I was throwing my foulard over my shoulder and buttoning myself up against the bitterness of another Melbourne winter, half-longing that Sunday was Wednesday, when I would be in Bello and practically in a bikini (stripped, as I would be, of the brown overcoat, scarf and gloves), when my cover as a man of the crowd was temporarily blown and I made an éblouissement to the eye of a passing photographer.
A shout-out to Melbourne guitarist and composer Mastaneh Nazarian, one-fourth of the collaborative quartet Kafka Pony, who tied into your Melbourne Flâneur outside the Tin Pot Café in Fitzroy North as I was tying off the loose ends of my toilette in public, preparatory to braving the bitter wind, and managed to break through my brooding mood de bourreau enough to persuade me to lighten up a little and stand still for a few photos.
‘You’re not really that serious,’ she jokingly chided me as she wrangled me into bearing my fangs in a grin.
Il Divino, with his nez cassé, his saturnine, satyr-like features, and his filthy black rags and boots, would go glowering about le vie di Roma, according to Raffaello, alone and looking for all the world ‘like a hangman.’
As I explained to Mastaneh, even when I think I’m smiling, my face seems to naturally wear the mien of an executioner. Being an introvert, I am so mired dans les profondeurs of my dark dreams and deep cogitations, so far from the sunny surface of life on which le reste du monde mindlessly floats, that even when I make an epic breaststroke and launch myself off the ocean floor towards the surface in a display of exuberant extroversion, I still only get half-way, my ideas of extravagant, gregarious gaiety being, it seems, so subtle and leaden that they resemble the deadly seriousness of Keatonian, granite-faced gravity much more than gay levity.
As I joked to her while we walked to the Edinburgh Gardens, following a brief stop-off at her apartment to grab her camera, I noticed that she didn’t invite me up in case I was Jack the Ripper.
I must admit, I have become a deal less tolerant of adventitious tyings-into by interested strangers on the streets of Melbourne since the CV. As a gentleman of the old school, I dislike familiarity and informality as a rule, and I was a little vexed when Mastaneh tied into me in front of the Tin Pot.
She caught me coming out of the café, where I had been plotting the literary crime I intend to commit against the citizens of Melbourne, and I was still half-dreaming of the heroine of my literary thriller, trying to see and understand who this fatal ‘girl of my dreams’ is.
Mastaneh caught me in a state of confusion, a kind of hypnopompic state as I emerged from both the café and the trance-like reverie of introverted intuition in which I do my best writing. Coming slowly to my senses, I was attending with the drunk’s narrowness of focus to the extroverted sensing activities of sorting out my toilette ahead of a long trudge back to Abbotsford in the cold.
My tongue was tied and rather tardy in coming loose as she launched a dozen questions at me, and I was faced with that problem which perplexes the person who habitually lives, as I do, in the platonic realms of thought, and for whom a dandified appearance, howsoever glamorous, is but the least and weakest anchor attaching him to this material reality; to wit:—how to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’
I confess, between the befuddlement of awaking from the waking dream of writing and the regrettable reluctance to allow myself to be abordé by a stranger (a consequence of the Coronavirus), I didn’t make it altogether easy for Mastaneh to get to know me, but all credit to her for breaking down my resistance, getting me to stand still for an impromptu modelling session in the Edinburgh Gardens—and even getting me to smile.
It’s my anecdotal impression that people have become a great deal less pleasant to interact with—even casually—since the Coronavirus, so it was a blessed relief to have an encounter with a stranger in Melbourne that left me feeling richer, not poorer, for the experience.
When I think of the often grating encounters I’ve had with people in Melbourne post-pandemic, full of casual impolitesses towards me, an assumed familiarity and informality with a perfect stranger I find detestable, and a marked decline in people’s social skills and graces after two years of enforced isolation, I’m reminded of the poetic homily which the Toronto radio DJ intones at the end of the Canadian short film Cold (2013):
When I first moved to Toronto, a lot of people told me to be ready for the cold. It’s funny, you know, because you get used to the weather pretty quick. It’s the city that takes a while to warm up to you – the people.
We’re so safe in everything we do, hiding behind head-phones and cell phones, stealing glances on the subway, sticking to what we know, who we know. God, do we ever stick to who we know! Maybe if we didn’t, we’d realize that we’re all a little lonely out here. Each of us is a little cold.
Melbourne is not quite as intemperate as Toronto, but certainly, the metaphor of the city’s weather as an analogue for the froideur of the people transfers rather neatly to Melbourne: each of us has become a little colder in the last two years, not least of all your Melbourne Flâneur, who has become a great deal more guarded in his dealings with people and colder of eye.
Despite the Victorian Government’s rhetoric, staying apart has certainly not kept us together socially, and I make no bones about the fact that, having observed a noticeable decline in people’s social skills during the past two years, the less I have to do with my fellow Melburnians post-pandemic, the happier I generally am.
What a regrettable state of affairs! It really oughn’t to be that way. As the Toronto DJ says at the beginning of Cold:
Well – I just think what makes the city colder is the fact that we’re so busy trying to stay out of each other’s way….
—Devo G., Cold
Although she tied into me awkwardly, my interaction with Mastaneh was perhaps the first pleasant encounter I’ve had with a stranger in Melbourne in two years—the first one where I didn’t wish that my mien de meurtrier was not merely a façade of pre-emptive defence against being bothered by someone who wants to take energy and value from me rather than, as Mastaneh did, generously give it.
Her impromptu approach was a pleasant premonition of what I was to expect later on in the week, for your Melbourne Flâneur is currently ‘out of the office’ and on holiday in Bellingen, that little town tucked away on the North Coast of NSW which is like the whole of Melbourne folded down to two small streets—a street-corner even, the corner of Hyde and Church streets being as legendary in the flâneurial experience of your peripatetic scribe as either Collins or Bourke streets.
If Paris is my spiritual home, my Mecca of memory and flânerie, and Melbourne my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, a colony in the cultural caliphate of that ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, then Bellingen—(Bello to the locals)—is some kind of ‘home away from home’ for me:—it has, like Paris, some spiritual resonance for me, some sympathetic vibration which makes my heart beat more easily here than it does even in Melbourne.
I’ve looked forward to my holiday for almost as long as I’ve been away. Last year I wrote a post, “The Bellingen Flâneur”, in which I recorded the gratifying discovery that, after five years away from this town, which I lived in comparatively briefly and left under a cloud of heartbreak to take up my life in Melbourne, I had merely to take one circuit of Hyde Street to find myself back in the bosom of people who thought well of me—a revelation which I hadn’t at all expected.
A poetic note I wrote in my notebook earlier this year, as I sat on the platform at Macedon Station, says it all:
I’m always searching for Bellingen, I realized, as I strolled beneath the low, lichened branches of Macedon, but I did not find it here. As I passed the welltended hedges, the verdant rues-murs of Victoria street, like Proust before the hawthorns, I had an intimation of something—too dim to be the image of a memory, yet too sharp to be a presentiment—but, like the inverted exposure of a negative, I could not say what it is. Except, perhaps, it occurred to me, it might have been the equation of an analogy: Macedon is to Woodend what Dorrigo is to Bello: beautiful but dead.
Why am I always searching for Bello? What did I leave behind there when I came down here? what life, or vision of life? I don’t know. But if I’m honest, even more than Paris, it seems a paradise lost I’m always searching for, a heart’shome, in these Victorian climes. Perhaps, as much as I hate to admit it, in Bellingen I found a community, a collective of which I was a part.
I ‘hate to admit it’ because, being a dandy and a flâneur, I am necessarily a solitary soul—wolfish, un homme à part. The dandy-flâneur may indeed be Mr. Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’, ‘the type and genius of deep crime’ who refuses to be physically alone. He may find himself, as its guiding spirit, the genius of that ambulating loci, in the amorphous foule as it vomits itself over the sidewalk, but like the old man of Mr. Poe’s tale, the dandy-flâneur, as a man who stubbornly stands outside the hierarchy of bourgeois masculine values, has nothing but an icy, Flaubertian contempt for the crowd he is ‘in’ but not really ‘of’.
He is only ‘of the crowd’ in the sense that Mr. Poe gives in his classic formulation, as being ‘the type and genius of deep crime.’ I have written elsewhere of the dandy’s ‘operative identity’, his ‘cover’ as a spy, a saboteur and æsthetic terrorist, a résistant to bourgeois, capitalistic values who blows up his whole life in an economic Non serviam, detonating himself in a vision of Truth and Beauty in the densest midst of the blandest crowd. The crowd too is part of the dandy-flâneur’s ‘operative identity’, a shield and a cover, a part of his fashionable armature, under cover of which he prosecutes his æsthetic crimes of resistance against the bourgeois madness of technocratic capitalism.
In Bellingen, I made a spectacular explosion every day on Hyde Street in my hat and my suit which, as people have frequently told me since, was an éblouissement which gladdened their eyes. In Melbourne, too, I make the same daily detonation, but the crowd is thicker, denser, more obviously a shield behind which even as conspicuous a dandy as myself can fade into the background of the crowd, an æsthetic terrorist ready to pull the pin of my poetic wit in the midst of this foule.
As a man of fashion, I pose a narrow portal onto immeasurable depths. And as a writer, the best and truest part of who I am lies in another dimension to the fashionable frame that wanders, lonely as a cloud, as a mere man of the crowd.
Melbourne has certainly grown a little colder since the Coronavirus, and I wish I hadn’t become more reluctant to engage with people.
In the days when I used to do Daygame myself, I believed it was the best way to cut across the frame of coldness people wear in the city to insulate themselves against importunate approach. You never know who an attractive stranger is—or could be—until you cut across their frame with a pre-emptive offer of value and warmth.
I didn’t know what a talented person was generously giving me her attention when Mastaneh tied into me. It was only when I was through two days of train travel and safely ensconced in Bello that I was at my leisure to see who Mastaneh was. As a literary man, I can only approve of a band with the good taste to name itself after a writer who was content to be another anonymous ‘man of the crowd’ and subversive saboteur of bourgeois society, and I invite you to check out Kafka Pony’s music on Bandcamp and show them some warmth.
Mastaneh gave me a good lesson as to what to expect when I got up to Bello, and what I missed about the place—that sense of warmth, of community.
I didn’t just shuck my overcoat when I got up here, out of the cold of Melbourne and into the bosom of people who think well of me, despite my singular oddity as the dandy of Hyde Street. I got into the warmth of who I really am when I don’t feel I have to wear the face of an executioner just to get from one end of Collins Street to the other unmolested by energy vampires.
It would be nice if, instead of staying out of each other’s way, we could get back into each other’s way in Melbourne—not with the sense that I have so often experienced it, post-pandemic, of strangers seeking to take energy and value from one another, but in the way that Mastaneh so generously demonstrated—of seeking to freely give a little warmth and value to a stranger.
As I prepare to introduce you more fully to my new CD audiobook, The Spleen of Melbourne: Prose Poetry & Fiction, it occurred to me that it would be worth exploring my emotional, intellectual, and artistic relationship with the poet whose influence upon that work is as significant as any of the other broad strands of influence I’ve traced in my notes while developing the presentation for the formal product launch.
And today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I post for your delectation, dear readers, a video I recently shot on location in Geelong, strolling beneath the ‘living pillars’ of the City Hall as I recite my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, “Correspondances”.
You will read a lot of commentary about this sonnet online, for “Correspondances”—(poem no. 4 in Les Fleurs du mal)—is M. Baudelaire’s æsthetic testament, the work in which he articulates his artistic cri de cœur. In it, he states his theory of ‘correspondences’, the synæsthetic intuition that ‘[l]es parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent’, or, as I translate it in the video above, ‘[s]ounds, scents and colours to one another correspond.’
Brief as it is, being a sonnet of just fourteen lines and 140 syllables, “Correspondances” is a notoriously difficult poem to translate into English, and being M. Baudelaire’s most important philosophical statement, it is the supreme test of anyone who aspires to translate the thoughts of this poet into la langue anglaise.
The second verse of “Correspondances”, written in rhyming couplets, appears as a teaser and a taster on the back of my book of Baudelaire translations, Flowers Red and Black (2013), and I confess that for years I could not get beyond that second verse.
The problem is that the poem, incontournable as it is in the œuvre of M. Baudelaire, is rather ‘disjointed’. The philosophic statement of the theory of correspondences—which is all the more profound for being all the more profoundly condensed—occurs in the two quatrains which form the first half of the sonnet. Then a sort of ‘cæsura in ideas’ occurs, a disjunction after which the two tercets of the second half explain the practical implications of the theory through specific examples, albeit rather oblique ones.
But, to my mind, there is also a ‘cæsura in ideas’ between the first quatrain and the second. It is the second in which the theory of correspondences is formally articulated, and between it and the first, the line of logic, the general premises M. Baudelaire advances as the set of assumptions which lead to the conclusion of the stated theory, is as oblique as between the first half of the poem and the second.
I have never read a really good translation of this poem in English, and to my mind, it is one of a small corpus of M. Baudelaire’s poems, including “Le Cygne” and “Le Voyage”, which, at some fundamental level, are basically untranslatable. The thought he expresses in “Correspondances” is a subtle intuition of, simultaneously, such profound extension and such profound condensation that it can only really be apprehended and comprehended in the French formulation he gives it.
And I make no claims of having solved the immense problems which “Correspondances” throws up for the English translator in selecting a unitary interpretation of those inscrutable lines which, in French, express multiple ideas simultaneously, except to say that of all the possible interpretations that I’ve read in English, mine appears (to me at least) to best convey ‘the spirit of the logic’ which is implicit in the language M. Baudelaire employs, and which is particularly extensive and particularly condensed in the two quatrains.
The second quatrain came rather easily to me, which is not to say that the subtle theory it articulates is not difficult to make comprehensible in English. But it is really the first verse that is a devil of a thing to translate into our bastard tongue, with its rather Teutonic utility and sense of the material rather than the metaphysic. It was purely on account of the first quatrain that, for eight years, I despaired of ever writing a full translation of those fourteen brief lines which are the supreme test of the Baudelairean interpreter.
It became like a ‘thought problem’ to me: at odd times over those eight years, I would pull out the first quatrain of “Correspondances” and take another look at it, trying to find a fresh key that would unlock the puzzle. I knew what M. Baudelaire was saying in French, even down to the intuitive subtleties which are implied, the ‘spirit of the philosophy’ which no other translator I’ve read seems to be really ‘get’, and which you can only understand if you are also an artist, like M. Baudelaire, who has crucified his whole life on the hellish nails that are words, living only for them. But I could not figure out a way of accurately representing those extensive densities in an equally concise English.
At its centre, the whole puzzle comes down to solving one word in line 3 of the poem—y. Appropriately algebraic, that single-letter word, sometimes a pronoun, sometimes an adverb in French, has no correspondence in English, and as a single syllable is capable of condensing several syllables of information in an elegant equivalence which communicates volumes.
To the unwary translator of “Correspondances”, y presents multiple traps. But if you solve for y, you’re out of the woods—if you’ll pardon the pun. Those who watch the video will get the joke.
The linked tercets of verses 3 and 4 are much less challenging to translate, except that the poem falls away rather dramatically from the philosophic heights M. Baudelaire attains at the end of verse 2.
This is not necessarily a criticism, or a suggestion that the poem, despite its importance in his œuvre, is somehow ‘underdone’. The sense of disjointedness I noted above seems to me to be both a deliberate ploy and an inevitable consequence of the intense compression attendant upon the sonnet form when faced with such a large idea.
Nevertheless, the challenge of verses 3 and 4 lies principally in the fact that, from the dense heights of abstraction M. Baudelaire attains in verses 1 and 2, the ‘cæsura in ideas’ involves a much more prosaic, worldly turn in the language. A straight English rendition of the trebly-linked examples in verses 3 and 4 tends to read rather underwhelmingly, and the challenge lies principally in conveying the synæsthetic potency of the trinitarian sensual correspondence of sound, scent and colour in a sufficiently forceful English without departing too far from the original letter of the French text.
I’m known for the ‘accuracy’ of my translations of Baudelaire. I avoid the distorting inventions of translators like the late Dr. William Crosby, who seek a rhyming equivalence in English. Only Edna St. Vincent Millay, a sufficiently desperate soul to share M. Baudelaire’s experience of life and his vision of it, was able to find rhymes in English which paralleled the spirit of his text without distorting the letter of it too greatly.
But being a prosateur rather than a poète pur-sang, I take a more analytic, critical approach to translation. I want a correspondence in images and ideas—the spirit of the letter, if you will—rather than a text in English, written with strict respect to the rules of English prosody, which parallels the French text but substitutes English forms for the equally strict—nay, stricter—rules of French prosody.
That is not a happy solution, and seems to me an untenable approach for a modern translator to take, in the main. Though separated only by a slender sleeve of water, the music of the French language is very different to the music of the English tongue: the rhythm and syllabic emphasis of words hit the ear differently, so finding equivalent rhyming schemes in English seems to me to be a laborious and impractical affair which introduces unnecessary distortions into the text.
Thus, when translating M. Baudelaire from French to English, rhyme must, regrettably, be the first casualty of war because only very rarely (as in verse 2 of my translation of “Correspondances”) will you chance upon the happy accident of a corresponding couplet in English that communicates the same idea M. Baudelaire is expressing in French.
He would disapprove of this, regarding rhythm and rhyme as being the essence of beauty in poetry, but, as T. S. Eliot observed, modern poetry begins with M. Baudelaire, and all the execrable excesses of our juvenile ‘free verse’ (a contradiction in terms that only we moronic moderns, the heretics of all inherited rules, could entertain with a straight face) can be laid at the feet of the poet who never availed himself of such an obscene form.
Thus a modern translation of the father of modern poets must take account of the æsthetic crimes he inadvertently unleashed upon the world when he opened the Pandora’s Box of modernity in verse. Crime and the nature of modern evil is the spirit and subject of Les Fleurs du mal. As I noted in a previous post, M. Baudelaire is the fountainhead of decadence and degeneracy in modern art, and though I might flatter myself on this score, I think that my free verse translations of him, which focus on conveying the spirit of the letter of the French text—the ‘ideational image’ of his poems—still manage to convey the loftiness, the freezing haughtiness, the alternating erudition and vulgarity of his voice, which trips out in strict alexandrines with the precise, Morse-like rap of a nail tapped on tin.
When I speak about ‘the idea’ of “Correspondances”, I am speaking about something that might equally be called ‘the image’ of it—the total image that the poem forms in the mind of the reader. The nature and quality of thought in poetry is very different to the analytic intellection which takes place in prose: ideation in poetry is imagistic.
