Dean Kyte reads “David Goodis”, a poem from Geoffrey O’Brien’s collection In a Mist (2015), composed of lines lifted from the novels of American crime writer David Goodis.
His room had a bed,
a table and a chair. 

He turned and looked around the room
and tried to see something. 

The quiet became very thick
and it pressed against him. 

The heat
was stronger than any liquor. 

He told himself to relax
and play it cool. 

He told himself
to get back on balance. 

As he went out of the house
he could still hear the screaming. 

And later, turning the street corners,
he didn't bother to look at the street signs. 

—Geoffrey O’Brien, “David Goodis”, In a Mist (2015, p. 29)

In today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur, I present you with something a little bit different, chers lecteurs. With a wink and shout-out to the friends and followers of this vlog in the great, wide-open United States, instead of my own images of melancholy, brooding Melburnian noir, I present for our Seppolian mates a poetic vision of San Francisco as seen through classic 35mm stock footage shot, I would say, sometime in the 1960s. And instead of intoning my own words over this soir-y, noir-y vision of Tony Bennett’s favourite town (twin, as I have noted in another post, to Melbourne as a nineteenth-century city founded on gold, a fellow colony of the global caliphate of Paris in that century), I croon lyrics doubly appropriated.

The poem, entitled “David Goodis”, is by Geoffrey O’Brien—poet, film critic, fellow Francophilic Francophone, and, most notable of all, editor-in-chief of the prestigious Library of America, the equivalent, in American letters, to the French Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. With my nez sufficiently en l’air, allow me to say, with all the Proustian snobbery I can muster, chers lecteurs, that you are nobody in American literature until you have had the corpus of your literary outpourings fitted for the funereally black dustjacket of the LOA and your surname calligraphed in white on cover and spine.

Which is as much to say that you are no one at all in the history of American thought until your intellectual corpus has passed under the purview and scrutiny of Mr. O’Brien, an unusually subtle dissector and perspicacious critic of the underground currents of American life and culture, and deemed by him worthy of the black jacket and calligraphic treatment.

The subject of Mr. O’Brien’s poem is such a luminary, but a controversial admission to the Academy, I would hazard, for David Goodis (1917-67), is a writer still unacknowledged—and even unknown—by the American public at large, and, sous la Coupole of that black-redingoted coterie which includes the immortal likes of Messrs. Melville, Whitman and Twain—not to mention several former Commanders-in-Chief whose pens have been as mighty as their swords—Mr. Goodis would doubtless be received reluctantly, with the hands of those gentlemen remaining firmly behind their backs.

I say that the poem in the video above is doubly appropriated: Not only have I taken the liberty of rendering Mr. O’Brien’s poem, from his most recent collection, In a Mist, in my antipodean tones, but he, in turn, has taken the liberty of lifting the lines of his poem from the pulp paperback novels of Mr. Goodis, and thus we both do homage to a writer whose hand we would not decline to shake.

With respect to Mr. O’Brien, there are very few living writers in the world I respect or admire, from whom I think there is anything at all that I can learn, or whose words perpetually astonish me at the subtlety of their insight, such that they make me wish that I had written them, but Geoffrey O’Brien is one of those very few living writers, and as he is not really well-known in Australia and his books are about as hard to come by in this country as Mr. Goodis’ are in America, I am very happy to press his name upon you, dear readers.

Mr. O’Brien first entered my life more than twenty years ago, with the discovery of the expanded edition of his first book, Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir (1981)—which was, incidentally, also my introduction to the works of Mr. Goodis. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Hardboiled America; it’s one of the seminal influences on my literary life, and as a work of both art and literary criticism, it establishes Mr. O’Brien’s unique tone and style as a writer.

With no disrespect to him, I mistrust his poetry for the most part; like myself, formal poetic composition is not where Mr. O’Brien’s forte lies. But also like myself, he is definitely that rarest product of modernity’s contradictions, a poet in prose, and as I said in my post “Can prose be poetry?”, what defines this idiosyncratic espèce d’écrivain is the reconciliation in his being of opposites that are diametric—even, it would appear, mutually exclusive to one another: As Hardboiled America demonstrates at every re-reading, Mr. O’Brien has the holistic soul and vision of a poet, but that oceanic vision of wholes—the whole sweep of the paperback industry in its lurid years—is canalized through the prosateur’s dissective vision of parts.

He is, in other words, one of the subtlest analysts of the underground currents of American life and culture, for he perceives the whole of the Zeitgeist in particulars—particular writers of pulp paperback fiction, and particular cover artists.

As I said in that post, the analytic, the critical faculty is key to the constitution of the prose poet: in him, the rationality of the scientist meets the religiosity of the poet. And certainly, when I was learning my craft and trade as a writer, hammering out film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, anytime Geoffrey O’Brien’s by-line appeared in Film Comment, I descended on his analyses with double the attentiveness: his essay on Jacques Tourneur in the July-August 2002 issue of Film Comment is still memorable to me twenty years later as one of the great examples of writing on film, conveying both the ‘sensuality’ of the cinematic experience and the ‘intellectuality’ of the critical analysis of that experience.

In fine, he brings both sensuality and intellectuality to his survey of the pulp paperback industry in the middle decades of the last century; and if this eminently ‘cinematic’ approach to the pulp novel is eminently ‘right’ for this pseudo-cinematic medium, it is even more so when Mr. O’Brien treats of the cinema itself. The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century (1995) is an epic in prose poetry on the level of the comte de Lautréamont: it’s a surreal cultural history of the cinema written from the perspective of the movies themselves, and Roger Ebert (who also possessed this rare quality of being able to write about the sensuous experience of an intelligent consciousness engaging, in real time, with cinema) thought The Phantom Empire so good that he included an extract from it in his Book of Film, which collects ‘the finest writing’ on the art-form from Tolstoy to Tarantino.

But what of the subject of Mr. O’Brien’s poem, David Goodis, ‘the poet of the losers’, ‘the mystery man of hardboiled fiction’, as Mr. O’Brien calls him? I said I mistrust Mr. O’Brien’s poetry for the most part, but in his ‘sampling’ of random sentences lifted from Mr. Goodis’ pulp novels, and their rearrangement into a narrative even more elliptical, more blankly poetic than Mr. Goodis’ underdone prose, he finds that prosaic/prosodic reconciliation in himself—and he finds it even more in Mr. Goodis, a complete paradox of a writer, one who is no poet by any indulgent allowance, and who is so feeble in his faculties as an intellect, and so barely competent in his execution as a novelist that he barely deserves the allowance of being called a prose writer at all.

Yet the fact is that the great novelists have usually written very good prose, and what comes through even a bad translation is exactly the power of mind that made the well-hung sentence of the original text. In literature style is so little the mere clothing of thought—need it be insisted on at this late date?—that we may say that from the earth of the novelist’s prose spring his characters, his ideas, and even his story itself.

—Lionel Trilling, “Reality in America”, The Liberal Imagination (1950, pp. 16-7)

I like this quote from Mr. Trilling, for it accords with my deepest, most chauvinistic sentiments about writing:—that manipulation of the symbology of written language, what I call ‘the algebra of human thought’, is the purest demonstration of the quality of a person’s thinking, their capacity to engage in abstract logical reasoning. It’s the high bar I apply to every writer I read. Very few pass it, and almost nobody living does so.

Mr. Goodis is the extraordinary exception to that rule formulated by Mr. Trilling. He’s not a ‘bad writer’ in terms of being absolutely incompetent to bang an Underwood;—among noir novelists, Cornell Woolrich is much worse. Mr. Goodis occasionally turns out a sentence, a paragraph, a whole scene—as at the end of The Burglar (1953)—that moves us with its ‘jazzy, expressionist style’, as the LOA dubs his brief, abortive flights into a lyricism that just grazes the underside of poetry and is otherwise unknown in the literature of noir.

But Mr. Goodis shares with Mr. Woolrich, and even exceeds him in the rare quality that ‘his characters, his ideas, and even his story itself’ do not spring out of ‘very good prose’. There is a kind of syncopated clumsiness to his sentence construction which, as Robert Lance Snyder observes, typically ‘dispenses with punctuation between coordinated clauses’, creating the jazzy effect of Mr. Goodis’ ‘intradiegetic’ style—a poor man’s stream of consciousness.

Though a product of literary modernism, he is no Proust and no Joyce. The clumsiness of his characters’ internal monologues, their madeleineical souvenirs of a golden past perdu, their depressing predictions about the immediate future, may be an intentional technique, a deliberate strategy to ironize, alienate and distance himself, as author, from his pathetic antiheroes who, despite their copious streams of consciousness, are not greatly imbued with self-consciousness.

But I think not. Mr. Goodis gives the studious appearance of being too lazy for such Flaubertian meta-games. He is not an intellectual. He has, perhaps, more intellect and more self-consciousness about the sources of his ennui than Mr. Woolrich, but being lazy, he does not have much more, and he has no idea but one—the Fall from bourgeois grace into an infinite Abyss, an endless slide into differentially more straitened circumstances that perhaps not even death arrests, a chute lubricated by paranoid fear, mortifying remorse, nihilistic despair, paralyzing loneliness and intransigent paresse.

The policeman shrugged. All the policemen shrugged. The woods shrugged and the sky shrugged. None of them especially cared. It meant nothing to them. It meant nothing to the universe with the exception of this one tiny, moving, breathing thing called Vanning, and what it meant to him was fear and fleeing. And hiding. And fleeing again. And more hiding.

—David Goodis, Nightfall, Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (2012, p. 243)

And it is this extraordinary, expressionist evocation of the mélange of emotions, the compelling intensity and vivacity with which Mr. Goodis renders his personal hell with perverse lyricism despite his paradoxical commitment to writing the most stolid, the most grey and pedestrian prose possible that makes him one of the very rare exceptions to Mr. Trilling’s rule. He’s an absolute savant in literature, and one of the enduring, unanswerable questions about his life remains whether his failure as a writer was a deliberate ploy, a calculated plot, a planned campaign of æsthetic terrorism, blowing up his life in a blow against the bourgeoisie, or whether it was merely the result of his own indolence and incuriosity about the world.

Of all the writers of pulp fiction, excepting Dashiell Hammett (who, in the sense articulated by Mr. Trilling, is a far greater writer than Mr. Hemingway, a proto-Robbe-Grillet, and who is yet, even in America, to be fully given his due as a ‘serious novelist’), David Goodis is my favourite writer in the camp of the roman noir; and it is perhaps saying a very good deal that as recherché a writer as myself, one who applies the most ruthless standards of criticism and finds almost no one—not even myself—equal to the cut should acknowledge as an influence and as a phare ce petit gars Goodis.

David Goodis is a flâneurial writer pur-sang. The commercial livery of the crime novel is but a camouflage for his flâneurial spirit and his flâneurial preoccupations, his elliptical, abortive investigations of modernity. He wears the mantle of the crime novel about his meagre shoulders just as Eddie Lynn, the antihero of his masterpiece, Down There (1956), wears the ‘operative identity’ of a thirty-a-week piano-player in a dive bar on Philadelphia’s Skid Row: this is merely an operative identity, a ‘cover story’ for the true story that Mr. Goodis endlessly rehearses from one lurid, trashy paperback to another—the mysterious trauma of his enigmatic life.

“Can you tell me who you are?”

“Brother.”

“Whose brother?”

“His.” Turley pointed to Eddie.

“I didn’t know he had a brother,” Plyne said.

“Well, that’s the way it goes.” Turley spoke to all the nearby tables. “You learn something new every day.”

“I’m willing to learn,” Plyne said. And then, as though Eddie wasn’t there, “He never talks about himself. There’s a lota things about him I don’t know.”

“You don’t?” Turley had the grin again. “How long has he worked here?”

“Three years.”

“That’s a long time,” Turley said. “You sure oughtta have him down pat by now.”

“Nobody’s got him down pat. Only thing we know for sure, he plays the piano.”

“You pay him wages?”

“Sure we pay him wages.”

“To do what?”

“Play the piano.”

“And what else?”

“Just that,” Plyne said. “We pay him to play the piano, that’s all.”

“You mean you don’t pay him wages to talk about himself?”

Plyne tightened his lips. He didn’t reply.

Turley moved in closer. “You want it all for free, don’t you? But the thing is, you can’t get it for free. You wanna learn about a person, it costs you. And the more you learn, the more it costs. Like digging a well, the deeper you go, the more expenses you got. And sometimes it’s a helluva lot more than you can afford.”

—David Goodis, Down There, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s (1997, pp. 590-1)

Like Henry James’ ‘obscure hurt’, we are unlikely to ever know the precise details of Mr. Goodis’ mysterious trauma: masterful dandy, masterful flâneur, in his short, self-effacing life, he made a business of systematically obliterating all possible traces of himself from the documentary record of the twentieth century and of leaving too many false clues in their place.

He’s like Lee Harvey Oswald, another thoroughly nineteenth-century man who finds himself adrift as a refugee in the twentieth century. Like Mr. Oswald periodically turning up on the fringes of American culture, always tantalizingly close to the secret centre of celebrity and always on the verge of it prior to his fateful appointment in Dallas, time and again Mr. Goodis turns up in Hollywood, in Philadelphia, in New York, on the arms of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall or failing signally to make himself memorable to François Truffaut, detonating himself in some outré stunt all his friends agree you had to be there for, or else playing the invisible man, the ‘serious writer’ who snubs invites from Ann Sheridan to go flâning in South Central L.A., posing in Communist cells so as to get close to black women.

The key difference between these two terrorists of the bourgeois order is that, whereas Mr. Oswald actively sought celebrity, Mr. Goodis actively sought to escape it, to renounce his early fame and return to a state of which he associated with his ville natale and his parental home at 6305 North 11th Street in Philadelphia.

For the sum of everything was a circle, and the circle was labelled Zero.

You know, I think we’re seeing a certain pattern taking shape. It’s sort of in the form of a circle. Like when you take off and move in a certain direction to get you far away, but somehow you’re pulled around on that circle, it takes you back to where you started.

—Goodis (1997, pp. 654, 699)

To be sure, David Goodis, a writer terminally out of step with the drumbeat his time, is an ‘acquired taste’, and even today, the high-fructose corn-syrup-swilling Seppolians can’t take much of the arsenical cynicism de ce sacré numéro.

He is without doubt the most despairing of the noir writers working during the classic period of the paperback original. As Mr. O’Brien observes in Hardboiled America, the Goodis vision of the world is so unrepentantly joyless, in such intransigent contrast to the optimistic propaganda America was telling itself during the fifties, that it is not only an enduring wonder how Mr. Goodis got published on a consistent basis, but how it was that he became a bestselling author for what amounts to a kind of private ‘folk art’, so idiosyncratically personal is his vision of unremitting nihilism.

And yet somehow, for a brief period between 1951 and 1961, there was a popular market in America for the inexplicable private project Mr. Goodis appeared to set himself:—to convey himself by slow turnings to the same gutter in Philadelphia’s Skid Row he repeatedly slid his characters towards. After the peak of the paperback boom and the bounce of intellectual and æsthetic respectability he received grâce à M. Truffaut’s adaptation of Down There as Tirez sur le pianiste! (1960), he promptly fell into the obscurity he desired and became a forgotten writer in America, dead just seven years later at the age of 49.

For, despite the fact that Mr. Goodis, like so many of his characters, started his career at the top, his second novel, Dark Passage (1946), being serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, earning him a Hollywood contract with Warner Bros., and being turned into a movie starring the noir dream team of Bogie and Baby, and despite the fact that Gold Medal paperback originals such as Cassidy’s Girl (1951) were million-sellers in their first printing, in the States, he is still an underground writer, and until the Library of America published Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s in 2012, his work regularly fell out of print in the English-speaking world.

It’s France that made the reputation of David Goodis, and it’s in French that his work has continued to live, being continually reprinted in the prestigious Série Noire, and being continually adapted for the cinema by everyone from François Truffaut to Jean-Jacques Beineix. When Mr. O’Brien published his expanded edition of Hardboiled America in 1997, the only biography of Mr. Goodis was in French—Philippe Garnier’s Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc (1984), and so stubborn has American disinterest been in him that it was not until after the LOA edition of Mr. Goodis’ works that an English translation of the biography was published—one written by M. Garnier himself.

Ça alors! It says a great deal about a writer that not only do his countrymen hold him in such contempt that no one in American academe thinks him worthy of a critical biography, but that every member of every English department in every American university who has a command of French is so ennuyé with the subject of David Goodis they can’t even be bothered to translate the one biography of him that already exists!

But to call Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc a ‘biography’ in the strict sense is to be too generous. Improbable as it is in the twentieth century, the first in human history to be documented from first day to last, Mr. Goodis was so effective in his campaign of self-erasure from the record that too few facts remained for M. Garnier, less than twenty years after his subject’s death, to present a coherent ‘life’ of David Goodis in black and white.

The book, instead, growing out of a short documentary, “Loin de Philadelphie”, an episode of the French television series Cinéma cinémas (1982-91), is a kind of abortive detective story not unlike Mr. Goodis’ loosely plotted, elliptical ‘thrillers’, as M. Garnier goes ‘sur la pistede David Goodis, visiting his old friends and employers in Hollywood and Philadelphia, trying to shake out anything solid at all about this man who exists merely as a sum of improbable anecdotes M. Garnier struggles to corroborate, or else as a soul determined to leave no trace of himself behind on the memories of the lives he passed through.

M. Garnier, who confesses at the beginning of his biography to be unconvinced of the worthwhileness of the enterprise, saying that the Goodis œuvre, in his view is ‘loin d’être incassable’, has proved to be the best friend this overlooked writer has ever had. Not only did he take up his pen thirty years later to translate himself for the benefit of the few Americans with an interest, but, as he says in this interview, the confrontation with himself, with a book he had written as a young man, was strange enough for him to feel that a new version was required for the French public, Retour vers David Goodis (2016), correcting some errors and adding some of the few solid facts about ‘the mystery man’ that have been unearthed since.

