementary handwritten postcard featuring the photo, personally addressed to you and signed by Dean Kyte!
I was either concentrating very hard, or Denis was very jungled-up (which is hard to do in Centre place at the moment, still beaucoup underpopulated as Melbourne struggles to shake off the enduring shackles of lockdown), because I didn’t notice anyone lurking in the laneway with a camera trained on yours truly.
But I remember the day—how could I not when I had opted to break out the white tie, white French cuff shirt with spread collar, and white opal cufflinks to go with my dark grey suit with its alternating pink and white pinstripes? Consequently, I remember what I was writing that day, and I’ve got a pretty good idea what I was studying so intently when Denis captured me peering at my screen.
I think I was probably plotting a literary murder at that moment!
Yes, beneath the serene, snapbrim-shaded visage of your Melbourne Flâneur, it looks like Denis has caught me, not red-mitted, but with full mens rea and Machiavellian malice aforethought.
It’s a great photo. I particularly like the way Denis has dialled down the vividness of my preferred location for literary enterprise to emphasise the grey and white camouflage of my ensemble. The skin tone of face and hand are the only sign of anything human hiding out in the monochrome locale.
Though you probably wouldn’t imagine from Denis’s photo that I was meditating on hinky deeds at that moment, I think he’s probably captured something essential about me, wrapped up in dark labours which seem externalized to the environment around me. As a writer, I am as ‘un prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’ (‘a prince who revels in his anonymity everywhere he goes’), as M. Baudelaire puts it: to be an homme de lettres is to possess an exclusive species of celebrity—the freedom to walk the streets and still remain utterly unknown.
This is a deeply satisfying species of celebrity which Delta Goodrem, for instance (who just walked past me in Centre place wearing a horrendously ugly white overcoat, like the shaggy pelt of some synthetic beast), will never know.
Ms. Goodrem, God bless her, is no princess enjoying her incognito. She wishes very much to be seen by her serfs, if not actually approached by them.
When I’m at work at the 3 Little Monkeys, I often fancy myself (as Denis seems to have intuited) as being deep undercover—practically invisible to the environment, so invisible does the environment become to me when I enter deeply into the meditative state of writing. But being an unreconstructed dandy, even camo’d up in my grey combo, I recognize that I stand out as the one of the more conspicuous pieces of wildlife in vibrant Centre place.
Although I have many other secret and not-so-secret writing locations cached around Melbourne, the 3 Little Monkeys has been the Melbourne Flâneur’s ‘head office’ for as long as I’ve lived here: as tiny, as ‘inconvenient’ a locale in which to write as this little café might appear, practically from Day 1 of my vie melburnienne I have colonized a table on its shoulder-width terrace in Centre place, come rain or come shine, and have done the boulot of writing.
As a flâneur, the thing I love about Centre place is the Parisian ambiance of this narrow café strip. I fell in love with that ambiance almost immediately, for the dark grey slate of the ledge of sidewalk running along both sides of the laneway reminded me of the asphalt trottoirs of Paris. Then too, the absurdly narrow width of those sidewalks, crammed, on either side of the garage-like doorways of the cafés, with postage-stamp tables, stools and the upturned milkcrates which serve, in Melbourne, as our native seating, recalled to me some of the tiny, tavolino-lined terrasses I sat on in the backstreets of Paris, scribbling away.
From my vantage at either of the two tables on the terrace of the 3 Little Monkeys, I have a narrow vision of the grey Melbourne firmament between the CAE and the Punthill Hotel—almost as grey as the platinum sky of Paris. When I first came to Melbourne, the no outdoor smoking rule had not yet been introduced, so—most Parisian of all—the grey atmosphere of Centre place was typically further clouded with carcinogens.
Moreover, the 3 Little Monkeys faces the side entrance of the Majorca Building, one of the jewels of art déco architecture in Melbourne. It didn’t take me a week to realize the cinematic potential of the terrace of the 3 Little Monkeys, and very early on in my vie melburnienne, I made the video below, in which you can see me sitting in meditative bliss on the terrace of the café but reflected, ghost-like, in the elegant side entrance to the Majorca Building across the laneway.
I’ve always written outdoors, in parks and cafés. When I was a film critic on the Gold Coast, I got into the habit of writing the first draft of my reviews as soon as I came out of the cinema. I would write in cinema foyers, on the platform of train stations, at bus stops. The most uncomfortable locations served as ersatz offices for me, and I learned to block out the environment and go inward, projecting my thoughts onto the landscape around me.
I learned to enter something like a ‘conscious trance’ in public: within a few minutes of picking up my pen, all the noise and distraction of the place falls away, and it is almost as though material reality becomes a symbolic projection of what I’m thinking. The words are ‘out there’, occluded in the shapes of streets and people, trees and flowers, and the deeper my gaze penetrates into the environment around me as I write, the more I am mining out of myself the precise shape of a thought.
It’s in one of those trance-like states, when my introverted intuition is operating at maximum revs and, despite the manifold colourful distractions posed by Centre place, I’m locked onto an image deep within myself, one which I can see spelled out in the environment around me as I search for le seul mot juste, that Denis has captured me in the picture above.
But although I had gotten into the habit of taking the office outdoors on the Gold Coast, it was not until I went to Paris that the habit of conducting the most private, the most introverted of arts in the most public of places became a matter of the deepest necessity. In Paris, the streets were my office: having no private place in which to write, I bared all, exposing myself to the public gaze in parks, gardens, galleries, bars, cafés, street-side benches.
The analogy of the flasher, the exhibitionist is not sans raison for the écrivain en plein air—particularly one who is as unreconstructed a dandy as myself. I have written elsewhere of the deep introversion which is a prerequisite of dandysme pur-sang, and of how the dandy’s shy propensity towards introversion makes the literary art, one typically conducted in deepest privacy, almost the only profession that this ‘splendour among shades’ is fit for.
But for the writer who is a dandy and a flâneur, a man of the street, a man who is forced to make his home in the street, to treat the most public, the most impersonal and uncomfortable of environments as casually and comfortably as if he were relaxing in his own private parlour, there is almost a samurai-like discipline about the way in which he makes friends with discomfort, performing the most private art-form, the ‘art of thinking’—which is what writing is when it is performed with absolute sincerity—in the most public of places.
In fine, in making himself, in his deepest reflections and meditations, vulnerable to view, in entering that trance-like state of deepest, most concentrated intuition in public, he ‘exposes himself’ in the act of thinking.
Like public onanism, there’s something rather aberrant about writing en plein air, I admit, because we usually regard it as so difficult a task that a setting of perfect comfort and seclusion is required to optimally milk the muse of inspiration. All distractions must be banished so that we can concentrate.
There’s something aberrant, moreover, about thinking in our society, so that someone who is clearly ‘doing it’ in public is making rather a spectacle of himself!
But after a certain point in my career, having been jostled and hassled out of my sedentary nature by life, I found it almost impossible to have a private place in which to write, and having been forced to discipline myself by doing the work in public, making the best of all possible conditions, making myself oblivious to all external distractions by entering a conscious state of trance, I would not want to go back to the days when I had my own desk and chair in my own private office.
The experience of making do with my lap, with dirty park benches, with cramped and narrow tavolini or corners of noisy cafés and bars in Paris, of having my pages rained on or blown away by the wind, of being harassed by distracting gypsies wanting to gyp me out of a euro, was a salutary training for what my life, as a peripatetic writer living out of a suitcase and a duffel, has largely been since then. Like the samurai who makes a pillow of a stone, as a writer I have made the street my ‘private thinking parlour’, and I am perfectly comfortable and relaxed doing my private business of thinking in public.
In Paris, ‘my office’, the place I repaired to every evening to do my writing, was Le Cépage Montmartrois, at 65, rue Caulaincourt, the golden café I immortalized with page after page of hallucinatory description in my first book, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012).
For the price of a demi of Amstel, I could sit for hours on a grey-gold Parisian evening, my notes of the day, the drawings I had sketched before the works of the masters in the Louvre, the maps tracing my flâneries, my dog-eared copies of Flaubert and Baudelaire, my beautiful monograph on Ingres all spread open before me on the tiny table as I wrote, like fantastic celestial maps linking all my disparate thoughts.
I was, for a time, a subject of curiosity to the indulgent folk who ran Le Cépage, so extravagant and strange was the wealth of material I produced every evening in the arcane alchemy of converting the reality of experience into scintillating prose. They’ve probably forgotten me by now, but there was a brief period when the burning question of the day was what ‘le M’sieu’ (as I was then known aux bons gens du Cépage) was up to with all these puzzling pages covered in his cryptic script.
As Les Deux Magots was to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, so Le Cépage was to me—and is, for it remains the café by which I have measured all my far-flung ‘offices’ ever since. As I wrote in L’Arrivée, the moment the taxi drew up, in the dark of night, before ‘le sein d’or du Cépage’, I knew (as one occasionally knows with a woman one meets by chance) that my life was inextricably linked to this café, and that we had been predestined by our mutual karma to meet and become historically significant to each other.
But Orfeo did not yet know that le mystère du nom de ce café-ci would be the least of les mystères which Le Cépage Montmartrois would pose for his sensuous investigation, nor that tous les mystères which it would pose before him would in one way or another be connected avec la question du nom. How could he? He had had no connaissance of its existence avant ce soir. Nevertheless, faced avec ce café-ci with its enigmatic nom, ce café which immediately invited Orfeo’s sensuous investigation, he had the inescapable sense that somehow he had known that Le Cépage Montmartrois would be here, as if it were somehow connected à son destin and all that he had come à Paris à la recherche of, although he had had no premonition of it beforehand. He had had no conscious premonition of it, but nevertheless he felt as though he had had some unconscious intimation of its existence; and however hard he stared into the alluring lueur of it, Orfeo could not for the life of him make out what it was about ce café-ci, what hovered in its golden radiance which made him feel as though its mystère—its mystique, même—was somehow personally and intimately connected with him, avec son destin. He was bouleversed by the 哀れness that ce point-ci at which he had been destined to arrive since the dawn of his days, which he had worked towards in his soul without any conscious connaissance that this physical point dans l’espace was destined to be consubstantial with Orfeo’s psychological, and spiritual, and developmental arrivée à sa nouvelle réalité, was indeed ce point-là; and that henceforth ce point, as le cœur et l’épicentre of that experiential map which Orfeo would draw de sa nouvelle réalité, would be his anchorage, le point to which he would habitually return, whether or not it was precisely le point to which he had asked le chauffeur to deliver him to. For the golden allueure du Cépage Montmartrois was too strong to be resisted, so that Orfeo felt that whatever was mystérieux about Le Cépage Montmartrois, whatever impalpable allure was atomized in that golden agency which had called to Orfeo’s unconscious mind from across oceans and was consubstantial avec la forme de ce café-ci, whatever it was that was in the yellowmellow beurrelueur of this particular café—nay, even inside of it—to be explored, was destined to be intimately connected with Orfeo’s sensuous investigations du monde parisien; and his explorations du nouveau monde de sa nouvelle réalité, as he redrew his own experiential map du monde de jour en jour, pushing back the boundaries of himself, would have their bearing upon ce lieu-ci as much they would derive their bearings from this anchoring point, such that whatever was le mystère du Cépage Montmartrois which le détective des belles choses, in his unique destin, had been called this great distance to rationalize and resolve, to reveal to all in all its mysterious relations, parttopart and parttowhole; this mystère had its inevitable cœur—its starting point—au sein d’or du Cépage Montmartrois.
—Dean Kyte, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012)
I think you can tell by the babel of lyricism which Le Cépage evoked in me that it was love at first sight!
Only in Bellingen, where the rather restless lifestyle I’ve led for the last seven years really began, have I had a similar experience of a café which felt as much to me like a ‘home’, a place where I would effectively ‘live’—and do my best living—when I went there every day to write.
When I stepped off the XPT and my friends straightway took me to the Vintage Nest (as the Hyde was then), a café-cum-quirky-antique-store in a former drapers’ shop on the main drag, I knew I would love Bellingen. At that time, the café was run by the church who owned the op-shop next door, as a rather upmarket outlet for their more valuable wares.
It was tragedy to me when it changed hands and the ever-altering array of beautiful antiques which gave the place so much character and charm gradually disappeared, but faithful to the last, for more than two years, rarely a nine o’clock would chime without me coming through the door to set up my laptop, pour a long black into the fuel tank, and start writing.
And it’s as much a testament to my affinity with the Hyde in the early days after the change-over that, as Le Cépage occupies so many pages of my first book, there’s a significant scene set at the Hyde in my last book, Follow Me, My Lovely… (2016). I think I devote some of the best writing in Follow Me, My Lovely… to the morning-after moment when I took the most beautiful girl I have ever had in my bed to ‘the best café in town’ for breakfast.
So cafés are, for me, more than merely ‘my office’, the places I go to in order to write: they are significant sources of inspiration in my writing. I love them as much as some of the women I have known, and like women who have left some lasting impact upon me, sometimes I feel driven to immortalize the ‘souls’ of these cafés in which I have done my work.
I don’t think they saw me at the 3 Little Monkeys for the rest of the year after lockdown was declared in mid-March. But I still needed the matutinal fuel of writing. I discovered some good java-joints in North Melbourne, where I hunkered down to weather the storm, but it was not the same to have to dash out for five minutes each morning, hiding my beautiful mug behind a mask, simply to port back to my room a paper chalice I could suck on while punishing my brains.
As misanthropic as I am at mid-life, I missed the people, whose hubbub in the laneway makes the jangling music that accompanies my mental labours. Inured to distraction as unconducive circumstance has made me, I am probably one of those writers Ms. Temple cites in her post as actually requiring a measure of background noise to focus me: my literary antibodies need something in the environment to fight against.
There is, as Ms. Temple says, something vaguely ‘performative’ about being a café littérateur, but only, I would argue, if you’re there to make a ‘show’ of writing rather than to write. Whatever the artist, we can all tell a poseur from a professional—except, it seems, the poseur himself. As Denis’s portrait reveals, there is an earnestness, a look of presence—of investment in the present moment—which radiates from the writer who is really thinking, and who is not just licking the end of his pencil.
