veulent l’Éternel. Ils disent: pierre
Desire immortality. They say: ‘Stone,
May you live forever...’
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Le livre du pèlerinage (my translation)
A quick and dirty video postcard from your humble servant, currently on tour in the bristlingly cold Canberra. It’s the first time that your Melbourne Flâneur has visited our nation’s capital, and as always, for as voracious and avaricious an aficionado of art as I, a flânerie through the National Gallery of Australia was in urgent order.
True to what I have rapidly (and disconcertingly) discovered to be Canberran form, there’s not a lot going on there.
Apart from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952), the coup de scandale of the Whitlam Government, most of the international collection is jungled up.
But I did encounter a familiar face—albeit at a distance. Behind the velvet rope in a salle being prepared for a future display, I espied Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Buste de jeune fille (1791), which had been passing several seasons in Melbourne, on loan to the NGV.
That delightful demoiselle was one of the first femmes de Melbourne I met when I decamped down there, and she has always remained one of my favourite dames at the NGV, so much so that I photographed her gracious gorge in situ when she was living in our second city.
I think it’s one of my best photographs: a very shallow depth of field and a reasonably tight aperture at a reasonably fast shutter speed gives the little angel the look of swimming in a starry night. You can just see the ghost of her left profile reflected in miniature—hardly more than a memory—on the inside of the glass cage which was this little bird’s home in Melbourne.
So I was surprised to see ma p’tite chérie out of her box and out of the NGV;—surprised, a little saddened to know I would no longer be able to pay an occasional call on her at her hôtel in St Kilda Road, the Faubourg St-Germain of Melbourne, but also happy to see her free and proud as a figurehead on her new plinth, with a pair of Monets off to one side in her new boudoir, and a beautiful Japanese screen by Mochizuki Gyokusen at her back, draped round her bare shoulders like an exquisite kimono.
I’ve always loved this little girl because, like that glimmering ghost of her double profile mirrored in the glass, she is a link for me with the distant dream of Paris, where I first came to appreciate M. Houdon, one of the great French neo-classical sculptors of the eighteenth century. He was one of those aristocrats of talent, a favourite of both the ancien régime and the enlightened philosophes, who was able—narrowly—to keep his head pendant la Terreur.
He served, in fact, the court of Louis XVI, the cause of the Revolution, the Directory of the First Republic, and the First Empire of the Corsican Gentleman, the immortal Lui. Not a bad bit of politicking for an artist in days when being a priest du Beau was not protection enough to keep one’s head and neck together.
Heads and necks, perhaps unsurprisingly, figure beaucoup in this sculptor’s œuvre.
M. Houdon’s best-known for his busts and statues of the grand personages of the Siècle des Lumières, from Catherine the Great to George Washington. He was particularly well-disposed towards literary gentlemen, and his marble portrait of a seated Voltaire is still enthroned in the library of the Comédie-Française to this day, presiding over that section of la Maison de Molière.
The work is entirely characteristic of M. Houdon, who is almost like a photographer in marble: there is an extraordinary vivacity to all the sculptor’s portraits, which are distinguished by their extreme netteté, a precision of line, a sharpness of definition that puts one in mind of a candid snapshot.
The author of Candide is set before us with sparkling modesty, flirtatiously informal as he sits sans perruque in that work, one of several that M. Houdon made from the subject. There is, in fact, a beautiful small bronze bust of M. Voltaire by M. Houdon in the collection of the NGV which testifies to the great satirist’s generosity of spirit. His crooked, close-lipped smile and benevolent, shining eyes make him almost as great an object in my affection as the Buste de jeune fille.
She is indicative of another significant strain in M. Houdon’s œuvre; for in addition to being a lively and reliable recorder des grands hommes, there is another, more domestic side to this sculptor very much in demand and en vogue through successive French political fashions.
Rather like his late contemporary M. Ingres, M. Houdon was not above putting his precious materials and skills to use in making society portraits, including études of the children of his wealthy patrons which are numbered among his greatest works.
Even more beautiful than the Buste de jeune fille is the darling little portrait in terra cotta of Louise Brongniart, the daughter of an architect, which is one of the treasures of the musée du Louvre. There are nearly 40 photos of the bust on the official website of the Louvre showing the terra cotta study of Louise (who would then have been about five years old) from every angle, and which reveal an alertness, a quiet intelligence, and a sense of character which is truly exquisite in a head small enough to fit into your hand.
All the art of Jean-Antoine Houdon, that vivacité et netteté I spoke of, is contained in that charming little head, the surviving shadow of which I see, on this side of the world, in my little friend, the Buste de jeune fille.
Having finally seen ‘the Bush Capital’, Canberra’s not a place I have any burning desire to revisit, and it’s hardly a place worthy of a perky Parisienne. So I may not see her again any more than I may see la petite Louise, or my best-belovèd, le grand Paris, in this life.
So it was good to take a final video souvenir of her ensconced in her permanent home, a shaky shadow of the bright bust I had more accurately captured on film.
If Laura was still unconvinced of la bellezza di Bello, I proposed a flânerie of Hyde Street after dark. Unjekylled du jour, it wore its other face, the fearsomely romantic night, bright, in places, with livid bruises of light.
—Just look at this! I exclaimed, my voice full of the wonder: the night, and the light, and the silence.
I intoned those syllables with the reverence of an incantation, such is the awe that the perfumed music du noir, le 無 du néant, the 哀れness of nothingness, inspires in me.
Like the floating world of a Japanese screen, my friend the mist, that flâneuse affouleuse, wafted coldly down from Dorrigo like powdered gold, sifted by the streetlamps, to encumber la rue with her noisome bruit du néant.
—I’m scared of the silence, Laura said, as I walked her back to her van—or rather, she walked me back at her Sydney pace, her steps beating a tattoo in doubletime to mine, drifting in consonance with the mist.
Like Tanazaki, all that is obscurity excites my soul:—darkness, emptiness, stillness, and silence. I love les nuages, les songes, les ombres, les femmes, la brume, the mist of their mystery, and the conspiracy of their secrets.
—Dean Kyte, “Éloge au noir”
Well, your Melbourne Flâneur’s Bellingenian holiday is fini and I find myself in Sydney. On Friday morning I booked out of Bello il Bello with the deepest regret, but by the kind of uncanny coincidence that can only happen in Bellingen, I found myself thrown together on the train with a friend for whom I had a birthday present packed in my bagage.
Being able to take the train down to Sydney, a city (I say with no offence to my harbour-hugging friends and followers) I was not really looking forward to seeing, with a friend from the landscape I was déchiré to have to leave behind made the sorrow of that parting a little sweeter to bear.
For I discover that the Bellinger Valley still has a hold on my soul, years after I lived in that verdant éméraude entre Urunga et Dorrigo. For as decadent a city-slicker as yours truly, for a fashionable saunterer whose spiritual home is on the avenue des Champs-Élysées, whose pole-star is l’Étoile, and, failing that, is condemned to swan along Collins Street, to find that Hyde Street, the high street of a country town, is as memorable and significant a boulevard in my soul’s restless errance across the hellish plain of this earthly life is no small discovery.
You might recall, chers lecteurs, that I rushed up there this time last year, dodging the dreaded Lurgi when travel was verging perilously on verboten. Coronavirus or no Coronavirus, I had to see a woman I had not seen in years, but whose remembered image was the Dulcinea that had sustained me throughout sundry Melbourne lockdowns.
I feared, as I said in that post, that we had arrived unwittingly at ‘the terminus of love’:—that when I had turned my back on her at Roma Street Station, in Brisbane, several years before, determined not to look back but only forward to the next time I would see her, that this Eurydice was slipping behind me into the darkness of the past nevertheless.
It was a failed mission in many respects, and as I say in the dedication to my book Follow Me, My Lovely… (2016), if I learnt anything from doing Daygame, it was that ‘the hungry wolf never gets fed’: whenever you go after a woman with a desperate purpose, that hunger, that needy desperation, conspires with fate to throw off your vibe, and you end up going home alone.
I did not know whether, in my hunger to see this particular girl, I had voodoo’d my vibe with her, pushing her further away rather than drawing her towards me by that celestial clockwork which synchronizes the intermeshing Ferris wheels of our fates, or whether there was something else up there in that landscape I had arrived too early for. But my powerful intuition—(that same intuition which had dimly whispered to me as I turned away from C— at Roma Street Station, ‘You will never see her again in this life’)—told me that there was still something else in Bellingen for me, still lessons to be learned in that landscape, still a date I was destined for, even if the little gondola I was riding in had somehow gotten misaligned by my desperate vibe last year and I had yet to come into kissing contact with the other party, in the other gondola, I was due to meet there.
If you don’t know Bellingen, this talk of ‘celestial clockwork’ and ‘Ferris wheels of fate’ will doubtless sound like the ravings of a madman, but anyone who has set foot in that town knows there’s something about the vibe of the Bellinger Valley that makes inexplicable magic happen. The valley is sacred to the local Gumbaynggirr people as the place where their women went to give birth. The things that people need to heal their souls, they find in Bellingen, and the valley draws you in and won’t let you go until you’re healed.
Then it pushes you out without ceremony and tells you to get on with life.
So I was desperate to go back to Bello, but the desperation and the hunger were not to see this girl. More, I felt a soul-sickness when I left the place last year, something within me that I had left undone—or had arrived too early for—and which I needed to go back and complete—or experience.
And, certainly, there was the growing sense for me, during my two-week holiday there, that the renunciation of women, the slow whittling away of them from my life which has taken place since I left Bellingen for Melbourne in 2016, is not a done thing yet. I still have karma with the dames that I am yet to fulfil. I began to feel, despite myself, that there was still an encounter to be had, still something in a similar line to what I had experienced with Emma, the Norwegian tourist I took on a nine-hour flânerie of Bellingen, by night and by day, in Follow Me, My Lovely….
That book is only the most significant, the most memorable record of several flâneries de nuit I took with women through the streets of Bellingen in the years when I lived there. And as I said in my penultimate post, if you have never strolled the streets of Bello at night, in the dead of winter, with a beautiful girl on your arm, you have never experienced the most romantic place in the world for such a rotation.
Even in repetition, with another woman, it’s still a singular, rotatory event.
And it was just one of those ‘rotatory repetitions’—the experiencing with another woman of a singular pleasure I had experienced with so many before her—that is recorded in the video and prose poetic essay above.
I’m hard to move these days, having encountered, in my career as a pocket-edition Casanova, every kind of chicanery and con-artistry that women are capable of. And certainly, nel mezzo cammin di nostra vita, feminine beauty has little sway on me anymore. I’ve become hardened, rather dismissive of women since living in Melbourne, holding them in Delonian mépris. As I write in a prose poem on The Spleen of Melbourne CD:
Even smiling women bored him now: he had encountered all their infinite mendacities and deceptions, such that not one could impress him as being an original article.
And this girl certainly didn’t impress me as ‘an original article’—not immediately, at least.
But, as happens in Bellingen, I kept running into her over the course of a weekend, and each time she stopped to talk to me, she told me that she was leaving; that she had overstayed her scheduled stop here by several days, but couldn’t seem to pull herself out of the town’s mystic gravity. But this time she was off; it had been nice to meet me; good luck with the writing, etc., etc….
When our paths intersected at the top end of Hyde Street on Sunday morning (the spot depicted in the final shot of the video—and in the thumbnail), she sounded pretty determined this time, and I fully expected that she meant it.
But then, that evening, as I’m sitting in the Brewery, sipping my Porter and trying to shift some stuff out of the buffer of my memory and into the pages of my journal, positively the same dame turns up to chow down a woodfired pizza before getting on the road. She still can’t buck the Buñuelian forcefield around Bellingen, that strange gravity that draws you in, if you’ve got healing to do, and won’t let you leave until it’s done.
I’m a little annoyed that this girl is interrupting me when I’ve come (after my Parisian habitude of outdoor écriture) to the public venue of the Brewery for a little privacy, to closet myself with my brains, but I put Moleksine and Montblanc aside and go into a mode I’m known for in Bello—that of a sympathetic ear and occasional counsellor, as she asks me if, perhaps, she should stay here, having set out from Sydney on a solo around-Australia van adventure only a dozen days before.
The long and the short of it is that, despite a swearing-off of women I have largely kept to in the last four years, I find myself on my first instant date since before the Coronavirus, and here in what, in æons past, had served me very well as a date venue.
And it’s in this dangerously seductive atmosphere that has worked to my advantage in years gone by that I find myself being seduced. I now have a chance to really scrutinize this girl, to talk at length with her, and I begin to see, to my chagrin, that this instant date with the bespectacled blonde was the date with destiny I had been bound for.
Now, I said above that I’m not much moved by feminine beauty these days. My good friend Hermetrix, down from Brisbane to join me in a spree of intellectual bafflegabbery, also orbed this darb and will testify to the dame’s top-drawness, but in case, dear readers, you doubt my fortitude to resist a fine-framed dame—or in case you think this frill was less than the Ultimate Yelp in looks—let me give you my impression of her vibe:—for it is the vibe of women—their aura, their energy—that I see these days much more than their woo-bait.
With her tortoiseshell glasses and her rather dowdy brown get-up of puffer-jacket and loosely flared hipsters, in her energy, she reminded me of Dorothy Malone’s bookateria babe in The Big Sleep (1946): with her cheaters off and her hair down, she had the kind of cute librarian vibe I would have liked to have gotten stuck behind the stacks with.
The more she said to me, the more she ticked boxes in my mind—in pencil, at least—that I had given up hope of ever seeing ticked after C—, and I began to realize, to my chagrin, that this girl was my ‘type’.
Though I seem to have a lifelong fatal attraction for blondes, when I say that she was my ‘type’, I don’t mean in looks. I mean that her energy was of the sort that I very rarely run across these days—and which can still make me weak.
My ‘type’ is a kind of earthy, humorous, sensual girl, much more extroverted than myself, one who is capable and well-anchored, well-moored to the material plain of this anti-platonic reality I find so challenging to navigate, and who can thus draw me down, out of the æther of abstraction where I soar and sail, like a balloon adrift, buffeted by my thoughts, dreams, memories of the past and impressions of the future, and into my body, into the present.
