‘This is the city. Melbourne, Victoria. It’s a big one. Second-largest city in Australia; it’s still growing. It’s a big animal with a big appetite. Five million people. There are five million stories in this naked city. The stories you’re about to hear are true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Hell, nobody’s innocent.
There’s a bilious melancholy, a choleric sorrow to Melbourne behind the magic mystery of the real. That’s the Spleen of Melbourne. It’s Paris-on-the-Yarra, a place of love and crime. And beneath its Parisian underbelly, the lonely experience of abortive, fugitive romance feels like the obscure workings of some organized crime.
And that’s my business. I live here. I’m a flâneur.
Well, a happy new year to all the fans, friends and followers of The Melbourne Flâneur vlog at home and abroad! And as my personal new year gets set to kick off this week with the Sun’s segue out of Capricorn and into Aquarius, it augurs beaucoup propitious to announce the release (which formally occurred on New Year’s Day) of my brand-spanking-new audiobook, The Spleen of Melbourne: Prose Poetry & Fiction.
Feast your peepers upon the nouvel évangile below.
I’m very proud of this CD. It was the fruit of my lockdown in Newcastle last year, one of the very few things which kept me sane during that period (not always the easiest thing for an Aquarian to be). And a shout-out to Implant Media, in Brunswick East, who mastered and produced the album for me. Despite some fatiguing delays in production which prevented me from getting this baby out before 1st January, they rendered my vision exquisitely so that the physical artefact you see above is precisely what I was imagining in my little villa in Newy.
The Spleen of Melbourne is a project I’ve been working on almost for as long as I’ve been living in Melbourne, and I’m certainly not done with it yet—not by a long shot. In fact, in several of my posts on this vlog, you will have heard me use the phrase ‘the spleen of Melbourne’ in reference to my prose poetry. As I explain in the short the preface to the sleeve booklet accompanying the CD:
There is a sinister tristesse, a bilious melancholy to Melbourne. Just as Baudelaire saw the choleric sorrow beneath the gaiety of Paris, the flâneur of Melbourne sees the chthonic element of its Parisian underbelly—the spleen of softly-lit milieux at eventide when the Angelus of the trambell tolls; or the rage of white-hot days when the Seine-like Yarra, in its moutonnement, mooches like brown mud between the quais as it mutters its way from Richmond.
—Dean Kyte, “Preface to The Spleen of Melbourne CD”
Of course, the title of this project is an hommage to Charles Baudelaire’s collection of prose poems, Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen), published posthumously in 1869. Also known as Petits Poèmes en prose, this collection of fifty short prose pieces is as significant a landmark in modern poetry as M. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857).
Indeed, although M. Baudelaire drew his inspiration, in turn, from Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), which is considered to be the first collection of ‘poems in prose’, imagining a kind of medieval Paris, it was not until M. Baudelaire turned his merciless gaze upon the modern ruins of that Paris imagined by M. Bertrand, the Paris of the Second Empire, undergoing radical renovation via the vandalism of the self-proclaimed ‘demolition artist’ Baron Haussmann, that ‘prose poetry’, as a peculiarly modern form of verse, one infinitely appropriate to modern, urban conditions of speed and rapid change, was legitimately born.
As M. Baudelaire writes in a letter to his friend, Arsène Houssaye, which forms the preface to Le Spleen de Paris:
Who among us has not, in his days of ambition, dreamed up the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and yet sudden enough to adapt itself to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of consciousness?
It is, above all, the frequentation of enormous cities, it is the intersection of their innumerable connections, which engenders this obsessive ideal.
To which I can only say, with my hand on my heart and a profound reverence towards mon maître, ‘Mais oui.’
It is indeed ‘la fréquentation des villes énormes’ and the flâneur’s apperception of their ‘innombrables rapports’ which engenders in the literary soul given to strolling this ‘idéal obsédant’ to create prosody out of the prosaic, often horrifying, prose of modern, urban life.
Having been a flâneur in Paris, when I first came to Melbourne, I perceived immediately its intimate connection to my heart’s home, the first city of flânerie, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. It’s an apperception which is, perhaps, not obvious to the native-born Melburnian, nor to the Australian generally, but to a Parisian soul whose karma has cursed him to be born in the antipodean hell of these climes, that clairvoyant poetic apperception of Melbourne’s subtle similitude to Paris makes my prosaic passegiate through this Inferno, far from my heart’s home, more bearable.
And in The Spleen of Melbourne audiobook, you’ll not only hear that subtle similitude to Paris in my prose poems, which are amplified by the artificial paradises and altered states of my dense soundscapes, but you’ll also see the similitude that I see. The CD, packaging, and 24-page sleeve booklet are all illustrated with my analogue photographs of Melbourne, shot on Kodak film.
The Spleen of Melbourne project, which has encompassed parts of my writing, sound design, videography, filmmaking, and photography for the last five years, is more than merely about prose poetry. M. Baudelaire dreamed of ‘le miracle d’une prose poétique, musicale sans rhythme et sans rime’, one capable of juxtaposing the Spleen and the Ideal of modern, urban life.
In other words, living and dying shortly before the birth of the cinema, he dreamed of a form of ‘literary’ montage, an imperfect, proto-cinematic form of writing that Walter Benjamin would appropriate as the overarching editorial æsthetic of his Arcades Project.
As a writer whose first passion, above even words, is film, the art of mounted, edited, moving images, I dream of the miracle of a flâneurial cinema, prosaic and yet prosodic, one where sounds and images rhyme; and where the prosy poetry of my voice-overs and narrations reflect that lyrical movement of my soul in flânerie, the slow-sudden cuts and shifts of dream and memory, the cartwheels of consciousness I turn as I trip down la rue.
M. Baudelaire dreamed of a prose that was poetic; I dream of a cinema that is poetic.
The CD I imagined into being in Newcastle is but the first iteration, the first physical essay of an idea for a completely interactive, multimedia ‘book’ of some kind, the impractical idea of which I have dreamed of in my ‘jours d’ambition’ ever since I first sailed into Melbourne and saw that it was a place where the prose of its own life is profoundly overlaid, for the clairvoyant, Rimbaudian seer, with the poetry of a Paris remembered, imagined and dreamed. I have called this project in writing, audio, video, film and photography “The Spleen of Melbourne”, and over the next several years you will doubtless see further versions of this project in different media as I make other essays at realizing my impossible book.
The Spleen of Melbourne is about the poetic soul of the world’s most liveable city; it’s about how a poetic soul who suffers in the artificial paradise of this faux-Paris-on-the-Yarra experiences it in his flâneries. The theme of The Spleen of Melbourne is the inexplicable melancholy, grief and loneliness we feel as postmodern, urban men and women wandering amidst the wreckage and ruination of modernity which M. Baudelaire predicted as the end of technological progress in his visions of a ruined, renovated Paris.
But where, pray tell, is the guarantee of progress for the morrow? For the disciples of the sages of steam and chemical matches understand it thus: progress only manifests itself to them under the guise of an indefinite series. Where, then, is the guarantee? It only exists, I say, in your credulity and fatuity.
I leave to one side the scientific question of whether, in rendering humanity more delicate in direct proportion to the new pleasures it delivers them, indefinite progress might not be humanity’s most ingenious and cruellest of tortures; if, proceeding through an obstinate negation of itself, it might not be a form of suicide unceasingly renewed, and if, enclosed in the fiery circle of divine logic, it might not resemble the scorpion that stings itself with its terrible tail, this eternal desire which ultimately makes for eternal despair?
In this urban landscape of seductive alienation—the whole City as Luna Park—I write elegiacally about the frustrating griefs I’ve experienced pursuing the Baudelairean Ideal of love through Daygame—fugitive, ephemeral, abortive romances which all soured and turned rapidly to Baudelairean Spleen—sometimes within the course of a single day.
The constant metaphor I revert to in describing my experiences of love in The Spleen of Melbourne is the metaphor of crime. This is an appropriate poetic figure for a city notorious for its connections to the Calabrian Onorata Società, colloquially known not as the ‘underworld’ of Melbourne, but, in a particularly Aussie tournure, as its ‘underbelly’.
