What esprit de flânerie had drawn him here he could not say. But the image of it,—the rusted tracks, their ties overtaken by the marauding verdure; the red, unrolling rollingstock blocking tracks which vanished in the horizon of ruinous green,—seemed an apt metaphor for his life with women.
As afternoon segued to evening with the savageness of a cut, he saw himself as an empty, twilit platform where no woman would again alight, the unchalerous shell of a darkened station which would no more warmly receive the transitory train of her ambassade through the embassy set over the foreign country of his interior life. A lamp which illuminated nothing; a sign which apprised no one of nowhere; a bench conveniently placed, and upon whose convenience no one rested and refreshed themselves:—Sometimes places, in their abstraction, resemble us more closely than do other people.
—Dean Kyte, “駅の物語” (“Conte de gare”)
I’ve always had a fascination with trains and train stations. You might think train travel a rather contradictory passion for a flâneur, the most freewheeling of voyageurs: Why should this epic pedestrian, drawn in his dreamy dérive by lines of random desire which sing out to his eye from every street corner, be inexorably attracted to the most restrictive and linear mode of movement through space, one which offers only limited scope for him to exercise his predatory passion for æsthetic investigation?
Hélas, if, like Walt Whitman, I contradict myself, then, dear readers, I contradict myself. As I hope the video and prose poem above attest, I contain multitudes. My soul is as large, as empty and as cryptic a labyrinthine structure as that palatial tomb which lounges alongside the Yarra, receiving and debouching visitors to Melbourne.
And it is certainly no coincidence that as a Melbourne flâneur, I should equally be an aficiónado of that kissing cousin of the train, the tram.
As an aristocrat of the gutter, a gentleman who makes his home in the street, to park my wheels momentarily in the tram, democratic chariot of Melburnians of every caste and class, and exercise my penetrating gaze over Collins or Bourke or Flinders streets from the very midst of them is to enjoy a flâneurial delectation which no other city in the world can offer to as extensive an extent. Verily, to make one’s royal procession up Bourke street on the back of one of these reines de la rue, shaking her bells at the milling mallers who make deferential way for her, is really to get a recherché experience of one of the world’s great thoroughfares.
I’m not quite sure what it is about trains and stations that has always attracted me to them, except that, as Sig. De Chirico seemed to apprehend in paintings such as Gare Montparnasse (1914), both the station and the train are places of dream.
Like Cole Porter, I get no kick in a plane. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do. But lay me down in the gently rocking berceau of a roomette and let me nurse my dreams on that flux of images flying by the window, towns known and unknown, and I will feel myself swaddled in a womb of contentment.
Soon my month-long sojourn in Wagga Wagga ends and I reboard the train, bound for the destinations which are the purpose of my three-month voyage in NSW—Coffs Harbour and Bellingen.
Of course, the destination is a woman. Or women, as the case may be.
I’ve been nursing the dream of seeing Bello again since our second, soul-destroying lockdown in Melbourne last year. In the four months I was under house arrest in a West Melbourne hotel room, my restless esprit ennuyeux de flâneur confined to perambulations through dreams and memories inspired by old photographs and footage taken, as in the video above, during other voyages, writing the second draft of my current work in progress, set in Bellingen, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, was one of the few things that kept me sane.
When our ‘Dear Leader’, Mr. Andrews, deigned to release us last November, dangling a tentative morsel of liberty before us (albeit one bounded by a radius of 25 kilometres), my experience of coming out of deep freeze was the inverse of what my Melburnian confrères had complained of all through lockdown: I had lived tensely on my nerve endings for so many months that I felt a sudden crash in energy and an onset of depression at being abbreviatedly free, whereas most of my fellow Melburnians had had their dose of depression in the prison of their homes.
Almost the first thing I did as soon as I was out of the cage was to re-open lines of communication with a woman, the thought of whom, like Dulcinea, had been one of those few things which kept my windmill-wizened brain sane when it seemed eminently possible that the Victorian Government and Victoria Police would go full Stasi on us.
And, as you can imagine with these undependable dames, even a polite inquiry into one’s health was met with radio silence.
That, and freedom, and the American election all coinciding at once seemed to soak my vibe of every adrenal ounce I had needed to endure four months of lockdown in a state which had descended with frightening rapidity towards totalitarianism.
And it was in that state of physical and emotional exhaustion that I made the video above and penned the attendant prose poem.
Trawling through my footage, I seemed to find in the abandoned Trentham train station an image of my soul at that desolate moment. Trentham’s a little town, about halfway between Woodend and Daylesford, which reminded me a great deal of Bellingen when I had stayed there about two years before. As refugees from Newtown in Sydney ‘tree change’ to Bellingen, imagining a verdant, paradisal embassy of inner-city liberalism in the country, so Fitzrovians fleeing Melbourne are steadily driving the property prices in Trentham up above a million dollars.
I’m told you can follow the old railway ties, half-buried in the verdure, from the station to quite a good pub in the next town, but that was a flânerie too energetic for yours truly, being more in the way of a ‘hike’, and my Italian-shod soul demands a nature denuded by copious asphalt and good paving to support it. I probably walked no further towards the slaking refreshment of that mythical pub than where you find my camera set up in the first two shots of the video.
But in the image of an abandoned country railway station at dusk, and in the ghostly sound of a spectral steam train puffing along a ruined route down which no train could nowadays pass, I saw an image of myself, shagged and fagged and fashed on the threshold of middle age, my days as a ladies’ man now well behind me down that ruined pike, having decided that there was one woman left for me in the world to conquer or none at all, one whose tardy silence to my text seemed to leave me, like my camera in the video, lingering restlessly for a train that had been infinitely delayed—and maybe even derailed long before I had arrived at the terminus of this moment of realization that there was but one woman in the world I would deign to travel to the end of the line with.
That sense of the mood—and often the melancholy mood—of empty places which I have elsewhere called ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’, a dark, ponderous sadness about the unpeopled spaces of the city, the unfathomable, heart-breaking mystery of the real and manifest and visible which I and my cameras seem very sensitive to, was potent for me then.
I did eventually hear from the lady in question, and her perky obliquities were worse than if she had left me mired in my tristes mystères of unknowing and Jamesian speculation upon the multiple potential motives of her silence.
And I admit that, since November of last year, I haven’t been quite myself, and I certainly haven’t been at my best. I haven’t entirely recovered from that triple blow of sudden decompression from lockdown, a conversation unresolved and infinitely deferred, and the latest (as it then was) apocalyptic twist to the devolving screw of Western civilization which an American election in the time of Coronavirus represented.
Mostly since then I’ve just tried to beat back my spleen, tamp it down by blows and kicks and cudgels until such time as I could get on that train and find out for myself what goes on with this dame.
Now the train of months has just about drawn up to the platform, and I’m about to find out if this whole trip to NSW, assiduously planned, was worth the price of knowing the truth, or whether I would have been happier trying to decipher unhappy mysteries from the distance of another state.
The train and the station seem quite significant symbols for me in my writing, as in my life. My latest work in progress, a memoir of seduction, is about an occasion when I took the XPT from Bello (or Urunga, to be more precise) to Brisbane, partly to catch the last few days of David Lynch’s exhibition at GoMA, Between Two Worlds, and partly to slay myself in the kind of unfettered Daygame you can’t do but covertly in a small town.
I was all set to get on the train at around 11:00 that night when, an hour or two before I was due at the station, I had the romantic encounter, right there in Bello, I was going to Brisbane for.
I almost missed my train: the lady in question was showing me such a good time I almost blew off a whole trip to Brisbane just to finish what I had started with her. I didn’t sleep that night—and not because it’s damn difficult to do blanket duty on the overnight XPT: I nursed the memory of her kisses as the train rocked and rolled me to Briz Vegas, tried not to let their reality dissolve into dreams until such time as I would be able to write this totally unexpected victory down verbatim in my journal.
I’m now 93% through the second draft of that book, and last week I had a chance to get down to the commencement of the finale, my second round with the redhead, when I was back in Bello, finishing off the pleasure I had deferred for the love of art.
Possibly it makes a difference to be on this side of the border, to be this much closer to the place, both in space and time, for there was a moment, in rewriting the scene, when the sensual reality of the experience—not just her hand in my lap and mine under her dress, but the little park before the library with its globes of yellow light giving it a Parisian air, and the delicious freddezza of Bello in June, made more delicious still when you have the warmth of a woman in your arms—produced the same sensual frisson in me as I felt that night so many years ago.
I could see the place and hear it again. I could feel the chill, valley night which I’ll know again, after so many years’ distance, in another week or two. Having taken me away from a place where the spectres of myself in scenes of dead love with various women are still vivid in my memory, the train will take me back there.
If I were to connect the psychological network map of my amoursmorts, I think I would discover that women and trains and stations all seem unconsciously connected to me, and that, indeed, I can plot the points of some of the stations of my experience as equally the terminuses of my affairs with several women.
There was the French girl, never to be forgotten, and never, I fear, to be sufficiently honoured in the pearl-like words of peerless prose her soul deserves, whom I kissed goodbye with the heart-breaking knowledge that I would never see her again in this life at the turnstile to the Métro in Belleville.
A few hours hence, I would be getting on the Eurostar to London, and thence, by tube, to Heathrow, carrying the sacred chalice of her kiss across continents and time zones as I wrote the memory of her down in my journal.
The last girl who was of any significance to me before I gave up Daygame, I also saw off on the Metro—at Eltham Station in Melbourne. A Dutch girl of Persian descent, I still see her pretty, dark face framed with ringlets becoming as small as a postage stamp through the pane of the door as it flies away from me, back to Holland.
And as for the object of my fact-finding mission north of the border, the last time I saw her was when we were on a train together in Brisbane, far removed from the climes in which we had known each other in Coffs.
I remember writing to her in a belated birthday card about a year after that last rendez-vous that, when I had gotten off the train at Roma Street, I had not looked back at her—had not been able to look back at her—because I was looking forward to the next time I would see her.
After a lot of near misses in the intervening years, the moment I have been looking forward to may be imminent. The tragedy would be to discover that that last moment of loving vision I sacrificed for this next moment, and which I have looked forward to with anticipation, was really the end of our relation; that I missed my connection with her; and that, for years, I have been wandering around the tomb of Roma Street, not even realizing that I am in the terminus of love.
People are different at night. Under cover of its camouflage, their true, lupine colours show through.
But after experiencing the giallonoir lights of Paris, I seemed to lose my fear of night and the city. And over time, I learned to love to bathe in golden shadows. For things other than fleurs du mal bloom at night:—I love the lights, which, like penetrating rays of consciousness, flashes of inspiration blossoming in the black soil of the subconscious, require the loam of deep darkness to spark the oneiric reverie of their fiorrific flames.
In time I understood, like reading the rebus of a dream, what the clairobscure image of night and light was telling me: the lonely tiges of these solitudinous sentinelles, aureoled in melting platinum and nodding in la notte, were images of my own sombre soul burning tygerbright fra le selve oscure della gente.
—Dean Kyte, “Nightflowers”
When I lived in Bellingen, I earned an epithet which never quite escaped me.
Every year, around the Queen’s Birthday, Bellingen hosts its annual Readers & Writers Festival, and the highlight is the Poetry Slam on the Saturday night, an event which draws as competitive a murmur around town as the Melbourne Cup. Form of certain contenders is compared and bruited abroad in the days and weeks leading up to it, a noise which gathers to a crescendo as the poetic nags prance up to the gate of the Mem Hall.
My first year living in Bello, I charged out of nowhere, surging out of the pack from six lengths behind at the turn, like a dark horse whose form was utterly unknown in those climes, to carry off the big novelty cheque bestowed upon the runner-up. It was a complete fluke, but after that night I was known around town as ‘The Poet’—an utterly undeserved appellation, as I had used up about half of all the poems I have ever written in my life that night.
Most of my ‘poetic output’ is, strictly speaking, not my own, but translations from French, Italian and Spanish. My reputation around town as a translator of Baudelaire contributed somewhat to the capital T, capital P appellation, and perhaps inheriting his credentials as a spiritual sire gave me the thoroughbred look of a literary man born to the saddle of poetry.