Like many men, I’m turned off by intellectual women, but it must be a ‘meeting of minds’ with me: like one of these goofy, unworldly professorial types in a screwball comedy—Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, say—I need a Barbara Stanwyck type to trip me up, to get my head out of the clouds and right down to ground-level—even if it means I graze my forehead in the process.
Blake, al pari di molti altri uomini di grande ingegno non si sentiva attrato dalla donna colta e raffinata sia che preferisce alle grazie da salotto alla cultura facile ed estesa … la donna semplice, di mentalità sensuale e nuvoloso….
Like many other brilliant men, Blake was not attracted to a refined and cultivated woman. Rather, he preferred, to the graces of the drawing room, with its broad but shallow sense of culture, … a simple woman of cloudy yet sensual intellect….
—James Joyce, “William Blake” (my translation)
I too love an earthy girl with whom I can have an intelligent—but not intellectual—conversation. I’ve always been stimulated by the sensual wit of a down-to-earth girl who can burst the bubble of my lofty thoughts with some stunningly grounded insight.
In that respect, I’m a lifelong sucker for Virgos. Throw an earthy Virgo at me and watch my airy Aquarian aloofness founder before her demure modesty and meticulous material capability.
I also have a perverse attraction to Leos. For my sins, I seem to attract a lot of Leos into my life. It’s the attraction of opposite signs: in the Aquarian, the show-offy Leo finds what she would like to be; for while it is impossible for a Leo not to seek attention, it is equally impossible for an Aquarian not to attract attention.
And if a woman happens to be a Leo-Virgo cusper, as C— was, it’s like romantic kryptonite to me, as one born on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius. More than most cuspers, both natives are seeking to balance and reconcile very contradictory energies within themselves: the Leo-Virgo is torn between a desire for self-exposure and an equally strong desire to hide her light under a bushel, while the Capriquarian is torn between traditional materialism and revolutionary ideation, which often takes the form of dark dreams and transcendent visions.
Leni Riefenstahl, the adventurous cinematic muse of ‘the Austrian Gentleman’, was a Leo-Virgo, as was compromised collaboratriceCoco Chanel. Leo-Virgos tend to lead extravagant private lives which trip them up publicly—think Bill Clinton.
And if you encounter a Leo-Virgo woman, the chances are that she’s a spy of some variety.
On the other hand, David Lynch and Federico Fellini, with their surreal and disturbing visions, are good examples of the Capriquarian vibe. Everyday mystics living immersed in their vivid imaginations, they’re beguiled by the dark mystery of the bright, wide-awake world. The demonic monk Rasputin was one—as was gregarious gangster Al Capone.
As you can perhaps intuit, what these disparate types have in common is an internal battle between darkness and light, between secrecy and revelation on the one hand, and consciousness and the unconscious on the other. One likes to keep secrets and the other to explore mysteries. It’s therefore a rather unstable relational combination, despite the powerful attraction between their mutually complementary light and dark sides.
Moreover, there is an angle of 150° between the sun placements of these two natives, which is a difficult aspect, neither as hostile as an opposition nor as harmonious as a trine. This inconjunction creates some friction, as their personalities are not quite complementary, although there is a large overlap in their worldviews.
Where the Leo-Virgo and the Capricorn-Aquarian find common ground is in their mutual love of travel, adventure, and elevated conversation, which was the case with C— and I. When I first met her, I actually had a case for her little friend, who stubbornly declined to unzip the gab, while this blonde Leo got continually up in my face with her intelligent talk.
In a case of what John Vervaeke calls ‘reciprocal opening’, by the end of one conversation with her, I had had the ‘meeting of minds’ I so rarely get with girls: we had opened each other up in conversation, adventured down such a wormhole of mutually stimulating ideas together, that it was rather embarrassing to come out the other side and have to pretend there was no attraction there.
And I was forced, by my karma, to repeat that experience with this girl at the Brewery. Though she wasn’t my bête noire, a Leo with a heavy Virgo bias, she resembled C— for me, energetically. Yes, there was a passing physical resemblance between them, as there would be between any two dishy blondes, but it wasn’t really that which attracted me to her.
I often describe my encounter with the material world as being like that of a mole: I’m a blind creature with senses evolved for darkness, for the underground—the underworld—of the unconscious. Hence my insistence on ‘organized crime’ as an organizing theme of The Spleen of Melbourne CD. In my clumsy flâneurial trébuchements through the city, I burrow slowly into the subterranean network of my ideas, impressions, intuitions—the deep mystery that lies on the surface, in plain view. I sense, I palpate in my blind tâtonnements, the hidden structure and clandestine connections of reality without ever seeing the vast totality I am groping slowly through—except abstractly, conceptually, with the mystic vision of my mind’s eye.
It is there I see light and colour, not up here on the surface where you, my readers, live. Dragged out of my depths by the scruff of the neck and dumped on this superficial plain, I’m dazzled by the éblouissement, and just as when you look too directly at the sun, there is for me a ‘darkness at noon’:—everything that is bright and ‘normal’ for you is bleak for me with the dismal darkness of Kurtzian horror.
With senses like these, in the dim light of the Brewery, I was finally able to see this girl, to probe her energy by gentle verbal jousts and parries. Like a blind person seeing another’s face through moth-like pats and taps of their hands, I was able to run mine over the faceted, etheric network of this girl’s form. She looked vaguely like C—, but more than that, she resembled her energy—that exuberant extroversion and earthy, unaffected intelligence that draws me down, out of the paradoxical heights of my depths, into the body, into the present, and will always be a weakness for me with women.
Et son ventre et ses seins, ces grappes de ma vigne,
S’avançaient, plus câlins que les Anges du mal,
Pour troubler le repos où mon âme était mise,
Et pour la déranger du rocher de cristal
Où, calme et solitaire, elle s'était assise.
And her belly and her breasts, these fruits of my vine
Crept, more affectionate than naughty angels,
In to trouble the repose where my soul was cloistered,
In order to shake it from the crystal throne
Where, calm and solitary, it sat.
—Charles Baudelaire, “Les Bijoux”, translated by Dean Kyte
As I said to a good friend who particularly appreciates my translation of this poem, this girl, evoking C—’s kryptonite vibe for me, managed to ‘shake my crystal throne’.
I wasn’t angling to escalate the instant date with her. I was just trying to keep the foundering barque of my reeling ego on an even keel. I was so unprepared for the unexpected discombobulation she had caused me that I did not want things to go any further. But at some point, if she really wanted to know whether Bello was a place worth chucking in her van-tour for, I knew I had to share with her the experience of Bellingen that makes it, for me, the most romantic place on earth: I had to invite her on a nighttime flânerie through the dark and silent streets.
Such a flânerie makes up a sizeable percentage of Follow Me, My Lovely…, and you’re going to read about another two flâneries with a different woman in the forthcoming follow-up, Sentimental Journey.
The rotatory repetition of walking with a beautiful girl, one who evoked the energy of C— for me, through Bellingen at night was the karmic experience I had come back for. I had been too early for it last year, but now I was on-time to meet the encounter that my heart still craves from that landscape, where all the poetic symbols of mystery that beguile my mystic vision meet: in blackness.
We walked along Church Street and turned up Hyde as I escorted her back to her van, and I went as far with this girl as I was prepared to go with her that night: in the spirit of reciprocal opening that our conversation had engendered in me, I tried to share with her the vision that is most precious to me.
As the video above gives some evidence, coming from the noise and bustle of Sydney, she didn’t quite get it. She couldn’t see that invisible substrate of darkness, silence, emptiness, stillness—the 無 of Keatsian negative capability—which is always shining brightly before my eyes as a mandala of transcendent beauty immanent in the bleak and sanguinary hell of the present.
It’s the eternal subject of my writing; it’s the thing I try to capture on film and video (as in the video above, shot minutes after we parted ways, on the very spot where her van was parked), it’s ‘the sound of silence’ I try to capture in my audio tracks, and which I long to be able to share with a woman who might be, as Catherine was for Mr. Blake or Nora for Mr. Joyce, the ‘sister of my soul’, the one who can share the inward vision of heaven and hell—of heaven in hell—that burdens me.
I invited her to hang around and share that bath of silence and shadows with me as I set up my camera and my sound recorder to capture the vivid spectacle of nothingness, but unfortunately, her senses were not evolved to perceive ‘the wonder’ which is the balm of my soul.
But I don’t begrudge her for that. She gave me the experience I had come to Bellingen for this time last year—my final vision, in this life, dim and misty as a cloud, of C—.
If you enjoy sharing my visions, why not consider supporting me in what I do by purchasing the soundtrack to the video below for $A2? Or perhaps share it with a friend.
I was throwing my foulard over my shoulder and buttoning myself up against the bitterness of another Melbourne winter, half-longing that Sunday was Wednesday, when I would be in Bello and practically in a bikini (stripped, as I would be, of the brown overcoat, scarf and gloves), when my cover as a man of the crowd was temporarily blown and I made an éblouissement to the eye of a passing photographer.
A shout-out to Melbourne guitarist and composer Mastaneh Nazarian, one-fourth of the collaborative quartet Kafka Pony, who tied into your Melbourne Flâneur outside the Tin Pot Café in Fitzroy North as I was tying off the loose ends of my toilette in public, preparatory to braving the bitter wind, and managed to break through my brooding mood de bourreau enough to persuade me to lighten up a little and stand still for a few photos.
‘You’re not really that serious,’ she jokingly chided me as she wrangled me into bearing my fangs in a grin.
Il Divino, with his nez cassé, his saturnine, satyr-like features, and his filthy black rags and boots, would go glowering about le vie di Roma, according to Raffaello, alone and looking for all the world ‘like a hangman.’
As I explained to Mastaneh, even when I think I’m smiling, my face seems to naturally wear the mien of an executioner. Being an introvert, I am so mired dans les profondeurs of my dark dreams and deep cogitations, so far from the sunny surface of life on which le reste du monde mindlessly floats, that even when I make an epic breaststroke and launch myself off the ocean floor towards the surface in a display of exuberant extroversion, I still only get half-way, my ideas of extravagant, gregarious gaiety being, it seems, so subtle and leaden that they resemble the deadly seriousness of Keatonian, granite-faced gravity much more than gay levity.
As I joked to her while we walked to the Edinburgh Gardens, following a brief stop-off at her apartment to grab her camera, I noticed that she didn’t invite me up in case I was Jack the Ripper.
I must admit, I have become a deal less tolerant of adventitious tyings-into by interested strangers on the streets of Melbourne since the CV. As a gentleman of the old school, I dislike familiarity and informality as a rule, and I was a little vexed when Mastaneh tied into me in front of the Tin Pot.
She caught me coming out of the café, where I had been plotting the literary crime I intend to commit against the citizens of Melbourne, and I was still half-dreaming of the heroine of my literary thriller, trying to see and understand who this fatal ‘girl of my dreams’ is.
Mastaneh caught me in a state of confusion, a kind of hypnopompic state as I emerged from both the café and the trance-like reverie of introverted intuition in which I do my best writing. Coming slowly to my senses, I was attending with the drunk’s narrowness of focus to the extroverted sensing activities of sorting out my toilette ahead of a long trudge back to Abbotsford in the cold.
My tongue was tied and rather tardy in coming loose as she launched a dozen questions at me, and I was faced with that problem which perplexes the person who habitually lives, as I do, in the platonic realms of thought, and for whom a dandified appearance, howsoever glamorous, is but the least and weakest anchor attaching him to this material reality; to wit:—how to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’
I confess, between the befuddlement of awaking from the waking dream of writing and the regrettable reluctance to allow myself to be abordé by a stranger (a consequence of the Coronavirus), I didn’t make it altogether easy for Mastaneh to get to know me, but all credit to her for breaking down my resistance, getting me to stand still for an impromptu modelling session in the Edinburgh Gardens—and even getting me to smile.
It’s my anecdotal impression that people have become a great deal less pleasant to interact with—even casually—since the Coronavirus, so it was a blessed relief to have an encounter with a stranger in Melbourne that left me feeling richer, not poorer, for the experience.
When I think of the often grating encounters I’ve had with people in Melbourne post-pandemic, full of casual impolitesses towards me, an assumed familiarity and informality with a perfect stranger I find detestable, and a marked decline in people’s social skills and graces after two years of enforced isolation, I’m reminded of the poetic homily which the Toronto radio DJ intones at the end of the Canadian short film Cold (2013):
When I first moved to Toronto, a lot of people told me to be ready for the cold. It’s funny, you know, because you get used to the weather pretty quick. It’s the city that takes a while to warm up to you – the people.
We’re so safe in everything we do, hiding behind head-phones and cell phones, stealing glances on the subway, sticking to what we know, who we know. God, do we ever stick to who we know! Maybe if we didn’t, we’d realize that we’re all a little lonely out here. Each of us is a little cold.
Melbourne is not quite as intemperate as Toronto, but certainly, the metaphor of the city’s weather as an analogue for the froideur of the people transfers rather neatly to Melbourne: each of us has become a little colder in the last two years, not least of all your Melbourne Flâneur, who has become a great deal more guarded in his dealings with people and colder of eye.
Despite the Victorian Government’s rhetoric, staying apart has certainly not kept us together socially, and I make no bones about the fact that, having observed a noticeable decline in people’s social skills during the past two years, the less I have to do with my fellow Melburnians post-pandemic, the happier I generally am.
What a regrettable state of affairs! It really oughn’t to be that way. As the Toronto DJ says at the beginning of Cold:
Well – I just think what makes the city colder is the fact that we’re so busy trying to stay out of each other’s way….
—Devo G., Cold
Although she tied into me awkwardly, my interaction with Mastaneh was perhaps the first pleasant encounter I’ve had with a stranger in Melbourne in two years—the first one where I didn’t wish that my mien de meurtrier was not merely a façade of pre-emptive defence against being bothered by someone who wants to take energy and value from me rather than, as Mastaneh did, generously give it.
Her impromptu approach was a pleasant premonition of what I was to expect later on in the week, for your Melbourne Flâneur is currently ‘out of the office’ and on holiday in Bellingen, that little town tucked away on the North Coast of NSW which is like the whole of Melbourne folded down to two small streets—a street-corner even, the corner of Hyde and Church streets being as legendary in the flâneurial experience of your peripatetic scribe as either Collins or Bourke streets.