I speak on the CD, as I have done on this vlog, of the ‘Parisian underbelly’ of Melbourne. The ‘chthonic element’ of Melbourne I mentioned above is this ‘under-world’, this poetic apperception of a stratum of reality beneath the manifest which is the intimate yet invisible relationship this city has for me with Paris. Sometimes at night, in the streets, in the dark, when I’m out with my cameras hunting, as Brassaï hunted his ‘Paris de nuit’, my Melbourne by night, I feel myself close to this soft, Parisian underbelly, and I can remember what it’s like to walk les rues de Montmartre, the friendly menace of the streets and squares softly-lit at late hours.
Thus, I hold a dark mirror up to the city in the prose poems and photographs on this CD, revealing a different, more Parisian, more surreally noirish Melbourne than most Melburnians will immediately recognize. But, as M. Rimbaud famously said:
… One must be a seer; one must make oneself a seer.
The poet makes himself a seer through a long, immense, and rational derangement of all his senses.
—Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871 (my translation)
As a Capricornian Aquarian—a ‘Capriquarian’, if you will—born on the cusp of Mystery and Imagination, like my fellow Capriquarians on the other side of the divide, David Lynch and Federico Fellini, altered states and artificial paradises of bleak fantasy appeal to me, and I think you’ll find a ‘friendly menace’ in my darkness and deranged vision of Melbourne.
Mystery and Imagination are two qualities distinct, and yet, like darkness and light, they co-exist in an inyo, ever-revolving, and one is needed to penetrate the other. All, for me, is Mystery; so much becomes clear in The Spleen of Melbourne as I ponder the ‘baffling crimes’ of my heartbreaks. And all, equally, is Imagination, that ‘Reine des Facultés’, as M. Baudelaire termed her—that Queen of the Faculties which every true poet from Blake onwards has intuitively known is the firm ground of our mysterious reality, and the one diamond-headed pick by which we may crack the granite fog of mysterious reality on which we eternally stand in perpetual darkness at noon.
You can purchase your copy of The Spleen of Melbourne below, or visit the product page in the Dean Kyte Bookstore for more info, including a video of yours truly giving you the guided tour. Every physical copy of the audiobook comes personally signed, wax-sealed, and gift-wrapped by the same two hands that wrote the poems, shot the photos, and designed the artefact. That’s your exclusive guarantee of artistic authenticity.
And to celebrate the release of my new audiobook, I am going to hold an online launch for The Spleen of Melbourne via Zoom. I’m currently developing a PowerPoint presentation in which I take you through the history of the project. I’m going to take you on a whirlwind tour from Paris to Melbourne, via Berlin, discussing my æsthetic philosophy of flânerie. I’ll introduce you to the landmark figures in my thinking, from Charles Baudelaire, to Walter Benjamin, to Oswald Spengler, and more.
It will be the first time I’ve ever attempted to set forth my philosophy of flânerie in public in a concentrated oral form, so if you want to know how all the diverse things I write about on The Melbourne Flânerie vlog dovetail in one Unified Field Theory of Flânerie, you won’t want to miss this dilly of a PowerPoint presentation I’m preparing.
There’ll be readings of pieces that are on the CD with live accompaniment, readings of pieces that aren’t but will be in future versions of this project, films, videos, and a live Q&A. A date hasn’t been definitely decided, but when it is, expect an invite in your inbox!
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“The Spleen of Melbourne” [CD audiobook]
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“The Spleen of Melbourne” [MP3 audiobook]
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“Office at night”: A ficción by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through earphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur I release a new ‘amplified flânograph’ for your delectation, chers lecteurs—one of those snapshots bagged in the course of my flâneries, enhanced with an atmospheric soundscape and a short story to animate and enliven the static image.
The photograph above was taken about two weeks before I booked out of Melbourne for warmer climes. I don’t usually shoot on colour film, being a black-and-white purist, so I wanted to use up the roll before I headed north. There were two nights in mid-May when I went a bit mad, and this image of a bald man on the ameche in his office on the first floor of Block Court, just before he shut up shop for the night, was snapped on the first.
Usually when your Melbourne Flâneur is between homes, he’s a night-cat, prowling the streets of the city after dark, and sometimes armed—with cameras, of course. But with all the lockdowns we endured in Melbourne last year, it had been a long time since I had been locked and loaded for a nighttime expedition to hunt down ‘the wonder’, ‘le merveilleux’, the magic mystery of the city at night.
It was a cold and bitter evening even in mid-May, and I cast off from The Miami Hotel, in West Melbourne, at sunset on a crazy trudge around the CBD and Carlton, bagging a number of sights I had thought, in my constrained flâneries during lockdown, might make good images—better ones in colour than in black-and-white.
Photographically inclined followers of this vlog will perhaps recognize this feeling, but when I exercised my inner cat (who had been housebound for too many months) and went on my first nighttime hunt in ages, the predatory activity of adding images to my bag took on an impetus of its own: The crazy, zigzagging walk, alone at night, through disparate zones of poetry and danger, guided only by the associations of memory, as I recalled some romantic place where I had added a girl to my trophy tally, or the instinct for a mystic image which seemed to hover, shimmering and glimmering, in the dusky light of a distant streetcorner, took on its own drunken momentum.
And the sound of that momentum (largely unknown to you souls too young to know the rigorous dérèglement de tous les sens induced by the LSD alchemy of film) was the mechanical ratchet, like a rising tempo, of winding on and snapping one image after another.
I’m usually stingier than Scrooge when it comes to using up my film, but that night I went through a third of a roll of Ektar, and the image above, taken halfway through my passeggiata ubriaca, was definitely the most memorable, an experience in itself.
It was so memorable an experience, in fact, that nearly two months later, as I was on the train to Coffs Harbour, I was inspired to write the first draft of a short story, “Office at night”, based on that image. I wrote two further drafts at Coffs and two in Bellingen during my holiday up there. The soundscape which accompanies the short story was also created in Coffs and refined during my fourth lockdown in Newcastle.
The six-minute tale is a fictionalized version of the taking of that photograph. I had always wanted to get a shot of Block Court, one of the great art déco arcades of Melbourne, and I think I was right in believing that it would look better on colour film than in black-and-white, as that eerie green glow over the bay window—like the Empire Hotel sign in Vertigo (1958)—gives some indication.
It was around 6:15, nearly an hour after sundown, when I hustled up Collins street to nab the shot. I just happened to be in time to see light in the office on the first floor directly over the arcade. There was a bald man framed in the corner of the window frame. He was standing in profile behind his desk and was taking a call on his mobile phone. He gave the impression of having just gotten up from his desk to leave for the evening when the phone call had come through and had been caught in that transitional moment of being physically still in one place while having left it mentally.
I don’t usually take photographs with people in them. I get photographed a good deal myself, and so I’m aware that there’s a certain moral dilemma about ‘stealing people’s souls’ which I’d rather avoid. And in any event, my interest (as you’ve doubtless gleaned from my films, videos, and photographs) is architecture, not people. Empty spaces are the actors in my dramas, not those pesky humans. I will usually disdain to take the shot if someone strays into my frame—unless their back is turned or (as in the instance above) they’re at a sufficient distance as to be individually unrecognizable—a mere generic sign for the human presence in the empty architectural spaces that fascinate me.
So I had to make a quick decision about whether to clip the bald man’s soul or pass up the shot, but that second source of light on the first floor directly over the arcade was too photogenic—as was the bald man’s presence, en plein action, right in the corner of the frame, as smeary a sign for the human presence as an artist’s signature in the corner of a canvas.
Those impromptu additions to the image of the arcade at night I had imagined were ultimately too good to pass up.
I’m not so hot at photographing action—which is another reason why I disdain to photograph people. I’m too considered a photographer, take too much time over composing the shot and testing my settings, to be good at snapshooting. But in this instance, I knew I had to be quick to get the shot without traffic—either vehicular or on the hoof—getting between me and the image of the arcade with the lighted windows above it. Moreover, I had to nail down the bald man before he changed his pose too dramatically or rung off.
I had hardly time to check my settings. I was really winging it—and in fact, I had to grab two shots, because the first one did involve some unphotogenic intrusions of silhouettes passing before the arcade. By the time I wound on and recomposed for shot #2, the bald man was hanging up.
There’s a useful phone kiosk à deux pas down Collins street, more or less in front of that engraved pilaster you see on the left-hand margin of the frame. I had my Pentax K1000 resting on the metal tray, which I was borrowing to note down the time, the settings I had used, and the exposure of the two shots. As I was rounding out my notes (a job that took no more than a minute), I looked up and was just in time to see that the lights in the office above the arcade were off. My eyes flicked to street level, and I was just in time to see the bald man walking out of Block Court and turning east up Collins street, towards Swanston.