Suffice it to say that no one in the States has yet taken the initiative to publish an English translation.

Why do the French love David Goodis so much?

… [I]l est à parier que les Américains, s’ils étaient seulement conscients de l’existence de Goodis et de sa surprenante réputation en France, considéreraient cet auteur de romans de gare comme une de ces charmantes mais énervantes idiosyncrasies qu’ont parfois ces crazy frenchmen — un peu l’équivalent littéraire de Jerry Lewis.

… You could bet that, if the Americans were only aware of Goodis’ existence and his surprising reputation in France, they would regard this author of pulp fiction as one of those charming yet irritating quirks of taste those ‘crazy Frenchmen’ sometimes have—a bit like a literary Jerry Lewis.

—Philippe Garnier, Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc (1984, p. 23, my translation)

The Americans hate nothing more than the hear the French praise the parts of their culture they themselves most deprecate, to prize the most naïvely, elementally ‘American’ parts of it they themselves despise—Jerry Lewis, par exemple.

Like all of us, they want to be taken seriously for the things they are really no good at. American ‘intellectualism’ comes off, to the French, as the naïve overreaching of a very limited spirit. The place where the Americans truly live, the locus of their national genius, lies in the naïve, the gauche, the moments of unreflecting action and un-self-conscious confidence in a manifest destiny they unironically evangelize to the rest of the world through the mythology of their cinema and literature.

When the Americans act from this place of naïve, gauche enthusiasm, they succeed in seducing all of us—but particularly the cynical, worldly French.

Note that I said ‘act’:—Americans are doers and not thinkers for the most part. They’re a concrete people with no national gift for the abstract. Even their ‘philosophy’, so-called, reflects a bias towards concrete action and ‘real’ results—the positivism of William James, the objectivism of Ayn Rand, for instance—and despite the dogged earnestness with which American ‘thinkers’ evangelize an ‘evidence-based approach’, to more subtle spirits, it takes very few steps down the logical road to perceive the unironic, bourgeois naïveté of American ‘thought’.

The Americans are the least platonic people on earth. They privilege the concrete over the abstract, doing over thinking, the tangible, material thing they regard as ‘real’ over the intangible, immaterial idea that the French would regard as being equally real—perhaps more so. If it can’t be measured and quantified, if it doesn’t possess some immediate, pragmatic utility, if it isn’t effective or can’t be made more so, it isn’t ‘real’ to Americans.

Even American transcendentalism is, in effect, a philosophy of extroverted sensing, not of introverted intuition: To escape the maya of material illusion, the transcendentalists, bizarrely, seek to plunge more deeply into it, their solution to the corrupting materialism of American society being to escape into the even more immediate materiality of Nature, to take real actions—chopping wood, drawing water, building one’s log cabin—in that domain.

We are still haunted by a kind of political fear of the intellect which Tocqueville observed in us more than a century ago. American intellectuals, when they are being consciously American or political, are remarkably quick to suggest that an art which is marked by perception and knowledge, although all very well in its way, can never get us through gross dangers and difficulties. And their misgivings become the more intense when intellect works in art as it ideally should, when its processes are vivacious and interesting and brilliant. It is then that we like to confront it with the gross dangers and difficulties and to challenge it to save us at once from disaster. When intellect in art is awkward or dull we do not put it to the test of ultimate or immediate practicality. No liberal critic asks the question of Dreiser whether his moral preoccupations are going to be useful in confronting the disasters that threaten us. And it is a judgment on the proper nature of mind, rather than any actual political meaning that might be drawn from the works of the two men [Theodore Dreiser and Henry James], which accounts for the unequal justice they have received from the progressive critics. If it could be conclusively demonstrated by, say, documents in James’s handwriting that James explicitly intended his books to be understood as pleas for co-operatives, labor unions, better housing, and more equitable taxation, the American critic in his liberal and progressive character would still be worried by James because his work shows so many of the electric qualities of mind. And if something like the opposite were proved of Dreiser, it would be brushed aside as his doctrinaire anti-Semitism has in fact been brushed aside because his books have the awkwardness, the chaos, the heaviness which we associate with “reality.” In the American metaphysic, reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant. And that mind is alone felt to be trustworthy which most resembles this reality by most nearly reproducing the sensations it affords.

—Trilling (1950, pp. 12-3)

Mr. Trilling’s ‘electric qualities of mind’, the real, embodied thinking that the écrivain pur-sang engages in, the unabashed intellection which is, in its abstraction, deeply practical in its confrontation with the concrete problems of life, is a rare event among American writers. There is, in fine, a grossness and a crudity to American thinking—which is not at all to insult them, for (as I will demonstrate in the next section) this grossness and crudity is merely a function of the English language itself, which privileges the actual, the immediate, the tangible, the material, the visible, the doable.

It is not a language well-adapted to the expression of invisible intuitions or subtle conceptualizations, and thus a rare writer like Geoffrey O’Brien is almost sui generis in American intellectual life, and hardly known to the public at large because such subtle perspicacity as his—which has more in common with French modes of thinking—is too delicate and diffuse a lacework to pass easily through the rough, popular laundering of ideas that a gross, clunky ‘thinker’ like Noam Chomsky depends upon for his reputation as America’s foremost ‘intellectual’.

The naïve, vital ‘elementality’ of the American spirit which the French find so seductive in a writer like David Goodis, who demonstrates his own naïve, gauche, but eminently electric qualities of mind, a vibrant, nervous, embodied sense of ‘something going on’, and which the Americans themselves deprecate as revealing the least sophisticated side of their culture, is so attractive because there is where American culture is ‘happening’; there is where it’s ‘at’; there is where they are transmitting high sensemaking signal, through the evangelism of their books and movies, about what is really ‘going on’ in Western civilization, right at the avant-garde, the cutting edge of decadent modernity.

What the Americans most prize about their culture, what they believe best represents them, often leaves the French cold. American ‘high culture’—like Australian, for that matter—is a very tepid, shallow thing, colonial in outlook, derivative and unoriginal for the most part. It’s in the unreflecting, youthful enthusiasm of their popular culture—the place where the American spirit of ‘doing’ is being done—that they are seductive to the French, who have done everything before the Americans, and for whom everything has been done before.

L’Amérique (as M. Nabokov noticed), c’est Lolita—the Lolita to France’s Humbert Humbert, and vieux roués ennuyés that they are, utterly shagged and fagged after the long debauch of European history, the one thing that can get the French end up, that can stir it from somnolence, is the endearing, innocent delusion of youthful America that there is something new under the sun; that all the possible permutations and combinations of human life have not already been enacted; and that the logical conclusion of every possible pathway for societal living does not end in disillusion, in the confrontation with humanity’s inextinguishable evil, its deceptiveness and depravity.

I said above that Mr. Goodis was no intellectual. And yet he has Mr. Trilling’s ‘electric qualities of mind’, more so than the ‘bookish’ authors the Americans would like to press on us as their most literary—‘literary’, as Mr. Trilling says, ‘in the bad sense’ of striving to be self-consciously ‘fine’, like Theodore Dreiser, whose An American Tragedy (1925) might be the ‘backstory’ for the archetypal Goodis plot—a young man of great expectations; a stratospheric rise to the top; two women, a good, ‘common’ girl who loves and understands him, and a bad society dame he lusts fatally for; murder; and an equally vertiginous descent into darkness.

Mr. Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts to American lives. And thus at the place where the action of Mr. Dreiser’s uniquely American tragedy cuts out, in the Void of that 無-state is where the Goodis world, the hellish underworld of American life, begins.

If the French read existentialism into books that the Yanks deprecate as the worthless œuvre of a very minor author, in a genre—the pulp crime thriller—they regard as being merely a socially sanctioned form of pornography, it’s because, with his fervent testifying towards a vision of unutterable darkness and bleakness, Mr. Goodis is naïvely pointing, gesturing wildly towards where it—Western civilization in existential decline—is at, what is really going on right now.

“Aaah, close yer head,” some nearby beer-guzzler offered.

Turley didn’t hear the heckler. He went on shouting, tears streaming down his rough-featured face. The cuts in his mouth had opened again and the blood was trickling from his lips. “And there’s something wrong somewhere,” he proclaimed to the audience that had no idea who he was or what he was talking about, “—like anyone knows that two and two adds up to four but this adds up to minus three. It just ain’t right and it calls for some kind of action—”

“You really want action?” a voice inquired pleasantly.

—Goodis (1997, p. 588)

‘There’s something wrong somewhere’: the gross vagueness of that elemental apperception is American intellection at its most crudely clear, and the solution to the Audenian ‘situation of our time’ is action—some kind of it, an equally vague prescription.

Even if he expresses the American Dream by negation, as an arbitrary nightmare—unjust, unequal, and unfree—in the naïve, gauche earnestness with which Mr. Goodis stumblingly evangelizes the vision of his personal hell, he is testifying to the French of all they perversely admire in their republican frères—a young, rude culture that believes absolutely in itself even when, as in the case of David Goodis, the absolute belief in the American Dream is absolute disbelief in it, a kind of ‘atheism’ towards this liberal ideal which has become the secular deism of modernity—the very torch of Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité for the entire Western world.

As a writer who not only fell through the cracks of the American Dream, but whose ambition—whose version of it—was to precipitate himself headlong into the San Andreas Fault of it, to realize ultimate success in ultimate failure, the action that David Goodis and his characters take is the very thing that makes him despicably sinful to the Americans—a literary Jerry Lewis whose artistic appeal they can’t understand—and a hero of applied existentialism to the French.

The Americans lionize their successes, the heroes of their society who make it—despite the crippling, Darwinian competition of it—to the top. The French, en revanche, romanticize their failures, the tender souls unfit for their society, the artistic prophets who, while alive, the bourgeoisie scapegoats, and upon whose graves, after death, the bourgeois sons and grandsons erect whited sepulchres to the poètes maudits their ancestors crucified with the refusal of artistic recognition, and hence a mortifying poverty.

In Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc, M. Garnier identifies a fundamental French affinity and affection for ‘the little guy’—le petit gars, le petit bonhomme—the outcast of society which helps to explain why they should take up from the gutter this writer the Americans have cast into it as so much ‘trash’.

Perhaps it is a consequence of their republicanism, an égalité they have had to apply conscientiously, with many reactions and abandonments, on the atavistic foundations of one of the most hierarchical societies in history, that the French should have a rather sentimental regard for the common man—particularly when he’s hard done by, betrayed momentarily by a failure in the promise of the republican social contract of 1789.

That ‘sentimentalism’ for the common man and woman is as morphologically present in the works of M. Zola as it is in the pride the French take in ‘heroes of the people’, great artists like Jean Gabin or Édith Piaf who never lose the common touch, the sense of the streets.

But as M. Garnier explains, the rather sentimental French feeling for drunks, amnesiacs, madmen, hard-luck cases and ‘lost’ people of all sorts becomes especially heightened after the Second World War, and he notices that, with Mr. Goodis, the obsession regularly renews itself: he is ‘la personnalité la plus forte que nous ait révélée l’après-guerre’, a veritable ‘Lautréamont du polar’, a writer who, despite his personal fragility and the weakness of his novels, does not fall into the oblivion he desires but maintains a stubborn grip on the French psyche, being periodically rediscovered by new generations of readers and cinephiles.

There’s an irony in this; for while Mr. Goodis sought and realized his American Dream, succeeding handsomely at failure, leaving hardly any trace of himself behind as the most quintessentially American of American products—the utterly disposable ‘throwaway man’—in his Stygian passage through the gutters of Philadelphia, he is led out to sea, across the Atlantic, and down the Seine to become ‘le succès de Paris’, lionized by the Rive Gauche existentialists as one of the purest examples of American ‘philosophizing’ on the state of the world l’après-guerre, a vibrant, naïve surrealist in a despised genre, the roman noir, and one of its writers most worth saving from l’oubli.

Nothing, it seems, quite succeeds like failure.

The defining characteristics of the American roman noir and film noir can more easily be deduced from French critical discourse…. As [James] Naremore writes, both before and after the war, ‘when the French themselves were entrapped by history’, critics influenced by existentialism were attracted to film noir ‘because it depicted a world of obsessive return, dark corners, or huis-clos’.  The crises that had shaken France since the 1930s – the period of war, occupation, resistance and collaboration described by the French as ‘les années noires’ – led many to share the existentialist preoccupations, and to appreciate the darker strains in recent American literature and film.

—Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller (2001, pp. 93-4)

Les années noires—the ‘black years’ of French life between 1940 and 1944. That word—noir—as an adjective, a colour, but also a metaphorical state of negative emotion, and as a noun, a condition of obscurity, has, in recent years, been applied rather too casually by the literal-minded English-speaking peoples—particularly the Americans—to all sorts of media productions, such that proper comprehension of its French meaning, diffuse, as in the abstract manner of French thought, and yet precise, is in danger of being terminally compromised.

And yet, if we are to properly conceptualize the state and condition of our (post)modernity—what I call, with reference to Mr. Auden, ‘the Crime of our Time’—this meta-crisis in meaning which is producing the exponential decline of a globalized West, then we must understand what the French mean by this totalizing state of darkness, this totalizing condition of obscurity we translate literally as ‘black’ or ‘blackness’.

The state of noir that the French identify as a salient current in American popular film and literature analogous to their own réalisme poétique is the state of complete uncertainty, and it is the condition of total ambiguity.

It is being indefinitely—maybe permanently—arrested in a state of ‘threat assessment’ with respect to a modern environment one can no longer ‘read’, a state of ‘alienation’ à l’égard des alentours—as in the condition of being ‘occupied’ by a foreign power, uncertain who, or what, in the environment one can trust, whether one’s neighbour is un collaborateur or un résistant. One is plunged ‘dans les ombres’ of this modern society rendered suddenly ‘black’ by an inscrutable Hobbesian conflict in which one is being ‘warred against’ by a barrage of ambiguous signal coming from all directions, assailed by the competing demands of salience in the environment.

It is the typical, conspiratorial, paranoid condition of espionage, of cold warfare, where the most banal signal may be freighted with the greatest existential significance to the one who can read it. And in the fog of war, in this world of ‘nuit et brouillard’ ‘after Auschwitz’, to participate (or not) in the conflict—and which side of this culture war of competing meanings, competing interpretations of impenetrable reality one chooses—becomes, for the French, the existential question of personal morality par excellence.

L’enfer, c’est les autres; l’homme est condamné à être libre:—the state and condition of noir, for the French, is the open-air prison of spectacular society, whose ambiguous bars, the curbs and checks and guardrails on our liberty, are other people, the fateful choices we make from moment to moment in our interactions with them.

And after the Libération, the French must come to terms, in les années 40, et les années 50, the great years of noir as a cultural phenomenon,—and even into les années 60, the years of the Nouvelle Vague,—with the humiliating cowardice of the Vichy years, what the existential choice of surrender, of ‘powerless’ collaboration with an alienating force, says about the majority of people in French society.

Beneath our social costumes, beneath the veneer of civility and civilization, we are all black as hell.

Je me demande si les Français ne trouvent pas une certaine mélancolie existentielle dans les romans de David; une attitude dénuée de tout jugement envers les personnages qui sont touchés par le destin d’une manière qui leur échappe complètement, mais qui néanmoins n’ont pas perdu leur dignité, ni certaines valeurs éthiques, ni leur capacité à ressentir les choses. Tout ça en dépit de ce que la vie leur a fait. Il y a quelque chose d’existentialiste là-dedans, et avec la vogue de ce mouvement juste après la Guerre, je me demande si ce n’est pas cette dimension philosophique, cette coloration des livres de David, que les Français ont perçues, ou cru percevoir… Je m’empresse de dire que c’est une notion totalement étrangère au public américain. Ses personnages ne perdent jamais leur humanité, même s’ils semblent toujours superficiellement consumés par le désespoir; ils sont encore capables d’être touchés par des principes moraux, en dépit de leur désillusion foncière. C’est bien ce qu’on trouve dans l’expérience historique et philosophique de la France après la Guerre. Mais c’est une sensibilité tout à fait incompréhensible pour les Américains, qui ont toujours été consumés par l’optimisme; nous n’avons jamais été désillusionnés, sauf peut-être maintenant, pour la première fois de notre histoire, à cause du Vietnam.

Je me demande si David n’écrivait pas ces choses-là complètement inconsciemment; je suis presque sûr qu’il n’y pensait pas en ces termes. Il n’en parlait jamais. J’ai l’impression que pour lui l’écriture c’était surtout une mécanique. Une chose à formules. Mais en dépit des formules il est inévitable qu’un écrivain insuffle un peu de sa personnalité dans les projets les plus commerciaux. J’ignore s’il a jamais eu l’ambition d’écrire “sérieusement”. Il n’en parlait jamais, ne révelait que très peu de sa personnalité, malgré un extérieur très ouvert et jovial. Peut-être qu’il s’ouvrait à son agent, à son avocat ou à son psychanalyste, s’il en avait un, ce dont je doute fort. Il reste que c’était un être humain remarquable, très attachant, et qui n’écrivait comme personne d’autre. Le fait que les lecteurs français aient été à même de percevoir, de deviner ce côté unique chez lui rien qu’à travers ses livres—alors que son pays le rejetait—en dit long je crois sur la culture française.

I wonder if the French don’t find a certain ‘existential melancholy’ in David’s books; an attitude stripped of all judgment towards people who are touched by fate in a way that completely blindsides them, but who, despite this, never lose their dignity, nor certain ethical values, nor their capacity to feel things. All this despite what has happened in their lives. There is something vaguely ‘existentialist’ about David’s work, and given the vogue this movement enjoyed just after the war, I wonder if there isn’t the hue of this philosophical dimension to David’s books, which the French have perceived—or believe they have perceived—in them… I hasten to add that it’s a completely foreign notion to the American people. David’s characters never lose their humanity even if they are always appear, on the surface, to be consumed by their despair: they’re capable of being moved by moral principles, despite their fundamental disillusionment. That’s what we find in the historical and philosophical experience of France after the war. But it’s a sensibility altogether incomprehensible for the Americans, who have always burned with optimism: we’ve never been disillusioned, except perhaps now, for the first time in our history, due to Vietnam.