As a case of a writer who undertook the public performance of his craft with sincerity, Ms. Temple cites Harlan Ellison, who had the idée géniale of writing in the windows of bookshops, like a cobbler or a watchmaker plying his trade in his shop-window. ‘I do it because I think particularly in this country people … think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere,’ Ellison said. ‘… So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job … like being a plumber or an electrician.’
Living a peripatetic lifestyle, one of the joys of being a writer on the hoof is having an ‘office’ in every city, town and suburb I visit, just as a sailor has a girl in every port. Wherever my flâneries take me, the first order of business is to find a café that serves good coffee but, more importantly, has a good ambiance in which to write.
So in Sydney, you will typically find your Melbourne Flâneur stationed at Parisi or Jet, his ‘field offices’ in the Queen Victoria Building. In Brisbane, I have my command post set up at the suitably European Marchetti in the Tattersall’s Arcade, where you might hear me pass a few terse words of Italian with the wait staff.
Adelaide still poses a problem for me. Being a Parisian in my soul, I do like the French crêperieLe Carpe Diem in Grenfell street, but there’s unfortunately not a lot of visual interest or colourful foot-traffic at the eastern end of Grenfell street. The coffee is great, but the location is comme ci comme ça.
En revanche, you can get a good brew at the well-situated Larry & Ladd in the Regent Arcade. Unfortunately, if you want to write, you need to sit at the big benches outside the café in the middle of the arcade, because Messrs. Larry and Ladd play their dance music so loud it’s like a nightclub inside.
It certainly gives your literary antibodies something to fight!
By far the best café for writing in Adelaide, in my experience, is a little out-of-the-way place in Somerton Park, so if any Adelaidean writers can recommend a more central location, I would be happy to hear any suggestions in the comments below.
And I invite you to take a closer look at Denis’s Instagram. With so much of photographic interest in Bendigo to occupy him, I was very complimented to receive his picture of me out of the blue and discover that I had caught his savvy eye while revelling in my princely incognito! Check out more of his work here and on Facebook.
As we huddled, cuddling under my raincoat, in the Treasury Gardens, and kissing in the quickening winter’s dusk, I had a dim sense of the con being worked upon me—the futility of victory with a woman I had already conquered.
It doesn’t matter if you have already slept with them these days:—For no matter how much she is attracted to you, or how much she genuinely likes you at any given moment, each time you encounter her, you must reconquer her as if you had never conquered her before, like Sisyphus re-rolling the rock.
In the Treasury Gardens, I had a palpable sense of the unreality of her reality beneath my touch, like clutching an armful of clouds. As much as I didn’t want the moment to be over, I wanted it to be over quickly, for I sensed that she was not really there.
—Dean Kyte, “The Touch”
The abiding theme of my writing—and, indeed, all my art—is the mystery of women. To say that every femme I encounter is fatal to me in some way, and that all my amours eventually devolve into bitter, baffling mysteries on which I never get any closure, is to give you just a hint, dear readers, of the oneiric altered state that is your Melbourne Flâneur’s permanent reality—the surreal, half-lit world I walk through where the landmarks of quotidian banality are big symbols, clues and metaphors for a mystical conspiracy hiding in plain sight.
Major agents of that universal conspiracy? The dames, Jack, the dames…
I used to be a bit of a ladies’ man. I used to do a bit of Daygame, but I walked away from the Game a few years ago after an experience which ought to have been—and was—my greatest triumph at persuading a woman out of her clothes and into my arms.
Having been forced, by a conflation of circumstances, to take some time away from what had been my heart’s passion—the pursuit of those trying beings who inspire one half of the human race to their highest creations, their wildest follies, and their darkest crimes—I felt no burning urge to go back to the dating game.
And these days, no matter how hard I jam the keys of Comfort, Attraction and Intimacy in the ignition and turn them, I just can’t get my motor purring over the prospect of a date anymore, those mystical occasions for the flâneur, as evoked in the video and prose poem above, when lonely exploration of the dark yet luminous mystery of the city intersects with the mystery of a dame in your arms.
I gave up the Game when I realized, dimly, that it was rigged. No matter how good a man gets at it, he is always at a disadvantage to the prey he is hunting, for feminine seduction is to masculine warfare what persuasion is to force—a cold warfare – which is the only kind that can disable the kinetic variety without a shot being fired.
As Robert Greene says in The Art of Seduction (2001), many thousands of years ago, women developed their seductive capacities to disarm and render compliant their more physically powerful counterparts. Today’s iterations of Eve have it evolved into them, so matter how good you get at the Game, you’re always playing catch-up with a born pro.
And with my interest in con artistry and other social games of deception, it’s perhaps no wonder that, suffering from my latest heartbreak and seeking rational answers to the irrational, insoluble mystery of life, I’ve begun to pick apart the trope of the fatal woman.
Since giving up the Game, the question which has puzzled me is What the hell has gone wrong with women in the last fifty years? I was just getting some clarity on that research question in February last year when the CV struck town.
Then we went into lockdown, and with the external world closed to me, I went deep into intuitive introspection on this question. I began to conceive a plot—my first exercise in fiction in over ten years—which seeks to answer this question based on some of my baffling experiences tying into dames on the streets of Melbourne.
More on that project to come. Consider the video above—and its attendant prose poem—to be a provocative down-payment on the dark plot I am plotting…
But as I began to recollect and re-member my exploits and failures in my hotel room, applying the patina of imagination to them in an altered state deeper than LSD, vamping on and amping up the fatal aspect of twists, frills, jills and janes, dolls and dames who had pumped enduring slugs in my heart, I began to grok a discernible difference between the girls of today and the classic lady/killers who run the gamut of modern literature and art from Baudelaire to film noir.
The femme fatale is the Goddess in what I would call ‘the Myth of Modernity’. From Sacher-Masoch to the most self-desecrating porn star of today, modernity appears to celebrate the Kali aspect of the Eternal Feminine—Woman-as-Destroyer rather than Woman-as-Nurturer.
The ‘classic’ femme fatale—which is as much to say, ‘the modern woman’—is, in my view, the most conspicuous product of high European modernity. The femme fatale in her ‘classical’ state is essentially the nineteenth-century idea of ‘the New Woman’.
I don’t use the word ‘product’ to describe the modern woman, or femme fatale, casually; for the salient features of high European modernity are capitalism and consumption. As Thorstein Veblen observed in his Flaubertian economic analysis, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), in the nineteenth century, the project of ‘bourgeoisification’, of gradual enfranchisement and homogenization into the middle class, produced a society of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in which women were tasked with much of the ‘work’ associated with ‘consumption for display’.
The modern woman as femme fatale emerges, therefore, as the pre-eminent ‘product’ of the City, site and sight of high capitalism, place of conspicuous consumption, and she necessarily emerges in the cradle of artistic modernity, the place that Walter Benjamin called the ‘capital of the nineteenth century’, Gay Paree.
The artificiality of the City, as I wrote in that post, induces a condition of artificiality in the men and women who are among the alienated ‘parts’ in this fabulous machine of commerce which is the modern city. It necessarily induces a condition of artificiality in their relations with one another: the core logic of the circumambient environment being a zero-sum game of exploitative value exchange, romantic relationships are ultimately reduced to a commerce of mutual sexual exploitation.
M. Baudelaire, in his poetry and art criticism, was the first person I know of to recognize a pathological instinct in women which the modernity of the City seems to bring to the fore as a positive maladie de l’âme. These most ‘natural’ of entities, these creatures who are, by their very biology as nurturers and nourishers, rooted to the soil of human existence, have a perverse propensity towards ‘unnaturalness’, towards artificiality.
Knowing that their economic fortunes lie in attaching themselves to the men most capable of providing, women, since prehistory, have availed themselves of exotic furs, stones, ochres, balms and unguents as erotic artillery in their seductive quivers, unnaturally enhancing the natural majesty that God gave to Eve. In “Éloge du maquillage” (“In praise of makeup”), M. Baudelaire makes a positive case for artificial feminine display as essential and praise-worthy weaponry in seduction, while in his poem “Un Fantôme”, he loses himself in the dazzling array of devices—fabrics, scents, jewellery, makeup, lingerie, the play of pudic concealment and immodest revelation—that women use to fatally seduce men.
Spengler, in The Decline of the West (1918/1922), differentiates between plant and animal existence in the life of cultures, between passivity and rootedness, attributes of the plant, and activity and motility, attributes of the animal.
To my mind, the differentiation can be taken further, for, to put the matter in the language of the I Ching, the active, motile life of animals is essentially a function of 乾 (Qián), ‘the Creative’, the Eternal Masculine, while the passive, rooted existence of the plant is essentially a function of 坤 (Kūn), ‘the Receptive’, the Eternal Feminine.
This is the fundamental differentiation of existence. The Creative principle is symbolic of Heaven, which is above the Receptive principle of the Earth. The quickening, vivifying action of the light of Heaven engenders all life on this planet, which the Earth nurtures and brings forth from the deep darkness of its womb. Together 乾 (Heaven) and 坤 (Earth) form 乾坤 (or 天地 [Tiāndì] in Modern Standard Chinese), which variously translates as ‘the World’, ‘the Universe’, ‘the scope of operations’, ‘the total field of activity’.
When Masculine and Feminine combine, therefore, it creates and engenders the world as we know it.
As the I Ching demonstrates, our earliest forebears intuited this fundamental universal division which manifests in the division of the sexes—and in the right and appropriate order of society, with the creative, motile man over and above the passive, receptive woman. In The Perfumed Garden, the great Islamic sex manual of the fifteenth century, Sheik Nafzawi gives us this ‘missionary position’ stated as the same sacred invocation which God gave to his first gardener, Adam:
God the magnificent has said:
‘The women are your field [my emphasis]. Go upon your field as you like.’
—Muhammad al-Nafzawi, The Perfumed Garden (translated by Sir Richard Burton)
The woman, symbolically associated with Earth and nature, is the total operable field of masculine activity. Cultivating her, husbanding her is the synthesis of Creative Heaven and Receptive Earth represented in the World of 天地 .
But the metaphor of motile animal and passive plant in the cultural life of men and women extends even further than that.
In the image of masculine sperm and feminine egg, I also see the principle of active, animal motility and passive, plantlike receptivity symbolically represented: like men themselves, constantly approaching and trying to latch on to an attractive woman who sits, like a Venus flytrap, passive in her stasis, rejecting all suitors but the chosen one she will eventually receive, the millions of sperm coax, compete, co-operate and collaborate with each other as they move towards the passive, distant goal buried in deep darkness, in the soil of the womb.
I use the Venus flytrap analogy pointedly, for (along with the black widow spider and the praying mantis) the femme fatale is often equated with this passive yet carnivorous plant that preys upon the venturesome motility of animals who stray into its alluring array of thorny leaves reminiscent of the vagina dentata.
The symbolic image of the femme fatale that emerges from this analogy drawn from nature is of a passive predator, almost rooted in her immobility, who conserves her energy as she waits with infinite patience, employing alluring display, in place of motility, to attract her victim into a seductive matrix that closes about him like a steel trap and is almost impossible to escape except by death.
Irving Berlin wrote a song, the title of which is the most eloquent formulation I know of to describe the dynamic relationship between masculine, animal motility and feminine, vegetable passivity, evocative of the Venus flytrap: “A Man Chases A Girl (Until She Catches Him)”.
This also reminds me of Isaiah Berlin’s famous analogy of the hedgehog and the fox, which has been variously applied to Dante and Shakespeare, to Bracque and Picasso, and to other artistic examples of manifold, mobile, creative genius and passive, patient receptivity to one big, God-like intuition which the mind traps and thoroughly absorbs. It could equally be applied to the relationship between men and women.
Men, in our motility, are like Berlin’s fox: nous allons, nous courons, nous cherchons. We have our snouts in everything. All the fecund multitude of creations, innovations and inventions we bring forth from our brains and brawn are but the sublimation and compensation for the one creative thing we cannot do: bring a child to term from within ourselves.
Women, in this respect, are like the hedgehog of Berlin’s analogy: they have a single in-built task—a labour, or travail, as we say in French—one great job that God has given them as the field upon which we go, sowing our fecund seed. Within themselves and without themselves, they have been charged with the sacred duty of nurturing and nourishing life, of bringing forth the next generation of humanity and tending it, making sure it attains to maturity so that it can bring forth the next generation in its turn.
All the various masculine infrastructure, all the fecund fruits of masculine creativity, innovation and invention, is but the setting of the boundaries of the hospitable garden around the woman so that she can safely perform this two-decade travail. She grows as a great tree in the centre of this garden, which is ‘the home’, and she in turn tends the saplings grafted from her heavenly union with the motile male, who sets and defends the boundaries of home and hearth.
In this respect, returning to Spengler’s notion of Time and Destiny, we can say that women are, by nature, politically conservative. Being rooted to the deep nature of the Earth by their plantlike biology, they must, like the Venus flytrap, be essentially conservative in how they deploy their energy and the strategic calculations they make in expending it. In her natural state, woman is as slow as a plant to move and change, because uprooting oneself in movement and change involves embracing venturesome risks whose odds of success are difficult to calculate.
Women require stasis and stability, they require a stable garden around themselves and their children in order to optimally raise up their offspring. Human beings being the slowest animals on the Earth to mature and the most vulnerable to predation, taking energetic risks which involve transplanting the tribe across an inhospitable wilderness is not in the essential nature of the woman.
To use Spengler’s analogy, the wife and mother’s eternal lament against her husband and son going off to defend the borders of the polis is essentially a conservative political reaction—the wish and desire to conserve the prime source of resource provision, whose locus resides in the venturesome, motile male.
And, en revanche, we can equally say that it is in men’s essential nature to be politically progressive. As manifestations of the Creative principle, all the sum of masculine creativity and innovation is predicated upon the personality trait of openness—the creativity dimension.