And that image—both the photographic one that I took and the memorable, puzzling image a minute later of the darkened office and the man walking out of the arcade—is, in essence, the backstory which forms the story of “Office at night”.
Now I don’t know who the bald man is, and I don’t know what goes on in the office on the first floor above the arcade. I did try to find that information out when I was writing the subsequent drafts of the story in Coffs and Bello, but decided that I would rather the mystery to remain inviolate.
In any event, those facts are immaterial to the story that I tell in the ficción—mere MacGuffins, as Mr. Hitchcock would call them.
Don’t even ask me who the bald man is my fictionalized version of the story: I don’t know who he is even in my imagining of him, though I know what he does, and I have a very vague idea of what he takes out of the safe.
The point is that the image of him, with his gleaming pink pate and ill-fitting grey jacket, both taking the mysterious call in the office and leaving it to walk up Collins street towards the Paris End, carved itself indelibly upon my memory in those few brief seconds of sighting him through my viewfinder and, a minute later, when I looked up from my Moleskine to see him walking away from me forever.
Which is to say that, despite the physical distance between us, and despite the fact of his ignorance of me watching him, I formed ‘a connection’ with the bald man. The bullish bald head and the jacket too tight for his stocky body were the two details on the surface of that image that were enough to catapult me across Collins street and into the office with him, to empathize with him even in his mystery.
For the next seven weeks, first in Melbourne, and then, for much longer, in Wagga Wagga, as I worked at unkinking the larger story of which “Office at night”, like my previous flânograph on this vlog, “Dreidel”, is an experimental episode, the ‘total image’ of the bald man—of my brief encounter with him—stayed with me, percolating in my unconscious in other landscapes, so that, when I came to be sitting on the XPT, bored, tired and anxious on my way to Coffs as I struggled to breathe behind my mask, the total image of him swam up to consciousness again to distract me briefly from my discomfort, and to be transcribed in a fictionalized version of our encounter and connection, apparently from his perspective.
Why should this ‘total image’ of the bald man, of my brief encounter with him at a distance, have had such an enduring impact on me that I carried that image, in my mind, to Wagga, and Coffs, and Bello, and even to Newcastle?
Well, in large part it has to do with the fortunate intersection of what I had consciously come to Block Court to do on that particular evening in mid-May and the wholly unexpected illumination of another facet in my evolving æsthetic philosophy of flânerie which that lighted window on the second storey above the arcade represented.
During our dreary second lockdown in Melbourne last year (the one in which we earned the unenviable honour of being ‘the most locked down city in the world’), when opportunities for flânerie were constrained by a five-kilometre radius; only two permitted hours of exercise per day; a strict curfew; and the Stasi-like harassment of the cops, I took to wandering around the immediate neighbourhood of The Miami Hotel, in North Melbourne, and particularly, in my daily quest for that black nectar, the ebony ambrosia to which I am matutinally addicted, to the Mecca of cafés around Errol street.
An idea began to form for me in the streets of North Melbourne, one of those ideas, as Walter Benjamin says, that ‘feeds on the sensory data taking shape before [the flâneur’s] eyes but often possesses itself of abstract knowledge—indeed, of dead facts….’
Last year, during our second lockdown, I wrote a post entitled “A flâneur in Chinatown” in which I cited a journal article by Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong, “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019). While McDonogh and Wong used the metaphor of the verticality of global Chinatowns as an analogue for the verticality of Chinese writing—and the consequent illegibility of these densely layered urban spaces to Occidental eyes—I began to look at my circumscribed flâneurial neighbourhood through McDonogh and Wong’s lens of inscrutably illegible verticality.
Melbourne is actually a rather low-built city. But the impression of horizontality as a superordinate architectural æsthetic which strikes one rather forcefully in Adelaide, for instance, is not immediately obvious to the naked eye in Melbourne. On the contrary, Melbourne gives one a somewhat deceptive impression of verticality, which is perhaps partly a function of its density and narrowness even in suburbia.
But even in the inner-city suburbs with their famous and picturesque row houses, such as North Melbourne, the terraces rarely extend above two storeys. I think, in addition to the density of these terraces built cheek-by-jowl and the narrowness of the old streets and lanes tranched between the major thoroughfares, the grandiosity of the façades contributes to an impression of verticality which is slightly deceptive.
The horizontality of Melbourne is somewhat concealed from immediate perception by such nineteenth-century tricks as the love of iron Corinthians pegging the corrugated skirts of wide awnings to the edges of the street, as we see so picturesquely along that block of Errol street leading to the North Melbourne Town Hall; by rows of pilasters and harmoniously arched windows of Venetian Renaissance variety leaping along upper-storey façades; by the cowled escutcheons which bear the central plaques telling the musical, perfumed names of the terraces, or featuring crenelated shells, deeply recessed, evoking the Way of St. James; by plinth-like corners terminating in spiked and spired urns, and mass-produced mascarons bearing what I consider to be ‘the face of Melbourne’, that neo-classical, rather matronly dame of nondescript aspect with her Venusian hairdo.
I love all this with a rapture that sends me into flights of poetry, but it was the windows—particularly those arched, Venetian Renaissance-style windows, not entirely indigenous to Melbourne on our shores, but deeply characteristic of the place as of no other town or city in Australia—which captured my attention in my morning scuttles outdoors for coffee.
More than once, of a morning, as I waited on the sidewalk in Errol or Victoria streets, regarding with curiosity the row of terraces opposite me, I had to be awakened from my rêverie by having my name called twice. And in Queensberry street, standing in the bluestone gutter outside Bread Club, I was particularly fixated on the four, paired first-floor windows above Ace Antiques and Collectables across the street, around which faded advertisements for The Age and the Herald Sun still barely emblaze the red brickwork.
Who lives behind these first-floor windows which look down on Melbourne through winking, half-drawn curtains, or sleepy, half-lowered shades? Does anyone at all? In some perhaps, but in the suburbs of Melbourne immediately adjacent to the CBD where I was, that potential seemed more doubtful than likely, since the ground floors of many terraces in West and North Melbourne are occupied, as their nineteenth-century architects intended, by shops.
The question of who—or what—was up there on the storey above the street became a source of flâneurial fascination for me, the one riddle of the city which lockdown allowed my legs to consider as they carried me to one coffee shop or another. Forced to read into their sombre depths from the angle of the street below, I tried to make up with lateral movement what I couldn’t gain in vertical, eyeballing them in a tracking pan as I surveilled them in my passage so as to gain the widest arc of vision into their interiors from below.
Alas! to no avail. A view of ceiling, sometimes truncated by a slash of grimy, half-drawn curtain or half-lowered shade, gave some suggestion of a resident human presence domiciled (perhaps indigently) in the dress circle above the stage of Errol or Victoria streets, but just as often, an intimation of haphazardly piled and abandoned boxes, or dusty emptiness, implied their use as storerooms—sometimes storing nothing at all.
I began even to wonder if these first-floor windows were accessible to the tenants or owners of the ground-floor shops, or if, like Rapunzel’s tower, internal staircases hidden to my eyes had atrophied and fallen away in the sedimentary archaeology of Melbourne’s history, so that all that remained was an empire of empty or forgotten rooms which hovered at that stratum in the air above the city, and which could only be reached and explored if you cast a ladder up to the windows.
The mystery of who or what is up there on Melbourne’s second storeys remained, like the bald man’s grift on the first floor of Block Court, inviolate.
It’s not as though this question of what is on the upper storeys of buildings, inaccessible to penetration beyond their ground-floor commercial façades, hasn’t occurred to me before. Take an hour off to sit in the Bourke street mall and regard the opaque windows of the Diamond House and the Public Benefit Bootery, for instance, and the question of what all this commercial space—apparently empty, apparently even in disrepair—above the famously affaireux level of Bourke street is being used for will doubtless occur to you too.
But it took reading McDonogh and Wong’s journal article during lockdown for me to really begin formulating embodied ideas—these Eleusinian inferences and intuitions about the mysteries of actuality which strike the flâneur, in his ambulations, with the abstract force of ‘dead facts’—of my own.