If Paris is my spiritual home, my Mecca of memory and flânerie, and Melbourne my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, a colony in the cultural caliphate of that ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, then Bellingen—(Bello to the locals)—is some kind of ‘home away from home’ for me:—it has, like Paris, some spiritual resonance for me, some sympathetic vibration which makes my heart beat more easily here than it does even in Melbourne.
I’ve looked forward to my holiday for almost as long as I’ve been away. Last year I wrote a post, “The Bellingen Flâneur”, in which I recorded the gratifying discovery that, after five years away from this town, which I lived in comparatively briefly and left under a cloud of heartbreak to take up my life in Melbourne, I had merely to take one circuit of Hyde Street to find myself back in the bosom of people who thought well of me—a revelation which I hadn’t at all expected.
A poetic note I wrote in my notebook earlier this year, as I sat on the platform at Macedon Station, says it all:
I’m always searching for Bellingen, I realized, as I strolled beneath the low, lichened branches of Macedon, but I did not find it here. As I passed the welltended hedges, the verdant rues-murs of Victoria street, like Proust before the hawthorns, I had an intimation of something—too dim to be the image of a memory, yet too sharp to be a presentiment—but, like the inverted exposure of a negative, I could not say what it is. Except, perhaps, it occurred to me, it might have been the equation of an analogy: Macedon is to Woodend what Dorrigo is to Bello: beautiful but dead.
Why am I always searching for Bello? What did I leave behind there when I came down here? what life, or vision of life? I don’t know. But if I’m honest, even more than Paris, it seems a paradise lost I’m always searching for, a heart’shome, in these Victorian climes. Perhaps, as much as I hate to admit it, in Bellingen I found a community, a collective of which I was a part.
I ‘hate to admit it’ because, being a dandy and a flâneur, I am necessarily a solitary soul—wolfish, un homme à part. The dandy-flâneur may indeed be Mr. Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’, ‘the type and genius of deep crime’ who refuses to be physically alone. He may find himself, as its guiding spirit, the genius of that ambulating loci, in the amorphous foule as it vomits itself over the sidewalk, but like the old man of Mr. Poe’s tale, the dandy-flâneur, as a man who stubbornly stands outside the hierarchy of bourgeois masculine values, has nothing but an icy, Flaubertian contempt for the crowd he is ‘in’ but not really ‘of’.
He is only ‘of the crowd’ in the sense that Mr. Poe gives in his classic formulation, as being ‘the type and genius of deep crime.’ I have written elsewhere of the dandy’s ‘operative identity’, his ‘cover’ as a spy, a saboteur and æsthetic terrorist, a résistant to bourgeois, capitalistic values who blows up his whole life in an economic Non serviam, detonating himself in a vision of Truth and Beauty in the densest midst of the blandest crowd. The crowd too is part of the dandy-flâneur’s ‘operative identity’, a shield and a cover, a part of his fashionable armature, under cover of which he prosecutes his æsthetic crimes of resistance against the bourgeois madness of technocratic capitalism.
In Bellingen, I made a spectacular explosion every day on Hyde Street in my hat and my suit which, as people have frequently told me since, was an éblouissement which gladdened their eyes. In Melbourne, too, I make the same daily detonation, but the crowd is thicker, denser, more obviously a shield behind which even as conspicuous a dandy as myself can fade into the background of the crowd, an æsthetic terrorist ready to pull the pin of my poetic wit in the midst of this foule.
As a man of fashion, I pose a narrow portal onto immeasurable depths. And as a writer, the best and truest part of who I am lies in another dimension to the fashionable frame that wanders, lonely as a cloud, as a mere man of the crowd.
Melbourne has certainly grown a little colder since the Coronavirus, and I wish I hadn’t become more reluctant to engage with people.
In the days when I used to do Daygame myself, I believed it was the best way to cut across the frame of coldness people wear in the city to insulate themselves against importunate approach. You never know who an attractive stranger is—or could be—until you cut across their frame with a pre-emptive offer of value and warmth.
I didn’t know what a talented person was generously giving me her attention when Mastaneh tied into me. It was only when I was through two days of train travel and safely ensconced in Bello that I was at my leisure to see who Mastaneh was. As a literary man, I can only approve of a band with the good taste to name itself after a writer who was content to be another anonymous ‘man of the crowd’ and subversive saboteur of bourgeois society, and I invite you to check out Kafka Pony’s music on Bandcamp and show them some warmth.
Mastaneh gave me a good lesson as to what to expect when I got up to Bello, and what I missed about the place—that sense of warmth, of community.
I didn’t just shuck my overcoat when I got up here, out of the cold of Melbourne and into the bosom of people who think well of me, despite my singular oddity as the dandy of Hyde Street. I got into the warmth of who I really am when I don’t feel I have to wear the face of an executioner just to get from one end of Collins Street to the other unmolested by energy vampires.
It would be nice if, instead of staying out of each other’s way, we could get back into each other’s way in Melbourne—not with the sense that I have so often experienced it, post-pandemic, of strangers seeking to take energy and value from one another, but in the way that Mastaneh so generously demonstrated—of seeking to freely give a little warmth and value to a stranger.
I intended to shoot this video when I was up in Bello last year, on the actual location where the scene I read to you takes place—the Meeting Place Park in front of the town library, the romantic backdrop to my famous attempt to ‘mash a pash’ out of the Norwegian tourist as it was to some of my other (more successful) efforts at seduction.
But I was having too much fun running the gab with my friends in weighty convos as we solved the problems of the world, so the video above didn’t get shot until after my abortive voyage to NSW was over and I was back in Victoria. You’ll have to imagine Geelong’s Johnstone Park—an altogether more grandiose green space—as standing in for the humble Meeting Place Park while you listen to me lube your lugs with the lubricious details of my adventitious adventure date with la Norvégienne.
Your Melbourne Flâneur goes on tour again to NSW from the middle of June—and hopefully this year, it won’t be an abortive experience!
First stop is Bello il Bello, where I alight on 15 June, so to all my friends in Bellingen, you will find me safely ensconced in my ‘office’, the Hyde café, and holding court for une quinzaine de jours from the following day, that feast day sacred to all writers (particularly those of a flâneurial disposition), the holy Bloomsday.
After that, it’s on to Sydney for another dizaine de jours in early July, and then your Melbourne Flâneur gets diplomatic and makes an embassy to our nation’s capital, running amok among the Canberran architecture for two weeks.
But to return to the raconteurial anecdote I unpack in the video above, the escalation of la belle Emma to the bedroom was the most memorable and significant of several such flâneurial encounters I had in the couple of years I lived in Bellingen.
As I say in the video, there are a few places in the world more romantic than Bellingen at night—particularly in the dead of winter, and the Meeting Place Park, which more than once served me as an impromptu boudoir for entertaining some lady-friend met fugitively, always had a resonance of Paris for me.
Indeed, even alone (and there were certain evenings when I went and huddled in the park for an hour or so, enjoying the triste twilight of winter), the flâneur in me could evoke from the trio of lamps in the Meeting Place Park and the façade of the Memorial Hall across the street the memory of the humble little neighbourhood parks of Montmartre—the one in the place Constantin Pecqueur (since renamed the square Joël Le Tac, after a hero of the Résistance), or the square Carpeaux, places I would go to sit on a summer evening before dinner.
At the risk of ‘Byronizing’ Bellingen and having a foule de touristes descend upon it, I’ll go so far as to make the bold claim that, on a winter’s night, nowhere in the world—not even my best belovèd Paris—is as romantic as Bellingen when you have a girl on your arm—particularly when she’s a beautiful Norwegian tourist with dark hair, pale, delicate features, and a smile as inscrutable as la Gioconda’s.
And without wishing to inflate my credentials as a pocket-edition Casanova too greatly, I’m no stranger, as a flâneur and a former Daygamer, to the peculiar pleasure of playing cicerone to some girl I’ve just met, conducting her on an epic escalation that ends in a place and an experience I could not have anticipated when I first tied into this attractive étrangère on the street, this passante I heroically resist passing by but choose to approach.
I’ve given you, dear readers, some hints, some teases of a plot I’ve been plotting since our second lockdown in Melbourne, when the only flâneries I could take were through memory and imagination, transmuting some of the experiences I had had doing Daygame on the streets of Melbourne into my first substantial work of fiction in about fifteen years.
And though I hesitate to tell you more about the literary crime I am plotting, which emerges as an off-shoot of The Spleen of Melbourne project, suffice it to say that, like Thomas Hardy re-entering ‘the olden haunts at last’ in one of my favourite poems, “After a Journey”, I have had cause and occasion in the last three months to re-enter ‘the dead scenes’ of my Melburnian amours and attempt to track, digital sound recorder in hand, the ‘voiceless ghosts’ of myself and some girl I briefly loved lingering in the traces of these places.
Last Tuesday night, for instance, I was up till after 2:00 a.m. in the city, re-tracing with my sound recorder the steps of a flânerie I had taken with a Canadian lady who had tied into me, liking, as she did, the cut of my dandified jib, from a certain cocktail bar in Swanston Street to a point, in Elizabeth Street, which ended in enigma and mystery for me.
I have written elsewhere on this vlog of the immense pleasure that nighttime flânerie gives me when I go out, analogue camera in hand, to bag some image of beauty that has caught my eye in other wanderings, how the walk takes on an intoxicating momentum of its own, leading me to other prospects, other potential images. In the last three months, I have found a similar, but even more rarefied pleasure in retracing my night walks through Melbourne with women using the sound recorder.
There’s a fair amount of ‘method acting’ involved even in the passive process of recording: four times between midnight and 2:00 a.m. last Tuesday, I retraced the steps I had taken, arm-in-arm, with la Canadienne. I was reliving in my memory what I had actually experienced with her and simultaneously imagining myself in the fictional version of our flânerie, which is altogether more surreal and sinister.
By the third time I set off from my ‘first position’ and passed the security guys in front of The Toff in Town, treading stealthily so as to get as little sound of a solo set of footsteps on the recording as possible, they must have thought I was some fou and wondered what the hell I was up to.
One woman with whom I shared a few beautiful flâneries de nuit in Melbourne used to call me ‘Puss in Boots’ due to my dandified prowling. The nickname confused me at first. Dredging up a dim memory of the fairy tale from childhood, I asked her: ‘Wasn’t he some kind of con man?’
Bien sûr, and she was savvy enough to intuit my Machiavellian admiration for these artists who are, as David W. Maurer calls them in The Big Con (1940), ‘the aristocrats of crime’. But more than that, she was savvy enough to tell me, in that intuition, what my ‘totem animal’ is: at night, I am the cat, that furry flâneur who is the urban hunter of big cities, as aristocratic a prowler as the little black panther who treads stealthily through Saul Bass’ title sequence to Walk on the Wild Side (1962).
I can’t wait to get up to Bello and do some night shooting. All the time I lived up there, the magic of midnight in Bellingen seemed so much a part of life it never occurred to me to record an instance of it. When I was up there last year, on my final night, loitering in Church Street after even No. 5 had closed, I knew I had had too much fun—I had been so run off my feet with it, with my Proustian obligations to be the literary social butterfly of Bellingen, that I had forgotten to haul out my camera even once to capture the ‘dead scenes’ of all my amours.
If you would like to read how it turned out with la Emma, you can purchase a personally inscribed and wax-sealed copy of Follow Me, My Lovely… below.
“Follow Me, My Lovely…” [softcover]
Personally signed and sealed by author. Comes with custom bookmark. Price includes worldwide postage.
“Follow Me, My Lovely…” [eBook]
PDF viewable on any device. Portable and easily stored.
Worldwide delivery within 24 hours.
I’ve got a year’s worth of film cooling in le frigo, and a number of Super 8-based videos either finished or in the works, with more to be shot throughout the year.
Today’s video comes from my rather abortive voyage to NSW last year. I brought one cartridge of Kodak Vision3 50D with me when I booked out of Melbourne last May, beginning what turned out to be a five-month dance of dodging and weaving the Coronavirus as it chased me from Wagga to Coffs, and finally ran me to ground, forcing me to take cover in Newcastle.
Thus began the uncanny experience of spending three-and-a-half months locked down in a place so distant in memory that, for all practical purposes, I had no experience of Newcastle to draw upon. The unfamiliar streets were like a hedge maze to me: the ten-kilometre rule came into effect two days after I arrived, almost instantly narrowed to five, which meant that half of Newcastle was soon outside my radius of legal flânerie.
Before the snap lockdown was announced, I had had one opportunity to get my bearings and see what the place looked like. To be in a city I didn’t know and couldn’t explore was disorienting. I got to know about a dozen streets in Shortland, Jesmond, Lambton, and New Lambton well. Those were the vectors of the hedge maze I had cause venture down with regularity as I hoofed it to the IGA, sometimes even to Officeworks.
Beyond that, I knew nothing of where I was for a good two-and-a-half months. I felt like I was in a prison of fog.
It was only towards the end of October that I had a chance to look around me and see what had been in darkness, but being excluded from most places I should have liked to enter, and fatigued by the distances between things in Newcastle (which is just barely ‘walkable’ and strained even my prodigious appetite for ambling), I hardly stirred myself to enjoy my freedom.
It was only on the Sunday before I was due to risk another cross-border dash, getting home to Melbourne while the getting was good, that I decided to try and fill in some of the map of downtown Newcastle, and to use up my cartridge of film on a venerable advertisement for ETA peanut butter I had espied on my very first day.
The film above is not that film, which is still in production. I managed to get material for three films off the reel of 50D, and the video above is the first one, taken as I was wandering randomly around Cooks Hill.
Drifting up Laman Street, I found myself confronted by the elegant pillared and pedimented façade of the Newcastle Baptist Tabernacle. I was taken by the photogenic contrast between the plastered façade in Laman Street and the red brickwork extending behind it on the Dawson Street side.
The sky was a brilliant blue that day—and the sun was brilliant also, a combination not only perfect for Super 8, but perfect for 50D, Kodak’s finest Super 8 stock, designed specifically for outdoor shooting in natural light. There was no traffic in the street—not even foot traffic, which was also perfect since, as you know by now, I love shots of empty places.
The brilliant blueness of the sky, the pitiless yellow of the sun, the fatigued feeling before the beauty of this neoclassical pile that a man might have felt in the jardin des Tuileries the day after the Terror had ended:—that’s what I felt before the Baptist Tabernacle as I crouched down and set up my camera.