The innovations in art and science which have progressed humanity to its current pinnacle of civilization are almost exclusively the result of the motile, venturesome, risk-taking instinct in men, who push back the boundaries, who widen the garden of the polis for the comfort and safety of their women- and children-folk, who civilize and husband the dark, feminine nature of the Earth to provide for wife and offspring.
To propose a basic hypothetical answer to my research question of what the Sam Hell has gone snafu with the dames in the last fifty years, let me say this: It would appear that these two innate instincts of feminine conservatism and masculine progressivism have become politically reversed in the last half-century and are now on increasingly divergent, derivatively expanding paths.
In acquiring a physical mobility outside the garden of the home, in taking on the motile, questing, predatory attributes of the Masculine and forsaking the static, stable garden which the fox-like men have created to allow women to fulfil their one, lifetime labour, the modern woman—which is to say, the femme fatale—has forsaken her intrinsic nature and adopted an artificial one.
She has the physical attributes of a woman, but the pretended drives of a man.
The existential crisis in sensemaking whose inexorable logic is leading to the self-terminating conclusion of our species is essentially, I think, a schismatic division along Masculine and Feminine lines. The Universe has been rent and 乾 and 坤 have exchanged their poles, with an animus-driven Feminine embracing an unnatural progressivism that is actually regressive in its logical unfoldment, and a Masculine, clouted into its anima by the Feminine, digging its heels into the earth with an conservatism unnatural to its progressive instincts.
It is men who now want to conserve and maintain an empty garden which the janes have vacated, while venturesome women, progressing beyond the borders of reason, are out sowing the wild oats they biologically do not possess.
Hence the trope in modern literature and art of the femme fatale—an artificial entity, the product of the unnatural City, with the biology of a woman and the psychological drives of a man. She’s fatal to men, and in the mad state of affairs of the sensemaking crisis, she’s ultimately fatal to man—the species—itself.
The female of the species is, of course, born with an intrinsic centre of value between her legs—and thus a site of potential commercial exploit. To put it in rather cynical terms, if diverted from the strict course of nature, of sex for procreation rather than recreation, she has upon her person not an in-built labour but an in-built ‘trade’; and in fact, we go so far to dignify this ‘trade’ by calling it a ‘profession’—the world’s oldest.
Following this logic, a woman has upon her person an in-built means of obtaining economic value in that machine for exploitative value exchange which is the City. And in referring to prostitution as ‘the world’s oldest profession’, it is perhaps not coincidental that, since ancient times, prostitution, as a well-organized, commercial ‘racket’ conducted at scale, has always been an auxiliary to urban agglomeration. The City—and even the Town, if it grows to a certain size as a geographic and economic centre—has always been a sinkhole for prostitution—and hence the modern fears, in the unconscious imaginary of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for the moral safety of daughters leaving the natural environment of the countryside to seek education or employment in the City as secretaries, shopgirls, waitresses, barmaids, etc.
In this site of the commercial spectacle, any job, however superficially ‘respectable’, that exposes a woman to public view—that ‘puts her on display’, as it were—is allied to prostitution in the modern unconscious imaginary of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and exposes her chastity to moral hazard. By the dream logic of the modern unconscious imaginary, the pretty secretary is merely a displaced mistress to her employer, the shopgirl sporting the latest fashion among the mannequins of the department store is another commodity on sale.
One need only look at Dimitri Kirsanoff’s “Ménilmontant” (1926) to see the short path described between being ‘respectably’ employed in a Parisian atelier making artificial flowers and being falsely made up to sell the flower of one’s virtue dans les rues de Paris.
In the Paris of M. Baudelaire’s day, the Haussmannized Paris of the Second Empire, this trope of the modern, city-dwelling girl or woman, drawn inexorably into the glittering sinkhole from the countryside, being forced by economic circumstance to abandon her natural, agrarian life and seek work in the City, was already well-established. One might start off with tenuous respectability, like the two orphaned sisters in Kirsanoff’s film, but the condition of urban women in the nineteenth century was exceedingly vulnerable, and there was really only one way that a vulnerable woman could make the money to survive—by selling her one vendable commodity.
A woman is not constitutionally fit for the heavy, mechanical labour that a man can do to make his pittance in the City, and the physical nature of her bodily constitution is not one where its intrinsic value lies in a utilitarian capacity to do heavy labour. She might, on a handful of occasions in her life, be called upon to do one major day of labour which would make the strongest man qualm, but otherwise the intrinsic value of the female body lies in graceful display—and what graceful feminine display inspires in men, drawing them, like the prey of the Venus flytrap, inexorably towards it.
At all periods and places of human flourishing, from the England of Elizabeth I to the Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there has been a strong social prohibition against women taking the stage. Across cultures, there seems to be remarkable uniformity in human ethical views on this subject. To take the Spenglerian perspective, when a culture is firmly rooted in its natural environment, the public display of women is regarded as fundamentally indecent and immoral.
The Koran’s encouragement to women to veil themselves, to keep the display of their charms restricted to the privacy of the home, is not a peculiarly Islamic custom, echoing, as it does, St. Paul’s exhortation to feminine modesty and submission in I Corinthians 11. Moreover, the Muslim phenomenon of the harem, the gynæceum concealed from the gaze of all but uncastrated males, the inviolable, almost holy sanctuary of women who may be exclusively viewed only by the apex male of the society, has its analogous phenomenon in every organic culture where procreative sex has not yet been replaced by inorganic recreative sex.
Taking the morphological view, we can see the same, apparently perverse moral logic of deliberately preventing men from physically seeing women manifest itself parallel to the birth of Islam in as radically different a society as Heian era Japan. The Pillow Book (c. 1002) and The Tale of Genji (c. 1021) show us how a complicated seductive ritual was developed around the deliberate concealment of women behind layers of clothing, screens, curtains, blinds, physical displacement into other rooms while conversing with men, the darkness of night, and go-betweens.
To attain the garden of earthly pleasures that is a woman (and he attains a lot of them!), Prince Genji has to bust through wall upon fragile wall of barriers, both physical and moral, which would fatigue James Bond. As Royall Tyler explains in the introduction to his translation of The Tale of Genji:
Yume (‘dream’), for example, is the stock literary word for sexual intercourse between lovers. Some readers have wondered whether the men and women in the tale ever actually do anything, since they seem to spend their nights merely chatting; but katarau, which ostensibly means that, actually refers to other intimacies as well. … A man who ‘sees’ or ‘is seeing’ a woman (a standard expression) is at least to some extent sharing his life with her, and Genji’s having ‘seen’ Utsusemi in a pitch-dark room (chapter 2) means bluntly that he has possessed her. With all the conventions of architecture, furnishings and manners designed precisely to prevent a suitor from seeing a woman, the effect of an accidental glimpse (through a crack in a fence, a hole in a sliding panel, a gap in a curtain) could be devastating.
—Royall Tyler, introduction to The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikabu
In our Western culture, the phenomenon of the convent as a place where one sends jeunes demoiselles of breeding, and the costume of the nun, are likewise manifestations of this deep, archetypal intuition that women must be concealed from masculine view, and Casanova, in his Mémoires, gives a master demonstration of what heroic heights a man who was not the apex male of the society had to scale in order to see and abscond with these zealously defended treasures.
It may be concluded, therefore, that human beings across all times and places intuitively understand, when their cultures are in their organic phases of growth, how politically disruptive to the society the public visibility of women, and their unchaperoned movement through the population, is. The logical assumption seems to be that men cannot control themselves and the sight of women is intrinsically fatal to them.
When a culture calcifies and transitions to a civilization, however, such moral prohibitions are loosened, as happened during the English Restoration, the Belle Époque, and the multi-media era which commenced with the cinema and found its highest expression in the phenomenon of Golden Era Hollywood. During periods of civilizational decline, there is an inexhaustible appetite for sexual innovation—which necessarily requires a loosening of feminine morals to facilitate.
It seems to me that, faced with existential crises whose complexity the society cannot compass and comprehend let alone do anything to avert, instead of attempting to evolve strategies of survival, human genius exhausts itself in innovating increasingly perverse sexual practices which outrage the social covenant of marriage, and hence the family. The contract of marriage being the foundational dyadic building block of a coherent, civil society, the traditional covenant of the society in its organic, cultural phase demands that the woman be veiled from public view and protected in the privacy of the home.
In other words, in historical moments like the present hour, under the smoking shadow of Vesuvius, we humans would rather use our last moments of life to nihilistically slay ourselves in Roman orgies than waste time attempting to cogitate a solution.
Women, thus accoutered, appeared destined for a sedentary life—family life—since their manner of dress had about it nothing that could ever suggest or seem to further the idea of movement. It was just the opposite with the advent of the Second Empire: family ties grew slack, and an ever-increasing luxury corrupted morals to such an extent that it became difficult to distinguish an honest woman from a courtesan on the basis of clothing alone. … Everything that could keep women from remaining seated was encouraged; anything that could have impeded their walking was avoided. They wore their hair and their clothes as though they were to be viewed in profile. For the profile is the silhouette of someone … who passes, who is about to vanish from our sight. Dress becomes an image of the rapid movement that carries away the world.
—Charles Blanc, “Considérations sur les vêtements des femmes” (1872), cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, Convolute B: “Fashion”
Theatrical professions of feminine display such as actress, dancer, singer and model have always been regarded in the human unconscious imaginary as code for prostitute, and in the frankly cynical Paris of the Belle Époque, it was taken for granted that any woman who displayed herself upon a stage for money had an auxiliary, more profitable profession off it. The theatre, as the most conspicuous site of consumptive spectacle in the City, was, in nineteenth-century Paris, merely a proto-cinematic, proto-televisual forum for advertisement—a preview of ‘coming attractions’ whereby actresses, ballerinas and sopranos prospectively advertised the ‘personal services’ they could perform for any man with a pecuniary capacity to pay, whether as courtesans, mistresses, or outright whores.
One of my very favourite books, penned by that old roué Anonymous, is The Pretty Women of Paris (1883), a guide, giving the names, addresses, specialities and potted histories of all the notable Parisian whores of the day, from phony duchesses to vedettes who gave their best performances on their backs in their gilded beds. Part street directory, part Who’s Who of Parisian vice, it was penned by a man who was undoubtedly a scholar as well as a gentlemen, for the edification of other English and American gentlemen abroad in the city which was proverbial throughout the world as the sinkhole of prostitution.
The prose in these hagiographies of the porn stars of their day is pure poetry. The stories the anonymous author regales us with about these gloriously bawdy heroines whose talentless names would otherwise have been lost to time are so extravagant that one would hardly credit them if M. Zola, in Nana (1880), had not contemporaneously given us one such extensive, extravagant history, in fictionalized form, as proof that such lucre-thirsty femmes fatales did exist in Belle Époque Paris.
From M. Baudelaire to M. Zola, the characterological line of the classical femme fatale is a pretty straight one: she is an avaricious vendeuse d’elle-même, usually carrying out her venal, venereal trade under the cover of some affiliation with the theatre, or, at a stretch, an even more spurious affiliation with nobility.
This is the chicanery and con artistry of the classical femme fatale in her nineteenth-century form—a transparent deception, almost naïve in its crudity. And as the ludicrous, lucre- and clout-chasing exploits of Nana or the pretty women of Paris make clear, there is something almost comic-operatic in the tragic ways the nineteenth-century femme fatale destroys herself as she sucks the sperm and sous out of the pyramid of wealthy, titled or influential men she climbs over, only to fondre beneath their combined dead weight when she eventually arrives at the top.
This comic-operatic extravagance would be hilarious if there wasn’t, in the figure of the femme fatale from M. Baudelaire to M. Zola, an actually mortal aspect to the trope.
The Modern City, in the nineteenth century, was not only a sinkhole of prostitution but an epicentre for syphilis, and Paris was as well-known as the place where you could catch the clap or worse as it was as the place where you could worship in the venereal temple on every street-corner. Syphilis was to the great centres of Europe in the nineteenth century what AIDS was to the same cities in the eighties: one literally made a mortal decision to enjoy a moment’s pleasure with a woman not one’s wife. Syphilis made these comic-opera duchesses actually fatal.
In Paris, the de facto Capital of Europe in the nineteenth century, the threat of these women was complicated by the blasé cynicism of the sexual enterprise in this shining machine of commerce. In The Arcades Project (1927-40), Hr. Benjamin quotes F. F. A. Béraud, author of Les filles publiques de Paris (1839), who tells us that the clearing-out of prostitutes from the Palais-Royal has been a positive boon to the businesses trading there. ‘Respectable’ bourgeois women now feel safe enough to shop in the Palais-Royal.
For when the Palais-Royal was invaded by a swarm of practically nude prostitutes, the gaze of the crowd turned toward them, and the people who enjoyed this spectacle were never the ones who patronized the local businesses. Some were already ruined by their disorderly life, while others, yielding to the allure of libertinism, had no thought then of purchasing any goods, even necessities.
—F. F. A. Béraud, Les filles publiques de Paris (1839)
I said that it seems to be an eternal ethical given in all human societies at the moment of their flourishing that to display a woman to public view is immodest and immoral. Isis must always remain veiled and private in a ‘decent society’. There seems, therefore, no semantic coincidence, to my mind, that the French term for prostitute is ‘fille publique’—‘public girl’.
In an early note to himself for The Arcades Project, Hr. Benjamin says, moreover, the following:
Trade and traffic are the two components of the street. Now, in the arcade the first of these has all but died out: the traffic there is rudimentary. The arcade is a street of lascivious commerce only; it is wholly adapted to arousing desires. Thus, there is no mystery in the fact that whores feel spontaneously drawn there.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Trade and traffic. As the Béraud citation makes clear, the presence of women, exposed to public view, in the vector of the street necessarily impedes the former. The traffick in ‘necessities’—let alone the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods which is the true trade of arcades like the Palais-Royal—is diverted by the presence of these strolling filles publiques and drives the ‘respectable’ bourgeois enterprises of the arcade, dependent exclusively upon foot-traffic, out of business.