And it’s from that place of inference and intuition, my sense of the tantalizing inaccessibility of the life (or lives) behind upper-storey windows when seen from the level of the street, that the mystery I’ve attempted to articulate in “Office at night” proceeded.
Those lit first-floor windows fortuitously intersected with my errand to make a record of Block Court on colour film at night, and the latter image (which would doubtless have been beautiful in itself) was enlivened by the image of the former, personified by the figure of the bald man engaged in his eternally mysterious activity of taking a phone call to which I had no access in a space to which I also had no access.
Prior to my encounter with McDonogh and Wong, the image of lighted windows at night had long fascinated me. There is an inaccessibility about these too, for although the ground-floor lighted windows of houses would appear to allow the voyeur to gaze directly in and see who, or what, exists inside the black box of the façade, when seen in lateral passage from a moving vehicle (from whence the image of lighted windows at night obtains its mysterious romance and power), this voyeuristic desire is denied.
Many has been the time, taking the overnight XPT between Melbourne and Sydney, or between Sydney and Brisbane, when, nearing some little country town in the dead of night and seeing a small flurry of these lit windows at a distance, I have felt (as I did with the bald man) a sense of my soul leaping across darkness and distance and wishing, for a moment, to be within that lighted window; to sample the atmosphere of respite from movement which it shines, like a welcoming hearth, to the weary traveller in flight past it; to know who also is awake at that hour (albeit in the moored comfort of their own home) and how their little bower is decorated.
I had a more localized experience of this sensation in Melbourne, on my birthday, some years ago.
I had dinner and drinks with some friends at Fed Square and had left their convivial company, as I often do, feeling more dissatisfied by the social experience than satisfied by it. I was staying at Fairfield that week, in one of Melbourne’s old brick-veneer bungalows. This one had been modernized and redecorated somewhat, but not so much, fortunately, as to ruin the charm of stoical discomfort which these old-fashioned suburban homes possess.
As it happened—annoyingly—Metro was doing trackwork on the Hurstbridge line that week, so I had to transfer onto a rail replacement bus at Clifton Hill which would swing by the inner-eastern stations of Westgarth and Dennis before depositing me at Fairfield.
It was late when I left my friends, and later still when the Hurstbridge train terminated at Clifton Hill and I transferred, along with the other tired, late-night refugees from the city, onto the bus. As it passed through Westgarth in the dark, I had that same experience of seeing an occasional lit window streak across the panes reflecting nothing back but my weary visage, and I felt my heart lift and leap towards these fugitive examples of Melbourne’s charming old suburban homes—brick-veneers behind low, redbrick fences and California bungalows with their columned porches—in which some soul, wealthier than I, was still awake.
There was the sense that the ‘black boxes’ formed by their attractive, tantalizing façades, beckoning to me (weary traveller that I was), were somewhat like Rubik’s Cubes, or Chinese puzzles:—they contained the mystery of an unimaginable life within which my mind, nevertheless, set itself to imagining, seeing a world of old-fashioned luxury and ease, of bibelots and bric-à-brac consonant with their exteriors—a world of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ I would feel eternally at home in and would be endlessly content to explore, like a museum.
But the mystery of penetration had to be foregone as the bus bore me on to bed, and I could at least be satisfied that this week I would be able to penetrate one such example of the general mystery of what lies behind the façades of Melbourne’s delightfully decrepit inner-city houses.
And to extend the metaphor a little further, I had something of the sense which I imagine cat-burglars to have when I saw those occasional lit windows in Westgarth, provocatively beckoning me to peep at them and pry them, so forceful was the denied desire of the voyeur in lateral flight past them to pause, to stop, to investigate, and to know what manner of life lay behind the beautiful black box of the façade.
In some sense, I am fortunate, with my itinerant manner of life as a ‘writer-at-large’, to have had a wide experience of Melbourne homes, in many suburbs, and rather than being a cat-burglar, I am more like a safecracker: by the instinct bred of professional experience, I turn the mysterious dial of social convention and the door of the vault swings open to occasionally reveal to me the secret of what lies behind Melbourne’s beautiful suburban façades.
Être flâneur, c’est être voyeur.
One who understood this deep alliance between fleeting observation in movement and fixed, illicit spectatorship was Edward Hopper. During our second lockdown, I read Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography(1995), a book I cannot recommend but from which I managed to dredge a few things that were barely useful to the ideas about windows and verticality then forming in me.
The window, of course, is the signature of Mr. Hopper’s art, the frame within the frame which subjects the private sphere of occluded domesticity to public speculation, the proscenium which externalizes the internal.
When I chanced serendipitously on the bald man publicly framed in private action in the bay window on the first floor of Block Court, it was with the consciousness that his presence in the corner of the lighted window above the empty arcade made the collision of these two images I’ve described somewhat ‘Hopperesque’.
And of course, when I came to write the ficción accompanying my flânograph, I chose the title “Office at night” with a deep tip of my Fedora towards Mr. Hopper, whose 1940 painting of that title, with its equally ambiguous narrative, hangs in the Walker Art Center at Minneapolis.
Of that work, Mr. Hopper explained to his patron at the Walker:
My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me. … Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.
—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Mr. Hopper’s spirit of scrupulous crypticity, where the angle of vision is emphasised as salient, and the surfaces of things are described with a minuteness that almost invests them with an aura of obscure significance, but where all the internal, interior qualities of narrative are stubbornly elided, certainly guided me in the writing of this story.
And, certainly, I ‘worked on’ the central image of it much as Ms. Levin describes Mr. Hopper ‘working on’ the images of his paintings, trying to draw out something very vague yet very crystalline from himself through successive sketches and couches of colour as he modelled the concrete, physical details of images that are ultimately clairvoyant inner visions. A comparison of the five drafts I wrote of “Office at night” (including the final version in the audio track) would reveal significant differences, showing how much I cut, changed and sculpted the details in order for each one to add up to the final revelation of perspective expressed in the last sentence.
Likewise, the angle of vision in Mr. Hopper’s Office at Night is significant, if only because it jars the spectator. We are not moored to the floor, with its rich green carpet, but ‘rather high in the air’, floating within the office.
The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the ‘L’ train in New York City after dark glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind.
—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Like myself, Mr. Hopper loved the flâneuristic experience of travelling by train at night, the way vision in movement mingles with a certain voyeuristic scopophilia excited by the flashes of light and life issuing from windows which ‘tell a picture’, but ‘no obvious anecdote’.
Another of his ‘snapshots’, Night Windows (1928), also painted from the vantage of an elevated train in flight, features three windows, like the bay window of the office on the first floor of Block Court, which presents a kind of ‘triptych’, the central panel of which is the slightly pornographic image of the fesses of a girl in a pink slip bending over, her head out of frame.
Just as I said the gleaming pinkness of the bald man’s pate and the fashionable faux pas of his ill-fitting jacket were enough to suggest a ‘character’ to me in the weeks after seeing his fleeting image, Mr. Hopper said obliquely of his pornographic Madonna in Night Windows:
The way in which a few objects are arranged on a table, or a curtain billows in the breeze can set the mood and indicate the kind of person who inhabits the room.
—Edward Hopper, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 219)
Which is to say that, chez Hopper, the external world, comprised of superficial details, is the interior landscape of the ‘characters’ depicted: his interiors are their psychological interiors externalized. Just as we cannot see a person’s character but obliquely, as manifested in behaviour and action, dark façades, like the corner of the building depicted in Night Windows, are ‘cranial vaults’ which allow us, through their ocular fenestrations, to catch oblique glimpses of the private person fluttering about, like a moth, among the furnishings of their mind.
Moreover, what gives his paintings their uncanny, slightly surreal quality is his unique manner of representing people by the objects which surround them. I do not mean to imply that Mr. Hopper engages in any cheap literary symbolism of the type that we are used to, where x object is perfectly equivalent to y person—pas du tout.
Rather, as a writer with a visual bent myself, one who abhors the human presence in his films and photos and is perversely entranced by the photogenic possibilities of humans’ artistic and architectural products, the ‘ruins of modernity’ manifested as, and personified by, statues and buildings, I see a fraternal sensibility in operation chez Hopper: As in a dream, architectural details—houses, railroad tracks, tunnels, advertising signs, chimneys—are the people of his paintings. By an immense, convoluted process of displacement, things which have no obvious figurative similitude to the human being nevertheless stand in for the absent people of Mr. Hopper’s architectural ‘portraits’.
