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.
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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.
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, Paris Peasant, “A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), 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:
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, Paris Peasant, “The Peasant’s Dream” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), 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:
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, Paris Peasant, “Preface to a Modern Mythology” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), 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?
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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.
In whatever city Chinatown is located, these Chinese embassies are zones of mystery and ambiguity.
And the tragedy for the flâneur is that these places we know so well know us so little. We are erased from the faces of places as soon as we depart them. We are as unpermanent a mark upon the memory of their streets as a lover’s caress is upon our skin.
And for the flâneur, the Daygamer left over in the labyrinth, whose streets are the dædal of his days, to re-encounter the coin de rue where he passed a moment of amour with some passante and to encounter no trace of her, nor of himself, evokes a sensation not of ‘déjà vu’, but of jamais vu—jamais vécu.
—Dean Kyte, “Chinatown(s)”
The one compromised pleasure that a man used to moving his gams as energetically as yours truly can take in the current, prison-like atmosphere of Melbourne is that forced confinement focuses the flâneur’s gaze inward.
Like Xavier de Maistre, who, in Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), takes the reader on a six-week walking tour around the room of a young officer under arrest in Turin, during the Melbourne lockdown, I’ve been taking flâneries through the footage I’ve shot in the course of my travels.
Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the product of one such prostrate promenade undertaken in bed as I flick through the files on my laptop.
One tires, after a time, of the narrow view afforded onto King street, and in such a blank, impersonal setting, eyes which are used to scanning the streets for occult meaning turn inward. Except in Paris, my introverted intuition has never been stronger than during this time: forced to look within myself for the visual stimulation I would usually seek externally in walking through the world, these days when I write or fool around with my old footage, new syntheses of memories and dreams emerge, new crystallizations of thought and image kaleidoscopically collide in miraculous revelations.
The prose poem I intone in the video above, “Chinatown(s)”, is one such synthesis of dream and memory, one such crystallization of thought and image.
I shot the raw footage on a rainy night in Little Bourke street a couple of years ago. Melbourne’s Chinatown is a particularly photogenic sight to see on nights when it’s raining hard, the red lanterns and the neon signs reflected viciously and viscously by the treacherous slate sidewalks.
Initially, I shot the footage with the intention of using it as the basis for one of the interactive menus on my latest Blu-ray Disc, Cinescritos: Writings in Image & Sound (2018). I set the camera up at a particular site in Little Bourke street which was as near as I could recall to the exact spot where I had tied into an attractive-looking dame whose life—and body—had briefly intersected with mine.
The dark and teary sky weeping on the camera lens, creating kaleidoscopic aureoles around the lanterns, had been intended to silently suggest what that spot means to me now.
But in looking back at the footage from the distance of two years hence, I suddenly recalled that this spot in Chinatown was significant to me for another brief but flaming intersection of bodies and lives: A deux pas behind the camera is Tattersalls lane, where, on another rainy day even further back in time, I had been lugged by a girl I had just as randomly picked up at my ‘office’ in Centre place.
One of the fun things for couples to do in Melbourne is to take a dérive around the city on a rainy winter’s day. Clinging to each other, flâneur and flâneuse, we took a random randonnée in the vicinity of Chinatown, escalating each other all the while.
In the course of our dérive, she steered me into Section 8, one of the more unusual Melbourne bars. It’s a popup bar cobbled together out of shipping pallets and packing containers in a carpark off Tattersalls lane. It’s not an ideal intimacy venue, but on an overcast, drizzly weekday morning when no one else is game to sit outside, you can end up going pretty far with a girl at Section 8—if the vibe between you is right.
We ended up going very far indeed that day—though not, the management will be relieved to hear, at Section 8. The place where she parted from my arms, a block east of Chinatown, was even more exposed than that, and again, the gentle rain that fell upon us as we inhaled each other’s kisses would seem, an eternity of minutes later, like a curtain of tears before my eyes as I watched her walk away forever.
I wrote in another post that I feel, after all my aventures, like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’: every femme is fatal for me, pumping a slug in my heart. And as I watched this one exit behind the curtain of tears that Melbourne lowered over the back-alley stage of our brief encounter, the mystery of the real, the way that what is external to us seems somehow to uncannily reflect the inner landscape of our consciousness, was an appropriate metaphor to mirror my perplexity at her départ.
