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.
“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!
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.
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.
In a recent post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I wrote that this period of ‘enforced leisure’ here in Melbourne has turned my flâneur’s eyes inwards to a remarkable degree: Unable, under pain of fine and police harassment, to walk the streets and seek in the world without the exteriorized symbols of my interior world, I have had to content myself with taking flâneries through old footage garnered in the course of my travels.
Scrounging around among my old footage for something to turn into a video, I chanced upon something I recorded more than two years ago, and which became the basis of the video above—an idle Friday night in Oakleigh, the Greek neighbourhood of Melbourne.
I was staying in an old California bungalow and the house had a beautiful study overlooking the quiet street, just perfect for a writer. It had a massive oak desk, glass-topped, with green leather blotter, and a beautiful antique office chair of stained wood, also upholstered in green leather. To cap it all, a gorgeous green-shaded banker’s lamp on the desk.
I decided to rotate the green shade of the lamp away from me and record myself reciting “The Jewels”, my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s erotic poem “Les Bijoux”, famous as one of the poems which caused M. Baudelaire to be hauled before a court on charges of obscenity when it was published in the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1857).
The poem, along with five others, was banned from publication in France until after World War II—some eighty years after the poet’s death.
The poem is almost like a short story. In just eight verses, Baudelaire takes us thoroughly inside his remembered experience of fooling around with his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, as they sport by firelight.
Under the druggy influence of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’ dancing in the lamplight, Baudelaire sees his ‘Black Venus’ undergo a series of metamorphoses, changing into different animals and allegorical figures as they play together beside the fire.
My translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem into English is very popular; having heard it once, it’s always the poem of Baudelaire’s that people ask me to read at poetry gatherings. I’ve recited it so many times by now that it’s practically committed to memory.
So I thought that beautiful old-fashioned study would be the perfect setting in which to commit my version permanently to pixels, a place similar in atmosphere to the muffled chambre evoked by M. Baudelaire.
One of the foundations of Baudelaire’s æsthetic theory is his idea of ‘correspondances’—a kind of ‘poetic synæsthesia’ in which ‘[l]es parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent’ (‘sounds, scents and colours to one another correspond’).
In the second verse of “Les Bijoux”, Baudelaire expresses how he loves ‘à la fureur’ the experience of ‘hearing’ the colours of Jeanne’s jewels, and ‘seeing’ the sounds they make as they chime and clash with one another.
Similarly, there’s a correspondance, I think, between the green light, evocative of envy, a jealous craving, and of envie, a lustful yearning. But green is not just a colour which tells us to go ahead, to proceed without caution into love and lust. It is also a colour we associate with morbidity and putrefaction.
The obverse of Baudelaire’s lyrical elegy to Jeanne’s livingness in “Les Bijoux” is his imagining of her as a stinking corpse rotting in the sun in the poem “Une Charogne”. In that poem, he evokes her no less tenderly than in “Les Bijoux”, even as he flagellates her mercilessly with his scorn.
M. Baudelaire’s experience of love is necessarily a ‘sick’ and ‘decadent’ one in which sex and death, ‘les Deux Bonnes Sœurs’, twist and tryst.
The question, then, for this poet who (along with Ronsard) is the greatest lyricist of l’amour in the French language, and the greatest limner of women in French prosody, is whether Charles Baudelaire is a romantic?
Can one be as ineffably, as evanescently romantic as M. Baudelaire gives evidence of being in his highest raptures and still be as sadistically misogynistic as he also gives evidence of being in his most hellish fantasies?
The answer is mais oui—evidemment.
If I wanted to give a statistical answer to support the contention, I would merely point out that I have had many more female purchasers of my book of Baudelaire translations, Flowers Red and Black, than male: the dames do grok a bad boy, and among men of letters, they get no more brooding than this bow-tied dandy.
Even Lord Byron—mad, bad, and dangerous to know—has nothing on M. Baudelaire when it comes to being an homme fatal.
Baudelaire is fundamentally a romantic in both senses of the word—as a member of an intellectual and artistic movement that championed sublime passion and the heroism of the individual, and as a poet of erotic verse.
But to say firmly yes on both scores is not to overlook the fact that including M. Baudelaire positively in both definitions is not an unambiguous statement.
As regards Romanticism, M. Baudelaire emerges at the tail-end of the movement. Les Fleurs du mal, as I said above, was published in 1857, and it is not coincidental that Baudelaire was successfully prosecuted for obscenity at the same time that M. Flaubert successfully skirted the same charge for Madame Bovary.
We cannot properly call Flaubert a ‘naturalist’ or a ‘realist’: in his heart of hearts, he is as deeply and perversely a Romantic as Baudelaire. But with Madame Bovary, M. Flaubert inaugurates a new movement in French literature and art, one that is diametrically opposed to Romanticism, one that embraces and recuperates the scientific, industrial, capitalistic and consumeristic assumptions which the Romantics were reacting negatively to.
The naturalistic novel of Zola and de Maupassant is the logical (and humourless) extension of an ‘objective’ formal æsthetic which M. Flaubert employed in his ‘modern novels’ with a glacial irony. In his heart of hearts, M. Flaubert was as morbid and unbridled a creature of perverse passion as M. Baudelaire and would have preferred the erotic phantasms of St. Anthony to the moronic notions of romance entertained by Emma Bovary.
For here is the thing: in both these writers materializing on the scene at the end of the Romantic movement we see the tenets of Romanticism—a lust to experience intense emotion and transcendent sublimity; an earnest belief in the heroism of the individual artist; an equally fervent belief in ‘l’art pour l’art’; and a passion for nature which reacts negatively against the encroaching mechanical artifice of industrialism and the city—morbidly present and perverted.
Both M. Flaubert and M. Baudelaire are to Romanticism what the Mannerists were to the Renaissance. They are the Mannerists of Romanticism.
The key feature of mannerism as an artistic tendency which manifests itself late in the life of a movement is exaggeration: what has been deemed to be formally beautiful during the life of the movement in its high style is pushed to an æsthetic extreme.
One might say that Romanticism, in its advocacy of ‘l’art pour l’art’, was already a form of mannerism in its own right, even though it was not an æsthetic exaggeration of Neoclassicism, but a reaction to it. But the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ which underwrites Romanticism, when pushed to its æsthetic extreme, becomes grotesquerie.
We see this most vividly in Baudelaire, and in his visual ancestor, Goya, for whom the dream of reason brings forth monsters. The only other figure of late Romanticism I can think of who produces similarly grotesque imagery in which a high æsthetic style is pushed to a histrionic extreme is M. Baudelaire’s American twin, the brother of his soul, Edgar Allan Poe.