I was exhausted with life, overcome with the beauty of architecture and of nature in this city I was only now able to see in my last hours there, and bitter at my fellow man for keeping me out of the ‘insides’ of this city I couldn’t properly explore;—for one half of flânerie is walking, and the better half is loitering, or loafing, on some café terrace.
That’s the sense of the prose poem accompanying the image of the Tabernacle: the bourgeois madness of the Coronavirus had died down temporarily, but still I felt as though I was in the eye of the storm, and outside that sanctuary of peace, beyond the ambit of Newcastle I was permitted to see, that area of blue sky and yellow sun, the dark clouds were already gathering for another round of insanity.
I set up the self-timer on the camera and took one shot. Two people walked past the church and a car came by, spoiling the shot. After taking a backup shot with my trusty Olympus Stylus, I decided to spend another ten seconds of precious film risking a second shot from the same set-up.
And then the miracle happened.
Three children cycled past the façade of the church, interrupting the perfect emptiness of my shot, but in a way I was grateful for. Did kids ride bikes—unaccompanied by an adult—these days?
It was completely unexpected, strangely uncanny, and, as you can see, on Super 8, there’s an innocence and a nostalgia to the kids’ cameo appearance as they cycle through my frame, as though they come from another time, before helicopter parents and too much ‘screen time’ had atrophied a generation’s legs and love of the outdoors.
My heart gasped when it saw them, and I knew the shot would be a good one, worth the interruption: they were the antidote, the soupçon of optimism to leaven my feeling of fragile exhaustion with life, my éblouissement at the dazzling beauty of nature and architecture, indifferent to the frenzy of madness which had emptied Newcastle’s streets for months, and the bourgeois cruelty of people keeping me out of galleries and cafés.
I had, in my fine, my ‘image of happiness’, that shot at the beginning of Chris Marker’s flâneuristic documentary Sans Soleil (1982) which cannot be paired with anything else, and is self-evidently an image of happiness for the creator but cryptic as a koan to the rest of us.
The film—the English version, at least—opens with a quotation from Eliot: ‘Because I know that time is always time / And place is always and only place’. Then there is blackness—and a woman’s voice. ‘The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965,’ she says. We see the children walking along a country lane, looking at the camera in a way we will see repeated many times throughout the movie: it is a gaze which is both timid and direct, one that reveals both flattery and annoyance at the attention directed toward it. Then, once again, there is blackness.
‘He said that for him, it was the image of happiness, and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked,’ the woman continues. As if to demonstrate the point, we see a brief fragment of film that is utterly incongruous with the preceding image: a fighter jet descending into the bowels of an aircraft carrier, just as we descend back into the same airless blackness when the shot ends. The woman says: ‘He wrote me: “One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”’
Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil is a travelogue. But M. Marker, the consummate global flâneur, is a time traveller, and his dispatches come to us from that foreign country L. P. Hartley called ‘the past’. In some critical orthodoxy, the documentary film is supposed to ‘show us the world’, as if it were holding a mirror up to nature. Sans Soleil certainly does that, but it reflects back another continuum of thought and experience, as if M. Marker were a traveller into a parallel universe—the first filmmaker to take a camera through Alice’s looking glass. ‘What we call the past is somehow similar to what we call abroad,’ M. Marker once remarked. ‘It is not a matter of distance, it is the passing of a boundary.’
For anyone who has not seen a Marker film, their varied effects may be compared with that obtained in reading the journal of some eighteenth-century traveler: Johnson in the Hebrides, Rousseau’s promenade through his own sensibility, or Goethe’s visit to Rome. The work makes no attempt to be cinematic or literary; it is based, instead, on the assumption that a cultivated man should express himself in words or in film.
We never see Sandor Krasna, the globetrotting cameraman whose images enliven the screen, and whose letters are read and commented on by the anonymous woman who narrates the film (smoky-toned Alexandra Stewart in the English version). An inveterate flâneur, Krasna travels the world seeking images, those souvenirs which are the tangible records of memory for a filmmaker, but he is drawn most often to Japan and Africa—‘the two extreme poles of survival’, as he calls them.
In Japan, he sees his own images of civil unrest transformed into the pixelated vortices of another reality by his friend Hayao Yamaneko, who creates digital graffiti with his image synthesizer, ‘The Zone’, named after that region in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) in which a liminal boundary is passed. And in the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, Krasna ruminates on the failure of revolutionary politics, which collapsed after the assassination of guerrilla leader Amílcar Cabral, who was murdered in 1973 during his crusade to liberate the peoples of Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands.
In San Francisco, he scouts the locations used by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958), reworking the film’s story of obsessive love into a twisted spiral of time and memory. The visit inspires Krasna to return to Iceland to scout out locations for his own movie, a Borgesian science fiction tale about a man with total recall who travels back in time from the distant future to learn what it was like for human beings to forget. Krasna’s own journey ends back in Tokyo with the filmmaker watching his images filtered through Yamaneko’s Zone, the digital distortion of re-creative memory already altering the molecules of celluloid ‘truth’.
‘In place of fiction’s access to “a world”,’ Bruce Hodsdon wrote in his notes accompanying the State Library series, ‘documentary claims to provide access to “the world”, a claim for special status, even moral superiority….’ Where Sans Soleil earns its special status is in its blurring of the distinction between the definite concepts we have about cinema’s ability to represent the world either as fact or as fiction.
M. Marker shows us ‘the world’ in all its solidity and the immutability of objective fact, but he filters ‘the world-as-fact’ through the visceral, subjective prism of ‘a world’, the hero’s. To use the word ‘hero’ to describe a personage in a documentary might seem a little problematic, since this is a term we usually reserve for fiction, but Sandor Krasna, it transpires, is a fictional construct, his letters and diaries (and even the anonymous woman’s commentary on them) literary inventions of the director himself. Like ego and anima, these two ‘characters’ are fictionalized aspects of the director himself, and carry on, at the level of fiction, a coded communication between themselves that comments upon the filmmaker’s actual experience.
I’ve had the good fortune to see Sans Soleil twice on a big screen, and watching the documentary, therefore, is rather like having an out-of-body experience: there is an ectoplasmic, ‘floating’ quality to the images and the logic of reverie to their unfoldment which is quite unique in cinema, but highly characteristic of Chris Marker’s flâneurial style of filmmaking.
Divested of our bodies and of our individual egos, parties to a conversation between M. Marker’s conscious and unconscious minds, we are at once of the world and in a world, citizens of a soul without borders. The English translation of the title, taken from a song cycle by Modest Mussorgsky, is Sunless, as if in the darkness of the cinema we become mole-like creatures, groping blindly toward some subterranean reality. In truth, watching the film for the first time, I felt as if I were at last feeling the sun’s rays upon my face.
At its essence, Sans Soleil encapsulates its own purpose and meaning early on in a digression on Sei Shōnagon, the eleventh-century lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress Teishi who composed The Pillow Book, one of the pillars of Japanese literature. ‘Shōnagon had a passion for lists,’ the narrator explains to us, almost certainly speaking on behalf of M. Marker himself, albeit through Krasna. ‘The list of… elegant things; distressing things, or even of things not worth doing. One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of things that quicken the heart. Not a bad criterion, I realize when I’m filming.’
Shōnagon-sama’s criterion is the one constant in an endless, disparate catalogue of cats and owls, people and places, ideas and images, a flânerie through the exquisite sensibility of M. Marker, who was as sensitive and witty a soul as Shōnagon-sama herself. Nothing so much as the foreignness of travel makes us aware of what we truly value at home. Sans Soleil is itself a meditation on those things that quicken M. Marker’s heart, an hommage to them—like the people he films gathered to pray for the souls of broken dolls at the Temple of Kiyomitsu, or the distorted images so prized by Yamaneko (‘“Pictures that are less deceptive,” he says with the conviction of a fanatic, “than those you see on television”’).
Mr. Thomson’s remark that ‘a cultivated man should express himself in words or in film’, goes to the heart of this concept I call ‘flâneurial cinema’. M. Marker exemplified the ‘cultivation’ of the flâneurial filmmaker. In a previous post, I wrote that there is a certain dandysme in the nature of the flâneurial filmmaker, a kind of ‘ostentatious modesty’ to his idiosyncratic visual style. I don’t know that Chris Marker was ever a dandy in the proper sense of the term, being too undercover an assassin of images to ever affect a Bondian devotion to deportment, but the immense cultivation of the literary man, the dandistic finesse de l’esprit, the erudition and urbanity of his intellect, was certainly there—remarkable in a man who devoted himself to mechanically reproduced images.
In fine, if M. Marker had not the dandy’s passion for fashion, he had at least the flâneur’s breadth of spirit, a literariness borne of ‘literateness’—and the literacy de l’homme de lettres is none too common a quality among les hommes du cinéma, that rare breed of men—almost as rare as dandies themselves—who devote their lives à l’écritures des images.
Observateur, amateur: M. Marker was a collectionneur of the crowd, whom he gathered, in its multiplicity, through images. He wrote with the camera as few are capable of doing, having both the breadth of spirit and the force of a cultivated, literate vision to reach through the dead eye of the machine and impress himself, as a sovereign auteur, upon les images qu’il cueillait. He himself was the ‘kaléidoscope doué de conscience’, and consequently he made this ‘box for transporting images’, as John Berger calls the camera, a ‘kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness’ in its turn.
M. Marker once said, ‘I claim for the image the humility and powers of a madeleine,’ referring, of course, to the scallop-shaped cake from which the whole edifice of M. Proust’s cathedral of memory springs. But not only to that, for if M. Marker is literate enough to pass among the cognoscenti as a thoroughgoing Proustian, he is equally well-read in the literature of images, and as his CD-ROM Immemory (1998) showed, he had wit enough to perceive that the cake by which M. Proust found the possibility of regaining lost time was consubstantial with the woman through whose image Mr. Hitchcock lost his impossible dream of love in the spiral of time.
In the image is contained the atom of memory, and in memory the comprehension of time. ‘I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining,’ Krasna/Marker says in Sans Soleil.
At one point he recounts a dream which becomes the dream of all of Tokyo, its mass transit system acting as the corridor along which image passes into memory. ‘The train inhabited by sleeping people puts together all the fragments of dreams, makes a single film of them –the ultimate film,’ he rhapsodizes. ‘The tickets from the automatic dispenser grant admission to the show.’ We watch as people rush by the ticket collector in a torrent, passing through the portal into dreaming: a train moving through the arteries of Tokyo like a thought along the neural pathways of the brain.
There is a sombre grey light to the montage of closeups that follows, showing the passengers caught in various attitudes of rest and reflection. This grey light gives their journey almost a Stygian quality, as if they were crossing a river whose two banks were life and death. As they sleep, oneiric snatches of anime and Japanese horror movies insert themselves into the montage: one young man dreams he is the hero (or perhaps the heroine) of a samurai movie; a salaryman flashes on a private pornographic fantasy, while the mind of the woman beside him remains curiously blank.
In this way, M. Marker demonstrates how an image, like a crumb of petite madeleine, can become freighted with the personal significance of a souvenir. The images are like windows in the walls of the train, but these windows don’t look out, they look inward at the passengers. The boundary separating definite objectivity and indefinite subjectivity has been made so porous by the flux of images that all we accept as solid and immutable about the world has become an osmotic partition through which image takes on the appearance of memory, just as the sleepers on the train take on the appearance of the dead in repose.
During a ceremony for children held at the Ueno Zoo in memory of animals who have died during the past year, Krasna meditates on the way our perception of images informs our views of life and death. ‘I’ve heard this sentence: “The partition that separates life from death does not appear so thick to us as it does to a westerner.” What I’ve read most often in the eyes of people about to die is surprise.’ Marker inserts a brief piece of file footage into the sequence showing a giraffe gambolling across the African savannah. ‘What I read right now in the eyes of Japanese children is curiosity, as if they were trying in order to understand the death of an animal to stare through the partition.’
We too stare through a partition, but our partition is the cinema screen, and it serves to insulate us from the death of the giraffe, which is shot and killed by a hunter, and then preyed on by vultures. Not surprisingly, the first part of the dead animal they feast on is its eyes.
These vultures are like entities from the other side of that partition which separates life from death and real from reel, communicating directly with us from beyond the screen, warning us against trusting too much to our eyes, which are deceived by images, just as Krasna’s friend Hayao has stated. ‘I returned from a country where death is not a partition to cross through but a road to follow,’ Krasna concludes.
As virtual flânerie, Sans Soleil is such a restless, peripatetic film that I remember seeing it for the first time and not being sure where that road was going to take me. And yet, as if by some magical intuition embedded within its labyrinthine, spiral structure of random randonnée, I wound up at the very place I most wanted to be, the setting of one of my favourite film.
‘He wrote me that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo,’ the woman tells us. Few movies are so thoroughly immersed in their locales as Vertigo is immersed in the city of San Francisco, and few movies are so adept at triggering the things which quicken my own heart as Sans Soleil.
I remember that when I first saw the screen fill with the blood-red suffusion of Saul Bass’s famous title sequence, I felt that innate tranquillity of a traveller who has, at last, arrived at his destination—the San Francisco so scrupulously evoked in Mr. Hitchcock’s movie of course, but also in the private place it occupies in my heart. It is the documentary’s most perfect sequence: a beautiful extended video essay avant la lettre in which Marker-as-Krasna tours the locations used by Mr. Hitchcock, re-imagining the movie’s themes of obsessive love and the resurrection of the dead as an ode to time and memory.
We see contemporary San Francisco juxtaposed with stills from Vertigo as Krasna drives the hilly streets of the Bay Area, just as James Stewart once tailed Kim Novak. At the Palace of the Legion of Honor, he sees time trapped in the hair of the portrait of Carlotta, ‘… so carefully coded within the spiral that you could miss it, and not discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.’ And at San Juan Bautista, he runs beneath the arches of the plaza at the Mission, just as Madeleine does when she runs toward her death, and re-imagines Scottie as ‘time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it, inventing a double for Madeleine in another a dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him….’
Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve (1921-2012) was the Ulysses of the twentieth century, carrying a camera on his shoulder just as the cunning voyager of antiquity once carried an oar, searching for a place to settle. Like Ulysses himself, the flâneurial M. Marker was a part of all that he had met in his travels from Siberia, to Israel, to Cuba, and beyond.