I wonder if David wasn’t writing his books completely unconsciously; I’m almost certain that he never thought in such terms. He never spoke of his work ever. I had the impression that for him, writing was above all a mechanical process, a formulaic thing. But despite the formulas, it’s inevitable that a writer will inject a little of his personality into even the most commercial projects. I don’t know if he ever had the ambition to write ‘seriously’. He never discussed it and only ever revealed a tiny portion of his personality, despite his very open and jovial front. Perhaps he opened up to his agent, his attorney, or his psychoanalyst—if he had one, which I strongly doubt. What remains is that David was a remarkable human being, very endearing, and someone who wrote like nobody else. The fact that it is even possible for French readers to perceive, to divine this unique side of him just through his books—while his own country rejected him—speaks volumes, I think, about French culture.

—Paul Wendkos, friend of Goodis and director of The Burglar (1957), as cited in Garnier (1984, pp. 57-8, my translation)

Despite himself, Mr. Goodis naïvely expresses the fundamental noir state and condition for the humiliated, soul-searching French after World War II. He both embodies in his own life and writes (howsoever imperfectly) of the condition of modernity in its terminal phase of decline.

In his permanent paralysis of threat assessment, unconvinced by the all-purpose American solution of ‘doing something’—that superficial American intellection which, in its gross crudity, actually cracks its shovel on the obdurately dense fog, the abstract, ambiguously multi-level ground of reality—Mr. Goodis’ existential choice, like that of the majority of Frenchmen during les années noires, is to defer choice, to drop out of society, to keep his head down and let the cup of positive action pass for as long as possible from his lips.

The flâneur’s paralysis before the ambiguity of modernity manifests itself as the paradoxical symptom of a pathological mobility, a restless recherche du nouveau. More ground needs to be taken in to gather more points of data so as to compass the variety presented by reality, and thus resolve the ambiguous enigma of the threat assessment. The flâneurial project becomes a noir project because of the inherent hopelessness of the endeavour: one man walking the streets of Paris, Melbourne, Philadelphia, or L.A. tout seul cannot possibly satisfy Ashby’s Law.

As traumatized an observer of triumphant American society as French writers and filmmakers were of their own defeated society après la Guerre, Mr. Goodis personally and iconographically embodies the flâneur as the anonymous ‘Man of the Crowd’. More than the archetypal figures of the P.I., the femme fatale, the gangster as ‘Organization Man’, the bent cop who is virtually a petty criminal, the good, domestic woman, Mr. Goodis identifies and embodies the fundamental noir condition of being ‘no one at all’, no longer even an individual, but one of the urban dispossessed, a shiftless refugee from a seismically disrupted meaning after 1945.

And for the French, equally the most literary and the most cinematic culture on earth, which is to say, the culture that best reconciles the disparate and mutually exclusive æsthetic demands of the word and the image, the image of David Goodis, this American crime writer who set his sights on a zero-state, whose acte gratuit was to erase himself from the historical record, such that only a few, frequently reprinted photographs of him remain, has, as M. Garnier says, ‘devenu icône pour les Français’, ‘l’archétype de l‘écrivain américain.’

The archetype of the American writer: David Goodis at his desk in the attic of his parents’ home.
The archetype of the American writer: David Goodis at his desk in the attic of his parents’ home.

This image, which has become iconographic of the mystery man, is the one the LOA chose for the cover of its omnibus edition of his works. You can tell the time by the shadow on his chin, and bent pensively over his Remington, the collar of his striped shirt unbuttoned, the forties-style tie at half-mast, the braces (a famous Goodisian fashion statement to his friends) on display and the de rigueur desk lighter and ashtray in conspicuous view, as M. Garnier says of this image and its twin, taken side-on to the desk, ‘[i]l ne manque plus que la bouteille de rye-whisky sur la table’ to complete this archetypal image of the twentieth-century American writer.

But in contrast to the machinal, masculine asceticism of typewriter, desk and uniform—the American writer as literary worker, not literary artist—Mr. Goodis has, as M. Garnier says, delicate features and sensitive eyes rendered rather feminine by brows and lashes—altogether ‘[u]ne belle tête, mais étrangement vide d’expression.

Plyne looked, seeing the thirty-a-week musician who sat there at the battered piano, the soft-eyed, soft-mouthed nobody whose ambitions and goals aimed at exactly zero, who’d been working here three years without asking or even hinting for a raise. Who never grumbled when the tips were stingy, or griped about anything, for that matter, not even when ordered to help with the chairs and tables at closing time, to sweep the floor, to take out the trash.

Plyne’s eyes focused on him and took him in. Three years, and aside from the music he made, his presence at the Hut meant nothing. It was almost as though he wasn’t there and the piano was playing all by itself. Regardless of the action at the tables or the bar, the piano man was out of it, not even an observer. He had his back turned and his eyes on the keyboard, content to draw his pauper’s wages and wears his pauper’s rags. A gutless wonder, Plyne decided, fascinated with this living example of absolute neutrality. Even the smile was something neutral. It was never aimed at a woman. It was aimed very far out there beyond all tangible targets, really far out there beyond the left-field bleachers. So where does that take it? Plyne asked himself. And of course there was no answer, not even the slightest clue.

The soft-easy music came drifting from the piano.

—Goodis (1997, pp. 598-9)

A truly ‘beautiful man’, ‘véritablement spirituel’, as M. Baudelaire might say—if, like the French, you perceive beauty in failure, a ruined nobility in wasted acts.

And for Mr. Goodis, who was known in Hollywood as a writer as handsome as Tyrone Power—a comparison he hated—it strikes me as miraculous that M. Truffaut should choose Charles Aznavour—who predicts the wasted Goodis of the sixties with his sensitive, slightly feminine beauty—to interpret Charlie/Eddie-as-David, the displaced typist-as-pianist, the utterly ‘automatic writer’ à la Wendkos, from whose pianola-like platen the ‘soft-easy music’, the prose-poetic musique concrète of empty writing, tinklingly unscrolls of its own accord. Though never having met Mr. Goodis, le bel Aznavour, with his aristocratic air de petit-bonhomme fallen on hard times, has the ‘soft-easy smile’ of this ‘man who wasn’t there’—who isn’t there in this photograph—down pat.

The cipher we see above has the androgyny of the dandy, and inhabiting the Void, he has the dandy’s vacancy, his incompleteness unless donning the costume of an operative identity and playing it to the hilt, as though his life depends on it—which it does, since, for the dandy, what—or rather, ‘who’—to wear is, as Philip Mann says in The Dandy at Dusk (2017), fundamentally an existential question.

But, as an underground, flâneurial writer, Mr. Goodis is an ‘inverted dandy’: Where, as Mr. Brummell declared, the dandy pur-sang seeks to make himself invisible through his toilette, being so rigorously ‘correct’ in his operative identity as to fail to turn a head, the inverted dandy (a concept I appropriate from Hr. Mann, who completely misunderstands the logic of the terme génial he himself has invented) seeks instead to make himself un spectacle that competes with the societal spectacle, drawing attention to himself in actes gratuits of æsthetic terrorism, turning heads, as Mr. Goodis did through the public detonation of himself in those outré stunts and extravagant blagues directed against good, bourgeois order reported by his friends.

Knowing Mr. Goodis’ dandistic propensity for fantasist play-acting and deadpan practical joking, one is entitled to wonder, looking at this signally unenlightening image, if he isn’t putting on a deliberate spectacle for the camera, playing at being the ‘serious writer’—un Hammett de poche, the future darling of French existentialists who will perceive the ‘electric qualities of mind’ in this intellectual naïf who transcends the small, mean formulæ of a genre of literature deprecated in his own country—the roman noir—to tell us something large and generous about the conditions of modern life after 1945.

Ce n’est que maintenant, avec le temps, et aussi quand on se rend compte que vous Français avez perçu confusément cette brillance et cette solitude chez David Goodis, ce n’est que maintenant qu’on réalise qu’il était l’être le plus unique, le moins conventionnelle qu’on ait connu de toute notre vie.

It’s only now with the passage of the years,—and also when we take notice of the fact that you French have vaguely perceived that brilliance and solitude that lies at the heart of David Goodis,—it’s only now that we realize he was the most unique, and the least conventional soul we could possibly have known in all our lives.

—Jane Fried, friend of Goodis, as cited in Garnier (1984, pp. 125-6, my translation)

Roman policier, roman noir: The crime novel as sociological investigation

Having determined that the French perceive a naïve, elemental existentialism analogous to their own more self-conscious, sentimental variety chez Goodis, the broader question then becomes:—Why are the intellectual French reading trashy crime fiction?

Among the English-speaking peoples, the crime genre is a deprecated form of literature, and, as we have seen, no more so than among the Americans, for whom (as Mr. O’Brien tirelessly demonstrates in Hardboiled America) pulp crime fiction was but the most effective vector for the delivery of literary pornography.

The hardboiled literature on which the paperbacks thrived and to which they ultimately contributed partook, in its heart, of a demonic vision.  The publishers often took pains to make that vision more ribald and colorful than the original texts warranted.  After all, the public wanted gunfights and Lana Turner, not existentialism and l’acte gratuit.

—Geoffrey O’Brien, Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks (1981, p. 66)

A gleaming black revolver choked, white-knuckled, with masturbatory zeal and pointing obliquely at the crotch of the busty blonde bursting out of the cover is not so much a ‘preview of coming attractions’ as a provocation—and a direct solicitation—to drop 25¢ and franchir la porte, step behind the velvet curtain and discover if la Turner ‘gets it’—gets it good.

This was the climate in which Mr. Goodis was writing during the 1950s, and this was the market that he was writing for.

Crime fiction, from its inception, has always been a commercial genre. The detective story is, of course, the brain-child of an American author of commercial fiction—Edgar Allan Poe—and, par conséquent, the product of the English language, adapted to its material-realist mode of thinking. Given that crime fiction, in the Anglosphere, has never quite escaped its petit-bourgeois origins, the inky ‘odours of the shop’, we assume that other cultures deprecate this disposable form of ‘puzzle literature’ as much as we do.

But when Mr. Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, his setting was Paris, his detective was French, and he was writing with respect to a parallel tradition that had its basis in fact rather than fiction: In line with its cultural primacy as ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, it was Paris and not London which saw the institution of the first modern metropolitan police department under Napoléon Ier, and the memoirs of Vidocq, mastermind and first chief of the Sûreté, the French secret police under the Emperor, were a global publishing phenomenon.

Moreover, as Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1843) demonstrates, for the French, at the head of the cultural empire of modernity, the crime novel is part of a broader flâneurial project of sociological investigation, a comprehensive ‘physiognomic taxonomy’ of les types who inhabit the new societal ‘machine’ of the modern, spectacular City.

The French do not despise crime fiction, and if you have ever had the pleasure of reading a French crime novel—the so-called roman policier, or, more colloquially, lepolar’—it is rather a different experience, much more subtly flavoursome, than what we are generally given to chow down on in English.

The clue to the difference lies in the term ‘roman policier’, which we generally translate, in our English taxonomy of the crime genre, as the ‘police procedural’. The French have always been much less interested in the figure of the ‘talented amateur’ of the English tradition, or the private eye of the American tradition, than in the corporate machinery of the police, and given that the earliest policemen, such as M. Vidocq, were themselves former criminals, how this corporate machinery interacts with citizens on the other side of the law.

As compared to our Anglocentric assumptions about the philosophy of jurisprudence, how the machinery of the law should ideally unfold when set in motion, there are also significant differences in the modern French legal system, which was codified by the Emperor and only reformed by M. de Gaulle some 150 years later. These quirks of Gallic thought which the Anglophonic reader is likely to find either charming or exasperating, such as the active rôle played in investigation by ‘examining magistrates’ who seem to act as a handbrake on police procedure rather than a throttle to it, like the prosecutorial ‘D.A.’ of American lore, extend the operation of that corporate machinery the French find so fascinating into another dimension of the legal nexus that Anglophonic crime fiction, with its focus on the quasi-legal lone investigator, finds it typically convenient to ignore.

And perhaps as a consequence of the amoral beginnings of the French police, a curious flavour of ‘fraternity’ between the upholders of the moral order and the denizens of the underworld seems to have trickled down in French crime novels and movies. Everyone, flics et filous, seems to be very good copains with one another in a way that the more adversarial Anglo legal system would certainly find irregular.

A wary camaraderie and weary good humour about the typical, compromising foibles of the ‘comédie humaine’ of crime as a ‘left-handed form of human endeavour’ seems to prevail through all the levels, and both sides of the law, which perhaps in some sense reflects an enduring assumption about society as a ‘great machine’ which the French crime novel owes to the novel more generally as codified by M. Balzac.

The French roman policier, in fine, is more of a sociological investigation than the English Golden Age detective story. It is not incompatible, as Anglophonic readers assume, with the broader literary project of the modern novel since M. Balzac rationalized the form to naturalistically describe and delineate the corporate machinery of society, how the spectacle of the City operates, how the logical terms of that abstract ‘open-air prison’, the concrete and living bars of its citoyens as physiognomic types, dramatically interact to produce the tragicomic conclusions of crime and punishment.

And the discernible abstract dimension to the polar as social commentary above the machinations of a ‘plot’—both narrative and criminal—to be both divined and solved shows a different basis in assumptions of thought about what the novel of realistic intrigue is and what it may be, one which is a function of the more abstract nature of the French language itself.

French is not, like English, a ‘powerful language of ideas’. It is a graceful language of subtle ideas.

It is not a gross and crude shovel to crack the obdurate ground of material reality, turn a lot of earth, and construct a concrete edifice of thought one can point to as a tangible, sensible ‘result’. It is not, in fine, the language of science.

The English language is about three times the size of French. Such lexical broadness and such differentiation in the nuance of meaning that more or less synonymous words possess makes English a ‘powerful language of ideas’, an ideal tool for the penetration of material reality, the scientific description of it, and the inferential positing of diverse hypotheses about how material reality should or will ‘behave’ under described conditions.

This scientific-rationalist, material-realist bias in the language itself, the admirable capacity of English to name and describe concrete ‘things’ in the sense-world, is the reason why the classical Golden Age detective story first phenomenologically appears in English, and even accounts for why the first practitioner of the form should be an American:—For however out of step Mr. Poe was with his society (and he was as out of step with American society in the nineteenth century as Mr. Goodis was with American society in the twentieth), however much he was constitutionally attuned to the suprasensual, what he called his ‘tales of ratiocination’ are couched in the extroverted sensing biases, the foundational assumptions of English itself about how one should ideally confront the mystery of reality which surrounds us.

As a heuristic of practical action, the Foucauldian ‘grille’ of English assumes quite unambiguously that we make our way most efficaciously in the night and the fog that surrounds us by trusting to those material things which supply signal to our senses.

And thus the crudity and the grossness of thought, the naïve ‘elementality’ of the American spirit is a function of the morphological assumptions of the English language,—its biases toward the material and the concrete,—and American ‘culture’ (a high, globalized Western civilization in existential decline) is, in effect, the triumph of the English language itself—this globalized language of science, of scientific rationalism and material realism.

The ratiocinative, hypothetico-deductive scientific method is what guides the chevalier Dupin of Mr. Poe’s detective stories; it’s equally what guides Sherlock Holmes: a conception of the world, through the grille of English, as ludic space, as game, as puzzle, as, literally, ‘casse-tête’ to be ‘solved’, as a Nature that is, despite its apparent irrationality, fundamentally rational.

And perhaps more naïvely still, on the sociological front, English assumes the irrational comédie humaine of crime, that ‘left-handed endeavour’, to be rationally deducible from material facts and evidence, and reduces human beings and their surreal behaviour to a set of flattened-out puzzle pieces, tokens in a game of Cluedo to be arranged and rearranged until, by a logical process of elimination, the combinatorial permutations of characters, settings, and props resolve themselves into the one possible picture of an occluded reality.

And thus it is ridiculous for Mrs. Christie, in her country-house games of Cluedo, to invoke ‘the little grey cells’ of human psychology as distinguishing the deductive method of Poirot from his forerunners in this: The little Belgian may not throw himself on his face among the begonias or be able to distinguish forty different brands of cigarette ash at a glance, but his method of deduction is as ratiocinative as Holmes’, dependent, as Mrs. Christie’s ‘plots’ are, upon a physics of time and space in which the irrational human element causes no friction, no décalage, her ‘characters’ being but paper dolls, cardboard cut-outs of human beings to be moved in straight vectors from conservatory to library in order to keep their timetabled appointments with the shifting finger of Poirot’s suspicion.

And there is a scheme of Agatha Christie’s featuring M. Hercule Poirot, that ingenious Belgian who talks in a literal translation of school-boy French, wherein, by duly messing around with his “little gray cells,” M. Poirot decides that nobody on a certain through sleeper could have done the murder alone, therefore everybody did it together, breaking the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater. This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it.

—Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944)

It is only with Mr. Hammett, and with the hardboiled school of American crime fiction in the twenties and thirties, that ‘the little grey cells’ of human psychology become genuinely relevant to the interpretation of the black mystery into which so much of human life falls.

The texts in question essentially can be dated from 1922, when Dashiell Hammett published his first Black Mask story. … What Hammett did of special note was to wed a style to a mythology.  The result was a specifically modern demonology.

Of course demons had been around in America since the beginning…. But it wasn’t until Hammett that the demons rode on the municipal bus and rented rooms in cheap hotels.  Something clicked: it was “realism,” the realest yet.  Yet beyond the lifelike shimmering of the surface, something else showed through, the lineaments of a dream or of a primal epic.