In one of his rare, groping moments of self-explanation, Mr. Hopper stated:
It’s hard for the layman to understand what the painter is trying to do. The painter himself is the only one that can really know…. And in the case of the objective painter, he uses natural phenomena to communicate … perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.
The ‘universal vocabulary’ of concrete objects is Mr. Hopper’s private symbology, and you will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my last post I alerted you to Louis Aragon’s provocative claim, in Le Paysan de Paris, that the image—and the concrete image at that—is the singular source of the poetic and the surreal.
Hence, when I say that concrete objects, the elements and details of architecture ‘symbolize’ people in some substantial sense in Mr. Hopper’s work, it is with an eye to M. Aragon that I class Mr. Hopper among the surrealists—at the very pinnacle of the movement, in fact, an honour he would doubtless deprecate.
But he is more surreal than the surrealists, for in his conscious devotion to ‘objective painting’, to the draughtsman-like description of material reality, he unconsciously paints the sur-reality, the reality that is over and above this one, sharing with M. Aragon the same stubborn, innate sense that le merveilleux is not a Platonic conception but is deeply embedded in the world’s mass. For Mr. Hopper too, certain sights, certain places, certain objects become divinely transfigured merely by the fact of their ugly, debased being as actuality: they take on ‘neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol’, nor do they ‘so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea.’
In that sense am I suggesting that buildings and architecture, as well as the modest objects of modern life, are deeply symbolic of the absent people in Mr. Hopper’s paintings. By a kind of Freudian dream displacement, people become the buildings they inhabit, and a painting like House by the Railroad (1925), for instance, can easily be read as a portrait of Mr. Hopper’s starchy Gilded Age youth, ‘gone with the wind’, struggling, like the gangling Nyacker himself in his stiff wing collar, to maintain a faintly ridiculous Victorian dignity against the locomotive onslaught of modernity.
To take just three examples, all painted in 1939, of how the concrete manifests its deep symbolism chez Hopper, there is such a dream-like collapse between the ‘natural phenomena’ which constitute Mr. Hopper’s universal vocabulary and the symbolic freight these objects of the world are intended to carry in Bridle Path, Cape Cod Evening, and Ground Swell.
These paintings which have, in their ostensible subject matter, nothing at all to do with the war in Europe and the looming threat that conflict posed to isolationist America, are in fact deeply obsessed by it. Indeed, there is not only such a surcharge of symbolic freight placed upon the ‘natural phenomena’—a rearing horse confronting a dark tunnel in Central Park; a dog amidst tall grass pricking up its ears; a shelf of wave threatening a pleasure craft on a sunny day—that serve as a universal vocabulary for Mr. Hopper’s anxieties about inevitable American involvement in the European conflict that these images, as symbols, collapse under the burden of communicating a diffuse and generalized state of anxiety, but, as in a dream (and there is an undeniably oneiric quality to Mr. Hopper’s employment of natural phenomena as a hieroglyphic vocabulary), between the original symbolic meaning, the hyperobject of world war that he intends to vocalize and express, and the final image, several displacements occur, so that the symbol undergoes multiple slippages, transfers, transformations, as in an intellectual game of Chinese Whispers.
It is as though, in these three paintings, Mr. Hopper is placing the original symbol of the war in Europe through such a succession of verbal and visual rhymes as to arrive at three separate images which, as ‘natural phenomena’ conveying only a disquieting sense of generalized anxiety, have nothing even implicit to do with the subject of the war, but in which, as in the images of the Tarot, the subterraneanly latent, chthonic significance of the original symbol can just barely be read in the manifest content of the tableaux.
Flâneur that he is, Mr. Hopper draws (to put another spin on that Benjaminian principle of ‘embodied knowledge’ I enunciated earlier) inferences and intuitions from a world of concrete symbolism: the ‘dead facts’ of concrete objects release, under his slavishly descriptive brush, the perfume of the marvellous and the surreal which is deeply embedded, as their Platonic substrate, in the DNA of dead matter.
As a quintessential surrealist, Mr. Hopper belongs for me among a very small cadre of artists—M. Ingres in the world of painting, and Mr. Hitchcock and Ozu-sensei in the world of cinema. What distinguishes these four artists is their slavish, obtusely unimaginative commitment to the depiction of concrete reality. They are so committed to the cause of realism that, as Sr. Picasso admiringly admitted with respect to M. Ingres, they are the greatest abstractionists of all.
The ‘abstraction’ of Mr. Hopper (again, he would deplore to be numbered among the non-objectivists) is similar to the abstraction of Ozu-sensei; and that abstraction, as a function of cinematic décor, is similar to M. Aragon’s apperception that the objects of the world ‘embody’ ideas rather than ‘manifest’ them. In Mr. Hopper’s concrete abstraction, as in that of Ozu-sensei, the objects of reality (or the reality of objects, if you prefer) are so compositionally potent in sensuous form and colour that they embody a symbolic character—the transfiguration of themselves sensed by M. Aragon.
Like Ozu-sensei, Mr. Hopper is one of the great painters of incidental still-lifes—those ‘few objects arranged on a table’ which reveal the psychological potency of a given space.
And it is perhaps this quality of the spiritual life of ‘things’ that M. Baudelaire referred to when he said that the marvellous and the poetic surrounds and suckles us like the air, but that we are oblivious to it. It requires some visionary sensibility that these artists had but denied—even to the point of doing violence to their own souls, attempting to ‘amputate’ it through repression—a ‘photogenic orientation’ towards the objects of reality, to draw out of them that store of poetry they are so fecund in—la photogénie—the abstract aspect they concretely embody.
These four artists lived so rigidly in their consciousnesses that the unconscious, for them, was pushed into such repressed abeyance that it could only manifest itself as concrete images that are abstractly distorted reports of reality. David Fincher talks about the ‘iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s vision, the suffocating rigour which murders creativity, foreclosing all other creative possibilities but the one he has decided upon in their cradle.
All these artists put up their iron umbrellas, erecting a suffocating bell-jar over their work, through whose translucent but distorting glass we see a world we recognize as rational fact, but fact viewed through the irrational prism of a deeply personal vision. For Ingres, Hopper, Hitchcock and Ozu in their respective ways, the rigorous, iron-clad verisimilitude of technical draughtsmanship is the very superstructure from which their deeply personal and idiosyncratic dreams emerge.
And for all these artists, the fetishization of material verisimilitude produces an ultimately symbolic, dreamlike effect upon us, but one which is eminently disavowable by the artist himself because the conscious concentration on describing what is material and actual is so scrupulously rigorous as to occupy all his artistic energies.
The deep affinity between Mr. Hopper’s painting and the art of the cinema has been exhaustively examined—not least by Ms. Levin, who devotes an appendix to the subject in her biography. Mr. Hitchcock himself was not shy in giving credit to Mr. Hopper, graciously confiding to interviewers that the Bates maison in Psycho (1960) was directly modelled on the House by the Railroad.
The trans-disciplinary respect was mutual. Mr. Hopper too, Ms. Levin tells us, was an avid cinephile, regularly ducking into cinemas in his predatory flâneries after fresh subject matter, and he kept abreast of developments in cinematic storytelling well into the age of Godard.
The cinema, and its root art-form of photography, were identified early by critics (not always favourably in an era of encroaching non-objectivism) as being unusually apposite to an understanding of Mr. Hopper’s painting.
I don’t think it is exactly accurate to say that Mr. Hopper was one of the last remaining adherents of ‘photorealism’ in a desertifying ocean of non-objectivism, the tide of which was ever-rising in his lifetime, and which he fought, with the valiant conservatism of his faith, to repulse. His style, to my mind, is slightly too gauche in its ponderous grasping for crystalline precision to be rightly compared with the dazzling illusions of photorealism that academicians like Cabanel and Bouguereau were capable of.
This is partly what I’m indicating when I talk about Mr. Hopper’s ‘inadvertent’ surrealism. He was an American commercial artist at the turn of the twentieth century, and his æsthetic is fundamentally based on the realistic and naturalistic premises of American commercial art.
He anticipates—but also, to my mind, emerges from, or in reaction to—the pulp fiction æsthetic of American commercial art. The ‘realism’ of this ‘genre painting’, its photographic veracity—which is to say, its legibility as an image—is in turn founded on the gritty ‘objectivity’ of nineteenth-century literary naturalism, imported into the Anglophone world from France. We know that Mr. Hopper was an immense Francophile, that he knew the language intimately, and was thoroughly versed in French nineteenth-century prose and poetry.