In the final chapter of his book La Folie Baudelaire (2008), Roberto Calasso cites the withering judgment of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most authoritative French literary critic of the nineteenth century, upon his contemporary Baudelaire.
M. Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve says, is like a little pavilion—what the French call a folie—on the extreme point of Kamchatka, that icy, volcanic Russian peninsula which juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk. From this inhospitable toehold of fire and ice, according to Sainte-Beuve, M. Baudelaire gazes avidly out upon Japan, the Orient, all that is weird and exotic to French prosody in the nineteenth century.
Baudelaire’s ‘Orient’ was the future. He makes a music in his rhymes (which are not without charm, Sainte-Beuve hedgingly admits), but the ear has not yet been born in the France of the nineteenth century which can make sense of this strange and foreign music, which apprehends a sublime and transcendent beauty in the fire and ice of Hell.
Which leads me to the perversity—the inversion, even—of Romanticism when pushed to this æsthetic extreme, the Baudelairean state of ‘Kamchatka’:—For Baudelaire’s natural abode is not merely an architectural folie in the sense of whimsy, nor even a folly to erect in such an unhospitable clime, but an uninsulated belvedere gazing out upon the frontier of madness—the madness of the modern world which will come after him.
As a very late Romantic to the scene, Baudelaire has no feeling for ‘nature’, as such. He would never, like Wordsworth, pen an elegy in praise of a flower: vegetables didn’t interest him.
The closest Baudelaire gets to the Romantic feeling for nature are a few lyrical poems about the sea and foreign ports, as he remembers an abortive voyage to India he was forced to take by his hated stepfather, General Aupick. Baudelaire never saw Calcutta. Taking grateful advantage of a shipwreck in Mauritius, he returned to Paris.
This is instructive. Baudelaire is thoroughly a man of the city, the first poet to write about it, and he does so glowingly, feeling none of the repulsion for its multitudinous horrors which drove his Romantic predecessors back to the countryside so as to escape ‘the dark Satanic Mills’ of industrial modernity.
Nothing is ‘grown’ in the city. It is a place of pure artifice—un paradis artificiel, to paraphrase the title of Baudelaire’s treatise on drugs.
And because nothing can grow in an artificial environment, everything must be manufactured in the city, or imported there from the countryside. The city, therefore, is the place of consumption, where everything can be bought.
Where Ronsard emulates the Dantesque and Petrarchan model of glorifying tony dames like Cassandre and Hélène, Baudelaire is the lyricist of bought amour, venerating the venal souls of Parisian prostitutes in all the protean manifestations that the Belle Époque gave to the world’s oldest profession—actresses, dancers, singers, syphilitic little bitches, mewling Jewesses, regal African orchids transplanted to colder climes, widows fallen on hard times.
Baudelaire loves the soiled feminine face of Paris, that paradise of decadent luxury, as sterile and useless as a rented womb.
Paris, as Walter Benjamin stated, is the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. It is the pre-eminent paradis artificiel. It is the triumph of scientific industry and commerce over nature, a purely artificial environment, an utter repudiation of the humanistic spirit of Romanticism.
And yet the place is ineffably romantic—and was so in Baudelaire’s time.
But something happens to the nature of a man or a woman who lives in the purely artificial environment of a city. It rapidly becomes ‘decadent’, and Baudelaire, the total man of the city, the poet of the city who lauds Paris’s transcendent beauty in her hellish, whorish ugliness, marks the critical juncture where Romanticism curdles, turns perverse and inverted.
What M. Baudelaire said to his friend and fellow flâneur, M. Manet, he might have equally said of himself: ‘Vous n’êtes que le premier dans la décrépitude de votre art’—‘You are merely the first in the decadence of your art-form.’
Both artists are Kamchatkas of their kind—the pinnacle of European artistic evolution, the æsthetic distillation of the wisdom and skill of the Old Masters which reaches its finest point in the peculiar persons and sensibilities of M. Baudelaire and M. Manet—only then, with the next generation, to collapse under its own weight headlong into degeneracy.
These gentlemen still had the classical education in the craftsmanship of their respective art-forms necessary to make radical yet intellectually rigorous innovations based on an intensely personal vision and acute sensibility.
M. Manet could spray the canvas with paint and not wind up with a meaningless chromo à la Pollock. Likewise, M. Baudelaire could lavish elegies upon ugliness without degenerating into the ‘prose broken into lines’ which the grunting Beats called ‘free verse’.
In La Folie Baudelaire, Calasso invokes Max Nordau, a nineteenth-century essayist in that cradle of Romanticism which would become, in the next century, the sink of horror—Germany. Contemporary with Freud and Krafft-Ebing, Nordau published a two-volume tome in 1892 called Degeneration—a kind of Psychopathia Sexualis of art.
Calasso writes: ‘In Nordau’s view, the forerunner of all degeneration was Baudelaire. All the others—such as Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Barbey d’Aurevilly—were instantly recognized by a certain “family resemblance” to him. These were the numerous insidious and indomitable crests of the Baudelaire wave.’
Though Nordau was probably not familiar with him, I cannot help but think, in tracing the lineage of artistic degeneration down from the pinnacle of Baudelaire and across the Channel, how impossible the most decadent of the English Decadents, Ernest Dowson, would have been without the forerunner of Baudelaire.
That young man who would take the bitterness and perversity of love as his only theme in poetry and in prose, who had such a French sense of its diabolical nature that he would translate Les Liaisons dangereuses, and who would pursue ‘madder music and stronger wine’ until they hustled him into an early grave, had Baudelaire’s syphilitic example of a life lived at Kamchatka’s dagger point—a life lived only for love and art—before him as his perversely heroic example.
Such a soul deformed by intimate infatuation with the artificial paradise of the city has a different experience of romance than the Romantics of the high period.
For M. Baudelaire, the sublimity of love, sex and eroticism is inseparably conjoined with the sublime, transcendent horror of decadence and death. Woman is a ‘Black Venus’ like Jeanne Duval, a murderous goddess whose womb is a tomb we want to plunge the dagger of ourselves into—like a bee who commits suicide by availing itself of its sting.
Given the deformity of M. Baudelaire’s soul and the perversity of his sense of romanticism, you might wonder why I have such a feeling for Baudelaire, why I have translated so many of his love poems—and why I find I can’t stop.
I really don’t know, except that he speaks to me, and that I find, in my translations of Charles Baudelaire into English, I am able to speak for him to people very far removed in place and time from the Paris of the Second Empire.