So there is, as I evoke in the prose poem above, a sense of ‘oneiric encounter’, of sensual threat and promise for me about Melbourne’s Chinatown. It’s a place I tend to avoid in my flâneries, for the unbelievable successes in Daygame I’ve enjoyed there—(like dreams, they seem, in rational retrospect, almost too good to be true)—have left a couple of scars upon my heart.
Those two blocks of Little Bourke street evoke for me the ineffable yet dagger-like douleur au cœur I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
And because of the fragrant odour of sensual threat and promise they evoke, Chinatowns more generally arouse this acute, erotic melancholy in me. The last night I spent in Paris, a girl hauled me back to her apartment in the Chinese quartier of Belleville. I remember standing at her balcony that late summer evening as she showered off the day’s work. Snoop that I am, I was looking across the street—as narrow as Little Bourke street—at the little dollhouse lives of the Asian families in the apartment-house opposite.
Their quotidian reality seemed as sensual to me as the wooden railing beneath my hands, the image of them before my eyes as sensual as the image in my mind of the girl, as magnificent as a bather by Ingres, sudsing her pearl-like belly in a room behind me.
And like her, like the railing, like tout Paris, they too would disappear from before my eyes in a couple of hours.
In the prose poem, I refer to these enclaves of sensual mystery as ‘Chinese embassies’, for there is a sense of autonomy about Chinatowns, in whatever city you encounter them.
They are privileged zones. The Chinatown of a city is like an arcade without a roof: it has all the phantasmagoric characteristics of the ‘dream street’ that Walter Benjamin identified with the passage.
Their friendship arches, like the two polychrome portals which bracket the approach to Chinatown in Swanston and Exhibition streets, serve to delimit the zone of foreign exclusivity just as the entrances of an arcade delimit its exclusivity from the street. Their lanterns hang above the street like the gas-lamps which hang in serried rows around the peristyle of the arcade.
The only difference is that, instead of internalizing the external by putting a roof over the street, Chinatowns externalize the internal, by unroofing the multi-storey rue-galerie of shops, exposing these ‘cathedrals of commerce’, with their naves and side-chapels, to the scrutiny of heaven.
As Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong observe in their journal article “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019), this organization of the street upon different levels, mixing the commercial with the residential, the public space with the private, is more semantically crucial to how we interpret the architecture of global Chinatowns than in other built-up urban areas.
‘While Chinatowns worldwide vary in their histories, configurations, peoples, power, and imagery,’ McDonogh and Wong write, ‘they are invariably lived at street level …. [T]hese street-level interactions mean that our eyes stray upwards only momentarily to arches, signs, or cornices or downward to half-hidden shops….’
Franz Hessel, in his book Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital (1929), declared emphatically that ‘[t]he flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new.’
McDonogh and Wong touch upon the fact (although it seems to me that they miss its fundamental significance) that the verticality of Chinese calligraphy in neon signage attached, over several storeys, to the façades of buildings is key to the unique way in which the flâneur ‘reads the street’ of global Chinatowns.
With a pinch of Japanese and Chinese at my disposal, the lurid neon swooshes of Hànzì leering in the night is a little less obscure to me than to most occidental barbarians. Nevertheless, as a cunning linguist, the pleasure I derive from ‘reading the streets’ of Chinatowns is not unlike the difficult pleasure I derive from attempting to read a book written in a language I am not yet proficient in: the words, sentences and pages formed by the hieroglyphs of all those things Herr Hessel enumerates are not just fragrantly ‘new’, but however bright the Sinograms beam, there are still lacunas in my understanding as vast and dark as the night itself.
You can perhaps intuit why I equate the quotidian yet mysterious banality of Chinatowns with the matter-of-fact mysteries of female behaviour.
This admixture of clarity and obscurity is the exclusive province of those ‘zones of mystery and ambiguity’ we call Chinatowns, and they seem an environmental metaphor for the ‘trade’ (deniable as such because it is plausibly deniable) that women make of love. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the Chinese genius for commerce in a hostile environment locates what is readable by the barbarian with a minimum of interpretation squarely at street level. The exotic mysteries of the Orient, however, are discreetly concealed in storeys above or below.