Mr. Hopper draws on the same ‘hyper-lucidity’ of pulp fiction and paperback cover artwork, a brand of realism that is both gritty and natural, and surreal and melodramatic. Being designed explicitly to advertise narratives, the paintings of pulp fiction are deeply premised on the narrative conventions of literature: the static, photographically veracious image must convey a proto-cinematic sense of ‘story’, of a beginning preceding the image we see; a middle it concretely represents; and an end, after it, we can anticipate—multiply—in tantalizing predictions of what might happen next.
Likewise, there is a sense of ‘narrative in motion’ in Mr. Hopper’s paintings which is a far more ‘literary’ corollary for the hyper-lucid mode of pulp fiction artwork. And to have a narrative that can be discerned across a narrow tranche of time in a single image, you require photographically realistic figures in recognizably naturalistic locales and situations.
But while Mr. Hopper partakes of the same conventions as American commercial painting, and while a tantalizing ambiguity similar to Mr. Hopper’s does exist in pulp fiction illustration, the point of divergence is this: the image depicted in the pulp cover painting tends to be what M. Cartier-Bresson calls ‘le moment décisif’ of the narrative in motion, whereas Mr. Hopper routinely chooses a ‘transitional moment’ in the narrative told by his paintings, one which renders their legibility, despite their photographic veracity, problematic.
Art director Robert Boyle, a close collaborator of Mr. Hitchcock, sees this same tendency between the two artists and calls it the ‘penultimate moment’:
‘The Hopper Look’ is the look of a moment in time before something has happened, or very often after it’s happened, but never at the moment of the happening. If you see a young woman in her room, very often bare, and she’s in a contemplative mood, has it happened? Or is it about to happen?
We’re used to the quick delivery, and we’re not always intrigued by the development. And with a Hitchcock film, the development is the interesting part. And I don’t mean to just say Hitchcock; I think this is true of most good films – maybe all of them.
The painting Mr. Boyle is referring to in that quote is Mr. Hopper’s Eleven a.m. (1926), another image in which the upper-storey window plays a significant rôle as a vector for voyeurism, although in this early instance, as in many of his later paintings, the angle of regard is reversed, from within to without.
Eleven a.m. … shows a woman in a quiet pose…. Yet, as so often, Hopper’s suggestion that this is a real, precise situation is not entirely borne out by the visual evidence….
Hopper presents us with a transitional situation. He permits us a tiny glimpse of the city outside, and, at the left, he gives a non-committal suggestion of another room behind the slightly open curtain. … The sense of mystery, instead of residing in an immaterial phenomenon, is engendered by the simple fact that we cannot see its origin. It is not metaphysical, but merely outside our field of perception.
—Ivo Kranzfelder, Hopper, p. 37
The décor of physical space is in some sense consubstantial with this transitional quality of time in Mr. Hopper’s paintings: he chooses what he going to be ‘real’ about, and works over certain areas of the canvas while treating others summarily. The effect of this is to complicate our reading of the image, to put us in the position, as Mr. Boyle observes, of wondering what has happened, or if it has happened yet, or what indeed may happen in this locale and situation which is photographically veracious enough for us to instantly recognize it, but not so realistic as to give us, as in the hyperlucid world of pulp fiction painting, an immediate sense of spatiotemporal orientation at the decisive moment of action in the drama.
In Mr. Hopper too, it is the ‘development’ that intrigues us, and the quick delivery of American commercial painting is infinitely delayed.
And thus, as the critics of his time recognized, while there is something of the ‘snapshot’ quality of photography in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, his brand of realism is not of the ‘photorealist’ variety—the kind of hyperlucidity that photography had already rendered redundant by the time MM. Cabanel et Bouguereau came on the scene:
This is an art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement. Nature’s sayso is not the artist’s affirmation.
—Edward Alden Jewell, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 220)
Ms. Levin tells us that during his youthful apprenticeship in art and flânerie in Paris, Mr. Hopper flirted briefly with photography, taking pictures of architectural details such as those immensely photogenic staircases in Parisian apartment houses, the streets of the Rive Gauche, and the bridges spanning the Seine, emulating the lonely, melancholy manner of M. Atget, but that he gave up photography as an aide-mémoire to painting because ‘the camera sees things from a different angle, not like the eye.’
And this is the point that many photographers—particularly digital photographers—fail to grasp, but which, as a writer who takes photos and makes films, I am painfully aware of. It may be redundant to say it, but the camera is not capable of that ‘art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement’ which can only proceed from a human consciousness deeply schooled in some art of representation. The camera, reporting Nature’s sayso with unimaginative veracity, sees things ‘from a different angle’ to the artist’s eye.
Particularly when the photographer works in the expensive medium of film, as I do, he becomes distinctly aware that what looks like it could potentially be ‘an image’ when regarded with the naked eye sometimes loses its apparent photogeneity when the arbitrary cadre of the viewfinder is set around it. And just as often, the putative ‘image’ of some architectural detail composed in the viewfinder with settings carefully adjusted turns out to be a picture of rien de tout.
In other words, what dissatisfied Mr. Hopper about photography, an art-form he would appear to have some natural affinity with, is that the photographic image can rarely tell a story. The mere veracious reporting of everything in the frame at a given moment of time, unselected, unemphasised, unarranged, is antithetical to his deeply literary style of painting, where there is a transitional sense of ‘narrative in motion’.
It’s exceedingly difficult—impossible in nine instances out of ten—to take a ‘good photograph’, which I define as one that requires no words, no story that has to be supplied after the fact as a commentary, to gloss what is visible in the image. That moment in time should be compositionally sufficient to supply a beginning and an end to the action frozen in time in the image which may be logically inferred—and almost no photographs, of the many billions that have been taken, do this.
Certainly, it is my consciousness of the insufficiency of photography as an art-form, its inability to reliably supply that narrative dimension of time to physical spaces (a problem which the invention of cinema solved), that has led me to write fictions like “Office at night” ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ my own photographs.
And certainly, in making a deep tip of my Fedora to Mr. Hopper in “Office at night”, I wrote that short story as a deliberate exercise with the conscious intention of ‘reverse-engineering’ the transitional, literary nature of his painting from imagistic description back into descriptive words, that sense, in his painting, that the obscurity of time is consubstantial with the obliquity of space.
I start my narrative at the moment the photograph was taken, the bald man finishing up his phone call. It’s a transitional moment, the moment, as Mr. Boyle says, after something significant has happened, and implying that the scene comes before some other significant happening. As in a Hopper painting, legibility of the bald man’s affect and behaviour is rendered difficult, for although the narrative voice carries on matter-of-factly as if the subject of the phone conversation were known to us, we cannot infer the cause from the effects we witness in the story.
The cause remains, as in Eleven a.m., ‘outside our field of perception’—but temporally, not, as in Mr. Hopper’s painting, spatially.
If you listen to the track a few times, you’ll notice that there are times when the description of objects, spatial relationships, the bald man’s affect and behaviour, seems needlessly minute for such a short story—minute to the point of redundancy. And yet there are other instances where, with the summariness of Mr. Hopper, I have treated these same details cavalierly.
Listening to the story a second or third time with the last sentence in mind will reveal the reason for this inconsistency of vision in a narrative whose tone gives the impression of being an objective report. As in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, perspective, in the final mental tableau completed by the crowning sentence, is shown to be the key to how clearly we see and interpret objects and their spatial relationships, and how clearly we can read behaviour and affect.
That inferential synthesis is really the purview of cinema as an art-form. It appropriates the spatial veracity of photography and supplies the missing dimension of time which gives physical objects in relational actuality to one another an experiential coherence, and it can, from without, approximate with more or less success the internal psychological drives and dynamics of human beings which is more perfectly realized in literary narratives.
It’s in this sense that Mr. Hopper’s painting is more closely aligned with cinema than with photography, despite the limitation of stasis. Mr. Hopper is a poet, essentially, but he is a prose poet, a master of the short story.
As I intended with “Office at night”, his paintings are like a handful of pages ripped out of a novel: they puzzle and intrigue us precisely because they are the moments of ‘development’ in a larger narrative they assume we are following, like a film, but can only see in a single frame, like a photograph.