I have never regarded myself as being ‘a’ poet, let alone ‘the’, but I could never shake off the definite article designation after that, despite polite explanation that I’m a ‘writer’, not really a ‘poet’ per se. To my ear at least, the vocation of ‘writer’ has an all-around, tradesmanlike sound to it, one which indicates a general maestria of the manifold forms of written language (most of which are prose), rather than the specific expertise of the ‘poet’.
I admire poets enormously, but however masterful I am at hammering out a well-turned sentence, I don’t consider myself to be anywhere near their priestly rank in the hierarchy of writers. Poetry, it seems to me, is not something that you write: it is something that is written through you, a message from God that you channel. People who have their antennæ turned towards and tuned in to receive the celestial communication on a more than hit-or-miss basis have my admiration.
If I have written a dozen poems worthy of the name in my entire life, I would be surprised to discover such prodigious production from a soul who, like M. Flaubert, suffers to turn one golden word from the dross of his mind.
Most of the poetry I have ever written was written in a few months, on Parisian soil, when the fecund inspiration of ‘the reality of experience’, as Mr. Joyce calls it, interpenetrated the soil of my soul, made ready for it by thousands of hours of toil in another, antipodean atmosphere.
To carry on the metaphor, a poem is like a flower: it grows within you of its own volition, the natural product of soil and light and air, and you are the gardener charged by God with gathering this bud in the ephemeral fullness of its flowering. I have expressed this conviction more fully in a memoir yet to be published, recalling the moment, in the cours La Reine in Paris, when I felt the first thing I could honestly call a ‘poem’ germinate and spring to sudden life within me:
This was the truly rare thing, the thing which had made Orfeo despair of ever ‘being’ un poète rather than le prosateur he knew himself, aucœur, to be:—for he knew innately that this natural emergenza, this illuminating insight, this sudden, lucid pénétration de la conscience into la vraie nature des choses which takes sudden, stunning shape in a small number of perfect words perfectly arranged, could not be forced, could not be le produit d’un moi, of a mind consciously writing to ‘produce’ un poème, but was itself un acte gratuit de la Nature as rare, as long an odd as that interpénétration des individus which yet produces a third, equally unique, equally irreplaceable individu from that contingent comingtogether….
But now le miracle de la Nature was taking its course in him: the event longwaitedfor, almost despaired of, the spontaneous, paroozianic excrescence of something real, something that was meant to be, and to have une vie propre dans le monde indépendant d’Orfeo, the way any authentic poème which has survived to be repeated by successive générations des êtres humains as expressing in some perfect, immediately apprehendable way l’essence tragique de notre condition has lived, whether it emerges from la sensibilité unique of a Keats, a Coleridge, a Rimbaud, a Baudelaire, a Wordsworth, a Goethe, a Blake; and which we immediately sense, on the reading of it, the profound interaction of une conscience unique avec ce monde, such that these words in this form must be;—must take their life, separate de leur créateur and without propriety anymore than un enfant est la propriété de son parent; to strike their harmonious accord within him and then to vibrate outwards to touch des autres âmes à travers le temps as the apprehension—sudden, lucid, clear—of some vérité éternelle de notre relation avec la Nature. Le poème was, in fine, necessary dans l’histoire du monde: it must be, just as those œuvres—les Manet, les Courbet—Orfeo had seen au musée d’Orsay,—et toutes les autres œuvres which he had been privileged to see all this extraordinary semaine de sa vie,—were fated by this same poetic inevitability to be. They spoke to something essential dans la condition de l’homme, and those luminous, irridescent traits dans le bouquet de l’Olympia, no less rude and irregular than these crude lines taking spontaneous shape sous la main d’Orfeo, were, comme les enfants d’une vision formed in its own kink, et perversité de l’esprit, et particularité to see ces traits où les autres, avant Manet, could not, no less essential a fleuring in that concatenation de l’histoire than the flowering de l’orchidée rare qui était Manet luimême, budded up from the sterile staff d’un juge bourgeois out of the unpropitious field of une fille de diplomate. Our presumptuous little hero had the grave and awful sense pour la première fois dans sa vie that what he committed here, en ce jour, dans le cours la Reine, would echo long into l’éternité: The great grave bell had been struck, and the peal of his fame, that of our ridiculous little dandy, cloaked in the conspicuous sable of his ostentatious anonymity pendant sa vie, would resound from this moment of sincere sentiment when he had abased son âme devant l’Olympia, would echo, growing—ironically, paradoxically—louder, not dimmer and more muffled as this instant of time slipped further from him, the words he now committed à la page slipping further from his hand to become no longer his property, but something dans le patrimoine de toute humanité, to take its place, alongside the most essential art, in the vast, grand jardin du domaine public. If he did nothing more with his life than what he did on this day, Orfeo had ascended, accédé à l’Académie des Phares with this cri which emerged, déchirant, de son cœur: It would be taken up, cette torche, par mille sentinelles, par mille portevoix, passed, de main en main, d’âge en âge, only to flicker and die à la dernière syllabe of recorded time, at the last rippling ondulation of its écho, au bord de l’éternité. Here was la poésie, in this osmotic interaction of that which was without Orfeo with that which was within him; it emerged, unforced, unbidden, by this mysterious alchimerical interaction, as rare a transubstantiation as lead into gold, and if the effect was rather, from a more objective standpoint, the imposition, by Orfeo, of his sensibilité sur la nature, as of a pathetic fallacy upon this indifferent scene, it had rather the effect upon him that he was discovering some profound truth latent in the design of what appeared to be un chaos harmonieux.
—Dean Kyte, Orpheid: L’Olympia
The babel of that quotation gives you some sense not only of how little I consider myself to be a poet, but, suffering like M. Flaubert from the knowledge that my antennæ are not turned, on balance, towards the celestial, poetic realm, but towards the prosaic, terrestrial world, how much, in compensation, I have sought to make my prose scintillate with that ‘speaking in tongues’ natural to the priestly poets.
With a deep bow of reverence to Howard Nemerov’s provocative entry on poetry in the Encyclopædia Britannica (which is worth repeated readings), one might almost say that prose is the ‘science’ of literature and poetry the ‘art’ of it.
Like science, prose is a purely descriptive account of nature. I often call written language ‘the algebra of thought’, and like the workaday symbology of algebra between scientists, prose is intended to get an idea, a descriptive account of external reality, out of one mind and as neatly, efficiently, and accurately into another.
Poetry, on the other hand, does something even more abstract with the abstract symbology of language than prose. It attempts to make music out of units of concrete meaning.
I have always been of the view that the highest demonstration of artistic genius is when an artist takes his medium and makes it do the opposite of what it is intended to do as, for example, when Robert Bresson suggested that the highest end of cinema was to ‘film the invisible’. In some sense, music (which it appears to have co-evolved with) is the contrary of language, and the poetic attempt to void words of their workaday meanings and make them into abstract sounds—the music of the spheres—is, in my view, the highest form of literary expression.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed two neat equations, stating that ‘prose = words in the best order’ and that ‘poetry = the best words in the best order [my emphasis].’ The latter equation implies concision as a corollary, and concision seems to be a natural feature of poetry, from the haiku to the epic: If a poem constitutes the best words arranged in the best possible order, it naturally excludes from itself any words which do not cumulatively contribute to the peerless effect it produces.
I think this sense of concentrated concision native to poetry, which expresses the essence of living reality without superfluity, and yet transcends the purely descriptive account of prose, such that whatever description it does supply abstractly transcends the material so that multiple meanings operate simultaneously on multiple levels, is what makes even such fastidious craftsmen of prose as M. Flaubert and myself despair of ever being ‘poets’ in the priestly sense I have described above.
Though the modern prose poem was officially inaugurated by M. Baudelaire, arguably it is his contemporary, M. Flaubert, who is the first modern ‘poet in prose’. He suffered, as he wrote to Louise Colet in 1852, to write a style of prose ‘qui serait rythmé comme le vers, précis comme le langage des sciences’.
And as much as the recluse of Croisset was held, in the middle-class circles he despised, as a literary freak, dangerous to bon sens et bonnes mœurs, even M. Flaubert’s most tory critics had to concede that, despite the apparently insane ends to which he turned the French language, hardly anybody writing during the Second Empire had as firm a reign on words, nor could they polish each part of a prosaic sentence up to the point of being something akin to poetry.
M. Flaubert’s writing process has become legendary for its redundant exactitude, and when one reads of the tireless synopses, synopses of synopses, drafts and drafts of drafts that he went through, one almost feels as though the greatest writer of French prose in his day were conducting himself like an absolute neophyte, a perpetual student of bonne forme.
As his good friend, George Sand, wrote to M. Flaubert, chastising him for his grumbling over the negative reception of L’Éducation sentimentale(1869):
Au fond, tu lis, tu creuses, tu travailles plus que moi et qu’une foule d’autres. Tu as acquis une instruction à laquelle je n’arriverai jamais. Tu es donc plus riche cent fois que nous tous ; tu es un riche et tu cries comme un pauvre. Faites la charité à un gueux qui a de l’or plein sa paillasse, mais qui ne veut se nourrir que de phrases bien faites et de mots choisis. Mais, bêta, fouille dans ta paillasse et mange ton or. Nourris-toi des idées et des sentiments amassés dans ta tête et dans ton coeur ; les mots et les phrases, la forme dont tu fais tant de cas, sortira toute seule de ta digestion. Tu la considères comme un but, elle n’est qu’un effet.
In the final analysis, you dig, you work harder than myself and a whole host of other writers. You have acquired an erudition to which I shall never attain. You are a hundred times richer than the rest of us; you are rich and yet you cry poor! You want that I should dispense alms upon a beggar whose cup is full of gold, but who does not want to feast except on well-turned phrases and the choicest of words? Dummy, dig in your cup and eat your gold! Nourish yourself upon the feelings and ideas hoarded in your head and heart! The words and phrases, the ‘form’ over which you make such a fuss, will emerge naturally from your digestion. You consider ‘form’ to be an end in itself, but it’s merely an effect.
—George Sand to Gustave Flaubert, 12 January, 1876 (my translation)
Mme. Sand’s maternal whipping is a quote I come back to whenever I beweep my outcast state as a prosateur, aspiring, like le Grand Ours who predominates the firmament of French literature, to turn machine-tooled sentences as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.
Precision, by Coleridge’s definition, is the mark of both the prose stylist and the poet: both know the multifarious tools of written language to an extraordinarily intimate degree, and yet there is something altogether different—and missing in M. Flaubert’s sensibility, as in mine—between shaping the prosaic table of a sentence, which must bear all kinds of objects in carefully arranged orders upon the sturdy, yet elegantly turned, legs of grammar, and fashioning, as in Exodus 27, the high altar of a poetic strophe or stanza, which both comes from God and praises God in its infinitely rich design.
There is a certain point where precision turns towards analysis, and at this point prose and poetry would appear to diverge.
Though he had a poet’s command of his tools, M. Flaubert had an analytic sensibility, and he wielded words like a scalpel, not merely to gouge and dissect his eternal enemies, the bourgeoisie, but to layer on the tiny couches of colour which are the myriad details and objects he populates his canvas with.
The concision of the poet is, in some sense, a function of the holistic God’s eye view he taps into in a moment of inspiration. Analysis of detail is antithetical to this macro-level vision. But the writer of prose, the novelist or short story writer, is firmly on the ground. He gazes ahead and about himself, seeing a maze to be dissected by induction and deduction, not the mandala which the whole world forms when viewed from on high.
In this plodding, linear movement through the environmental and Balzacian social maze, the prosaic, purely descriptive account of phenomena is called for as a compass. Poetry won’t get you far when confronted with a Rastignac.
The modern poets of novelistic prose, M. Flaubert, Mr. Joyce, are very much in this naturalistic world which has its roots in the ‘social scientific’, analytic prose style of M. Balzac. Moreover, in the supremely artificial phenomenon of the City, these novelists no less than a prose poet like M. Baudelaire see in the multitude of details they microscopically describe and analyse some macrocosmic totality like unto the poet’s God. Mr. Joyce, of course, claimed to be an atheist, but the whole Dublin of Ulysses (1922) is pervaded with an atman-like oversoul which proclaims, echoing the throwaway pamphlet that Mr. Bloom sends sailing into the Liffey, that ‘Elijah is coming!’