When I translate a poem by M. Baudelaire, in place of the rhyme of the original, I am seeking instead to convey to the reader the most lucid distillation of that ideational image into English, the prosodic quality of M. Baudelaire’s thought by some of the other musical devices he typically avails himself of, such as alliteration, assonance and rhythm, and the jarring juxtaposition of a tony tone with slangy argot.
The ideational image of the poem is cumulatively formed by the actual words on the page. Thus, I seek the closest English words in sound and meaning, words that evoke that deeper image, the implicit, lucid one which shines through the French text, while equally seeking to balance the colloquial quirks that occur in both languages.
That approach usually serves me well, but with the first verse of “Correspondances”, I eventually realized that I would have to avail myself of a tool I rarely use. ‘Images that shine through’ the material manifestation of words, as of Nature itself, is the theme of that first verse of “Correspondances”—images almost untranslatable, in fact, except to the poet (‘l’homme’ of line 3) who walks, as a priest, through the ‘forêts de symboles’, trees upon whose trunks (the ‘vivants piliers’ of line 1) are engraved the ‘Bible’ of Nature, and which form a kind of Salomonic Temple which knows its priest—the poet-prophet—when it sees him, and trusts him to translate and voice the unvocable language of its celestial design.
Even in prose, as you can see by that summary, it’s almost impossible to comprehensibly express the cascade of logical premises which form the profound intuition at the heart of the ideational image in the first quatrain of “Correspondances”. To anyone who is not an artist in words, a priest in this deepest sense, one who has devoted his life to giving praise to God through the beauty of words, the image of that verse must read like a schizophrenic delusion, that cascade of logical premises as a psychotic break with material reality.
But that’s the tool I use with M. Baudelaire when strict attention to the actual words on the page fails me: Intuitively knowing in my soul what he means and feeling in my soul, and the experience of my life, the deep logic of it also, I place myself in his place and let our two sensibilities—separated by languages; separated by cultures, continents and hemispheres; separated by centuries—mingle and synthesize, and I allow him, in an act of ‘channelling’, to speak through me, through the particular thought, the particular language, the particular experience of this fraternal ‘autre moi’ separated from him by all that is foreign to his language, thought and experience, and to voice in his place—and in English—some personal amplification on what is implicit in the French lines.
Nowhere, for instance, in “Correspondances” does M. Baudelaire use the words ‘poet’ or ‘priest’ to designate the reader of Nature he refers to merely as ‘l’homme’ in line 3 of the poem. But I knew that ‘the man’ of the first verse of “Correspondances” is this figure I call ‘the poet-prophet’, the priest who reads the mystic signs of Nature, and who commits himself—at immense material sacrifice—to the holy penury of Art, the daily, unremunerative crucifixion of attempting to nail down the untranslatable beauty of God’s Creation in the fallen words of Man.
In the final verse of poem no. 2, “L’Albatros”, M. Baudelaire, referring obliquely to himself, names ‘Le Poëte’ as the ‘prince of air’ who reigns and ranges above the icy wastes of life like the mighty albatross, and yet, hobbled by the immensity of his mental wings, is condemned to suffer its base indignities on the ground, ‘in the midst of boos and jeers’. And in poem no. 3, “Élévation”, he writes of his mind as soaring, ‘like flocks of larks’, above this grounded, earthly prison to Heaven, seeking a union with all Creation, as ‘He who floats above life and understands without thought / The language of flowers, and of other mute things!’
Thus, ‘The Poet’ of “L’Albatros” and the ‘He’ of “Élévation” are consubstantial with ‘the man’ of “Correspondances”: the soaring poet of the first is the communing prophet of the second, and this reader-writer of the mute language of Nature is what I call the ‘poet-prophet’ of the third poem, the (re)unified man—Mr. Blake’s Albion—who is the priest of Nature, the translator of God’s Creation, the flâneur who traverses the Temple reading the mystic signs graven on the pillars, and who is recognized by the living Temple itself as its interpreter and intercessor with other men.
Just as, in M. Baudelaire’s life, he was condemned to be known not as a poet in his right, but primarily as the translator of his spiritual frère, Edgar Allan Poe, into French, so it seems that in my life, I am known not for my own words, but as the translator of my spiritual brother, M. Baudelaire, into English, his interpreter and intercessor with the generations who are only now, in the last two terrible years, waking up to the full, sanguinary horror of capitalistic modernity he prophesied 150 years ago, an epic crime against humanity we are all complicit in.
I am the ‘post-runner’ rather than the forerunner of M. Baudelaire, his St. Paul rather than his St. John, the apostle and not the evangelist of his church of satanic Catholicism. As poet, dandy and flâneur, he predicted this hell of technological progress, this inferno of late-capitalistic modernity in exponential, existential decline, and which I, as writer, dandy and flâneur, ring in your ears with all the din of bitter prophecy in the prose poems of The Spleen of Melbourne.
And if I find, in my flâneurial trébuchements among les épaves of Melburnian postmodernity, some intimations of the Baudelairean ‘Ideal’ in the City to balance my Baudelairean ‘Spleen’ about it, some transcendent Beauty in the unutterable Horror of our postmodern, urban lives, it is because, like M. Baudelaire, I am prophet enough to see what comes next, the networkcentric spirit of life that may just succeed the sanguinary, Stygian darkness, the hellish abyss we are now joyously hurtling, as lemmings, headlong into.
The prophetic powers of the poet are not necessarily about seeing into the future. Rather, as I intimated above with respect to the nature and quality of thought in poetry, the prophetic powers of the poet lie in seeing into the present, into the consequential logic of the world-historical totality which surrounds him, the roots of distant premises which reach their intermediate conclusions in his burgeoning, and the burgeoning of the world of nature that is coexistent with his existence, and the far-off conclusions which will bud their fleurs du mal from this present.
The poet-prophet intuitively sees, in other words, the mandala of the world-historical totality’s ideational image in its eternal present, which is as much to say that he apprehends a vision of God. This is the condition of clairvoyance alluded to by M. Baudelaire’s spiritual heir, Arthur Rimbaud, in two famous letters, one of which I reproduce here.
… I want to be a poet, and I work to make myself a seer…. It involves attaining the unknown by a derangement of all the senses. The travails are enormous, but one must be strong to be born a poet, and I recognize myself as a poet. It isn’t my fault at all. It’s wrong to say: I think. One ought rather to say: I am thought. …
I am another. Too bad for the wood that discovers itself to be a violin.
What distinguishes the quality of thought displayed by the poet-prophet from the form of prosy ratiocination displayed by the scientist or savant is precisely this quality of ‘being’ thought, of being thought through by Nature. The ‘seer’ is the eye of panoptic Nature, that ‘forêt de symboles / Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers’, a mere viewing device It sees through, like a camera, and M. Baudelaire makes a similar observation to M. Rimbaud in his prose poem “Le Confiteor de l’Artiste”, when he says:
What greater delight than to drown one’s gaze in the immensity of sky and sea! Solitude. Silence. The peerless chastity of the azure!—A little sail shivering on the horizon which, in its puniness and isolation, imitates the inexorable march of my existence; the monotonous melody of the swell;—all these things think through me,—or I think through them (for in the vastness of reverie, the ego soon loses itself). They think, I say, but musically, or pictorially—without quibbles; without syllogisms; without deductions.
—Charles Baudelaire, “Le Confiteor de l’Artiste” (my translation)
There are no quibbles, syllogisms or deductions in poetic thought: however the roots of premises and the buds of conclusions extend over time, from man’s perspective, the Kabbalistic tree or burning bush is grown, is bloomed, is fully present and flaming in the eternal present, and the idea of this totality is apprehendable as poetic image.
To be a poet is to be a prophet, a visionary, and while M. Baudelaire predicts the hell of technological progress we are now inescapably in, our present subjugation to algorithms, as the great prophet of modernity, he is the visionary of our present troubles. The predictive quality of the prophet is a clairvoyance of present trends: the logical consequences of present premises are intuited in an image, and the act of ‘soothsaying’ is a mere articulation of the latent, the world-historical inevitability that is invisible to the smug bourgeois.
In my recent post announcing the release of The Spleen of Melbourne, I reproduced M. Baudelaire’s scathing critique of progress, a premonitory articulation of the consequential logic of capitalistic modernity which would have been obvious to the most fuggish thinker of his day, but the consideration of which the smug bourgeois was happy to defer for the bonheur of exponentially increasing material comfort.
But where, pray tell, is the guarantee of progress for the morrow? For the disciples of the sages of steam and chemical matches understand it thus: progress only manifests itself to them under the guise of an indefinite series. Where, then, is the guarantee? It only exists, I say, in your credulity and fatuity.
I leave to one side the scientific question of whether, in rendering humanity more delicate in direct proportion to the new pleasures it delivers them, indefinite progress might not be humanity’s most ingenious and cruellest of tortures; if, proceeding through an obstinate negation of itself, it might not be a form of suicide unceasingly renewed, and if, enclosed in the fiery circle of divine logic, it might not resemble the scorpion that stings itself with its terrible tail, this eternal desire which ultimately makes for eternal despair?
In the ideational image of the scorpion eternally stinging itself, we see the prediction of our present predicament, where we are driven ever onward to a more debased and aborted version of life by the needle of a technology that is on its own exponent of self-actualization, independent of man, but which requires, for the moment, a species of delusive slaves who believe that they control it to help it actualize itself.
That latent consequence, invisible to the smug partisans of progress who marvelled at the Paris Expo of 1855, was never a science fiction to be divined in a crystal ball. It was a fact of science, the line of which the holistic thinker, steeped in the world-historical actuality of his time, could trace in very few logical shinnyings down the decision tree of consequential logic.
In the last year on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, I’ve variously voiced my misgivings to you about calling myself a ‘poet’, a laurel often tossed on my brow by others, but one which sits uncomfortably for me. The prose/poetry dichotomy is one I propose to address in my presentation at the formal product launch for The Spleen of Melbourne, offering a working definition of my prosy variety of prosody. But if I am a poet in any sense, it is in this quality of ever-present prophecy, in this dedication to seeing and voicing the unutterable, the untranslatable vision of modern Beauty and Horror which I share with M. Baudelaire.
Art is a priesthood into which no man should enter lightly, and an angel with a flaming sword should beat back most applicants at the gate. Eden is behind it, but it is an Eden of barely supportable Purgatory, Eden as Camino, as Way, as Path, as Dao. Once you’ve taken Holy Orders and are in the Path of Art, forsaking wife and child and every bourgeois compromise of delusive comfort in a gran rifiuto, the Way is cut off behind you by that same angel with a flaming sword.
You must walk onward to the Vision, traversing the selva oscura and saying what you see, nailing it down as perfectly as possible on the imperfect cross of human language.
This is the unremunerative path that M. Baudelaire chose for himself, though to say ‘choose’ is to make a falsehood of the Faustian pact. If you ‘choose’ Art, it is almost certain that you are not an artist. There is no material sacrifice in choice. Rather than choosing, one sacrifices, one gives up what is actually necessary and needful to survive. The artist prefers to die than live an inauthentic life.
In a choice between two suicides, the spiritual suicide of living a compromised, inauthentic life is more shameful and dishonourable than the physical wasting away of penury and starvation.
That was M. Baudelaire’s uncompromising view, and the incomprehensibility of such an extreme position to most of his translators is why, I find, they fail to understand him and make a grotesque exaggeration of his words.
They treat him like an eccentric figure from history, one who has been recuperated by the bourgeois spectacle of academe, and their pharisaical translations read as blandly as whited sepulchres erected to this Jeremiah made safe by time. But he is not an historical eccentric to me, and from his furious kicking against the pricks of ‘quantity’ and ‘utility’, the twin virtues of capitalistic progress, I draw a salutary example for my own life.
Compelled by the Vision of Beauty and possessed by it, M. Baudelaire, with his ‘ailes de géant’, had to hobble through the hell of an uncomprehending crowd, through its boos and jeers, its gifles and crachats, through the jostling of bailiffs and the haranguing of bratty mistresses, weathering the sneering indulgence of journalists and editors with eyes unevolved to share his vision, and who rated the work of his days a very cheap thing, hardly worth a sou.
The desperation to live
M. Baudelaire was possessed by a kind of ‘desperation to live’ which his impecunious lifestyle de dandy seems, to the bourgeois mind, to have been distinctly at odds with. With his talent for words (thus le bon bourgeois reasons), surely he could have made some mammon for his manna by turning out something more commercial than spleen-filled screeds, translations of the Yankee lunatic Poe, and critical manifesti which belabour the pates of right-thinking people?
But the ‘desperation to live’ of which I speak has nothing to do with the gross, vulgar, bourgeois suicide of ‘making a living’. More than the bourgeois abortions who keep the greased wheels of Capital a-turning by grace of their internalized protestant slavery, the artist is possessed by the very spirit of life. As a priest praising Creation through his very being, he must push forth his shoots, he must bud and bloom with the same desperate urge to be as the lilies of the field and the fowls of the air. If he ‘makes’ anything of his life, the products of his living are the artefacts and the testaments of his being—and having been—in the world.
In French, they call our English ‘lust for life’ (the title, of course, of a book and film on that poet-prophet in paint, the sainted Vincent) ‘rage de vivre’—a rage to live. M. Baudelaire, bien sûr, was possessed of plenty of rage:—it is a necessary alchemical constituent of the condition of spleen, that urban alienation which is attendant upon technological capitalism.
This desperation to really live, and this despair at what the bourgeois ‘market’ of technologically-driven capital offers us as ‘life’, is something I can passionately relate to. Indeed, it was the despair and the desperation to live that drove me to Paris, the capital of flânerie, and my fated encounter with M. Baudelaire.
In that seductive paradise of artifice which he had both loved and loathed, which had been his muse as it was mine, I carried him in my pocket, a handsome little edition of Richard Howard’s translations (still the best, à mon avis) which I had picked up from the Abbey Bookshop in the Quartier Latin, and a cheap little Folio edition, the kind that French high school students use for le Bac, scored from the Virgin Megastore on the Champs pour un peu d’euros.
How often I dipped into him in those dearly bought hours of ‘Life’ under the trees of the Tuileries, or in the golden bosom of Le Cépage! I had no plans of being M. Baudelaire’s amanuensis in those hours, no intimation that when I returned to the exile of this country, my hours of Life ‘spent’, I would commence, in my antipodean ‘after-Life’, a career as his interpreter and translator.
At first, writing translations of M. Baudelaire’s poems was merely a way to practise my French, but at once I felt the desperation and despair of his spirit, kindred to my own.
It’s this desperation to live and despair at what we are offered as life that other translators don’t seem to ‘grok’ about M. Baudelaire. Like his fraternal twin and the object upon whom he exercised his own powers of translations, Mr. Poe, M. Baudelaire is an easy poet to parody and burlesque.
That quality in his own writing which Mr. Poe called the ‘arabesque’, a kind of baroque grotesquerie, an exquisite, attenuated and diffuse sensation of all-pervading horror, as if it were worked and woven into the very design of the Creation, like the Islamic Allah Who is present everywhere and visible nowhere in the vaulted cave of the mosque, a quality which critics now file under the cliché head of ‘Gothic horror’, is also present in M. Baudelaire’s poetry.
To have the exquisitely tortured senses of a Roderick Usher and to feel all life to be ennuyeuse is beyond the ken of most English translators who presume to approach M. Baudelaire. The clerisy of capitalistic academe has made them too comfortable, too safe and pudgy to know the many meanings, the shades of sense, in the condition of ennui beyond boredom.
In our language and Anglophonic culture, the very name ‘Baudelaire’ has become a joke-word, a synonym for a kind of bilious, juvenile poetry, the hero of pretentious, self-regarding teenagers who churn out worthless, unrhyming doggerel. Look, for instance, at the desecration done to his reputation by Lemony Snicket.
But there is nothing juvenile in M. Baudelaire’s style, nor in his treatment of his habitual themes. The desperation to really live and the despair he feels at the commercial simulacrum of life is an oscillation between Spleen and the Ideal, an exquisite sensitivity to these two poles of the modern condition. It is at once an intense, almost suicidal desire to be ‘anywhere out of the world’ whilst simultaneously desiring, with all one’s being, to enter into the demiurgic paradise of eternally temporal, ephemerally everlasting existence—the Kingdom of Heaven which Christ promises us, and which no one has ever found.
The worthless, unrhyming doggerel of self-regarding teenagers (such as the Beats, for instance) is all pretentious spleen and no ideal. As a prosateur, as one whose mind is more naturally attuned to the critical and the analytic rather than the holistic, totalizing thinking of poetry, I often lament that we have no poets in this time.
How can we in a world undergoing an exponential, existential collapse, a world with no myths or gods to sing the eternal verity of?
A world without poetry
There cannot really be a poetry that is not deeply connected to Nature, that does not have its roots embedded in the life-supporting reality of Nature. The poet, as the first verse of “Correspondances” tells us, is the reader-writer who interprets and translates the eternal truth of Nature’s mythos. He is the one, in Mr. Milton’s words, who ‘justif[ies] the Ways of God to Men.’
To be a poet-prophet in these days of steam and science, this mystifying mummery of scientism, of unreflecting faith in a treacherous mythos cobbled together by a cabal of reptilian technocrats who parody and burlesque, with their perversion of the hypothetico-deductive scientific method, the means of critical thought is to be a most reactionary form of revolutionary, a voyant who is the most critical croyant.
For the poet-prophet in his priest-like calling, his abiding, unshakeable faith in the mystic and the magickal, is most violently at odds with the godless, nihilistic ‘spirituality’ of this scientific New Age. Truly, the poet in modern times, like M. Baudelaire, is the most intransigent enemy of doctrine and orthodoxy.
We have no poetry in this hell, and no poetry can live and grow in these insupportable, infernal climes of concrete, glass, steel, iron and plastic—plastic, parbleu!—except, perhaps, the passionate reactions of rejection, the Non serviams of souls like M. Baudelaire and myself who lust after the very worlds of abstract artificiality they execrate with venom, the paradisal, slatternly cities, the Babylonia they adore and abhor.
There is nothing juvenile in saying, ‘I love you, you Beautiful Bitch, but I will not serve you.’
M. Baudelaire and I are perhaps the first souls to breathe a totally artificial air that burns our souls at every avid breath, to have the cybernetic lungs capable of supporting ‘le feu clair’ of an algorithmic air. Despite ourselves, we have made a ‘New Nature’ of artificiality: we are the first colonists of the City, pioneers who have made our settlement in the inhospitable, unsupportable Kamchatka of pure artifice, like two men living on the moon. Somehow we thrive in the airless hell of the City, for we have lungs and etheric beings evolved to the New Nature of Absolute Artificiality.