Many of his works are like camera shots consciously framed to give us a purified version of that strange blend of communicativeness and incommunicativeness that is ‘Hollywood.’
—Parker Tyler, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 506-7)
The paradox in Mr. Tyler’s quote is illuminating, for if we can conclude one definite thing about Mr. Hopper it is that ‘communication’ was very important to him, a problem made galling by the fact that this very poetic, literary man with the quality of the novelist about him was more adept at writing in the hieroglyphs of images than in words.
… Introspective and intellectual, yet distrustful of verbal communication, he continued to struggle when he had to express himself in writing. As he had throughout his life, he preferred to speak through visual images…. In his painting, this visual communication took on a subtlety: details, shapes, colors, postures, scale, and specific juxtapositions join to convey many levels of meaning.
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 282
Ms. Levin tells us that after reading the book The Naked Truth and Personal Vision by the director of the art gallery at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Mr. Hopper felt sufficiently exercised to write to him:
I do not know what the ‘Naked Truth’ is, but I know that a ‘personal vision’ is the most important element in a painter’s equipment, but it must be communicated [doubly underlined].
—Edward Hopper, letter to Bartlett Hayes, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 486-7)
We noticed above his telling remark that the ‘objective painter’ uses ‘natural phenomena to communicate perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.’ As a literary man at heart, he recurs to the metaphor of vocabulary to express what kind of tools are in his ‘painter’s equipment’.
Robert Frost, a poet whom Mr. Hopper greatly admired, and with whom he had a distant, occasional correspondence, stated that ‘every poem is an exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood’, and as Ms. Levin explains:
[Hopper’s] reality, as always, was fabricated, not just from casual memories collected, but out of his personal vision. His every painting is an ‘exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood.’
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 493
It is this ‘exaggeration’ that I mean when I talk about the ‘poetry’, the abstract quality deeply embedded within the mass of the objects of reality. In the paintings of Mr. Hopper or the films of Ozu-sensei, the ‘photogenic orientation’ of these artists abstracts the harmonious exaggeration of their poetry from objects, that harmonious exaggeration being the mood which is an emergent property of the Gestalt of décor in Mr. Hopper’s paintings as much as in Ozu-sensei’s films.
Writing in the first issue of the journal Reality, which he founded in 1953, Mr. Hopper made what amounts to his manifesto on this score, stating with earnest conviction:
Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision [my emphasis] of the world.
—Edward Hopper, “Statements by Four Artists”, Reality, Spring 1953, p. 8
In some sense, as I said above, the means of expression at which he was most adept was incompatible with his message, the ‘inner life of the artist’ being perhaps better communicated through poetry or fiction than through the sculpting of the outward forms of objects in paint. Hence the admixture of ‘communicativeness and incommunicativeness’ which makes Mr. Hopper’s paintings seductive and intriguing.
In this struggle to communicate by one artistic means a message which is better suited to another medium, I can certainly sympathize with him, though in the opposite direction; for if Mr. Hopper, as a visual artist, is really a poet or novelist manqué, as a writer with a distinctly visual style, I am definitely filmmaker manqué. We have both missed our callings and have attempted, in mastering the arts we came to early in our lives, to make them do the opposite of what they are intended to do. He attempts to tell stories through images. I attempt to paint images through words.
But there is another sense in which the notion of a ‘personal vision’ to be communicated by imperfect means links us fraternally. I commenced by saying that to be a flâneur is to be a voyeur. Personal vision predicates both avocations, the latter pathologically, although if I am arguing for the studied idleness of flânerie as a fine art (and I am), in its close relationship with dandyism, it too is certainly also pathological.
We cannot claim for Mr. Hopper election to the academy of dandies, but he does belong to a very rare corpus of visual artists we can justifiably call flâneurs, other exemplars of this rare species being MM. Manet et Degas. Among painters, these gentlemen represent the arcane strain of flâneurism that runs, like the barest trickle of an underground stream, often lost for decades, the torch being carried by one man alone who doesn’t bear a direct heir, through the intellectual tradition of European modernity.
Mr. Hopper undertook his apprenticeship in the arcane tradition of flânerie on the holy ground of Paris, a spiritual successor to MM. Manet et Degas, and like them, he is un romancier des mœurs. The libertine French spirit suffuses his repressed Puritan soul, and smuggling that deep saturation of Parisian influence back into America, he paints the modes and manners of his native place and time with the same Flaubertian irony of those great moralists, MM. Manet et Degas.
To be a flâneur is to live a much more transitional, a much more osmotic existence than most people are comfortable with. The exteriority of the street is our salon; we are no more privately ‘at home’ than in the public sphere. And certainly, there are flâneries and there are flâneries that one might take: the æsthetic quest for the marvellous and the beautiful we undertake by day is very different from the more ruthless, predatory hunt after these same things we undertake by night.
Light (or the lack of it) determines the moral nature of the beautiful and marvellous things we discover in sunlight or in shade.
What comes out of Ms. Levin’s biography is that Mr. Hopper had a predilection for the nocturnal hunt. It more deeply inspired him, which is paradoxical, as his Puritanical Yankee nature reacted with apparent fear and loathing at the moral quality of the beautiful and marvellous things he saw in Paris at night. He was constitutionally unsuited to embrace his eyes’ desires and was self-condemned, like his youthful hero, M. Degas, to artistic voyeurism, flâneuristically sketching his croquis of Parisian mœurs in cafés.
Both Night Windows and Office at Night were products of nocturnal prowls. New York Post film critic Archer Winsten wrote that Mr. Hopper ‘spends a great deal of time walking in the city he loves and has always loved. He likes to look in windows and see people standing there in the light at night. For this same reason he likes to ride on els.’
Mr. Hopper betrayed himself as the perfect type of the artistic flâneur, the deceptively indolent man of the crowd driven by a deep, barely expressible vision of surreal beauty, when Mr. Winsten asked him what he did—outside of painting—for ‘fun’.
I get most of my pleasure out of the city itself.
—Edward Hopper to Archer Winsten, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 270)
The idea of ‘fun’ is as imponderable to a working artist as to an idle flâneur. Our only pleasure lies in the scopic activity of looking, whether with the fixity of the voyeur, or in fleeting movement, collecting those croquis des mœurs on the run, dashed down in a notebook as poetic snapshots of the city, this ruinous theme park of modernity we are wandering through in a continuous death march. The enforced leisure of our work is our pleasure.
And what makes Mr. Hopper a card-carrying member of this extremely exclusive clique of flâneurial artists is very much his subscription to an æsthetic cause articulated by M. Baudelaire in Le Peintre de la vie moderne; that is, to draw out the eternal from the ephemeral, to ‘crystallize’ or ‘arrest’, as Mr. Hopper said to his wife, ‘a moment of time acutely realized.’
We think of Mr. Hopper as a great painter in oils, a medium which, in visual terms, is the equivalent of the novel—slow to paint, slow to dry, with a heavy, enduring stasis about it, a substantiality equivalent to eternity, and not at all well-suited to the ‘portability’ of the transitory flâneurial quest to catch impressions on the fly.
But just as M. Manet was an exquisite café watercolourist, and M. Degas was capable, in his monotypes, of recording impressions of brothels almost daguerreotypic, Mr. Hopper was, in the twenties, a great printmaker, as capable as they of capturing immediate—almost photographic—sensations of the city. And all his life he remained a great field-sketcher, taking notes, in his flâneries, which he would then ‘work up’ into those novelistic fables of American morals and manners given enduring life in his oil paintings.
Herman Gulack recalled running into Hopper at the Automat, sitting by a window with just a plate with two rolls. When Gulack asked if he would like a cup of coffee, he replied that he was only making believe to be a customer in order to observe the view through the window and across the street. Hopper, having made sketches for the overall disposition of his composition, would then retain in his memory his impression of what he had seen.
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 518
It’s much easier, in the main, to be a flâneurial writer than a flâneurial artist, for, like spies, we can not only scope out our intel and note it down in the field without breaking cover, but because we carry the novelistic tableau we are painting in words in our heads, we are able, like guerrillas, to paint it in the sites and sights of the city without being discovered, to sail in, make our terroristic assaults upon the banality of the city, detonating our visions of beauty in the midst of the unsuspecting crowd, and sail out again.