It’s the great misfortune of a writer’s life to come upon Joyce and Ulysses too early, as I did at a tender, precocious age. You’re ruined for straight-talking, undemonstrative, definitely unpoetic, Hemingwayesque, prosy prose after that. When you see the peerless example that Mr. Joyce, battling both poverty and blindness, made to make every word of his prose shine with the celestial lustre of poetry, you must forge each word in the smithy of your soul under his heavy shadow, just as he forged words under M. Flaubert’s.
And it’s no disrespect to this all-around writer, this supreme homme de lettres who is the easy (and only) equal for verbal inventiveness to Shakespeare in our language, that he, like M. Flaubert, is not really a poet. There are a few charming lyrics in Chamber Music, and his long, Rabelaisian broadsides against the bourgeoisie of Dublin ought to be better known and widely recited for the comic masterpieces they are, but apart from “Ecce Puer”, almost none of Mr. Joyce’s poems are memorable.
We know Shem the Penman, il caro Giacomo, as the formidable maestro of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (1939), two epic novels which render a city by day and again by night, and as the author of those vignettes in Dubliners (1914) which, in the tart cleanliness of their prose, out-Hemingways Hemingway well-avant la lettre.
In his exquisite workmanship with words, which do multiple functions and have multiple meanings even in the relatively straightforward short stories of Dubliners, Mr. Joyce follows the Flaubertian example of making every single word in every single sentence the best possible word in the best possible order. It is a mark of his poetic sensibility détourné de la poésieelle-même that Mr. Joyce finds poetry (which he called ‘epiphanies’) in the most prosaic moments of Leopold Bloom’s day—like letting go his bowels.
That analytic, microscopic, naturalistic vision of life, which parses reality and excludes no part of it, finding the poetic totality in the prosaic banality of describing everything, is where the great reconciliation between prose and poetry occurs in Mr. Joyce’s œuvre. He find the epiphanic God of poetry in everything: he has Stephen Dedalus call Him ‘a shout in the street’. He finds Him as present in Mr. Bloom’s merde as in the bar of Sweny’s lemon soap in his pocket.
Today we commemorate the 117th anniversary of Mr. Bloom’s immortal flânerie around Dublin (or equally, the 117th anniversary of Mr. Joyce’s first flâneuristic date with his future wife and muse, Nora Barnacle, the Galway lass who would ‘stick’ to him). In his encylopædia of Dublin on the day of June 16th, 1904, he shows us how prose—the unprosiest prose possible on what Arnold Bennett called ‘the dailiest day possible’—can be ineffably poetic. The God-like macrocosm is contained within the microcosm of Dublin, all time contained within the grain of sand of a single day, and poetic totality contained within the prosaic banality of everything.
As we huddled, cuddling under my raincoat, in the Treasury Gardens, and kissing in the quickening winter’s dusk, I had a dim sense of the con being worked upon me—the futility of victory with a woman I had already conquered.
It doesn’t matter if you have already slept with them these days:—For no matter how much she is attracted to you, or how much she genuinely likes you at any given moment, each time you encounter her, you must reconquer her as if you had never conquered her before, like Sisyphus re-rolling the rock.
In the Treasury Gardens, I had a palpable sense of the unreality of her reality beneath my touch, like clutching an armful of clouds. As much as I didn’t want the moment to be over, I wanted it to be over quickly, for I sensed that she was not really there.
—Dean Kyte, “The Touch”
The abiding theme of my writing—and, indeed, all my art—is the mystery of women. To say that every femme I encounter is fatal to me in some way, and that all my amours eventually devolve into bitter, baffling mysteries on which I never get any closure, is to give you just a hint, dear readers, of the oneiric altered state that is your Melbourne Flâneur’s permanent reality—the surreal, half-lit world I walk through where the landmarks of quotidian banality are big symbols, clues and metaphors for a mystical conspiracy hiding in plain sight.
Major agents of that universal conspiracy? The dames, Jack, the dames…
I used to be a bit of a ladies’ man. I used to do a bit of Daygame, but I walked away from the Game a few years ago after an experience which ought to have been—and was—my greatest triumph at persuading a woman out of her clothes and into my arms.
Having been forced, by a conflation of circumstances, to take some time away from what had been my heart’s passion—the pursuit of those trying beings who inspire one half of the human race to their highest creations, their wildest follies, and their darkest crimes—I felt no burning urge to go back to the dating game.
And these days, no matter how hard I jam the keys of Comfort, Attraction and Intimacy in the ignition and turn them, I just can’t get my motor purring over the prospect of a date anymore, those mystical occasions for the flâneur, as evoked in the video and prose poem above, when lonely exploration of the dark yet luminous mystery of the city intersects with the mystery of a dame in your arms.
I gave up the Game when I realized, dimly, that it was rigged. No matter how good a man gets at it, he is always at a disadvantage to the prey he is hunting, for feminine seduction is to masculine warfare what persuasion is to force—a cold warfare – which is the only kind that can disable the kinetic variety without a shot being fired.
As Robert Greene says in The Art of Seduction (2001), many thousands of years ago, women developed their seductive capacities to disarm and render compliant their more physically powerful counterparts. Today’s iterations of Eve have it evolved into them, so matter how good you get at the Game, you’re always playing catch-up with a born pro.
And with my interest in con artistry and other social games of deception, it’s perhaps no wonder that, suffering from my latest heartbreak and seeking rational answers to the irrational, insoluble mystery of life, I’ve begun to pick apart the trope of the fatal woman.
Since giving up the Game, the question which has puzzled me is What the hell has gone wrong with women in the last fifty years? I was just getting some clarity on that research question in February last year when the CV struck town.
Then we went into lockdown, and with the external world closed to me, I went deep into intuitive introspection on this question. I began to conceive a plot—my first exercise in fiction in over ten years—which seeks to answer this question based on some of my baffling experiences tying into dames on the streets of Melbourne.
More on that project to come. Consider the video above—and its attendant prose poem—to be a provocative down-payment on the dark plot I am plotting…
But as I began to recollect and re-member my exploits and failures in my hotel room, applying the patina of imagination to them in an altered state deeper than LSD, vamping on and amping up the fatal aspect of twists, frills, jills and janes, dolls and dames who had pumped enduring slugs in my heart, I began to grok a discernible difference between the girls of today and the classic lady/killers who run the gamut of modern literature and art from Baudelaire to film noir.
The femme fatale is the Goddess in what I would call ‘the Myth of Modernity’. From Sacher-Masoch to the most self-desecrating porn star of today, modernity appears to celebrate the Kali aspect of the Eternal Feminine—Woman-as-Destroyer rather than Woman-as-Nurturer.
The ‘classic’ femme fatale—which is as much to say, ‘the modern woman’—is, in my view, the most conspicuous product of high European modernity. The femme fatale in her ‘classical’ state is essentially the nineteenth-century idea of ‘the New Woman’.
I don’t use the word ‘product’ to describe the modern woman, or femme fatale, casually; for the salient features of high European modernity are capitalism and consumption. As Thorstein Veblen observed in his Flaubertian economic analysis, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), in the nineteenth century, the project of ‘bourgeoisification’, of gradual enfranchisement and homogenization into the middle class, produced a society of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in which women were tasked with much of the ‘work’ associated with ‘consumption for display’.
The modern woman as femme fatale emerges, therefore, as the pre-eminent ‘product’ of the City, site and sight of high capitalism, place of conspicuous consumption, and she necessarily emerges in the cradle of artistic modernity, the place that Walter Benjamin called the ‘capital of the nineteenth century’, Gay Paree.
The artificiality of the City, as I wrote in that post, induces a condition of artificiality in the men and women who are among the alienated ‘parts’ in this fabulous machine of commerce which is the modern city. It necessarily induces a condition of artificiality in their relations with one another: the core logic of the circumambient environment being a zero-sum game of exploitative value exchange, romantic relationships are ultimately reduced to a commerce of mutual sexual exploitation.
M. Baudelaire, in his poetry and art criticism, was the first person I know of to recognize a pathological instinct in women which the modernity of the City seems to bring to the fore as a positive maladie de l’âme. These most ‘natural’ of entities, these creatures who are, by their very biology as nurturers and nourishers, rooted to the soil of human existence, have a perverse propensity towards ‘unnaturalness’, towards artificiality.
Knowing that their economic fortunes lie in attaching themselves to the men most capable of providing, women, since prehistory, have availed themselves of exotic furs, stones, ochres, balms and unguents as erotic artillery in their seductive quivers, unnaturally enhancing the natural majesty that God gave to Eve. In “Éloge du maquillage” (“In praise of makeup”), M. Baudelaire makes a positive case for artificial feminine display as essential and praise-worthy weaponry in seduction, while in his poem “Un Fantôme”, he loses himself in the dazzling array of devices—fabrics, scents, jewellery, makeup, lingerie, the play of pudic concealment and immodest revelation—that women use to fatally seduce men.
Spengler, in The Decline of the West (1918/1922), differentiates between plant and animal existence in the life of cultures, between passivity and rootedness, attributes of the plant, and activity and motility, attributes of the animal.
To my mind, the differentiation can be taken further, for, to put the matter in the language of the I Ching, the active, motile life of animals is essentially a function of 乾 (Qián), ‘the Creative’, the Eternal Masculine, while the passive, rooted existence of the plant is essentially a function of 坤 (Kūn), ‘the Receptive’, the Eternal Feminine.
This is the fundamental differentiation of existence. The Creative principle is symbolic of Heaven, which is above the Receptive principle of the Earth. The quickening, vivifying action of the light of Heaven engenders all life on this planet, which the Earth nurtures and brings forth from the deep darkness of its womb. Together 乾 (Heaven) and 坤 (Earth) form 乾坤 (or 天地 [Tiāndì] in Modern Standard Chinese), which variously translates as ‘the World’, ‘the Universe’, ‘the scope of operations’, ‘the total field of activity’.
When Masculine and Feminine combine, therefore, it creates and engenders the world as we know it.
As the I Ching demonstrates, our earliest forebears intuited this fundamental universal division which manifests in the division of the sexes—and in the right and appropriate order of society, with the creative, motile man over and above the passive, receptive woman. In The Perfumed Garden, the great Islamic sex manual of the fifteenth century, Sheik Nafzawi gives us this ‘missionary position’ stated as the same sacred invocation which God gave to his first gardener, Adam:
God the magnificent has said:
‘The women are your field [my emphasis]. Go upon your field as you like.’
—Muhammad al-Nafzawi, The Perfumed Garden (translated by Sir Richard Burton)
The woman, symbolically associated with Earth and nature, is the total operable field of masculine activity. Cultivating her, husbanding her is the synthesis of Creative Heaven and Receptive Earth represented in the World of 天地 .
But the metaphor of motile animal and passive plant in the cultural life of men and women extends even further than that.
In the image of masculine sperm and feminine egg, I also see the principle of active, animal motility and passive, plantlike receptivity symbolically represented: like men themselves, constantly approaching and trying to latch on to an attractive woman who sits, like a Venus flytrap, passive in her stasis, rejecting all suitors but the chosen one she will eventually receive, the millions of sperm coax, compete, co-operate and collaborate with each other as they move towards the passive, distant goal buried in deep darkness, in the soil of the womb.
I use the Venus flytrap analogy pointedly, for (along with the black widow spider and the praying mantis) the femme fatale is often equated with this passive yet carnivorous plant that preys upon the venturesome motility of animals who stray into its alluring array of thorny leaves reminiscent of the vagina dentata.
The symbolic image of the femme fatale that emerges from this analogy drawn from nature is of a passive predator, almost rooted in her immobility, who conserves her energy as she waits with infinite patience, employing alluring display, in place of motility, to attract her victim into a seductive matrix that closes about him like a steel trap and is almost impossible to escape except by death.
Irving Berlin wrote a song, the title of which is the most eloquent formulation I know of to describe the dynamic relationship between masculine, animal motility and feminine, vegetable passivity, evocative of the Venus flytrap: “A Man Chases A Girl (Until She Catches Him)”.
This also reminds me of Isaiah Berlin’s famous analogy of the hedgehog and the fox, which has been variously applied to Dante and Shakespeare, to Bracque and Picasso, and to other artistic examples of manifold, mobile, creative genius and passive, patient receptivity to one big, God-like intuition which the mind traps and thoroughly absorbs. It could equally be applied to the relationship between men and women.