The intrepid—or foolish—flâneur who ventures into Chinatown must cast his eyes in the direction of his desires, must read the promises or threats opaquely veiled behind façades, just as a man must read a woman’s essential character behind the glittering mask she puts up as a front. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the ‘resolutely ordinary’ character of actual Chinatown streets interacts with our imaginary of them as ‘mythic’ and ‘mystical’ places. Likewise, behind the smoke and mirrors, the prosaic banality of women interacts with our ‘pedestalization’ of them as idols of virtue or of vice.
The ‘walk on the wild side’ afforded by Australian Chinatowns is a pretty tepid flirtation with vice. Brisbane’s Chinatown is now—like the rest of Fortitude Valley—a desert of gentrification. Sydney’s is a very shabby affair. Adelaide’s seems like an appendix to the Central Markets—which is where the real flâneurial action lies.
Only in Melbourne, it seems to me, can some vestigial sense of exotic danger still be experienced in Chinatown, and it is, I think, a function of Victoria’s more intimate and symbiotic historical relationship with China. Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t an ‘historical Disneyland’ of a Chinatown, a ‘World’s Fair’ pavilion set down between Swanston and Exhibition streets; that much of its history has mercifully been erased.
No, it’s part of the historical fabric of Melbourne itself as a nineteenth-century city, a Gold Rush city, with all the cosmopolitan grandeur of fabulous wealth built on the corrupt grasping of international chancers.
Though he makes no direct allusion to Chinatown, in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), the great nineteenth-century novel of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, Fergus Hume situates Little Bourke street as the epicentre of poverty and vice. After a dazzling tour of its big brother (as busy as its proverbial reputation), he leads us into Little Bourke street, whose lineaments we can still vaguely discern in Chinatown to this day:
‘But his guide, with whom familiarity with the proletarians had, in a great measure, bred indifference, hurried him away to Little Bourke Street, where the narrowness of the street, with the high buildings on each side, the dim light of the sparsely scattered gas lamps, and the few ragged looking figures slouching along, formed a strong contrast to the brilliant and crowded scene they had just left.’
San Francisco is another of these ‘nouveau riche’ nineteenth-century Gold Rush cities whose tony veneer of sophistication is like so much gilt over its foundations built on the hard graft and grasping for gold, and like Melbourne, it is famous for its Chinatown.
The symbiotic relationship that the Chinatowns of these cities have to their circumambient urban fabric is, I would contend, a function of the historical symbiosis of Orientals and Occidentals in San Francisco and Melbourne.
Their Chinatowns are more than ‘Eastern embassies’ that have failed to really take root on Western soil: they are, through their Gold Rush heritage, thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of their cities. The piquant charm of the Far East they add to the gaudy neoclassical architecture pining for the respectability of a European capital is part of the peculiar native charm of San Francisco and Melbourne.
The similarity between these two cities separated by an ocean is striking. In his story “Dead Yellow Women” (1925), the quintessential writer of San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, has the Continental Op loosen his laconic tongue just enough to provide this vivid description:
‘San Francisco’s Chinatown jumps out of the shopping district at California Street and runs north to the Latin Quarter—a strip two blocks wide by six long….
‘Grant Avenue, the main street and spine of the strip, is for most of its length a street of gaudy shops and flashy chop-suey houses catering to the tourist trade, where the racket of American jazz orchestras drowns the occasional squeak of a Chinese flute. Farther out, there isn’t so much paint and gilt, and you can catch the proper Chinese smell of spices and vinegar and dried things. If you leave the main thoroughfares and showplaces and start poking around in alleys and dark corners, and nothing happens to you, the chances are you’ll find some interesting things—though you won’t like some of them.’
Swap Swanston for California street, and Little Bourke street for Grant avenue, and the description might almost hold for Melbourne—including the final, stinging remark. For if I have found the femmes I’ve stumbled over in the laneways leading off Little Bourke street to be ‘interesting specimens’, in my bafflement after the fact, when I’ve woken up from the opium dream of their seductive charms, I haven’t liked the feeling that I’ve just had my breast pocket picked.