I’ve been told by readers of Flowers Red and Black, or by listeners who have heard me read some of the poems in that volume, that it seems as though I am ‘channelling’ M. Baudelaire. His lofty, distant voice, spewing offence in the most elegant and eloquent terms, is utterly unique in French literature and very difficult to convey in modern English without falling into pastiche.
The delicate feeling one must have for him can only really come, I think, from a sense of life like his own—a sense of ruthless desperation lived at the edge of Kamchatka—the mad desire to either transcend oneself or slay oneself in the sublime realization of one’s art.
‘Lis-moi, pour apprendre à m’aimer’—‘Read me, so as to learn to love me,’ he writes in “Épigraphe pour un livre condamné”. If you’re a curious soul who suffers like Baudelaire, you must learn to read him with a sympathetic spirit, letting your eye plunge into Hell without being charmed by the vertigo induced by the Abyss.
I have also been amusing myself in my cell during lockdown by creating some handmade gift tags, like those in the picture below. In addition to being signed and wax-sealed as a mark of artistic authenticity, any physical product you purchase from me will come gift-wrapped and garnished with an autographed gift tag featuring your Melbourne Flâneur’s logo!
I can also do custom orders for you. There is a contact form on each product page, so if you’re thinking of purchasing some original Christmas gifts, you can make a direct inquiry with me. I can negotiate a deal with you in terms of cost and delivery time frames; I can write a thoughtful personalised message on your behalf to the recipients; and I can even handle gift-wrapping and postage on your behalf—to multiple recipients, even.
And if you would like to buy your Melbourne Flâneur half a java and have his dulcet tones seducing you with his rendition of “The Jewels”, I’ve released the soundtrack of the video above on my Bandcamp profile. For two Australian shekels, you can lube someone into the amorous mood with my vocals.
I’m not Barry White, but it does work. Just click the link below, bo.
I remember seeing the monumental black gallows of Andy Warhol’s Telephone many years ago. Like Louis Aragon, for whom the objects of modernity were transfigured by a kind of æsthetic frisson, Warhol seemed to have painted the platonic ‘Form’ of the telephone: the black Mercury who calls for us in the dead of night, the psychopomp bringing only bad news, upon whose line we hang, breathless.
As Aragon observed, what brings out the ominous symbolic shadowface cast by this homely object is cinematographic découpage and cadrage: ‘To endow with a poetic quality something which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify its expression: these are the two properties which make décor the appropriate frame for modern beauty.’
—Dean Kyte, “Black Mercury”
About twelve years ago, when I was writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art hosted a major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s art. It was quite a coup for GoMA, which in those days was still fresh and shiny: it had only opened its doors a year before.
I scribbled a feature article on the exhibition for one of the magazines I was writing for, focusing on the connection between Warhol’s art and the art of cinema. For the most part, I was underwhelmed by the bewigged one: there was something self-consciously fraudulent about Warhol’s art (the title of the article I was published was “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Fraud”), but one painting stood out for me.
Telephone  (1962) is a monumental floor-to-ceiling canvas, as hieratic in its overwhelming authority as an altarpiece. Painted in stark monochrome, this enormous gallows handset caught in its shaft of light and stretching over one’s head as ominously as an actual gallows revealed a rare degree of sustained patience on the part of Warhol in his finely observed rendering of it.
It’s perhaps an unremarkable painting, except for its size, but as I state in the video essay above, in cutting this homely instrument out of the cadre of everyday life and magnifying it in extraordinary close-up, Warhol seemed to me to paint the platonic ‘Form’ of what a telephone is:—an ominous messenger on whose line hangs life and death.
That painted close-up reminded me of a shot early on in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). It comprises the third scene, in fact, just six minutes into the picture: a close-up of a black gallows handset, vaguely limned by moonlight, while white net curtains billow behind it.
The phone’s ringing rather urgently on the nightstand in the apartment of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). There’s a few other objects grouped in a loose still-life around it: an alarm clock crouching rather furtively on a copy of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America; a radio set, stoically silent; a racing rag, its leaves loosely folded; Spade’s pouch of Bull Durham tobacco, its puckered mouth half-open in a toothless sneer; a shallow enamel bowl in which a pipe sleeps, the dark, seductive curve of its bowl like the haunch of a curled-up dog.
A groggy hand reaches out from off-screen and fumbles the ameche off the nightstand. In quite a lengthy sustained shot, elegant in its simplicity, Huston holds on the vacant space left by the absent telephone without racking focus: as you might do when someone takes a phone call in the room with you, the camera continues to stare vacantly into space, its gaze politely out of focus as it pretends to interest itself in the breeze playing idly with the net curtains in the background.
All the while, our lugs are hanging out half a mile rightwards as we strain to make out the muffled voice off-screen informing Sam Spade that his partner’s Christmas has been cancelled.
Permanently, you dig?
One shot, one setup, one scene.
It’s masterful filmmaking—and one ought not to forget that The Maltese Falcon was Huston’s directorial début: right out of the gates, this thoroughbred writer-cum-director demonstrates his capacity to elegantly tell stories through simple yet potent images.
Key to the effectiveness of this scene, I think, are the cast of props who support the peerless Bogart—particularly that memorable black gallows telephone which takes centre stage on the nightstand, ready for its close-up, ready to trill into life as a herald of death.
I remember seeing The Maltese Falcon on the big screen at the South Bank Piazza in Brisbane, and this shot of the telephone, as a kind of cinematic subtext that communicates, sotto voce, the ‘mood’ of the scene it sits at the head of, has an outsize impact when viewed at scale.
The magnification of the close-up, in detaching an everyday object from its circumambient reality, is what brings out this potent symbolic aspect—its platonic ‘Form’ as trumpet, herald, fleet-footed, instantaneous messenger—and it was this that I apprehended so powerfully—as a visceral sensation—in Warhol’s painting.
As I state in the video essay, Surrealist poet Louis Aragon seemed to be the first to notice this subtle interplay of cutting and framing in cinema as the means of making visible the poetic quality that everyday objects invisibly possess, and yet don’t possess at all.
In his article “Du Décor” (1918), Aragon stated (and as I translate it in the video essay): ‘Doter d’une valeur poétique ce qui n’en possédait pas encore, restreindre à volonté le champ objectif pour intensifier l’expression: deux propriétés qui font du DÉCOR le cadre adéquat de la beauté moderne.’