Men, in our motility, are like Berlin’s fox: nous allons, nous courons, nous cherchons. We have our snouts in everything. All the fecund multitude of creations, innovations and inventions we bring forth from our brains and brawn are but the sublimation and compensation for the one creative thing we cannot do: bring a child to term from within ourselves.
Women, in this respect, are like the hedgehog of Berlin’s analogy: they have a single in-built task—a labour, or travail, as we say in French—one great job that God has given them as the field upon which we go, sowing our fecund seed. Within themselves and without themselves, they have been charged with the sacred duty of nurturing and nourishing life, of bringing forth the next generation of humanity and tending it, making sure it attains to maturity so that it can bring forth the next generation in its turn.
All the various masculine infrastructure, all the fecund fruits of masculine creativity, innovation and invention, is but the setting of the boundaries of the hospitable garden around the woman so that she can safely perform this two-decade travail. She grows as a great tree in the centre of this garden, which is ‘the home’, and she in turn tends the saplings grafted from her heavenly union with the motile male, who sets and defends the boundaries of home and hearth.
In this respect, returning to Spengler’s notion of Time and Destiny, we can say that women are, by nature, politically conservative. Being rooted to the deep nature of the Earth by their plantlike biology, they must, like the Venus flytrap, be essentially conservative in how they deploy their energy and the strategic calculations they make in expending it. In her natural state, woman is as slow as a plant to move and change, because uprooting oneself in movement and change involves embracing venturesome risks whose odds of success are difficult to calculate.
Women require stasis and stability, they require a stable garden around themselves and their children in order to optimally raise up their offspring. Human beings being the slowest animals on the Earth to mature and the most vulnerable to predation, taking energetic risks which involve transplanting the tribe across an inhospitable wilderness is not in the essential nature of the woman.
To use Spengler’s analogy, the wife and mother’s eternal lament against her husband and son going off to defend the borders of the polis is essentially a conservative political reaction—the wish and desire to conserve the prime source of resource provision, whose locus resides in the venturesome, motile male.
And, en revanche, we can equally say that it is in men’s essential nature to be politically progressive. As manifestations of the Creative principle, all the sum of masculine creativity and innovation is predicated upon the personality trait of openness—the creativity dimension.
The innovations in art and science which have progressed humanity to its current pinnacle of civilization are almost exclusively the result of the motile, venturesome, risk-taking instinct in men, who push back the boundaries, who widen the garden of the polis for the comfort and safety of their women- and children-folk, who civilize and husband the dark, feminine nature of the Earth to provide for wife and offspring.
To propose a basic hypothetical answer to my research question of what the Sam Hell has gone snafu with the dames in the last fifty years, let me say this: It would appear that these two innate instincts of feminine conservatism and masculine progressivism have become politically reversed in the last half-century and are now on increasingly divergent, derivatively expanding paths.
In acquiring a physical mobility outside the garden of the home, in taking on the motile, questing, predatory attributes of the Masculine and forsaking the static, stable garden which the fox-like men have created to allow women to fulfil their one, lifetime labour, the modern woman—which is to say, the femme fatale—has forsaken her intrinsic nature and adopted an artificial one.
She has the physical attributes of a woman, but the pretended drives of a man.
The existential crisis in sensemaking whose inexorable logic is leading to the self-terminating conclusion of our species is essentially, I think, a schismatic division along Masculine and Feminine lines. The Universe has been rent and 乾 and 坤 have exchanged their poles, with an animus-driven Feminine embracing an unnatural progressivism that is actually regressive in its logical unfoldment, and a Masculine, clouted into its anima by the Feminine, digging its heels into the earth with an conservatism unnatural to its progressive instincts.
It is men who now want to conserve and maintain an empty garden which the janes have vacated, while venturesome women, progressing beyond the borders of reason, are out sowing the wild oats they biologically do not possess.
Hence the trope in modern literature and art of the femme fatale—an artificial entity, the product of the unnatural City, with the biology of a woman and the psychological drives of a man. She’s fatal to men, and in the mad state of affairs of the sensemaking crisis, she’s ultimately fatal to man—the species—itself.
The female of the species is, of course, born with an intrinsic centre of value between her legs—and thus a site of potential commercial exploit. To put it in rather cynical terms, if diverted from the strict course of nature, of sex for procreation rather than recreation, she has upon her person not an in-built labour but an in-built ‘trade’; and in fact, we go so far to dignify this ‘trade’ by calling it a ‘profession’—the world’s oldest.
Following this logic, a woman has upon her person an in-built means of obtaining economic value in that machine for exploitative value exchange which is the City. And in referring to prostitution as ‘the world’s oldest profession’, it is perhaps not coincidental that, since ancient times, prostitution, as a well-organized, commercial ‘racket’ conducted at scale, has always been an auxiliary to urban agglomeration. The City—and even the Town, if it grows to a certain size as a geographic and economic centre—has always been a sinkhole for prostitution—and hence the modern fears, in the unconscious imaginary of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for the moral safety of daughters leaving the natural environment of the countryside to seek education or employment in the City as secretaries, shopgirls, waitresses, barmaids, etc.
In this site of the commercial spectacle, any job, however superficially ‘respectable’, that exposes a woman to public view—that ‘puts her on display’, as it were—is allied to prostitution in the modern unconscious imaginary of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and exposes her chastity to moral hazard. By the dream logic of the modern unconscious imaginary, the pretty secretary is merely a displaced mistress to her employer, the shopgirl sporting the latest fashion among the mannequins of the department store is another commodity on sale.
One need only look at Dimitri Kirsanoff’s “Ménilmontant” (1926) to see the short path described between being ‘respectably’ employed in a Parisian atelier making artificial flowers and being falsely made up to sell the flower of one’s virtue dans les rues de Paris.
In the Paris of M. Baudelaire’s day, the Haussmannized Paris of the Second Empire, this trope of the modern, city-dwelling girl or woman, drawn inexorably into the glittering sinkhole from the countryside, being forced by economic circumstance to abandon her natural, agrarian life and seek work in the City, was already well-established. One might start off with tenuous respectability, like the two orphaned sisters in Kirsanoff’s film, but the condition of urban women in the nineteenth century was exceedingly vulnerable, and there was really only one way that a vulnerable woman could make the money to survive—by selling her one vendable commodity.
A woman is not constitutionally fit for the heavy, mechanical labour that a man can do to make his pittance in the City, and the physical nature of her bodily constitution is not one where its intrinsic value lies in a utilitarian capacity to do heavy labour. She might, on a handful of occasions in her life, be called upon to do one major day of labour which would make the strongest man qualm, but otherwise the intrinsic value of the female body lies in graceful display—and what graceful feminine display inspires in men, drawing them, like the prey of the Venus flytrap, inexorably towards it.
At all periods and places of human flourishing, from the England of Elizabeth I to the Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there has been a strong social prohibition against women taking the stage. Across cultures, there seems to be remarkable uniformity in human ethical views on this subject. To take the Spenglerian perspective, when a culture is firmly rooted in its natural environment, the public display of women is regarded as fundamentally indecent and immoral.
The Koran’s encouragement to women to veil themselves, to keep the display of their charms restricted to the privacy of the home, is not a peculiarly Islamic custom, echoing, as it does, St. Paul’s exhortation to feminine modesty and submission in I Corinthians 11. Moreover, the Muslim phenomenon of the harem, the gynæceum concealed from the gaze of all but uncastrated males, the inviolable, almost holy sanctuary of women who may be exclusively viewed only by the apex male of the society, has its analogous phenomenon in every organic culture where procreative sex has not yet been replaced by inorganic recreative sex.
Taking the morphological view, we can see the same, apparently perverse moral logic of deliberately preventing men from physically seeing women manifest itself parallel to the birth of Islam in as radically different a society as Heian era Japan. The Pillow Book (c. 1002) and The Tale of Genji (c. 1021) show us how a complicated seductive ritual was developed around the deliberate concealment of women behind layers of clothing, screens, curtains, blinds, physical displacement into other rooms while conversing with men, the darkness of night, and go-betweens.
To attain the garden of earthly pleasures that is a woman (and he attains a lot of them!), Prince Genji has to bust through wall upon fragile wall of barriers, both physical and moral, which would fatigue James Bond. As Royall Tyler explains in the introduction to his translation of The Tale of Genji:
Yume (‘dream’), for example, is the stock literary word for sexual intercourse between lovers. Some readers have wondered whether the men and women in the tale ever actually do anything, since they seem to spend their nights merely chatting; but katarau, which ostensibly means that, actually refers to other intimacies as well. … A man who ‘sees’ or ‘is seeing’ a woman (a standard expression) is at least to some extent sharing his life with her, and Genji’s having ‘seen’ Utsusemi in a pitch-dark room (chapter 2) means bluntly that he has possessed her. With all the conventions of architecture, furnishings and manners designed precisely to prevent a suitor from seeing a woman, the effect of an accidental glimpse (through a crack in a fence, a hole in a sliding panel, a gap in a curtain) could be devastating.
—Royall Tyler, introduction to The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikabu
In our Western culture, the phenomenon of the convent as a place where one sends jeunes demoiselles of breeding, and the costume of the nun, are likewise manifestations of this deep, archetypal intuition that women must be concealed from masculine view, and Casanova, in his Mémoires, gives a master demonstration of what heroic heights a man who was not the apex male of the society had to scale in order to see and abscond with these zealously defended treasures.
It may be concluded, therefore, that human beings across all times and places intuitively understand, when their cultures are in their organic phases of growth, how politically disruptive to the society the public visibility of women, and their unchaperoned movement through the population, is. The logical assumption seems to be that men cannot control themselves and the sight of women is intrinsically fatal to them.
When a culture calcifies and transitions to a civilization, however, such moral prohibitions are loosened, as happened during the English Restoration, the Belle Époque, and the multi-media era which commenced with the cinema and found its highest expression in the phenomenon of Golden Era Hollywood. During periods of civilizational decline, there is an inexhaustible appetite for sexual innovation—which necessarily requires a loosening of feminine morals to facilitate.
It seems to me that, faced with existential crises whose complexity the society cannot compass and comprehend let alone do anything to avert, instead of attempting to evolve strategies of survival, human genius exhausts itself in innovating increasingly perverse sexual practices which outrage the social covenant of marriage, and hence the family. The contract of marriage being the foundational dyadic building block of a coherent, civil society, the traditional covenant of the society in its organic, cultural phase demands that the woman be veiled from public view and protected in the privacy of the home.
In other words, in historical moments like the present hour, under the smoking shadow of Vesuvius, we humans would rather use our last moments of life to nihilistically slay ourselves in Roman orgies than waste time attempting to cogitate a solution.
Women, thus accoutered, appeared destined for a sedentary life—family life—since their manner of dress had about it nothing that could ever suggest or seem to further the idea of movement. It was just the opposite with the advent of the Second Empire: family ties grew slack, and an ever-increasing luxury corrupted morals to such an extent that it became difficult to distinguish an honest woman from a courtesan on the basis of clothing alone. … Everything that could keep women from remaining seated was encouraged; anything that could have impeded their walking was avoided. They wore their hair and their clothes as though they were to be viewed in profile. For the profile is the silhouette of someone … who passes, who is about to vanish from our sight. Dress becomes an image of the rapid movement that carries away the world.
—Charles Blanc, “Considérations sur les vêtements des femmes” (1872), cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, Convolute B: “Fashion”
Theatrical professions of feminine display such as actress, dancer, singer and model have always been regarded in the human unconscious imaginary as code for prostitute, and in the frankly cynical Paris of the Belle Époque, it was taken for granted that any woman who displayed herself upon a stage for money had an auxiliary, more profitable profession off it. The theatre, as the most conspicuous site of consumptive spectacle in the City, was, in nineteenth-century Paris, merely a proto-cinematic, proto-televisual forum for advertisement—a preview of ‘coming attractions’ whereby actresses, ballerinas and sopranos prospectively advertised the ‘personal services’ they could perform for any man with a pecuniary capacity to pay, whether as courtesans, mistresses, or outright whores.