As an operative of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch, the Op is what we might call a ‘professional flâneur’ in Chinatown, though he would prefer the title he often gives himself of ‘manhunter’. I might occasionally tail some quail in Chinatown, but the Op is a big game hunter, after birds of any feather who are up to their necks in bad juju.
McDonogh and Wong state: ‘Chinatowns as mythic places often are linked to icons … of underground mysteries from film and literature that contribute to the global imaginary of Chinatowns.’ They remark ‘how powerfully Chinatown is an imagined space in popular culture, where truth and fiction mingle and images flow from cinema to history to tourism.’
Which leads me to the greatest depiction of this fluid, feminine zone of mystery and ambiguity in literature and film—Roman Polanski’s flâneur movie par excellence, Chinatown (1974), in which the eponymous, putative setting hardly figures as a physical place.
Chinatown, to which the movie’s hero, Angeleno private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), makes constant, obsessive reference, is the primal scene of sexual trauma from which he cannot escape. Gittes, with his sharp suits, Florsheim shoes, and polished Hollywood manner, may have transcended his days as a flatfoot in L.A.’s Chinatown, but his profession as a ‘bedroom dick’ puts him right back in the torrid zone of fluid, feminine ambiguity.
He tells his paramour, black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), that Chinatown is a place that bothers everyone who works there. ‘You can’t always tell what’s going on,’ he says to this dame who’s as difficult to read as a Chinese newspaper. ‘Like with you.’
When you’re playing spoon with such a dish, it’s best to follow the advice the District Attorney gives his men in Chinatown and do ‘as little as possible’—for, as Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), tells Gittes, while ‘you may think you know what you’re dealing with, … believe me, you don’t.’
Gittes is the flâneur figure-cum-detective: his social mobility gives him a unique droit de cité in L.A., transcending the strata of society from grand monde to demi-monde, allowing him to read the tenor of the streets with the same vertical orientation that the flâneur must use as his compass in Chinatown.
In this world turned on its side, one might almost say that in the all-encompassing diffuseness of the criminal and sexual conspiracy he finds himself drowning in, ‘Chinatown’, for Gittes, is hardly a localized place but a state of doubleness, of recursive multiplicity that constitutes the whole of L.A.—a fluid nexus of evil whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
And, of course, at the heart of Gittes’ fearful yet fascinated relationship with Chinatown, there is his relationship with a woman—or women, rather. ‘Cherchez la femme,’ Mrs. Mulwray philosophically says as they lay abed after exertions, echoing the demands and directives of Gittes’ clients—and other interested parties—that he should ‘find the girl’ if he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.
But like water, there is no bottom to women’s mystery, and the alluring vessel is as arbitrary a beginning or ending point as the portals set over Chinatowns worldwide.
These are some of the thoughts I attempted to express in the video and prose poem above. In these times when contact with the outer world of Melbourne is forbidden to me, I turn my gaze inward and meditate on the mysteries of the women I have known in my flâneries around town, whose painful memories and perplexing dreams I thought I had drowned in the heart of me.
But, like the Lady in the Lake, they are not drowned, merely sleeping, and can be awoken once again by a pure heart.
I’ve made the soundtrack of this video available for purchase on my Bandcamp profile. If you would like to shout me half a coffee, you can download “Chinatown(s)” for $A2.00 and have the pleasure of my dulcet tones intoning the prose poem in your lugs pour toujours. Just click the “Buy” link below.
Well, the video above does, anyway. The footage—and the story contained in the brief essay I regale you with in the video—comes from a weekend stay in the inner-city suburb of Paddington some eighteen months ago.
I had just finished a housesit in Gosford. I had been invited to stay a couple of nights in one of those beautiful old terrace houses which are so common in Sydney, looking after a couple of dogs for the weekend before I booked back to Melbourne.
The terrace house was a couple-three blocks back from Oxford street, overlooking the Art and Design campus of the University of NSW, housed in an old brick schoolhouse. The terrace was two storeys and a sous-sol, one of those gloriously perverse constructions with Escher-like staircases, mashed in a block of similar houses on a slight slope.