Although his documentaries are justly famous among cinephiles, M. Marker’s best-known work is, paradoxically, his only foray into fiction, the short film La Jetée (1961). Referencing Vertigo both overtly and covertly, it is about a time traveller from post-apocalyptic Paris whose future depends upon him falling in love with an image from his past. Composed almost entirely of haunting black and white stills, it encapsulates so much of Marker’s unique vision even as it diverges from it.
But Chris Marker is not just a promise of a world to come. Perhaps his physical existence in the era of Hitler, Hiroshima, Castro, and the new Israel is simply a nexus of ideas that reach back and forward in time. Marker is here, with us, but perhaps he is a man of the twenty-second and of the eighteenth centuries. Of course, it is easier to look for men who resemble Marker in our past than estimate where he stands in the future. It is quite possible that he is an ordinary enough fellow in the twenty-second century, for he does not carry himself with the self-importance expected of filmmakers in our present age. His films see nothing exceptional in an inquisitive traveler sending back films about the lands he has seen and the thoughts he has had while there.
—David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
They say that one should never meet the people one admires. That’s relatively easy for me: feeling, like M. Marker, a man adrift in his century, almost every artist I admire is dead; and like dead stars, their fading light calls me back to another century, another time when a man could be ‘cultivated’, and, in expressing himself with cultivation, would not go misunderstood by his contemporaries.
But if I could have met one of the few artists living in my own lifetime whom I admire, I should have liked to have met M. Marker one afternoon in Paris in 2009. His films—not least of all Sans Soleil—influenced me as a writer long before they ever exerted the influence of style upon me as a filmmaker.
Through M. Marker and Sans Soleil, I was introduced to Sei Shōnagon, and through her to Murasaki Shikabu, discovering the pleasures of ancient Japanese literature. Those two ladies, with their proto-flâneurial concern for the small thing, the overlooked incident, the decorous, poetic touch, have exercised as great an influence upon me as a writer as James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and I owe my acquaintance with those ladies entirely to M. Marker.
If I could have met him one afternoon in Paris on that odyssey in flânerie he had, in part, led me to as a film critic and could have thanked him for the introduction, that would have been honour enough.
But when I finally began to make my own videos and, later, films like the one above, when cinema became more than academic for me and I had passed, like MM. Truffaut et Godard, that reverse apprenticeship which only applies in film, from the theory of literary critique to the practice of discovering just how one produces cinematic effects on no budget at all, M. Marker was one of the half-dozen guiding lights for me in personal cinematic style.
L’avenir du cinématographe est à une race neuve de jeunes solitaires qui tourneront en y mettant leur dernier sou et sans se laisser avoir par les routines matérielles du métier.
The future of filmmaking belongs to a new race of young loners who will sink their last penny into shooting without letting themselves be tied down to the worldly routines of work.
M. Bresson might there have been describing M. Marker, who maintained a youthful curiosity about the means of multimedia production to the end of his days. Certainly, as I choose to translate it (and there are a couple of ways his typically cryptic koan can be read), M. Bresson is prophetically describing a ‘cinematic dandy’—a broke and quixotic idiosyncrat, rich only in style, who throws himself bodily into the lucre-devouring art-form, living only for it, for the expression of himself through it, willing to pawn the tailored shirt off his back for the expensive element.
If it isn’t clear by now, there’s a fundamental, an essential loneliness in flânerie, a solitude to the practice of the drifting hunt for beauty that cannot be shared, and which thus makes it cognate with the artistic practice of writing. And likewise, the solitude of flânerie makes it as antithetical to the collaborative, compromised and capital-intensive seventh art as literature is.
M. Marker is almost unique among filmmakers in that he took the lonely practice of writing and somehow transferred it to the practice of making a film: all those tedious little chores of detail, divvied up by department because of the sheer, encyclopædic mass of them, M. Marker took upon himself—the absolutely essential ones at least, getting rid of the rest. As Mr. Thomson said, he never allowed himself to become ‘rigidly professional’, and if there is a certain homely quality to his films—even Sans Soleil, an epic of production values by his one-man standards—it is because he took the amateur æsthetic of the home movie, the film-souvenir and made a virtue of the solo effort.
He was truly the auteur of his films, as no other director can quite claim to be. And as a writer, a filmmaker manqué endlessly seduced by images, I respond with fraternal sympathy to this photographer and filmmaker who seemed to be as much in love with words as a writer. Among his many adventures—wartime résistant, Marxist provocateur—M. Marker was briefly a writer after the war, a one-book novelist of no renown—un écrivain manqué, one might say, a poet who just missed his calling, as if he narrowly slipped into one of those Borgesian parallel times depicted in La Jetée.
In the alternate universe we exist in, someone put a camera in his hand instead of a pen, and away the legend of Chris Marker went, our man in Havana, our man in Peking, our man in Siberia and Israel—our man everywhere, a spy behind his Minox, leaving no trace behind him, like a grin without a cat.
The process of making films in communion with oneself, the way a painter works or a writer, need not now be solely experimental. Contrary to what people say, using the first-person in films tends to be a sign of humility: All I have to offer is myself.
He’s a constant inspiration to me as both a writer and a filmmaker. Flâneurial cinema is about this lonely, literary détournement du spectacle that is ‘cinema’, so uncultivated an art-form. There are no special effects, nothing but the magick of actuality, of real places undergoing the imperceptible metamorphosis of real time.
It’s about a singular, cultivated sensibility expressing itself in words, images, and sounds, writing with light and movement, but also with stillness, silence, and darkness. And it’s about trying to get cinema to do its opposite, to get that magick kinesis out of mu, out of the ‘nothingness’ of actuality, of unspectacular ‘isness’.
Flâneurial cinema is, therefore, a kind of ‘amateurish maîtrise’ of the elements of cinema—shooting, editing, recording and mounting sound—in such a way as to preserve the homely intimacy, the mono no aware, of memory, some of the ‘roughness’ of a sensation or experience re-membered in a film-souvenir.
For me, M. Marker exemplified, avant la lettre, this concept of flâneurial cinema I have coined, and which I am seeking every time I crouch down behind my camera. We are two artists whose violons d’Ingres are precisely the inverse of each other’s medium of expertise, and in some sense, I feel I am carrying the torch for M. Marker, continuing a project he began naïvely, without self-consciousness, in film, but which requires another, more sentimental soul, a more cerebral and literary mind, to codify as a definite æsthetic and a distinct branch of the art-form we both love.
If you would like to donate a few sous to the film fund and keep me in the expensive element, consider purchasing the soundtrack of “Quelle belle journée!” below.
Today The Melbourne Flâneur comes to you from Eltham, a charming suburb on the northeastern outskirts of Melbourne where urbanity begins to shade into rusticity.
I love Eltham. It’s got a good bookshop in the main street, a multitude of nice cafés in which to write, and it was the memorable scene of your Melbourne Flâneur’s last great seduction before he retired from Daygame, so its streets have the vivid imprint of potent memories embedded in them for your pocket-edition Casanova.
But rather than reflect on that, in the video above I lounge with all my flâneurial indolence in Eltham’s gilded greenery (reminiscent, when viewed through heavily squinting eyes, of a Parisian park) as I read you a few pages from my first book, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012).
That’s the non-fiction novel where a very thinly disguised avatar for yours truly (one who is hardly more than a floating consciousness with a mythological nom de guerre) makes an epic voyage as laborious as walking across the bottom of the sea in a diving bell.
The premise of the book is very simple: my first night in Paris, the first night of my life off the terrestrial shore de l’Australie in foreign climes. But the extended metaphor I use throughout the book to describe the experience of being halfway around the world, at night, in a foreign country is the metaphor of space travel and setting foot on the moon. And nowhere do I use this metaphor more extensively than in the extract I read you above, which I think contains one of the longest sentences in the entire book, a burlesque of President Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University which lasts more than an entire page.
Watch for the moment in the video when I have to sneak a breath to get through it!
I don’t really consider myself to be a comic writer, although some people have told me that they like my writing best when my satirical fangs show through. In this book, the fangs are definitely embedded in myself—right up to the gums: I never miss an opportunity to ironize my own neurotic foibles, frequently styling myself, in my Chaplinical dandyism, as ‘our presumptuous little hero’.
In that sense Orpheid: L’Arrivée is a ‘comic epic’: the ‘comedy’ lies in the fact that I treat—with a Keatonianly straight face—what would ordinarily be the most banal events and actions as I undertake to manœuvre myself and my small mountain of luggage de l’aéroport Charles-de-Gaulle à l’Hôtel Caulaincourt as if these were noble and heroic acts worthy of immortalization in an Homeric epic.
Like an astronaut setting foot upon a foreign world, everything that passes before my eyes becomes fascinating, exerts its own peculiar gravity which arrests my progress momentarily, drawing me towards it to pause and investigate. In fine, the experience of the book is intended, for the reader, to be what the experience of that night was for me: the most acute example I had yet known of the psychogeographic experience of flânerie itself—what M. Rimbaud calls ‘un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ (‘a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses’).
I’ve described Orpheid: L’Arrivée as an ‘epic prose poem’, and I think that sums up both my strengths and my limits as a writer. In a recent post on this vlog I asked the question ‘Can prose be poetry?’, and admitted that, like M. Flaubert, one of the great banes of my life is that I’m a prosateur by nature, not a poète—although I have the reputation of being one.
As I said in that post, the habits of mind associated with prose and poetry are really antithetical to each other, and I’m rarely so inspired as to write verse. Most of my poetic output was written in France, when, like a flower, I felt my soul expand in its natural climes, swimming in the sea of soil and air, of Truth and Beauty, which surrounded me every day.
Otherwise, like M. Flaubert, whatever inclination to lyricism there is in me (et l’inclination est forte) finds itself kinkily perverted away from prosody and funnelled along the unnatural channel of prose, a narrow watercourse most unsuitable for the efflorescent floods of rhapsody which overtake me. Like M. Flaubert, I have the rather painful experience, as a writer, of being a poet by inclination but without natural talent in that direction, my analytic habits of mind, like his, being more suited to prose than prosody.
And yet, for reasons which mystify and miff me, I have the reputation of being ‘a poet’.
In recent years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never succeed in talking people out of this misconception of me, and even to feel that, if they’re so stubbornly insistent in their error, then they’re probably right.
In lieu of forcing my mind into the crystal lattices of verse, a skill and habit I admire in poètes pur-sang but cannot emulate, I have always written my peculiar espèce de prose prosodique with its multilingual patois and neologisms, and have always been, bastard cousin to them, un poète en prose.
The essence of prose poetry, I think (an essence which Orpheid L’Arrivée demonstrates at quite a remarkable scale of simultaneous expansion and concentration, considering the typical brevity of the form), is ‘seeing the ordinary anew’.
What people have most often remarked to me about a prose they deem to be ‘poetic’ is that there is an unusual capacity in my writing to present a new vision of things, a different angle on the familiar which they recognize but which they tell me is not necessarily obvious to them until I drew their attention to it, a quality which is more ‘latent’ in the things themselves than apparent on first view.
Well, this is a perfectly natural skill for someone who began his career as a professional writer in the domain of film criticism to possess. My ‘journalistic training’ was as a foreign correspondent in a realm which is all about reporting vivid descriptions of vision, about lyrically communicating the experience which these visions in the dark provoked in me. It was a training which both formed and rewarded the analytic habit of mind, the incontournable désir to break down the parts of my pleasure and analyse what makes the machine of it run, which is natural to me.
I don’t know that I was ever conscious, as a young man writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, of styling my thumbnail reviews as ‘poems in prose’, but certainly I was so conscious of the little space I was afforded that, in retrospect, it seems I schooled myself in squeezing my mind into something like the crystal lattice of verse. I made a form of my own which was so tight that the rhapsodic results were often explosive for the readers.
In order to see the prosaic world painted anew on the page, a lyrical, rhapsodic style of prose is called for. If I’m honest, I don’t know if there are any poètes pur-sang today. A poet is a flower of humanity that can only grow up in a natural environment, and we live in such an artificial one, where technology is the very air that we breathe, that perhaps prose is the only weak poetic weapon with which to tackle and attack our prosaic reality, to beat back its encroachment on our humanity.
M. Aragon was a poet first and prose-writer second, a survivor of the race of poets when there were still some lines of lineage of that endangered species left to dribble into the future. He was also a surrealist in the first, enthusiastic, misguided but organic flush of that movement when, weak as it was, surrealism was yet a shield to bludgeon and beat back a usurping technological artificiality which was not yet all-powerful.
The English title of Le Paysan de Paris does not quite give the sense which M. Aragon intends to convey in French. Yes, ‘paysan’ may be translated as ‘peasant’, but in poetic conjunction with the name of the French metropolis, the Capital of Modernity, he is trying to suggest that to be a Parisian is to be a type of provincial, someone who is yet still close to nature in the midst of this technological marvel with all its glittering, seductive artificiality.
Now, here we have a little secret password of freemasonry by which fanatical Paris aficionados, French as well as foreign, recognize one another. This word is ‘province.’ With a shrug of the shoulders, the true Parisian, though he may never travel out of the city for years at a stretch, refuses to live in Paris. He lives in the treizième or the deuxième or the dix-huitième; not in Paris but in his arrondissement—in the third, the seventh, the twentieth. And this is the provinces.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, “First Sketches”, p. 832
It took reading Hr. Benjamin’s insight to put the vague apprehension into sharp relief, but as soon as I read those words, I recognized the truth of them in my own experience.
Only the day after the events recounted in Orpheid: L’Arrivée, as I ambled about the 18e, seeking by daylight what I had but glimpsed in a tourbillon of light and colour the night before, I would have the sense—which would never leave me in Montmartre—that this paradis artificiel would be sufficient for a lifetime. You could live in this small tranche of Paris, on its northern outskirts, and never be bored, never have cause to venture outside it.
I seem to associate that sensation of mind—too diffuse to be a thought—with the memory of a man, grey-haired, who shuffled out of the dazzling sunlight and into the cool, wood-panelled oasis of the Café de la Place and up to the comptoir beside me as I was drinking my demi. Between him and the patron passed that secret handshake of freemasonry, the handshake of merely being Montmartreans together on another day in bourgeois paradise, and by the end my time there, the ineffaceable patina of being a ‘Parisian provincial’, a ‘dix-huitièmard’ (to coin a term), would varnish the wood of my soul too.