One of my very favourite books, penned by that old roué Anonymous, is The Pretty Women of Paris (1883), a guide, giving the names, addresses, specialities and potted histories of all the notable Parisian whores of the day, from phony duchesses to vedettes who gave their best performances on their backs in their gilded beds. Part street directory, part Who’s Who of Parisian vice, it was penned by a man who was undoubtedly a scholar as well as a gentlemen, for the edification of other English and American gentlemen abroad in the city which was proverbial throughout the world as the sinkhole of prostitution.
The prose in these hagiographies of the porn stars of their day is pure poetry. The stories the anonymous author regales us with about these gloriously bawdy heroines whose talentless names would otherwise have been lost to time are so extravagant that one would hardly credit them if M. Zola, in Nana (1880), had not contemporaneously given us one such extensive, extravagant history, in fictionalized form, as proof that such lucre-thirsty femmes fatales did exist in Belle Époque Paris.
From M. Baudelaire to M. Zola, the characterological line of the classical femme fatale is a pretty straight one: she is an avaricious vendeuse d’elle-même, usually carrying out her venal, venereal trade under the cover of some affiliation with the theatre, or, at a stretch, an even more spurious affiliation with nobility.
This is the chicanery and con artistry of the classical femme fatale in her nineteenth-century form—a transparent deception, almost naïve in its crudity. And as the ludicrous, lucre- and clout-chasing exploits of Nana or the pretty women of Paris make clear, there is something almost comic-operatic in the tragic ways the nineteenth-century femme fatale destroys herself as she sucks the sperm and sous out of the pyramid of wealthy, titled or influential men she climbs over, only to fondre beneath their combined dead weight when she eventually arrives at the top.
This comic-operatic extravagance would be hilarious if there wasn’t, in the figure of the femme fatale from M. Baudelaire to M. Zola, an actually mortal aspect to the trope.
The Modern City, in the nineteenth century, was not only a sinkhole of prostitution but an epicentre for syphilis, and Paris was as well-known as the place where you could catch the clap or worse as it was as the place where you could worship in the venereal temple on every street-corner. Syphilis was to the great centres of Europe in the nineteenth century what AIDS was to the same cities in the eighties: one literally made a mortal decision to enjoy a moment’s pleasure with a woman not one’s wife. Syphilis made these comic-opera duchesses actually fatal.
In Paris, the de facto Capital of Europe in the nineteenth century, the threat of these women was complicated by the blasé cynicism of the sexual enterprise in this shining machine of commerce. In The Arcades Project (1927-40), Hr. Benjamin quotes F. F. A. Béraud, author of Les filles publiques de Paris (1839), who tells us that the clearing-out of prostitutes from the Palais-Royal has been a positive boon to the businesses trading there. ‘Respectable’ bourgeois women now feel safe enough to shop in the Palais-Royal.
For when the Palais-Royal was invaded by a swarm of practically nude prostitutes, the gaze of the crowd turned toward them, and the people who enjoyed this spectacle were never the ones who patronized the local businesses. Some were already ruined by their disorderly life, while others, yielding to the allure of libertinism, had no thought then of purchasing any goods, even necessities.
—F. F. A. Béraud, Les filles publiques de Paris (1839)
I said that it seems to be an eternal ethical given in all human societies at the moment of their flourishing that to display a woman to public view is immodest and immoral. Isis must always remain veiled and private in a ‘decent society’. There seems, therefore, no semantic coincidence, to my mind, that the French term for prostitute is ‘fille publique’—‘public girl’.
In an early note to himself for The Arcades Project, Hr. Benjamin says, moreover, the following:
Trade and traffic are the two components of the street. Now, in the arcade the first of these has all but died out: the traffic there is rudimentary. The arcade is a street of lascivious commerce only; it is wholly adapted to arousing desires. Thus, there is no mystery in the fact that whores feel spontaneously drawn there.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Trade and traffic. As the Béraud citation makes clear, the presence of women, exposed to public view, in the vector of the street necessarily impedes the former. The traffick in ‘necessities’—let alone the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods which is the true trade of arcades like the Palais-Royal—is diverted by the presence of these strolling filles publiques and drives the ‘respectable’ bourgeois enterprises of the arcade, dependent exclusively upon foot-traffic, out of business.
There is, therefore, no such thing as a ‘flâneuse’—the feminine semantic equivalent of a ‘flâneur’. No matter how corrupt and sexually permissive Western civilization becomes in its Faustian decline, there will never be a feminine equivalent, semantic or actual, of the flâneur because, as M. Béraud and Hr. Benjamin make clear, the feminine equivalent of a girl in public walking the streets is simply a ‘streetwalker’.
For a woman, rooted to the earth and the natural order by her biology, to take on the mobile, predatory, hunting activity of the male in the asphalt jungle of the City is essentially unnatural: Isis immodestly forsakes the privacy of home and hearth to become an exploitative chasseur after cash. Both willing prey of and wily hunter after men, she is an ‘artificial woman’—neither fish nor fowl.
Yet this ‘artificial woman’ is precisely the product of the Modern City, and if she navigates the traffic as an agent of the City’s superordinate logic of exploitative, extractive trade—‘trafficking herself’, as it were—what makes these syphilitic, venereal vectors navigating the vectors of Paris actually fatal to men is not simply their capacity to Hoover value out of them, but to kill them, and through them, to kill their wives and children.
The issue is this. The reason I insist upon the notion of the modern, nineteenth-century city woman as being an ‘artificial’ one, a product of exploitative, extractive value exchange in the money-taking machine that is the City, is that most men know the sugar of sex is hard to come by in life.
To put it bluntly, we men don’t value a woman we can get on the bed easily. We value the ones we have to sweat blood for. Women know this, and hence, in her natural state of organic culture, where the traditional covenant of marriage is upheld as a mutual contract to curb both gender’s propensity to sexual excess, the woman withholds access to her valuable real estate until after the settlement.
The prostitute is an ‘artificial woman’ in that she does not withhold. In fact, on the streets of Paris in the nineteenth century, these strolling women were the sexual aggressors. They took the masculine part and approached the men they solicited as potential buyers of their wares. This is a thoroughly unnatural state of affairs, the very definition of ‘artificiality’ in sexual conduct.
In fact, pushing the intuition further, one could say that the woman who vends herself as a commodity in this fashion, not withholding sex but actively, predatorially seeking it out as a man would do, is not really a woman at all, but one ‘in drag’: she is impersonating a woman for profit. For a price, the client can have all the simulated experience of landing a dame on the bed without sweating blood, time and money to effect a seduction which is never a done deal until the deed is done.
In other words, one purchases from the prostitute a guarantee of that which a ‘real’ woman never guarantees: all the uncertainty, the contingency and mystery of women is taken out of the equation by the prostitute, who gives a simulacrum of that wild, untameable feminine energy we find so attractive for a price which guarantees the certain possession of it.
This is to be an ‘artificial woman’, a woman ‘in drag’, impersonating herself. The most natural entity on the planet becomes an inorganic machine for mutually exploitative value extraction: the client extracts a wad of vital bodily fluid via this living Fleshlight, and a wad of cash is concomitantly extracted from his pocket.
Hr. Benjamin also seemed to intuit this connection between prostitutes, mechanical automata in the great machine of the City, the seductive mannequins of commercial display, and children’s dolls, for he entitled Convolute Z of The Arcades Project “The Doll, The Automaton”. Like myself, he seemed to perceive that woman, uprooted from nature and transplanted to the City, finds her innate pathological weakness for artificiality given self-destroying scope to play in this Luna Park.
Thus Pandora: ‘automaton fabricated by the blacksmith god for the ruin of humankind, for that “which all shall / take to their hearts with delight, an evil to love and embrace” (Hesiod, Work and Days, line 58). We encounter something similar in the Indian Krtya—those dolls, animated by sorcerers, which bring about the death of men who embrace them. Our literature as well, in the motif of femmes fatales, possesses the concept of the woman-machine, artificial, mechanical, at variance with all living creatures, and above all murderous.’
—Roger Caillois, “La Mante religieuse: Recherches sur la nature et la significations du mythe” (1937), cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, Convolute Z: “The Doll, The Automaton”
In the trope of the nineteenth-century femme fatale, there is a direct connection, therefore, between the mobility—physical, social, sexual—of the unrooted, displaced woman of the City and death. As an economic ‘free agent’, there is not simply the potential for this attractive siren approaching you, virtually nude, in the Palais-Royal to suck the sous out of you, or even to kill you and your family for the price of a moment’s pleasure, but she actually undermines the foundations of a whole society which is already in decline by robbing and killing the economic pillars of it and damaging the foundational unit of all civil societies—the family.
The Victorian masculine anxiety about women forsaking the safety and protection of home and hearth and agitating for the rights and privileges of men, and which is variously reflected in ‘the door slam heard around the world’ at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll House (1879), in the contrast between the pretty, marriageable evangelist and the crabbed, proto-feminist suffragette in Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886), and in Edna Pontellier’s indefinable discontent in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), is essentially the anxiety about this foundational disruption which manifests in women’s restless clamouring for physical, social, and sexual mobility.
The dames want out of the garden.
It’s a double equation: A woman who is able to physically move outside the home is one who is capable of approaching and being approached (abordé) by all social strata of men in their mobile, hunting quests for cash and sex in the City. Unlike men, who are very much confined to their social class by their capacity to make money, the physical appeal of a woman is her social passport, a ‘droit de cité’ with men. A flower-girl may be as good-looking as a duchess, and if she is, whatever her station, she has a latchkey to the wallets of men all up and down the social hierarchy—provided they have a pecuniary capacity to pay.
And in turn, if feminine physical mobility is equal to social mobility vis-à-vis men, this social mobility is in turn equal to sexual mobility. If a group of high-value men have the pecuniary capacity to pay a price attractive enough to encourage a woman to sacrifice her chastity for lucre, when she realizes that she has, upon her person, a multiply vendable commodity which men of means value, it’s a rational calculation on her side to exploit it.
In this way, the unrooted, displaced, mobile, modern ‘femme de la Ville’ enters into the societally-disruptive ways of prostitution in the nineteenth century. She disrupts the rigid social hierarchy of men as a free economic agent in a peer-to-peer social network. While men remain relatively fixed vis-à-vis each other, stratified into castes by their earning potential, women are able to move freely up and down the hierarchy in mutually exploitative, extractive sexual commerce, thereby becoming vectors of syphilis which disrupt the society both morally and physically.
As we have seen, in the epicentre of sexually transmitted disease which is the City, based on its capitalistic logic of exploitative resource extraction, the unrestricted physical movement of women as potential vectors of sexual disease through the Modern City of the nineteenth century not merely disrupts the foundations of a decadent leisure society in a figurative, metaphorical sense by disrupting the family, but has the potential to attack it through the transmission of disease to the family.
The assumption beneath this, from the nineteenth-century masculine perspective, is that men are perpetually weak and vulnerable to the artificial seductive display of women, and that if we run across them in the street, we must approach them and risk the clap or worse. I would say that the safeguard which the Victorians, in their ostensible coyness about matters sexual, depended upon to prevent men importing syphilis into the home as far as possible was feminine stasis—the socially censured limitation upon solo broads abroad in the streets.
And this social censure was not policed by men themselves (for they are the ‘weak, vulnerable victims’ of the strolling woman’s seductive display), but by ‘respectable’ women—by their wives and mothers. Weak men always fear women’s disapproval of the ‘bestial’ aspects of their nature; hence the necessity for compartmentalization of one’s socially aberrant sexual activity outside the home. The feminine propensity for shame, guilt, insults and gossip—a wholly other arsenal of weaponry which keeps men compliant—is a powerful corrective to men’s socially unacceptable behaviour.
Perhaps, at its core, what the ‘respectable’ bourgeois women in the nineteenth century actually feared is not so much the potential for illness, but the constitutional vulnerability we men have to a pretty face or a well-filled pair of stockings. In the mythology of modernity, the trope of the femme fatale depends upon a man, who in confrontation with other men would have his wits about him, being rendered weak and corruptible by the supposed vulnerability and innocence of a physically attractive woman.
The fundamental weakness that women exploit is the illogical equation we humans make between physical beauty and moral goodness. As far back as ancient Greece, Phryne’s defence attorney had merely to rip off her blouse and expose her breasts to the men of the jury to get her acquitted of the capital crime of impiety. His legal rationale: no person who looked so physically good could possibly do something so morally bad.