There is, therefore, no such thing as a ‘flâneuse’—the feminine semantic equivalent of a ‘flâneur’. No matter how corrupt and sexually permissive Western civilization becomes in its Faustian decline, there will never be a feminine equivalent, semantic or actual, of the flâneur because, as M. Béraud and Hr. Benjamin make clear, the feminine equivalent of a girl in public walking the streets is simply a ‘streetwalker’.
For a woman, rooted to the earth and the natural order by her biology, to take on the mobile, predatory, hunting activity of the male in the asphalt jungle of the City is essentially unnatural: Isis immodestly forsakes the privacy of home and hearth to become an exploitative chasseur after cash. Both willing prey of and wily hunter after men, she is an ‘artificial woman’—neither fish nor fowl.
Yet this ‘artificial woman’ is precisely the product of the Modern City, and if she navigates the traffic as an agent of the City’s superordinate logic of exploitative, extractive trade—‘trafficking herself’, as it were—what makes these syphilitic, venereal vectors navigating the vectors of Paris actually fatal to men is not simply their capacity to Hoover value out of them, but to kill them, and through them, to kill their wives and children.
The issue is this. The reason I insist upon the notion of the modern, nineteenth-century city woman as being an ‘artificial’ one, a product of exploitative, extractive value exchange in the money-taking machine that is the City, is that most men know the sugar of sex is hard to come by in life.
To put it bluntly, we men don’t value a woman we can get on the bed easily. We value the ones we have to sweat blood for. Women know this, and hence, in her natural state of organic culture, where the traditional covenant of marriage is upheld as a mutual contract to curb both gender’s propensity to sexual excess, the woman withholds access to her valuable real estate until after the settlement.
The prostitute is an ‘artificial woman’ in that she does not withhold. In fact, on the streets of Paris in the nineteenth century, these strolling women were the sexual aggressors. They took the masculine part and approached the men they solicited as potential buyers of their wares. This is a thoroughly unnatural state of affairs, the very definition of ‘artificiality’ in sexual conduct.
In fact, pushing the intuition further, one could say that the woman who vends herself as a commodity in this fashion, not withholding sex but actively, predatorially seeking it out as a man would do, is not really a woman at all, but one ‘in drag’: she is impersonating a woman for profit. For a price, the client can have all the simulated experience of landing a dame on the bed without sweating blood, time and money to effect a seduction which is never a done deal until the deed is done.
In other words, one purchases from the prostitute a guarantee of that which a ‘real’ woman never guarantees: all the uncertainty, the contingency and mystery of women is taken out of the equation by the prostitute, who gives a simulacrum of that wild, untameable feminine energy we find so attractive for a price which guarantees the certain possession of it.
This is to be an ‘artificial woman’, a woman ‘in drag’, impersonating herself. The most natural entity on the planet becomes an inorganic machine for mutually exploitative value extraction: the client extracts a wad of vital bodily fluid via this living Fleshlight, and a wad of cash is concomitantly extracted from his pocket.
Hr. Benjamin also seemed to intuit this connection between prostitutes, mechanical automata in the great machine of the City, the seductive mannequins of commercial display, and children’s dolls, for he entitled Convolute Z of The Arcades Project “The Doll, The Automaton”. Like myself, he seemed to perceive that woman, uprooted from nature and transplanted to the City, finds her innate pathological weakness for artificiality given self-destroying scope to play in this Luna Park.
Thus Pandora: ‘automaton fabricated by the blacksmith god for the ruin of humankind, for that “which all shall / take to their hearts with delight, an evil to love and embrace” (Hesiod, Work and Days, line 58). We encounter something similar in the Indian Krtya—those dolls, animated by sorcerers, which bring about the death of men who embrace them. Our literature as well, in the motif of femmes fatales, possesses the concept of the woman-machine, artificial, mechanical, at variance with all living creatures, and above all murderous.’
—Roger Caillois, “La Mante religieuse: Recherches sur la nature et la significations du mythe” (1937), cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, Convolute Z: “The Doll, The Automaton”
In the trope of the nineteenth-century femme fatale, there is a direct connection, therefore, between the mobility—physical, social, sexual—of the unrooted, displaced woman of the City and death. As an economic ‘free agent’, there is not simply the potential for this attractive siren approaching you, virtually nude, in the Palais-Royal to suck the sous out of you, or even to kill you and your family for the price of a moment’s pleasure, but she actually undermines the foundations of a whole society which is already in decline by robbing and killing the economic pillars of it and damaging the foundational unit of all civil societies—the family.
The Victorian masculine anxiety about women forsaking the safety and protection of home and hearth and agitating for the rights and privileges of men, and which is variously reflected in ‘the door slam heard around the world’ at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll House (1879), in the contrast between the pretty, marriageable evangelist and the crabbed, proto-feminist suffragette in Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886), and in Edna Pontellier’s indefinable discontent in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), is essentially the anxiety about this foundational disruption which manifests in women’s restless clamouring for physical, social, and sexual mobility.
The dames want out of the garden.
It’s a double equation: A woman who is able to physically move outside the home is one who is capable of approaching and being approached (abordé) by all social strata of men in their mobile, hunting quests for cash and sex in the City. Unlike men, who are very much confined to their social class by their capacity to make money, the physical appeal of a woman is her social passport, a ‘droit de cité’ with men. A flower-girl may be as good-looking as a duchess, and if she is, whatever her station, she has a latchkey to the wallets of men all up and down the social hierarchy—provided they have a pecuniary capacity to pay.
And in turn, if feminine physical mobility is equal to social mobility vis-à-vis men, this social mobility is in turn equal to sexual mobility. If a group of high-value men have the pecuniary capacity to pay a price attractive enough to encourage a woman to sacrifice her chastity for lucre, when she realizes that she has, upon her person, a multiply vendable commodity which men of means value, it’s a rational calculation on her side to exploit it.
In this way, the unrooted, displaced, mobile, modern ‘femme de la Ville’ enters into the societally-disruptive ways of prostitution in the nineteenth century. She disrupts the rigid social hierarchy of men as a free economic agent in a peer-to-peer social network. While men remain relatively fixed vis-à-vis each other, stratified into castes by their earning potential, women are able to move freely up and down the hierarchy in mutually exploitative, extractive sexual commerce, thereby becoming vectors of syphilis which disrupt the society both morally and physically.
As we have seen, in the epicentre of sexually transmitted disease which is the City, based on its capitalistic logic of exploitative resource extraction, the unrestricted physical movement of women as potential vectors of sexual disease through the Modern City of the nineteenth century not merely disrupts the foundations of a decadent leisure society in a figurative, metaphorical sense by disrupting the family, but has the potential to attack it through the transmission of disease to the family.
The assumption beneath this, from the nineteenth-century masculine perspective, is that men are perpetually weak and vulnerable to the artificial seductive display of women, and that if we run across them in the street, we must approach them and risk the clap or worse. I would say that the safeguard which the Victorians, in their ostensible coyness about matters sexual, depended upon to prevent men importing syphilis into the home as far as possible was feminine stasis—the socially censured limitation upon solo broads abroad in the streets.
And this social censure was not policed by men themselves (for they are the ‘weak, vulnerable victims’ of the strolling woman’s seductive display), but by ‘respectable’ women—by their wives and mothers. Weak men always fear women’s disapproval of the ‘bestial’ aspects of their nature; hence the necessity for compartmentalization of one’s socially aberrant sexual activity outside the home. The feminine propensity for shame, guilt, insults and gossip—a wholly other arsenal of weaponry which keeps men compliant—is a powerful corrective to men’s socially unacceptable behaviour.
Perhaps, at its core, what the ‘respectable’ bourgeois women in the nineteenth century actually feared is not so much the potential for illness, but the constitutional vulnerability we men have to a pretty face or a well-filled pair of stockings. In the mythology of modernity, the trope of the femme fatale depends upon a man, who in confrontation with other men would have his wits about him, being rendered weak and corruptible by the supposed vulnerability and innocence of a physically attractive woman.
The fundamental weakness that women exploit is the illogical equation we humans make between physical beauty and moral goodness. As far back as ancient Greece, Phryne’s defence attorney had merely to rip off her blouse and expose her breasts to the men of the jury to get her acquitted of the capital crime of impiety. His legal rationale: no person who looked so physically good could possibly do something so morally bad.
As providers, we men want to ‘do things’ for these apparently vulnerable, innocent creatures we adore. We share of our means with them as a demonstration of love. Being confronted with a mobile, unaccompanied broad dans la rue might turn a man’s head and open up his wallet to exploit. He might forsake home and hearth for the whore, or he might bring a nasty forget-me-not back into the marital bed. Jealous of their tenuous hold on a man’s resources, married women feared the ‘public girls’ of the Opéra and the Variétés, whose intoxicating advertisements for themselves, pitched from the stage, could get a manna-sucking anchor into a man’s wallet.
Understood in that sense, I think the logical assumption that men are weak and vulnerable to artificial feminine display, potential victims for economic exploit by unscrupulous competitors for their resources, is a just one.
That, I think, sums up the basic relationship between sex and death we see in the femme fatale in her nineteenth-century incarnation. The trope of the mobile, sexually active city woman as potential vector of death can be seen variously described in nineteenth-century literature and art, from the virginal-cum-vampirical Mina of Dracula (1897) to the syphilitic Madonna of Munch’s paintings and lithographs (1892-97). My favourite example is by Félicien Rops, the illustrator of Baudelaire, who makes the siren allure of the strolling femme fatale’s Janus-face explicit in the watercolour Parodie humaine (1878-81).
The theory of the ‘long nineteenth century’ comes somewhat into play when we consider the ætiology of the modern woman as classic femme fatale. When doctors start to get syphilis under control at the beginning of the twentieth century, just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the association of sex and death begins somewhat to recede in the picture.
The inter-war period is, I think, a particularly interesting time in the morphology of the trope of the fatal woman from a distinctly Victorian, madonna/whore archetype to the quintessentially twentieth century figure she becomes in pulp fiction and film noir.
Louise Brooks, taking the lead in Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box ) as the quintessential, century-spanning femme fatale Lulu, is the mobile vector of connection between the democratic American modern woman and the Old World European femme fatale. Louise and Lulu—for they became inextricably intertwined, even in the mind of Miss Brooks herself—is also the critical juncture, the turning point, I would say, from the long nineteenth-century femme fatale to the twentieth-century femme fatale of film noir.
Two things are of critical note when assessing Louise and Lulu in Pandora’s Box. The first is that the film itself goes backward in time, starting in 1920’s Weimar and ending in a Victorian London stalked by Jack the Ripper, that gent fatal to the femmes themselves. That temporal regression of the film seems to echo Brooks’ spatial regression from New World to Old, from America to Germany.
The second is that Lulu is not herself fatal, insofar as being a cold-blooded murderess, as in mid-century film noir, but, like her nineteenth-century antecedents, it is contact with Lulu, contact with her intoxicating presence, that is ultimately fatal to the men who surround her.
She sits at the centre of a sticky, circumambient web, which is merely her intoxicating feminine Erdgeist—her gnomic, earthy spirit, and a man might stray innocently into her presence only to find himself quickly stuck there, a satellite revolving impotently around her, eventually to die when the warm ray of her light ceases to shine on him. Even the ‘murder’ of her husband which Lulu is put on trial for is clearly an accident—one of the many careless ‘accidents’ which might attend any pretty, flighty girl eminently aware of her sexual power over men, and of their clumsy willingness to abase themselves before her fatal charms.
Indeed, there would almost be a ‘screwball comedy’ aspect to the fumbling destructions that go on around Lulu (and the ‘gay divorcée’ screwball heroine is herself a lighter aspect of the noir femme fatale) if the scattergun deployments of her charms did not end in surreal tragedy every time.
Lulu, conceived on the cusp of two centuries and finding her definitive interpreter in the eternal symbol of the Roaring Twenties, is the fulcrum on which the femme fatale transitions from comic opera catastrophe on legs to film noir murderess. In the evolution of the trope from syphilitic vector to lady/killer, Lulu is the missing link.
I could go further with these ruminations, charting the evolution of the type through the twentieth century, and even into the twenty-first, where it seems to me the femme fatale undergoes a further morphological adaptation away from murderess and into the realm of the con artist.
But Lulu/Louise, upon whose jutting, knife-like breast I would, as a devotee of the Goddess of Modernity, willingly impale myself, seems the best place to draw a line under these thoughts.
In the decadent period of late capitalism we are in, where the (self-)consumptive zero-sum logic of resource extraction and exploit is now in its final, game-theoretic death throes, I sense a dim realization creeping into the mainstream of men’s discourse among themselves: every woman is fatal to us—economically, at least.
It’s in no one’s interest—neither men’s, nor women’s—for one-half of the human race to walk away from the dating game. But the Faustian logic of infinite derivatives derived from finite resources has led the Westernized globe to what I called, in an earlier post, a Hobbesian state of nature, a multi-polar civil war of all against all, and the fundamental schism in this Mandelbrot of metastasizing fractures seems, to my mind, to lie on the masculine/feminine fault-line.
Having a centre of economic value upon their persons, the ladies can still play the roulette wheel for a few turns yet. But in this zero-sum game where Jeff Bezos, as the richest man on the planet, is currently the best bet to scoop up all the scoots on the final turn of the wheel, whatever women extract in selfish plays from the ninety per cent of men who have always been the dispensable, disposable drones of human society, the canon-fodder mobilized to defend the garden against external assault, will ultimately be taken from them by the ten per cent of men at the top of the social hierarchy whom they are sexually competing for.
Then those guys will kill each other for the remaining value on the board until one man is left holding all the boodle—and all the dames, for, as Mr. Veblen tells us, at the most primitive level of human commerce, women are a currency of exploit, but a currency which willingly goes to the man most capable of providing for it.
Perhaps the socio-political disruption which began in the nineteenth century with the mobilization of women as free economic agents serves some purpose in that evolution away from game-theoretic pro-sociality and towards human eusociality I posited in an earlier post on the Coronavirus. I sincerely hope so. It would be nice if the ladies could transcend the earth-ward pull of their biology and actualize themselves in individual destinies without running at full tilt backward into the future, as they appear to be doing, dragging the men- and children-folk into the abyss with them.