In psycho-neurotics like M. Baudelaire and myself, a kind of ‘satanic Catholicism’ reaches its hysterical pitch: We recognize this Creation, which the poet is sacredly charged with lauding, as the work of the Urizenic Demiurge, and we must praise this paradisal hell we hate, bless it with curses, pile bileful hosannas in the highest upon it.
‘Love your enemy,’ Christ says. Verily, the poet-prophet in the modern era is an æsthetic terrorist to the totalitarian, bourgeois order of doctrinal ‘right thinking’ and orthodox ‘common sense’, one who detonates his life—which is an échec, an abortion, a failure by the mad economic standards of technological capitalism—in a vision of Truth and Beauty, a vision of how men and women could live as ghosts in the Lawrentian Machine of the City, an armée des ombres, résistants to the internalized esclavage, the dark, satanic mills and the mind-forged manacles of despotic progress.
The flâneur’s enemy, this empire of whorehouses and outhouses built on Seine, or Yarra, or Thames, or Tiber, or Euphrates, is the very thing this poet-prophet loves the most.
Ethics and æsthetics
We have had less and less poetry in the last hundred years until now we have none at all precisely because the Pandora’s Box of crimes in verse that M. Baudelaire inadvertently opened up has led to the denigration, the desecration, the degeneracy and decadence of the rules of prosody.
A laissez-faire ‘free verse’ where there are no rules and anything goes is no verse at all: it has no incantatory quality, that rhythm so dear to M. Baudelaire, and which is the beat of song and the heartbeat of prayer.
In its place, we have what I call ‘prose broken into lines’—bad prose—prosaic prose at that—the doggerel of narcissistic teenagers. This is prose that believes ‘vagueness’ of expression to be somehow ‘poetic’, when in fact poetry is the most precise language of all—more precise than the prosy language of science, even, for, as Mr. Coleridge noted, prose equals words in the best order, while poetry equals the best words in the best order.
The truth which we moronic moderns, we arrogant heretics of all inherited wisdom, are loath to admit is that æsthetics and ethics are one: man’s innate sense of ‘the good’, ‘the true’, and ‘the beautiful’ are a trinity of equivalencies, correspondences which have their union in God.
La bonne forme, le beau style: the sprezzatura of elegant expression, though a deeply contrived ‘effortlessness’, as per Sg. Castiglione, ultimately conforms to the naturalness which is godly creation, the good, the true, and the beautiful being ultimately the sole province of the Creator.
The ‘artifice’ of human Art thus aspires to godly Nature by following the Lawmaker’s rules. And, as Hr. Kant implies when he defines artistic genius as ‘the innate mental disposition … through which nature gives the rule to art’, these celestial æsthetic laws can only be inferred by close study of His Creation, since it ‘must be abstracted from what the artist has done’.
Hence, M. Baudelaire, anticipating Hr. Nietzsche, goes ‘beyond good and evil’ in Les Fleurs du mal and Le Spleen de Paris to create a new moral order of eternal beauty out of the hellish temporal chaos of the City.
These are the ‘æsthetics of transgression’ which Ms. Jamison ascribes to him, for M. Baudelaire—well before Hr. Nietzsche—creates for himself a ‘transvaluation of all values’ where Beauty is the paramount, superordinate Ideal, and, ‘being with God and next to God’, is embedded all through His demiurgic Creation—even in the temporal hell of urban Spleen.
‘The “Hymne” Beauty,’ she says, ‘transcends good and evil not because she is above them, removed from the fray, as the first goddess [of “La Beauté”] suggests of herself, but because she breaks the rules with impunity—she has all the power and answers to no authority.’
This Beauty makes evil good, and in some sense, this is the Nietzschean conception of going ‘beyond’ good and evil into some super-moral realm where these earthly ethical distinctions are transcended, but also radically reëvaluated, resolved, and reintegrated in a new union. In the godly cosmic totality, all the evil under the sun is good, it is a part—parts, even—of Creation, party to it. And as the analytic-critical prosateur rather than the holistic, totalizing poet deals specifically in ‘the parts’ of the Creation, he deals necessarily in the ambiguity of things which appear, at the material level, to be evil—even seductively beautiful in their apparent evil—fleurs du mal, as it were.
This is where I find myself (if I can call myself a poet at all) in the prose poems of The Spleen of Melbourne, taking my inspiration and my model from M. Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris and Hr. Benjamin’s Arcades Project.
Between the poet in prose and the poet pur-sang, the hedgehog and the fox dichotomy rears its useful analogic head: Poetry, as I said above, expresses ‘the Idea’ (which is to say, God, the totality of Creation, its Brahmanic Oversoul) as an Image, a cosmological mandala, while prose expresses ‘ideas’, the discreet ‘bricks in the wall’ of His Creation.
There is an element through which the short story attains a superiority even over the poem. Rhythm is necessary to the development of the conception of beauty, and beauty is the grandest and most noble end of the poem. Now, the artifices of rhythm present an insurmountable obstacle to the minute development of thoughts and expressions which have truth as their object.
—Charles Baudelaire, “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe” (my translation)
This is the reef against which the prosaic, analytic sentiment founders. The poet pur-sang, having a holistic, totalizing vision and worldview, sees the harmonious repetition of beautiful order—its rhythm—all throughout the cosmos—that Allah Who is present everywhere and visible nowhere.
The prosateur, by contrast, sees the discordant disjunctions, juxtapositions, enjambments and adjacencies between things—the grout between the bricks. These lines of logical thought sing out to him. They may ‘flow’ in their linear branchings, bifurcations and ramifications, as a set of premises to the inevitable estuary of their conclusion, but not with the harmony of rhythm. Each premise must be ‘developed’, like a musical theme, or leitmotiv. It must be planed, and turned, and set as a sovereign jewel into the logical architecture of the wall only once the prosateur is certain that it can bear the load of the next course of ideas to be placed upon it.
The model of the prose poem suggests the possibility of reading Baudelaire’s entire œuvre as an integrated performance of his transgressive concept of beauty. … Baudelaire’s very inconsistencies and contradictions effectively stage a performance of the transgressive aesthetic he valorizes in the 1855 “Exposition” essay. He enacts this drama in three genres [poetry, prose poetry, and art criticism] and the movement among and between them is as important as the aesthetic stances he achieves in each one. …
In order for the performance to be effective, however, Baudelaire would have to be alternately invested in both the rules he is drawing and the effects he achieves by their violation—violations practiced [sic] for mere shock value, without other justification or motivation, will not produce the desired effect….
—Jamison (2001, p. 280)
The wilfully sinful act of ‘breaking’ the æsthetic laws of poetic rhythm in his prose poetry and critical writings represents M. Baudelaire’s transvaluation of all æsthetic values, the reconciliation of what is ‘good’ (that is to say, ‘beautiful’) with what is ‘true’, which he finds better expressed in prose, the banal language of the fallen world of urban spleen, than in verse.
For M. Baudelaire, in “Hymne à la Beauté”, this Beauty who ‘breaks the rules with impunity’ because ‘she has all the power and answers to no authority’ comes from Satan:—‘Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme, / O Beauté?’ he asks in the very first lines, and concludes that whether she comes from Heaven or Hell is of very little import.
They are both the same, for that is the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ promised us, this eternal present of ephemeral but ever-renewing ennuis, the self-stingings we sadomasochistically insist on inflicting upon ourselves and each other on this beautiful Earth of God’s Creation.
Beauty—Horrific Beauty, Babylonian Whore—comes from Satan, the demiurgic ‘Governor’ of this Creation, our grounded, earthly prison. He is with Him and next to Him Who made it All, and thus in praising the ‘Thrice-Great Satan’ of the prefatory poem to Les Fleurs du mal, “Au Lecteur”, M. Baudelaire praises God and serves Him faithfully through his rendition unto the Cæsar of our temporal empire that which is owed him.
A new poetry for a new earth in postmodernity
If the last two terrible years have shown us anything, it is that the banality of ‘the horror’, the Kurtzian Horror of Mr. Eliot’s Waste Land, is inescapably visible, and the ‘Final Solution’ of the logic of technological Modernity—man as an eminently dispensable and disposable, replaceable part in his own infernal Machine, man as fodder for its Mammonic, Molochian jaws, the presage of which we saw at Auschwitz—is imminent.
Unless we transcend—transvaluate—break through—go beyond the false dichotomy of good and evil in our irrational psychosis of Urizenic rationality to a new, networkcentric spirit and vision of life, I fully expect us to fulfil our Faustian destiny in an epic murder-suicide pact, a global holocaust in which we destroy ourselves—and take all the world of God’s Creation with us in our overweening egotism.
As a flâneur, I walk daily in the Melburnian ruins of modernity, and the wreckage of these cliffs of glass and steel smoulders before my eyes. I trip; I fall; my cheek is smudged. Dandy that I am, I try, like M. Baudelaire, to sail gracefully above life, but I can barely keep my tie straight. That is the ‘Spleen of Melbourne’: a presentiment of the totalizing hell of failed modernity; a Cassandrian despair; a vision of apocalypse the bourgeois scoffingly disbelieves; a phantasy of universal bloodshed, of Parisian terreur and revolution in the streets.
If I am a poet in prose rather than a poet pur-sang, it is because, in the postmodern ruins of a failed modernity, I must dissect and analyse the apparently evil parts of my totalizing vision of Beauty. I must, like M. Baudelaire, attempt a transvaluation of all the misbegotten values of modernity.
A new poetic form is required to praise the banal and prosaic hell we find ourselves in, adrift without a moral compass, and love our Adversary and Tempter—the Machine of technocratic Capital we hate. A new, networkcentric ethic must be inferred from the æsthetics of that form.
Hating the ‘prose broken into lines’ which passes for postmodern ‘poetry’, perhaps it has been given to me—critic, analyst, inveterate dissector of the parts of my pleasure—to follow belatedly in M. Baudelaire’s footsteps and abstract the rules of this new poetic form from the New Nature of Absolute Artificiality which is our postmodern, urban life in economic ruins.
In essence, as a rarefication of the scientific language of prose, the prose poem ‘debunks the myth’, as Ms. Jamison puts it, through its discreet analysis of the prayer of poetry, the ‘hymn to Creation’.
The temporal, ephemeral beauties of this Creation are tempting and seductive, and in some sense, they turn our eyes from the platonic Ideal, although through them, through the artificial paradises of material beauty, poets like M. Baudelaire and myself attempt to see and say the timeless and eternal Ideal of Beauty.
We are ‘True Believers’ in a world of faithless heretics possessed by scientism’s postmodern spirit of doubt. My relationship with M. Baudelaire—spiritual, fraternal, apostolic—is of one who also walks among the pillars of the Salomonic Temple of Mystery, interpreting them, as I interpret him, to a crowd who cannot quite yet share our bizarre vision of beautiful totality in abysmal bleakness.
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Someone ought to stop me. Last Saturday I took a flânerie to Kyneton, a town I’ve long intended to visit, and trawling the thrift shops for a fashionable trouvaille (as is my wont), I walked out of the Salvation Army op-shop in the main street 75 scoots lighter.
I hadn’t even been looking at it. Perusing the glass cabinet behind the counter where they keep the precious stuff, my eye had been pursuing a pair of Parisian cufflinks with interest when it fell on the lowest shelf.
Camouflaged under a heavy patina of dust and looking as battered and dinted as a busted fender was a dark grey Fedora doing everything it could to fool the unwary that it was unwearable.
My connoisseur’s eye knew better.
As a man with more hats than Zaphod Beeblebrox could ever wear, one glance told me that it was my diminutive size. And if a hat is my size, dear readers, you better believe it’s got my name written on the sweatband.
God help me. Someone put the cuffs and camisole on me quick before my mitts reach my pocket!
It was too late. I asked the lady if she would let the beast out of captivity for a moment, and she obliged. It didn’t jump up and lick my face, but then it didn’t need to. It knew it was in the hands of its new owner.
The only surprise on my side was when I turned the hat over and gave it the customary glance inside the crown. I had thought that I was dealing with a vintage Akubra, some model they don’t make anymore, and I wanted to see what creative name the marketing boys had dubbed it with.
There was a lot of gold lettering on the leather sweatband, and all legible, telling me that this hat hadn’t been worn in two or three generations. But instead of the Akubra logo I had expected to find, I saw the much rarer shield of the John B. Stetson Company U.S.A., and beneath it, the words ‘MADE IN AUSTRALIA’.
It’s hard to find an Australian-made Stetson these days. I have two others, a Springaire and a Whippet, the latter of which I was wearing when I found this baby in Kyneton.
Aussie Stetsons were made by Akubra under exclusive licence between the 1950s and 1970s, representing a synthesis of two new-world hat-making traditions. The ruggedness of the American plains and the Australian outback both demanded native brands of durable headwear suited to those environments, and the Stetson and the Akubra brands have since become synonymous with the myth of the cowboy in one country and the myth of the bushman in the other.
At the time of writing, I own about a dozen hats, including four Akubras (three of which are vintage), three vintage Stetsons, a vintage Christys’, and a number of venerable hats from British and American brands so ancient they don’t exist anymore. These chapeaux are so old that even our all-seeing oracle, Mr. Google, is ignorant about them and incapable of giving me much enlightenment as to their age and provenance.
I have rarely bought a new hat. Almost all the quinzaine of hats I have ever owned, even those that have merely spent a season with me, have had a history preceding their visitation on my head, and the older the hat is, the more I adore it.
The Stetson Centennial, for instance, gives every evidence of hardly ever being worn, and certainly not in recent decades. But after I gave it a brisk brush, a thorough treatment with B.K. Smith’s Felt Hat Care Kit, and a good steam and block over the kettle, dust and dints dropped away like the years, and the Centennial came up as nicely if it had just come out of the Myer Store for Men.
And therein lies the point: abandoned in the corner of an attic for decades, suggesting, with their mute testimony, that they may never even have seen the light of day atop some gent’s head, these antique hats have their proper lives with me. Antique as they are, they’re not curios to be displayed and never worn. They do a daily job of practical work for me, braving rain and shine as the companions of my flâneries.
I love my hats with a mad passion, and it’s fair to say that if I have one irresistible vice, it’s the acquisition of more hats, whenever and wherever I find them.
These days, I can withstand the blandishments of a beautiful dame with Olympian aloofness. But if that Lorelei were to wave a 6¾-size hat at me, I would just about debase myself in the dust at her feet in my urgent urge to acquire it. Give me more hats, O God! Let me swim in a river of rabbit fur like Scrooge McDuck in his lucre!
I don’t know where this bankrupting addiction to headgear came from, chers lecteurs, except to say that it emerged along with the passion for suits in my teenage years.
The dandy, the true-blue, pure-blood dandy, acquires a style in his youth and never renounces it. He would sooner abandon his mistress than his style. Sometimes he chooses poorly in these tender years, naïf as he is in the ways of fashion, and selects a style that does not age gracefully with him. This was the unfortunate fate of Barbey D’Aurevilly and of Robert de Montesquiou.
I think—(although I may flatter myself on this score)—that I chose more wisely than those two gents. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda say in Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), ‘[t]he dandy in historical regression most often directs his attention to those periods in history that provide a great wealth of æsthetic ideas.’ It would seem that for me, in my teens, when the love of suits and ties, hats and shoes overtook me as a commanding passion, that the years between roughly 1920 and 1960, between the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment and the idiotic youthquake, I found that period of history rich in æsthetic ideas that are resonant for me.
In my soul, I’m essentially a mid-twentieth-century man, a grey flannel suit man, a silent generationer, if we take the average of those two arbitrary dates. The twenties, thirties, forties and fifties are the decades of high modernism in art and literature, which is to say, the period when the classic is at its most avant-garde. My style, as a man of letters and a man of fashion, is both classic and avant-garde, which is to say, highly modern.
The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the single most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.
Having chosen the modern period as that period of history from which I draw æsthetic inspiration, and having a personal style, both literary and sartorial, that is simultaneously classic and cutting-edge, I think I have avoided the fate of those two aforementioned gentlemen. There’s still something very futuristic about the modern style, antique as it appears in our hellish period of postmodern decadence, and in a business meeting with other suited men, I can still pass, dandy that I am, as a contemporary at the forefront of creative imagination while simultaneously appearing to be a conservative standard-bearer of traditional taste.
The dandy ‘passes’ because he is the rigorous refinement of the rectitude and merciless geometry of men’s fashion: he is so ‘correct’ in his style that he shines with an uncommon éclat. Likewise, the littérateur of supreme style shines forth a unique light through the formal perfection of his manipulation of language.
In the art, the literature, the cinema of mid-century—and in its fashions—I seemed to see the diffuse image of my ‘Ideal of Personality’ as a teenager. And in the rule, the T-square, the compass and the protractor of mid-twentieth-century men’s fashion (which is to say, the suit, the tie, the shoes, the hat), I must have seen the elements of the dandy’s geometric art of correctness and precision, a supremely modern art where classical proportion meets avant-garde abstraction in the ‘putting-together’ of the individual’s vision of himself, just as the stylish writer communicates the totality of himself—his vision of the world—through the precise selection and assemblage of words.
Is it possible, dear readers, that I am the only writer who is known by his hat? The hat—more particularly, the Fedora—has become almost symbolic of me, and this seems infinitely à propos for an artist who makes his living by manipulating the abstract, cognitive tools of human language.
Hamlet claimed that he could be ‘bounded in a nutshell’ and yet call himself ‘a king of infinite space’. Similarly, that vast universe of imagination I Napoleonically command could be circled by the girth of a Fedora’s crown, say, 6¾ in size—6⅞ at most.
In thinking about this post, I scoured that sovereign empire I reign over as a despot, like Herod hunting out the boy babies, but I could not think of another writer whose image we automatically associate with the hat as a symbol of the cognitive world he commands. The closest I could come to another writer for whom the hat seems to have some stylish significance as a sartorial gesture towards literary panache is James Joyce.
As a fellow Aquarian (and thus no stranger to setting outrageous trends, literary and otherwise), Mr. Joyce had a dandistic taste for exotic headgear. Several photographs show the immense, lucid dome of Shem the Penman variously swathed in a newsboy’s flat cap, a Greek fisherman’s cap, a straw boater, and dinted, shaggy Fedoras worn with sprezzatura.
Undoubtedly, the Irish monarch of modern English letters liked a crown as much as I do. But despite this, I would hesitate to say that the first thing most people think of if they deign to bust a bissel of thought on the author of Ulysses is his hat. If anything, it’s his cane, the precious ‘ashplant’ he bequeaths to pretentious Stephen Dedalus.
So, being an ‘outdoor auteur’, a devotee of the café terrace, the park, and other undesked expanses in which it is impracticable to write, it could be that I have made the hat as much a part of my literary toolkit as my Montblanc, my Moleskine, or my manual typewriter.