As providers, we men want to ‘do things’ for these apparently vulnerable, innocent creatures we adore. We share of our means with them as a demonstration of love. Being confronted with a mobile, unaccompanied broad dans la rue might turn a man’s head and open up his wallet to exploit. He might forsake home and hearth for the whore, or he might bring a nasty forget-me-not back into the marital bed. Jealous of their tenuous hold on a man’s resources, married women feared the ‘public girls’ of the Opéra and the Variétés, whose intoxicating advertisements for themselves, pitched from the stage, could get a manna-sucking anchor into a man’s wallet.
Understood in that sense, I think the logical assumption that men are weak and vulnerable to artificial feminine display, potential victims for economic exploit by unscrupulous competitors for their resources, is a just one.
That, I think, sums up the basic relationship between sex and death we see in the femme fatale in her nineteenth-century incarnation. The trope of the mobile, sexually active city woman as potential vector of death can be seen variously described in nineteenth-century literature and art, from the virginal-cum-vampirical Mina of Dracula (1897) to the syphilitic Madonna of Munch’s paintings and lithographs (1892-97). My favourite example is by Félicien Rops, the illustrator of Baudelaire, who makes the siren allure of the strolling femme fatale’s Janus-face explicit in the watercolour Parodie humaine (1878-81).
The theory of the ‘long nineteenth century’ comes somewhat into play when we consider the ætiology of the modern woman as classic femme fatale. When doctors start to get syphilis under control at the beginning of the twentieth century, just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the association of sex and death begins somewhat to recede in the picture.
The inter-war period is, I think, a particularly interesting time in the morphology of the trope of the fatal woman from a distinctly Victorian, madonna/whore archetype to the quintessentially twentieth century figure she becomes in pulp fiction and film noir.
Louise Brooks, taking the lead in Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box ) as the quintessential, century-spanning femme fatale Lulu, is the mobile vector of connection between the democratic American modern woman and the Old World European femme fatale. Louise and Lulu—for they became inextricably intertwined, even in the mind of Miss Brooks herself—is also the critical juncture, the turning point, I would say, from the long nineteenth-century femme fatale to the twentieth-century femme fatale of film noir.
Two things are of critical note when assessing Louise and Lulu in Pandora’s Box. The first is that the film itself goes backward in time, starting in 1920’s Weimar and ending in a Victorian London stalked by Jack the Ripper, that gent fatal to the femmes themselves. That temporal regression of the film seems to echo Brooks’ spatial regression from New World to Old, from America to Germany.
The second is that Lulu is not herself fatal, insofar as being a cold-blooded murderess, as in mid-century film noir, but, like her nineteenth-century antecedents, it is contact with Lulu, contact with her intoxicating presence, that is ultimately fatal to the men who surround her.
She sits at the centre of a sticky, circumambient web, which is merely her intoxicating feminine Erdgeist—her gnomic, earthy spirit, and a man might stray innocently into her presence only to find himself quickly stuck there, a satellite revolving impotently around her, eventually to die when the warm ray of her light ceases to shine on him. Even the ‘murder’ of her husband which Lulu is put on trial for is clearly an accident—one of the many careless ‘accidents’ which might attend any pretty, flighty girl eminently aware of her sexual power over men, and of their clumsy willingness to abase themselves before her fatal charms.
Indeed, there would almost be a ‘screwball comedy’ aspect to the fumbling destructions that go on around Lulu (and the ‘gay divorcée’ screwball heroine is herself a lighter aspect of the noir femme fatale) if the scattergun deployments of her charms did not end in surreal tragedy every time.
Lulu, conceived on the cusp of two centuries and finding her definitive interpreter in the eternal symbol of the Roaring Twenties, is the fulcrum on which the femme fatale transitions from comic opera catastrophe on legs to film noir murderess. In the evolution of the trope from syphilitic vector to lady/killer, Lulu is the missing link.
I could go further with these ruminations, charting the evolution of the type through the twentieth century, and even into the twenty-first, where it seems to me the femme fatale undergoes a further morphological adaptation away from murderess and into the realm of the con artist.
But Lulu/Louise, upon whose jutting, knife-like breast I would, as a devotee of the Goddess of Modernity, willingly impale myself, seems the best place to draw a line under these thoughts.
In the decadent period of late capitalism we are in, where the (self-)consumptive zero-sum logic of resource extraction and exploit is now in its final, game-theoretic death throes, I sense a dim realization creeping into the mainstream of men’s discourse among themselves: every woman is fatal to us—economically, at least.
It’s in no one’s interest—neither men’s, nor women’s—for one-half of the human race to walk away from the dating game. But the Faustian logic of infinite derivatives derived from finite resources has led the Westernized globe to what I called, in an earlier post, a Hobbesian state of nature, a multi-polar civil war of all against all, and the fundamental schism in this Mandelbrot of metastasizing fractures seems, to my mind, to lie on the masculine/feminine fault-line.
Having a centre of economic value upon their persons, the ladies can still play the roulette wheel for a few turns yet. But in this zero-sum game where Jeff Bezos, as the richest man on the planet, is currently the best bet to scoop up all the scoots on the final turn of the wheel, whatever women extract in selfish plays from the ninety per cent of men who have always been the dispensable, disposable drones of human society, the canon-fodder mobilized to defend the garden against external assault, will ultimately be taken from them by the ten per cent of men at the top of the social hierarchy whom they are sexually competing for.
Then those guys will kill each other for the remaining value on the board until one man is left holding all the boodle—and all the dames, for, as Mr. Veblen tells us, at the most primitive level of human commerce, women are a currency of exploit, but a currency which willingly goes to the man most capable of providing for it.
Perhaps the socio-political disruption which began in the nineteenth century with the mobilization of women as free economic agents serves some purpose in that evolution away from game-theoretic pro-sociality and towards human eusociality I posited in an earlier post on the Coronavirus. I sincerely hope so. It would be nice if the ladies could transcend the earth-ward pull of their biology and actualize themselves in individual destinies without running at full tilt backward into the future, as they appear to be doing, dragging the men- and children-folk into the abyss with them.
But frankly, as our institutions and infrastructure fail us at an exponential rate and our sensemaking crisis spirals into mass psychosis, I don’t think we will survive long enough as a species to discover whether women leaving the garden men had built for them was a good idea.
And at that point, the experiment becomes fatal to us all.
In whatever city Chinatown is located, these Chinese embassies are zones of mystery and ambiguity.
And the tragedy for the flâneur is that these places we know so well know us so little. We are erased from the faces of places as soon as we depart them. We are as unpermanent a mark upon the memory of their streets as a lover’s caress is upon our skin.
And for the flâneur, the Daygamer left over in the labyrinth, whose streets are the dædal of his days, to re-encounter the coin de rue where he passed a moment of amour with some passante and to encounter no trace of her, nor of himself, evokes a sensation not of ‘déjà vu’, but of jamais vu—jamais vécu.
—Dean Kyte, “Chinatown(s)”
The one compromised pleasure that a man used to moving his gams as energetically as yours truly can take in the current, prison-like atmosphere of Melbourne is that forced confinement focuses the flâneur’s gaze inward.
Like Xavier de Maistre, who, in Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), takes the reader on a six-week walking tour around the room of a young officer under arrest in Turin, during the Melbourne lockdown, I’ve been taking flâneries through the footage I’ve shot in the course of my travels.
Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the product of one such prostrate promenade undertaken in bed as I flick through the files on my laptop.
One tires, after a time, of the narrow view afforded onto King street, and in such a blank, impersonal setting, eyes which are used to scanning the streets for occult meaning turn inward. Except in Paris, my introverted intuition has never been stronger than during this time: forced to look within myself for the visual stimulation I would usually seek externally in walking through the world, these days when I write or fool around with my old footage, new syntheses of memories and dreams emerge, new crystallizations of thought and image kaleidoscopically collide in miraculous revelations.
The prose poem I intone in the video above, “Chinatown(s)”, is one such synthesis of dream and memory, one such crystallization of thought and image.
I shot the raw footage on a rainy night in Little Bourke street a couple of years ago. Melbourne’s Chinatown is a particularly photogenic sight to see on nights when it’s raining hard, the red lanterns and the neon signs reflected viciously and viscously by the treacherous slate sidewalks.
Initially, I shot the footage with the intention of using it as the basis for one of the interactive menus on my latest Blu-ray Disc, Cinescritos: Writings in Image & Sound (2018). I set the camera up at a particular site in Little Bourke street which was as near as I could recall to the exact spot where I had tied into an attractive-looking dame whose life—and body—had briefly intersected with mine.
The dark and teary sky weeping on the camera lens, creating kaleidoscopic aureoles around the lanterns, had been intended to silently suggest what that spot means to me now.
But in looking back at the footage from the distance of two years hence, I suddenly recalled that this spot in Chinatown was significant to me for another brief but flaming intersection of bodies and lives: A deux pas behind the camera is Tattersalls lane, where, on another rainy day even further back in time, I had been lugged by a girl I had just as randomly picked up at my ‘office’ in Centre place.
One of the fun things for couples to do in Melbourne is to take a dérive around the city on a rainy winter’s day. Clinging to each other, flâneur and flâneuse, we took a random randonnée in the vicinity of Chinatown, escalating each other all the while.
In the course of our dérive, she steered me into Section 8, one of the more unusual Melbourne bars. It’s a popup bar cobbled together out of shipping pallets and packing containers in a carpark off Tattersalls lane. It’s not an ideal intimacy venue, but on an overcast, drizzly weekday morning when no one else is game to sit outside, you can end up going pretty far with a girl at Section 8—if the vibe between you is right.
We ended up going very far indeed that day—though not, the management will be relieved to hear, at Section 8. The place where she parted from my arms, a block east of Chinatown, was even more exposed than that, and again, the gentle rain that fell upon us as we inhaled each other’s kisses would seem, an eternity of minutes later, like a curtain of tears before my eyes as I watched her walk away forever.
I wrote in another post that I feel, after all my aventures, like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’: every femme is fatal for me, pumping a slug in my heart. And as I watched this one exit behind the curtain of tears that Melbourne lowered over the back-alley stage of our brief encounter, the mystery of the real, the way that what is external to us seems somehow to uncannily reflect the inner landscape of our consciousness, was an appropriate metaphor to mirror my perplexity at her départ.
So there is, as I evoke in the prose poem above, a sense of ‘oneiric encounter’, of sensual threat and promise for me about Melbourne’s Chinatown. It’s a place I tend to avoid in my flâneries, for the unbelievable successes in Daygame I’ve enjoyed there—(like dreams, they seem, in rational retrospect, almost too good to be true)—have left a couple of scars upon my heart.
Those two blocks of Little Bourke street evoke for me the ineffable yet dagger-like douleur au cœur I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
And because of the fragrant odour of sensual threat and promise they evoke, Chinatowns more generally arouse this acute, erotic melancholy in me. The last night I spent in Paris, a girl hauled me back to her apartment in the Chinese quartier of Belleville. I remember standing at her balcony that late summer evening as she showered off the day’s work. Snoop that I am, I was looking across the street—as narrow as Little Bourke street—at the little dollhouse lives of the Asian families in the apartment-house opposite.
Their quotidian reality seemed as sensual to me as the wooden railing beneath my hands, the image of them before my eyes as sensual as the image in my mind of the girl, as magnificent as a bather by Ingres, sudsing her pearl-like belly in a room behind me.
And like her, like the railing, like tout Paris, they too would disappear from before my eyes in a couple of hours.
In the prose poem, I refer to these enclaves of sensual mystery as ‘Chinese embassies’, for there is a sense of autonomy about Chinatowns, in whatever city you encounter them.
They are privileged zones. The Chinatown of a city is like an arcade without a roof: it has all the phantasmagoric characteristics of the ‘dream street’ that Walter Benjamin identified with the passage.
Their friendship arches, like the two polychrome portals which bracket the approach to Chinatown in Swanston and Exhibition streets, serve to delimit the zone of foreign exclusivity just as the entrances of an arcade delimit its exclusivity from the street. Their lanterns hang above the street like the gas-lamps which hang in serried rows around the peristyle of the arcade.