But frankly, as our institutions and infrastructure fail us at an exponential rate and our sensemaking crisis spirals into mass psychosis, I don’t think we will survive long enough as a species to discover whether women leaving the garden men had built for them was a good idea.
And at that point, the experiment becomes fatal to us all.
Special shout-out to one of my readers in Brisbane, Mr. Glen Available of Scenic Writers Shack. Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the fulfilment of the infinitely delayed promise to Mr. Glen that the third instalment in my ongoing series of extracts from the novel I am currently writing, set in what he describes as ‘Australia’s third best city’, would be delivered ‘soon(ish)’.
‘Soon(ish)’, for me, evidently means eighteen months after Episode 2—but in my defence, Your Honour, I plead extenuating circumstances and throw myself upon the mercy of the Court. As I explain in the video above, I was all set to shoot Episode 3 at Broadford, or Seymour, or some equally picturesque spot in the vicinity of same, in March of last year when the Coronavirus caused us all to slam down steel shutters everywhere.
I never got to Broadford, but I think the universe was saving the video for a more suitably picturesque locale—the beautiful San Remo, a mere bridge-span from the world-famous Phillip Island, which you can just see behind me in the video.
I only had to get through three lockdowns (including one last week at San Remo itself) before circumstances finally smiled upon me and I had the perfect opportunity to shoot this video. Perfect, that is, except for the light shower you see occasionally moistening your Melbourne Flâneur, who was sans his trademark trenchcoat because the BOM promised him a sunny day!
The excerpt I read in the video is set in the Pig ’n’ Whistle, a veritable Brisbane institution with venues all over town. I was in the Brunswick street pub, in Fortitude Valley, one evening, debriefing my brains with my journal, when I happened to look up and see a scene from John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) playing, silently, on the TV in the corner of the bar. It was the scene where Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones are enjoying una bella giornata on the terrace of an Italian villa, and no twist of fate could have pleased me more than to have an opportunity to regale you with my blow-by-blow analysis of Bogie’s textbook seduction with the Italianate backdrop of San Remo and Phillip Island alle spalle.
I hope it was worth the eighteen-month wait.
Eighteen months to go from 62 per cent completion of the second draft to 91 per cent might seem, to the blissfully uninitiated, a rather leisurely pace of literary production. What was, when I last updated you in this post, a novella of less than 40,000 words has, in that time, crossed the Rubicon into novel territory and is now advancing on 60,000 words. It’s been a difficult project for me since its commencement more than four years ago, and it’s only since February last year, when I finished revising and rewriting the section I share with you in the video, that I’ve really started to get a firm handle on this project.
Mr. Glen, in a recent post on his blog, admits—stout fellow—that he hasn’t the stamina for the marathon which is novel-writing. It’s a brave admission. But you may as well say that you haven’t the strength to write a book, for whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the discipline of long-form writing is the same, and I would argue that the literary demands of non-fiction are as great, if not greater, than those of fiction.
Even I, after five books, went through a dark period just a few years ago, when this story was still in the infancy of its second draft, where I came to the sobering conclusion that it would die stillborn with me and I would never publish another book. Like Glen, I feared I hadn’t the strength and stamina to write in the tens of thousands of words anymore.
Fortunately, I recovered my mojo pour les mots, and though, having just passed my thirty-eighth lap of the sun last month, I find my physical energy for the mental exertion of writing is appreciably less than it was when I was 28, or 18, I nevertheless feel, as a writer, that I’m just coming into my prime.
It’s a strange intimation from the universe, for I’ve made no renovations in my style; that, I think, was set in stone by the age of thirty. Rather, I think, a writer, as he ages, uses his voice more adroitly. What he has to say and how he says it more seamlessly dovetails into one another; and perhaps, like all artists whose late styles have a loose, bravura freedom about them, a sense of the elegant essence of their youthful style now unconstrained—like Henry James in his late novels, for instance—there is more efficiency in how what an aging writer has to say dovetails with the way in which he says it.
Oy vey, that was a rather late-Jamesian sentence. But to summarize: the two, in other words, are more firmly and happily wedded.
The exigencies of being a businessman, of hiring my Montblanc out aux autres, of course eats into one’s time and energy for one’s own writing, but if anything, the mid-life rigours of running my pen on the rationalistic basis of a business has put infrastructure and processes under my own writing process, so that, even if I still sweat blood over every word I commit myself to, trying to make it le seul mot juste, I’m still more efficient than I was when I practised my art merely for art’s own sake.
And when, during our epic second lockdown in Melbourne, the decline in confidence correlated with a dip in demand for my personal services, I had not just the free time but the infrastructure and processes in place to really advance this work in progress—along with all my other artistic projects.
You’ll have to peel off my fingernails one by one to get me to admit there’s any good in lockdowns, but for writers or anyone else who is the least artistically inclined, I can offer this from my own experience of house arrest: Treat your art in a business-like manner and develop an infrastructure and internal processes for managing your time and assessing your progress. For when something like a four-month lockdown comes along, it’s manna from heaven in terms of making day-to-day progress on your projects.
And this commitment to day-to-day doing, I think, is the essential difference between being ‘an author’ and being ‘a writer’.
I first heard Hunter S. Thompson advance this line of reasoning many years ago, and it stuck with me. I don’t remember where I read it, but it may have been in The Rum Diary (1959). You can be the author of a book, he said, without necessarily being a writer. It doesn’t necessarily require any literary predisposition to be the author of a published book—and I can say without any irony or glib disparagement that the publishing landscape of today amply justifies Mr. Thompson’s view.
Of course, on deeper examination, the equation balances the other way, too: you can be a writer without necessarily being an author. But that realization is less revelatory than the one implicit in Mr. Thompson’s distinction between writers and authors.
And that realization is this: The fundamental difference between being a writer and being an author can be boiled down to the grammatical difference between being someone who does something and someone who has done something, between the present-tense act of writing itself and the past-tense achievement of having written a book which has then been published.
I’ve never forgotten how my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Foley, drummed into us the notion that the ‘-er’ and ‘-or’ suffixes mean ‘one who’—one who does something in the present tense. A writer, therefore, is ‘one who writes’.
But, English being a devil of a language, it doesn’t quite work the other way around. An author is not ‘one who auths’.
Shakespearean as it sounds, ‘to auth’ is not an occupation; it’s not even a verb. And yet to be ‘an author’ of a book signifies a past-tense achievement, some work that has been written and has been crowned with the ultimate literary laurel of publication, but which does not indicate that the individual in question is presently engaged in literary labours.
Having published five books, I guess I have the right to call myself ‘an author’, to rest on those laurels, but if I firmly believe, as I said in my last post, that a man is what he does, it follows that he isn’t what he has done.
It gets philosophical here, for at some fundamental level, to do is to be. When an animal stops doing, it dies. And then it stops being. The same with a man. When we stop engaging with all the living passion of our being in the creative activities which define us and instead sit in the empire of our past achievements, we’re as good as done.
In the dark days when I seriously thought my days of ‘authoring’ were over and I wouldn’t have the distinction to call myself an author on a sixth day of my life, the work in progress on that day being achevé, my thoughts born and holdable in my hands as a book, the only thought that cheered me was the notion that the doing is the thing.
We confuse being ‘a writer’ with being ‘an author’, the doing with the done, and consequently place too much value on publication as the quantifiable, verifiable product of our labours, when really it is the present-tense production of words, written by our own hands on pages, that signifies the ‘one who’ activity of being a writer.
As Jasmine B. Ulmer observes in her journal article “Writing Slow Ontology” (2017), there is an ontology, a specific mode of being coupled with this activity of doing. One isn’t a writer when one has ‘done’ the writing, but as one does it. The internal economy of the being who writes is connected, in that present-tense activity, with the words that pour out of his hand, thought and act being uniquely united in the process of writing.
And the awareness that there is a unique ontology to my profession and my art-form, that there is a unique mode of being in this doing which I do for its own sake, day by day, drawing slowly, inexorably, and with hope and faith towards the single day when what I am writing is done and published—but never counting on that day, never taking it for granted as a given vouchsafed by God—is particularly relevant to what I write; to what I have to say as a writer; and how I say it through my style.
This work in progress, like all my books, being a Sistine Chapel I’m always on my back to, the tirelessly retouched tableau of days of my life first sketched in the pages of my journal, is the infinitely rewritten act of that first writing, and therefore of experiences and sensations which my being actually did and had done to it.
And when it comes to the question of why a man would waste whole days of his life (as it might seem to denser souls) tirelessly rewriting in successive drafts the history of minute acts and experiences in other days of his life, the answer is circularly resolved by the ontology of the craft: I am a writer, and writing is what I do.
I look forward in hope and faith to the day when I can say this work is done and I can share with you the whole story of a few minutes of my life when a woman gave me a strange revelation between her legs, one which has always stuck with me as a tale I owed it to her soul, her being, as much as to my own, to tell—a modest testament to what James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), calls ‘the reality of experience’.
But if I were to meet with an accident before the work was achevé, that day of doneness when, mother unburdened of her travail, and I could call myself, for the sixth time, ‘an author’, I would feel more sanguine about the prospect than I used to as a younger man. Franz Kafka died a writer rather than an author and couldn’t even finish the three novels upon which his reputation rests. Indeed, he ordered his friend, Max Brod, to burn his writings, the evidence of his peculiar being on this plain, which must have seemed to him a hilarious hell.
The doing was enough for him. He would have been joyously, beatifically content if we had lost the evidence of his unique being. Achievement and the past-tense plaudits of publication were anathema to Herr Kafka’s perverse soul.
So I say to other writers who, as I do, despair of finishing what they start, the doing is the thing. Be a writer and let the achievement of your project take care of itself in the doing of your days.
I’ve observed elsewhere on The Melbourne Flâneur the intimate (though not obvious) relation between the writer and the dandy, between the man of letters who precisely crafts his persona through the stylish arrangement of words and the man of fashion who precisely crafts his image through the stylish arrangement of clothes.
While intimate, I say the relationship between these two artists is not obvious because, on the one hand, words and images are diametrically opposed, with a genius in the literary field rarely transferring to the visual (and vice versa), and because, on the other hand, there is simply nothing obvious about the dandy.
More amorphous, more contradictory, more paradoxical even than the woman, the dandy is a circle impossible to square, and no writer on the philosophy of fashion has yet or ever will define the full economy of his androgynous yet über-masculine soul.
The abiding difficulty in defining the dandy is that these men who so scrupulously define the rules of fashion for other men are always the exception to the rule. That is perhaps the only definite thing we can say about them.
And one of their chief paradoxes is that they strive with a supermanly effort to appear absolutely effortless. This is like the writer whose finished work does not reveal the sweat of labour, the enormous volume of words written and culled behind the final, perfect selection and arrangement.
Laziness (or at least its scrupulously maintained appearance) is both a charge leveled at the dandy and the ultimate æsthetic end that he aspires to. The same charge is often leveled at writers: our labour, despite being a manual handicraft, is almost purely mental, and we are often accused (not unfairly) of paresse by the brawny menials who do not imagine that a man can sweat in his study from the labour of lifting and laying the bricks of words, arranging them in vast cathedrals of thought.
‘L’arte che nasconde l’arte’—‘the art that conceals art’: this was the pre-eminent virtue of sprezzatura that il Signor Castiglione ascribed to his ideal courtier, and the dandy, as the democratic gentleman descended from the Renaissance nobleman of Castiglione’s time, shares with the writer both the desire and the necessity to hide his pains of effort off-stage. His performance is entirely a rehearsal. Only the finished capolavoro goes before him, trundling onto stage like the Trojan Horse, dead and done, but not empty of the animating spirit which will take the agape spectators by storm.
Thus, as diametrically as these two arts are opposed to one another, it is no surprise that the one labour (other than the narcissistic cultivation of himself) that is fit to cause the dandy to turn up his French cuffs and get down to it is the work of writing. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda write in Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989): ‘… [I]f the dandy is æsthetic and self-concerned, his natural affiliation with professions is only with the poet, the artist, or the writer.’
It’s a perfect profession for a man whose ultimate badge of virtue is to be accused of the social vice of dilettantisme: let’s face it, most jokers who call themselves writers are lazy dilettantes who never publish a word. The boulot takes place so deeply undercover that one may safely maintain one’s front before society as an unredeemable wastrel indefinitely.
M. Proust, a spy in the houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and, by his own unstinting self-recriminations, the laziest man to ever write a novel, got away with this deception for years before his cover as a social butterfly was blown.
So you see, dear readers, abstruse as my connection between the man of words and the man of (self-)images is, it is not sans raison. The abstruseness owes to the indefinable paradoxicality of the dandy who, despite being as defined and definite in his image as the greatest writers are in the words they ultimately choose to represent them, is haloed in an aura which takes nothing away from the high—the highest possible—resolution of his image.
Which leads me to the speculation as to whether there are dandies among film directors. If the dandy is so deeply allied with an artist who is his opposite number in discipline, wouldn’t it stand to better reason to seek him among other men of images?
The contemporary portmanteau of the ‘writer-director’ would lead us to suppose that a reconciliation between les hommes de lettres and les hommes du cinéma exists, but although it is fashionable to speak of the writer-director as the ‘auteur’ of his film, one who wields the ‘caméra-stylo’, we are not comparing apples to apples when we compare these two types of authorial control.
In my last post, I talked about Alain Robbe-Grillet, almost the only novelist to enjoy a second career as a film director. M. Robbe-Grillet expresses the basic temperamental distinction between a writer and a director, for although writers can be extroverted and directors introverted, I would argue (and I think M. Robbe-Grillet tacitly agrees) that the nature of writing is basically introverted, and the nature of film directing is basically extroverted.
This is because one is a solitudinous occupation where authorial control is exercised directly over material and form, and the other is inescapably a social occupation where control is exercised indirectly over people and objects, to whom the various aspects of material and form are delegated.
