The Melbourne Flâneur, on location in Eltham, reading an extract from his first book.

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.

Which brings me to Louis Aragon and another magisterial work of poetry in prose, Le Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant [1926]).

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.

—Alison James, “The Surrealism of the Habitual: From Poetic Language to the Prose of Life” (2011), p. 408

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.

—Charles Baudelaire, Le Salon de 1846 (my translation)

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.

—Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929)

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 19e arrondissement, 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.

Walking is itself the most prosaic experience, and as American poet Edward Hirsch writes in his article “‘My Pace Provokes My Thoughts’: Poetry and Walking” (2011), walking through artificial urban spaces is, for the modern, urban poet, a most fructifying experience.

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.

—Edward Hirsch, “‘My Pace Provokes My Thoughts’: Poetry and Walking” (2011), p. 5

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?

Or do you think that Orpheid: L’Arrivée might just be up the (dark) alley of someone you know? If you haven’t tried my custom order service and you’re thinking of buying some original gifts this Christmas, I invite you to take a browse in the Dean Kyte Bookstore. All my products come gift-wrapped by the same two hands that lovingly wrote the books. I also sign and wax-seal them and include a thoughtful, personalised message to the recipient, so if you want to give someone you love a thoroughly bespoke, artisanal reading experience to savour this Christmas, take a flash at my books or click the links below to purchase your own personal copy of Orpheid: L’Arrivée.

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Dean Kyte reminisces about an encounter with Andy Warhol’s monumental painting Telephone [4] (1962).

I remember seeing the monumental black gallows of Andy Warhol’s Telephone many years ago. Like Louis Aragon, for whom the objects of modernity were transfigured by a kind of æsthetic frisson, Warhol seemed to have painted the platonic ‘Form’ of the telephone: the black Mercury who calls for us in the dead of night, the psychopomp bringing only bad news, upon whose line we hang, breathless.

As Aragon observed, what brings out the ominous symbolic shadowface cast by this homely object is cinematographic découpage and cadrage: ‘To endow with a poetic quality something which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify its expression: these are the two properties which make décor the appropriate frame for modern beauty.’

—Dean Kyte, “Black Mercury”

About twelve years ago, when I was writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art hosted a major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s art. It was quite a coup for GoMA, which in those days was still fresh and shiny: it had only opened its doors a year before.

I scribbled a feature article on the exhibition for one of the magazines I was writing for, focusing on the connection between Warhol’s art and the art of cinema. For the most part, I was underwhelmed by the bewigged one: there was something self-consciously fraudulent about Warhol’s art (the title of the article I was published was “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Fraud”), but one painting stood out for me.

Telephone [4] (1962) is a monumental floor-to-ceiling canvas, as hieratic in its overwhelming authority as an altarpiece. Painted in stark monochrome, this enormous gallows handset caught in its shaft of light and stretching over one’s head as ominously as an actual gallows revealed a rare degree of sustained patience on the part of Warhol in his finely observed rendering of it.

It’s perhaps an unremarkable painting, except for its size, but as I state in the video essay above, in cutting this homely instrument out of the cadre of everyday life and magnifying it in extraordinary close-up, Warhol seemed to me to paint the platonic ‘Form’ of what a telephone is:—an ominous messenger on whose line hangs life and death.

That painted close-up reminded me of a shot early on in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). It comprises the third scene, in fact, just six minutes into the picture: a close-up of a black gallows handset, vaguely limned by moonlight, while white net curtains billow behind it.

The phone’s ringing rather urgently on the nightstand in the apartment of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). There’s a few other objects grouped in a loose still-life around it: an alarm clock crouching rather furtively on a copy of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America; a radio set, stoically silent; a racing rag, its leaves loosely folded; Spade’s pouch of Bull Durham tobacco, its puckered mouth half-open in a toothless sneer; a shallow enamel bowl in which a pipe sleeps, the dark, seductive curve of its bowl like the haunch of a curled-up dog.

A groggy hand reaches out from off-screen and fumbles the ameche off the nightstand. In quite a lengthy sustained shot, elegant in its simplicity, Huston holds on the vacant space left by the absent telephone without racking focus: as you might do when someone takes a phone call in the room with you, the camera continues to stare vacantly into space, its gaze politely out of focus as it pretends to interest itself in the breeze playing idly with the net curtains in the background.

All the while, our lugs are hanging out half a mile rightwards as we strain to make out the muffled voice off-screen informing Sam Spade that his partner’s Christmas has been cancelled.

Permanently, you dig?