When I have a housesit, I don’t usually go out at night. As a flâneur, the street is my home, and I feel like I spend enough time on it, spinning my wheels ça et là in search of romance and adventure.
But to be so perfectly placed in Sydney for 48 hours was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Night #1 I ambled up Darlinghurst road to Kings Cross for dinner. I was armed with my trusty Pentax K1000 and Minolta XL-401 Super 8 camera, both loaded for bear with Kodak Tri-X film.
My mission was to scout and clout some suitably seedy Sydney scenes on celluloid.
I chowed down in an Italian joint in Potts Point; took a tour of the lighted windows of the handsome homes in that part of town; dipped the bill on the terrace of Darlo as I scratched a dispatch to myself in the pages of my journal; and bopped back towards the pad.
My bowtie drew some comment as I crossed Oxford street, but I managed to make it to the other side without being assaulted. As I was mainlining it down South Dowling street, my eagle œil de flâneur clocked something curious in Taylor street, a narrow, one-way artery branching off the Eastern Distributor.
That’s the footage you see in the video above. My eye was caught by the gentle, teasing undulation of the verdant leaves veiling and unveiling the moon-like gleam of the streetlamp. I set up my camera on the corner to capture it.
I sauntered back to the terrace house and ambulated the hounds, first one and then the other, before we all reported for sack duty. The dogs were staffies, but the older one, Bella, was weak on her pins and only needed to go as far as the corner and back. Buster was young and vigorous, and I was under orders to give him a tour of the whole block before retiring.
I got him on the lead. The eerie, pregnant peacefulness of Paddington after midnight, an inchoate intimation of which I had scoped in Taylor street, symbolized for me in the striptease played by the leaves and the streetlamp, took hold of me as we passed the dark terrace houses.
I tried to imagine the inconceivable lives behind these elegant façades, the way you might take the front off a doll’s house to get a glim of the works inside. I couldn’t do it. The lives of Sydneysiders seemed too rich and strange.
We turned the corner into Josephson street, another narrow, one-way thoroughfare similar to Taylor street. Buster got the snoot down to do some deep investigating while yours truly lounged idly by, doing some snooping of his own.
I took a hinge on the quiet street, attempting to penetrate the poetic mood of this friendly darkness which was in Josephson street too. This ‘mood’ seemed to be general all over this part of Paddington. I patted the pockets of my memory. What did this place remind me of…?
It was then that ‘The Girl’ tied into us, and if you want to know what happens next—you’ll have to scroll up and watch the video essay!
It’s adapted from a couple of paragraphs I scribbled in my journal a couple of nights later, when I was on the train back to Melbourne, meditating on my weekend as a ‘Sydney flâneur’. As the familiar scenes unspooled beside me on the XPT, taking me away from that brief oasis of unexpected experience, a nice coda to my Central Coast ‘holiday’, I got some perspective on what that poetic mood—which possesses me in all my photographs and videos—might be.
Nothing refreshes the flâneur, that restless spirit perpetually in search ‘du nouveau’, more than a fresh city to test his navigatory chops on. My experience traipsing the streets of Paris has given me a navigatory nonchalance in any new urban environment which often astonishes—and sometimes even alarms—people. Put a map in front of me and I’ll betray my bamboozlement by turning it ça et là, but my sense of topographical orientation—the map I make of places in my mind—is very good indeed. I don’t have to be in a place very long before I’m naming streets to locals as though I’ve lived there all my life.
Sydney, however, still poses a challenge for me. One of my readers, James O’Brien, put me on to the trick. According to James, the secret to navigating Sydney is to think of it in terms of hills and Harbour: if you’re going uphill, you’re heading towards the Blue Mountains; if you’re going downhill, you’re heading towards Sydney Harbour.
It’s a neat trick. I wish I had known it during my 48-hour furlough in Paddington.
On the Saturday, I decided to test my mastery of Sydney in a walk which will no doubt leave my Sydney readers wondering how I managed to do it without map or compass, a tent and several days’ provisions, and the assistance of a sherpa.