In her journal article “The Surrealism of the Habitual: From Poetic Language to the Prose of Life” (2011), Alison James discusses surrealist prose poetry with respect to Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations into language. She cites André Breton’s argument in defence of M. Aragon when he was accused, after the publication of one of his poems, of incitement to murder.
… [T]he goal of poetry and art [according to Breton] has always been to soar above the real and above common thought…. In formulating this argument, Breton refers to Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics and in particular to Hegel’s insistence on the distinction between poetry and prose. For Hegel, poetry is the most perfect and universal of the arts because it comes closest to the self-apprehension of spirit. However, its linguistic medium poses a problem, for art ‘ought to place us on ground different from that adopted in everyday life, as well as in our religious ideas and actions, and in the speculations of philosophy’…. Language, when used in poetry, should therefore not be left ‘in a state in which it is used every day’ … but must set itself apart from the ‘common prose of life’ … —an expression that Hegel uses to refer to both the ‘prosaic’ dimension of existence and to linguistic signs that mediate this level of experience.
But in Le Paysan de Paris, M. Aragon (who himself has not infrequent recourse to Hegel) is most trenchant in his view that the prosodic lies in the prosaic. This is perhaps one of the few genuinely revelatory concetti to emerge from surrealism as an intellectual movement and as an artistic mode of militant resistance to the increasing ‘banalization’ of technologically-driven modern life.
Certains lieux, plusieurs spectacles, j’éprouvais leur force contre moi bien grande, sans découvrir le principe de cet enchantement. Il y avait des objets usuels qui, à n’en pas douter, participaient pour moi du mystère, me plongeaient dans le mystère. … Il me semblait bien que l’essence de ces plaisirs fût toute métaphysique, il me semblait bien qu’elle impliquât à leur occasion une sorte de goût passionné de la révélation. Un objet se transfigurait à mes yeux, il ne prenait point l’allure allégorique ni le caractère du symbole; il manifestait moins une idée qu’il n’était cette idée même. Il se prolongeait ainsi profondément dans la masse du monde.
I felt the great power that certain places, certain sights exercised over me, without discovering the principle of this enchantment. Some everyday objects unquestionably contained for me a part of that mystery, plunged me into that mystery. … I felt sure that the essence of such pleasures was entirely metaphysical and involved a sort of passion for revelation with regard to them. The way I saw it, an object became transfigured: it took on neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol, it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea. Thus it extended deeply into the world’s mass.
—Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, “Le sentiment de la nature aux Buttes-Chaumont” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), pp. 140-1 [p. 128]
This anti-platonic intuition that objects themselves—in all their crude, material reality—are the eternal Forms is perhaps, as I say, the only really revelatory idea to come out of surrealism, and sets the stage for a ‘poetry of modern life’ that is deeply immersed in the prosaic and the temporal, in the marvellous flux of artificial forms that speed surreally by the flâneur’s eyes in his investigations of arcades and parks.
In his coda to Le Paysan de Paris, M. Aragon indulges himself (perhaps satirically) in one of those chauvinistic manifestoes favoured by the surrealists—or at least by his hierophantic, inquisitorial friend, M. Breton. But M. Aragon is a greater intellect than M. Breton, just as he was a greater writer, and the slash and sweep of his pronouncements cut vividly through, just as the notion articulated in the quote above does, to add in one breathless burst of premises several firm planks to a nascent æsthetic philosophy of literary flâneurism:
Du plus rapide apercevoir une apparition se levait. Je ne me sentais pas responsable de ce fantastique où je vivais. Le fantastique ou le merveilleux. C’est dans cette zone que ma connaissance était proprement la notion. J’y accédais par un escalier dérobé, l’image. La recherche abstraite me l’a fait tenir pour une illusion grossière, et voici qu’à son terme la notion, dans sa forme concrète, avec son trésor de particularités, ne me semble plus en rien différente de ce mode méprisé de la connaissance, l’image, qui est la connaissance poétique, et les formes vulgaires de la connaissance ne sont, sous le prétexte de la science ou de la logique, que les étapes conscientes que brûle merveilleusement l’image, le buisson ardent.
Je sais ce qu’une telle conception choque, et l’objection qu’elle comporte. Un certain sentiment du réel. Pur sentiment. Car où prend-on que le concret soit le réel? N’est-il pas au contraire tout ce qui est hors du réel, le réel n’est-il pas le jugement abstrait, que le concret ne présuppose que dans la dialectique? Et l’image n’a-t-elle pas, en tant que telle, sa réalité qui est son application, sa substitution à la connaissance? Sans doute l’image n’est-elle pas le concret, mais la conscience possible, la plus grande conscience possible du concret. D’ailleurs peu importe l’objection quelle qu’elle soit qu’on oppose à une semblable vue de l’esprit. Cette objection même est une image. Il n’y a pas, foncièrement, une façon de penser qui ne soit une image. Seulement la plupart des images, faiblement prises, ne comportent dans l’esprit qui les emploie aucun jugement de réalité, et c’est par là qu’elles gardent ce caractère abstrait, qui fait leur pauvreté et leur inefficience. Le propre de l’image poétique à l’encontre de l’image essentielle, pour m’en remettre à ce qualificatif médiocre, est de comporter ce caractère de matérialisation, qui a sur l’homme un grand pouvoir, qui lui ferait croire à une impossibilité logique au nom de sa logique. L’image poétique se présente sous la forme du fait, avec tout le nécessaire de celui-ci. Or le fait, que personne jamais n’a songé à contester, fût-ce Hegel, et même celui-ci ne lui accordait-il pas une importance prépondérante, le fait n’est point dans l’objet, mais dans le sujet: le fait n’existe qu’en fonction du temps, c’est-à-dire du langage. Le fait n’est qu’une catégorie. Mais l’image emprunte seulement la forme du fait, car l’esprit peut l’envisager en dehors de lui. L’image donc aux divers stades de son développement apparaît à l’esprit avec toutes les garanties qu’il réclame des modes de sa connaissance. Elle est la loi dans le domaine de l’abstraction, le fait dans celui de l’événement, la connaissance dans le concret. C’est par ce dernier terme qu’on en juge, et qu’on peut brièvement déclarer que l’image est la voie de toute connaissance. Alors on est fondé à considérer l’image comme la résultante de tout le mouvement de l’esprit, à négliger tout ce qui n’est pas elle, à ne s’adonner qu’à l’activité poétique au détriment de toute autre activité.
C’est à la poésie que tend l’homme.
Il n’y a de connaissance que du particulier.
Il n’y a de poésie que du concret.
La folie est la prédominance de l’abstrait et du général sur le concret et la poésie.
La réalité est l’absence apparente de contradiction.
Le merveilleux, c’est la contradiction qui apparaît dans le réel.
L’amour est un état de confusion du réel et du merveilleux. Dans cet état, les contradictions de l’être apparaissent comme réellement essentielles à l’être.
Où le merveilleux perd ses droits commence l’abstrait.
Le fantastique, l’au-delà, le rêve, la survie, le paradis, l’enfer, la poésie, autant de mots pour signifier le concret.
Il n’est d’amour que du concret.
From the swiftest glimpse an apparition arose. I did not feel responsible for this zone of the fantastic in which I was living. The fantastic or the marvellous. It is within this zone that my knowledge constituted true notion. My access to it was by a secret stairway, the image. Abstract research had induced me to consider it a crude illusion, yet finally notion, in its concrete form, with its treasure of particularities, no longer seems to me in any respect different from this despised method of knowledge, the image, which is poetic knowledge; while the vulgar forms of knowledge are nothing more, under their guise of science or logic, than the conscious halting places past which the image scorches, the image transformed marvellously into a burning bush.
I realize how shocking such a conception seems, I know the objection that may be made to it. A certain feeling for the real. For how did the idea come about that it is the concrete which is the real? Is not the concrete, on the contrary, all that is beyond the real, is not the real the abstract judgment which the concrete presupposes only in the dialectical process? And does not the image, as such, possess its own reality which is its application to knowledge, its substitution for it? The image is not in itself the concrete, of course, but the consciousness, the greatest possible consciousness of the concrete. In any case, whatever kind of objection may be made to such a view of the mind is itself of little importance, that very objection being an image. Basically, no way of thought exists that is not an image. However, most images are registered so weakly by the mind employing them that they incarnate absolutely no estimation of reality, and consequently retain the abstract nature which determines their impoverishment and ineffectiveness. The property of the poetic image, as opposed to the essential image, … is to incarnate this quality of materialization, one that exercises a tremendous power over man and is quite capable of making him believe in a logical impossibility in the name of logic. … [T]he image is the path of all knowledge. One is then justified in regarding the image as the resultant of all the mind’s impulses, in ignoring everything that is not image, and in devoting oneself exclusively to poetic activity at the expense of all other activity.
It is towards poetry that man is gravitating.
There is no other knowledge than that of the particular.
There is no other poetry than that of the concrete.
Madness is the predominance of the abstract and the general over the concrete, over poetry.
Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction.
The marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.
Love is a state of confusion between the real and the marvellous. In this state, the contradictions of being seem really essential to being.
Wherever the marvellous is dispossessed, the abstract moves in.
The fantastic, the beyond, dream, survival, paradise, hell, poetry, so many words signifying the concrete.
There is no other love than that of the concrete.
—Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, “Le songe du paysan” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), pp. 243-5, 248 [pp. 213-4, 217]
Thus, in M. Aragon’s surrealistic view, the poetic is quite firmly embedded in the concrete, in the prosaic, and what appeals to the eye as a poetic image provokes M. Rimbaud’s definition of ‘clairvoyance’—literally ‘clear-seeing’—that ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens.’
Etymologically, the concept of ‘surréalisme’ suggests something—a dimension, a reality—above or over concrete reality, and this view of surrealism as a poetic reaction to the banality of the everyday is certainly implied by M. Breton’s appeal to the æsthetic authority of Hegel.
And this doctrinaire view of what it is for a work of art to be ‘surreal’—to be ‘over’-real, too real to be apprehensible with the concrete eye in our diminished platonic state—is a view that M. Aragon appears to reject. One paints not what is in the mind’s eye, superimposing this image, as a kind of overlay, or ‘filter’, upon the image of the world which appeals to our physical vision, but the disruptive element of the marvellous which is always—and already—present within things as their secret substance, the irrational contradictions which are already there, in plain sight but overlooked, ignored by consciousness.
La vie parisienne est féconde en sujets poétiques et merveilleux. Le merveilleux nous enveloppe et nous abreuve comme l’atmosphère; mais nous ne le voyons pas.
Parisian life is abundant in marvellous and poetic subjects. The marvellous surrounds us and suckles us like the air, but we do not see it.
Hr. Benjamin, in his classic essay on surrealism, written when the movement was already on the intellectual decline, speaks of it as possessing access to ‘profane illumination’. With as cunning an artificer as Hr. Benjamin, we must assume that an indirect reference to the title of M. Rimbaud’s prose poetry collection (which he cites directly in his essay) is not coincidental.
Taking the word ‘vulgar’ in its Catholic sense, the ‘vulgar incidents’ and the ‘vulgar objects’ of our banal, artificial modernity shine forth their ‘profane illuminations’, and as M. Aragon states in his preface to Le Paysan de Paris:
Des mythes nouveaux naissent sous chacun de nos pas. Là où l’homme a vécu commence la légende, là où il vit. … Chaque jour se modifie le sentiment moderne de l’existence. Une mythologie se noue et se dénoue. … M’appartient-il, j’ai déjà vingt-six ans, de participer à ce miracle? Aurai-je longtemps le sentiment du merveilleux quotidien? Je le vois qui se perd dans chaque homme qui avance dans sa propre vie comme dans un chemin de mieux en mieux pavé, qui avance dans l’habitude du monde avec une aisance croissante, qui se défait progressivement du goût et de la perception de l’insolite.
New myths spring up beneath each step we take. Legend begins where man has lived, where he lives. … Each day the modern sense of existence becomes subtly altered. A mythology ravels and unravels. … I am already twenty-six years old, am I still privileged to take part in this miracle? How long shall I retain this sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence? I see it fade away in every man who advances into his life as though along an always smoother road, who advances into the world’s habits with an increasing ease, who rids himself progressively of the taste and texture of the unwonted, the unthought of.
—Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, “Préface à une mythologie moderne” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), pp. 15-6 [p. 24]
In fine, rather than a superimposition of something above this reality upon our vision of it, the surrealist dérèglement is ‘seeing anew’, perceiving the marvellous reality of the poetic that is already there in our stultifying banality, the irrational discordances between our bizarre, artificial objects and customs—the whole apparatus of ‘le spectacle’, as Guy Debord calls it—which familiarity with them has made us blind to.
As Ms. James explains, Hr. Wittgenstein was deeply concerned with the problem of ‘re-concretizing’ language (to coin a term), to bring words back from the airy abstractions of the intellectuals and re-couple them to the gold standard of everyday usage. But, as she states in her article, ‘[r]ather than “bringing words back”, [surrealism] is a literature that aims to defamiliarize, to make new, to take language and thought away from the commonplace.’
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, cited in James (2011, p. 416)
Refamiliarization by defamiliarization: To take the pseudo-Freudian aspect of surrealism’s revolutionary program, if we are so immersed in the abstract, artificial spectacle of modern life that we cannot perceive the irrational discordances embedded in our artefacts and customs, the defamiliarization of abstracted language serves as a lens to consciously refocus our inward vision upon the madness of our concrete reality.
One might say that the prose poetic impulse to ‘see the ordinary anew’ is a function of Ezra Pound’s demand of modern artists that they should ‘make it new’—create (as M. Aragon seeks to do in Le Paysan de Paris) a mythology of the modern which is itself the basis of a new classicism.
The classical forms of poetry are unsuited to the spirit and conditions of our prosaic modern life, one in which Mr. Kurtz’s horror is kept in continual, uneasy abeyance, but which forever threatens to eclipse and overwhelm us. Beauty and horror, as M. Baudelaire, exercising profound clairvoyance, could perceive at the birth of modern poetry, are the two sides of the coin of banality we trade in daily.
Thus, in this banal, prosy landscape of indentured drudgery which is the modern city, perhaps only a ‘poetic’ prose, one which re-alerts us to the omnipresent but invisible marvellous by stealth, appropriating the utilitarian literary form of prose which science and commerce have elevated to a global lingua franca, is the only means to be authentically a ‘poet’ in this open-air, unbarred prison we all live in.