It would take a Surrealist to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary, and that the intense découpage and cadrage of the close-up is the means by which filmmakers can make the invisible, poetic, dream-like quality of ‘le merveilleux’, beloved property of the Surrealists, visible and manifest.
One need only look at a shot like the famous close-up of the key clutched in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious (1946) to see, for instance, how Hitchcock makes the tiny object at the centre of the scene the overwhelming impetus and motive of the entire expensive party around her, surcharging it with a dream-like freight—a mood of irrational anxiety.
But Aragon’s prescient observation is not without precedent. He seems, in fact, to be re-stating in terms precisely geared towards the nascent visual art-form of the cinema a provocative maxim that Charles Baudelaire had stated, several decades earlier, for painting.
In Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Baudelaire states that beauty is composed to two elements, the general and the particular, the timeless and the timely—or, to put it another way, the ‘classical’ and the ‘modern’.
One gets the sense with M. Baudelaire that he regards the absolute value of ‘Beauty’ to be, in its quintessence, something like a chemical compound that can be ‘extracted’ and ‘distilled’ into its constituent parts.
In his most provocative assertion, M. Baudelaire states that this quality of ‘modern beauty’ must always contain an element of the weird and strange about it—‘Le beau,’ he says in Curiosités ésthétiques (1868), ‘est toujours bizarre.’
That quality of ‘weirdness’ is the ‘novelty’ of modern beauty, a certain seductive repugnance we sample with reluctant, distrustful fascination, only to find, in time, that we have acquired the taste for it, incorporating it into the economy of ‘good taste’ which characterizes classical beauty.
When Aragon says, therefore, that cinematic décor, the set-dressing of mise-en-scène, is ‘the appropriate frame for modern beauty,’ he is, I would argue, enunciating a Surrealist ésthétique du merveilleux which has its roots in Baudelaire’s proto-Surrealist conception of the Beautiful as inherently ‘bizarre’.
Take a flânerie through Taschen’s All-American Ads: 40s and All-American Ads: 50s if you want to see to what extent a cinematically-derived æsthetic of grandiose enlargement and removal from quotidian context magnifies the ordinary commercial objects of modernity and transfigures them, through advertising, as the surreal, dream-like keys to the problems of everyday life.
What the French Surrealists (like the Italian Futurists only slightly before them) were trying to communicate in their sense of ‘the marvellous’ behind the ostensible objects of their commodity-lust, was, I think, their inchoate apperception of classical beauty, the eternal and timeless couched behind the bizarrerie of modern objects.
Cars and æroplanes and trains, for instance, are merely visual metaphors which, when cinematically rendered, communicate the poetic impression of the platonic Form of speed, as once, in pre-modern times, the horse did.
Likewise, the telephone, that quintessential object of modernity which has transcended and remade itself to become the quintessential object of post-modernity, potently symbolizes the speed with which news—and particularly bad news—carries, and which once was personified by the ancient figure of Hermes, or Mercury.
We have assimilated the novelty of the uncanny phenomenon which the telephone represents so thoroughly into our modern economies of taste that we cannot readily see this archetypal dimension, the magic of an ancient deity, in the banal faces of our mobile phones.
And yet I’m reminded of a passage in Proust, in Le Côté de Guermantes (1920-1), where the Narrator recounts the surreal experience of telephoning his grandmother in Paris from the garrison town of Doncières. These were days, Marcel tells us, when the telephone was not yet in as common usage as it is today.
And yet habit takes so little time to strip of their mystery the forces with which we are in contact that, not being connected immediately, the only thought I had was that this was taking a very long time, was very inconvenient, and I had almost the intention of making a complaint. Like all of us these days, in my opinion, she was not fast enough in her brusque changes, that admirable fairy for whom but a few moments suffice to make appear beside us, invisible yet present, the being to whom we might wish to speak, and who, remaining at her table, in the city where she lives (for my grandmother, this was Paris), beneath a sky different to ours, in weather that is not necessarily the same, in the midst of circumstances and of preoccupations we are ignorant of, and of which this being is going to tell us, finds herself instantaneously transported hundreds of miles (she and all the surroundings in which she remains immersed) close to our ear, at the moment when our fancy has ordered it. And we are like the character in the tale to whom a genie, acting upon the wish that he expresses, makes his grandmother or his fiancée appear with a supernatural lucidity, in the midst of flicking through a book, of shedding some tears, of gathering some flowers, right beside the spectator and yet very far away, in the same place where she currently is. We have only, in order to accomplish this miracle, to bring our lips close to the magic horn and call—sometimes for a little too long, I admit—the Vigilant Virgins whose voices we hear everyday without ever seeing their faces, and who are our Guardian Angels in the dizzying darkness whose portals they jealously guard; the All-Powerful Ones by whose grace the absent rush to our sides without it being permitted that we should see them: the Danaids of the invisible who ceaselessly empty, refill and pass to one another the urns of sound; the ironical Furies who, at the moment when we are murmuring a confidence to a lady-friend, hoping that no one might overhear, cruelly shrieks at us, ‘I’m listening!’; the servants constantly irritated by the Mystery, the shadowy priestesses of the invisible, the Young Ladies of the Telephone!
—Marcel Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes (translated by Dean Kyte)
Like all of M. Proust’s exquisite observations, that passage reminds us palpably of his awareness of and presence to the ‘livingness of life’ that easy habit and overfamiliarity with our devices (who haunt us like magickal familiars) have made us blind to.
His ‘personification’ of the inanimate device of the telephone as a classical deity—fairy, genie, Vestal Virgin tending the wires, guardian angel, Danaid, Erinye—to be appeased and placated, a tyrannous servant who carries us the news instantaneously, and yet, despite circumnavigating the globe at the speed of sound, is a household god we still regard as much too slow, reveals the poetic quality of this quotidian object which, in Aragon’s words, ‘does not yet possess it.’
The telephone is too ‘new’ to be classically beautiful, but when, whether through M. Proust’s exquisite attentions to it, or through the cinematic poetry of detaching and framing, it is decoupled from its surroundings and regarded as an æsthetic object in itself, it too is as weirdly noble as a classical statue personifying our human foibles and passions.
I watched Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) a couple of nights ago, not having seen it in many, many years. Much like M. Proust’s vision of the telephone as the thread of the classical underworld, there’s a scene late in the picture where the telephone as symbol becomes the wires of the web which connects the criminal underworld of London, drawing inexorably tighter to entrap hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark).
Suddenly the innocuous sound of a telephone bell becomes a harbinger of betrayal as Fabian realizes that the fellow crook hiding him out has already phoned ahead to the gangster who is hunting him.