The realist element was far from negligible.  Following Hammett’s lead, the crime novel became a major vehicle for social analysis.  Even allowing for generous doses of fantasy and melodrama, it is possible to get a coherent picture of the underside of American life from the works of Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Horace McCoy, David Goodis….

—O’Brien (1981, pp. 67-8)

The emergence of the American hardboiled crime story in the interwar years, I would contend, is a naïve reaction to—and an even more naïve interrogation of—the scientific-rationalist, material-realist assumptions implicit in the very language which underwrites the American culture.

As Hr. Spengler says, the Great War was the apotheosis of Western ‘civilization’, self-inflicted, attritional mass extermination being the logical end of the Faustian scientific-rationalist project of ‘enlightened modernity’.

And if America, as the most technologically convinced and therefore also the most decadent efflorescence of these Faustian fleurs du mal which bloom into a totalizing, globalized West European conflict, is, as I say, ‘the triumph of the English language itself’, the civilizational conquest of the world through the crudely effective language of science, then it is only meet that writers like Messrs. Hammett, Cain, Chandler, and McCoy—the first generation of American noir writers, men with actual experience of the Great War—should question, in their work, the frictionless physics of the classical English Golden Age detective story, the assumptions that English itself can ‘get at the Truth’ of messy, irrational human conflict.

It is not uncommon, for instance, for the Continental Op not to ‘solve’ his cases, but merely to propose a tentative, provisional solution—one possible solution among many—that plausibly hangs culpability on the actually guilty party, and is plausibly rational enough, however contrived and engineered by the Machiavellian Op, to pass beyond the English standard of reasonable doubt and get the murderer the Op hungrily want to hang up to the gallows.

In this, Mr. Hammett’s Op—the self-described ‘manhunter’—is a demonologist—a demon-hunter—who, in contradistinction to Holmes, or Poirot, or other Golden Age detectives of the English tradition, is no ratiocinative savant, no ‘citizen-scientist’ who writes scholarly monographs on cigarette ashes, but is really a reader of people, a master of ‘the little grey cells’ of human psychology, and he depends, for his entrapment and exorcism of the demons from society, upon his own daimonic Machiavellianism to read the hands they hold close to their vests, bluff them, and claim the pot.

Thus it is that with the introduction of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution just after the Great War, America begins to get an intimation of what black demonic forces lie under our social costumes. Literal-minded English is no longer sufficient, with its faith in superficialities, to describe the spectacular society of ‘levels’ to which Prohibition gives rise overnight, a society suddenly made ‘ambiguous’ and ‘doubled’, a place of occluded gin-joints behind respectable shopfronts, of teacups containing bootleg liquor, of secret knocks and passwords.

To take a Spenglerian perspective, the hardboiled school of crime fiction is a specific excrescence of the morphological phenomenon of Prohibition just as it is, more generally, an excrescence of the morphological phenomenon of the interwar period, a punch-drunk period where some of the bright, sun-lit certainties in American life have been shaken loose by the trauma of the Great War. With Black Friday and the Great Depression, these superficial certainties—which are the foundational assumptions of American society—will undergo further oscillation, and when, finally, the United States enters the Second World War on December 7, 1941, it will enter fully into a state that has been prophesied by some of the films that have begun to be released in that year—the state of noir, the state of complete uncertainty and total ambiguity.

America is still in that state. Indeed, we all are, for as Faustian (post)modernity disintegrates at an exponential rate, the condition of ‘noir’ is now a globalized phenomenon.

In mystery and hardboiled fiction, the transition from the Thirties to the Forties is unmistakable.  Cain and Hammett and McCoy deal in a clear unblinking light.  Objects are delineated against the quietly terrifying neutrality of a noon sky, and actions are equally neutral—be they a suicide or a walk across a verandah.  They deal as well in speed, in deadpan wisecracks that add another kind of brightness.

Then, with the 1940s, comes the Great Fear.  The light is shadowed over; for ten years the key words will be “night” and “dark.”  The hardboiled wry grimace will be replaced by abject terror, by a sense of ultimate impotence in a world suddenly full of danger, of nothing but danger.  In Hammett’s novels there are conspiracies, but there is nothing mysterious about them.  They are part of the everyday violence of an everyday corrupt city, and they need no superhuman powers, secret weapons, or networks of invisible agents to make themselves felt.  In Raymond Chandler’s books, the menace is vaguer, more all-embracing, more redolent of primitive terror—the world is a vast spider’s web.  A postwar writer like David Goodis writes of fear as if it were the only emotion his heroes were capable of experiencing.

—O’Brien (1981, p. 88)

With the American writers of the hardboiled school, Anglophonic crime fiction in the most anti-platonic society on earth begins to nervously question the material assumptions of the language which underwrites its very culture and society.

Crime, it is finally acknowledged by the Americans, is not a rational problem in physics to be ‘solved’; it’s an irrational, Hobbesian poker game between people, and as Mr. O’Brien says, the new, nihilistic American crime novel—the ‘roman noir’—becomes ‘a major vehicle of social analysis’, moving closer to the parallel tradition of the French.

French, as I said, is a much smaller language than English. The corpus of extant words, therefore, has to bear a greater burden of work. Nuanced meaning, which English differentiates into synonyms, is more often condensed in French, one word bearing multiple connotations.

We saw this in the previous section with the very simple, matter-of-fact word ‘noir’ itself, which simultaneously possesses descriptive, poetic, and nominal meanings. Where English differentiates the shades of nuance into synonyms, French integrates them into global, holistic concepts, and thus the ‘hues of black’ contained in the word ‘noir’, the adjacency of the related notions of the absence of light and colour, of negative emotion, and of obscurity are simultaneously condensed into a single conceptual term.

Thus, as I said in the previous section, English is not a language well-adapted to subtle, abstract ideation: where French requires one word to communicate a multidimensional concept, English requires two or three adjacent synonyms to parse the same idea with an equivalent level of precision.

And if you want to understand why, in the Anglosphere, we are at the avant-garde of the meta-crisis in meaning, why we are on the cutting edge of Western existential decline, you would do well to notice the different foundational assumptions in the English and French languages.

The pandemic of ‘wokery’ that has deranged the minds of English-speaking peoples—particularly the Americans—is nothing more than the attempt of these people, governed by a language which prefers things to ideas, and which valorizes the material over the abstract, to concretize and literalize French postmodern philosophy, the avant-garde thought experiments of a language that is very adept at opening the mind to diffuse, subtle possibilities which may be implicit in material reality, but which is nowhere near as effective as English in articulating positive actions and achieving practical results.

The deleterious influence which French thinkers like M. Foucault have had on the Anglosphere due to the very imperfect dissemination of their ideas through the universities is the result of this misapprehension of subtle concepts (not at all without value, but distinctly limited in their practical utility) which the literal-minded English-speaking peoples suffer when their differentiated tongue is forced to confront integral intuitive speculations that require a grasp of the holistic French language, with its condensed constellations of implicit meaning, to properly appreciate.

The decline in the academic humanities being sharp since the importation of French postmodernism, there are many people in the English departments of American, British, and Australian universities who lack the ‘electric qualities of mind’ requisite to dexterously handle the multitudinous demands of our own tongue. These people have not read M. Foucault in French; they do not really know what he is saying; and having been acculturated by their language to think as gross materialists, they do not, in any event, possess the supple ‘electric qualities of mind’ necessary to enter the purely abstract realm of implicit possibility he excitingly resides in.

Moreover, the wrongheaded Anglo attempts to ‘apply’ French postmodern philosophy demonstrate the straits a materialist culture gets into when it tries to make a practical policy out of diffuse intuitions the thinkers of a more abstract culture posit as pure thought experiments, as potentials and possibilities that may be implicit in the material world of the senses, and which the grille of their abstract language elevates in salience to their attention and allows them to perceive.

Where English is a powerful language of ideas rich in practical fruits, French is a graceful language of subtle ones, of keen apperceptions that are intellectually delicious but not necessarily practical. Where English is naturally pitched towards the material plain and differentiates the things of Nature, French is more naturally pitched towards the abstract realm and integrates ideas through their platonic similitude.

Proverbial French “abstractions” in French poetry often represent a paradoxical desire to break through them and, by this act, to catch sight of the unusual slices or levels of reality.

Elsewhere I have suggested that American poets tend to begin with a fact and work toward an idea, while their French counterparts begin with an idea and work toward a fact. In the French prose poem, one of these initial ideas may indeed entail smashing through ideas, as the poet … would smash through a brick wall keeping him or her from an ardently desired reality. … Could it be that somewhere in this neighborhood exists a meeting point for French and American writers, where the French aspiration to break through concepts and attain a kind of “reality” encounters the demotic proclivities … in American prose poetry?

—John Taylor, “Two cultures of the prose poem”, Michigan Quarterly Review (2005, p. 373)

As Mr. Taylor shows in his stimulating journal article, the French seek extroverted sensing through their natural proclivity for introverted intuition, while the Americans, conversely, seek introverted intuition through extroverted sensing. This complementarity is what the two cultures find naturally attractive in each other: the French adore the Americans’ ‘earthiness’, the Americans love the ‘sophistication’ of the French.

And moreover, the ‘neighbourhood’ where they find a ‘meeting point’ for French abstraction and American materialism lies in the ‘demotic proclivities’ of that peculiarly American form of prose poetry, the deprecated pulp crime novel. ‘Down these mean streets’, the Cinderella of American literature is rendered suddenly ‘sophisticated’ when taken up by charming French intellectuals and paraded round the Beaux-Arts Ball as ‘le roman noir’.

As M. Garnier says in Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc, because of its deprecated commercial history, its sub-literary status as either cardboard puzzle or pornography, the Americans can’t quite get it through their heads that tout le monde en France—even intellectuals—reads crime fiction.

And yet Mr. Hammett would take it to his grave as the greatest point of pride in his life that he had earned the notice of André Gide, who compared his prose, in its cold, hard elegance, to mathematics. And as Mr. O’Brien tells us in Hardboiled America, there was a period when Mr. Hammett’s contemporary, Horace McCoy, now a shamefully forgotten writer in the States, was regarded by the French as the literary equal of Messrs. Faulkner and Hemingway, and no less an écrivain than Albert Camus would cite Mr. McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) as a crucial inspiration for L’Étranger (1942).

The American roman noir is a sociological investigation, like the French polar, but it’s also, necessarily—in a way English crime fiction has never been—an investigation of the English language itself.

Literary innovation in English has not, since the turn of the twentieth century, occurred in England itself, and I’ll hazard to say that it never will again. The greatest writer in our language during the last one hundred years was an Irishman, and after him, literary innovation in English has been monopolized by the Americans, a rude, young culture who have extended the demotic for all of us and, through the influence of Messrs. Hemingway and Hammett, have reformed the way that English is written the world over—for better and for worse.

The literary legitimacy of the roman noir lies in the way it investigates a rude, young society through its vibrant, vulgar vernacular, its slang and argot. The living language of a culture is the way a society makes sense to itself—and, indeed, of itself—and thus the hardboiled crime novel of the twenties and thirties, and the roman noir proper of the forties and fifties, is an eminently suitable vehicle for an investigation of, an interrogation of, the sudden ambiguity into which modern American society is thrown due to this meta-crisis in meaning, the gnawing doubt that the scientific-rationalist, material-realist language of ‘the King’s English’ is capable of adequately describing and making sense of an ambiguous reality.

The form of the ‘mystery’, which is tasked with divining meaning, of sense in an apparent irruption of dissonant ‘non-sense’, is the form of literature par excellence for an investigation of modernity that is simultaneously sociological and, necessarily, linguistic.

And it was this American ‘renovation’ of English, of course, that attracted a classically-educated linguist like Raymond Chandler to pulp fiction. He himself compared ‘the American language’ he taught himself to speak and write to the seismically evolving English of Elizabeth I, and went to so far as to say that if Mr. Shakespeare—to whom we owe one-quarter of our entire lexicon—were alive and writing today, he would doubtless be an American filmmaker working in Hollywood.

… [J]e ferai remarquer que les Gommes ou le Voyeur comportent l’un comme l’autre un trame, une «action», des plus facilement discernables, riches par surcroît d’éléments considérés en général comme dramatiques. S’ils ont au début semblé désamorcés à certains lecteurs, n’est-ce pas simplement parce que le mouvement de l’écriture y est plus important que celui des passions et des crimes?

I will point out that The Erasers and The Voyeur both include a plot and ‘action’ that is very easy to make out, and both are bristling with an excess of elements that are generally considered dramatic. But if, at the beginning, they both appear ‘diffuse’ to certain readers, isn’t this simply because the action of the writing itself is more important than the dramatic action of emotions and crimes?

—Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Sur quelques notions périmées”, Pour un nouveau roman (1963, p. 32, my translation)

And as the example of a French novelist-cum-filmmaker like Alain Robbe-Grillet, working in the middle years of the century, shows, the investigation of literary language—what M. Robbe-Grillet calls ‘l’écriture’; literally, ‘the writing’, the material artefact of the very words themselves on the page—is, and should be, the proper concern of the nouveau romancier.

In his first two published novels, Les Gommes (1953) and Le Voyeur (1955), he sought to scientifically demonstrate the conviction that writing itself is the only proper subject of research for writing. Though ‘crime novels’ of a very abstract type, both books are nominally romans policiers and show the influence of the American roman noir and film noir.

Indeed, as a reverse instance of Franco-American cross-fertilization, these books—like M. Robbe-Grillet’s œuvre generally—demonstrate the inverse of the argument I advanced above: French being a language that gracefully floats in a realm of platonic abstractions, it is singularly ill-adapted to rigorous material description, and yet it is M. Robbe-Grillet’s stubborn project to force the language down into the gross world of ‘things’ where English naturally lives, and where the Americans revel.

The result, in Les Gommes and Le Voyeur, is as grinding and merciless and bleak a description of ‘reality’ as we find in any American roman noir by Mr. Goodis—and perhaps more so since M. Robbe-Grillet, as a French intellectual, is not reacting to ‘a world of things’ made suddenly ambiguous with naïve nihilism, but is sadistically determined to rub our noses in the merde of our material condition through as ‘scientific’ a description of it as French can muster.

Il tentativo di Robbe-Grillet non è umanistico, il suo mondo non è in accordo col mondo. Ciò ch’egli cerca è l’espressione di una negatività, vale a dire la quadratura del cerchio in letteratura. Non è il primo. Oggi conosciamo opere importanti – rare, è vero – che sono o sono state deliberatamente il risiduo glorioso dell’impossibile…. La novità di Robbe-Grillet è il tentativo di mantenere la negazione al livello delle tecniche romanzesche…. Nell’opera di Robbe-Grillet, c’è dunque, almeno tendenzialmente, rifiuto della storia, dell’aneddoto, e insieme rifiuto della significazione degli oggetti. Di qui l’importanza della descrizione ottica in questo scrittore: se Robbe-Grillet descrive quasi geometricamente gli oggetti è per sottrarli alla significazione umana, emendarli dalla metafora e dall’antropomorfismo. … Non è sicuro che Robbe-Grillet abbia realizzato il suo progetto: in primo luogo perché lo scacco è nella natura stessa di questo progetto (non c’è un grado zero della forma, la negatività gira sempre in positività)….

Robbe-Grillet’s project is not a humanistic one: his world is not aligned with the world. What he seeks is the expression of a negative state—which is to say, a literary ‘squaring of the circle’. He’s not the first. Today we know of important works—rare ones, it is true—that are or have deliberately been the glorious residue of this impossible project…. Robbe-Grillet’s innovation lies in his effort to maintain the negation at the technical level of the novel…. In the work of Robbe-Grillet, there is, therefore, at least generally, a rejection of ‘story’, of anecdote, and concurrently a rejection of objects as vessels of meaning. Hence the importance of optical description in the work of this author: if Robbe-Grillet describes things almost geometrically, it is in order to ‘subtract’ them from human sensemaking, liberate them from the pathetic fallacies of anthropomorphism. … It isn’t certain that Robbe-Grillet has achieved his project: in the first place because failure is baked into the very nature of it (there is no ‘Degree Zero’ of form, the negation turns into a positive act)….

—Roland Barthes, “Non c’e una scuola Robbe-Grillet”, Saggi critici (1966, pp. 49-50, translated by Lidia Lonzi, my translation of Lonzi)

In his impossible quest to ‘square the circle’ of literature, to express in the positive form of writing itself an absolutely negative state of inhuman ‘thingness’, M. Robbe-Grillet’s literary project somewhat resembles the flâneurial-literary life-project of Mr. Goodis—that ‘body of work’, a literary corpus which is the sole material record—like some empty, chrysaline trace left by an ectoplasm in its passing across this plain—of a completely self-erased life, one hell-bent, in all its positives actions, on circling back to the absolutely negative, zero-state of 無.

In “Sur quelques notions périmées” M. Robbe-Grillet valorizes l’écriture by satirical negation of it: Rather than being the foreground concern of the novelist—the ‘romancer’ as ‘teller of tales’—the material language a writer avails himself of is generally relegated to the background, as a mere ‘vehicle’ for the delivery of the intrigue. For M. Robbe-Grillet, however, the ‘medium’ of the novel—which is to say, l’écriture, words and writing themselves—are the very ‘message’ of it.

The ‘désagregation’, the ‘désamorcement’ of literary language itself, its disintegrating capacity to convey and deliver a decipherable meaning, is, for M. Robbe-Grillet, the real ‘intrigue’, the real ‘mystery’ of the modern story, and the roman policier is the form of the nouveau roman best suited to express the sudden ‘crypticity’ of language in modern life.

Thus, as M. Garnier shows, the romans noirs of David Goodis, which in their nihilism point naïvely towards this condition of existential ‘meaninglessness’ the French themselves, through their more diffuse, more abstract language are also registering post-1945, are both seen and read by the French through a prism of intellectualism.

While generally deprecated in his own country, he is given the grand treatment en France, being elected to the Académie of the crime novel, the Série Noire, from which brand-name the very terms ‘film noir’ and ‘roman noir’ are derived.