The poet in prose sneaks his profane illuminations of the marvellous reality, the beauty of our universal horror, out through the horizontal bars of uniform, black-inked type. He squeezes the folded letter out through the bars, but because it is written in prose, the cryptic cypher of the concealed poem fails signally to reach all but his fellow illuminati—the brethren of other flâneuristic souls who suffer in our Edenic Hell.
… [T]he most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.
The situationists, who were really the last inheritors of the tribal, faddish tendencies of European modernism, tracing their line of descent directly from the surrealists, were also, like them, one of the last résistants to the bulldozing banality of modern life, the flipside of its horrible beauty.
In their pseudo-scientific study of the urban environment known as psychogeography, and more specifically in their method of scientific investigation, the dérive(literally, the ‘drift’), the situationists codified a method of experimental urban exploration pioneered by the surrealists, and of which M. Aragon gives us perhaps the first scientific account in the second movement of Le Paysan de Paris: “Le sentiment de la nature aux Buttes-Chaumont” (“A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont”).
In that section, he describes how he, M. Breton, and a fellow Surrealist, Marcel Noll, undertook an ambitious pilgrimage one night to the parc des Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19earrondissement, on the northeastern outskirts of Paris. Assailing the gates of the citadel (which they found, to their surprise and delight, to be open), the three amigos undertook a circumambulation of the park, which centres around a man-made lake and a tiny, mountainous island. At the top of the butte is a very picturesque little belvedere which one approaches by means of a footbridge known to Parisians as ‘le pont des Suicidées’ because it’s a charming spot to take a brodie from.
The dérive, to my mind, is slightly different to flânerie, and therefore more suited to having a ‘surreal experience’ of the ordinary places of modernity, such as the parc des Buttes-Chaumont as M. Aragon describes it in Le Paysan de Paris.
The dérive, in my experience, is more about the absorption and synthesis of the ‘trade winds of vibe’ that course through the vectors of the urban milieu, while flânerie is an æsthetic investigation, and therefore more analytic. The flâneur is on the hunt for modernity, as M. Baudelaire says, whereas the dériveur opens himself up to being a willing prey to modernity’s alternating, alienating vibes of beauty and horror.
Daydreaming is one of the key sources of poetry—a poem often starts as a daydream that finds its way into language—and walking seems to bring a sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind.
A walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it. I am both here and there, betwixt and between, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. I move in a liminal space.
You will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my previous post I said that the bar, the café, the scene of Vivian Sobchack’s ‘lounge time’ and another site of flânerie, was a ‘liminal social space’. Whether walking or pausing in his progress, the flâneur’s natural environment is not so much the city itself as liminal space—adjacent places of multiple, contradictory usage, spheres of ambiguity, sites of transitory passage.
Mr. Hirsch, in his article, delineates the types of walking, and he cites Thoreau, who mistook the origins of the word ‘saunter’, a type of frolicking stroll akin to flânerie at its most energetic, as coming from medieval pilgrimages ‘à la Sainte Terre’ (to the Holy Land). Mr. Hirsch sets us straight on this score, telling us that ‘[t]he word saunter comes from santer, meaning “to muse”, to “be in a reverie”’. Thus, the flâneuristic relationship between walking and thinking is still completed in the word, though not in the way Mr. Thoreau imagined.
Mr. Hirsch goes on to describe this ambulatory form of reverie, this ‘dream-walking’ while wide-awake, as ‘a way of ruminating, … a form of labor without laboring, what Kant calls “purposiveness without purpose.”’
Now, these two paradoxical phrases are instructive, for a phrase of my own which you will encounter time and again in the Orpheid is the description of ‘our presumptuous little hero’ as being engaged in the equally paradoxical occupation of ‘productive indolence’: My flâneuristic days in Paris were taken up with the ‘work’ of walking, of thinking, of lounging in cafés, of writing in parks, of drawing at the Louvre. By the standards of our technocratic society, I was a ‘fainéant’—literally, a ‘do-nothing’, an idler, and yet I have never, in my entire life, turned out more pages of prose, and poetry, and art, than in those days.
That’s the flâneurial paradox of Hirsch’s ‘labor without laboring’, of Kant’s ‘purposiveness without purpose’, and my own ‘productive indolence’: the prosaic poet of modern life is a résistant in the ‘Worker’s Paradise’ of the City, a passive idler by the standards of commerce, but as much of a driven ‘producer’—and not a passive consumer—as one of Ayn Rand’s technocratic supermen.
I had my own ‘dérive à trois’ at the parc des Buttes-Chaumont, with a couple of Californian friends I met in Paris, one of whom I still keep in occasional contact with. It was nothing near as blissful as M. Aragon’s tramp by night with MM. Breton et Noll, but I still remember the vivid poetry of life in ‘les Tuileries des gens’: a girl, lying on the grass in the sunshine, reading Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale in a cream-coloured, Gallimard wrapper; the gaggle of little French schoolchildren who descended on us from the pont des Suicidées as we paused in our ramble under the shelter of the belvedere at the top of the butte.
Rereading my second draft of the account of that day, I notice that I say that the children’s voices ‘perfumed’ the air for me, a poetic tournure that suggests the evanescent beauty that quite ordinary (and I’m sure, for my companions, quite unmemorable) incursion into our sanctuary had for me as we gazed back towards Sacré Cœur.
The ambition is still to tell the story of that day, and of the days preceding it, when an Englishman we met introduced me to my destiny as a poet, albeit in prose. To be a flâneur; to be deeply embedded as an anarchic undercover résistant in this prosaic modern reality, with its banal horror and flashes of beauty; to be able to see, and to say, both; to allow the dérèglement du dérive to surreally overtake one like a drug, but then to be able to apply analysis to the parts of one’s pleasure;—that is really what it is to be a prose poet.
But that memoir of my halcyon days in Paris is some way off. In the meantime, if what I have said here has whetted your appetite for what might just be one of the most surreal reading experiences you’ve ever had, do you dare to take a walk on the wild side, accompanying yours truly on a neurotic comic dérive around Montmartre by night?
Or do you think that Orpheid: L’Arrivée might just be up the (dark) alley of someone you know? If you haven’t tried my custom order service and you’re thinking of buying some original gifts this Christmas, I invite you to take a browse in the Dean Kyte Bookstore. All my products come gift-wrapped by the same two hands that lovingly wrote the books. I also sign and wax-seal them and include a thoughtful, personalised message to the recipient, so if you want to give someone you love a thoroughly bespoke, artisanal reading experience to savour this Christmas, take a flash at my books or click the links below to purchase your own personal copy of Orpheid: L’Arrivée.
“Orpheid: L’Arrivée” [softcover]
Personally signed and sealed by author. Comes with frameable, handwritten manuscript page and custom bookmark. Price includes worldwide postage.
“Orpheid: L’Arrivée” [eBook]
PDF viewable on any device. Includes bonus audio track of page read by author. Worldwide delivery within 48 hours.
Jay snapped me sans overcoat but otherwise suited up for winter as I swanned around summery Coffs, an unofficial ambassador of Melbourne moda bringing a soupçon of Collins street chic to Harbour drive.
The only unfashionable touch by your Melbourne Flâneur’s über-æsthetic lights: the muzzle (or ‘chin-sling’, as I call it) in my south paw, a fad which no one will ever convince me is elegant—even the flower-bedizened variety I reluctantly port.
Even when forced to hide my mug behind a mask, dear readers, the dandy in me indomitably prevails, and I must bring a touch of the æsthetic even to this despised item of bourgeois uniformity.
But whether I am airing my dial or have my mug camouflaged behind a floral mask, it seems I am instantly recognized in these parts. Even at the bus stop, preparing to decamp from Coffs to Bellingen, I was recognized by someone I had never seen in my life.
‘You’re going to Bellingen, aren’t you?’ the guy asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied, somewhat surprised. Perhaps, I thought, the bowtie I was wearing gave me away as the type of person who would be waiting for the bus to Bello.
‘Yeah, I’ve seen you there,’ he said.
‘It must have been a long time ago,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been there in five years.’
He seemed doubtful about that claim, as if it were more likely that he had last seen me only five weeks ago.
The encounter puzzled me until I alighted in Bello. Hardly had I squared away my luggage at the Diggers Tavern and taken my first fashionable flânerie in æons up one side of Hyde street, the Champs-Élysées of Bellingen, and down the other before I was recognized by John Ross, owner of the Alternatives Bookshop, who greeted me with the words: ‘We were just talking about you.’
That is a phrase I have heard repeated continuously. Five years may have passed, but my ‘celebrity’ in Bellingen (as John called it, introducing me to two passers-by) as its most dandistic resident remained undimmed by half a decade’s absence. Indeed, on Sunday, as I lounged on the grassy bank of the Bellinger River, relishing the sun (a dominical ritual of confirmed Bellingenites), two friends sitting at some distance and recognizing a jaunty Fedora worn rakishly askew inquired of their companions if it could be me and, more to the point, if they had lived in Bellingen long enough ‘to know who Dean is.’
I’ve become a fabled creature here, which I didn’t expect. If you have lived in Bello in the years ‘A.D.’ (‘After Dean’), you have clearly missed a spectacle as dazzling and memorable (in the annals of fashion, at least) as the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
I used to have a lady friend here, a cute little sculptress who lived up the hill in Dorrigo and who would come down to Bello on a Sunday to work a shift at the former Lodge 241 café. It never ceased to amuse her how, on our dates or after-work flâneries, we were forced to stop every few metres in our progress along Hyde street to acknowledge the friendly salutations of the most diverse people.
To her, I seemed to know everyone in town, but to me, it felt more like everyone knew me—even the people I didn’t know.
Conspicuous as I was in my day, I thought that when I departed Bello for Melbourne five years ago, I would be promptly forgotten. But it was I who had forgotten the curious phenomenon of ‘Bello time’, whereby a man can go away for five years and be greeted warmly by half the town as if the last time he had been seen in these parts was last week.
But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I am certainly not the only literary man to have passed a season or two in this town, and certainly not the most internationally celebrated, Peter Carey having lived in Bellingen and having set the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) in this landscape.
Moreover, journalist George Negus and I occasionally shared co-working space at ‘my office’, the Hyde, and one of the last times I imbibed a long black there before checking out, on a day when the café was particularly bondé de gens, Mr. Negus and I were forced to sit coude-à-coude at the counter and cement the distant intimacy of our long nodding acquaintance with some polite pleasantries about the political nouvelles du jour, that mustachioed gent never suspecting the local literary celebrity he was rubbing his grizzled elbow against.
I kid, of course.
But like all jests, there’s a zesty grain of truth in the observation that if these two literary gentlemen have more conspicuous clout in the world of letters than your presumptuous little flâneur, in the public imaginary of Bellingen, at least, with the rigorous rectitude and correctness of my dress, I have always fitted the image of an homme de lettres more thoroughly than my more famous colleagues—for all my friends and acquaintances here know that the hygiene of my deportment reflects the intellectual hygiene of a man who makes the most exquisite discriminations with words.
But I find myself in an odd—even an embarrassing—position, overwhelmed by the well-wishing of people who have never forgotten me and never, it seems, ceased to think well of me in my absence.
All the time I lived here, people predicted an imminent removal to Melbourne for me, telling me that, with my sens inné de la mode, I was meant more for Collins street than for Church street, but I think I defied even the most prevoyant forecast about that imminent departure date by staying nearly two and a half years in Bello.
When I did, finally, satisfy the prophecy which had attended me from the first and vamoosed to Victoria, it was with the deeply regretted sense that this beloved landscape had, indeed, been eventually exhausted for me as a source of flâneuristic exploit—particularly as regards the flâneur’s addictive habitude of æsthetically investigating the women of the cities and towns he prowls through.
The dandy is always seeking to crystallize his image, to make his outward appearance thoroughly congruent and consubstantial with his inward self, and in Melbourne, it’s true, I seemed to find and set in perfect place the last pieces of the puzzle to my character which I had been searching for in landscapes as various as the Gold Coast, Paris, and even Bellingen.
I will always be, first and foremost, a Parisian, proud citoyen of the first city of modernity, and hence of modernity’s most decadent product, fashion. But if I have integrated the high polish of the dandistic Parisian flâneur with a life spent wandering the streets of this benighted antipodean isle’s provincial capital of fashion, such that I have become a Melbourne flâneur, it is fair to say that without a couple of years of my life spent squinting still more tightly, trying to disengage and draw forth, like a fabulous perfume, the flâneuristic romance of marvellous novelty from Bellingen’s streets through half-closed lids, I would not have been able to see, as a living reality, a fragrant atmosphere which thoroughly surrounds and suckles me, the poetic Parisian substrate to Melbourne’s pedestrian actuality.
In other words, in Bellingen too (which I have occasionally described to the uninitiated as being like the whole of Melbourne folded up into two short streets) I found the lost quality of Parisian romance, of marvellous novelty, and in some sense the narrow circuit I traced for more than two years up and down Hyde and Church streets prepared me, as no place since Paris had, for the assiduous literary oisiveté of wandering the streets of Melbourne, on the perennial trail for tails and tales.
In fine, I think that, unacknowledged as my literary genius may be by the wider world as compared with Bellingen’s more famous scrivenly denizens both past and present, if I hold a special affection nei cuori dei Bellingeni, it is perhaps because they sense that, fitting the bill of an homme de lettres more perfectly, as one who uses words with the precision of a camera, I have seen the secret essence in this town, in real scenes set in its streets, and have recorded that invisible, fragrant essence which makes this town such a special place.
My last book, Follow Me, My Lovely…, was set here, the history of a night and a morning when I navigated a gorgeous Norwegian tourist I picked up at the backpackers through a flurried flânerie of streets and scenes, and my next novel is also set in the same streets, where the ghost of the former girl—(and of others, bien entendu)—lingers over the marvellous novelty of my romance with another.
In my last post, datelined Wagga, I wrote that I was coming to the end of the second draft of that novel, and there was a moment, in my assiduous painting and repainting of the scene, set in the little park in front of the Bellingen library, where I and that other began a slow escalation of each other which would lead, inevitably, to a transcendent experience in the bedroom, when I felt again the palpability not merely of her body, but of the place and the hour.