In a wonderful piece of acting, beautifully abetted by the lighting and décor, Widmark gently takes the receiver from the hand of his host and gently lays it down in the cradle with that beautiful hollow click the old Bakelite handsets make.
It’s a lovely gesture in its economy, conveying by means of acting, lighting and décor—just as in The Maltese Falcon—the potent yet underlying mood of menace which the big black rotary dial phone, similar to one I feature in my video essay, has as an æsthetic object—the telephone as weapon.
You can’t shoot a man with an ameche and you can’t knife him with one. But that sweet trill of the bell can be a death sentence, as it is to Harry Fabian.
In whatever city Chinatown is located, these Chinese embassies are zones of mystery and ambiguity.
And the tragedy for the flâneur is that these places we know so well know us so little. We are erased from the faces of places as soon as we depart them. We are as unpermanent a mark upon the memory of their streets as a lover’s caress is upon our skin.
And for the flâneur, the Daygamer left over in the labyrinth, whose streets are the dædal of his days, to re-encounter the coin de rue where he passed a moment of amour with some passante and to encounter no trace of her, nor of himself, evokes a sensation not of ‘déjà vu’, but of jamais vu—jamais vécu.
—Dean Kyte, “Chinatown(s)”
The one compromised pleasure that a man used to moving his gams as energetically as yours truly can take in the current, prison-like atmosphere of Melbourne is that forced confinement focuses the flâneur’s gaze inward.
Like Xavier de Maistre, who, in Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), takes the reader on a six-week walking tour around the room of a young officer under arrest in Turin, during the Melbourne lockdown, I’ve been taking flâneries through the footage I’ve shot in the course of my travels.
Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the product of one such prostrate promenade undertaken in bed as I flick through the files on my laptop.
One tires, after a time, of the narrow view afforded onto King street, and in such a blank, impersonal setting, eyes which are used to scanning the streets for occult meaning turn inward. Except in Paris, my introverted intuition has never been stronger than during this time: forced to look within myself for the visual stimulation I would usually seek externally in walking through the world, these days when I write or fool around with my old footage, new syntheses of memories and dreams emerge, new crystallizations of thought and image kaleidoscopically collide in miraculous revelations.
The prose poem I intone in the video above, “Chinatown(s)”, is one such synthesis of dream and memory, one such crystallization of thought and image.
I shot the raw footage on a rainy night in Little Bourke street a couple of years ago. Melbourne’s Chinatown is a particularly photogenic sight to see on nights when it’s raining hard, the red lanterns and the neon signs reflected viciously and viscously by the treacherous slate sidewalks.
Initially, I shot the footage with the intention of using it as the basis for one of the interactive menus on my latest Blu-ray Disc, Cinescritos: Writings in Image & Sound (2018). I set the camera up at a particular site in Little Bourke street which was as near as I could recall to the exact spot where I had tied into an attractive-looking dame whose life—and body—had briefly intersected with mine.
The dark and teary sky weeping on the camera lens, creating kaleidoscopic aureoles around the lanterns, had been intended to silently suggest what that spot means to me now.
But in looking back at the footage from the distance of two years hence, I suddenly recalled that this spot in Chinatown was significant to me for another brief but flaming intersection of bodies and lives: A deux pas behind the camera is Tattersalls lane, where, on another rainy day even further back in time, I had been lugged by a girl I had just as randomly picked up at my ‘office’ in Centre place.
One of the fun things for couples to do in Melbourne is to take a dérive around the city on a rainy winter’s day. Clinging to each other, flâneur and flâneuse, we took a random randonnée in the vicinity of Chinatown, escalating each other all the while.
In the course of our dérive, she steered me into Section 8, one of the more unusual Melbourne bars. It’s a popup bar cobbled together out of shipping pallets and packing containers in a carpark off Tattersalls lane. It’s not an ideal intimacy venue, but on an overcast, drizzly weekday morning when no one else is game to sit outside, you can end up going pretty far with a girl at Section 8—if the vibe between you is right.
We ended up going very far indeed that day—though not, the management will be relieved to hear, at Section 8. The place where she parted from my arms, a block east of Chinatown, was even more exposed than that, and again, the gentle rain that fell upon us as we inhaled each other’s kisses would seem, an eternity of minutes later, like a curtain of tears before my eyes as I watched her walk away forever.
I wrote in another post that I feel, after all my aventures, like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’: every femme is fatal for me, pumping a slug in my heart. And as I watched this one exit behind the curtain of tears that Melbourne lowered over the back-alley stage of our brief encounter, the mystery of the real, the way that what is external to us seems somehow to uncannily reflect the inner landscape of our consciousness, was an appropriate metaphor to mirror my perplexity at her départ.
So there is, as I evoke in the prose poem above, a sense of ‘oneiric encounter’, of sensual threat and promise for me about Melbourne’s Chinatown. It’s a place I tend to avoid in my flâneries, for the unbelievable successes in Daygame I’ve enjoyed there—(like dreams, they seem, in rational retrospect, almost too good to be true)—have left a couple of scars upon my heart.
Those two blocks of Little Bourke street evoke for me the ineffable yet dagger-like douleur au cœur I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
And because of the fragrant odour of sensual threat and promise they evoke, Chinatowns more generally arouse this acute, erotic melancholy in me. The last night I spent in Paris, a girl hauled me back to her apartment in the Chinese quartier of Belleville. I remember standing at her balcony that late summer evening as she showered off the day’s work. Snoop that I am, I was looking across the street—as narrow as Little Bourke street—at the little dollhouse lives of the Asian families in the apartment-house opposite.
Their quotidian reality seemed as sensual to me as the wooden railing beneath my hands, the image of them before my eyes as sensual as the image in my mind of the girl, as magnificent as a bather by Ingres, sudsing her pearl-like belly in a room behind me.
And like her, like the railing, like tout Paris, they too would disappear from before my eyes in a couple of hours.
In the prose poem, I refer to these enclaves of sensual mystery as ‘Chinese embassies’, for there is a sense of autonomy about Chinatowns, in whatever city you encounter them.
They are privileged zones. The Chinatown of a city is like an arcade without a roof: it has all the phantasmagoric characteristics of the ‘dream street’ that Walter Benjamin identified with the passage.
Their friendship arches, like the two polychrome portals which bracket the approach to Chinatown in Swanston and Exhibition streets, serve to delimit the zone of foreign exclusivity just as the entrances of an arcade delimit its exclusivity from the street. Their lanterns hang above the street like the gas-lamps which hang in serried rows around the peristyle of the arcade.