As M. Robbe-Grillet expresses it: ‘… If I have problems [as a novelist], I have them with myself. Shooting a film is a communal labour, and if I have any problems, I have them not only with myself, but with the actors, with the crew, with the sun, with… the real world.
‘So, in my first film, L’Immortelle , for example, I attempted to constrain all this in order to regain some of the solitude of the writer. I realized very quickly that this was absurd, and in the film I eventually made, I welcomed all these elements: whatever the actors wanted to do, whatever the crew wanted to do, whatever the sun wanted to do, I accepted it.’
This is perhaps the chief reason why the dandy, the man of (self-)images, is deeply allied to the writer but, to my mind at least, almost impossible to find among the ranks of other men of images whose work is pseudo-literary. A director, even if he writes his own film, is less a writer by constitution than a conductor: his art is co-ordinating others in the achievement of a coherent vision.
The dandy is the absolute outlier among men. No type of man is more extreme. Co-operation, co-ordination, collaboration are not among his skills or his interests. A small clique of men inevitably gather around the dandy as around the director, but he publicly tolerates them and privately despises them, for the dandy transcends the primitive hierarchies into which men, both alpha and beta, ridiculously organize themselves. He is not interested in setting trends as a leader of fashion, but fashion inevitably follows him because it—and people—are craven.
Even alpha males.
To wit, see George IV, first among followers of Mr. Brummell.
Like the writer who exercises direct control upon material and form, the dandy exerts direct and imperious control upon the form of himself and the materials he accoutres himself in. It would be as ridiculous for a writer to shape his vision by a committee of lesser peers as a dandy to shape his vision of himself. Both are rugged individualists.
The temperamental predisposition towards introversion, towards narcissistic self-regard and an art that one can directly control, rather than extroversion and an art that one ‘manages’ by social interaction, would explain why one finds dandies among writers but not, it seems, among directors. As interior designer Nicky Haslam puts it: ‘It seems clear that the dyed-in-the-wool dandy—as opposed to the merely dandified, the “nattily dressed”—is, au fond, an introvert.’
Three things would seem, to my mind, to define the dandy-as-director, and I can’t find an exemplar who satisfies my three criteria conclusively. A predisposition to introversion is the first. An iron will to total æsthetic control similar to that displayed by the most ruthless writer is the second. And third is what we know the dandy by: an obsessive love of men’s clothes.
Let’s take the last first, for it is the most difficult criterion to satisfy, and the one, I think, where all the possible contenders I will name appear to fall down.
Our authority on this rare man’s pathological love of fashion is Thomas Carlyle, who, in Sartor Resartus (1833-4), provides the best working definition of the dandy at the birth of the movement. The dandy, according to Mr. Carlyle, is ‘a man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecrated to the wearing of Clothes wisely and well: so that as others dress to live, he lives to dress.’
We see at once that this primary occupation does not interfere substantially with the less taxing pursuits of the leisured intellectual gent, such as penning the odd verse in idle minutes between social engagements which put this heroic peacock on the stage of life. Indeed, quite the contrary: for as every tradesman must have his uniform, the ensemble of jacket, trousers and waistcoat is as much the uniform of the man who manipulates his pen in elegant endeavours as the businessman who operates it in pragmatic and profitable ones.
Wearing the suit, the uniform of the dandy, therefore, does not interfere, as a primary vocation, with the avocation of the writer. It need not necessarily interfere with that of the film director, either, but I cannot find a man among men of film who consecrates his life above all to being elegant in every breath of his life, whether on location in the dark heart of Africa or on a Hollywood soundstage.
The uniform of the film director, stereotypically, is the one given us by Cecil B. DeMille in his conquering youth. It is the flat cap (perhaps worn backwards at times in a democratic gesture towards one’s cameraman, who has his eye forever pressed to the viewfinder on our behalf), tweeds, jodhpurs and riding boots—maybe even the extravagant detail of a riding crop.
The ridiculous anachronism of attempting to look like an English country gentleman on a blazing Hollywood backlot is eminently dandistic, but it falls more in Mr. Haslam’s category of being ‘dandified’ and ‘nattily dressed’ than looking good at every instant for some slavish, private religious purpose.
But I don’t use the words ‘extravagant detail’ lightly in reference to the riding crop. Extravagant details whose practical purpose are obscure define the whole uniform outlined above. One no more knows who or what the director plans to whip with the anachronistic crop than what he plans to ride with his anachronistic jodhpurs and boots.
Extravagant details whose practical function as working uniform are novel, innovative, and even obscure define the dandy, and we see examples of these extravagant details in the working uniforms of directors who are certainly dandified if not actual dandies.
For example, the most dandified director in the world today has to be David Lynch. He has such a recognizable personal style that it appears even in his films—in the proxies who stand in for him, like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986). The eccentric detail of the collar button done up sans cravate which Mr. Lynch affects at times transcends the nerdish faux pas of fashion it would be for most other men because the eccentricity belies a practical purpose which is obscure to the rest of us.
According to Mr. Lynch, he hates the feel of wind on his collar bone, and hence he buttons his shirts up to choking point—a personal eccentricity he bequeaths to any character in his films who stands in for him.
But the mania for a warm chest goes even further than that. So high-strung is Mr. Lynch that in his youth he affected the doubly eccentric and dandyish detail of wearing not one but three neckties as a foulard to keep his sensitive collar bone warm.
The image of a man wearing triple neckties may be absurd so that we wonder if he is the victim or the bold setter of some obscure fashion which has bypassed us, but key to understanding the dandy’s sway over other men is the knowledge that all his novel and innovative sartorial choices stem from some practical consideration of comfort which is personal to him.
Just as Gianni Agnelli—a genuine dandy—affected the eccentric habitude of wearing his wristwatch over his sleeve—(a fashion faux pas so thunderingly obtuse that it boldly doubled as a brilliant time and motion innovation for the busy head of Fiat to affect)—the uniquely personal considerations of comfort that dandies make only become stale form when they are cravenly imitated by men, clueless about fashion, who take their personal eccentricities as general edicts.
As far as I know, the triple necktie as foulard has not caught on. That unique eccentricity in personal style as well as Mr. Lynch’s high-strung nature might qualify him as the closest contender for a dandy among living directors that I know of—for one cannot be a dandy without being as high-strung and neurotic as a thoroughbred.
But even though nowadays he affects the black suit, white shirt and black tie of Alfred Hitchcock as his unvarying uniform, I do not know that Mr. Lynch anymore than Mr. Hitchcock is slavishly devoted to the suit as high art.
In my post “A writer’s style”, I quoted approvingly the opinion of Messrs. Martin and Koda that a man’s dress signifies his ‘operational identity’: as men, we are our professional rôles, and one of our highest masculine virtues is to make who we are indistinguishable from what we do. A man is the uniform he wears in life.
Of all directors, Mr. Hitchcock is the one who best worked out an operational identity for himself early on, one which involved the democratic uniform of the professional man, the suit. The funereal combination of black suit, white shirt and black tie which Mr. Hitchcock typically affected not merely consolidated his operational identity as head man on-set, but the operational identity of his lugubrious public persona—which was as much a put-on as his suit.
This was an operational necessity for as neurotic an introvert as Mr. Hitchcock. For as much as he was a commanding Leo, one of that extravagant, limelight-loving breed fit to dominate a film set, one derives two abiding impressions from reading the early pages of John Russell Taylor’s Hitch (1978) and Patrick MacGilligan’s A Life in Darkness and Light (2004).
The first is that the shy, lonely young Hitchcock might not have gotten his chance to direct had he not put on the extroverted front of continually putting himself forward with feigned confidence for jobs he had no prior experience at. The second is that, in the early days of his English career, his association with a certain type of film we now associate with his name and image was more a product of chance than inward inclination towards darkness.
There’s almost nothing in Mr. Hitchcock’s background to suggest that he would become, as Jean-Luc Godard called him, the only poète maudit to achieve commercial success in his own lifetime. The early output of the future Master of Suspense is more varied than that princely title allows, and his career could have gone in any number of directions if he had not hit on a repeatably bankable formula early on.
And the formula, the poetry of bizarre, nail-biting images in fulgurant succession, is of course a rhyme for that distinctive silhouette which appears as a signature in the corner of each of his films, the portly, soberly-suited trickster. Mr. Hitchcock in his very appearance was the type of film he made. Life, he once complained, typecasts us: according to him, his inward suavity of spirit would have been better suited to the outward shell of Cary Grant.
He had the introverted dandy’s necessity of an extroverted operational identity, a uniform which was distinctive and inimitable, but one which equally commanded respect on the set. The funereal suit and tie ensemble gave Mr. Hitchcock an appearance somewhere between a bank manager and an undertaker, and the implications of sobriety and discretion in that uniform, of honest, well-balanced books, of loved ones precisely and delicately attended to, indicates my second criterion: almost no director exerts as ruthless and singular a control over every detail of his image—at least, as the images of his films are his image in the popular imaginary—than Alfred Hitchcock.
The suit suits him. This symbol of masculine rectitude and rationality, clothes precisely designed by rule and compass, is eminently suitable for a director who emerged from the ranks of production designers, and whose training and only job outside films was in engineering.
As British fashion critic Colin McDowell says in his book The Anatomy of Fashion (2013), ‘The true dandy … sees dress as an expression of highly masculine qualities, such as precision, consideration and respect. … Dandies depend on a rational approach to clothing, relegating all other considerations to making a powerful statement without falling prey to the cardinal sin of ostentation.’
Powerful visual statements, not ostentatious but certainly striking, emerge from the fabric of Mr. Hitchcock’s films, which were always made out of respect and consideration for his audiences. The precision of rational design in the well-cut suit might be seen as an analogy for the way Mr. Hitchcock designed and made his films for people ‘out of whole cloth’, controlling every element with absolute precision, measuring every detail, stitching every shot together to form an ensemble far greater in effect than the sum of its exquisite parts.
David Fincher has described this ruthless authorial control as ‘the iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s style, a sort of overarching échafaudage which protects what’s under it, as a good English suit, for instance, is a kind of armature for the body, repulsing the intemperate English elements. But the iron umbrella of Mr. Hitchcock’s style not only repulses what is external to his creative vision, it also suffocates any spontaneous input from others who are under it.
Even as late as his last film, Family Plot (1976), when he was working with the long-haired, bearded contemporaries of Spielberg and Lucas, young technicians going to work on Mr. Hitchcock’s set were discreetly advised at the commencement that a suit and tie, rather than T-shirt and jeans, would be the de rigueur uniform at all times.
The genteel uniform of the professional man was eminently suitable for Mr. Hitchcock’s ruthlessly regulated, standardized style of filmmaking, which some actors and technicians described as like ‘working in a bank’: Mr. Hitchcock’s phobia for the impromptu had caused him to prepare so well in advance that one could safely start at nine and leave the set each day at six.
But if he had the dandy’s introversion and iron-clad control of details, what lets Mr. Hitchcock out as a dandy, in my view, is that his passion appears to have been for women’s wardrobe rather than for men’s.
Legion are the examples of the exacting requirements he had for his leading ladies’ couture. As resoundingly silent is the record on what he specified for his men. To his eternal credit, Mr. Hitchcock does have what has been justly called ‘the greatest suit of all time’ in one of his films, the famous—and much-abused—grey Kilgour sported by Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959). About eleven copies of this suit were required to film the cropduster sequence alone. But it is believed that Mr. Hitchcock, who regarded Mr. Grant as a cut above the usual cattle he had to wrangle on-set and trusted his judgment in most matters implicitly, allowed him a free hand in commissioning the suit from his tailor, Kilgour French and Stanbury of Savile Row.
This is in contrast with the control he exerted over his leading ladies’ deportment. No expense was spared to repeatedly secure the services of Edith Head as ladies’ costume designer on his films. Miss Head reported that, like James Stewart in Vertigo (1958), the gentleman knew what he wanted: perhaps owing to his background in design, Mr. Hitchcock was uncommonly well-informed in matters of women’s fashion and demanded the famous grey suit for Kim Novak despite Miss Head’s protests that grey was not a blonde’s colour and would make her look washed out.
That was precisely the ghostly effect he wanted.
He personally escorted Eva Marie Saint to Bergdorf Goodman in New York and selected her wardrobe for North by Northwest. He also had Christian Dior design Marlene Dietrich’s costumes for Stage Fright (1950). Mr. Hitchcock was fond of quoting the playwright Sardou’s maxim that in drama one should always ‘torture the women’. M. Dior, who was as fastidious about details as Mr. Hitchcock and tended to erect an iron umbrella of his own about the feminine silhouette, would doubtless have concurred with this eternally sage advice.
But while I think there are dandistic elements to Mr. Hitchcock personally, and while his films comport themselves with an idiosyncratic visual style which is dandistic, such that he is often imitated by other directors but never equalled, his predilection for female fashion, which is at irreconcilable odds with masculine style, seems ultimately to disqualify him as a dandy.
His great equal as a visual storyteller, Orson Welles, is even further from the mark than Mr. Hitchcock, though Mr. Welles too has elements of the dandy about him. His affectation of exuberantly-brimmed sombreros and capes—(capes are eminently dandistic)—ought to qualify him on prima facie inspection, but on deeper consideration these are the very things which let him out.
Mr. Welles always reminds me of Oscar Wilde, who is often mistaken for a dandy—and who mistook himself for one. Both are hommes du théâtre, and I think the native extravagance and peacockery of theatre people always counts against them. They evince the kind of ostentation that the true dandy abhors.
There are few cases in cinema of men so pathologically addicted to an art-form that Mr. Welles called ‘the biggest electric train set a boy ever had’ than Orson Welles himself. But despite his addiction, despite the fact that he had cinema in the blood, Mr. Welles was always, first and foremost, a man of the theatre, like Mr. Wilde, with all the vulgar flamboyance, the extroverted ‘larger-than-life-ness’ that no man of the theatre can ever quite get rid of.