Certainly, in my work, the weapon of the camera aids me in arresting that tableau of the ‘spleen of Melbourne’ I am building up in words. I’m not quite ready to tip my mitt and tell you, chers lecteurs, what great literary crime I am up to, but yes, both “Office at night” and “Dreidel” are episodes in a larger narrative, and the image of a third short story based on one of my photographs, a further clue to the big plot I am plotting, is just about developed in the darkroom of my mind and ready for writing.
If you enjoyed “Office at night” and want to hear episode 3 sooner rather than later, you can inspire me by plinking some coffee-cash in the fuel fund below. I have just had a new batch of branded Melbourne Flâneur postcards featuring “Block Court, Collins street, evening” printed, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Office at night” for $A5.00 using the link below, I will send you a copy of the postcard, featuring a short, personalised message of thanks just for you.
“Office at night” [MP3 audiostory and postcard]
An atmospheric short story where more is going on than meets the eye—or the ear. Purchase the MP3 of Dean Kyte’s new ficción and receive the postcard above, signed by Dean and featuring a handwritten, personalised message just for you!
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.
If you enjoyed the video and the prose poem, you can download the soundtrack for $A2.00. Just click the “Buy” link below.
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.
If you enjoyed my prose poem, “Nightflowers”, you can download the soundtrack to the video for $A2.00. Just click the “Buy” link below.
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 “Buy” 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.
One of the icons that Melbourne is known for is “The Skipping Girl”, Australia’s first animated neon sign, which formerly advertised the Skipping Girl Vinegar brand.
From the Art Deco rooftop of a converted factory in Victoria street, Abbotsford, she jumps rope over 16,000 times per night, and one of the most romantic things to do in Melbourne at night is to take the route 12 or 109 trams to Victoria Gardens and watch this 84-year-old icon repeat her nightly performance.
An icon is an image, a symbol which substitutes for an absent other whose spirit is supposed to reside in the icon, animating it, and receiving the adoration which would otherwise go directly to the sacred personage, if they were present.
It’s interesting, therefore, to reflect that the Skipping Girl, who was once the icon associated with a brand of vinegar which is no longer manufactured, has become the genius loci of Melbourne. But when I took the ‘flânograph’ above with my vintage Pentax K1000, she did not represent for me so much a symbol of ‘old Melbourne’ which had disappeared, but someone who had disappeared, an absent other I will always associate with the Skipping Girl.
As I explain in the video below, the first time I encountered the Skipping Girl, I was stepping off the 109 tram with a Dutch girl I had picked up eight hours earlier. We were about to go upstairs to her apartment, across the road in Richmond, and make love.
When I saw that neon icon beating time against the night, it was like seeing an X on a treasure map: this icon of Melbourne would always be, for me, a perpetual monument to a personal conquest, marking the spot of my greatest victory in Daygame.
In his essay “The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape” (1982), documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller describes the flâneur as a literary motif signifying two types of experience. Following Schiller’s distinction between the naïve and sentimental poet, I think we can summarize Keiller’s two types of flâneur as likewise being ‘naïve’ and ‘sentimental’.
The ‘naïve flâneur’ is more like the classical, nineteenth-century dandy conceived by Baudelaire. As Keiller says, he ‘takes the city as his salon’. He’s a romantic adventurer—a Daygamer, in essence—whose ‘chance encounters are largely with people’ rather than with those architectural citizens of a city, buildings and monuments. Whatever dreamlike quality there is in the encounter between this flâneur and the city derives from ‘his surrender to the randomness of urban life.’
The ‘sentimental flâneur’, en revanche, is a solitary dériveur who drifts through the city as though it were a petrified dream, experiencing the ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ which renders the banal street marvellous. As Keiller says, this flâneur ‘may meet others, he may fall passionately in love, but this is not his motive, it merely enhances his experience by enabling it to be shared.’
As a Melbourne flâneur, I have always felt like a synthesis of these two figures, but tending more towards the latter. I can ‘do’ Daygame, I can take adventitious advantage of the randomness of urban life to seize a romantic encounter; but, being a genuine introvert, I am more constitutionally inclined towards solitary drifting through the externalized ‘Forms’ of my thought which streets, parks, statues, monuments and buildings seem to symbolize for me.
Keiller cites Surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who, in Le paysan de Paris (1926), describes this paradoxical sensation of seeming to experience the platonic forms of things embodied in the constitutive elements of the city.
‘The way I saw it,’ Aragon writes, ‘an object became transfigured: it took on neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol, it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea. Thus it extended deeply into the world’s mass…’
For Aragon, this sensation was a presentiment of ‘a feeling for nature’, but it would be more specific to say that it was a feeling for the ambiguity of urban nature.
‘I acquired the habit of constantly referring the whole matter to the judgement of a kind of frisson which guaranteed the soundness of this tricky operation,’ Aragon writes.
This ‘frisson’, as Keiller observes, is not dissimilar from that feeling of ‘rightness’ a photographer intuitively senses immediately before he presses the shutter release button. This sensation is the moment when a swatch of street cuts itself out of the banal tableau of urban nature and quadrates itself in the abstract frame of a mental viewfinder as an ‘image’, as something marvellously photogenic.
The sentimental flâneur, Keiller contends, carries a camera to record these marvellous transfigurations. But, sentimental soul that I am, when I went back to photograph the Skipping Girl, nearly a year after my conquest of the Dutch girl, I was not photographing the Skipping Girl and her miraculous transformation of the night.
I was attempting to photograph the absence of the Dutch girl, for whom she was an icon.
In his book with Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography (1982), John Berger writes that ‘[b]etween the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss.’ It is an abyss of absence, of ambiguity, which carries with it ‘a shock of discontinuity’.
‘The ambiguity of a photograph does not reside within the instant of the event photographed,’ Berger writes. ‘The ambiguity arises out of that discontinuity which gives rise to … [t]he abyss between the moment recorded and the moment of looking.’
In my ‘flânograph’ of the Skipping Girl, that abyss was doubled:—for there would be an abyss between the moment of looking at the developed photograph and the moment I was now recording, just as there was, for me, an abyss between the moment I was recording and the moment the photograph was intended to record, some ten months earlier.
As a writer, I have long played with the idle idea (impossible to realize) of writing a book completely without words. The flânograph of the Skipping Girl was one of a series of photographs I took with my battered Pentax for a ‘picture book’ I intended to compose for my little niece, a wordless collection of black and white images of things and places I had encountered in my flâneries, and which, in their silent ambiguity, might give a child an ineffable, inenarrable sense of the life of an uncle she had never met.
Was there an enduring, impalpable resonance of the unseen, unknown and unknowable event sensible, apprehensible by the viewer of the photograph of the Skipping Girl, démeublé of its ostensible subject, the Dutch girl? Could the feeling—menacing; enigmatic; melancholy—of this particular square of urban nature—what we might call ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’—‘speak for itself’, eloquently and without words?
These were the questions I wanted answers to. And like Eugène Atget, of whom Walter Benjamin said that he photographed the empty streets of Paris as though they were ‘scenes of crime’, I went back and photographed the scenes of my Melburnian conquests—the Skipping Girl, a sodden Windsor place, a certain tree in the Carlton Gardens—now eerily empty of myself and the lovers of a moment who had left mortal wounds in my heart.
This feeling for the menacing, enigmatic, melancholy ambiguity of urban nature which precedes the click of the shutter; this ineffable, inenarrable frisson is what I call ‘flânography’, and it’s something other than photography—something more than merely ‘writing with light’.
It’s a sensitivity to the absent, the invisible, the unspeakable. It’s the poetic cry of the silent image which establishes historical evidence of the ‘baffling crime’ which is the personal ‘situation of our time’, and which the asphalt jungle gives colour and cover to.
If there is a ‘noirishness’ in the flânograph of the Skipping Girl, it is because, when I look back on my brief encounter with the Dutch girl over that abyss of ambiguity which it records, I feel (as I do after all my amours) like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’ at the hands of a femme fatale.
Like a consummate con artist who gets his pocket picked, I gamed her and ended up getting gamed by her.
When writing with light starts to become ‘poetic’ instead of merely prosaic; when the weak intentionality that a photographer possesses to express himself through a box is leveraged to the maximum, such that the urban landscape is transfigured and transformed into an image that is personally expressionistic, then photography starts to become ‘flânography’.
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.