I just turned 39 last month, and I bought my first hat in 1999, when I was 16 years old, so I have been wearing un beau chapeau for more than half my life—and much longer than it has been fashionable to do so.
My first hat was a black Derby of American origin—a particularly bold choice for a neophyte, and it was a bit of a false start in my hatting journey, for I recognized with the wisdom of hindsight that a Derby, or bowler hat, is better suited to a round face rather than to my narrow, delicate features.
It’s a hat that looks splendid on a fat man. Sydney Greenstreet, for instance, in The Maltese Falcon (1941), incarnates the corpulent elegance of classic British tailoring while on safari in San Francisco à la recherche du ‘black bird’, and he caps his cutaway ensemble off superbly with that signal symbol of ‘Britishness’, the black bowler hat.
Likewise, Alfred Hitchcock is everything the well-dressed London rubbernecker ought to be when he assists, at the beginning of Frenzy (1972), at the revelation of the Necktie Murderer’s latest divertissement along the Embankment. The black bowler hat completes the Master of Suspense’s funereal uniform in his brief cameo, the upward arc of the brim giving him a more than maudlin air as it contrasts with his pendulous jowls and protuberant downturned lips.
I still have my Derby, some 22 years later, and feel déchiré about the prospect of ever parting with it, even though I rarely wear it. As the most formal of my hats, it’s on active retirement, reserved for black-tie, or the races.
If you’re a gentleman, you ought to have at least one good hat that you wear regularly. A hat is the crown to any outfit you wear, and there’s rarely a man who is not improved by a good hat on his head.
And here’s a word of wisdom I can offer to the hesitant hat-virgin: If you fail to catch the hatting bug after your first acquisition, at least make sure that your sole purchase is based on what will sit well on your features; for a good hat should complete a man’s face. It should not only fit your head in girth, but in style.
With my second acquisition, made in 2000 when I was a mere gamin of 17, I was on surer footing than with the Derby. It was then that I purchased my first Fedora, a black number by Varden, a Melbourne brand that I believe has gone the way of all flesh, and which I purchased from a theatrical outfitter in Brisbane.
My goodness, did I cop some stick for wearing that hat! I was porting Fedoras years before the rappers re-popularized this piece of headgear to my generation, and you wouldn’t believe the brass-ball confidence it took to carry my crown off before the rappers made the Fedora ‘respectable’ to my millennial contemporaries.
Though the imprimatur of ‘legitimacy’ that the rappers’ gave to the Fedora subsequently made it easier for me to port my crown, it is questionable whether, in the long run, they have done the hat I loved avant la lettre any favours by their adoption of it.
Legion are now the online memes in which manboys port sweatshop ‘Fedoras’, cheaply made from synthetic patterned fabrics. And in Australia, one has to regularly swallow one’s bile at the sight of wrinkled-kneed Boomers, dressed like their grandsons in Bermuda shorts and printed T-shirts, pretending they’re at Byron with their scabrously woven sweatshop Trilbies.
Let us be clear: these cheaply-made, narrow-brimmed things clinging to the heads of Boomers and manboys are not Fedoras. A Fedora is not made in an Asian sweatshop from separate pieces of synthetic, patterned fabric machine-sewn together. It is a soft, malleable hat moulded from felted fur, such as rabbit or beaver, and as such, there is an artisanal handicraft to the creation of a Fedora.
Moreover, these imitation hats which the uninitiated partisans of YouTube cringe compilations are calling ‘Fedoras’ are, by any strict definition, no such thing. To call these ugly things ‘Trilbies’ is to give them too much dignity, but if they bear resemblance to any respectable variety of hat, the narrowness of the brim (which I suspect is more a function of the manufacturer’s miserliness than a function of fashion) brings them in line with the Trilby rather than the Fedora.
Another disservice that the rappers have done to the Fedora, and which their partisans have adopted by imitation, lies in the fundamental matter of how one wears the hat.
The problem is that the chain of succession in hat-wearing was broken by the Boomers somewhere in the mid-sixties. The abandonment of the hat, as of the suit, is one of those innumerable generational crimes for which the Boomers should be made to answer at a new Nuremberg. Contemptuous of their fathers’ style, the Boomers discarded suit and hat, and thus failed to model to their children how these items of apparel ought properly to be worn.
Consequently, when the rappers took up the Fedora a couple of generations later, they were not educated in the art of elegantly wearing it. One should never wear a Fedora straight down, with a level brim, on one’s head. Even worse, one should never wear a Fedora on the back of one’s head, like some striped-shirt hipster in Thornbury.
The Fedora, like almost all hats with a curved brim, is designed to be worn cocked forward on one’s temple, over one eye. This unwritten law was well-known to men between 1920 and 1960, in the days when a well-dressed man was not complete without his hat and fathers educated their sons in the arcanities of natural elegance by their example.
The Boomers would have had this example modelled to them by their fathers and grandfathers, but deprecating tradition, they abandoned the brimmed hat to go abroad bare-headed and bearded to the eyes, with Samson-like locks on full, flowing display.
I remember my mother said to me once, in the early years after the rage for Fedoras had been reignited by the rappers, that the hat suited me, but that she thought it rarely suited most men’s faces. I disagreed with this, as I do now, but I understood the subtler point she was making: most men who port a Fedora today don’t know how to wear it, and the Boomers who have taken up cheap imitations of the Fedora have actually forgotten how their fathers and grandfathers wore their hats.
Cock your hat—angles are atttitudes.
It’s not obvious that a brimmed hat, particularly a Fedora, should be worn at a distinct angle. It actually took me some time after acquiring my first Fedora to realize this fact. I would put it on in the first year and wonder why it didn’t look good.
It was Humphrey Bogart who taught me, by his inestimable example, how to port a Fedora with confident panache. While the hat, with its soft, casual elegance, eminently appropriate for most occasions, was the standard piece of all-purpose headwear for men between the wars, Mr. Bogart has become the only man one thinks of when one thinks of the Fedora.
Possibly this is due to the fact that, starting his film career in earnest as a screen gangster in the 1930’s, Mr. Bogart’s sartorial style owed a great deal to Messrs. Capone, Luciano et al., all great aficionados of the Fedora.
With the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Bogart seemed to transfer the image of the gangster to that of the crooked, though honourable, American gentleman in ambiguous circumstances—the M. Rick of Casablanca (1942), for instance. The Fedora, with its democratic adaptability, seems an appropriate hat for a man like Rick Blaine to port as he hobnobs casually with European refugees from all strata of society.
But to return to the Stetson as the best-selling brand of American Fedora, in the war years it became popular to say, quoting the company’s advertising, that one should keep information that might be valuable to the enemy ‘under your Stetson’. Mr. Bogart, representing, as no other Hollywood actor did in those years, the ‘grace under pressure’ of a kind of democratic American elegance, was perhaps the most famous wearer of a Stetson Fedora in the world at that time.
The Fedora is not a hat of the frontline, and yet it was the hat of the war years. That democratic adaptability which makes the Fedora casually elegant and appropriate for most occasions that a man might find himself in seems to fit neatly with the ambiguous image that adhered to Mr. Bogart during the war as a kind of ‘rugged gentleman’, a ‘cultivated gangster’, like glamorous M. Rick, who may be a racketeer, but who is ultimately shown to have a heart of gold.
Most days I port a Fedora of some sort, and I’m known to tout-Melbourne by my Fedoras, but my absolute favourite hat is a navy blue Homburg I acquired at an antique shop in Clunes about five years ago.
Like the Derby, I rarely wear this hat, but because, in the hierarchy of formality, the Homburg is a rung lower than the Derby, being a semi-formal hat, I wear it much more often. It’s a hat I will go months without wearing and then decide, on some random day, to wear for a ‘special occasion’—the special occasion being the occasion of wearing the hat itself.
The reason I love the Homburg so much is that it suits my features as well as the Fedora does, but adds several degrees of refinement to any outfit. I have one of the smallest heads it’s possible to hat, with a heart-shaped face and delicate, rather feminine features, so the soft yet masculine lines of the Fedora suits me well in the day-to-day. The Homburg, by contrast, has a tall but soft guttered crown and a stiff, exuberantly curved brim with a flamboyant ribbon trim, so the effect of the Fedora’s elegant lines is amplified.
The Homburg has acquired something of a reputation for stodginess, being the preferred hat of prime ministers and presidents from Eden to Eisenhower. Moreover, Tony Hancock, in his maudlin comic persona, made the lugubrious black Homburg and Astrakhan coat synonymous with postwar misery, misanthropy and miserliness in Britain.
The reputation for stuffiness is decidedly unfair, but it’s adhered so firmly to the Homburg that it’s a very uncommon chapeau to see abroad these days. Consequently, it’s a hat that requires a great deal of confidence to wear, and I would say that in our times it’s definitely the preserve of dandies like myself, because if you port a Homburg abroad, people will certainly look at you. It’s a hat that turns heads.
My Homburg is uncommonly dandistic, being a gorgeous shade of navy. The Homburg, traditionally, is either black or pearl grey, this latter being especially elegant. One often sees the grey hat paired with a black grosgrain ribbon, and it’s this variety that Michael Corleone ports in The Godfather (1972).
Though popular with gangsters in the thirties, the Homburg has less direct connection with those gents in the popular imaginary than the Fedora, and it signifies a man of affairs who is equally a man about town. It’s thus suitable for both street- and evening wear, and you can even get away with mixing a grey Homburg and black-tie if you have sufficient chutzpah to pull the combo off.
I would love to own another Homburg and am always on the lookout for one. I am a man of brims: though I have a small head and narrow features, the horizontal lines of a pencil-curled brim—not to mention the bounding arches of a Homburg’s crown—complete the bone structure of my face with an emphasis that even my customary Fedoras don’t achieve.
And here is the final tip I’ll offer about hats: When choosing a style, ask yourself to what extent the height of a crown or the width of a brim will ‘feature’ the shape of your head and your bone structure.
With a small head and delicate features, I’ve always been accused of a certain ‘prettiness’. When the lines are in proportion to my head, the exuberance and flamboyance of a brimmed hat make my head and face a site of interest.
I remember wearing my Homburg in Adelaide a few years ago and walking into a hat shop near the Central Markets. ‘The hat love you,’ the little Chinese lady behind the counter said to me. Whether she was referring to that particular hat or to the genus ‘hat’ generally, I don’t know, but certainly, having spent more than half my life wearing good hats, the confidence of a flamboyant, wide-brimmed hat says something, I think, about the strength of will, the character and cognitive capacity bounded by the crown.
I am, as I say, a ‘man of brims’. You may not be. Some men are well-served by a flat cap. The bad flat cap, however, is even more of a pestilence upon the land than the sweatshop Fedora. Be sure to get yourself a good tweed newsboy with a flexible crown attached to a short brim.
Out of curiosity, I picked up a newsboy of venerable quality from a church op-shop in Kings Cross in Sydney some years ago. You can see me sporting it in the photograph at the top of this post.
I got a lot of compliments about that cap. The flexibility of the crown was such that I could wear it with a considerable degree of beret-like jaunt, giving me the look of a Parisian apache as I wandered the streets of Melbourne with my Pentax. But despite the compliments I received, I eventually gave up the newsboy—with some lingering regret, I admit—because I had to come to terms with the fact that I am just not a ‘flat cap’ man:—I’m a man of exuberant brims, and if, as people say, there’s a touch of Gatsby about me, I’m the Gatsby of the white suit, not the newsboy cap.
The man of fashion is not complete without his hat. The dandy pur-sang is a celestial prince, like a prince of the Church. He carries the consciousness of his heavenly estate within him, and the hat is the prince’s crown. Go forth, therefore, in peace upon the earth and port thou thy hat!
‘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!
Today The Melbourne Flâneur comes to you from Eltham, a charming suburb on the northeastern outskirts of Melbourne where urbanity begins to shade into rusticity.
I love Eltham. It’s got a good bookshop in the main street, a multitude of nice cafés in which to write, and it was the memorable scene of your Melbourne Flâneur’s last great seduction before he retired from Daygame, so its streets have the vivid imprint of potent memories embedded in them for your pocket-edition Casanova.
But rather than reflect on that, in the video above I lounge with all my flâneurial indolence in Eltham’s gilded greenery (reminiscent, when viewed through heavily squinting eyes, of a Parisian park) as I read you a few pages from my first book, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012).
That’s the non-fiction novel where a very thinly disguised avatar for yours truly (one who is hardly more than a floating consciousness with a mythological nom de guerre) makes an epic voyage as laborious as walking across the bottom of the sea in a diving bell.
The premise of the book is very simple: my first night in Paris, the first night of my life off the terrestrial shore de l’Australie in foreign climes. But the extended metaphor I use throughout the book to describe the experience of being halfway around the world, at night, in a foreign country is the metaphor of space travel and setting foot on the moon. And nowhere do I use this metaphor more extensively than in the extract I read you above, which I think contains one of the longest sentences in the entire book, a burlesque of President Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University which lasts more than an entire page.
Watch for the moment in the video when I have to sneak a breath to get through it!
I don’t really consider myself to be a comic writer, although some people have told me that they like my writing best when my satirical fangs show through. In this book, the fangs are definitely embedded in myself—right up to the gums: I never miss an opportunity to ironize my own neurotic foibles, frequently styling myself, in my Chaplinical dandyism, as ‘our presumptuous little hero’.
In that sense Orpheid: L’Arrivée is a ‘comic epic’: the ‘comedy’ lies in the fact that I treat—with a Keatonianly straight face—what would ordinarily be the most banal events and actions as I undertake to manœuvre myself and my small mountain of luggage de l’aéroport Charles-de-Gaulle à l’Hôtel Caulaincourt as if these were noble and heroic acts worthy of immortalization in an Homeric epic.
Like an astronaut setting foot upon a foreign world, everything that passes before my eyes becomes fascinating, exerts its own peculiar gravity which arrests my progress momentarily, drawing me towards it to pause and investigate. In fine, the experience of the book is intended, for the reader, to be what the experience of that night was for me: the most acute example I had yet known of the psychogeographic experience of flânerie itself—what M. Rimbaud calls ‘un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ (‘a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses’).
I’ve described Orpheid: L’Arrivée as an ‘epic prose poem’, and I think that sums up both my strengths and my limits as a writer. In a recent post on this vlog I asked the question ‘Can prose be poetry?’, and admitted that, like M. Flaubert, one of the great banes of my life is that I’m a prosateur by nature, not a poète—although I have the reputation of being one.
As I said in that post, the habits of mind associated with prose and poetry are really antithetical to each other, and I’m rarely so inspired as to write verse. Most of my poetic output was written in France, when, like a flower, I felt my soul expand in its natural climes, swimming in the sea of soil and air, of Truth and Beauty, which surrounded me every day.
Otherwise, like M. Flaubert, whatever inclination to lyricism there is in me (et l’inclination est forte) finds itself kinkily perverted away from prosody and funnelled along the unnatural channel of prose, a narrow watercourse most unsuitable for the efflorescent floods of rhapsody which overtake me. Like M. Flaubert, I have the rather painful experience, as a writer, of being a poet by inclination but without natural talent in that direction, my analytic habits of mind, like his, being more suited to prose than prosody.
And yet, for reasons which mystify and miff me, I have the reputation of being ‘a poet’.
In recent years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never succeed in talking people out of this misconception of me, and even to feel that, if they’re so stubbornly insistent in their error, then they’re probably right.
In lieu of forcing my mind into the crystal lattices of verse, a skill and habit I admire in poètes pur-sang but cannot emulate, I have always written my peculiar espèce de prose prosodique with its multilingual patois and neologisms, and have always been, bastard cousin to them, un poète en prose.
The essence of prose poetry, I think (an essence which Orpheid L’Arrivée demonstrates at quite a remarkable scale of simultaneous expansion and concentration, considering the typical brevity of the form), is ‘seeing the ordinary anew’.
What people have most often remarked to me about a prose they deem to be ‘poetic’ is that there is an unusual capacity in my writing to present a new vision of things, a different angle on the familiar which they recognize but which they tell me is not necessarily obvious to them until I drew their attention to it, a quality which is more ‘latent’ in the things themselves than apparent on first view.
Well, this is a perfectly natural skill for someone who began his career as a professional writer in the domain of film criticism to possess. My ‘journalistic training’ was as a foreign correspondent in a realm which is all about reporting vivid descriptions of vision, about lyrically communicating the experience which these visions in the dark provoked in me. It was a training which both formed and rewarded the analytic habit of mind, the incontournable désir to break down the parts of my pleasure and analyse what makes the machine of it run, which is natural to me.
I don’t know that I was ever conscious, as a young man writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, of styling my thumbnail reviews as ‘poems in prose’, but certainly I was so conscious of the little space I was afforded that, in retrospect, it seems I schooled myself in squeezing my mind into something like the crystal lattice of verse. I made a form of my own which was so tight that the rhapsodic results were often explosive for the readers.
In order to see the prosaic world painted anew on the page, a lyrical, rhapsodic style of prose is called for. If I’m honest, I don’t know if there are any poètes pur-sang today. A poet is a flower of humanity that can only grow up in a natural environment, and we live in such an artificial one, where technology is the very air that we breathe, that perhaps prose is the only weak poetic weapon with which to tackle and attack our prosaic reality, to beat back its encroachment on our humanity.
M. Aragon was a poet first and prose-writer second, a survivor of the race of poets when there were still some lines of lineage of that endangered species left to dribble into the future. He was also a surrealist in the first, enthusiastic, misguided but organic flush of that movement when, weak as it was, surrealism was yet a shield to bludgeon and beat back a usurping technological artificiality which was not yet all-powerful.
The English title of Le Paysan de Paris does not quite give the sense which M. Aragon intends to convey in French. Yes, ‘paysan’ may be translated as ‘peasant’, but in poetic conjunction with the name of the French metropolis, the Capital of Modernity, he is trying to suggest that to be a Parisian is to be a type of provincial, someone who is yet still close to nature in the midst of this technological marvel with all its glittering, seductive artificiality.
Now, here we have a little secret password of freemasonry by which fanatical Paris aficionados, French as well as foreign, recognize one another. This word is ‘province.’ With a shrug of the shoulders, the true Parisian, though he may never travel out of the city for years at a stretch, refuses to live in Paris. He lives in the treizième or the deuxième or the dix-huitième; not in Paris but in his arrondissement—in the third, the seventh, the twentieth. And this is the provinces.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, “First Sketches”, p. 832
It took reading Hr. Benjamin’s insight to put the vague apprehension into sharp relief, but as soon as I read those words, I recognized the truth of them in my own experience.