The only difference is that, instead of internalizing the external by putting a roof over the street, Chinatowns externalize the internal, by unroofing the multi-storey rue-galerie of shops, exposing these ‘cathedrals of commerce’, with their naves and side-chapels, to the scrutiny of heaven.
As Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong observe in their journal article “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019), this organization of the street upon different levels, mixing the commercial with the residential, the public space with the private, is more semantically crucial to how we interpret the architecture of global Chinatowns than in other built-up urban areas.
‘While Chinatowns worldwide vary in their histories, configurations, peoples, power, and imagery,’ McDonogh and Wong write, ‘they are invariably lived at street level …. [T]hese street-level interactions mean that our eyes stray upwards only momentarily to arches, signs, or cornices or downward to half-hidden shops….’
Franz Hessel, in his book Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital (1929), declared emphatically that ‘[t]he flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new.’
McDonogh and Wong touch upon the fact (although it seems to me that they miss its fundamental significance) that the verticality of Chinese calligraphy in neon signage attached, over several storeys, to the façades of buildings is key to the unique way in which the flâneur ‘reads the street’ of global Chinatowns.
With a pinch of Japanese and Chinese at my disposal, the lurid neon swooshes of Hànzì leering in the night is a little less obscure to me than to most occidental barbarians. Nevertheless, as a cunning linguist, the pleasure I derive from ‘reading the streets’ of Chinatowns is not unlike the difficult pleasure I derive from attempting to read a book written in a language I am not yet proficient in: the words, sentences and pages formed by the hieroglyphs of all those things Herr Hessel enumerates are not just fragrantly ‘new’, but however bright the Sinograms beam, there are still lacunas in my understanding as vast and dark as the night itself.
You can perhaps intuit why I equate the quotidian yet mysterious banality of Chinatowns with the matter-of-fact mysteries of female behaviour.
This admixture of clarity and obscurity is the exclusive province of those ‘zones of mystery and ambiguity’ we call Chinatowns, and they seem an environmental metaphor for the ‘trade’ (deniable as such because it is plausibly deniable) that women make of love. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the Chinese genius for commerce in a hostile environment locates what is readable by the barbarian with a minimum of interpretation squarely at street level. The exotic mysteries of the Orient, however, are discreetly concealed in storeys above or below.
The intrepid—or foolish—flâneur who ventures into Chinatown must cast his eyes in the direction of his desires, must read the promises or threats opaquely veiled behind façades, just as a man must read a woman’s essential character behind the glittering mask she puts up as a front. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the ‘resolutely ordinary’ character of actual Chinatown streets interacts with our imaginary of them as ‘mythic’ and ‘mystical’ places. Likewise, behind the smoke and mirrors, the prosaic banality of women interacts with our ‘pedestalization’ of them as idols of virtue or of vice.
The ‘walk on the wild side’ afforded by Australian Chinatowns is a pretty tepid flirtation with vice. Brisbane’s Chinatown is now—like the rest of Fortitude Valley—a desert of gentrification. Sydney’s is a very shabby affair. Adelaide’s seems like an appendix to the Central Markets—which is where the real flâneurial action lies.
Only in Melbourne, it seems to me, can some vestigial sense of exotic danger still be experienced in Chinatown, and it is, I think, a function of Victoria’s more intimate and symbiotic historical relationship with China. Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t an ‘historical Disneyland’ of a Chinatown, a ‘World’s Fair’ pavilion set down between Swanston and Exhibition streets; that much of its history has mercifully been erased.
No, it’s part of the historical fabric of Melbourne itself as a nineteenth-century city, a Gold Rush city, with all the cosmopolitan grandeur of fabulous wealth built on the corrupt grasping of international chancers.
Though he makes no direct allusion to Chinatown, in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), the great nineteenth-century novel of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, Fergus Hume situates Little Bourke street as the epicentre of poverty and vice. After a dazzling tour of its big brother (as busy as its proverbial reputation), he leads us into Little Bourke street, whose lineaments we can still vaguely discern in Chinatown to this day:
‘But his guide, with whom familiarity with the proletarians had, in a great measure, bred indifference, hurried him away to Little Bourke Street, where the narrowness of the street, with the high buildings on each side, the dim light of the sparsely scattered gas lamps, and the few ragged looking figures slouching along, formed a strong contrast to the brilliant and crowded scene they had just left.’
San Francisco is another of these ‘nouveau riche’ nineteenth-century Gold Rush cities whose tony veneer of sophistication is like so much gilt over its foundations built on the hard graft and grasping for gold, and like Melbourne, it is famous for its Chinatown.
The symbiotic relationship that the Chinatowns of these cities have to their circumambient urban fabric is, I would contend, a function of the historical symbiosis of Orientals and Occidentals in San Francisco and Melbourne.
Their Chinatowns are more than ‘Eastern embassies’ that have failed to really take root on Western soil: they are, through their Gold Rush heritage, thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of their cities. The piquant charm of the Far East they add to the gaudy neoclassical architecture pining for the respectability of a European capital is part of the peculiar native charm of San Francisco and Melbourne.
The similarity between these two cities separated by an ocean is striking. In his story “Dead Yellow Women” (1925), the quintessential writer of San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, has the Continental Op loosen his laconic tongue just enough to provide this vivid description:
‘San Francisco’s Chinatown jumps out of the shopping district at California Street and runs north to the Latin Quarter—a strip two blocks wide by six long….
‘Grant Avenue, the main street and spine of the strip, is for most of its length a street of gaudy shops and flashy chop-suey houses catering to the tourist trade, where the racket of American jazz orchestras drowns the occasional squeak of a Chinese flute. Farther out, there isn’t so much paint and gilt, and you can catch the proper Chinese smell of spices and vinegar and dried things. If you leave the main thoroughfares and showplaces and start poking around in alleys and dark corners, and nothing happens to you, the chances are you’ll find some interesting things—though you won’t like some of them.’
Swap Swanston for California street, and Little Bourke street for Grant avenue, and the description might almost hold for Melbourne—including the final, stinging remark. For if I have found the femmes I’ve stumbled over in the laneways leading off Little Bourke street to be ‘interesting specimens’, in my bafflement after the fact, when I’ve woken up from the opium dream of their seductive charms, I haven’t liked the feeling that I’ve just had my breast pocket picked.
As an operative of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch, the Op is what we might call a ‘professional flâneur’ in Chinatown, though he would prefer the title he often gives himself of ‘manhunter’. I might occasionally tail some quail in Chinatown, but the Op is a big game hunter, after birds of any feather who are up to their necks in bad juju.
McDonogh and Wong state: ‘Chinatowns as mythic places often are linked to icons … of underground mysteries from film and literature that contribute to the global imaginary of Chinatowns.’ They remark ‘how powerfully Chinatown is an imagined space in popular culture, where truth and fiction mingle and images flow from cinema to history to tourism.’
Which leads me to the greatest depiction of this fluid, feminine zone of mystery and ambiguity in literature and film—Roman Polanski’s flâneur movie par excellence, Chinatown (1974), in which the eponymous, putative setting hardly figures as a physical place.
Chinatown, to which the movie’s hero, Angeleno private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), makes constant, obsessive reference, is the primal scene of sexual trauma from which he cannot escape. Gittes, with his sharp suits, Florsheim shoes, and polished Hollywood manner, may have transcended his days as a flatfoot in L.A.’s Chinatown, but his profession as a ‘bedroom dick’ puts him right back in the torrid zone of fluid, feminine ambiguity.
He tells his paramour, black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), that Chinatown is a place that bothers everyone who works there. ‘You can’t always tell what’s going on,’ he says to this dame who’s as difficult to read as a Chinese newspaper. ‘Like with you.’
When you’re playing spoon with such a dish, it’s best to follow the advice the District Attorney gives his men in Chinatown and do ‘as little as possible’—for, as Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), tells Gittes, while ‘you may think you know what you’re dealing with, … believe me, you don’t.’
Gittes is the flâneur figure-cum-detective: his social mobility gives him a unique droit de cité in L.A., transcending the strata of society from grand monde to demi-monde, allowing him to read the tenor of the streets with the same vertical orientation that the flâneur must use as his compass in Chinatown.
In this world turned on its side, one might almost say that in the all-encompassing diffuseness of the criminal and sexual conspiracy he finds himself drowning in, ‘Chinatown’, for Gittes, is hardly a localized place but a state of doubleness, of recursive multiplicity that constitutes the whole of L.A.—a fluid nexus of evil whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
And, of course, at the heart of Gittes’ fearful yet fascinated relationship with Chinatown, there is his relationship with a woman—or women, rather. ‘Cherchez la femme,’ Mrs. Mulwray philosophically says as they lay abed after exertions, echoing the demands and directives of Gittes’ clients—and other interested parties—that he should ‘find the girl’ if he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.
But like water, there is no bottom to women’s mystery, and the alluring vessel is as arbitrary a beginning or ending point as the portals set over Chinatowns worldwide.
These are some of the thoughts I attempted to express in the video and prose poem above. In these times when contact with the outer world of Melbourne is forbidden to me, I turn my gaze inward and meditate on the mysteries of the women I have known in my flâneries around town, whose painful memories and perplexing dreams I thought I had drowned in the heart of me.
But, like the Lady in the Lake, they are not drowned, merely sleeping, and can be awoken once again by a pure heart.
I’ve made the soundtrack of this video available for purchase on my Bandcamp profile. If you would like to shout me half a coffee, you can download “Chinatown(s)” for $A2.00 and have the pleasure of my dulcet tones intoning the prose poem in your lugs pour toujours. Just click the link below.
Achtung!The track above is best heard through headphones.
It’s been a while since I have uploaded to The Melbourne Flâneur what I call an ‘amplified flânograph’, an analogue photograph taken in the course of my flâneries around Melbourne with a third dimension added to it—a suitably atmospheric prose poem read by yours truly.
I think you will agree that voice and soundscape add a dimension of depth to this image of Uniacke court, a laneway off Little Bourke street between Spencer and King streets famous to aficiónados of Melbourne street art.
It’s one of Melbourne’s ‘where to see’ places—and no more so than when it’s raining.
The image above was not my first attempt to capture Uniacke court on black-and-white film at a very specific time under particular weather conditions.
This shot, taken on a rainy Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. during winter last year, was the second-to-last exposure on my roll of Kodak T-MAX. It was something of a miracle, because not only did I want to capture this image on that day, at that time, under those conditions, but the laneway acts as service entrance for a number of bars and restaurants, so you have to judge the timing of the shot very well: Uniacke court tends to fill up with cars around 6:00 p.m., blocking the wonderful mural by Melbourne street artist Deb on the back wall.
I had attempted to nab the same shot less than two weeks earlier. Knowing that I had only six shots left on the roll, and that it was unlikely that I would get my dream day, dream time, dream weather conditions, and a conspicuous absence of heaps heaped up in the court, I had come past on a Thursday evening, around 5:40.
Wrong day, wrong time, no rain, and plenty of jalopies jungling up the laneway all equalled a wasted shot I squeezed off reluctantly.
But when my dream day, time and weather conditions rolled around ten nights later, you can bet your bippy I hustled my bustle up Spencer street P.D.Q. against a curtain of driving rain to clip the redheaded cutie holding court over Uniacke court.
And only one car to mar my Hayworthian honey’s scaly embonpoint!
The short ficción I’ve added in the audio track accompanying the photograph is the feeling of that image, the feeling of ineffable mystery which initially drew me to Uniacke court and caused me to make a mental note that some fragrant essence of the place makes itself manifest on rainy Sunday evenings at 6:00 p.m., and that I ought to make the effort to haul out my ancient Pentax K1000 at precisely that time, under precisely those weather conditions, and try and capture that ethereal, ectoplasmic essence on black-and-white emulsion.
Like those weird ellipses in David Lynch’s films, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what dark aura I found emanating from the fatal femme’s breast.
In a recent post, I called flânography ‘the poetry of photography’, and described it as an attempt to photograph the absent, the invisible, the unspeakable energy of places. In many ways, the addition of an expressly poetic description of the laneway and the construction of an ambient soundscape intended to immerse you in my experience is the attempt to ‘amplify’ that absent, invisible, ‘indicible’ dimension of poetry I hear with my eyes in Uniacke court.