It’s always in a stage man’s manner, and you won’t find a single interview with Orson Welles where he is not entertaining, performing for a public audience. It’s charming, but it’s also a straight-up disqualification, for despite his extraordinary vividness, there is no peacockery at all in the genuine dandy: the common mistake that people uninformed on this subject make is to think that because he publicly shines with a special lustre, the dandy, like the man of the stage, is somehow a whore for the spotlight.
Pas du tout.
The dandy’s seductive éclat comes entirely from within. As Philip Mann writes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), ‘… [J]ust as the dandy’s suit is glamorous and his melancholy sombre, so his suit is sombre and his melancholy glamorous.’ The dandy thus burns with a dark, self-consuming light, like a white dwarf.
Mr. Welles’ egotistical extroversion under a veneer of false modesty lets him out. For the same reason, Charles Chaplin is not really a dandy—although his childhood in Dickensian poverty is a crucial psychological plank in the nascent pathology of dandyism. Chaplin, in his later life, is said to have developed a mania for shoes—an obsession which all true dandies will recognize as central to the complex, but which is perhaps more acute in someone who went barefoot through the freezing streets of London in childhood.
The Little Tramp is perhaps what we might call an ‘inverted dandy’—particularly the wing-collar specimen of the genus that Mr. Chaplin portrays in City Lights (1931). While the Little Tramp as archetype is always waging a dandistic war of specious respectability against the grinding reality of his poverty, the Tramp of City Lights goes through the most horrendous crucible of attrition in all of Mr. Chaplin’s œuvre, starting off with wing-collar, boutonnière and a rather snappy bow-tie, and ending up collarless, his bowler mortally wounded, his trousers out-at-arse, and altogether looking the most tragic we will ever see him.
But it’s really the post-Tramp Charlot of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), and A King in New York (1957) who reveals Charlie’s soul-deep pretensions towards aristocracy, not merely as a man of the theatre, but as a waif of the working-class. Dandies always emanate from the lower orders, but rarely from as low as the future Sir Charles did.
This is tacit in the example set by the bourgeois social mountaineer Mr. Brummell, who, as Titan of the Regency, could not have shaken the fashionable firmament of his betters if the English class system was not showing, to his canny eye, the first hairline fissures of encroaching democracy. As M. Baudelaire sagely observed, the phenomenon of dandyism is most pronounced in those transitional periods ‘when democracy is not yet all-powerful and aristocracy is tottering and only partially debased.’
Hence, not so many years after Mr. Brummell died in English disgrace and French exile, a nineteenth-century slum-child and music hall entertainer could become one of our monarch’s knights in the twentieth century. And when I look at the foreign royalty which Mr. Chaplin, with his gorgeous snowy hair and dulcet voice, makes himself over as in A King in New York, I am struck by how much he resembles our present monarch’s despised uncle in old age, the pre-eminent dandy of the twentieth century, the erstwhile Prince of Wales, the erstwhile King Edward VIII, the man who ended his career as the husband of Mrs. Simpson, the Duke of Windsor.
Of all the immortal Charlot’s creations, Henri Verdoux, the æsthete serial killer who makes a genteel art of dispatching wives and defrauding them of their cash, is the most dandistic. If the Little Tramp was a romanticized version of how Mr. Chaplin perceived himself and the grindingly modest Londonian origins from which he sprang, I think that M. Verdoux represents the romanticized version of Mr. Chaplin’s aspirations for himself as a democratic American gentleman with European pretensions.
He’s the creation, I sense, for whom Mr. Chaplin had the most affection, for M. Verdoux is, as the final shot attests, the Little Tramp’s satanic side. As a man whose dark side also encompasses Machiavellian aspirations towards cash, artistic crimes, and the conquest of women—(all in great quantities, for ‘numbers sanctify’)—I also love M. Verdoux for his consummate dandyism, and I must confess an obsession with Charlie’s outfit in that film. The grey chalk-stripe suit, double-breasted waistcoat with shawl lapel, fulsome, billowing cravat, divine pearl Homburg, gloves and walking stick which Charlot affects in his flâneries comprises the perfect uniform for picking up game grisettes as one treads the streets of Paris.
I intimated above that it’s the striking detail, the incongruous element in the otherwise correct wardrobe, a gesture towards personal comfort, that marks out the dandy. We’d be hard-pressed to award Federico Fellini the dandy laurel, for although often suited on-set, the bullish-looking Maestro never quite wore his suits with sprezzatura—certainly not the sprezzatura that Guido, his perennially harassed and hen-pecked film director proxy, played by the gorgeous and elegant Marcello Mastroianni, wears them with in 8½ (1963).
To the peerless Italian tailoring of tight black suit, white shirt and black tie are bequeathed two characteristically Felliniesque touches—the omnipresent scarf and the cowboy hat. Whether on il Signor Fellini himself or on Guido, that cowboy hat is the crowning touch of oddness that breaks the strict correctness of the classic Italian suit.
Il Fellini’s black cowboy hat was particularly odd, with a low crown and a short, though acutely shaped, brim. One might, at a pinch, have expected his compatriot, Sergio Leone, the gran regista of spaghetti westerns, to sport such a hat, though that gent often went around bareheaded, or with a tweed newsboy’s cap at best. But il Signor Fellini was not a maker of westerns—not even of westerns as far-removed in style from those classic models bearing the Ford insignia as Cinecittà is from Monument Valley—and his cowboy hat, which is almost a more savagely stylized and deformed Fedora, reflects his weird visions of the ordinary.
Indeed, with its connotations of the Rio Grande displaced, as in a dream, to the banks of the Tiber, il Signor Fellini’s incongruous cowboy hat lent that beautiful dreamer the appropriately quixotic touch, on-set, of a high plains drifter tilting, as Guido tilts, at the windmills of his mind.
In The Dandy at Dusk, Philip Mann makes a case for Jean-Pierre Melville, another Euro-fan of the cowboy hat combined with the suit, as a dandy, and though I’m not entirely convinced of the argument, I am prepared to assert that of all the filmmakers I can think of, M. Melville comes probably the closest to my criteria of a dandy director.
He was an écrivain manqué, I think, a writer who, by an immense détournement, found his native literary instinct luckily diverted into the visual. When M. Melville says that editing a film is equal in his passions to writing one, but that he absolutely hates shooting films, you get an intimation of that ruggedly individualistic, utterly ruthless attitude of the writer who loves total control and hates the ‘communal labour’ of filmmaking.
M. Melville is perhaps unique among all directors in that he seemed to realize the dream of solitary, literary filmmaking enunciated by M. Robbe-Grillet: as an independent producer/director, he built his own studio as an adjunct to his home and could work alone in the midnight hours, setting up lights and arranging the set before the arrival of his actors and crew.
He was an introvert, and the Melvillian man of his melancholy, violent dreams is introverted to an hermetic extent—like ‘un tigre dans la jungle… peut-être,’ as M. Melville himself writes at the beginning of Le Samouraï (1967). And being as much a ‘men’s director’ as filmmakers like Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Woody Allen—or even the woman-torturing Alfred Hitchcock—are ‘women’s directors’, filmmakers whose first sympathies lie with their suffering heroines, M. Melville, in his deep love and sympathy for the condition of men in all our melancholy and violence, seems equally to have loved the savagely restricted uniform of the suit with which we elegantly repress and civilize ourselves.
He is perhaps the only director, if Herr Mann’s argument is to be credited, who had the superordinate passion for menswear which is my third condition of dandyism in directors: days after seeing Gone with the Wind in London in 1940, he met Clark Gable at a shirtmaker’s shop in Jermyn street—which star-crossed encounter M. Melville took to be prophetic of his destiny in film. Herr Mann also alleges he once abandoned a film mid-tournage after getting into an argument with an actor about how wide his hat-brim should be.
Given the dandy’s mania for the details of correct masculine deportment, that sounds about the appropriate level of obsession—and expensive, individualistic recklessness—to qualify M. Melville, prima facie, as a dandy director.
Watch any interview with him and you will be struck by a man who is ruthlessly correct in his courtly deportment and demeanour: M. Melville conducts himself en parfait gentleman. The only extravagant touches added to the dark, sober suit which reflects his saturnine nature are the exuberant cream Stetson and the mirrored aviator sunglasses—fetishistic touches of the Americana which decorated M. Melville’s films as much as his person.
There’s a photo in Herr Mann’s book of M. Melville, circa 1960, in a boxy dark grey suit and tie, his ensemble topped with shining Stetson and les trous noirs of his aviator sunglasses, and carrying an elegantly thin briefcase—but no raincoat—through the rainy streets of Paris. Even more than a gangster on his way to a rendez-vous (an eminently appropriate look for an independent producer/director with shady contacts), this incongruous figure briskly whipping along looks like a Texas oilman—a premonition of J. R. Ewing, no less—plopped down in the rue de la Paix.
This américainophilie is de rigueur for a man who, in a supremely dandistic gesture, adopted the surname of the author of Moby Dick as his codename in the French Resistance and never renounced it upon the laying down of arms. As a man who constructs an operative identity which he is ruthlessly prepared to both live and die by, the only profession other than literature for which the dandy is eminently suited is espionage, and M. Melville, the chronicler of gangsters, corrupt cops, con artists and members of the Armée des Ombres, comported himself as an undercover résistant all his life—résistant à tout.
As an operative identity, the codename ‘Melville’ is as much a charmed imperméable in the grey ville de merveilles of Paris as the raincoat he accoutres Alain Delon with in Le Samouraï. It’s perhaps an ironic coincidence that the French Mafia is colloquially known as ‘le Milieu’—literally, ‘the Place’, ‘the Scene’, for M. Melville, like his idealized assassin, seemed to strive to live up to Mr. Brummell’s dictum that the perfect dandy is a man who is never out of place, but blends into his environment, never drawing attention to himself with a mistake of deportment or comportment.
He is so correct as to be invisible.
As Mr. Hitchcock took the dressing of his leading ladies to be a personal duty not to be delegated, M. Melville similarly undertook to be valet to his leading men. ‘I’m very prone to clothes fetishism,’ he once said—surely an understatement for a director who named one of his films—Le Doulos (1962)—after the gangster argot-word for ‘hat-wearer’. ‘[T]he clothing of men plays a decisive rôle in my films, while women’s clothing alas concerns me less. When an actress has to be dressed, an assistant usually takes care of it.’
This candid admission seems to clinch it, but I take Philip Mann’s offering of Jean-Pierre Melville as a dandy director under advisement. It’s a matter I will have to think about more before I offer M. Melville a membership in the club. Doubtless, like Groucho Marx, he wouldn’t take it anyway if it was offered—and if so, that would be the concluding proof of M. Melville’s dandysme;—for we dandies are such rugged individualists that (like the only Marx whose dicta are worth repeating) we would refuse to belong to any club that would have us as a member.
If you can think of any other hommes du cinéma you think might live up to the high bar of being a dandy, dear readers, I would be interested to hear the names of other contenders bandied in the comments below.
A cartridge of expired Kodachrome 40 Type A film of indeterminate date; a Chinon Super 8 motion picture camera dating presumably from the 1970’s—these two bounced and lunged with the movement of the 58 tram, Toorak-bound, as it turned left—that is to say, eastward—in an S from William street into Flinders lane, and thence almost immediately right—which is to say, south—into Market street. Of this elegant manœuvre, the only instance where one of Melbourne’s 25 tram routes proceeds for even one short block along any of the ‘little streets’ or laneways which accompany the city’s major thoroughfares, neither film nor camera (which were then in operation to record this unique spectacle) captured anything. Instead, during the ninety-second journey, both film and camera were fixated upon another image of uncertain definition, whether a scratch in the glass pane directly in front of the operator, through which he was filming, a mark too fine to be clearly perceived upon its surface except by film and camera held close to, or else a hair or fibre, itself of unusually elegant curvature—almost the only thing, despite its abstraction, with sufficient force of being to impress itself with permanence upon the expired film, rendered nearly blind by time, as a clearly discernible object—one which happened to lodge in the camera’s gate at the commencement of the journey, shuddering in consonance with the movement of the tram, and alighting coincident with the end of the trip at Flinders and Queensbridge streets, it is difficult to say with certainty.
Thus history, in its nearsightedness, chooses to record the passage of odd figures upon a background it retrospectively reduces to rheumy grain.
—Dean Kyte, “Objectif”
I got a nice surprise on Christmas Day: a cartridge of ancient Kodachrome Super 8 film, which I sent to Film Rescue International in Canada to have developed in October, was now ready for download.
I had low expectations for this film: my guess was that, at the time when I opened the cardboard box, cracked the mint-condition foil wrapping, and snapped the magazine into the butt of my Chinon Super 8 camera, the cartridge was at least thirty years old—probably closer to forty.
The cartridge of expired Kodachrome came with the camera, which I picked up for $20 at Hunter Gatherer, the boutique op-shop in the Royal Arcade. The shop assistant sliced ten clams off the price because I almost ruined the white shirt I was wearing just in handling the camera: the rubber eyepiece had melted all through the case and had gotten onto everything—including the box of film.
That gives you some sense of the conditions in which the film had been stored.
Nevertheless, I wanted to see if anything could be gotten out of three-and-a-half minutes of ancient Kodachrome. I locked and loaded my prize and went hunting for sights to clout.
I took it to Ballarat and prowled all through the Art Gallery, spending a lot of those precious frames on the two enigmatic Norman Lindsay paintings housed there. We took what I intended to be our own “Trip Down Market Street” together—(Market street, Melbourne, that is)—and various other things I don’t recall.
The problem is that you can’t get expired Super 8 film developed in Australia: the good folks at nano lab, in Daylesford, who have the domestic market cornered on this expensive obsession, won’t do it. Instead, they’ll refer you across the pond to Film Rescue International.
So what is, under normal circumstances, a prohibitively expensive hobby becomes more expensive still with expired film stock. There’s the cost of international postage to consider, and dealing in Canadian dinero, which adds a bump to the price.
Plus a long lead time, as you wait for your parcel to get across the pond and for Film Rescue to queue it into their bimonthly processing regimen.
Plus the fact that the colour dye couplers for Kodachrome no longer exist, so Film Rescue has to process your film in black and white.