One shot, one setup, one scene.

It’s masterful filmmaking—and one ought not to forget that The Maltese Falcon was Huston’s directorial début: right out of the gates, this thoroughbred writer-cum-director demonstrates his capacity to elegantly tell stories through simple yet potent images.

Key to the effectiveness of this scene, I think, are the cast of props who support the peerless Bogart—particularly that memorable black gallows telephone which takes centre stage on the nightstand, ready for its close-up, ready to trill into life as a herald of death.

I remember seeing The Maltese Falcon on the big screen at the South Bank Piazza in Brisbane, and this shot of the telephone, as a kind of cinematic subtext that communicates, sotto voce, the ‘mood’ of the scene it sits at the head of, has an outsize impact when viewed at scale.

The magnification of the close-up, in detaching an everyday object from its circumambient reality, is what brings out this potent symbolic aspect—its platonic ‘Form’ as trumpet, herald, fleet-footed, instantaneous messenger—and it was this that I apprehended so powerfully—as a visceral sensation—in Warhol’s painting.

As I state in the video essay, Surrealist poet Louis Aragon seemed to be the first to notice this subtle interplay of cutting and framing in cinema as the means of making visible the poetic quality that everyday objects invisibly possess, and yet don’t possess at all.

In his article “Du Décor” (1918), Aragon stated (and as I translate it in the video essay): ‘Doter d’une valeur poétique ce qui n’en possédait pas encore, restreindre à volonté le champ objectif pour intensifier l’expression: deux propriétés qui font du DÉCOR le cadre adéquat de la beauté moderne.’

It would take a Surrealist to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary, and that the intense découpage and cadrage of the close-up is the means by which filmmakers can make the invisible, poetic, dream-like quality of ‘le merveilleux’, beloved property of the Surrealists, visible and manifest.

One need only look at a shot like the famous close-up of the key clutched in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious (1946) to see, for instance, how Hitchcock makes the tiny object at the centre of the scene the overwhelming impetus and motive of the entire expensive party around her, surcharging it with a dream-like freight—a mood of irrational anxiety.

But Aragon’s prescient observation is not without precedent. He seems, in fact, to be re-stating in terms precisely geared towards the nascent visual art-form of the cinema a provocative maxim that Charles Baudelaire had stated, several decades earlier, for painting.

In Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Baudelaire states that beauty is composed to two elements, the general and the particular, the timeless and the timely—or, to put it another way, the ‘classical’ and the ‘modern’.

One gets the sense with M. Baudelaire that he regards the absolute value of ‘Beauty’ to be, in its quintessence, something like a chemical compound that can be ‘extracted’ and ‘distilled’ into its constituent parts.

In his most provocative assertion, M. Baudelaire states that this quality of ‘modern beauty’ must always contain an element of the weird and strange about it—‘Le beau,’ he says in Curiosités ésthétiques (1868), ‘est toujours bizarre.’

That quality of ‘weirdness’ is the ‘novelty’ of modern beauty, a certain seductive repugnance we sample with reluctant, distrustful fascination, only to find, in time, that we have acquired the taste for it, incorporating it into the economy of ‘good taste’ which characterizes classical beauty.

When Aragon says, therefore, that cinematic décor, the set-dressing of mise-en-scène, is ‘the appropriate frame for modern beauty,’ he is, I would argue, enunciating a Surrealist ésthétique du merveilleux which has its roots in Baudelaire’s proto-Surrealist conception of the Beautiful as inherently ‘bizarre’.

Take a flânerie through Taschen’s All-American Ads: 40s and All-American Ads: 50s if you want to see to what extent a cinematically-derived æsthetic of grandiose enlargement and removal from quotidian context magnifies the ordinary commercial objects of modernity and transfigures them, through advertising, as the surreal, dream-like keys to the problems of everyday life.

Once you’ve seen a packet of Old Gold cigarettes dancing, with shapely stems, on a burlesque stage, you have seen how the Surreal went mainstream—or perhaps, how fundamentally surreal the ‘mainstream’ is.

What the French Surrealists (like the Italian Futurists only slightly before them) were trying to communicate in their sense of ‘the marvellous’ behind the ostensible objects of their commodity-lust, was, I think, their inchoate apperception of classical beauty, the eternal and timeless couched behind the bizarrerie of modern objects.

Cars and æroplanes and trains, for instance, are merely visual metaphors which, when cinematically rendered, communicate the poetic impression of the platonic Form of speed, as once, in pre-modern times, the horse did.