Only the day after the events recounted in Orpheid: L’Arrivée, as I ambled about the 18e, seeking by daylight what I had but glimpsed in a tourbillon of light and colour the night before, I would have the sense—which would never leave me in Montmartre—that this paradis artificiel would be sufficient for a lifetime. You could live in this small tranche of Paris, on its northern outskirts, and never be bored, never have cause to venture outside it.
I seem to associate that sensation of mind—too diffuse to be a thought—with the memory of a man, grey-haired, who shuffled out of the dazzling sunlight and into the cool, wood-panelled oasis of the Café de la Place and up to the comptoir beside me as I was drinking my demi. Between him and the patron passed that secret handshake of freemasonry, the handshake of merely being Montmartreans together on another day in bourgeois paradise, and by the end my time there, the ineffaceable patina of being a ‘Parisian provincial’, a ‘dix-huitièmard’ (to coin a term), would varnish the wood of my soul too.
In her journal article “The Surrealism of the Habitual: From Poetic Language to the Prose of Life” (2011), Alison James discusses surrealist prose poetry with respect to Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations into language. She cites André Breton’s argument in defence of M. Aragon when he was accused, after the publication of one of his poems, of incitement to murder.
… [T]he goal of poetry and art [according to Breton] has always been to soar above the real and above common thought…. In formulating this argument, Breton refers to Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics and in particular to Hegel’s insistence on the distinction between poetry and prose. For Hegel, poetry is the most perfect and universal of the arts because it comes closest to the self-apprehension of spirit. However, its linguistic medium poses a problem, for art ‘ought to place us on ground different from that adopted in everyday life, as well as in our religious ideas and actions, and in the speculations of philosophy’…. Language, when used in poetry, should therefore not be left ‘in a state in which it is used every day’ … but must set itself apart from the ‘common prose of life’ … —an expression that Hegel uses to refer to both the ‘prosaic’ dimension of existence and to linguistic signs that mediate this level of experience.
But in Le Paysan de Paris, M. Aragon (who himself has not infrequent recourse to Hegel) is most trenchant in his view that the prosodic lies in the prosaic. This is perhaps one of the few genuinely revelatory concetti to emerge from surrealism as an intellectual movement and as an artistic mode of militant resistance to the increasing ‘banalization’ of technologically-driven modern life.
I felt the great power that certain places, certain sights exercised over me, without discovering the principle of this enchantment. Some everyday objects unquestionably contained for me a part of that mystery, plunged me into that mystery. … I felt sure that the essence of such pleasures was entirely metaphysical and involved a sort of passion for revelation with regard to them. The way I saw it, an object became transfigured: it took on neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol, it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea. Thus it extended deeply into the world’s mass.
—Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, “A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), p. 128
This anti-platonic intuition that objects themselves—in all their crude, material reality—are the eternal Forms is perhaps, as I say, the only really revelatory idea to come out of surrealism, and sets the stage for a ‘poetry of modern life’ that is deeply immersed in the prosaic and the temporal, in the marvellous flux of artificial forms that speed surreally by the flâneur’s eyes in his investigations of arcades and parks.
In his coda to Le Paysan de Paris, M. Aragon indulges himself (perhaps satirically) in one of those chauvinistic manifestoes favoured by the surrealists—or at least by his hierophantic, inquisitorial friend, M. Breton. But M. Aragon is a greater intellect than M. Breton, just as he was a greater writer, and the slash and sweep of his pronouncements cut vividly through, just as the notion articulated in the quote above does, to add in one breathless burst of premises several firm planks to a nascent æsthetic philosophy of literary flâneurism:
From the swiftest glimpse an apparition arose. I did not feel responsible for this zone of the fantastic in which I was living. The fantastic or the marvellous. It is within this zone that my knowledge constituted true notion. My access to it was by a secret stairway, the image. Abstract research had induced me to consider it a crude illusion, yet finally notion, in its concrete form, with its treasure of particularities, no longer seems to me in any respect different from this despised method of knowledge, the image, which is poetic knowledge; while the vulgar forms of knowledge are nothing more, under their guise of science or logic, than the conscious halting places past which the image scorches, the image transformed marvellously into a burning bush.
I realize how shocking such a conception seems, I know the objection that may be made to it. A certain feeling for the real. For how did the idea come about that it is the concrete which is the real? Is not the concrete, on the contrary, all that is beyond the real, is not the real the abstract judgment which the concrete presupposes only in the dialectical process? And does not the image, as such, possess its own reality which is its application to knowledge, its substitution for it? The image is not in itself the concrete, of course, but the consciousness, the greatest possible consciousness of the concrete. In any case, whatever kind of objection may be made to such a view of the mind is itself of little importance, that very objection being an image. Basically, no way of thought exists that is not an image. However, most images are registered so weakly by the mind employing them that they incarnate absolutely no estimation of reality, and consequently retain the abstract nature which determines their impoverishment and ineffectiveness. The property of the poetic image, as opposed to the essential image, … is to incarnate this quality of materialization, one that exercises a tremendous power over man and is quite capable of making him believe in a logical impossibility in the name of logic. … [T]he image is the path of all knowledge. One is then justified in regarding the image as the resultant of all the mind’s impulses, in ignoring everything that is not image, and in devoting oneself exclusively to poetic activity at the expense of all other activity.
It is towards poetry that man is gravitating.
There is no other knowledge than that of the particular.
There is no other poetry than that of the concrete.
Madness is the predominance of the abstract and the general over the concrete, over poetry.
Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction.
The marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.
Love is a state of confusion between the real and the marvellous. In this state, the contradictions of being seem really essential to being.
Wherever the marvellous is dispossessed, the abstract moves in.
The fantastic, the beyond, dream, survival, paradise, hell, poetry, so many words signifying the concrete.
There is no other love than that of the concrete.
—Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, “The Peasant’s Dream” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), pp. 213-4, 217
Thus, in M. Aragon’s surrealistic view, the poetic is quite firmly embedded in the concrete, in the prosaic, and what appeals to the eye as a poetic image provokes M. Rimbaud’s definition of ‘clairvoyance’—literally ‘clear-seeing’—that ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens.’
Etymologically, the concept of ‘surréalisme’ suggests something—a dimension, a reality—above or over concrete reality, and this view of surrealism as a poetic reaction to the banality of the everyday is certainly implied by M. Breton’s appeal to the æsthetic authority of Hegel.
And this doctrinaire view of what it is for a work of art to be ‘surreal’—to be ‘over’-real, too real to be apprehensible with the concrete eye in our diminished platonic state—is a view that M. Aragon appears to reject. One paints not what is in the mind’s eye, superimposing this image, as a kind of overlay, or ‘filter’, upon the image of the world which appeals to our physical vision, but the disruptive element of the marvellous which is always—and already—present within things as their secret substance, the irrational contradictions which are already there, in plain sight but overlooked, ignored by consciousness.
La vie parisienne est féconde en sujets poétiques et merveilleux. Le merveilleux nous enveloppe et nous abreuve comme l’atmosphère; mais nous ne le voyons pas.
Parisian life is abundant in marvellous and poetic subjects. The marvellous surrounds us and suckles us like the air, but we do not see it.
Hr. Benjamin, in his classic essay on surrealism, written when the movement was already on the intellectual decline, speaks of it as possessing access to ‘profane illumination’. With as cunning an artificer as Hr. Benjamin, we must assume that an indirect reference to the title of M. Rimbaud’s prose poetry collection (which he cites directly in his essay) is not coincidental.
Taking the word ‘vulgar’ in its Catholic sense, the ‘vulgar incidents’ and the ‘vulgar objects’ of our banal, artificial modernity shine forth their ‘profane illuminations’, and as M. Aragon states in his preface to Le Paysan de Paris:
New myths spring up beneath each step we take. Legend begins where man has lived, where he lives. … Each day the modern sense of existence becomes subtly altered. A mythology ravels and unravels. … I am already twenty-six years old, am I still privileged to take part in this miracle? How long shall I retain this sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence? I see it fade away in every man who advances into his life as though along an always smoother road, who advances into the world’s habits with an increasing ease, who rids himself progressively of the taste and texture of the unwonted, the unthought of.
—Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, “Preface to a Modern Mythology” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), p. 24
In fine, rather than a superimposition of something above this reality upon our vision of it, the surrealist dérèglement is ‘seeing anew’, perceiving the marvellous reality of the poetic that is already there in our stultifying banality, the irrational discordances between our bizarre, artificial objects and customs—the whole apparatus of ‘le spectacle’, as Guy Debord calls it—which familiarity with them has made us blind to.
As Ms. James explains, Hr. Wittgenstein was deeply concerned with the problem of ‘re-concretizing’ language (to coin a term), to bring words back from the airy abstractions of the intellectuals and re-couple them to the gold standard of everyday usage. But, as she states in her article, ‘[r]ather than “bringing words back”, [surrealism] is a literature that aims to defamiliarize, to make new, to take language and thought away from the commonplace.’
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, cited in James (2011, p. 416)
Refamiliarization by defamiliarization: To take the pseudo-Freudian aspect of surrealism’s revolutionary program, if we are so immersed in the abstract, artificial spectacle of modern life that we cannot perceive the irrational discordances embedded in our artefacts and customs, the defamiliarization of abstracted language serves as a lens to consciously refocus our inward vision upon the madness of our concrete reality.
One might say that the prose poetic impulse to ‘see the ordinary anew’ is a function of Ezra Pound’s demand of modern artists that they should ‘make it new’—create (as M. Aragon seeks to do in Le Paysan de Paris) a mythology of the modern which is itself the basis of a new classicism.
The classical forms of poetry are unsuited to the spirit and conditions of our prosaic modern life, one in which Mr. Kurtz’s horror is kept in continual, uneasy abeyance, but which forever threatens to eclipse and overwhelm us. Beauty and horror, as M. Baudelaire, exercising profound clairvoyance, could perceive at the birth of modern poetry, are the two sides of the coin of banality we trade in daily.
Thus, in this banal, prosy landscape of indentured drudgery which is the modern city, perhaps only a ‘poetic’ prose, one which re-alerts us to the omnipresent but invisible marvellous by stealth, appropriating the utilitarian literary form of prose which science and commerce have elevated to a global lingua franca, is the only means to be authentically a ‘poet’ in this open-air, unbarred prison we all live in.
The poet in prose sneaks his profane illuminations of the marvellous reality, the beauty of our universal horror, out through the horizontal bars of uniform, black-inked type. He squeezes the folded letter out through the bars, but because it is written in prose, the cryptic cypher of the concealed poem fails signally to reach all but his fellow illuminati—the brethren of other flâneuristic souls who suffer in our Edenic Hell.
… [T]he most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.
The situationists, who were really the last inheritors of the tribal, faddish tendencies of European modernism, tracing their line of descent directly from the surrealists, were also, like them, one of the last résistants to the bulldozing banality of modern life, the flipside of its horrible beauty.
In their pseudo-scientific study of the urban environment known as psychogeography, and more specifically in their method of scientific investigation, the dérive(literally, the ‘drift’), the situationists codified a method of experimental urban exploration pioneered by the surrealists, and of which M. Aragon gives us perhaps the first scientific account in the second movement of Le Paysan de Paris: “Le sentiment de la nature aux Buttes-Chaumont” (“A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont”).
In that section, he describes how he, M. Breton, and a fellow Surrealist, Marcel Noll, undertook an ambitious pilgrimage one night to the parc des Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19earrondissement, on the northeastern outskirts of Paris. Assailing the gates of the citadel (which they found, to their surprise and delight, to be open), the three amigos undertook a circumambulation of the park, which centres around a man-made lake and a tiny, mountainous island. At the top of the butte is a very picturesque little belvedere which one approaches by means of a footbridge known to Parisians as ‘le pont des Suicidées’ because it’s a charming spot to take a brodie from.
The dérive, to my mind, is slightly different to flânerie, and therefore more suited to having a ‘surreal experience’ of the ordinary places of modernity, such as the parc des Buttes-Chaumont as M. Aragon describes it in Le Paysan de Paris.
The dérive, in my experience, is more about the absorption and synthesis of the ‘trade winds of vibe’ that course through the vectors of the urban milieu, while flânerie is an æsthetic investigation, and therefore more analytic. The flâneur is on the hunt for modernity, as M. Baudelaire says, whereas the dériveur opens himself up to being a willing prey to modernity’s alternating, alienating vibes of beauty and horror.
Daydreaming is one of the key sources of poetry—a poem often starts as a daydream that finds its way into language—and walking seems to bring a sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind.
A walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it. I am both here and there, betwixt and between, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. I move in a liminal space.
You will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my previous post I said that the bar, the café, the scene of Vivian Sobchack’s ‘lounge time’ and another site of flânerie, was a ‘liminal social space’. Whether walking or pausing in his progress, the flâneur’s natural environment is not so much the city itself as liminal space—adjacent places of multiple, contradictory usage, spheres of ambiguity, sites of transitory passage.
Mr. Hirsch, in his article, delineates the types of walking, and he cites Thoreau, who mistook the origins of the word ‘saunter’, a type of frolicking stroll akin to flânerie at its most energetic, as coming from medieval pilgrimages ‘à la Sainte Terre’ (to the Holy Land). Mr. Hirsch sets us straight on this score, telling us that ‘[t]he word saunter comes from santer, meaning “to muse”, to “be in a reverie”’. Thus, the flâneuristic relationship between walking and thinking is still completed in the word, though not in the way Mr. Thoreau imagined.
Mr. Hirsch goes on to describe this ambulatory form of reverie, this ‘dream-walking’ while wide-awake, as ‘a way of ruminating, … a form of labor without laboring, what Kant calls “purposiveness without purpose.”’
Now, these two paradoxical phrases are instructive, for a phrase of my own which you will encounter time and again in the Orpheid is the description of ‘our presumptuous little hero’ as being engaged in the equally paradoxical occupation of ‘productive indolence’: My flâneuristic days in Paris were taken up with the ‘work’ of walking, of thinking, of lounging in cafés, of writing in parks, of drawing at the Louvre. By the standards of our technocratic society, I was a ‘fainéant’—literally, a ‘do-nothing’, an idler, and yet I have never, in my entire life, turned out more pages of prose, and poetry, and art, than in those days.
That’s the flâneurial paradox of Hirsch’s ‘labor without laboring’, of Kant’s ‘purposiveness without purpose’, and my own ‘productive indolence’: the prosaic poet of modern life is a résistant in the ‘Worker’s Paradise’ of the City, a passive idler by the standards of commerce, but as much of a driven ‘producer’—and not a passive consumer—as one of Ayn Rand’s technocratic supermen.
I had my own ‘dérive à trois’ at the parc des Buttes-Chaumont, with a couple of Californian friends I met in Paris, one of whom I still keep in occasional contact with. It was nothing near as blissful as M. Aragon’s tramp by night with MM. Breton et Noll, but I still remember the vivid poetry of life in ‘les Tuileries des gens’: a girl, lying on the grass in the sunshine, reading Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale in a cream-coloured, Gallimard wrapper; the gaggle of little French schoolchildren who descended on us from the pont des Suicidées as we paused in our ramble under the shelter of the belvedere at the top of the butte.
Rereading my second draft of the account of that day, I notice that I say that the children’s voices ‘perfumed’ the air for me, a poetic tournure that suggests the evanescent beauty that quite ordinary (and I’m sure, for my companions, quite unmemorable) incursion into our sanctuary had for me as we gazed back towards Sacré Cœur.
The ambition is still to tell the story of that day, and of the days preceding it, when an Englishman we met introduced me to my destiny as a poet, albeit in prose. To be a flâneur; to be deeply embedded as an anarchic undercover résistant in this prosaic modern reality, with its banal horror and flashes of beauty; to be able to see, and to say, both; to allow the dérèglement du dérive to surreally overtake one like a drug, but then to be able to apply analysis to the parts of one’s pleasure;—that is really what it is to be a prose poet.
But that memoir of my halcyon days in Paris is some way off. In the meantime, if what I have said here has whetted your appetite for what might just be one of the most surreal reading experiences you’ve ever had, do you dare to take a walk on the wild side, accompanying yours truly on a neurotic comic dérive around Montmartre by night?
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‘[Vivian] Sobchack builds on Bakhtin’s salon chronotope to identify the cocktail lounge and/or nightclub as a key film noir setting. What emerges in Sobchack’s analysis is the “lounge time” chronotope, which incorporates such public but anonymous sites as the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the hotel room, the diner, the roadside café, and the motel. In contrast to the respectable domestic spaces of the home, these sites of aimless time and transient space give rise to louche characters and particular sets of, often criminal, activities.’
‘Double Indemnity dramatizes this distancing from and yet reflection upon the nature of ordinary experience…. For anthropologists like [Victor] Turner, the characteristic cultural performance is ritual, in which participants find themselves on the border between “secular living and sacred living,” in a “limbo that was not any place they were before and not any place they would be in”…. Double Indemnity evokes a secular limbo. Walter and Phyllis, to use the term popularized by Turner, find themselves in a liminal social space, defined by its bordering engagement with contradictory social spaces…. Within this paradoxical space, the ordinary forms of everyday living are shown by Walter and Phyllis as what they always already are, that is, performances whose authenticity is by definition in question.’
‘You have just met a woman, you are inches away from the greatest sex of your life, but within six weeks of meeting the woman, you will be framed for a crime you did not commit and you will end up in the gas chamber, and as they strap you in and you’re about to breathe the cyanide fumes, you’ll be grateful for the few weeks you had with her and grateful for your own death.’
Lounge time is this ‘liminal social space’, a limbo where the secular acquires, via the gloss of the sexual, a patina of the sacred. In the chapel of the cocktail lounge, with its soft lighting (softened further still by the fog of cigarette smoke and dulled edges of drink), the social rituals of pickup transform an ordinary bar of chromium, zinc and glass (materials which, in the kaleidoscopic contrivance of their multiple reflectivities, dramatize ‘this distancing from and yet reflection upon the nature of ordinary experience’) into a site like Walker Percy’s ‘wonder’, an oasis outside of space and time, a place the noir man and woman were not in before they met, nor any place they will be in après cette rencontre—c’est-à-dire, la scène du crime.
I’ve felt it myself more than once, this quality of lounge time, at bars and pubs in Bellingen and Melbourne when sex seems imminent (and immanent) enough to touch. It’s an eerie ambiance where the extension of space becomes borgesianly consubstantial with the temporal dimension, and ordinary, slightly tawdry surroundings are transformed, made exotic by the rare encounter with the erotic—which is necessarily dangerous. Ennui, secular prisonworld apparently without end, makes the noir man a ripe rube for this brief encounter with the exotic erotic, and the familiar tools at the ritual of chasing away ennui, the chalice of glass and the censer of cigarette, are eager assistants at the epiphany of transsubstantiation, casting an aureole of precoital mystery around the noir woman, who condescends, in her own ennui, to allow herself to be seduced. L’homme fatal equally presents to her a firedoor through which she may flee l’enfer of her embêtements ennuyeux et fâcheux—which are usually consubstantial with some other man she’s bored with or being bothered by. Thus, this courtly Emil Jannings type presents a distinguished head upon which the maidenly mantis can prey, dispatching one man by chivalrous aid of another who has conveniently chanced across her path.