The only difference is that, instead of internalizing the external by putting a roof over the street, Chinatowns externalize the internal, by unroofing the multi-storey rue-galerie of shops, exposing these ‘cathedrals of commerce’, with their naves and side-chapels, to the scrutiny of heaven.
As Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong observe in their journal article “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019), this organization of the street upon different levels, mixing the commercial with the residential, the public space with the private, is more semantically crucial to how we interpret the architecture of global Chinatowns than in other built-up urban areas.
‘While Chinatowns worldwide vary in their histories, configurations, peoples, power, and imagery,’ McDonogh and Wong write, ‘they are invariably lived at street level …. [T]hese street-level interactions mean that our eyes stray upwards only momentarily to arches, signs, or cornices or downward to half-hidden shops….’
Franz Hessel, in his book Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital (1929), declared emphatically that ‘[t]he flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new.’
McDonogh and Wong touch upon the fact (although it seems to me that they miss its fundamental significance) that the verticality of Chinese calligraphy in neon signage attached, over several storeys, to the façades of buildings is key to the unique way in which the flâneur ‘reads the street’ of global Chinatowns.
With a pinch of Japanese and Chinese at my disposal, the lurid neon swooshes of Hànzì leering in the night is a little less obscure to me than to most occidental barbarians. Nevertheless, as a cunning linguist, the pleasure I derive from ‘reading the streets’ of Chinatowns is not unlike the difficult pleasure I derive from attempting to read a book written in a language I am not yet proficient in: the words, sentences and pages formed by the hieroglyphs of all those things Herr Hessel enumerates are not just fragrantly ‘new’, but however bright the Sinograms beam, there are still lacunas in my understanding as vast and dark as the night itself.
You can perhaps intuit why I equate the quotidian yet mysterious banality of Chinatowns with the matter-of-fact mysteries of female behaviour.
This admixture of clarity and obscurity is the exclusive province of those ‘zones of mystery and ambiguity’ we call Chinatowns, and they seem an environmental metaphor for the ‘trade’ (deniable as such because it is plausibly deniable) that women make of love. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the Chinese genius for commerce in a hostile environment locates what is readable by the barbarian with a minimum of interpretation squarely at street level. The exotic mysteries of the Orient, however, are discreetly concealed in storeys above or below.
The intrepid—or foolish—flâneur who ventures into Chinatown must cast his eyes in the direction of his desires, must read the promises or threats opaquely veiled behind façades, just as a man must read a woman’s essential character behind the glittering mask she puts up as a front. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the ‘resolutely ordinary’ character of actual Chinatown streets interacts with our imaginary of them as ‘mythic’ and ‘mystical’ places. Likewise, behind the smoke and mirrors, the prosaic banality of women interacts with our ‘pedestalization’ of them as idols of virtue or of vice.
The ‘walk on the wild side’ afforded by Australian Chinatowns is a pretty tepid flirtation with vice. Brisbane’s Chinatown is now—like the rest of Fortitude Valley—a desert of gentrification. Sydney’s is a very shabby affair. Adelaide’s seems like an appendix to the Central Markets—which is where the real flâneurial action lies.
Only in Melbourne, it seems to me, can some vestigial sense of exotic danger still be experienced in Chinatown, and it is, I think, a function of Victoria’s more intimate and symbiotic historical relationship with China. Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t an ‘historical Disneyland’ of a Chinatown, a ‘World’s Fair’ pavilion set down between Swanston and Exhibition streets; that much of its history has mercifully been erased.
No, it’s part of the historical fabric of Melbourne itself as a nineteenth-century city, a Gold Rush city, with all the cosmopolitan grandeur of fabulous wealth built on the corrupt grasping of international chancers.
Though he makes no direct allusion to Chinatown, in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), the great nineteenth-century novel of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, Fergus Hume situates Little Bourke street as the epicentre of poverty and vice. After a dazzling tour of its big brother (as busy as its proverbial reputation), he leads us into Little Bourke street, whose lineaments we can still vaguely discern in Chinatown to this day:
‘But his guide, with whom familiarity with the proletarians had, in a great measure, bred indifference, hurried him away to Little Bourke Street, where the narrowness of the street, with the high buildings on each side, the dim light of the sparsely scattered gas lamps, and the few ragged looking figures slouching along, formed a strong contrast to the brilliant and crowded scene they had just left.’
San Francisco is another of these ‘nouveau riche’ nineteenth-century Gold Rush cities whose tony veneer of sophistication is like so much gilt over its foundations built on the hard graft and grasping for gold, and like Melbourne, it is famous for its Chinatown.
The symbiotic relationship that the Chinatowns of these cities have to their circumambient urban fabric is, I would contend, a function of the historical symbiosis of Orientals and Occidentals in San Francisco and Melbourne.
Their Chinatowns are more than ‘Eastern embassies’ that have failed to really take root on Western soil: they are, through their Gold Rush heritage, thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of their cities. The piquant charm of the Far East they add to the gaudy neoclassical architecture pining for the respectability of a European capital is part of the peculiar native charm of San Francisco and Melbourne.
The similarity between these two cities separated by an ocean is striking. In his story “Dead Yellow Women” (1925), the quintessential writer of San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, has the Continental Op loosen his laconic tongue just enough to provide this vivid description:
‘San Francisco’s Chinatown jumps out of the shopping district at California Street and runs north to the Latin Quarter—a strip two blocks wide by six long….
‘Grant Avenue, the main street and spine of the strip, is for most of its length a street of gaudy shops and flashy chop-suey houses catering to the tourist trade, where the racket of American jazz orchestras drowns the occasional squeak of a Chinese flute. Farther out, there isn’t so much paint and gilt, and you can catch the proper Chinese smell of spices and vinegar and dried things. If you leave the main thoroughfares and showplaces and start poking around in alleys and dark corners, and nothing happens to you, the chances are you’ll find some interesting things—though you won’t like some of them.’
Swap Swanston for California street, and Little Bourke street for Grant avenue, and the description might almost hold for Melbourne—including the final, stinging remark. For if I have found the femmes I’ve stumbled over in the laneways leading off Little Bourke street to be ‘interesting specimens’, in my bafflement after the fact, when I’ve woken up from the opium dream of their seductive charms, I haven’t liked the feeling that I’ve just had my breast pocket picked.
As an operative of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch, the Op is what we might call a ‘professional flâneur’ in Chinatown, though he would prefer the title he often gives himself of ‘manhunter’. I might occasionally tail some quail in Chinatown, but the Op is a big game hunter, after birds of any feather who are up to their necks in bad juju.