In 1945, under the editorship of Marcel Duhamel, Gallimard started publishing its translations of British and American crime novels in the Série Noire.  In 1946, echoing the Gallimard label, the French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier wrote the two earliest essays to identify a departure in film-making, the American ‘film noir’.  Although they were not thought of in the United States as films noirs (the French label did not become widely known there until the 1970s), numerous postwar Hollywood movies seemed to confirm the French judgement that a new type of American film had emerged, very different from the usual studio product and capable of conveying an impression ‘of certain disagreeable realities that do in truth exist’.

—Horsley (2001, p. 90)

American disinterest in Mr. Goodis’ work is in some sense a function of economics and the invidious rôle that publicity—‘marketing’—plays in American ‘high’ culture: Paperback originals such as the ones Mr. Goodis wrote for Gold Medal and Lion not being released in hardcover, as M. Garnier explains, the dark novels written by shamefully ‘ignored’ authors like Mr. Goodis and Jim Thompson—gentlemen we now regard as the classic romanciers of the second generation of noir—were beneath the notice of The New York Times, then as now the supreme arbiter of literary ‘good taste’ in America, and hence the jury a ‘respectable’ book had to satisfy in order to become a bestseller.

Quelle odeur de magasin! Franchement, ça pue.

I spoke above of the ‘rough, popular laundering of ideas’ in American high culture: this is it. And with respect to the argument that Mr. Trilling makes in “Reality in America” (as indeed throughout The Liberal Imagination), in the corrupt intellectual laundry centred in The New York Times Building, we see the contemptible ‘middlebrowness’ of American ‘high’ culture industriously about its trade of blanchissage—the imaginative constraints of liberalism which disallow the dark, urgent vision of a writer like Mr. Goodis, full of the ‘electric qualities’ of the American mind at its most naïvely keen, as being beneath its snooty notice.

In America, what appeals to the widest respectable demographic is pushed, peddled, pimped and trafficked by The New York Times, and consequently has an automatic ‘inside track’ to becoming ‘high culture’ by domestic standards, these standards being judged by sales, the American benchmark of ‘success’.

In the States, you need nothing but money to be a success—money to start with, in order to pay The Times for your publicity, money to end with, in sales, and money, as profit, for a chaser.

The French, however, standing outside this invidious commercial laundry, and with their admirable ability to divine the implicit quality of things, are in a far better position to dispassionately and accurately judge where the wellsprings, the vital currents of American life lie.

And as the example of David Goodis shows, inevitably, the true creative spirit of America lies in those economically straitened corners that are beneath ‘respectable’ commercial notice—in such artefacts compiled of the ‘trashy’ detritus of American life as the B picture, the pulp paperback, the Cornell box.

It’s in these deprecated corners of ‘folk art’ that something inventive, innovative, vibrant is happening in American life, where a poverty of means forces the artist to be creative in order to realize his private vision.

Les couvertures de ses romans pour Lion Books collent assez bien à l’idée qu’on se fait généralement de Goodis et ses romans: grisaille et meublés bon marché. Certaines des couvertures Gold Medal, par contre, en surprendraient beaucoup. Goodis percevait le marché Fawcett comme étant plus cru, plus avide de sensations que celui de Lion Books. Il a écrit ses romans les plus outrageux, les plus sadiques et les plus «érotiques» pour Gold Medal, et ne s’est mis au ruisseau que pour cette seule masion d’édition. Le côté perdition, descente aux abysses, semblait coller parfaitement avec l’idée qu’on pouvait se faire du marché Fawcett. Parce qu’il ne faut pas oublier que la façon dont ces romans étaient perçus en Amérique était radicalement différent qu’en France, où ils trouvaient une caution intellectuelle via Gallimard. Et l’écran vide des couvertures noires permettait de se faire le cinéma qu’on voulait. Les couvertures Fawcett, elles, ne permettaient aucune équivoque. La superbe couverture de Cassidy’s Girl montre une chatte sur un drap brûlant, en combinaison, faisant des appels de fards à une grande brute en T-shirt genre Marlon Brando. On parle peut-être de Lautréamont au dos de l’édition française de Of Tender Sin, et l’illustration de couverture d’Obsession montre peut-être les ravages de l’alcool et des mauvais rêves, mais la couverture Fawcett de Of Tender Sin, elle, allait plus droit au but; on y voyait une superbe blonde lascive, dépoitraillée, dont l’attitude et les jambes écartées ne laissaient aucun doute sur la teneur de l’ouvrage en question. «Plus d’un million d’exemplaires vendus», clame la réédition Dell de Cassidy’s Girl en 1967. Mais vendus où? A qui? Dans les truck-stops et les bouquinistes de la nation, dans les gares de Greyhound.

The covers of his novels for Lion Books tally well enough with the idea that we generally have of Goodis and his books: gloomy and cheaply furnished. Some of the covers for his Gold Medal books, on the other hand, might take you very much by surprise. Goodis regarded the Fawcett Gold Medal market as being cruder, hungrier for ‘kicks’, than the Lion Books market. He wrote his most outrageous novels, his most sadistic and ‘erotic’, for Gold Medal, and only precipitated himself into the gutter for this publishing house. The side of him that seeks perdition, a descent into Hell, would appear to gel perfectly with the idea one gathers of the market for Fawcett books. We must not forget that the way these books were viewed in America was radically differently to the way they were perceived in France, where they received an intellectual endorsement through Gallimard. And the blank screen of the black covers in the Série Noire editions allows every reader to project his own private cinema onto them. The Fawcett covers leave nothing to the imagination. The magnificent cover for Cassidy’s Girl shows a slut in her slip steaming up the sheets, giving the come-hither look to a big bruiser in a Marlon Brando-style T-shirt. Lautréamont might be invoked on the back of the French edition of Of Tender Sin, and the front might show the wages of drink and bad dreams, but the cover of the Fawcett edition gets straight to the point: there we see a big, lusty blonde, deeply décolletée, whose attitude and gams wide open for business leave no doubt as to the tenor of the work inside. ‘Over a million copies sold!’ the Dell reprint of Cassidy’s Girl claims in 1967. But sold where? And to whom? In the nation’s truck-stops and second-hand bookshops, in Greyhound terminals.

—Garnier (1984, p. 200, my translation)
A descent into Hell:  The covers for the Gold Medal editions of Cassidy’s Girl (1951) and Of Tender Sin (1956), as reproduced in Hardboiled America.
A descent into Hell: The covers for the Gold Medal editions of Cassidy’s Girl (1951) and Of Tender Sin (1956), as reproduced in Hardboiled America.

One of the astonishingly consistent findings of M. Garnier’s American recherche de David Goodis is how few of his friends actually read his novels. They typically found ‘ce genre de romans indignes d’eux’;—the emphasis is M. Garnier’s. ‘This type of novel’—the pulp crime thriller—was really a socially sanctioned form of pornography in the lurid years of the paperbacks, as the quote above—like Mr. O’Brien’s prose-prosodic descriptions of paperback cover art in Hardboiled America—gives evidence.

Failing to obtain the imprimatur of The New York Times, publishers like Lion or Gold Medal—‘le Skid Row de l’édition’, as M. Garnier calls it—set themselves up somewhat in defiance of popular, bourgeoisgood taste’: all holds came off. As inverted dandy-flâneur, Mr. Goodis is, therefore, a member of an æsthetic résistance to hegemonic American ‘good taste’, to the ‘whitewashing’—the corrupt intellectual blanchissage—of American culture.

He is working at the vital centre of American cultural life—which is, paradoxically, the artistic margins of it. There he is free to be original and experimental, to ‘rechercher’, through flânerie, the gutters of Philadelphia, and to work at the avant-garde of literary modernism.

This is what the French perceive in him. And their presentation in the Série Noire, those blank, black covers that allow one to project onto them one’s own private film noir, those uniform black covers of the French editions of Mr. Goodis’ work, like the bland, cream covers of so many French paperbacks then as now, point towards the abstract, intuitive inclinations of the French, who do not require the hyper-real, hyper-material, hyper-pornographic presentation that appealed to their materialistic American frères as a commercial vector for buying and reading books.

Seen in that abstract light, the electric qualities implicit in David Goodis, this man who presents as blank a façade as the French editions of his own books, what lies behind his teeming materiality détourné, becomes nakedly apparent to the French; and they recognize him as a brother to their own intellectual tradition, a more naïve version of same, a dandy, a flâneur, a surrealist, an applied existentialist, an étranger to his society who nevertheless has his finger on the quickened pulse of it, who can feel where American culture is ‘at’ after 1945.

The Melbourne Flâneur launches into an impromptu recitation of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” as he strolls under the ‘living pillars’ of Geelong City Hall.

Commentary on “Correspondances” by Baudelaire

As I prepare to introduce you more fully to my new CD audiobook, The Spleen of Melbourne: Prose Poetry & Fiction, it occurred to me that it would be worth exploring my emotional, intellectual, and artistic relationship with the poet whose influence upon that work is as significant as any of the other broad strands of influence I’ve traced in my notes while developing the presentation for the formal product launch.

And today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I post for your delectation, dear readers, a video I recently shot on location in Geelong, strolling beneath the ‘living pillars’ of the City Hall as I recite my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Correspondances.

You will read a lot of commentary about this sonnet online, for “Correspondances”—(poem no. 4 in Les Fleurs du mal)—is M. Baudelaire’s æsthetic testament, the work in which he articulates his artistic cri de cœur. In it, he states his theory of ‘correspondences’, the synæsthetic intuition that ‘[l]es parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent’, or, as I translate it in the video above, ‘[s]ounds, scents and colours to one another correspond.’

Brief as it is, being a sonnet of just fourteen lines and 140 syllables, “Correspondances” is a notoriously difficult poem to translate into English, and being M. Baudelaire’s most important philosophical statement, it is the supreme test of anyone who aspires to translate the thoughts of this poet into la langue anglaise.

The second verse of “Correspondances”, written in rhyming couplets, appears as a teaser and a taster on the back of my book of Baudelaire translations, Flowers Red and Black (2013), and I confess that for years I could not get beyond that second verse.

The problem is that the poem, incontournable as it is in the œuvre of M. Baudelaire, is rather ‘disjointed’. The philosophic statement of the theory of correspondences—which is all the more profound for being all the more profoundly condensed—occurs in the two quatrains which form the first half of the sonnet. Then a sort of ‘cæsura in ideas’ occurs, a disjunction after which the two tercets of the second half explain the practical implications of the theory through specific examples, albeit rather oblique ones.

But, to my mind, there is also a ‘cæsura in ideas’ between the first quatrain and the second. It is the second in which the theory of correspondences is formally articulated, and between it and the first, the line of logic, the general premises M. Baudelaire advances as the set of assumptions which lead to the conclusion of the stated theory, is as oblique as between the first half of the poem and the second.

I have never read a really good translation of this poem in English, and to my mind, it is one of a small corpus of M. Baudelaire’s poems, including Le Cygne and Le Voyage, which, at some fundamental level, are basically untranslatable. The thought he expresses in “Correspondances” is a subtle intuition of, simultaneously, such profound extension and such profound condensation that it can only really be apprehended and comprehended in the French formulation he gives it.

And I make no claims of having solved the immense problems which “Correspondances” throws up for the English translator in selecting a unitary interpretation of those inscrutable lines which, in French, express multiple ideas simultaneously, except to say that of all the possible interpretations that I’ve read in English, mine appears (to me at least) to best convey ‘the spirit of the logic’ which is implicit in the language M. Baudelaire employs, and which is particularly extensive and particularly condensed in the two quatrains.

The second quatrain came rather easily to me, which is not to say that the subtle theory it articulates is not difficult to make comprehensible in English. But it is really the first verse that is a devil of a thing to translate into our bastard tongue, with its rather Teutonic utility and sense of the material rather than the metaphysic. It was purely on account of the first quatrain that, for eight years, I despaired of ever writing a full translation of those fourteen brief lines which are the supreme test of the Baudelairean interpreter.

It became like a ‘thought problem’ to me: at odd times over those eight years, I would pull out the first quatrain of “Correspondances” and take another look at it, trying to find a fresh key that would unlock the puzzle. I knew what M. Baudelaire was saying in French, even down to the intuitive subtleties which are implied, the ‘spirit of the philosophy’ which no other translator I’ve read seems to be really ‘get’, and which you can only understand if you are also an artist, like M. Baudelaire, who has crucified his whole life on the hellish nails that are words, living only for them. But I could not figure out a way of accurately representing those extensive densities in an equally concise English.

At its centre, the whole puzzle comes down to solving one word in line 3 of the poem—y. Appropriately algebraic, that single-letter word, sometimes a pronoun, sometimes an adverb in French, has no correspondence in English, and as a single syllable is capable of condensing several syllables of information in an elegant equivalence which communicates volumes.

To the unwary translator of “Correspondances”, y presents multiple traps. But if you solve for y, you’re out of the woods—if you’ll pardon the pun. Those who watch the video will get the joke.

The linked tercets of verses 3 and 4 are much less challenging to translate, except that the poem falls away rather dramatically from the philosophic heights M. Baudelaire attains at the end of verse 2.

This is not necessarily a criticism, or a suggestion that the poem, despite its importance in his œuvre, is somehow ‘underdone’. The sense of disjointedness I noted above seems to me to be both a deliberate ploy and an inevitable consequence of the intense compression attendant upon the sonnet form when faced with such a large idea.

Nevertheless, the challenge of verses 3 and 4 lies principally in the fact that, from the dense heights of abstraction M. Baudelaire attains in verses 1 and 2, the ‘cæsura in ideas’ involves a much more prosaic, worldly turn in the language. A straight English rendition of the trebly-linked examples in verses 3 and 4 tends to read rather underwhelmingly, and the challenge lies principally in conveying the synæsthetic potency of the trinitarian sensual correspondence of sound, scent and colour in a sufficiently forceful English without departing too far from the original letter of the French text.

I’m known for the ‘accuracy’ of my translations of Baudelaire. I avoid the distorting inventions of translators like the late Dr. William Crosby, who seek a rhyming equivalence in English. Only Edna St. Vincent Millay, a sufficiently desperate soul to share M. Baudelaire’s experience of life and his vision of it, was able to find rhymes in English which paralleled the spirit of his text without distorting the letter of it too greatly.

But being a prosateur rather than a poète pur-sang, I take a more analytic, critical approach to translation. I want a correspondence in images and ideas—the spirit of the letter, if you will—rather than a text in English, written with strict respect to the rules of English prosody, which parallels the French text but substitutes English forms for the equally strict—nay, stricter—rules of French prosody.

That is not a happy solution, and seems to me an untenable approach for a modern translator to take, in the main. Though separated only by a slender sleeve of water, the music of the French language is very different to the music of the English tongue: the rhythm and syllabic emphasis of words hit the ear differently, so finding equivalent rhyming schemes in English seems to me to be a laborious and impractical affair which introduces unnecessary distortions into the text.

Thus, when translating M. Baudelaire from French to English, rhyme must, regrettably, be the first casualty of war because only very rarely (as in verse 2 of my translation of “Correspondances”) will you chance upon the happy accident of a corresponding couplet in English that communicates the same idea M. Baudelaire is expressing in French.

He would disapprove of this, regarding rhythm and rhyme as being the essence of beauty in poetry, but, as T. S. Eliot observed, modern poetry begins with M. Baudelaire, and all the execrable excesses of our juvenile ‘free verse’ (a contradiction in terms that only we moronic moderns, the heretics of all inherited rules, could entertain with a straight face) can be laid at the feet of the poet who never availed himself of such an obscene form.

Thus a modern translation of the father of modern poets must take account of the æsthetic crimes he inadvertently unleashed upon the world when he opened the Pandora’s Box of modernity in verse. Crime and the nature of modern evil is the spirit and subject of Les Fleurs du mal. As I noted in a previous post, M. Baudelaire is the fountainhead of decadence and degeneracy in modern art, and though I might flatter myself on this score, I think that my free verse translations of him, which focus on conveying the spirit of the letter of the French text—the ‘ideational image’ of his poems—still manage to convey the loftiness, the freezing haughtiness, the alternating erudition and vulgarity of his voice, which trips out in strict alexandrines with the precise, Morse-like rap of a nail tapped on tin.

When I speak about ‘the idea’ of “Correspondances”, I am speaking about something that might equally be called ‘the image’ of it—the total image that the poem forms in the mind of the reader. The nature and quality of thought in poetry is very different to the analytic intellection which takes place in prose: ideation in poetry is imagistic.

When I translate a poem by M. Baudelaire, in place of the rhyme of the original, I am seeking instead to convey to the reader the most lucid distillation of that ideational image into English, the prosodic quality of M. Baudelaire’s thought by some of the other musical devices he typically avails himself of, such as alliteration, assonance and rhythm, and the jarring juxtaposition of a tony tone with slangy argot.

The ideational image of the poem is cumulatively formed by the actual words on the page. Thus, I seek the closest English words in sound and meaning, words that evoke that deeper image, the implicit, lucid one which shines through the French text, while equally seeking to balance the colloquial quirks that occur in both languages.

That approach usually serves me well, but with the first verse of “Correspondances”, I eventually realized that I would have to avail myself of a tool I rarely use. ‘Images that shine through’ the material manifestation of words, as of Nature itself, is the theme of that first verse of “Correspondances”—images almost untranslatable, in fact, except to the poet (‘l’homme’ of line 3) who walks, as a priest, through the ‘forêts de symboles’, trees upon whose trunks (the ‘vivants piliers’ of line 1) are engraved the ‘Bible’ of Nature, and which form a kind of Salomonic Temple which knows its priest—the poet-prophet—when it sees him, and trusts him to translate and voice the unvocable language of its celestial design.