On Sunday, not a block west of the library, I beheld her face—a face I had striven through five years to hold firm in my mind, and which I had believed I would never see again—and her neat little body, that body I had held tenderly in the park.
There she was, at some short distance from me, dear readers, at a tantalizing inconjunction of space and time which made it possible for us both to pretend that we had not seen each other, or that, seeing each other, we did not recognize each other. But I know she knew me at a glance, despite the obfuscating bowtie (a foppery I didn’t port in those days), just as I knew her at a glance, swaddled in the faux-fur collar of her velour jacket.
Oui, there she was, one of the feminine ‘Elect’, one of that modest corpus of dames who have undressed your Melbourne Flâneur, who have divested him of his fashionable armour and have laid him out in state, and who have had the dubious honour of beholding the holiest of holies behind that implacable front.
I’ve said that one of the few things which sustained me through our extended Melbourne lockdown was the ability, in concentrating on this novel, to escape the limited vision of the restricted present, and take flâneries through my memories of Bellingen, repainting with precision the Memorial Hall, the walk across Lavenders Bridge and up the path above the skate park, No. 5 Church Street, and Church street itself before the camphor laurels had been removed and replaced.
But when I saw my palpable paramour’s face once again, slightly longer and narrower than I remembered it, she who had led me, arm-in-arm, on months of painstaking promenade through my memories of the streets of Bellingen as perhaps the Eternal Feminine essence of the place, consubstantial with it—for it was her even more than here that I have been trying, through five years, to paint perfectly with words—I saw in her face the slight, painterly distortion, the fault of perspective I had made in my painting of the place.
That slight lengthening and narrowing of her actual visage (as compared to my lovingly beheld memory of it) was like all the slight displacements I have discovered in re-walking these streets I have loved and written lovingly about.
The streetlight in Short Street lane is white, not yellow as I remember it, and the strangler fig under which we exchanged our first kisses ‘feels’ further down the lane, towards Church street, than I have pictured it—even with assiduous referral to Google Maps to aid and orient me.
Most significantly, it was not until I sat on the bank of the river on Sunday afternoon, remembering all the women with whom I had passed a tender moment on that spot, that I realized, for all my concentration on precisely rendering the actuality of the place, how much the palpable, experienced memory of pleasure in Bellingen—how much I used to enjoy sitting on that riverbank, whether alone or in company—has lain buried, sleeping deeply in my unconscious for five years.
Through all my restless movement through places and scenes—not just in Melbourne, but in all the towns and cities my flâneries have taken me to—the memory of the place where I was, for the longest time in my life, most consistently happy has lain buried and is, perhaps, unpaintable, as closely as one might approximate the essence of it.
I recall a quote by M. Degas, who says:
‘C’est très bien de copier ce qu’on voit, c’est beaucoup mieux de dessiner ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire. C’est une transformation pendant laquelle l’ingéniosité collabore avec la mémoire. Vous ne reproduisez que ce qui vous a frappé, c’est-à-dire le nécessaire. … Voilà pourquoi les tableaux faits de cette façon, par un homme ayant une mémoire cultivée, connaissant les maîtres et son métier, sont presque toujours des œuvres remarquables.’
‘It’s all very well to copy what you can see, but it’s even better to draw what you can no longer see, except in memory. A transformation is worked upon the base material of actuality in which genius collaborates with recollection. You only reproduce what has struck you, which is to say, that which is essential to the image. … That is why paintings made in such a manner by a man with a cultivated memory, one who knows both the Old Masters and his trade, are almost always remarkable works.’
—Edgar Degas (my translation)
Follow Me, My Lovely…, written in this landscape, while I still had immediate visual access to every point in the parcours, while I could still see and measure the relative distances between every spot through which I had escalated the Norwegian in our nine-hour flânerie around Bellingen, has a very different quality and character to the one this next novel, Sentimental Journey, will have.
It’s a book I began writing almost immediately after I left Bello five years ago, and being reliant on my memories of the place, and of the woman, slight distortions and displacements—those qualities that M. Degas calls ‘remarkable’—have crept into my rendition of Bellingen, such that, between the essential traits of the image—and even within them—an imaginative collaboration of genius with memory has inadvertently occurred.
I suspect that, at the deepest level, the reason why the good burghers of Bello hold me in a regard I feel I have hardly earned is that they sense, despite my punishing exactitude, despite my dandistic subscription to absolute, rigorous perfection in everything—the sincerity of my dedication to my art which flows out from it through all my life—before reality I fail to get it ‘quite right’—and in that tiny failure, that loophole where the genius of imagination intersects with a rigorously cultivated memory of the place, the inestimable ‘essence of Bellingen’ emerges in my writing about my remembered experiences here.
Other, more celebrated men of letters may have written about this place, but I think i Bellingeni know that their presumptuous little flâneur has observed and absorbed the essence of the living reality of this place, and in his Parisian hallucination of it, will one day present a startling snapshot of the town in tableau at a moment of its most recent history.
“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!
Special shout-out to one of my readers in Brisbane, Mr. Glen Available of Scenic Writers Shack. Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the fulfilment of the infinitely delayed promise to Mr. Glen that the third instalment in my ongoing series of extracts from the novel I am currently writing, set in what he describes as ‘Australia’s third best city’, would be delivered ‘soon(ish)’.
‘Soon(ish)’, for me, evidently means eighteen months after Episode 2—but in my defence, Your Honour, I plead extenuating circumstances and throw myself upon the mercy of the Court. As I explain in the video above, I was all set to shoot Episode 3 at Broadford, or Seymour, or some equally picturesque spot in the vicinity of same, in March of last year when the Coronavirus caused us all to slam down steel shutters everywhere.
I never got to Broadford, but I think the universe was saving the video for a more suitably picturesque locale—the beautiful San Remo, a mere bridge-span from the world-famous Phillip Island, which you can just see behind me in the video.
I only had to get through three lockdowns (including one last week at San Remo itself) before circumstances finally smiled upon me and I had the perfect opportunity to shoot this video. Perfect, that is, except for the light shower you see occasionally moistening your Melbourne Flâneur, who was sans his trademark trenchcoat because the BOM promised him a sunny day!
The excerpt I read in the video is set in the Pig ’n’ Whistle, a veritable Brisbane institution with venues all over town. I was in the Brunswick street pub, in Fortitude Valley, one evening, debriefing my brains with my journal, when I happened to look up and see a scene from John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) playing, silently, on the TV in the corner of the bar. It was the scene where Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones are enjoying una bella giornata on the terrace of an Italian villa, and no twist of fate could have pleased me more than to have an opportunity to regale you with my blow-by-blow analysis of Bogie’s textbook seduction with the Italianate backdrop of San Remo and Phillip Island alle spalle.
I hope it was worth the eighteen-month wait.
Eighteen months to go from 62 per cent completion of the second draft to 91 per cent might seem, to the blissfully uninitiated, a rather leisurely pace of literary production. What was, when I last updated you in this post, a novella of less than 40,000 words has, in that time, crossed the Rubicon into novel territory and is now advancing on 60,000 words. It’s been a difficult project for me since its commencement more than four years ago, and it’s only since February last year, when I finished revising and rewriting the section I share with you in the video, that I’ve really started to get a firm handle on this project.
Mr. Glen, in a recent post on his blog, admits—stout fellow—that he hasn’t the stamina for the marathon which is novel-writing. It’s a brave admission. But you may as well say that you haven’t the strength to write a book, for whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the discipline of long-form writing is the same, and I would argue that the literary demands of non-fiction are as great, if not greater, than those of fiction.
Even I, after five books, went through a dark period just a few years ago, when this story was still in the infancy of its second draft, where I came to the sobering conclusion that it would die stillborn with me and I would never publish another book. Like Glen, I feared I hadn’t the strength and stamina to write in the tens of thousands of words anymore.
Fortunately, I recovered my mojo pour les mots, and though, having just passed my thirty-eighth lap of the sun last month, I find my physical energy for the mental exertion of writing is appreciably less than it was when I was 28, or 18, I nevertheless feel, as a writer, that I’m just coming into my prime.
It’s a strange intimation from the universe, for I’ve made no renovations in my style; that, I think, was set in stone by the age of thirty. Rather, I think, a writer, as he ages, uses his voice more adroitly. What he has to say and how he says it more seamlessly dovetails into one another; and perhaps, like all artists whose late styles have a loose, bravura freedom about them, a sense of the elegant essence of their youthful style now unconstrained—like Henry James in his late novels, for instance—there is more efficiency in how what an aging writer has to say dovetails with the way in which he says it.
Oy vey, that was a rather late-Jamesian sentence. But to summarize: the two, in other words, are more firmly and happily wedded.
The exigencies of being a businessman, of hiring my Montblanc out aux autres, of course eats into one’s time and energy for one’s own writing, but if anything, the mid-life rigours of running my pen on the rationalistic basis of a business has put infrastructure and processes under my own writing process, so that, even if I still sweat blood over every word I commit myself to, trying to make it le seul mot juste, I’m still more efficient than I was when I practised my art merely for art’s own sake.
And when, during our epic second lockdown in Melbourne, the decline in confidence correlated with a dip in demand for my personal services, I had not just the free time but the infrastructure and processes in place to really advance this work in progress—along with all my other artistic projects.
You’ll have to peel off my fingernails one by one to get me to admit there’s any good in lockdowns, but for writers or anyone else who is the least artistically inclined, I can offer this from my own experience of house arrest: Treat your art in a business-like manner and develop an infrastructure and internal processes for managing your time and assessing your progress. For when something like a four-month lockdown comes along, it’s manna from heaven in terms of making day-to-day progress on your projects.
And this commitment to day-to-day doing, I think, is the essential difference between being ‘an author’ and being ‘a writer’.
I first heard Hunter S. Thompson advance this line of reasoning many years ago, and it stuck with me. I don’t remember where I read it, but it may have been in The Rum Diary (1959). You can be the author of a book, he said, without necessarily being a writer. It doesn’t necessarily require any literary predisposition to be the author of a published book—and I can say without any irony or glib disparagement that the publishing landscape of today amply justifies Mr. Thompson’s view.
Of course, on deeper examination, the equation balances the other way, too: you can be a writer without necessarily being an author. But that realization is less revelatory than the one implicit in Mr. Thompson’s distinction between writers and authors.
And that realization is this: The fundamental difference between being a writer and being an author can be boiled down to the grammatical difference between being someone who does something and someone who has done something, between the present-tense act of writing itself and the past-tense achievement of having written a book which has then been published.
I’ve never forgotten how my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Foley, drummed into us the notion that the ‘-er’ and ‘-or’ suffixes mean ‘one who’—one who does something in the present tense. A writer, therefore, is ‘one who writes’.
But, English being a devil of a language, it doesn’t quite work the other way around. An author is not ‘one who auths’.
Shakespearean as it sounds, ‘to auth’ is not an occupation; it’s not even a verb. And yet to be ‘an author’ of a book signifies a past-tense achievement, some work that has been written and has been crowned with the ultimate literary laurel of publication, but which does not indicate that the individual in question is presently engaged in literary labours.
Having published five books, I guess I have the right to call myself ‘an author’, to rest on those laurels, but if I firmly believe, as I said in my last post, that a man is what he does, it follows that he isn’t what he has done.
It gets philosophical here, for at some fundamental level, to do is to be. When an animal stops doing, it dies. And then it stops being. The same with a man. When we stop engaging with all the living passion of our being in the creative activities which define us and instead sit in the empire of our past achievements, we’re as good as done.
In the dark days when I seriously thought my days of ‘authoring’ were over and I wouldn’t have the distinction to call myself an author on a sixth day of my life, the work in progress on that day being achevé, my thoughts born and holdable in my hands as a book, the only thought that cheered me was the notion that the doing is the thing.
We confuse being ‘a writer’ with being ‘an author’, the doing with the done, and consequently place too much value on publication as the quantifiable, verifiable product of our labours, when really it is the present-tense production of words, written by our own hands on pages, that signifies the ‘one who’ activity of being a writer.
As Jasmine B. Ulmer observes in her journal article “Writing Slow Ontology” (2017), there is an ontology, a specific mode of being coupled with this activity of doing. One isn’t a writer when one has ‘done’ the writing, but as one does it. The internal economy of the being who writes is connected, in that present-tense activity, with the words that pour out of his hand, thought and act being uniquely united in the process of writing.
And the awareness that there is a unique ontology to my profession and my art-form, that there is a unique mode of being in this doing which I do for its own sake, day by day, drawing slowly, inexorably, and with hope and faith towards the single day when what I am writing is done and published—but never counting on that day, never taking it for granted as a given vouchsafed by God—is particularly relevant to what I write; to what I have to say as a writer; and how I say it through my style.
This work in progress, like all my books, being a Sistine Chapel I’m always on my back to, the tirelessly retouched tableau of days of my life first sketched in the pages of my journal, is the infinitely rewritten act of that first writing, and therefore of experiences and sensations which my being actually did and had done to it.
And when it comes to the question of why a man would waste whole days of his life (as it might seem to denser souls) tirelessly rewriting in successive drafts the history of minute acts and experiences in other days of his life, the answer is circularly resolved by the ontology of the craft: I am a writer, and writing is what I do.
I look forward in hope and faith to the day when I can say this work is done and I can share with you the whole story of a few minutes of my life when a woman gave me a strange revelation between her legs, one which has always stuck with me as a tale I owed it to her soul, her being, as much as to my own, to tell—a modest testament to what James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), calls ‘the reality of experience’.
But if I were to meet with an accident before the work was achevé, that day of doneness when, mother unburdened of her travail, and I could call myself, for the sixth time, ‘an author’, I would feel more sanguine about the prospect than I used to as a younger man. Franz Kafka died a writer rather than an author and couldn’t even finish the three novels upon which his reputation rests. Indeed, he ordered his friend, Max Brod, to burn his writings, the evidence of his peculiar being on this plain, which must have seemed to him a hilarious hell.
The doing was enough for him. He would have been joyously, beatifically content if we had lost the evidence of his unique being. Achievement and the past-tense plaudits of publication were anathema to Herr Kafka’s perverse soul.
So I say to other writers who, as I do, despair of finishing what they start, the doing is the thing. Be a writer and let the achievement of your project take care of itself in the doing of your days.
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.