McDonogh and Wong state: ‘Chinatowns as mythic places often are linked to icons … of underground mysteries from film and literature that contribute to the global imaginary of Chinatowns.’ They remark ‘how powerfully Chinatown is an imagined space in popular culture, where truth and fiction mingle and images flow from cinema to history to tourism.’
Which leads me to the greatest depiction of this fluid, feminine zone of mystery and ambiguity in literature and film—Roman Polanski’s flâneur movie par excellence, Chinatown (1974), in which the eponymous, putative setting hardly figures as a physical place.
Chinatown, to which the movie’s hero, Angeleno private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), makes constant, obsessive reference, is the primal scene of sexual trauma from which he cannot escape. Gittes, with his sharp suits, Florsheim shoes, and polished Hollywood manner, may have transcended his days as a flatfoot in L.A.’s Chinatown, but his profession as a ‘bedroom dick’ puts him right back in the torrid zone of fluid, feminine ambiguity.
He tells his paramour, black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), that Chinatown is a place that bothers everyone who works there. ‘You can’t always tell what’s going on,’ he says to this dame who’s as difficult to read as a Chinese newspaper. ‘Like with you.’
When you’re playing spoon with such a dish, it’s best to follow the advice the District Attorney gives his men in Chinatown and do ‘as little as possible’—for, as Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), tells Gittes, while ‘you may think you know what you’re dealing with, … believe me, you don’t.’
Gittes is the flâneur figure-cum-detective: his social mobility gives him a unique droit de cité in L.A., transcending the strata of society from grand monde to demi-monde, allowing him to read the tenor of the streets with the same vertical orientation that the flâneur must use as his compass in Chinatown.
In this world turned on its side, one might almost say that in the all-encompassing diffuseness of the criminal and sexual conspiracy he finds himself drowning in, ‘Chinatown’, for Gittes, is hardly a localized place but a state of doubleness, of recursive multiplicity that constitutes the whole of L.A.—a fluid nexus of evil whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
And, of course, at the heart of Gittes’ fearful yet fascinated relationship with Chinatown, there is his relationship with a woman—or women, rather. ‘Cherchez la femme,’ Mrs. Mulwray philosophically says as they lay abed after exertions, echoing the demands and directives of Gittes’ clients—and other interested parties—that he should ‘find the girl’ if he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.
But like water, there is no bottom to women’s mystery, and the alluring vessel is as arbitrary a beginning or ending point as the portals set over Chinatowns worldwide.
These are some of the thoughts I attempted to express in the video and prose poem above. In these times when contact with the outer world of Melbourne is forbidden to me, I turn my gaze inward and meditate on the mysteries of the women I have known in my flâneries around town, whose painful memories and perplexing dreams I thought I had drowned in the heart of me.
But, like the Lady in the Lake, they are not drowned, merely sleeping, and can be awoken once again by a pure heart.
I’ve made the soundtrack of this video available for purchase on my Bandcamp profile. If you would like to shout me half a coffee, you can download “Chinatown(s)” for $A2.00 and have the pleasure of my dulcet tones intoning the prose poem in your lugs pour toujours. Just click the link below.
Well, the video above does, anyway. The footage—and the story contained in the brief essay I regale you with in the video—comes from a weekend stay in the inner-city suburb of Paddington some eighteen months ago.
I had just finished a housesit in Gosford. I had been invited to stay a couple of nights in one of those beautiful old terrace houses which are so common in Sydney, looking after a couple of dogs for the weekend before I booked back to Melbourne.
The terrace house was a couple-three blocks back from Oxford street, overlooking the Art and Design campus of the University of NSW, housed in an old brick schoolhouse. The terrace was two storeys and a sous-sol, one of those gloriously perverse constructions with Escher-like staircases, mashed in a block of similar houses on a slight slope.
When I have a housesit, I don’t usually go out at night. As a flâneur, the street is my home, and I feel like I spend enough time on it, spinning my wheels ça et là in search of romance and adventure.
But to be so perfectly placed in Sydney for 48 hours was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Night #1 I ambled up Darlinghurst road to Kings Cross for dinner. I was armed with my trusty Pentax K1000 and Minolta XL-401 Super 8 camera, both loaded for bear with Kodak Tri-X film.
My mission was to scout and clout some suitably seedy Sydney scenes on celluloid.
I chowed down in an Italian joint in Potts Point; took a tour of the lighted windows of the handsome homes in that part of town; dipped the bill on the terrace of Darlo as I scratched a dispatch to myself in the pages of my journal; and bopped back towards the pad.
My bowtie drew some comment as I crossed Oxford street, but I managed to make it to the other side without being assaulted. As I was mainlining it down South Dowling street, my eagle œil de flâneur clocked something curious in Taylor street, a narrow, one-way artery branching off the Eastern Distributor.
That’s the footage you see in the video above. My eye was caught by the gentle, teasing undulation of the verdant leaves veiling and unveiling the moon-like gleam of the streetlamp. I set up my camera on the corner to capture it.
I sauntered back to the terrace house and ambulated the hounds, first one and then the other, before we all reported for sack duty. The dogs were staffies, but the older one, Bella, was weak on her pins and only needed to go as far as the corner and back. Buster was young and vigorous, and I was under orders to give him a tour of the whole block before retiring.
I got him on the lead. The eerie, pregnant peacefulness of Paddington after midnight, an inchoate intimation of which I had scoped in Taylor street, symbolized for me in the striptease played by the leaves and the streetlamp, took hold of me as we passed the dark terrace houses.
I tried to imagine the inconceivable lives behind these elegant façades, the way you might take the front off a doll’s house to get a glim of the works inside. I couldn’t do it. The lives of Sydneysiders seemed too rich and strange.
We turned the corner into Josephson street, another narrow, one-way thoroughfare similar to Taylor street. Buster got the snoot down to do some deep investigating while yours truly lounged idly by, doing some snooping of his own.
I took a hinge on the quiet street, attempting to penetrate the poetic mood of this friendly darkness which was in Josephson street too. This ‘mood’ seemed to be general all over this part of Paddington. I patted the pockets of my memory. What did this place remind me of…?
It was then that ‘The Girl’ tied into us, and if you want to know what happens next—you’ll have to scroll up and watch the video essay!