Even in prose, as you can see by that summary, it’s almost impossible to comprehensibly express the cascade of logical premises which form the profound intuition at the heart of the ideational image in the first quatrain of “Correspondances”. To anyone who is not an artist in words, a priest in this deepest sense, one who has devoted his life to giving praise to God through the beauty of words, the image of that verse must read like a schizophrenic delusion, that cascade of logical premises as a psychotic break with material reality.

But that’s the tool I use with M. Baudelaire when strict attention to the actual words on the page fails me: Intuitively knowing in my soul what he means and feeling in my soul, and the experience of my life, the deep logic of it also, I place myself in his place and let our two sensibilities—separated by languages; separated by cultures, continents and hemispheres; separated by centuries—mingle and synthesize, and I allow him, in an act of ‘channelling’, to speak through me, through the particular thought, the particular language, the particular experience of this fraternal ‘autre moi’ separated from him by all that is foreign to his language, thought and experience, and to voice in his place—and in English—some personal amplification on what is implicit in the French lines.

Nowhere, for instance, in “Correspondances” does M. Baudelaire use the words ‘poet’ or ‘priest’ to designate the reader of Nature he refers to merely as ‘l’homme’ in line 3 of the poem. But I knew that ‘the man’ of the first verse of “Correspondances” is this figure I call ‘the poet-prophet’, the priest who reads the mystic signs of Nature, and who commits himself—at immense material sacrifice—to the holy penury of Art, the daily, unremunerative crucifixion of attempting to nail down the untranslatable beauty of God’s Creation in the fallen words of Man.

In the final verse of poem no. 2, L’Albatros, M. Baudelaire, referring obliquely to himself, names ‘Le Poëte’ as the ‘prince of air’ who reigns and ranges above the icy wastes of life like the mighty albatross, and yet, hobbled by the immensity of his mental wings, is condemned to suffer its base indignities on the ground, ‘in the midst of boos and jeers’. And in poem no. 3, Élévation, he writes of his mind as soaring, ‘like flocks of larks’, above this grounded, earthly prison to Heaven, seeking a union with all Creation, as ‘He who floats above life and understands without thought / The language of flowers, and of other mute things!’

Thus, ‘The Poet’ of “L’Albatros” and the ‘He’ of “Élévation” are consubstantial with ‘the man’ of “Correspondances”: the soaring poet of the first is the communing prophet of the second, and this reader-writer of the mute language of Nature is what I call the ‘poet-prophet’ of the third poem, the (re)unified man—Mr. Blake’s Albion—who is the priest of Nature, the translator of God’s Creation, the flâneur who traverses the Temple reading the mystic signs graven on the pillars, and who is recognized by the living Temple itself as its interpreter and intercessor with other men.

Le poète-prophète

Just as, in M. Baudelaire’s life, he was condemned to be known not as a poet in his right, but primarily as the translator of his spiritual frère, Edgar Allan Poe, into French, so it seems that in my life, I am known not for my own words, but as the translator of my spiritual brother, M. Baudelaire, into English, his interpreter and intercessor with the generations who are only now, in the last two terrible years, waking up to the full, sanguinary horror of capitalistic modernity he prophesied 150 years ago, an epic crime against humanity we are all complicit in.

I am the ‘post-runner’ rather than the forerunner of M. Baudelaire, his St. Paul rather than his St. John, the apostle and not the evangelist of his church of satanic Catholicism. As poet, dandy and flâneur, he predicted this hell of technological progress, this inferno of late-capitalistic modernity in exponential, existential decline, and which I, as writer, dandy and flâneur, ring in your ears with all the din of bitter prophecy in the prose poems of The Spleen of Melbourne.

And if I find, in my flâneurial trébuchements among les épaves of Melburnian postmodernity, some intimations of the Baudelairean ‘Ideal’ in the City to balance my Baudelairean ‘Spleen’ about it, some transcendent Beauty in the unutterable Horror of our postmodern, urban lives, it is because, like M. Baudelaire, I am prophet enough to see what comes next, the networkcentric spirit of life that may just succeed the sanguinary, Stygian darkness, the hellish abyss we are now joyously hurtling, as lemmings, headlong into.

The prophetic powers of the poet are not necessarily about seeing into the future. Rather, as I intimated above with respect to the nature and quality of thought in poetry, the prophetic powers of the poet lie in seeing into the present, into the consequential logic of the world-historical totality which surrounds him, the roots of distant premises which reach their intermediate conclusions in his burgeoning, and the burgeoning of the world of nature that is coexistent with his existence, and the far-off conclusions which will bud their fleurs du mal from this present.

The poet-prophet intuitively sees, in other words, the mandala of the world-historical totality’s ideational image in its eternal present, which is as much to say that he apprehends a vision of God. This is the condition of clairvoyance alluded to by M. Baudelaire’s spiritual heir, Arthur Rimbaud, in two famous letters, one of which I reproduce here.

… I want to be a poet, and I work to make myself a seer…. It involves attaining the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. The travails are enormous, but one must be strong to be born a poet, and I recognize myself as a poet. It isn’t my fault at all. It’s wrong to say: I think. One ought rather to say: I am thought.

I am another. Too bad for the wood that discovers itself to be a violin.

Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Georges Izambard, 13 May, 1871 (my translation)

What distinguishes the quality of thought displayed by the poet-prophet from the form of prosy ratiocination displayed by the scientist or savant is precisely this quality of ‘being’ thought, of being thought through by Nature. The ‘seer’ is the eye of panoptic Nature, that ‘forêt de symboles / Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers’, a mere viewing device It sees through, like a camera, and M. Baudelaire makes a similar observation to M. Rimbaud in his prose poem Le Confiteor de l’Artiste, when he says:

What greater delight than to drown one’s gaze in the immensity of sky and sea!  Solitude.  Silence.  The peerless chastity of the azure!—A little sail shivering on the horizon which, in its puniness and isolation, imitates the inexorable march of my existence; the monotonous melody of the swell;—all these things think through me,—or I think through them (for in the vastness of reverie, the ego soon loses itself).  They think, I say, but musically, or pictorially—without quibbles; without syllogisms; without deductions.

—Charles Baudelaire, “Le Confiteor de l’Artiste” (my translation)

There are no quibbles, syllogisms or deductions in poetic thought: however the roots of premises and the buds of conclusions extend over time, from man’s perspective, the Kabbalistic tree or burning bush is grown, is bloomed, is fully present and flaming in the eternal present, and the idea of this totality is apprehendable as poetic image.

To be a poet is to be a prophet, a visionary, and while M. Baudelaire predicts the hell of technological progress we are now inescapably in, our present subjugation to algorithms, as the great prophet of modernity, he is the visionary of our present troubles. The predictive quality of the prophet is a clairvoyance of present trends: the logical consequences of present premises are intuited in an image, and the act of ‘soothsaying’ is a mere articulation of the latent, the world-historical inevitability that is invisible to the smug bourgeois.

In my recent post announcing the release of The Spleen of Melbourne, I reproduced M. Baudelaire’s scathing critique of progress, a premonitory articulation of the consequential logic of capitalistic modernity which would have been obvious to the most fuggish thinker of his day, but the consideration of which the smug bourgeois was happy to defer for the bonheur of exponentially increasing material comfort.

But where, pray tell, is the guarantee of progress for the morrow? For the disciples of the sages of steam and chemical matches understand it thus: progress only manifests itself to them under the guise of an indefinite series. Where, then, is the guarantee? It only exists, I say, in your credulity and fatuity.

I leave to one side the scientific question of whether, in rendering humanity more delicate in direct proportion to the new pleasures it delivers them, indefinite progress might not be humanity’s most ingenious and cruellest of tortures; if, proceeding through an obstinate negation of itself, it might not be a form of suicide unceasingly renewed, and if, enclosed in the fiery circle of divine logic, it might not resemble the scorpion that stings itself with its terrible tail, this eternal desire which ultimately makes for eternal despair?

—Charles Baudelaire, “Exposition universelle, 1855” (my translation)

In the ideational image of the scorpion eternally stinging itself, we see the prediction of our present predicament, where we are driven ever onward to a more debased and aborted version of life by the needle of a technology that is on its own exponent of self-actualization, independent of man, but which requires, for the moment, a species of delusive slaves who believe that they control it to help it actualize itself.

That latent consequence, invisible to the smug partisans of progress who marvelled at the Paris Expo of 1855, was never a science fiction to be divined in a crystal ball. It was a fact of science, the line of which the holistic thinker, steeped in the world-historical actuality of his time, could trace in very few logical shinnyings down the decision tree of consequential logic.

In the last year on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, I’ve variously voiced my misgivings to you about calling myself a ‘poet’, a laurel often tossed on my brow by others, but one which sits uncomfortably for me. The prose/poetry dichotomy is one I propose to address in my presentation at the formal product launch for The Spleen of Melbourne, offering a working definition of my prosy variety of prosody. But if I am a poet in any sense, it is in this quality of ever-present prophecy, in this dedication to seeing and voicing the unutterable, the untranslatable vision of modern Beauty and Horror which I share with M. Baudelaire.

Art is a priesthood into which no man should enter lightly, and an angel with a flaming sword should beat back most applicants at the gate. Eden is behind it, but it is an Eden of barely supportable Purgatory, Eden as Camino, as Way, as Path, as Dao. Once you’ve taken Holy Orders and are in the Path of Art, forsaking wife and child and every bourgeois compromise of delusive comfort in a gran rifiuto, the Way is cut off behind you by that same angel with a flaming sword.

You must walk onward to the Vision, traversing the selva oscura and saying what you see, nailing it down as perfectly as possible on the imperfect cross of human language.

This is the unremunerative path that M. Baudelaire chose for himself, though to say ‘choose’ is to make a falsehood of the Faustian pact. If you ‘choose’ Art, it is almost certain that you are not an artist. There is no material sacrifice in choice. Rather than choosing, one sacrifices, one gives up what is actually necessary and needful to survive. The artist prefers to die than live an inauthentic life.

In a choice between two suicides, the spiritual suicide of living a compromised, inauthentic life is more shameful and dishonourable than the physical wasting away of penury and starvation.

That was M. Baudelaire’s uncompromising view, and the incomprehensibility of such an extreme position to most of his translators is why, I find, they fail to understand him and make a grotesque exaggeration of his words.

They treat him like an eccentric figure from history, one who has been recuperated by the bourgeois spectacle of academe, and their pharisaical translations read as blandly as whited sepulchres erected to this Jeremiah made safe by time. But he is not an historical eccentric to me, and from his furious kicking against the pricks of ‘quantity’ and ‘utility’, the twin virtues of capitalistic progress, I draw a salutary example for my own life.

Compelled by the Vision of Beauty and possessed by it, M. Baudelaire, with his ‘ailes de géant’, had to hobble through the hell of an uncomprehending crowd, through its boos and jeers, its gifles and crachats, through the jostling of bailiffs and the haranguing of bratty mistresses, weathering the sneering indulgence of journalists and editors with eyes unevolved to share his vision, and who rated the work of his days a very cheap thing, hardly worth a sou.

The desperation to live

M. Baudelaire was possessed by a kind of ‘desperation to live’ which his impecunious lifestyle de dandy seems, to the bourgeois mind, to have been distinctly at odds with. With his talent for words (thus le bon bourgeois reasons), surely he could have made some mammon for his manna by turning out something more commercial than spleen-filled screeds, translations of the Yankee lunatic Poe, and critical manifesti which belabour the pates of right-thinking people?

But the ‘desperation to live’ of which I speak has nothing to do with the gross, vulgar, bourgeois suicide of ‘making a living’. More than the bourgeois abortions who keep the greased wheels of Capital a-turning by grace of their internalized protestant slavery, the artist is possessed by the very spirit of life. As a priest praising Creation through his very being, he must push forth his shoots, he must bud and bloom with the same desperate urge to be as the lilies of the field and the fowls of the air. If he ‘makes’ anything of his life, the products of his living are the artefacts and the testaments of his being—and having been—in the world.

In French, they call our English ‘lust for life’ (the title, of course, of a book and film on that poet-prophet in paint, the sainted Vincent) ‘rage de vivre’—a rage to live. M. Baudelaire, bien sûr, was possessed of plenty of rage:—it is a necessary alchemical constituent of the condition of spleen, that urban alienation which is attendant upon technological capitalism.

This desperation to really live, and this despair at what the bourgeoismarket’ of technologically-driven capital offers us as ‘life’, is something I can passionately relate to. Indeed, it was the despair and the desperation to live that drove me to Paris, the capital of flânerie, and my fated encounter with M. Baudelaire.

In that seductive paradise of artifice which he had both loved and loathed, which had been his muse as it was mine, I carried him in my pocket, a handsome little edition of Richard Howard’s translations (still the best, à mon avis) which I had picked up from the Abbey Bookshop in the Quartier Latin, and a cheap little Folio edition, the kind that French high school students use for le Bac, scored from the Virgin Megastore on the Champs pour un peu d’euros.

How often I dipped into him in those dearly bought hours of ‘Life’ under the trees of the Tuileries, or in the golden bosom of Le Cépage! I had no plans of being M. Baudelaire’s amanuensis in those hours, no intimation that when I returned to the exile of this country, my hours of Life ‘spent’, I would commence, in my antipodean ‘after-Life’, a career as his interpreter and translator.

At first, writing translations of M. Baudelaire’s poems was merely a way to practise my French, but at once I felt the desperation and despair of his spirit, kindred to my own.

It’s this desperation to live and despair at what we are offered as life that other translators don’t seem to ‘grok’ about M. Baudelaire. Like his fraternal twin and the object upon whom he exercised his own powers of translations, Mr. Poe, M. Baudelaire is an easy poet to parody and burlesque.

That quality in his own writing which Mr. Poe called the ‘arabesque’, a kind of baroque grotesquerie, an exquisite, attenuated and diffuse sensation of all-pervading horror, as if it were worked and woven into the very design of the Creation, like the Islamic Allah Who is present everywhere and visible nowhere in the vaulted cave of the mosque, a quality which critics now file under the cliché head of ‘Gothic horror’, is also present in M. Baudelaire’s poetry.

To have the exquisitely tortured senses of a Roderick Usher and to feel all life to be ennuyeuse is beyond the ken of most English translators who presume to approach M. Baudelaire. The clerisy of capitalistic academe has made them too comfortable, too safe and pudgy to know the many meanings, the shades of sense, in the condition of ennui beyond boredom.

In our language and Anglophonic culture, the very name ‘Baudelaire’ has become a joke-word, a synonym for a kind of bilious, juvenile poetry, the hero of pretentious, self-regarding teenagers who churn out worthless, unrhyming doggerel. Look, for instance, at the desecration done to his reputation by Lemony Snicket.

But there is nothing juvenile in M. Baudelaire’s style, nor in his treatment of his habitual themes. The desperation to really live and the despair he feels at the commercial simulacrum of life is an oscillation between Spleen and the Ideal, an exquisite sensitivity to these two poles of the modern condition. It is at once an intense, almost suicidal desire to be ‘anywhere out of the world’ whilst simultaneously desiring, with all one’s being, to enter into the demiurgic paradise of eternally temporal, ephemerally everlasting existence—the Kingdom of Heaven which Christ promises us, and which no one has ever found.

The worthless, unrhyming doggerel of self-regarding teenagers (such as the Beats, for instance) is all pretentious spleen and no ideal. As a prosateur, as one whose mind is more naturally attuned to the critical and the analytic rather than the holistic, totalizing thinking of poetry, I often lament that we have no poets in this time.

How can we in a world undergoing an exponential, existential collapse, a world with no myths or gods to sing the eternal verity of?

A world without poetry

There cannot really be a poetry that is not deeply connected to Nature, that does not have its roots embedded in the life-supporting reality of Nature. The poet, as the first verse of “Correspondances” tells us, is the reader-writer who interprets and translates the eternal truth of Nature’s mythos. He is the one, in Mr. Milton’s words, who ‘justif[ies] the Ways of God to Men.’

To be a poet-prophet in these days of steam and science, this mystifying mummery of scientism, of unreflecting faith in a treacherous mythos cobbled together by a cabal of reptilian technocrats who parody and burlesque, with their perversion of the hypothetico-deductive scientific method, the means of critical thought is to be a most reactionary form of revolutionary, a voyant who is the most critical croyant.

For the poet-prophet in his priest-like calling, his abiding, unshakeable faith in the mystic and the magickal, is most violently at odds with the godless, nihilistic ‘spirituality’ of this scientific New Age. Truly, the poet in modern times, like M. Baudelaire, is the most intransigent enemy of doctrine and orthodoxy.

We have no poetry in this hell, and no poetry can live and grow in these insupportable, infernal climes of concrete, glass, steel, iron and plastic—plastic, parbleu!—except, perhaps, the passionate reactions of rejection, the Non serviams of souls like M. Baudelaire and myself who lust after the very worlds of abstract artificiality they execrate with venom, the paradisal, slatternly cities, the Babylonia they adore and abhor.

There is nothing juvenile in saying, ‘I love you, you Beautiful Bitch, but I will not serve you.’

M. Baudelaire and I are perhaps the first souls to breathe a totally artificial air that burns our souls at every avid breath, to have the cybernetic lungs capable of supporting ‘le feu clair’ of an algorithmic air. Despite ourselves, we have made a ‘New Nature’ of artificiality: we are the first colonists of the City, pioneers who have made our settlement in the inhospitable, unsupportable Kamchatka of pure artifice, like two men living on the moon. Somehow we thrive in the airless hell of the City, for we have lungs and etheric beings evolved to the New Nature of Absolute Artificiality.

In psycho-neurotics like M. Baudelaire and myself, a kind of ‘satanic Catholicism’ reaches its hysterical pitch: We recognize this Creation, which the poet is sacredly charged with lauding, as the work of the Urizenic Demiurge, and we must praise this paradisal hell we hate, bless it with curses, pile bileful hosannas in the highest upon it.