All good excuses for me to procrastinate getting the film developed, and as I exercised my procrastinating skills, my cartridge of Kodachrome suffered further mistreatment: I stuffed it in my duffel (which, with my peripatetic lifestyle de flâneur, does not stay stationary for long), and for two-and-a-half years I lugged it all around the country under all kinds of weather conditions.
But finally, during lockdown, I decided to send it across the Pacific to our confrères in Canada and pay the price of discovering what, if anything, was on my cartridge of used and abused film.
Not much, it turns out. Apart from three very washed-out seconds at the end of the reel showing a tram passing before the Elizabeth street entrance of Flinders Street Station, the only clearly visible thing on the reel is the odd figure in the film above.
As I say in the short film I made of this miraculous mistake, I’m not altogether sure what it is, but it accompanied me all through my tram trip along Flinders lane and down Market street, an unwelcome passenger I did not see at the time, but almost the only thing on the whole reel that my film and camera did see.
I had just finished reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s collection of short stories Instantanés (Snapshots) (1962) the day before the reel of Kodachrome turned up in my inbox, ready for download. When I saw this curious figure sketched on the otherwise blank film, the only image clearly preserved for posterity on a reel of film which is probably as old as I am, and which required decades of abused waiting and movements through space and time before its life intersected with mine so that we could both fulfil our destinies together as recorders of images, I was reminded of Robbe-Grillet’s ambiguous ‘court-métrages en mots’, and thought I would have a go at writing something in his style to accompany the short film I made of the out-take above.
I scored Instantanés off Amazon during Melbourne Lockdown 2.0, when the level of unread words left on my nightstand was verging on blinking red light territory. I was sold on disbursing my dough to the Bezos monolith after watching this discussion on Robbe-Grillet in which English writer Tom McCarthy intriguingly describes the first story in the collection, “Le mannequin” (1954), accompanied by his own ‘cute-crappy’ illustrations of it. (His exegesis of “Le mannequin” is between 4:28 and 7:15, if you’re interested.)
If you’re unfamiliar with Alain Robbe-Grillet, it’s probably not surprising. I find that most French people I mention him to don’t know who he is—at least not until you mention his most famous assignment as scenarist of L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961)—and even then, they tend to confuse him with the film’s director, Alain Resnais. This despite the fact that M. Robbe-Grillet was elected to the Académie française in 2004, to take his place among ‘les Immortels’ of French literature.
I guess having the magick formula ‘de l’Académie française’ after one’s name doesn’t count for much with the average Frenchman these days.
His writing is definitely an acquired taste, and the taste is difficult to acquire, because M. Robbe-Grillet is the most bitter, asper of all writers. There is no sweetness at all in his implacably ‘objective’, almost anti-human, novels, which focus obsessively on a world of external detail. Against these backgrounds, delineated with almost geometric precision, his ‘characters’ move, like the chess-piece people of L’année dernière à Marienbad, as vectors, algebraically quantified by letters (‘A’, ‘X’, ‘M’, etc.) rather than qualified by names.
M. Robbe-Grillet was the foremost exponent and theoretician of the nouveau roman (or ‘new novel’), a typically French literary movement of the fifties and sixties which rejected the humanist assumptions of the classical nineteenth-century novel, the novel of human-focused drama and intrigue with its roots in Balzac. You can well imagine that such a rigorously experimental literary movement would appeal to the French and that it would have little appeal or traction in the Anglophone world, for whom the premier nineteenth-century novelists are writers like Austen and Dickens—people deeply interested in other people.
So while M. Robbe-Grillet and his coterie (including Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras) made some strategic incursions into the Anglosphere, the nouveaux romanciers were largely a phenomenon restricted by the language of a culture—and thus of a particular place—and seem, in retrospect, to be very much a product of their time. They were part of the first generation of postmodernists, and in their work of rigorous deconstruction, they did for French fiction what writers like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida were doing for French non-fiction at the time.
And as we have seen with the poisonous fall-out of postmodernism in the Anglosphere, these ludic games with language that French intellectuals like to play—and which the wonderfully supple French language allows—do not translate well into English. The airy structural ambiguity of French, with its genders and tenses, collapses into oversimplified terms in English, which is a much more pragmatic language of ideas than French, focused as it is on material reality, efficacy of practical outcomes, and the terse eloquence of clipped statements that convey facts with no wastage of words—all the virtues of our ‘scientific’, ‘journalistic’ language which have made Hemingway, since the 1920’s, the supposed ideal of Anglophonic literature.
Given our cultural taste for the concrete and material, you might think that M. Robbe-Grillet would have found more popularity in the Anglosphere. It’s true that he had, with Richard Howard as his translator, the best possible letter of introduction to our world at the height of his intellectual respectability in France.
But despite the rigor of his factual, objective style, M. Robbe-Grillet is not merely a French Hemingway, and the deleterious narrowing of our ideals of good, clean, English prose does not adequately prepare us for the sum that cumulatively emerges from M. Robbe-Grillet’s laboriously delineated parts.
His French is not at all ‘simple’ as we might say that Hemingway is the epitome of good, simple English prose. He was a scientist, an agronomist, prior to becoming a novelist, and because his language is so precise, M. Robbe-Grillet’s French vocabulary is surprisingly large, studded with technical terms of art which further tax the English reader as we attempt to mentally construct the spaces described sentence by sentence in his novels and stories.
To give an example of how complex his deceptively simple language is, here is my translation of probably the most famous single passage in the whole of M. Robbe-Grillet’s œuvre—the description of a slice of tomato in his first published novel, Les Gommes (The Erasers) (1953):
A truly flawless wedge of tomato, machine-cut from a perfectly symmetrical fruit.
The peripheral flesh, compact and homogenous, of a handsome chemical red, is regularly thick between a band of shining skin and the cavity where the seeds are magazined, yellow, well-calibrated, held in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along a bulge of the heart. This heart, of a slightly grainy, attenuated pink, commences, on the side of the lower depression, through a cluster of white veins, one of which extends itself towards the seeds in perhaps a little uncertain manner.
On top, an accident, barely visible, has occurred: a corner of skin, peeled away by one or two millimetres, raises itself imperceptibly.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes (translated by Dean Kyte)
Alors, you get the sense in this snippet of the formality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language, which I haven’t substantially changed, just transferred across to English, and his use of the present tense and passive voice as a means of rendering an ‘objective’ present.
It’s almost impossible to adequately translate ‘d’un rose atténué légèrement granuleux’ which, as an adjectival phrase juxtaposing softness and roughness, lightness and slightness in four words, appears almost to contradict itself when one starts, from a literal place, to render it in English. Moreover, you get a sense of the technicality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language with the ‘heart’ of the tomato sitting inside its ‘cavity’ (‘la loge’). I’ve been a little creative in availing myself of the very obsolete English verb ‘magazined’ as a translation of ‘où sont rangés’ in an attempt to give my vision of the seeds, ‘bien calibrés’, of this tomato ‘découpé à la machine’ as being almost like the bullets of a well-balanced automatic weapon.
If a prose poem dedicated to a quarter of a tomato doesn’t turn you on, you won’t get much kick out of the stories of Instantanés, published after L’année dernière à Marienbad, with its long tracking shots, its sculptural tableauxvivants, and its unreliable narration, had demonstrated what M. Robbe-Grillet’s very cinematic style of writing ‘looked like’ when translated to film.
But what I like about these super-short stories is that he seems to do in words something similar to what I try to do with my short films: they are descriptions of locales in which nothing (or nothing of dramatic import) happens, and yet there is a vaguely sinister air about the environments he describes, whether it’s the unattended room of “Le mannequin”, the theatre of “Scène” (1955), or the Métro station of “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain” (1959).
And in a couple of stories, like “Le remplaçant” (1954) (in which a dull history lesson is juxtaposed with a boy’s attempt to jump up and grasp the leaves of a tree outside), or “Le Chemin du retour” (1954) (which ends with an embarrassed trio failing to communicate their gratitude to the boatman who rescues them from an island), there is a sense of an ultimately more satisfying, more sinister moral emerging as a function of Robbe-Grillet’s description of the plotless, undramatic actions of everyday life—more satisfying and more sinister because the morals of these ‘fables of the everyday’ seem even more obscure.
I think it’s no coincidence that M. Robbe-Grillet (along with his nouveau roman colleague Marguerite Duras) is really the only writer to have ever made a second career for himself as a filmmaker: more than merely being boring ‘photographs in words’, the ‘snapshots’ of Instantanés are deeply cinematic short films.
In “Scène”, for instance, the description of a theatre performance, you can almost sense the placement of the camera in M. Robbe-Grillet’s words: for most of the story, it feels fixed at a point you might regard as the natural placement for a camera photographing a play—a master-shot that frames the whole proscenium, with maybe a telephoto lens affixed which allows us to see some of the smaller details alluded to in the text.
Then, at a point far advanced in this brief story, the implicit ‘camera’ of M. Robbe-Grillet’s prose draws back appreciably: the ‘master-shot’ through which we have been watching this performance is not the true master-shot at all. That shot would encompass the auditorium as well as the stage. By introducing an unexpected line of dialogue into the text, he creates a ‘cut’ that changes our perspective, a new placement in space that simultaneously alters our conception of the time at which the performance is occurring.
That line’s a bit of a spoiler, and I’m not going to give it away here. Infinitesimally slight as it is by comparison with the traditional plot twists the dramatic mechanics of the nineteenth-century novel have taught us to expect, the slightness of that revelation makes it all the more satisfying in reading and is an example of those sinister and obscure morals about the hidden order of the world which seem to emerge as the natural function of M. Robbe-Grillet’s implacable commitment to objectively describing the visible.
Moreover, certain of the stories, like “La Plage” (1956) and “L’escalier mécanique” (part of the triptych “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain”) evoke, as cinematic images, one of M. Robbe-Grillet’s abiding themes, that of temporal recursion.
If he will permit himself a metaphor (and Alain Robbe-Grillet is so dogmatically unromantic a writer that he will permit himself very few), the one metaphor that comes up time and again is the equation of the infinite repetition of space with the endless loop of time. The slow, stately tracking shots through the mirrored corridors of the château in L’année dernière à Marienbad is the visual evocation of this theme, which is equally present in the improbable recursive structure of Les Gommes, in which a detective sent to a city to investigate the murder of a man the night before ends up assassinating him exactly 24 hours later, with all the clues he gathers in the course of the day pointing to this unpredictable yet inevitable fait accompli.
Like Borges, the visual metaphor of the labyrinth, the repetitive extension into space which symbolizes the infinitely ramifying extension into time, obsesses M. Robbe-Grillet as a perfect geometric arrangement to describe the hidden order of the objective world. As in Koyaanisqatsi (1982), the cinematic image of people riding up an escalator in the Métro in “L’escalier mécanique” leaves us with the uneasy sense that the five people we watch getting on the conveyor belt at the beginning of the story are the same people we watch getting on again at the end of the story.
At the end of a fascinating, funny, and delightfully informal lecture at San Francisco University in 1989, M. Robbe-Grillet is challenged on the influence of the cinema upon the nouveau roman. A young man who is not easily dissuaded by the great man’s Gallic shrug of indifference presses his point: surely the nouveau roman, with its concern for surfaces and objectivity, is a reaction of the novel itself to the medium of cinema, just as Impressionism was a reaction against the objectivity of photography?
‘Ouais, j’n’cwois pas,’ M. Robbe-Grillet drawls, indulging the possibility, but clearly antagonistic to the idea, albeit humorously so. He shrugs with all the Olympian Gallic boredom he can muster—De Gaulle-grade stuff—and shakes his head. ‘Cwois pas.’
The cinema, he says, is more of a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence: it’s there in the culture, one of innumerable major landmarks which have erupted in modern life—like Marxism, or psychoanalysis, for example—and one which had equally influenced Surrealism and Existentialism before the advent of the nouveau roman.
It seems a remarkably facile—even disingenuous—remark for a novelist almost unique in having had a second career as a film director.
It’s indeed inevitable, as M. Robbe-Grillet admits, that the novel, after the invention of cinema, should adapt—or seek to adapt—itself to the innovations in the grammar of storytelling which are natural to the visual medium. But his style of writing (like that of his nouveau roman colleagues) is more deeply engaged with visual storytelling, with the problematic assumptions of objectivity which clear depictions of external surfaces allow, than would have been imagined without the referent of an economical visual storytelling medium for literary storytelling to react to.
For myself, as a wordsmith who is, paradoxically, primarily a visual thinker, a writer whose first love is film, not books, and who enjoys making short films as a relaxing creative alternative to the mental rigors of crafting perfect words, it’s not an error in my process that I make my films before I write the scripts for them.
I’m deeply marked, as a writer, by the grammar and conventions of visual storytelling. It is indeed a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence upon my books, but in terms of my films, they must work first of all as films—as the cinematic unfoldment of visual images across time—before I write the prose poems, ficciones or video essays I will read over them as narrations.
Even in the film above, where the image is no image, where I can’t say objectively what it is that has made this permanent imprint upon the fifty-foot conveyor belt of film as the only thing that can be clearly seen, the image comes first.
And there is, for me, a satisfying, albeit sinister moral about the hidden order of the objective world in that the one film I could make from those fifty feet of ancient, expired Kodachrome was a film in which the one objective image was a mistake that must be subjectively interpreted.
The temporal labyrinth of film records an endless loop of nothing but one inscrutable mistake that perfectly repeats itself each time, like a Rorschach test which is also a koan about the simultaneously objective and subjective nature of reality.
What I subjectively saw through the Chinon’s viewfinder as we bounced through Flinders lane and down Market street was not what it and the Kodachrome were objectively seeing at the moment when we three were realizing our destinies together as recorders of images.
As M. Robbe-Grillet says, the essence of his writing, and what, I think, brings it closer to the medium of film than that of any other writer, is that his rigorous objectivity is but a mask for the most rigorous subjectivity. It is both simultaneously. And only film and literature working together can realize each other’s strengths as both objective, and subjective, storytelling media.