It is the chance aspect of both Daygame (when played by night in the setting of the bar) and noir, with its character of unremitting, dreary ennui in the unendurable monotonie of ordinary places and days (for the spaces of noir are temporally consubstantial with the experience of time as a jail) that appear eternal and impermeable to chance, which makes the secular transcendence of imminent sex implicit in the experience of lounge time apparently miraculous, ‘merveilleux’, plein with Percy’s wonder. Luck seems so foreign, alien, foregone, impossible to the characters of noir, and yet the whole néant of the noirniverse is predicated on la malchance et le guignon. Indeed, the irrationality of luck, its omnipresence even in its absence, is the one newtonian, urizenian law, firm as iron, in l’univers du noir: ‘Yes, Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you, or me, for no good reason at all…’
In Maslow’s terms, lounge time is such a ‘peak experience’ for the men and women of noir, the place, the privileged moment they recur so often to in their flashbacks and confessions, because it was the one moment where they felt as if all their esperances were actualized, when it seemed as if the endless desert of their luck had broken its drought and they had found—miracle of miracles—in this place—le bar—which had delivered them no good luck before, the gushing rock, the shining penny, the sure thing, in the prospect of this étranger et étrangère they had not yet slept with.
—Dean Kyte, “Invitation to a murder”
I’m grateful to Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London for bringing film scholar Vivian Sobchack’s concept of ‘lounge time’ to my attention a couple of years ago. You can read Pamela’s fascinating article about lounge time in the silent films of G.W. Pabst (and my response to her article) here.
In brief, as the first quotation, by Douglas McNaughton, at the head of my essay above explains, Ms. Sobchack’s concept of lounge time is an extension of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘salon chronotope’. Well, this takes a little unpacking too before we get down to brass tacks.
Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary critic. As Mr. McNaughton elegantly summarizes it in his journal article (thus saving me a bit of trouble), Bakhtin came up with the concept of the ‘chronotope’ (the ‘time/space’), which he defined as ‘the intrinsic interconnectedness of temporal and spatial’ elements in a novel. The chronotope, in other words, is the warp and weft of space and time which forms the background tapestry of a fictional narrative. They need to be verisimilar with one another, and together they provide a sense of verisimilitude to the foreground actions of a fictional narrative.
But ‘chronotope’ is not simply a fancy narratological word for the ‘background’ of your novel. As Mr. McNaughton (citing Bakhtin) states in his article: ‘Chronotopes are “the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied.”’
In other words, the chronotope, as the complex nexus of realistic space and time, reaches directly into the narrative: locations and actions in time directly influence the foreground drama and the dynamics of character which take place against the backdrop of realistic space and time. It’s sort of like a spatiotemporal ‘archetype’ of setting that determines the kind of archetypal characters, situations, and stories that can realistically emerge from the matrix formed by the intersection of particular geographies and particular periods of time.
Bakhtin, as a pioneering narratologist, identified a number of ‘master chronotopes’, ur-spatiotemporal configurations, in novels, including the ‘salon chronotope’, which is a conspicuous setting in French nineteenth-century literature from Balzac to Proust.
But, as the notion of the salon implies, the salon chronotope is no more a ‘setting’ than it is a ‘background’; it’s more mystical than that. As space and time metaphysically meet in this physical room of a grande dame’s house, the chronotope of the salon is a kind of ‘cultural phenomenon’ that informs the total world of the narrative beyond the drawing-room. Tout Paris, c’est le salon (the whole social world of Paris is the drawing-room), if you’ll pardon the pun, and the intersection of physical spaces in time and culturally specific phenomena within them produces a set of determinable characters, situations, and plotlines which can occur within these physical/metaphysical, cultural time-spaces.
That’s the chronotope.
And as regards the salon chronotope, for example, we might say that the typically French, typically nineteenth-century story of the social ascension of Rastignac, charted by Balzac from Le Père Goriot (1835) to Les Comédiens sans le Savoir (1845), is morphologically the same chronotopic story as Georges Duroy’s social ascension in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami (1885), as is the passage of Proust’s narrateur from petit-bourgeois petit bonhomme in Du côté de chez Swann (1913) to elbow-rubbing equal of the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes by the end of Le Temps retrouvé (1927).
At a morphological level of recursion, they are all the same story, for the cultural phenomenon of the nineteenth-century Parisian salon determines the kinds of characters that can exist in nineteenth-century Paris, and the kinds of story that can be told in the space-time of nineteenth-century Paris, the democratic ascension of a clever young bourgeois man to the fashionable heights of quasi-nobility being one of them.
Ms. Sobchack built upon Bakhtin’s concept of the salon as a particularly potent spatiotemporal site of drama, and in an influential essay, “Lounge Time: Postwar Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir” (1998), identified the transient settings of bars, nightclubs, cafés, cocktail lounges, hotels, motels and roadhouses as the key chronotope of film noir.
And again, it’s not that films noirs are set exclusively in cocktail lounges, it is that the spatiotemporal ‘atmosphere’ of the lounge as a transient, temporary space of flâneurial ease punctuating longer passages of anxious wandering through the urban night informs the Gestalt, the total world of film noir. As Ms. Sobchack explains in her essay, the of phenomenon of transient, shared public spaces where one momentarily rests from a condition of anxious displacement (such as the lounge) in post-war America determines, as the salon does for nineteenth-century Paris, the kind of characters that can exist in an American movie in the 1940’s or 1950’s, and the kind of story that can be told in America in the 1940’s and ’50’s.
It turns out that a film noir, an existential story of nihilistic crime resulting from a man’s succumbing to the temptation of a woman’s seduction, is one of those archetypal stories.
Why should this interest me and why should I have been so activated by Pamela’s post when she alerted me to the concept? Because it was one of those rare instances in intellectual life when someone else throws an astonishing sidelight on a problem so knotty (and so deeply, obsessively personal, it seems) that you can barely articulate the dimensions of it to yourself, such that there is a poverty of coverage about it in the literature, and thus, when you do come across a thesis closely linked to it, you are surprised that anyone else has even thought about the problem.
The recherché intellectual question of ‘the mood’ of places (which I seem to conceptualize to myself as an intersection of particular space and particular time), and how to represent the ‘character’ of places, independent of transient human occupancy, has become an increasingly salient æsthetic preoccupation in my writing and filmmaking over the last four years.
As I think my essay above makes clear, the first really important element that Ms. Sobchack’s concept illuminated for me is that, in almost a synæsthetic sense, in the film noir, space is time, and vice versa. The clue is in the name she gives to her concept—‘lounge time’, which connotes not merely a transient place where the characters of noir pass their time, but also the character of time’s passing in such places. There is a certain idleness, a certain flâneurial oisiveté implicit in the notion: time, in the space of the bar or cocktail lounge, does not pass quickly, ‘like sands through the hourglass’, but slowly, spasmodically, like the dripping from a leaky faucet.
There is, in other words, a Bergsonian (and even Borgesian) quality to how the characters of film noir experience time in the cocktail lounge. They experience temporal duration as spatial extension, and I give the image of the labyrinthine prison, the sæcula sæculorum of Catholicism, ‘from everlasting to everlasting’, ‘world without end’, as the metaphor for this Borgesian, Bergsonian space-time.
And Bergson leads us back to M. Proust, my cher maître, for, like the dear, divine Marcel, anyone who has read my flâneurial writing knows that I’m obsessed with spatial specificity and geographic particularity, and the temporal experience of walking through a precisely described physical landscape is likely to take much longer subjectively than objectively, the time between each footfall being measured by the tumult of thoughts that the landscape inspires in me at each step.
In Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012), for instance, it takes me about a hundred pages to walk about a hundred metres, from the edge of the square Caulaincourt to my bed. In Things we do for Love (2015), I more modestly manage to take two train rides and a walk from Indooroopilly Station to Indooroopilly Shopping Centre in only a thousand words, but in Follow Me, My Lovely… (2016), I again haul you on a nine-hour, 20,000-word tour of Bellingen by night and by day as I bounce the most beautiful girl I’ve ever gotten into my bed all over town.
And in the forthcoming Sentimental Journey, expect to walk your eyes off, dear readers, as I march you (at bayonet-point, it might seem at times) through various Gold-Coastian, Brisbanian and Bellingenian locales.
The chronotopic relation between space and time;—the experience of space as time (and vice versa);—is, you might say, rather an entrenched and synæsthetic habit of thought in my writing.
Certainly, I see this apperception of time as spatial extension and space as temporal duration rarely represented in art, and little of the curious obsession I have for it represented in the academic literature, which made the encounter with Ms. Sobchack’s concept refreshing.
For perhaps even more than in my writing (or perhaps just more clearly, more appropriately to the medium), it is the organizing æsthetic principle which informs my filmmaking and videography—the films and videos you watch on this vlog. The confused perception of time as space and space as time is not merely the most conspicuous feature of my flâneurial writing, but it is, I contend, the most conspicuous quality of flâneurial filmmaking.
Elsewhere on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, I’ve answered the question ‘Are there flâneur films?’. In that post, I stated categorically that there areflâneur films, but that it’s usually more a character of the films themselves—that is to say, a matter of style or cinematic technique—than the characters a film possesses that makes it ‘flâneurial’.
More precisely, it’s how a film deals technically, stylistically with space and time that tends to give it a flâneurial character. And as I said in the post “What is a flâneur?”, it’s an absolutely non-negotiable part of being flâneur, core to the definition, that one is a pedestrian by nature.
The word ‘pedestrian’ itself combines connotations of spatial extension and temporal duration, the time it takes to move through a landscape being directly linked to the mode of travel. There must be in the flâneurial film, therefore, a sense (so uncommon—even alien—to the apparatus of cinema) of being tied to a singular perspective, and a singular mode of movement through the world, one that is distinctly human and limited by the human viewpoint and human movement.
In the first volume of his Cinéma (1983), M. Deleuze deals with this type of filmmaking, what he calls ‘l’image-mouvement’ (the ‘movement-image’), and he identifies three types of image which combine to form this sensory motor-action scheme: ‘l’image perception’ (the ‘perception image’), ‘l’image affection’ (the ‘affective image’), and ‘l’image action’ (the ‘action image’).
In fine, in M. Deleuze’s theory, we see; we feel something about what we see; and then we act in reaction to what we see. Perception leads to affect leads to action. Montage, the great discovery of the Soviet silent cinema, with its juxtaposition of images of perception, images of emotion, and images of action in a dynamic, plastic composition which is unique to the art-form of the cinema itself, is really the innovation that crystallizes the movement-image as a the central organizing principle of classical narrative filmmaking.
And as Messrs. Saunders and Sinnerbrink discuss, the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock is really the æsthetic high-water mark of classical Hollywood filmmaking in the movement-image style. Rear Window (1954), for instance, is entirely predicated upon the cumulative effect produced by montage as proposed by Soviet theorist Lev Kuleshov, and the tripartite formula of perception, affective, and action images are the technical basis by which Mr. Hitchcock, as a consummate ‘engineer of fright’, cumulatively produces the mechanics of suspense in that picture.
In fine, as Rear Window so peerlessly, rigorously, and consistently demonstrates, the palpable effect of that picture (as of all Mr. Hitchcock’s best work) produces a visceral somatic experience of suspense and fright in us precisely because the total assemblage of the film is rigorously anchored at every moment to this sensory motor-action scheme. Along with James Stewart, we look at something; we are emotionally affected by what we see; and the affect produces a bodily reaction in us. Donald Spoto, in his essay on Rear Window in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1976), notes that the moment when Raymond Burr looks directly at the camera still manages to produce the reactive action of an apprehensive murmur in the audience, despite familiarity with the film.
Indeed, it is this ‘mechanical’ schema about how we perceive spatial relations which gives classical cinema its engaging, involving quality, and it seems to explain (albeit in too neat and over-simplified a fashion) our experience of the world as bodies in space. The miracle is that a mechanical object with no consciousness of its own can (with the aid of judicious editing in post-production) ‘mimic’ how we perceive, react and act in relation to other spatial objects—including people—with some chronotopic verisimilitude.
As Mr. Bordwell and Ms. Smith discuss circa minute 16, thirties cinema is ‘behavioural’, ‘externalized’; it’s about putting on a show that the audience can easily read off through the spectacle of action. And as Mr. Bordwell explains, this æsthetic Gestalt is perfectly consonant with the implicit assumption of thirties cinema, which is that there is a kind of externalized ‘causal social mechanics’ at play which chronotopically produces, for instance, the thirties archetype of the gangster. As Ms. Smith points out, the characters of thirties cinema, whether they are gangsters, chorines, or screwball couples, seem to have ‘no interior life’: they are pure movement and externalized behaviour, bodies in kinetic (which is to say, photographable) spatial relation to one another.
The difference between thirties cinema and forties cinema is something like the difference, I would contend, between commedia dell’arte and Shakespeare’s comedies. Though roughly coexistent, one derives its comedic force from visible actions in space, while the other derives its comedic force from the dynamic collision of antagonistic personalities over time. And ultimately, we find the verbal whaling of Benedick and Beatrice upon one another more comedically satisfying than the mutual physical attrition of Punch and Judy.
Moreover, I would contend that thirties cinema, whether it takes the particular form of the gangster movie, the Busby Berkeley musical, the Fordian western, or the screwball comedy, is the last frenetic spasm of pleasure produced by the movement-image as the defining æsthetic criterion of the cinema as a distinct art-form up to 1940. If Mr. Bordwell’s and Ms. Smith’s intuitions about thirties cinema have confirmable validity, I would say that a general morphological sense of people, objects, and society as being ‘mechanical’ and ‘mechanically determinable’, as a set of discreet bodies in a kinetic spatial relationship to one another that can be photographed in action, is what defines cinema from the Lumière brothers and Méliès up to 1940.
In fine, I am arguing that the conditions of a mechanised modernity chronotopically produced the matrix for cinematic stories which favoured the movement-image between 1895 and 1940. The assumption that the ‘source code of reality’ is fundamentally mechanical, and that even social relations are dictated by a Newtonian physics of bodies in spatial relation to one another, underlies stories in all media, but most particularly, and most perfectly, in the cinema.
But in his second volume of Cinéma (1985), M. Deleuze identifies a rupture in the schema, so that it becomes difficult, dopoguerra, to know how to act in relation to what is being perceived. At about the time of the Second World War (a period of psychological schism which coincides with the ludic iconoclasm that Orson Welles, enfant terrible, will wreak upon the art-form in Citizen Kane), the cinematic image starts to become more temporally salient than spatially.
M. Deleuze identifies what he calls the gradual emergence of ‘l’image-temps’ (the ‘time-image’) during the war years, until it becomes an entrenched trend in cinema post-1945.
Now, it’s not an æsthetic coincidence that the phenomenon of film noir should emerge, as Citizen Kane does, at the commencement of American involvement in the war, nor that the trend toward darker and darker crime pictures should increase with American participation in it, and become an entrenched æsthetic movement after the war ends. The close relation of Citizen Kane to The Maltese Falcon and its successors has been remarked by many film scholars, but certainly, from a technical standpoint, the chief innovations of Kane—chiaroscuro lighting and deep focus photography—are not merely techniques it bequeathed to film noir, but techniques which create the conditions for M. Deleuze’s time-image.
In fine, the technique, in Citizen Kane, of flooding a soundstage with so much sculpted light that one creates an image that is crisp and sharp to the furthest recession of the picture plain, one in which the ‘white space’ of perfect darkness is as photogenic and afforded as much visual weight as well-lit areas of action, now places the onus of ‘what to look at’ squarely upon the individual spectator. This was certainly not the way of 1930’s Hollywood films, where shots were lit in a façon laiteux and creamily focused so as to direct the audience’s gaze to the salient object of the shot.
With this new flâneurial liberty of the eye to roam about the image, time becomes a factor of salience in perception and action. You could say that the ambiguity between perception and action in films from 1941 onwards creates a delay, an interval in which one must process the affect created by a visual space in which everything is now equally salient for oneself.
Certainly the film noir, where the hyper-vigilant clarity of deep focus photography combines with large areas of screen real estate in ominous shadow, creates spaces in which everything is a potential threat—or where a threat could come from any sector of the screen.
No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is being continually cut into ribbons of light.
… [I]n film noir, the central character is likely to be standing in the shadow. When the environment is given an equal or greater weight than the actor, it, of course, creates a fatalistic, hopeless mood. There is nothing the protagonist can do, the city will outlast and negate even his best efforts.
The delay between perception and action as one cognitively processes the affect created by the ambiguous noir image of unfathomable depth and unfathomable darkness is a temporal equivalent, I submit, to that visual metaphor which T. S. Eliot, in “The Hollow Men” (1925), calls ‘the Shadow’:
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
Between the desire
And the spasm
Falls the Shadow
The delay between perceiving and acting is, for post-war man, ‘the Shadow’: what is perceived in movies from Citizen Kane and film noir onwards is no longer clear, and thus there can be no pure, innocent jouissance obtained from the spectacle of action. Nothing that one does, now, ‘after Auschwitz’, is innocent and without consequence, and, as W. H. Auden presciently observed in his “New Year Letter” of 1941:
The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
I suspect that the reason M. Deleuze’s time-image all but takes over the cinematic discourse by war’s end is that we are now confronted with images in which masses and masses of bodies lie motionless. The cameras linger in avid horror on the spectacle of sites where atrocious action occurred with fulgurant mechanical speed.
In an image where there is no movement, time, as I said, becomes the salient factor.
And as Ms. Smith observes at 33:45, time now becomes the subject of forties cinema in the same way that space held salience in the cinema of the thirties. More specifically, the extra-temporal narratival structures that come into vogue in the forties, and which are used with such brio in the film noir (the flashback, the voice-over, the superimposition, the dream sequence, etc.), are obsessed with the subject of the past. It is perhaps no coincidence that the greatest film noir references this obsession directly in its title:—Out of the Past (1947).
There is a definite sense of loss, of rift, of irrecoverable rupture in the films of the forties, and I would suggest that when you are confronted with moving images in which there is no movement, in which you are forced to perceive the consequence of human actions on motionless human bodies, these extra-temporal narrative devices which suggest memory and dream serve to supply the missing action, the joyous movement of living bodies that has been cruelly and irrecoverably lost.