‘Love your enemy,’ Christ says. Verily, the poet-prophet in the modern era is an æsthetic terrorist to the totalitarian, bourgeois order of doctrinal ‘right thinking’ and orthodox ‘common sense’, one who detonates his life—which is an échec, an abortion, a failure by the mad economic standards of technological capitalism—in a vision of Truth and Beauty, a vision of how men and women could live as ghosts in the Lawrentian Machine of the City, an armée des ombres, résistants to the internalized esclavage, the dark, satanic mills and the mind-forged manacles of despotic progress.

The flâneur’s enemy, this empire of whorehouses and outhouses built on Seine, or Yarra, or Thames, or Tiber, or Euphrates, is the very thing this poet-prophet loves the most.

Ethics and æsthetics

We have had less and less poetry in the last hundred years until now we have none at all precisely because the Pandora’s Box of crimes in verse that M. Baudelaire inadvertently opened up has led to the denigration, the desecration, the degeneracy and decadence of the rules of prosody.

A laissez-faire ‘free verse’ where there are no rules and anything goes is no verse at all: it has no incantatory quality, that rhythm so dear to M. Baudelaire, and which is the beat of song and the heartbeat of prayer.

In its place, we have what I call ‘prose broken into lines’—bad prose—prosaic prose at that—the doggerel of narcissistic teenagers. This is prose that believes ‘vagueness’ of expression to be somehow ‘poetic’, when in fact poetry is the most precise language of all—more precise than the prosy language of science, even, for, as Mr. Coleridge noted, prose equals words in the best order, while poetry equals the best words in the best order.

The truth which we moronic moderns, we arrogant heretics of all inherited wisdom, are loath to admit is that æsthetics and ethics are one: man’s innate sense of ‘the good’, ‘the true’, and ‘the beautiful’ are a trinity of equivalencies, correspondences which have their union in God.

La bonne forme, le beau style: the sprezzatura of elegant expression, though a deeply contrived ‘effortlessness’, as per Sg. Castiglione, ultimately conforms to the naturalness which is godly creation, the good, the true, and the beautiful being ultimately the sole province of the Creator.

The ‘artifice’ of human Art thus aspires to godly Nature by following the Lawmaker’s rules. And, as Hr. Kant implies when he defines artistic genius as ‘the innate mental disposition … through which nature gives the rule to art’, these celestial æsthetic laws can only be inferred by close study of His Creation, since it ‘must be abstracted from what the artist has done’.

The rules of beautiful prosodic composition are thus derived from moral laws. As Anne Jamison pithily puts it in her journal article “Any Where Out of this Verse: Baudelaire’s Prose Poetics and the Aesthetics of Transgression” (2001), ‘Syntax is morality.’

Hence, M. Baudelaire, anticipating Hr. Nietzsche, goes ‘beyond good and evil’ in Les Fleurs du mal and Le Spleen de Paris to create a new moral order of eternal beauty out of the hellish temporal chaos of the City.

These are the ‘æsthetics of transgression’ which Ms. Jamison ascribes to him, for M. Baudelaire—well before Hr. Nietzsche—creates for himself a ‘transvaluation of all values’ where Beauty is the paramount, superordinate Ideal, and, ‘being with God and next to God’, is embedded all through His demiurgic Creation—even in the temporal hell of urban Spleen.

In her article, Ms. Jamison compares two similar and yet very different poems from the “Spleen et Idéal” section of Les Fleurs du mal:—poem no. 17, La Beauté, my translation of which you can listen to on Bandcamp, and poem no. 21, Hymne à la Beauté.

‘The “Hymne” Beauty,’ she says, ‘transcends good and evil not because she is above them, removed from the fray, as the first goddess [of “La Beauté”] suggests of herself, but because she breaks the rules with impunity—she has all the power and answers to no authority.’

This Beauty makes evil good, and in some sense, this is the Nietzschean conception of going ‘beyond’ good and evil into some super-moral realm where these earthly ethical distinctions are transcended, but also radically reëvaluated, resolved, and reintegrated in a new union. In the godly cosmic totality, all the evil under the sun is good, it is a part—parts, even—of Creation, party to it. And as the analytic-critical prosateur rather than the holistic, totalizing poet deals specifically in ‘the parts’ of the Creation, he deals necessarily in the ambiguity of things which appear, at the material level, to be evil—even seductively beautiful in their apparent evil—fleurs du mal, as it were.

This is where I find myself (if I can call myself a poet at all) in the prose poems of The Spleen of Melbourne, taking my inspiration and my model from M. Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris and Hr. Benjamin’s Arcades Project.

Between the poet in prose and the poet pur-sang, the hedgehog and the fox dichotomy rears its useful analogic head: Poetry, as I said above, expresses ‘the Idea’ (which is to say, God, the totality of Creation, its Brahmanic Oversoul) as an Image, a cosmological mandala, while prose expresses ‘ideas’, the discreet ‘bricks in the wall’ of His Creation.

There is an element through which the short story attains a superiority even over the poem. Rhythm is necessary to the development of the conception of beauty, and beauty is the grandest and most noble end of the poem. Now, the artifices of rhythm present an insurmountable obstacle to the minute development of thoughts and expressions which have truth as their object.

—Charles Baudelaire, “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe” (my translation)

This is the reef against which the prosaic, analytic sentiment founders. The poet pur-sang, having a holistic, totalizing vision and worldview, sees the harmonious repetition of beautiful order—its rhythm—all throughout the cosmos—that Allah Who is present everywhere and visible nowhere.

The prosateur, by contrast, sees the discordant disjunctions, juxtapositions, enjambments and adjacencies between things—the grout between the bricks. These lines of logical thought sing out to him. They may ‘flow’ in their linear branchings, bifurcations and ramifications, as a set of premises to the inevitable estuary of their conclusion, but not with the harmony of rhythm. Each premise must be ‘developed’, like a musical theme, or leitmotiv. It must be planed, and turned, and set as a sovereign jewel into the logical architecture of the wall only once the prosateur is certain that it can bear the load of the next course of ideas to be placed upon it.

The model of the prose poem suggests the possibility of reading Baudelaire’s entire œuvre as an integrated performance of his transgressive concept of beauty. … Baudelaire’s very inconsistencies and contradictions effectively stage a performance of the transgressive aesthetic he valorizes in the 1855 “Exposition” essay. He enacts this drama in three genres [poetry, prose poetry, and art criticism] and the movement among and between them is as important as the aesthetic stances he achieves in each one. …

In order for the performance to be effective, however, Baudelaire would have to be alternately invested in both the rules he is drawing and the effects he achieves by their violation—violations practiced [sic] for mere shock value, without other justification or motivation, will not produce the desired effect….

—Jamison (2001, p. 280)

The wilfully sinful act of ‘breaking’ the æsthetic laws of poetic rhythm in his prose poetry and critical writings represents M. Baudelaire’s transvaluation of all æsthetic values, the reconciliation of what is ‘good’ (that is to say, ‘beautiful’) with what is ‘true’, which he finds better expressed in prose, the banal language of the fallen world of urban spleen, than in verse.

For M. Baudelaire, in “Hymne à la Beauté”, this Beauty who ‘breaks the rules with impunity’ because ‘she has all the power and answers to no authority’ comes from Satan:—‘Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme, / O Beauté?’ he asks in the very first lines, and concludes that whether she comes from Heaven or Hell is of very little import.

They are both the same, for that is the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ promised us, this eternal present of ephemeral but ever-renewing ennuis, the self-stingings we sadomasochistically insist on inflicting upon ourselves and each other on this beautiful Earth of God’s Creation.

Beauty—Horrific Beauty, Babylonian Whore—comes from Satan, the demiurgic ‘Governor’ of this Creation, our grounded, earthly prison. He is with Him and next to Him Who made it All, and thus in praising the ‘Thrice-Great Satan’ of the prefatory poem to Les Fleurs du mal, Au Lecteur, M. Baudelaire praises God and serves Him faithfully through his rendition unto the Cæsar of our temporal empire that which is owed him.

A new poetry for a new earth in postmodernity

If the last two terrible years have shown us anything, it is that the banality of ‘the horror’, the Kurtzian Horror of Mr. Eliot’s Waste Land, is inescapably visible, and the ‘Final Solution’ of the logic of technological Modernity—man as an eminently dispensable and disposable, replaceable part in his own infernal Machine, man as fodder for its Mammonic, Molochian jaws, the presage of which we saw at Auschwitz—is imminent.

Unless we transcend—transvaluate—break through—go beyond the false dichotomy of good and evil in our irrational psychosis of Urizenic rationality to a new, networkcentric spirit and vision of life, I fully expect us to fulfil our Faustian destiny in an epic murder-suicide pact, a global holocaust in which we destroy ourselves—and take all the world of God’s Creation with us in our overweening egotism.

As a flâneur, I walk daily in the Melburnian ruins of modernity, and the wreckage of these cliffs of glass and steel smoulders before my eyes. I trip; I fall; my cheek is smudged. Dandy that I am, I try, like M. Baudelaire, to sail gracefully above life, but I can barely keep my tie straight. That is the ‘Spleen of Melbourne’: a presentiment of the totalizing hell of failed modernity; a Cassandrian despair; a vision of apocalypse the bourgeois scoffingly disbelieves; a phantasy of universal bloodshed, of Parisian terreur and revolution in the streets.

If I am a poet in prose rather than a poet pur-sang, it is because, in the postmodern ruins of a failed modernity, I must dissect and analyse the apparently evil parts of my totalizing vision of Beauty. I must, like M. Baudelaire, attempt a transvaluation of all the misbegotten values of modernity.

A new poetic form is required to praise the banal and prosaic hell we find ourselves in, adrift without a moral compass, and love our Adversary and Tempter—the Machine of technocratic Capital we hate. A new, networkcentric ethic must be inferred from the æsthetics of that form.

Hating the ‘prose broken into lines’ which passes for postmodern ‘poetry’, perhaps it has been given to me—critic, analyst, inveterate dissector of the parts of my pleasure—to follow belatedly in M. Baudelaire’s footsteps and abstract the rules of this new poetic form from the New Nature of Absolute Artificiality which is our postmodern, urban life in economic ruins.

In essence, as a rarefication of the scientific language of prose, the prose poem ‘debunks the myth’, as Ms. Jamison puts it, through its discreet analysis of the prayer of poetry, the ‘hymn to Creation’.

The temporal, ephemeral beauties of this Creation are tempting and seductive, and in some sense, they turn our eyes from the platonic Ideal, although through them, through the artificial paradises of material beauty, poets like M. Baudelaire and myself attempt to see and say the timeless and eternal Ideal of Beauty.

We are ‘True Believers’ in a world of faithless heretics possessed by scientism’s postmodern spirit of doubt. My relationship with M. Baudelaire—spiritual, fraternal, apostolic—is of one who also walks among the pillars of the Salomonic Temple of Mystery, interpreting them, as I interpret him, to a crowd who cannot quite yet share our bizarre vision of beautiful totality in abysmal bleakness.

If you would like to support my work, consider purchasing the audio track below.

Dean Kyte recites his translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Les Bijoux” from his book Flowers Red and Black: Love Lyrics & Other Verses by Baudelaire.

In a recent post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I wrote that this period of ‘enforced leisure’ here in Melbourne has turned my flâneur’s eyes inwards to a remarkable degree: Unable, under pain of fine and police harassment, to walk the streets and seek in the world without the exteriorized symbols of my interior world, I have had to content myself with taking flâneries through old footage garnered in the course of my travels.

Scrounging around among my old footage for something to turn into a video, I chanced upon something I recorded more than two years ago, and which became the basis of the video above—an idle Friday night in Oakleigh, the Greek neighbourhood of Melbourne.

I was staying in an old California bungalow and the house had a beautiful study overlooking the quiet street, just perfect for a writer. It had a massive oak desk, glass-topped, with green leather blotter, and a beautiful antique office chair of stained wood, also upholstered in green leather. To cap it all, a gorgeous green-shaded banker’s lamp on the desk.

I decided to rotate the green shade of the lamp away from me and record myself reciting “The Jewels”, my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s erotic poem Les Bijoux, famous as one of the poems which caused M. Baudelaire to be hauled before a court on charges of obscenity when it was published in the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1857).

The poem, along with five others, was banned from publication in France until after World War II—some eighty years after the poet’s death.

The poem is almost like a short story. In just eight verses, Baudelaire takes us thoroughly inside his remembered experience of fooling around with his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, as they sport by firelight.

Under the druggy influence of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’ dancing in the lamplight, Baudelaire sees his ‘Black Venus’ undergo a series of metamorphoses, changing into different animals and allegorical figures as they play together beside the fire.

My translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem into English is very popular; having heard it once, it’s always the poem of Baudelaire’s that people ask me to read at poetry gatherings. I’ve recited it so many times by now that it’s practically committed to memory.

So I thought that beautiful old-fashioned study would be the perfect setting in which to commit my version permanently to pixels, a place similar in atmosphere to the muffled chambre evoked by M. Baudelaire.

The light of the banker’s lamp cast obliquely on me like a green fire evokes something of the hallucinatory, dream-like sense of the poem, and as I worked with the raw footage in post, I had l’idée géniale to try to use the green light to make myself appear progressively more ‘ghostly’—like the way the green neon sign outside Judy’s apartment in Vertigo (1958) gives her an eerie, uncanny air.

One of the foundations of Baudelaire’s æsthetic theory is his idea of ‘correspondances’—a kind of ‘poetic synæsthesia’ in which ‘[l]es parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent’ (‘sounds, scents and colours to one another correspond’).

In the second verse of “Les Bijoux”, Baudelaire expresses how he loves ‘à la fureur’ the experience of ‘hearing’ the colours of Jeanne’s jewels, and ‘seeing’ the sounds they make as they chime and clash with one another.

Similarly, there’s a correspondance, I think, between the green light, evocative of envy, a jealous craving, and of envie, a lustful yearning. But green is not just a colour which tells us to go ahead, to proceed without caution into love and lust. It is also a colour we associate with morbidity and putrefaction.

The obverse of Baudelaire’s lyrical elegy to Jeanne’s livingness in “Les Bijoux” is his imagining of her as a stinking corpse rotting in the sun in the poem Une Charogne. In that poem, he evokes her no less tenderly than in “Les Bijoux”, even as he flagellates her mercilessly with his scorn.

M. Baudelaire’s experience of love is necessarily a ‘sick’ and ‘decadent’ one in which sex and death, ‘les Deux Bonnes Sœurs’, twist and tryst.

The question, then, for this poet who (along with Ronsard) is the greatest lyricist of l’amour in the French language, and the greatest limner of women in French prosody, is whether Charles Baudelaire is a romantic?

Can one be as ineffably, as evanescently romantic as M. Baudelaire gives evidence of being in his highest raptures and still be as sadistically misogynistic as he also gives evidence of being in his most hellish fantasies?

The answer is mais ouievidemment.

If I wanted to give a statistical answer to support the contention, I would merely point out that I have had many more female purchasers of my book of Baudelaire translations, Flowers Red and Black, than male: the dames do grok a bad boy, and among men of letters, they get no more brooding than this bow-tied dandy.

Even Lord Byron—mad, bad, and dangerous to know—has nothing on M. Baudelaire when it comes to being an homme fatal.

Baudelaire is fundamentally a romantic in both senses of the word—as a member of an intellectual and artistic movement that championed sublime passion and the heroism of the individual, and as a poet of erotic verse.

But to say firmly yes on both scores is not to overlook the fact that including M. Baudelaire positively in both definitions is not an unambiguous statement.

As regards Romanticism, M. Baudelaire emerges at the tail-end of the movement. Les Fleurs du mal, as I said above, was published in 1857, and it is not coincidental that Baudelaire was successfully prosecuted for obscenity at the same time that M. Flaubert successfully skirted the same charge for Madame Bovary.

We cannot properly call Flaubert a ‘naturalist’ or a ‘realist’: in his heart of hearts, he is as deeply and perversely a Romantic as Baudelaire. But with Madame Bovary, M. Flaubert inaugurates a new movement in French literature and art, one that is diametrically opposed to Romanticism, one that embraces and recuperates the scientific, industrial, capitalistic and consumeristic assumptions which the Romantics were reacting negatively to.

The naturalistic novel of Zola and de Maupassant is the logical (and humourless) extension of an ‘objective’ formal æsthetic which M. Flaubert employed in his ‘modern novels’ with a glacial irony. In his heart of hearts, M. Flaubert was as morbid and unbridled a creature of perverse passion as M. Baudelaire and would have preferred the erotic phantasms of St. Anthony to the moronic notions of romance entertained by Emma Bovary.

For here is the thing: in both these writers materializing on the scene at the end of the Romantic movement we see the tenets of Romanticism—a lust to experience intense emotion and transcendent sublimity; an earnest belief in the heroism of the individual artist; an equally fervent belief in ‘l’art pour l’art’; and a passion for nature which reacts negatively against the encroaching mechanical artifice of industrialism and the city—morbidly present and perverted.

Both M. Flaubert and M. Baudelaire are to Romanticism what the Mannerists were to the Renaissance. They are the Mannerists of Romanticism.

The key feature of mannerism as an artistic tendency which manifests itself late in the life of a movement is exaggeration: what has been deemed to be formally beautiful during the life of the movement in its high style is pushed to an æsthetic extreme.

One might say that Romanticism, in its advocacy of ‘l’art pour l’art’, was already a form of mannerism in its own right, even though it was not an æsthetic exaggeration of Neoclassicism, but a reaction to it. But the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ which underwrites Romanticism, when pushed to its æsthetic extreme, becomes grotesquerie.

We see this most vividly in Baudelaire, and in his visual ancestor, Goya, for whom the dream of reason brings forth monsters. The only other figure of late Romanticism I can think of who produces similarly grotesque imagery in which a high æsthetic style is pushed to a histrionic extreme is M. Baudelaire’s American twin, the brother of his soul, Edgar Allan Poe.

In the final chapter of his book La Folie Baudelaire (2008), Roberto Calasso cites the withering judgment of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most authoritative French literary critic of the nineteenth century, upon his contemporary Baudelaire.

M. Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve says, is like a little pavilion—what the French call a folie—on the extreme point of Kamchatka, that icy, volcanic Russian peninsula which juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk. From this inhospitable toehold of fire and ice, according to Sainte-Beuve, M. Baudelaire gazes avidly out upon Japan, the Orient, all that is weird and exotic to French prosody in the nineteenth century.

Baudelaire’s ‘Orient’ was the future. He makes a music in his rhymes (which are not without charm, Sainte-Beuve hedgingly admits), but the ear has not yet been born in the France of the nineteenth century which can make sense of this strange and foreign music, which apprehends a sublime and transcendent beauty in the fire and ice of Hell.

Which leads me to the perversity—the inversion, even—of Romanticism when pushed to this æsthetic extreme, the Baudelairean state of ‘Kamchatka’:—For Baudelaire’s natural abode is not merely an architectural folie in the sense of whimsy, nor even a folly to erect in such an unhospitable clime, but an uninsulated belvedere gazing out upon the frontier of madness—the madness of the modern world which will come after him.

As a very late Romantic to the scene, Baudelaire has no feeling for ‘nature’, as such. He would never, like Wordsworth, pen an elegy in praise of a flower: vegetables didn’t interest him.

The closest Baudelaire gets to the Romantic feeling for nature are a few lyrical poems about the sea and foreign ports, as he remembers an abortive voyage to India he was forced to take by his hated stepfather, General Aupick. Baudelaire never saw Calcutta. Taking grateful advantage of a shipwreck in Mauritius, he returned to Paris.

This is instructive. Baudelaire is thoroughly a man of the city, the first poet to write about it, and he does so glowingly, feeling none of the repulsion for its multitudinous horrors which drove his Romantic predecessors back to the countryside so as to escape ‘the dark Satanic Mills’ of industrial modernity.

Nothing is ‘grown’ in the city. It is a place of pure artifice—un paradis artificiel, to paraphrase the title of Baudelaire’s treatise on drugs.

And because nothing can grow in an artificial environment, everything must be manufactured in the city, or imported there from the countryside. The city, therefore, is the place of consumption, where everything can be bought.

Including love.

Where Ronsard emulates the Dantesque and Petrarchan model of glorifying tony dames like Cassandre and Hélène, Baudelaire is the lyricist of bought amour, venerating the venal souls of Parisian prostitutes in all the protean manifestations that the Belle Époque gave to the world’s oldest profession—actresses, dancers, singers, syphilitic little bitches, mewling Jewesses, regal African orchids transplanted to colder climes, widows fallen on hard times.

Baudelaire loves the soiled feminine face of Paris, that paradise of decadent luxury, as sterile and useless as a rented womb.

Paris, as Walter Benjamin stated, is the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. It is the pre-eminent paradis artificiel. It is the triumph of scientific industry and commerce over nature, a purely artificial environment, an utter repudiation of the humanistic spirit of Romanticism.

And yet the place is ineffably romantic—and was so in Baudelaire’s time.

But something happens to the nature of a man or a woman who lives in the purely artificial environment of a city. It rapidly becomes ‘decadent’, and Baudelaire, the total man of the city, the poet of the city who lauds Paris’s transcendent beauty in her hellish, whorish ugliness, marks the critical juncture where Romanticism curdles, turns perverse and inverted.

What M. Baudelaire said to his friend and fellow flâneur, M. Manet, he might have equally said of himself: ‘Vous n’êtes que le premier dans la décrépitude de votre art’—‘You are merely the first in the decadence of your art-form.’

Both artists are Kamchatkas of their kind—the pinnacle of European artistic evolution, the æsthetic distillation of the wisdom and skill of the Old Masters which reaches its finest point in the peculiar persons and sensibilities of M. Baudelaire and M. Manet—only then, with the next generation, to collapse under its own weight headlong into degeneracy.

These gentlemen still had the classical education in the craftsmanship of their respective art-forms necessary to make radical yet intellectually rigorous innovations based on an intensely personal vision and acute sensibility.

M. Manet could spray the canvas with paint and not wind up with a meaningless chromo à la Pollock. Likewise, M. Baudelaire could lavish elegies upon ugliness without degenerating into the ‘prose broken into lines’ which the grunting Beats called ‘free verse’.

In La Folie Baudelaire, Calasso invokes Max Nordau, a nineteenth-century essayist in that cradle of Romanticism which would become, in the next century, the sink of horror—Germany. Contemporary with Freud and Krafft-Ebing, Nordau published a two-volume tome in 1892 called Degeneration—a kind of Psychopathia Sexualis of art.

Calasso writes: ‘In Nordau’s view, the forerunner of all degeneration was Baudelaire. All the others—such as Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Barbey d’Aurevilly—were instantly recognized by a certain “family resemblance” to him. These were the numerous insidious and indomitable crests of the Baudelaire wave.’

Though Nordau was probably not familiar with him, I cannot help but think, in tracing the lineage of artistic degeneration down from the pinnacle of Baudelaire and across the Channel, how impossible the most decadent of the English Decadents, Ernest Dowson, would have been without the forerunner of Baudelaire.

That young man who would take the bitterness and perversity of love as his only theme in poetry and in prose, who had such a French sense of its diabolical nature that he would translate Les Liaisons dangereuses, and who would pursue ‘madder music and stronger wine’ until they hustled him into an early grave, had Baudelaire’s syphilitic example of a life lived at Kamchatka’s dagger point—a life lived only for love and art—before him as his perversely heroic example.

Such a soul deformed by intimate infatuation with the artificial paradise of the city has a different experience of romance than the Romantics of the high period.

For M. Baudelaire, the sublimity of love, sex and eroticism is inseparably conjoined with the sublime, transcendent horror of decadence and death. Woman is a ‘Black Venus’ like Jeanne Duval, a murderous goddess whose womb is a tomb we want to plunge the dagger of ourselves into—like a bee who commits suicide by availing itself of its sting.

Given the deformity of M. Baudelaire’s soul and the perversity of his sense of romanticism, you might wonder why I have such a feeling for Baudelaire, why I have translated so many of his love poems—and why I find I can’t stop.

I really don’t know, except that he speaks to me, and that I find, in my translations of Charles Baudelaire into English, I am able to speak for him to people very far removed in place and time from the Paris of the Second Empire.

I’ve been told by readers of Flowers Red and Black, or by listeners who have heard me read some of the poems in that volume, that it seems as though I am ‘channelling’ M. Baudelaire. His lofty, distant voice, spewing offence in the most elegant and eloquent terms, is utterly unique in French literature and very difficult to convey in modern English without falling into pastiche.

The delicate feeling one must have for him can only really come, I think, from a sense of life like his own—a sense of ruthless desperation lived at the edge of Kamchatka—the mad desire to either transcend oneself or slay oneself in the sublime realization of one’s art.

‘Lis-moi, pour apprendre à m’aimer’—‘Read me, so as to learn to love me,’ he writes in Épigraphe pour un livre condamné. If you’re a curious soul who suffers like Baudelaire, you must learn to read him with a sympathetic spirit, letting your eye plunge into Hell without being charmed by the vertigo induced by the Abyss.

I invite you to purchase one of few remaining copies of the first edition of Flowers Red and Black. In fact, I’ve done a complete renovation of the Dean Kyte Bookstore (check out the groovy comic book-style links to the various product categories!), with dedicated pages for all my books, DVD and Blu-ray Discs.

I have also been amusing myself in my cell during lockdown by creating some handmade gift tags, like those in the picture below. In addition to being signed and wax-sealed as a mark of artistic authenticity, any physical product you purchase from me will come gift-wrapped and garnished with an autographed gift tag featuring your Melbourne Flâneur’s logo!

Experience the ultimate book unboxing with new Dean Kyte gift tags, handmade and signed by the author!

I can also do custom orders for you. There is a contact form on each product page, so if you’re thinking of purchasing some original Christmas gifts, you can make a direct inquiry with me. I can negotiate a deal with you in terms of cost and delivery time frames; I can write a thoughtful personalised message on your behalf to the recipients; and I can even handle gift-wrapping and postage on your behalf—to multiple recipients, even.

And if you would like to buy your Melbourne Flâneur half a java and have his dulcet tones seducing you with his rendition of “The Jewels”, I’ve released the soundtrack of the video above on my Bandcamp profile. For two Australian shekels, you can lube someone into the amorous mood with my vocals.

I’m not Barry White, but it does work. Just click the “Buy” link below, bo.

Today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I take a flânerie around Bendigo, pausing only in my perambulations to breathe some poetic airs upon your ears in beautiful Rosalind Park.

The good burghers of Bendigo named their green space after the heroine of As You Like It, but as you can see in the video, there is something otherworldly about this ‘emerald isle’ in the midst of the city, such that it reminds one of the enchanted island of The Tempest.

It’s the perfect locale for a little poetry-declaiming, and with the rather Parisian skyline of Bendigo’s Pall Mall mansard-bristling at my back, I read you my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet “L’Idéal”, from my book Flowers Red and Black: Love Lyrics & Other Verses by Baudelaire.

There’s always an erotic edge to my writing, and like a pendulum, I oscillate between the sublimely romantic and the frankly pornographic, so it should come as little surprise that I am such an admirer of Baudelaire, or that I have translated so many of his love poems.

Though I had some slight acquaintance with M. Baudelaire beforehand, it was as a flâneur in Paris—the city of flânerie, the city of Baudelaire—that I really got to know the divine, diabolical M’sieu.

As I perfected the art of wandering the streets of Paris, the Latinate rap of Baudelaire’s high-flown rendering of low-brow subjects was a constant cicerone in my ear, directing me towards the tawdry tableaux which Paris flashes like her undergarments at the voyaging connoisseur of voyeurship.

‘Parisian life is abundant in poetic and marvellous subjects,’ Baudelaire observed.  ‘The marvellous envelopes us and suckles us like air, but we cannot see it.’

Certainly I feel the same way when I set up my camera to capture those little vignettes of Bendigo, shots of rien de tout, which bracket the video above.  Statues, street art, architectural details, empty vistas:—Bendigo (which bores the Bendigoans) is fecund in that surreal quality of the marvellous, the poetry which hovers behind the banality of things much-seen.

Baudelaire’s ambition was to make the Parisian see this invisible air in which he ambulated, to turn the exquisite flâneur experience of the ephemeral into a flâneur poem.  In the same way, if there is any ‘poetry’ in the shots of nothing I insist on boring you with in my videos, it is the poetry of the ‘boring’ urban life which Baudelaire, lover of novelty and ennui, both wanted to escape from and escape more fully to.

Flânerie is an ‘altered state’ which reveals the invisible poetry of the visible city.  Baudelaire, as the père of flâneur philosophy, was an inveterate chasseur after artificially-induced altered states which liberated the surreal poetry that is the resident spirit of the banal.

He praised the state of drunkenness as the essence of the poetic experience, and wrote a scholarly treatise on the poetic effects produced by hashish.  And of course, Baudelaire was an amateur of that other intoxicating, protean substance which produces a poetic effect on men: la femme.

As a flâneur, he was a Daygamer avant la lettre, as may be witnessed by his ode to an anonymous passer-by.  It’s one of Baudelaire’s most delicate and evanescent love poems, ineffably romantic and yet unmarred by any effeminate sentimentality whatsoever.

In a handful of lines, Baudelaire perfectly conveys that ephemeral experience which all men of the city know:—the lightning-flash moment when you see a woman you desperately want to approach surge forward from out of the crowd; the single second in which you clearly see a whole parallel existence with her; and the second afterwards when, jostled on by the crowd, you decline to embrace the destiny with her which you so clearly previsioned:

A bright light… then the night! Fugitive beauty
In whose glance I have been suddenly reborn,
Will I never see you again in all eternity?

Elsewhere, very far from here! too late! perhaps even never!
For I know not where you fly, and you know not where I go,
O you who I might have loved, O you who knew it!

Translating Baudelaire is not easy.  As Alan Ginsberg remarked, if you can’t read him in the original, you have to take the aggregate of all the translations in English to get a sense of what he is saying.

It’s not that Baudelaire’s French is particularly difficult, although he does some vexing things with tense that English is not supple enough to elegantly convey.  It’s rather that the images he manages to paint by combining a lofty, distant tone with the startling incorporation of things deemed ‘unpoetic’ produces a remarkably lucid effect with remarkable compression.

As with Shakespeare, there’s quite an unusual ‘range’ in Baudelaire’s language.  He’s equally at ease with the most recherché classical allusions as he is with the slangy argot of the Parisian gutter, and he demands not only a requisite range from his English translator but a sense of how to convey in modern English the quality of ‘shock’—and even of ‘offence’—produced by this admixture of tone.

Few translators who have ‘tried their hand’ at Baudelaire have a good sense of him, methinks, for with the grotesquerie of his subject matter, it is too easy to make a schlocky parody of Baudelaire in English.

One requires an exquisite sensibility for the sublime horror (or horrific sublimity) of everyday life to approach Baudelaire on his own terms of unquiet desperation with normal, bourgeois existence.  In fine, one requires an ample dose of that quality which he himself defined (finding no better word for it in French) as good old-fashioned English ‘spleen’.

In Flowers Red and Black, the poem which most conveys this choking, stifling sense of sublime horror (or horrific sublimity) is “The Jewels”, my translation of “Les Bijoux”.

It’s the most sensual, erotic poem in the collection, and the one I am always asked to read at poetry gatherings because it’s almost like a short story: in the space of a few minutes, people feel as though they have been completely transported into the small, stuffy chamber, lit only by firelight, in which Baudelaire and his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, are engaged in foreplay.

The heady incense of the smoke, the play of weird lights rising from the fire, the music of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’, and the way she undergoes a metamorphosis before the bard’s eyes, changing into a tiger, swan, slutty angel and classical catamite by turns, always gives people the hallucinatory sense, sans drugs, of the ‘altered state’ which Baudelaire experienced in sexual love.

And yet, because the banality of this everyday scene takes on a heightened potency and is attenuated to such an exquisite degree, there is a stifling, almost suffocating sense of sublimity into which an erotic horror enters, like the almost painful pleasure of the ‘petite mort’.

As romantic as his love poems are, there is nothing wilting and effeminate about Baudelaire, which is perhaps why women like this book.  His voice is forceful and potent, and it seems to combine well with my own style as a writer, such that we make some ‘beautiful music’ together.

I’m thinking of publishing a second edition of Flowers Red and Black, revised and expanded, even including some of Baudelaire’s prose poems.  But that project is some way in the future.

In the meantime, I have a very limited stock of the first edition on hand—about a vingtaine.  It makes an original St. Valentine’s Day cadeau, and the dames do grok it.  As I say in the video, I’ve been reliably informed (regrettably post facto) that ladies have regaled one another with my verses in bed.

I’ve also had a friend rip off my translation of “Les Bijoux” and try to pass it off as his own poem to placate a squeeze who wasn’t in the mood to be squeezed.  (She saw through his play at once, which only served to further inspire her ire.)

You can purchase a copy through the Dean Kyte Bookstore, but if you want to buy a copy from me directly, you can do so either by clicking this link, or by registering your interest with me via the Contact form.

This allows me to get in touch with you to arrange payment and delivery details. It also enables me to get some particulars from you so that I can write a thoughtful, personalised message on your behalf to the lucky person you want to give the book to.

Plus, I will flourish the magic wand of my Montblanc Noblesse over the flyleaf and affix my personal seal in wax to it, so your first edition will be doubly exclusive.

I want to thank all my friends who have accepted the invitation to follow my adventures on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog.  As I commence my enterprise, offering a bespoke, artisanal approach to document preparation, it means a lot to me to have your support.

It’s also an honour and responsibility to produce online content for an audience who has committed to watch it.

In thinking about how to produce online content that is meaningful, engaging and valuable without bombarding or overwhelming you, I was influenced by Jasmine B. Ulmer’s article, “Writing Slow Ontology” (2017).

In the spirit of the ‘Slow’ movement (as in Slow Food, Slow Cities, etc.), I want to propose a ‘Slow’ approach to producing online content, one that does not bombard you with volume or overwhelm you with fast pace, one that is, as Ulmer says, ‘not unproductive’ but ‘differently productive’.

As opposed to the consumptive and disposable model of online content production that predominates, I won’t spam your inbox with clickbait.  You won’t hear from me often, but I hope that when you do receive notification of a new post, you will look forward to the content I offer.

To my mind, online video should open a space in which to breathe for the viewer, not fill a hole hungry to consume.  In line with the bespoke, artisanal value promise of my enterprise, I want whatever leaves my hand to be the best that I can make it.

I called my vlog The Melbourne Flâneur because I wanted to bring a more ‘pedestrian’ pace to producing online content, introducing Paul Schrader’s notion of the transcendental style in film to online video.

In the video above, you’ll notice my love of ‘leveraging boredom’—holding on shots of ‘nothing’ at the beginning and end, moments of ‘ventilation’ which encourage you to pause, breathe and observe with me in my flânerie.

The fast-paced, high-volume approach to content generation is opposed to the bespoke æsthetic of the handcrafted, artisanal products and services I promote.  To write and publish even a slender volume like Brazen Gifts for Gold took more than a year of my life.

Writing is a true ‘manual labour’, but, as Ulmer observes, it is also a labour of time and being in which we don’t just ‘do’ writing but ‘live’ writing.  To be a writer is to live an artisanal lifestyle.

Value emerges from this condition of artisanship: all the being and ‘life/time’ of the writer is imbued in the bespoke, handcrafted book, not merely in the words he sweats over to make perfect, but in the total ‘livery’ of his libello.

Likewise, in the video content I offer you on this vlog, in which places are allowed to be and breathe, I hope you enjoy a vicarious oasis of valuable respite from the overwhelming pace of our amped-up existence.

How does a ‘Slow’ approach to creating online content resonate with you?  Do you agree that we could benefit from a more thoughtful, deliberative pace to online video production?  I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.