And indeed, as I look at my parcours in retrospect on Google Maps, the rather incredible breadth of that expedition (which included a few wrong turns) does seem to show up the difference between a ‘Melbourne flâneur’, like yours truly, and a ‘Sydney flâneur’.
A Sydney flâneur, I dare say, would never have attempted it, because the main difference between Melbourne and Sydney is that the former is a much more ‘walkable’ city.
In Melbourne, you can walk quite a distance, if you’re inclined to. To walk from the city to Brunswick, or from the city to St Kilda, is not a wearisome proposition. The streets are logically arranged, the terrain is not fatiguing, and the experience is altogether a pleasurable one.
But to be a Sydney flâneur requires strategy rather than rugged endurance.
To walk from Paddington to Green Square via Bourke street, then back up to Redfern via Elizabeth street, and finally across to Newtown, with no map and nothing but the sketchy guidance of the bicycle lane to orient you, probably strikes my Sydney readers as the flânerie d’un fou.
With time out for coffee at Bourke Street Bakery and diversions for the dispensing of dosh on vintage bowties and button suspenders at Mitchell Road Antiques, how on earth did I accomplish such a trajet in one day with hardly an idea where I was going?
Je ne sais pas. But it was a thrilling experience to walk a city which I don’t think any city planner ever intended to be seriously trod. You may be able to travel through Melbourne without a car, but Sydney?
Though I cheated on the way back, training from Newtown to Central, and bussing from Central to Flinders street, I wasn’t done filing down the heels on my handmade Italian shoes that day.
Night #2, heavily armed with cameras, tripod and paraphernalia, I attempted an even more ambitious nocturnal sortie for a flâneur who isn’t altogether au fait with Sydney. My plan was to make a massive foot-tour to Circular Quay and back.
I struck out along Oxford street and rambled through Hyde Park around dusk. I inhaled a digestif at Jet, in the Queen Victoria Building, while I unburdened myself to my journal. Then I went on the prowl, Pentax primed, tacking stealthily towards Sydney Harbour by way of George street.
There was some sort of to-do in George street between the QVB and Martin place—I forget what, but a lot of revellers and rubberneckers. My cat-like spirit bristled at the noise and lights and I was glad to get clear of them as I stalked north.
There was a full moon set to scale the sky over the Opera House that night. Having purchased a fresh cartridge of Tri-X from Sydney Super 8, I set up my Super 8 camera by Circular Quay, counting off a long timelapse of the Harbour under my breath and remembering how I had once, on a disastrous second date, walked past this spot, arguing about the comparative architectural merits of the Harbour Bridge vis-à-vis the Opera House with a French girl I had picked up at Darling Harbour two days earlier.
We had not been able to agree on that or on anything else that day, and I had been glad to get my luggage out of her apartment, get rid of her, and get on a train back to Melbourne.
It was getting on towards midnight. I retraced my way back to Town Hall via Pitt street, the lunacy of the high moon and the memory of past amours working their poetic powers upon my spirit, inspiring me to squeeze off a shadowy shot with the Pentax here and there.
I was too foot-sore to trudge on to Central. I had been on my dogs all day, so I saved some Tuscan shoe leather and shouted myself a trip on the Opal card at Town Hall station. On the short train ride, tired as I was, I had my senses sufficiently about me to admire the hard, shiny Sydney girls, hot and fast as the slug from a Saturday night special.
Once I had had it in me to cut across their frames and charm even the hardest chica, but I was beginning to think my days as a pocket-edition Casanova were over.
I thought of the girl in Josephson street. Was I getting fussy in my encroaching middle age? Or was I just developing belated good taste?
When I got back to the terrace around one a.m., I got the hounds out for their third and final walk of the day, but lightning did not strike twice: I did not see the girl in Josephson street again.
I hope you enjoyed this reminiscence of one of my flâneries. I received a lot of positive feedback from followers and visitors to this vlog saying that they enjoyed listening to me reading the audio versions of articles I wrote on the subject of the Coronavirus. So I decided to start releasing the soundtracks of my videos—like the one at the head of this post—for purchase via my Bandcamp profile.
For $A2.00, less than the cost of a coffee, you can have my dulcet tones on your pod pour toujours. Just click the “Buy” link below to support me.