But this sense that additional time is now required to parse and process the affect between perception and action is equally present in Italian Neorealism, in the cinema of Ozu, and that of Tarkovsky, who was wise enough to apprehend that the material he was sculpting his films in was not light, but time. As Mr. Sinnerbrink observes, these filmmakers (along with Welles and Renoir, as for instance) are actively seeking to ‘block’ the circuit of the sensory motor-action schema, and a handbrake is applied to narrative momentum through the cinematic strategies they devise to enhance the ambiguous affect of images.
Italian Neorealism, as a European cousin to film noir, employing many of the same cinematic techniques that Hollywood directors would apply to generic thriller material after the war, such as filming on location and employing non-professional ‘actors’ in the commission of their jobs, serves to effectively illuminate this point.
As Mr. Sinnerbrink says, in Italian Neorealism ‘you’ve got characters in an environment they no longer understand. … The faith or belief in how the world should be … has been severely shattered.’
Indeed, as far as action and movement goes, there is an ‘impotence’, oftentimes, displayed by the characters of Neorealism, best exemplified, I think, by De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948). In that film, the ostensible action which drives the entire narrative (and which is so slender a premise that there is really only enough ‘story’ in it to sustain a one-reel silent comedy), the recovery of the stolen bicycle, is abortive, frustratingly unresolved.
Antonio’s ricerca through Rome (we can’t call it a flânerie, nor even the Italian equivalent, a passeggiata, for it’s too existential a trudge to be undertaken for idle pleasure) as he seeks to find his stolen bicycle is essentially a chase through dreams—or a nightmare. It’s as hopeless a quest as waiting for Godot, and that Sig. De Sica should extend so slight an idea for a film into a drama as endless and desolate as Beckett’s gives you a sense of the emotional ‘freight’ that the affective image must now bear, after the war, as it crowds out the perception-image and the action-image, problematizing the one and infinitely delaying the other.
The time-image of post-war cinema is all affect. The delay that is created by problematizing perception and deferring a decisive action in response to it means that more time is required by the spectator to scrutinize the ambiguous image and decide how he feels about what he is seeing. Paul Schrader says this about the famous shot in De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), in which the camera holds for nearly thirty seconds upon a simple action—the striking of a match:
It was no longer about the activity of striking a match, it was about how long are you going to sit to watch? The filmmaker is using the power of cinema itself against itself to get you into a sense that you have to participate.
Moreover, as Kogonada observes in his video essay “What is Neorealism?”, in comparing David O. Selznick’s cut of Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953) side-by-side with De Sica’s own cut of the same film, Terminal Station (1953), we can easily see that Sig. De Sica consistently employs a narrative/editorial strategy of holding longer on shots, withholding the cut, allowing the camera to linger on extras whose stories we never get to explore, after the main characters have left the frame.
In other words, in Sig. De Sica’s version, the chronotopic setting for the foreground drama, the warp and weft of life that surrounds and enfolds the fiction, is allowed, in Neorealism, to ‘billow in’, like a curtain breathed upon by a gentle breeze, and fill the vacuum temporarily left by the absence of the characters after they have left the frame.
The action of striking the match is perhaps more neatly illustrative of my point, but both techniques partake of a general variety of narrative strategies in cinematic storytelling that privileges the time-image over the movement-image after World War II. That is, as an action that can be photographed, the striking of the match is no longer miraculous as a movement. The match fails to light. It requires a repetition—two repetitions, and they both fail. It requires even a second match and a fourth attempt before the maid in Umberto D. can light the stove.
The time it takes to perform an action is now the spectacle. It’s no longer the movement as an act in space, but the duration of the movement, as an act across time, that becomes visually salient and significant.
And perhaps we can even say that the difficulty of performing an action successfully becomes significant, since there seems to be a misalignment in the maid’s sensory motor-action schema, a momentary misalignment between perception and action before the final, successful striking of the match. In the fraught post-war world, not even the most simple actions (which the cinema of the thirties would have taken for granted) are as obviously simple as they appear.
And applied more broadly to the world beyond the narrative, longer shots which invite a chronotopic reality, redundant to the narrative, to enter and take up compositional space in time as the ‘white space’ of shadow does visually, means that the duration of a film becomes, in the forties, co-extensive with space: As a physical object, the film becomes longer, just as it becomes temporally longer.
Mr. Bordwell notes that forties films, with their obsessive preoccupations with time, now start to aim for a ‘novelistic density’, but he doesn’t notice this point, viz.—that if we accept the premise that thirties movement cinema is a cinema of spectacular theatrical display, the spatial extension of the image is one of length and width, like a framed painting, or like a play framed by the proscenium. But in the forties, cinema becomes, like the novel, a truly temporal art-form where the extension is into the experience of time—the time it requires to apprehend and appreciate the artwork.
The ‘thickness’ of a novel is an index for its temporal, experiential dimension. Likewise, the physical ‘length’ of a piece of film becomes indexical for its time relation. When directors like De Sica, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Renoir and Welles slow down their shots, add frames which freight the film with additional ambiguous affect, problematizing perception and delaying action, what can be potentially discovered in the frame by a self-directed spectator thrown back on his own resources of deciding ‘what to look at’ becomes, potentially, experientially infinite. Like a novel one periodically rereads, discovering something new each time, returning to a film whose spatial extension of length and width is predicated on the time-image now becomes a flânerie through un jardín de los senderos que se birfurcan.
What Mr. Sinnerbrink calls ‘a loss of faith in the world’ which the characters of Neorealism (and film noir) feel is really a loss of faith in the visible appearances of the world. The time-image is deeply sceptical of indexical appearances; hence its ambiguity. A direct line can be traced from the disappeared bike in Ladri di biciclette to the disappearing body in Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), and from Antonio’s impotent quest to recover his bike to utterly abortive quests for meaning, like Jack Nicholson’s odyssey in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975).
The disappearing body of Blowup completely defies a semiotic, indexical interpretation of reality, a 1:1 relationship between image and world—which is a relationship the movement-image confidently assumes.
The pre-war confidence of the movement-image is permanently displaced by the post-war uncertainty that things are what they appear, and that we may act confidently on the report of our senses, a sensibility which is implicit in the time-image.
That seems to be the lesson of World War II: the apparently innocent joy of modern, mechanized movement done at dizzying speed ultimately produces piles of lifeless bodies.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the conception
And the creation
Falls the Shadow
To return more fully to film noir, which, in exercising a particularly nihilistic brush over generic mystery and thriller material, deals by metaphorical displacement with ‘the baffling crime’ of the Second World War, which surrounds everyone and implicates everyone in the forties, we begin to understand the chronotope of lounge time, the necessity for the compromised respite which transient, shared public spaces provide a traumatized and displaced American population.
In the lounge, we drown ourselves in drink and try to fumigate our brains with cigarettes, exorcising them temporarily of the devils we have seen and been. The lounge itself is a site and a period of delay: it too is a Shadow—but a welcome one. The shadows outside the bar, ‘the situation of our time’ which is the circumambient night and the threatening city of film noir, are a purgatorial holocaust we must trudge through when we have used up our ‘money time’, this moment of flâneurial ease between chapters of anxious hustling out there.
Film noir is not a genre in this understanding; it is an allegory. Film noir is a set of stylistic, æsthetic cinematic strategies and conventions which are visually applied to generic mystery and thriller material in such a way as to displace and disguise crime movies as cathartic allegories for the all-enveloping ‘Big Crime’ of modernity, the master chronotope that is the Second World War.
We think—wrongly, at this historical pass, because the conventions of noir have been so disgustingly abused by subsequent generations of filmmakers with no generational experience of all-encompassing crime and trauma and guilt—that film noir was a much more codified æsthetic movement than it was. Even if the term ‘film noir’ was unheard of in America until just before the end of the classic cycle, surely the filmmakers who created this very visually and narratively distinctive body of films were more conscious of what they were doing than they were.
But why should they be if, as I am arguing here, film noir is kind of cathartic allegory, an æsthetic penance by which one exorcises the unforgotten but deeply repressed memory of all those lifeless bodies whose joyous movement one has curtailed in wartime?
In his conversation with Ms. Lucca and Ms. Smith, Mr. Bordwell states that his research has positively shown that in the forties ‘mystery’, as a generic category, became a kind of ‘meta-genre’, that there was a craze in 1940’s Hollywood cinema to inject an element of mystery into almost every other kind of generic story. Although he doesn’t reference Citizen Kane directly, this is the best possible example of the prototypical film noir that isn’t a film noir, a mystery story where the mystery isn’t ‘Whodunnit?’ but, ‘What is the meaning of “Rosebud”?’
In fine, ‘mystery’ becomes a ludic device that structures narrative in forties films. In other words, an impression of ambiguity which disrupts straightforward narrative perception and action—and the affect of anxiety that this delayed resolution produces in the audience—comes to the foreground in how audiences of the forties experience narrative (which is to say, as a subjective interpretation of reality).
This makes sense. If the world around you is in epic upheaval, epic disruption due to war, making sense of what you see around you and knowing how to act appropriately becomes a business of plumbing mystery. As I said with respect to Antonioni, a semiotic sensemaking strategy, assuming that things are actually consubstantial with how they appear, is not necessarily a successful means of navigating a salience landscape of totalizing, existential disruption.
I would argue that people in the forties are essentially so traumatized by the split between appearances and actions that they are primed to accept mystery as an affective temporal dimension to cinematic images. If the perception-image is point A and the action-image is point B, audiences after 1940 become progressively primed to accept that there is a third point between appearances and actions which the films of the thirties elide, and this third, temporal point is the realm of ‘mystery’.
In some sense, the ‘lining’ of a mystery story, the true, unperceived actions which animate it, occur in another, interstitial dimension of the cinematic narrative between the perceptions and actions the narrative consciously notices as images and scenes registered on film. Which is to say that there is ‘lost’ or ‘missing time’ which makes the narrative-as-film necessarily ambiguous, and hence ‘mysterious’.
And this interstitial dimension often coincides with those ‘extra-temporal’ narrative devices which are such a salient structuring feature of film noir: the flashback, the voice-over, the superimposition, and the dream sequence.
Moreover, it is precisely these innovative cinematic techniques which the film noir avails itself of and uses more adroitly than any other type of film in the 1940’s which makes it a kind of ‘avant-garde cinema’ during the cycle of the classic period. As Mr. Bordwell points out, the widespread adoption of mystery as a meta-generic narrative style in the forties means that generic thriller material now becomes consequentially respectable as something to exercise your cinematic chops on, and (as film noir’s symbiotic association with the B-picture demonstrates), the making of thrillers becomes a cheap, effective way for filmmakers (especially young filmmakers) to demonstrate the scope of what they can creatively do with film form.
In fine, as I argued above, rather than being a genre in itself, film noir applies a set of æsthetic visual strategies, cinematic techniques and conventions which have their own chronotopic freight to generic narrative material. A generic crime story, a mystery or a thriller becomes ‘noir’ when a certain visual æsthetic is applied to it: unique to this visual æsthetic as to no other that I know of is a certain chronotopic weight which determines, as I said in my response to Pamela’s post, the nature and the kinds of stories that can be told in settings which are painted with the brush of noir.
In other words, this set of æsthetic visual strategies, cinematic techniques and conventions as a chronotopic meta-setting directly affects the foreground narrative. The types of photogenic and cinematic techniques that filmmakers apply to photograph the places, whether they be settings on a soundstage or actual locations, that constitute the typical locales of film noir in the 1940’s directly impacts the nature of the generic crime story that can be told against such spatiotemporal backgrounds.
In a sense, the visual choices foreclose other narrative choices, dictating the kinds of postmodern narrative devices that can satisfactorily accompany such an avant-garde visual style, narrative devices which are verisimilar to the avant-garde æsthetic. A film consequently becomes ‘noir’ because the dark visual treatment forecloses other narrative options and dictates the kinds of characters who can emerge in a locale painted with the brush of noir, the kinds of situations that can develop in such a place and time, and ultimately the kinds of stories that can be told by the dynamic interrelation of characters with each other, and with the setting.
Moreover, this totalizing visual æsthetic, with its potent photogenic affect, creates the fundamental conditions for the ambiguous time-image, which is so essential to film noir.
Finally, to return to my original premise, how does lounge time, as the organizing chronotopic principle of film noir, the visual æsthetic which carries the seed of the time-image implicit within it, relate to flâneurial cinema?
Well, as I said at the beginning, the clue is in the name that Ms. Sobchack gives to her concept: lounge time suggests a space that is simultaneously temporal, and a period of easeful respite from anxious wandering that is simultaneously a physical site of rest. It suggests an extra-temporal, interstitial realm or dimension, a place and an hour of ‘luxe, calme et volupté.’
The oisiveté of M. Baudelaire’s credo of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ is the beatific condition to which the flâneur aspires. And yet, like the harried, displaced protagonists of film noir, his condition of dandiacal poverty, the existential stress of being a ‘man of leisure’ on no private income, means that he must trudge on ‘à travers le grand désert des hommes’ just as the hopeless losers of film noir must trudge on through the asphalt jungle.
An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. With each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grow the temptations of shops, of bistros, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next streetcorner, of a distant mass of foliage, of a street name. Then comes hunger. Our man wants nothing to do with the myriad possibilities offered to sate his appetite. Like an ascetic animal, he flits through unknown districts—until, utterly exhausted, he stumbles into his room, which receives him coldly and wears a strange air.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Convolute M: “The Flâneur”
We crave the lounge, the place and time of leisure and pleasure, that womb-like matrix where the two intersect. And, as for M. Baudelaire, that terrestrial heaven is not only the place and time we would invite our daughter, our sister, the Elected One of our soul to join us in, but it is a place and time that is eminently feminine and consubstantial with her. That place of timeless ease is the eternal Her.
I said at the start that flâneurial cinema, in contradistinction to the implicit æsthetic of cinema itself as a modern art-form predicated on mechanical speed, is pedestrian and tied to the slow rhythm of the foot. As such, flâneurial cinema is entirely predicated on the time-image: the movement of walking itself, while being an extension into space, is far less salient than the qualitative experience of walking, which is an extension of movement into duration.
Mr. Sinnerbrink has a couple of interesting tournures which are instructive on this point. At 14:11 of his conversation with Mr. Saunders he says: ‘With Ozu and with Orson Welles (others as well, like Jean Renoir), what you get are images that no longer are strictly driven by the narrative purpose, but start to take on a kind of descriptive function’ [my emphasis]. And again, at 22:28, he refers to ‘pure optical and sound descriptions’ [my emphasis].
We’re told, in classical screenwriting theory (as in writing more generally), that one should ‘show not tell’. The movement-image is all show. But the time-image, I submit, is the visual equivalent of a passage of description in literature: it doesn’t necessarily advance the well-oiled machine of the plot as the movement-image does, but, as Kogonada effectively demonstrates in his video essay on De Sica, describes something of the chronotopic reality which enfolds the drama.
The time-image, in fine, ‘tells us’ something about the nature of the world which is auxiliary to the drama, ‘redundant’, even, by the standards of a classical, mechanical cinema predicated on the movement-image.
And thus, if flâneurial cinema is entirely predicated on the time-image, it is entirely predicated on what Mr. Sinnerbrink calls these ‘pure optical and sound descriptions’ which are not ‘strictly driven by the narrative purpose’. Like the lounge, these extended moments which ‘describe’ the chronotopic actuality of the world are moments of rest, of pause, images which allow the eye to flâneurially explore the frame at ease.
Mr. Schrader calls it ‘leveraging boredom’, and certainly I know from personal experience that my films and videos, with their static setups and long takes looking at nothing, the void of empty spaces at dead hours of dawn or dusk, late afternoon and late night, the times of day (as in film noir) when the conditions of light impose their own æsthetic mood on places, are an ‘acquired taste’.
Some people don’t get these paradises of rest and are deeply bored by them. But I know, from having screened some of these films and videos in Melbourne and elsewhere, that for most people the rigorous simplicity of my technique, my foregrounding of the time-image and eschewal of the movement-image, produces a ‘restful’ effect of respite that contrasts pleasantly with the work of other filmmakers who are more focused on people, and the human dramas which take place against these chronotopic backgrounds.
I rarely move the camera, and thus spatial extension of the world (that is, what is visible within the frame) becomes temporal extension: a corner of the world regarded fixedly over time. Moreover, as the soundscapes of my films and videos are wholly invented, like these extra-temporal narrative devices in film noir which evoke the dimensions of time and memory and dream, the imagined aural landscape in and beyond the world delimited by the frame makes the image extend both in space and in time—into the imagination of the audience.
Ultimately, perhaps, it is the extra-temporal dimension of the imagination which the flâneur seeks, a place outside of space and time where he can quit his walk and permanently rest, content that le nouveau will infinitely find and refresh him there.
And having taken you, dear, indulgent readers, at bayonet-point on an epic flânerie through several disparate quartiers of my mental geography, let us turn in at this place and rest our dogs.
Some recent visitors to this vlog have decried the lack of a “Donate” button at the bottom of my posts. I prefer to give value for value, so if you’d like to signal your appreciation for what I write, I’d like to give you something of lasting value in exchange for your support. I’ve made the soundtrack of the abridged version of “Invitation to a murder” featured in my video essay available for purchase, streaming and download via my artist profile on Bandcamp, so for $A2.00 (make it more, if you like) you can have permanent access to the track.
Put me on your pod or phone, and then, when you need a moment of respite from the hurly-burly of the world, check in to my imaginary lounge and let my words lull you into a momentary place of restful ease. Just click the “Buy” link below, or feel free to “Share” the track with a friend.
Jay snapped me sans overcoat but otherwise suited up for winter as I swanned around summery Coffs, an unofficial ambassador of Melbourne moda bringing a soupçon of Collins street chic to Harbour drive.
The only unfashionable touch by your Melbourne Flâneur’s über-æsthetic lights: the muzzle (or ‘chin-sling’, as I call it) in my south paw, a fad which no one will ever convince me is elegant—even the flower-bedizened variety I reluctantly port.
Even when forced to hide my mug behind a mask, dear readers, the dandy in me indomitably prevails, and I must bring a touch of the æsthetic even to this despised item of bourgeois uniformity.
But whether I am airing my dial or have my mug camouflaged behind a floral mask, it seems I am instantly recognized in these parts. Even at the bus stop, preparing to decamp from Coffs to Bellingen, I was recognized by someone I had never seen in my life.
‘You’re going to Bellingen, aren’t you?’ the guy asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied, somewhat surprised. Perhaps, I thought, the bowtie I was wearing gave me away as the type of person who would be waiting for the bus to Bello.
‘Yeah, I’ve seen you there,’ he said.