It’s adapted from a couple of paragraphs I scribbled in my journal a couple of nights later, when I was on the train back to Melbourne, meditating on my weekend as a ‘Sydney flâneur’. As the familiar scenes unspooled beside me on the XPT, taking me away from that brief oasis of unexpected experience, a nice coda to my Central Coast ‘holiday’, I got some perspective on what that poetic mood—which possesses me in all my photographs and videos—might be.
Nothing refreshes the flâneur, that restless spirit perpetually in search ‘du nouveau’, more than a fresh city to test his navigatory chops on. My experience traipsing the streets of Paris has given me a navigatory nonchalance in any new urban environment which often astonishes—and sometimes even alarms—people. Put a map in front of me and I’ll betray my bamboozlement by turning it ça et là, but my sense of topographical orientation—the map I make of places in my mind—is very good indeed. I don’t have to be in a place very long before I’m naming streets to locals as though I’ve lived there all my life.
Sydney, however, still poses a challenge for me. One of my readers, James O’Brien, put me on to the trick. According to James, the secret to navigating Sydney is to think of it in terms of hills and Harbour: if you’re going uphill, you’re heading towards the Blue Mountains; if you’re going downhill, you’re heading towards Sydney Harbour.
It’s a neat trick. I wish I had known it during my 48-hour furlough in Paddington.
On the Saturday, I decided to test my mastery of Sydney in a walk which will no doubt leave my Sydney readers wondering how I managed to do it without map or compass, a tent and several days’ provisions, and the assistance of a sherpa.
And indeed, as I look at my parcours in retrospect on Google Maps, the rather incredible breadth of that expedition (which included a few wrong turns) does seem to show up the difference between a ‘Melbourne flâneur’, like yours truly, and a ‘Sydney flâneur’.
A Sydney flâneur, I dare say, would never have attempted it, because the main difference between Melbourne and Sydney is that the former is a much more ‘walkable’ city.
In Melbourne, you can walk quite a distance, if you’re inclined to. To walk from the city to Brunswick, or from the city to St Kilda, is not a wearisome proposition. The streets are logically arranged, the terrain is not fatiguing, and the experience is altogether a pleasurable one.
But to be a Sydney flâneur requires strategy rather than rugged endurance.
To walk from Paddington to Green Square via Bourke street, then back up to Redfern via Elizabeth street, and finally across to Newtown, with no map and nothing but the sketchy guidance of the bicycle lane to orient you, probably strikes my Sydney readers as the flânerie d’un fou.
With time out for coffee at Bourke Street Bakery and diversions for the dispensing of dosh on vintage bowties and button suspenders at Mitchell Road Antiques, how on earth did I accomplish such a trajet in one day with hardly an idea where I was going?
Je ne sais pas. But it was a thrilling experience to walk a city which I don’t think any city planner ever intended to be seriously trod. You may be able to travel through Melbourne without a car, but Sydney?
Though I cheated on the way back, training from Newtown to Central, and bussing from Central to Flinders street, I wasn’t done filing down the heels on my handmade Italian shoes that day.
Night #2, heavily armed with cameras, tripod and paraphernalia, I attempted an even more ambitious nocturnal sortie for a flâneur who isn’t altogether au fait with Sydney. My plan was to make a massive foot-tour to Circular Quay and back.
I struck out along Oxford street and rambled through Hyde Park around dusk. I inhaled a digestif at Jet, in the Queen Victoria Building, while I unburdened myself to my journal. Then I went on the prowl, Pentax primed, tacking stealthily towards Sydney Harbour by way of George street.
There was some sort of to-do in George street between the QVB and Martin place—I forget what, but a lot of revellers and rubberneckers. My cat-like spirit bristled at the noise and lights and I was glad to get clear of them as I stalked north.
There was a full moon set to scale the sky over the Opera House that night. Having purchased a fresh cartridge of Tri-X from Sydney Super 8, I set up my Super 8 camera by Circular Quay, counting off a long timelapse of the Harbour under my breath and remembering how I had once, on a disastrous second date, walked past this spot, arguing about the comparative architectural merits of the Harbour Bridge vis-à-vis the Opera House with a French girl I had picked up at Darling Harbour two days earlier.
We had not been able to agree on that or on anything else that day, and I had been glad to get my luggage out of her apartment, get rid of her, and get on a train back to Melbourne.
It was getting on towards midnight. I retraced my way back to Town Hall via Pitt street, the lunacy of the high moon and the memory of past amours working their poetic powers upon my spirit, inspiring me to squeeze off a shadowy shot with the Pentax here and there.
I was too foot-sore to trudge on to Central. I had been on my dogs all day, so I saved some Tuscan shoe leather and shouted myself a trip on the Opal card at Town Hall station. On the short train ride, tired as I was, I had my senses sufficiently about me to admire the hard, shiny Sydney girls, hot and fast as the slug from a Saturday night special.
Once I had had it in me to cut across their frames and charm even the hardest chica, but I was beginning to think my days as a pocket-edition Casanova were over.
I thought of the girl in Josephson street. Was I getting fussy in my encroaching middle age? Or was I just developing belated good taste?
When I got back to the terrace around one a.m., I got the hounds out for their third and final walk of the day, but lightning did not strike twice: I did not see the girl in Josephson street again.
I hope you enjoyed this reminiscence of one of my flâneries. I received a lot of positive feedback from followers and visitors to this vlog saying that they enjoyed listening to me reading the audio versions of articles I wrote on the subject of the Coronavirus. So I decided to start releasing the soundtracks of my videos—like the one at the head of this post—for purchase via my Bandcamp profile.
For $2.00, less than the cost of a coffee, you can have my dulcet tones on your pod pour toujours. Just click the link below to support me.
As an emerging writer, you gain valuable experience by networking with other writers. Their fresh ways of seeing the world open exciting new directions for your own writing.
As he demonstrates in this prose poem based on the ‘flânograph’ above, Dean Kyte doesn’t just see the world differently, he hears it differently too. And the poetic way in which he describes his personal experiences is idiosyncratic to say the least.
For the Melbourne Flâneur, even moments of banality, loitering in Melbourne at night, waiting for the perfect shot, are freighted with epiphanic mystery…
If you want to take your writing to a new level of mastery, it pays to network with an editor rich in literary experience, one who shares your passion for le seul mot juste because he happens to be a fellow Melbourne author.
And if you’re a writer in French seeking to make yourself perfectly compris dans la langue de Shakespeare, Dean Kyte can provide editorial assistance bespoke to your needs with his Bespoke Document Tailoring service.
Enjoy the augmented experience of this ‘amplified flânograph’. To connect with Dean and experience his bespoke approach to your editing needs, drop him a line via the Contact form.