Likewise, the telephone, that quintessential object of modernity which has transcended and remade itself to become the quintessential object of post-modernity, potently symbolizes the speed with which news—and particularly bad news—carries, and which once was personified by the ancient figure of Hermes, or Mercury.

We have assimilated the novelty of the uncanny phenomenon which the telephone represents so thoroughly into our modern economies of taste that we cannot readily see this archetypal dimension, the magic of an ancient deity, in the banal faces of our mobile phones.

And yet I’m reminded of a passage in Proust, in Le Côté de Guermantes (1920-1), where the Narrator recounts the surreal experience of telephoning his grandmother in Paris from the garrison town of Doncières. These were days, Marcel tells us, when the telephone was not yet in as common usage as it is today.

And yet habit takes so little time to strip of their mystery the forces with which we are in contact that, not being connected immediately, the only thought I had was that this was taking a very long time, was very inconvenient, and I had almost the intention of making a complaint. Like all of us these days, in my opinion, she was not fast enough in her brusque changes, that admirable fairy for whom but a few moments suffice to make appear beside us, invisible yet present, the being to whom we might wish to speak, and who, remaining at her table, in the city where she lives (for my grandmother, this was Paris), beneath a sky different to ours, in weather that is not necessarily the same, in the midst of circumstances and of preoccupations we are ignorant of, and of which this being is going to tell us, finds herself instantaneously transported hundreds of miles (she and all the surroundings in which she remains immersed) close to our ear, at the moment when our fancy has ordered it. And we are like the character in the tale to whom a genie, acting upon the wish that he expresses, makes his grandmother or his fiancée appear with a supernatural lucidity, in the midst of flicking through a book, of shedding some tears, of gathering some flowers, right beside the spectator and yet very far away, in the same place where she currently is. We have only, in order to accomplish this miracle, to bring our lips close to the magic horn and call—sometimes for a little too long, I admit—the Vigilant Virgins whose voices we hear everyday without ever seeing their faces, and who are our Guardian Angels in the dizzying darkness whose portals they jealously guard; the All-Powerful Ones by whose grace the absent rush to our sides without it being permitted that we should see them: the Danaids of the invisible who ceaselessly empty, refill and pass to one another the urns of sound; the ironical Furies who, at the moment when we are murmuring a confidence to a lady-friend, hoping that no one might overhear, cruelly shrieks at us, ‘I’m listening!’; the servants constantly irritated by the Mystery, the shadowy priestesses of the invisible, the Young Ladies of the Telephone!

—Marcel Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes (translated by Dean Kyte)

Like all of M. Proust’s exquisite observations, that passage reminds us palpably of his awareness of and presence to the ‘livingness of life’ that easy habit and overfamiliarity with our devices (who haunt us like magickal familiars) have made us blind to.

His ‘personification’ of the inanimate device of the telephone as a classical deity—fairy, genie, Vestal Virgin tending the wires, guardian angel, Danaid, Erinye—to be appeased and placated, a tyrannous servant who carries us the news instantaneously, and yet, despite circumnavigating the globe at the speed of sound, is a household god we still regard as much too slow, reveals the poetic quality of this quotidian object which, in Aragon’s words, ‘does not yet possess it.’

The telephone is too ‘new’ to be classically beautiful, but when, whether through M. Proust’s exquisite attentions to it, or through the cinematic poetry of detaching and framing, it is decoupled from its surroundings and regarded as an æsthetic object in itself, it too is as weirdly noble as a classical statue personifying our human foibles and passions.

I watched Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) a couple of nights ago, not having seen it in many, many years. Much like M. Proust’s vision of the telephone as the thread of the classical underworld, there’s a scene late in the picture where the telephone as symbol becomes the wires of the web which connects the criminal underworld of London, drawing inexorably tighter to entrap hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark).

Suddenly the innocuous sound of a telephone bell becomes a harbinger of betrayal as Fabian realizes that the fellow crook hiding him out has already phoned ahead to the gangster who is hunting him.

In a wonderful piece of acting, beautifully abetted by the lighting and décor, Widmark gently takes the receiver from the hand of his host and gently lays it down in the cradle with that beautiful hollow click the old Bakelite handsets make.

It’s a lovely gesture in its economy, conveying by means of acting, lighting and décor—just as in The Maltese Falcon—the potent yet underlying mood of menace which the big black rotary dial phone, similar to one I feature in my video essay, has as an æsthetic object—the telephone as weapon.

You can’t shoot a man with an ameche and you can’t knife him with one. But that sweet trill of the bell can be a death sentence, as it is to Harry Fabian.

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