‘It must have been a long time ago,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been there in five years.’
He seemed doubtful about that claim, as if it were more likely that he had last seen me only five weeks ago.
The encounter puzzled me until I alighted in Bello. Hardly had I squared away my luggage at the Diggers Tavern and taken my first fashionable flânerie in æons up one side of Hyde street, the Champs-Élysées of Bellingen, and down the other before I was recognized by John Ross, owner of the Alternatives Bookshop, who greeted me with the words: ‘We were just talking about you.’
That is a phrase I have heard repeated continuously. Five years may have passed, but my ‘celebrity’ in Bellingen (as John called it, introducing me to two passers-by) as its most dandistic resident remained undimmed by half a decade’s absence. Indeed, on Sunday, as I lounged on the grassy bank of the Bellinger River, relishing the sun (a dominical ritual of confirmed Bellingenites), two friends sitting at some distance and recognizing a jaunty Fedora worn rakishly askew inquired of their companions if it could be me and, more to the point, if they had lived in Bellingen long enough ‘to know who Dean is.’
I’ve become a fabled creature here, which I didn’t expect. If you have lived in Bello in the years ‘A.D.’ (‘After Dean’), you have clearly missed a spectacle as dazzling and memorable (in the annals of fashion, at least) as the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
I used to have a lady friend here, a cute little sculptress who lived up the hill in Dorrigo and who would come down to Bello on a Sunday to work a shift at the former Lodge 241 café. It never ceased to amuse her how, on our dates or after-work flâneries, we were forced to stop every few metres in our progress along Hyde street to acknowledge the friendly salutations of the most diverse people.
To her, I seemed to know everyone in town, but to me, it felt more like everyone knew me—even the people I didn’t know.
Conspicuous as I was in my day, I thought that when I departed Bello for Melbourne five years ago, I would be promptly forgotten. But it was I who had forgotten the curious phenomenon of ‘Bello time’, whereby a man can go away for five years and be greeted warmly by half the town as if the last time he had been seen in these parts was last week.
But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I am certainly not the only literary man to have passed a season or two in this town, and certainly not the most internationally celebrated, Peter Carey having lived in Bellingen and having set the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) in this landscape.
Moreover, journalist George Negus and I occasionally shared co-working space at ‘my office’, the Hyde, and one of the last times I imbibed a long black there before checking out, on a day when the café was particularly bondé de gens, Mr. Negus and I were forced to sit coude-à-coude at the counter and cement the distant intimacy of our long nodding acquaintance with some polite pleasantries about the political nouvelles du jour, that mustachioed gent never suspecting the local literary celebrity he was rubbing his grizzled elbow against.
I kid, of course.
But like all jests, there’s a zesty grain of truth in the observation that if these two literary gentlemen have more conspicuous clout in the world of letters than your presumptuous little flâneur, in the public imaginary of Bellingen, at least, with the rigorous rectitude and correctness of my dress, I have always fitted the image of an homme de lettres more thoroughly than my more famous colleagues—for all my friends and acquaintances here know that the hygiene of my deportment reflects the intellectual hygiene of a man who makes the most exquisite discriminations with words.
But I find myself in an odd—even an embarrassing—position, overwhelmed by the well-wishing of people who have never forgotten me and never, it seems, ceased to think well of me in my absence.
All the time I lived here, people predicted an imminent removal to Melbourne for me, telling me that, with my sens inné de la mode, I was meant more for Collins street than for Church street, but I think I defied even the most prevoyant forecast about that imminent departure date by staying nearly two and a half years in Bello.
When I did, finally, satisfy the prophecy which had attended me from the first and vamoosed to Victoria, it was with the deeply regretted sense that this beloved landscape had, indeed, been eventually exhausted for me as a source of flâneuristic exploit—particularly as regards the flâneur’s addictive habitude of æsthetically investigating the women of the cities and towns he prowls through.
The dandy is always seeking to crystallize his image, to make his outward appearance thoroughly congruent and consubstantial with his inward self, and in Melbourne, it’s true, I seemed to find and set in perfect place the last pieces of the puzzle to my character which I had been searching for in landscapes as various as the Gold Coast, Paris, and even Bellingen.
I will always be, first and foremost, a Parisian, proud citoyen of the first city of modernity, and hence of modernity’s most decadent product, fashion. But if I have integrated the high polish of the dandistic Parisian flâneur with a life spent wandering the streets of this benighted antipodean isle’s provincial capital of fashion, such that I have become a Melbourne flâneur, it is fair to say that without a couple of years of my life spent squinting still more tightly, trying to disengage and draw forth, like a fabulous perfume, the flâneuristic romance of marvellous novelty from Bellingen’s streets through half-closed lids, I would not have been able to see, as a living reality, a fragrant atmosphere which thoroughly surrounds and suckles me, the poetic Parisian substrate to Melbourne’s pedestrian actuality.
In other words, in Bellingen too (which I have occasionally described to the uninitiated as being like the whole of Melbourne folded up into two short streets) I found the lost quality of Parisian romance, of marvellous novelty, and in some sense the narrow circuit I traced for more than two years up and down Hyde and Church streets prepared me, as no place since Paris had, for the assiduous literary oisiveté of wandering the streets of Melbourne, on the perennial trail for tails and tales.
In fine, I think that, unacknowledged as my literary genius may be by the wider world as compared with Bellingen’s more famous scrivenly denizens both past and present, if I hold a special affection nei cuori dei Bellingeni, it is perhaps because they sense that, fitting the bill of an homme de lettres more perfectly, as one who uses words with the precision of a camera, I have seen the secret essence in this town, in real scenes set in its streets, and have recorded that invisible, fragrant essence which makes this town such a special place.
My last book, Follow Me, My Lovely…, was set here, the history of a night and a morning when I navigated a gorgeous Norwegian tourist I picked up at the backpackers through a flurried flânerie of streets and scenes, and my next novel is also set in the same streets, where the ghost of the former girl—(and of others, bien entendu)—lingers over the marvellous novelty of my romance with another.
In my last post, datelined Wagga, I wrote that I was coming to the end of the second draft of that novel, and there was a moment, in my assiduous painting and repainting of the scene, set in the little park in front of the Bellingen library, where I and that other began a slow escalation of each other which would lead, inevitably, to a transcendent experience in the bedroom, when I felt again the palpability not merely of her body, but of the place and the hour.
On Sunday, not a block west of the library, I beheld her face—a face I had striven through five years to hold firm in my mind, and which I had believed I would never see again—and her neat little body, that body I had held tenderly in the park.
There she was, at some short distance from me, dear readers, at a tantalizing inconjunction of space and time which made it possible for us both to pretend that we had not seen each other, or that, seeing each other, we did not recognize each other. But I know she knew me at a glance, despite the obfuscating bowtie (a foppery I didn’t port in those days), just as I knew her at a glance, swaddled in the faux-fur collar of her velour jacket.
Oui, there she was, one of the feminine ‘Elect’, one of that modest corpus of dames who have undressed your Melbourne Flâneur, who have divested him of his fashionable armour and have laid him out in state, and who have had the dubious honour of beholding the holiest of holies behind that implacable front.
I’ve said that one of the few things which sustained me through our extended Melbourne lockdown was the ability, in concentrating on this novel, to escape the limited vision of the restricted present, and take flâneries through my memories of Bellingen, repainting with precision the Memorial Hall, the walk across Lavenders Bridge and up the path above the skate park, No. 5 Church Street, and Church street itself before the camphor laurels had been removed and replaced.
But when I saw my palpable paramour’s face once again, slightly longer and narrower than I remembered it, she who had led me, arm-in-arm, on months of painstaking promenade through my memories of the streets of Bellingen as perhaps the Eternal Feminine essence of the place, consubstantial with it—for it was her even more than here that I have been trying, through five years, to paint perfectly with words—I saw in her face the slight, painterly distortion, the fault of perspective I had made in my painting of the place.
That slight lengthening and narrowing of her actual visage (as compared to my lovingly beheld memory of it) was like all the slight displacements I have discovered in re-walking these streets I have loved and written lovingly about.
The streetlight in Short Street lane is white, not yellow as I remember it, and the strangler fig under which we exchanged our first kisses ‘feels’ further down the lane, towards Church street, than I have pictured it—even with assiduous referral to Google Maps to aid and orient me.
Most significantly, it was not until I sat on the bank of the river on Sunday afternoon, remembering all the women with whom I had passed a tender moment on that spot, that I realized, for all my concentration on precisely rendering the actuality of the place, how much the palpable, experienced memory of pleasure in Bellingen—how much I used to enjoy sitting on that riverbank, whether alone or in company—has lain buried, sleeping deeply in my unconscious for five years.
Through all my restless movement through places and scenes—not just in Melbourne, but in all the towns and cities my flâneries have taken me to—the memory of the place where I was, for the longest time in my life, most consistently happy has lain buried and is, perhaps, unpaintable, as closely as one might approximate the essence of it.
I recall a quote by M. Degas, who says:
‘C’est très bien de copier ce qu’on voit, c’est beaucoup mieux de dessiner ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire. C’est une transformation pendant laquelle l’ingéniosité collabore avec la mémoire. Vous ne reproduisez que ce qui vous a frappé, c’est-à-dire le nécessaire. … Voilà pourquoi les tableaux faits de cette façon, par un homme ayant une mémoire cultivée, connaissant les maîtres et son métier, sont presque toujours des œuvres remarquables.’
‘It’s all very well to copy what you can see, but it’s even better to draw what you can no longer see, except in memory. A transformation is worked upon the base material of actuality in which genius collaborates with recollection. You only reproduce what has struck you, which is to say, that which is essential to the image. … That is why paintings made in such a manner by a man with a cultivated memory, one who knows both the Old Masters and his trade, are almost always remarkable works.’
—Edgar Degas (my translation)
Follow Me, My Lovely…, written in this landscape, while I still had immediate visual access to every point in the parcours, while I could still see and measure the relative distances between every spot through which I had escalated the Norwegian in our nine-hour flânerie around Bellingen, has a very different quality and character to the one this next novel, Sentimental Journey, will have.
It’s a book I began writing almost immediately after I left Bello five years ago, and being reliant on my memories of the place, and of the woman, slight distortions and displacements—those qualities that M. Degas calls ‘remarkable’—have crept into my rendition of Bellingen, such that, between the essential traits of the image—and even within them—an imaginative collaboration of genius with memory has inadvertently occurred.
I suspect that, at the deepest level, the reason why the good burghers of Bello hold me in a regard I feel I have hardly earned is that they sense, despite my punishing exactitude, despite my dandistic subscription to absolute, rigorous perfection in everything—the sincerity of my dedication to my art which flows out from it through all my life—before reality I fail to get it ‘quite right’—and in that tiny failure, that loophole where the genius of imagination intersects with a rigorously cultivated memory of the place, the inestimable ‘essence of Bellingen’ emerges in my writing about my remembered experiences here.
Other, more celebrated men of letters may have written about this place, but I think i Bellingeni know that their presumptuous little flâneur has observed and absorbed the essence of the living reality of this place, and in his Parisian hallucination of it, will one day present a startling snapshot of the town in tableau at a moment of its most recent history.
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.
“Dreidel”: A short story by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through headphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur, a treat for you: no video, chers lecteurs, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted what I call an ‘amplified flânograph’—that is, one of the photos I occasionally take on my flâneries amplified by an atmospheric soundscape of the location.
The last amplified flânograph I posted on The Melbourne Flâneur was in March last year, when we still had our heads stuck in the sand over Coronavirus. It featured my photo of Uniacke court, a laneway off Little Bourke street, which formed the basis for a soundscape and a super-short story.
I know how much you enjoy these evocative short stories based on my photographs, so I took the photograph above (which you can also find in The Melbourne Flâneur zine) and used it as the jumping-off point for a soundscape and short story set in O’Donnell Gardens, an espace vert next door to Melbourne’s world-famous Luna Park.
The main feature of O’Donnell Gardens, as you can see in the photo, is an impressive sandstone fountain in Art Déco style erected in 1935 as a memorial to Edward O’Donnell, who was a municipal councillor for the then City of St Kilda. According to Monuments Australia, Cr. O’Donnell served ‘without interruption for over forty years’, being first elected to council in 1888, serving as mayor of St Kilda on six occasions, and eventually losing the election of 1932, a year before his death.
As far as I know, the memorial no longer operates as a functioning fountain, but it’s a thoroughly photogenic piece of public sculpture in the high style of Art Déco, and on the grey, rainy day I snapped two half-frozen and depressed-looking pigeons using its niches as the one warm place to shelter, the grizzly griffins gave this 1930’s Déco memorial a very grim and Gothic air.
You wouldn’t believe it (unless you live in Melbourne, where any absurdity is possible, weather-wise), but I took this picture on 1 December, 2019—the first official day of summer, where my journal entry for that day notes that we reached a wintry top of just 17 degrees.
My journal also grumpily notes that I ‘made the mistake of not taking my overcoat as I set out to take a flânerie around St Kilda’ (which I had not visited in over a year) on that day. I remember being very sick of the way that winter was dragging on that year, so I evidently decided that ‘enough was bloody enough’ on what was supposed to be the first day of summer, and tried to get away with just wearing my trusty trenchcoat as a topcoat on what turned out to be a windy, wintry, rainy day.
Yes, even experienced Melbourne flâneurs make these optimistic rookie errors, dear readers.
But despite being underclad to the tune of two couches of wool, I was, as ever, everything the well-dressed flâneur ought to be in my greenish-grey double-breasted suit, lime-coloured shirt, aqua tie, and grey Stetson Whippet. Apart from putting my Pentax K1000 camera on the leash for a walk around St Kilda, seeing if anything photogenic would pop out at me in that locale and under those weather conditions, I was doing a bit of Daygame en passant, and I was evidently a picture myself to the feathered, fur-shawled Dutch girl I tied into in Carlisle street, whose return remark to me when I laid the genuine compliment on her was: ‘You look like a movie.’
It was a movie-ish kind of day.
There are days in Melbourne when weather and architecture combine suggestively and, seen through half-closed lids, the streets look vaguely Parisian or San Franciscan. As you know, I’m an analogue purist, shooting on film—black-and-white film at that. I think the analogue photo above—the only shot I snapped that day, the only image to which I deigned to commit a frame of film—shows that surreal, suggestive quality—an Australeuropean, Californated Gothic Déco—which, in evoking other places, is entirely, uniquely Melbourne’s own.
Melbourne must surely be one of the greatest cities for flâneurial street photography in the world. To a certain sensitive sensibility able not only to see but to imagine—and to paint its imaginings in the veritable reality that is seen and photographed—it possesses the cinematic, surreal qualities that Paris had for Atget and Brassaï, albeit in a vestigial, adulterated form.
That vestigial adumbration, adulteration and attenuation is what requires the ‘sensitive sensibility’ not only to perceive it but to draw it out in photography, and to my mind, only the discipline of film—the additional difficulty of getting good results with the medium—can really do it. I occasionally take a picture with my phone, flicking on the grey-scale filter (which is as close as a digital camera can come to velvety blacks and silky whites) beforehand. But the image is never as good, never as poetic as the picture my Pentax would see in pure black-and-white, through the mist of film grain.
That’s more like how I see Melbourne: it’s not a city meant to be seen sharply, as through the Hi-Def lens of a DSLR. It’s meant to be seen as in a dream, through half-closed lids. Nor is it, I think, a city meant to be seen in colour, despite the garish street art which helps to give it its surreal quality. To me, Melbourne’s a black-and-white city, a city of film, like Paris.
At the beginning of 2020, when the bushfires in Gippsland were so huge and so intense that they drifted their pall over Melbourne, there was one extraordinary afternoon when it was both rainy and smoky, so that it seemed as if the city was blanketed in a San Francisco fog.
I took my Pentax out and prowled around the CBD, getting some once-in-a-lifetime shots: a view of Eureka Skydeck from Bond street, for instance, its top half fading into invisibility. The trams along a misty Swanston street. The clock tower of the Town Hall and, a mere two blocks further up Collins street, in the Paris End, the iconic tower of No. 120 half-shrouded.
On that afternoon more than at any other time when I have captured aspects of this city on black-and-white film, Melbourne seemed to me like a city of dreams, a surreal, poetic city seen through half-closed lids, evoking other places with its mélange of architectural quotations and native elements, like weird weather and clanging trams, all its inimitable own.
In a post last year (also available in The Melbourne Flâneur zine), I called flânography, this dreamy style of film photography, contingent and yet decisive, that I occasionally practise as I wander the streets in my psychogeographic dérives, ‘the poetry of photography’.
And if I flatter myself that there is actually some extractable poetic content in images like the one above, it’s the poetry of amplification in the imagined audiostory I’ve attached to it—which in turn was ‘extracted’ from the soundscape I made to amplify and evoke my memory of the image I actually photographed that day.
Like nested boxes, the soundscape came out of the photograph, and the story out of the soundscape.
As in my videos and films, the story, or ‘script’, you might be surprised to learn, was actually the last part to be created. Like the surround sound you experience in a cinema which adds depth to the two dimensions of the image on the screen, I merely wanted to amplify the world of O’Donnell Gardens beyond the edges of the frame, and out of the ‘image’ of that environment of sound, a story unconsciously emerged—nothing I witnessed that day, but authentic elements of Melbourne life which my writer’s eyes and brain have seen and filed away only to emerge years later, jumbled together like the displaced symbols of a dream, in the story inspired by the photograph above.
I mentioned in a recent post that during our second Melbourne lockdown, when opportunities for flânerie were curtailed by cops and curfews, I went deep into this dreamlike state, re-membering in fiction the places and people I had encountered in some of my most baffling experiences as a pocket-edition Casanova tying into dames on the streets of Melbourne. That project is still highly classified and marked for my eyes only, but consider “Dreidel” another provocative down-payment on the dark plot I’m plotting, where the wide-awake world of Melbourne is not at all what it appears to be…
If you’ve enjoyed this ‘amplified flânograph’ and are interested in hearing more audiostories based on my photos on a more regular basis, you can support my work by putting some coffee-money in the fuel fund below. I have some postcards featuring the photo above, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Dreidel” for $A5.00, I will wave the magic wand of my Montblanc over a postcard, write a personalised message to you on it, sign it, stamp it, and send it to you with all the compliments of your Melbourne Flâneur.
(Please note that the postage of one  diamond-encrusted dreidel to you will cost extra.)
“Dreidel” MP3 audiostory
An unusual gift exchange occurs near Melbourne’s Luna Park in this intriguing and atmospheric short story by Dean Kyte, inspired by one of his photographs. Purchase the MP3 and receive a complementary handwritten postcard featuring the photo, personally addressed to you and signed by Dean Kyte!