Last week I ran into Melbourne photographer Chris Cincotta (@melbourneiloveyou on Instagram) as he was swanning around Swanston street. In the course of bumping gums about my passion for Super 8, Chris said that, while he had never tried the medium, he was all for ‘the romance’ of it.
Knowing his vibrant, super-saturated æsthetic as I do, I could see, with those same inward eyes of poetry which hear the colourful auras of Uniacke court, how Chris would handle a cartridge of Kodak Vision3 50d. And that inward vision of Chris’s vision was a very different one indeed to my own.
That flash of insight got me thinking about the way that qualitatively different ways of seeing, based in differences of personality, ultimately transform external reality in a gradient that compounds, and how, moreover, two individuals like Chris and myself could have developed radically different visions of the same subject: Melbourne.
It could be argued that, if you spend as much time on the streets as Chris and I do, the urban reality of Melbourne could rapidly decline for you into drab banality. But for both of us, Melbourne is a place of continual enchantment, though I think the nature of that enchantment is qualitatively different, based in fundamental differences of personality.
The individual’s artistic vision encompasses a ‘personal æsthetic’, based in one’s personality, which dictates preferences and choices in media which compound as they are made with more conscious intent and deliberation.
Where Chris prefers the crisp clarity of digital, which imparts a kind of hyper-lucidity and sense of speedy pace to his photos, I prefer the murky graininess of film—still compositions which develop slowly.
While Chris tends to prefer working in highly saturated colour that is chromatically well-suited to highlight Melbourne’s street art, I work exclusively in black-and-white.
And while I know that Chris labours with a perfectionist’s zeal in editing his photos so that the hyper-lucid clarity and super-vibrant colours of his images faithfully represent his vision of Melbourne, I prefer to do as little editing as possible, working with the limitations and unpredictability of film to try and capture my vision of Melbourne ‘in camera’ as much as possible.
If I were to offer an analogy of the æsthetic difference created by these cumulative preferences and choices in equipment, medium, and attitude to editing, I would say that Chris’s photographs feel more like the experience of Melbourne on an acid trip, whereas my own pictures give the impression of a sleepwalker wandering the streets in a dark dream.
The city is the same, but the two visions of it, produced by these cumulative technical preferences and choices, are very different.
But where does the vital æsthetic difference come from?
Ultimately, the personal æsthetic which dictates different preferences and choices in equipment, media, and attitudes to editing are couched in two different artistic visions of the same subject, and these inward visions produce two radically different ways of physically seeing Melbourne.
With his crisp, colourful, action-packed compositions, Chris, I think, has a very playful, ludic vision of Melbourne: he sees it as an urban wonderland or playground.
And this is perfectly consonant with his gregarious, extroverted character. For those of us who are fortunate to know him, Chris is as much a beacon of light diffusing joyous colour over Melbourne as his own rainbow-coloured umbrella, and I notice that he effortlessly reflects the colourful energies of everyone he talks to.
If I am ‘the Melbourne Flâneur’, I would describe Chris Cincotta as—(to coin a Frenchism)—‘the Melbourne Dériveur’: his joyous, playful approach to exploring the urban wonderland of Melbourne with the people he shepherds on his tours seems to me to have more in common with Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive than with my own more flâneuristic approach.
Being an introvert and a lone wolf on the hunt for tales and tails, while I’m as much a ‘romantic’ as Chris, it’s perhaps little wonder that the ‘Dean Kyte æsthetic’ should be very different, more noirish as compared to Chris’s Technicolor take: the romance of Melbourne, for me, is dark, mysterious, and I see this city in black-and-white.
Melbourne is not a ‘high noir’ city like American metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles. Rather, there is a strain of old-world Gothicism in Melbourne which, when I sight sites like Uniacke court through my lens, reminds me more of the bombed-out Vienna of The Third Man (1949), or the London of Night and the City (1950).
And if Chris is a beacon of colourful light to those of us who know him, the ambiguity of black-and-white is perhaps a good metaphor for my character, from whence my personal æsthetic proceeds.
If there is a ‘Third Man’ quality to Melbourne for me, it’s perhaps because there’s a touch of Harry Lime in me—the rakish rogue. Like Lime, whose spirit animal, the kitten—an ‘innocent killer’—discovers him in the doorway, you might find me smirking and lurking in the shadows of a laneway, revelling, cat-like, in the mysterious ambience of ‘friendly menace’ in the milieu, what I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
If you haven’t checked out Chris Cincotta’s work on Instagram, I invite you to make the comparison in styles. It’s fascinating to see how two artists can view the same city so differently. And being so generous with his energy, I know Chris will appreciate any comments or feedback you leave him.
Why, Bacchausen wonders, have there been no ‘flâneur movies’?
There are two answers to this question. Firstly, one may adduce a not insubstantial list of characters in film who might be described as flâneurs.
The first, and most obvious, candidate is Scottie Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), who, when quizzed, gives his profession as ‘wandering’. But you can also reel off putative examples like the wandering protagonists of Antonioni’s films, such as Lidia in La Notte (1961), Vittoria in L’Eclisse (1962), and the photographer of Blowup (1966).
You could point to Jesse and Céline in Before Sunrise (1995), or the eponymous heroine of Amélie (2001). Petra Nolan of the University of Melbourne even makes a plausible case, in her PhD thesis, for Walter Neff, the vagabond insurance salesman of Double Indemnity (1944), as ‘the cinematic flâneur’par excellence.
The key word is ‘plausible’.
All the examples adduced above are plausible, and a convincing prima facie case could be made for any of them as cinematic flâneurs, one which would appear to refute Bacchausen’s contention that the figure of the flâneur has not really found his place in cinema.
But my second answer to Bacchausen’s question refutes the one I’ve just given.
I would say that if you look more carefully at any of the films cited above, you must come to the conclusion that they feature characters who partake in flânerie, but that these characters are not themselves flâneurs pur-sang.
In an earlier post, I gave a fairly strict definition of what is a flâneur. I offered three traits which I regard as non-negotiable characteristics in any definition.
Firstly, the flâneur is a pedestrian. He walks, not occasionally, but as his primary and preferred mode of transport.
Secondly, he is an acute observer of the world that files past him as he walks, and as Bacchausen notices, there is, in the sport of observation, a distinctly æsthetic end to the chase. The flâneur is a hunter who chases after beauty.
Thirdly, there is a pronounced element of the dandy in the character of the flâneur. Charity begins at home: unless he firstly recognizes himself to be a worthy æsthetic object of attention, it is highly unlikely that a man who is not assiduously attentive to the details of his own deportment is going to exhibit the level of unusual acuity of attention toward the æsthetic details of the external world which I ascribe to the flâneur.
A man may walk shabbily abroad looking longingly after beauty, but that man is not a flâneur. He is the Average Frustrated Chump you see shambling down Swanston street.
Given the definition above, it’s hard to see how the characters adduced in the first answer are flâneurs, though it can certainly be conceded that they partake in the activity of flânerie in a more or less dilettantish way.
Jep Gambardella, the Roman giornalista of La grande bellezza (2013), is the only character in film I can think of who satisfies my three-point definition as a ‘cinematic flâneur pur-sang’.
So the question remains: Are there flâneur films?
The answer is yes, but it is the character of the films themselves, rather than any characters they contain, which may be regarded as ‘flâneuristic’.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, Slavoj Žižek made some intriguing remarks vis-à-vis. Hitchcock; to wit—how Hitchcock’s films have an uncanny quality, at certain moments, of appearing to ‘think for themselves’.
In Psycho (1960), for instance, there are two extraordinary moments, one immediately after the shower scene and the other immediately before the second murder. In both cases, the camera detaches itself from the point of view of the character it has locked onto and acts ‘queerly’, as though it had an intelligence and agency of its own, moving through space and looking at things quite pointedly, as though it were mutely trying to tell us something, the way our unconscious appeals to us through images.
Žižek calls this ‘thinking through film’, and it’s a highly rarefied cognitive process which seems to emerge from the apparatus of cinema itself—something like Baudelaire’s sensation that the image of sky and sea, and a little yacht trembling on the horizon, seemed to be thinking through him—‘musicalement et pittoresquement, sans arguties, sans syllogismes, sans déductions’ (‘musically and pictorially, without quibbles, without syllogisms, without deductions’).
Meditating on Žižek’s remarks, I began to ask myself what a cinema of flânerie might look like.
In fact, flâneur films are the oldest kind. They have their roots in the actualité, the single, locked-off shot, without pan or cut, of the miracle which a moment of everyday life becomes when you train a camera at it for so long that it transcends its boring banality—like the shot of a sunset unfolding behind the Melbourne CBD which I’ve included at the head of today’s post.
The camera’s ability to gaze fixedly at a detached detail is like, and yet unlike, the flâneur’s acuity of observation, for our eyes do not ‘frame’ things. When a shot is composed and unblinkingly held for minutes on end, and when, as in the video above, it is implied that this perspective is closely aligned but not identical with the point of view of an observer we cannot see, there is the uncanny sense that the camera itself has ‘intelligence’.
A film becomes ‘flâneurial’ when a moment of documentary actuality enters into it and is sustained well beyond what the average viewer would regard as a reasonable length of time.
To my mind, Ozu is the master of this kind of flâneurial cinema. His ‘pillow shots’ are moments of ventilation in a film where architectural features and irrelevant details are held for longer than they would ordinarily be. Ozu’s stubborn refusal to pan or dolly, to allow his camera to ‘look away’, imbues it with a sense of wilful, alien intelligence.
The other attribute of flâneurial cinema is the offshoot of the actualité, the ‘phantom ride’. This is when the camera is placed on a train, tram or car, and, without moving itself, appears to float or glide like a ghost, registering the succession of actual events which pass it by.
The classic phantom ride, the masterpiece of the form, is the famous “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906). Strapped to the front of a cable car, the camera floats towards the Ferry Building for 13 minutes, registering the life of the street with that alien fixity of attention we see in Ozu, never turning its ‘head’ to gaze about itself as a real flâneur would.
The capacity of the camera to move in this gliding, floating fashion, simulating human ambulation but very different from it, is a quality that Antonioni makes good use of in his passeggiate.
In La Notte, the camera, raised at some elevation behind Lidia, appears almost to stalk her as it stealthily tracks her tacking between bollards. In Blowup, in the key scenes set in Maryon Park, the camera is subtly detached from the point of view of the photographer. It pans to sweep the scene in a movement more eerie than a human head-turn because of its mechanical smoothness. Or, in a moment of startling volition, it gazes up at the branches of a tree in what we realize only afterwards was its own ‘point of view shot’.
This uncanny sense of the film possessing its own intelligence and agency, principally through the camera, but also through cutting and the rest of the constitutive apparatus which compose a film, is, I think, what Žižek means when he talks about ‘thinking through film’.
‘To understand the film,’ he says, ‘you should include into its content the message delivered by the autonomy of form. It’s at that level that true thinking in cinema happens.’
When a film has the volition to move—or not move—through the world as it wishes, and to study with its own fixity of attention those details of actuality which arrest it in its passage, the character of the film itself becomes ‘flâneurial’.
What do you think?
Are there characters in movies you would actually define as flâneurs, or, like Bachhausen and myself, are you at a loss to think of any who really meet the measure?
Is it possible for films to ‘think for themselves’, as I’m suggesting?
As an emerging writer, you gain valuable experience by networking with other writers. Their fresh ways of seeing the world open exciting new directions for your own writing.
As he demonstrates in this prose poem based on the ‘flânograph’ above, Dean Kyte doesn’t just see the world differently, he hears it differently too. And the poetic way in which he describes his personal experiences is idiosyncratic to say the least.
For the Melbourne Flâneur, even moments of banality, loitering in Melbourne at night, waiting for the perfect shot, are freighted with epiphanic mystery…
If you want to take your writing to a new level of mastery, it pays to network with an editor rich in literary experience, one who shares your passion for le seul mot juste because he happens to be a fellow Melbourne author.
And if you’re a writer in French seeking to make yourself perfectly compris dans la langue de Shakespeare, Dean Kyte can provide editorial assistance bespoke to your needs with his Bespoke Document Tailoring service.
Enjoy the augmented experience of this ‘amplified flânograph’. To connect with Dean and experience his bespoke approach to your editing needs, drop him a line via the Contact form.