Today on The Melbourne Flâneur, I take a flânerie around Bendigo, pausing only in my perambulations to breathe some poetic airs upon your ears in beautiful Rosalind Park.
The good burghers of Bendigo named their green space after the heroine of As You Like It, but as you can see in the video, there is something otherworldly about this ‘emerald isle’ in the midst of the city, such that it reminds one of the enchanted island of The Tempest.
It’s the perfect locale for a little poetry-declaiming, and with the rather Parisian skyline of Bendigo’s Pall Mall mansard-bristling at my back, I read you my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet “L’Idéal”, from my book Flowers Red and Black: Love Lyrics & Other Verses by Baudelaire.
There’s always an erotic edge to my writing, and like a pendulum, I oscillate between the sublimely romantic and the frankly pornographic, so it should come as little surprise that I am such an admirer of Baudelaire, or that I have translated so many of his love poems.
Though I had some slight acquaintance with M. Baudelaire beforehand, it was as a flâneur in Paris—the city of flânerie, the city of Baudelaire—that I really got to know the divine, diabolical M’sieu.
As I perfected the art of wandering the streets of Paris, the Latinate rap of Baudelaire’s high-flown rendering of low-brow subjects was a constant cicerone in my ear, directing me towards the tawdry tableaux which Paris flashes like her undergarments at the voyaging connoisseur of voyeurship.
‘Parisian life is abundant in poetic and marvellous subjects,’ Baudelaire observed. ‘The marvellous envelopes us and suckles us like air, but we cannot see it.’
Certainly I feel the same way when I set up my camera to capture those little vignettes of Bendigo, shots of rien de tout, which bracket the video above. Statues, street art, architectural details, empty vistas:—Bendigo (which bores the Bendigoans) is fecund in that surreal quality of the marvellous, the poetry which hovers behind the banality of things much-seen.
Baudelaire’s ambition was to make the Parisian see this invisible air in which he ambulated, to turn the exquisite flâneur experience of the ephemeral into a flâneur poem. In the same way, if there is any ‘poetry’ in the shots of nothing I insist on boring you with in my videos, it is the poetry of the ‘boring’ urban life which Baudelaire, lover of novelty and ennui, both wanted to escape from and escape more fully to.
Flânerie is an ‘altered state’ which reveals the invisible poetry of the visible city. Baudelaire, as the père of flâneur philosophy, was an inveterate chasseur after artificially-induced altered states which liberated the surreal poetry that is the resident spirit of the banal.
He praised the state of drunkenness as the essence of the poetic experience, and wrote a scholarly treatise on the poetic effects produced by hashish. And of course, Baudelaire was an amateur of that other intoxicating, protean substance which produces a poetic effect on men: la femme.
As a flâneur, he was a Daygamer avant la lettre, as may be witnessed by his ode to an anonymous passer-by. It’s one of Baudelaire’s most delicate and evanescent love poems, ineffably romantic and yet unmarred by any effeminate sentimentality whatsoever.
In a handful of lines, Baudelaire perfectly conveys that ephemeral experience which all men of the city know:—the lightning-flash moment when you see a woman you desperately want to approach surge forward from out of the crowd; the single second in which you clearly see a whole parallel existence with her; and the second afterwards when, jostled on by the crowd, you decline to embrace the destiny with her which you so clearly previsioned:
A bright light… then the night! Fugitive beauty
In whose glance I have been suddenly reborn,
Will I never see you again in all eternity?
Elsewhere, very far from here! too late! perhaps even never!
For I know not where you fly, and you know not where I go,
O you who I might have loved, O you who knew it!
Translating Baudelaire is not easy. As Alan Ginsberg remarked, if you can’t read him in the original, you have to take the aggregate of all the translations in English to get a sense of what he is saying.
It’s not that Baudelaire’s French is particularly difficult, although he does some vexing things with tense that English is not supple enough to elegantly convey. It’s rather that the images he manages to paint by combining a lofty, distant tone with the startling incorporation of things deemed ‘unpoetic’ produces a remarkably lucid effect with remarkable compression.
As with Shakespeare, there’s quite an unusual ‘range’ in Baudelaire’s language. He’s equally at ease with the most recherché classical allusions as he is with the slangy argot of the Parisian gutter, and he demands not only a requisite range from his English translator but a sense of how to convey in modern English the quality of ‘shock’—and even of ‘offence’—produced by this admixture of tone.
Few translators who have ‘tried their hand’ at Baudelaire have a good sense of him, methinks, for with the grotesquerie of his subject matter, it is too easy to make a schlocky parody of Baudelaire in English.
One requires an exquisite sensibility for the sublime horror (or horrific sublimity) of everyday life to approach Baudelaire on his own terms of unquiet desperation with normal, bourgeois existence. In fine, one requires an ample dose of that quality which he himself defined (finding no better word for it in French) as good old-fashioned English ‘spleen’.
In Flowers Red and Black, the poem which most conveys this choking, stifling sense of sublime horror (or horrific sublimity) is “The Jewels”, my translation of “Les Bijoux”.
It’s the most sensual, erotic poem in the collection, and the one I am always asked to read at poetry gatherings because it’s almost like a short story: in the space of a few minutes, people feel as though they have been completely transported into the small, stuffy chamber, lit only by firelight, in which Baudelaire and his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, are engaged in foreplay.
The heady incense of the smoke, the play of weird lights rising from the fire, the music of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’, and the way she undergoes a metamorphosis before the bard’s eyes, changing into a tiger, swan, slutty angel and classical catamite by turns, always gives people the hallucinatory sense, sans drugs, of the ‘altered state’ which Baudelaire experienced in sexual love.
And yet, because the banality of this everyday scene takes on a heightened potency and is attenuated to such an exquisite degree, there is a stifling, almost suffocating sense of sublimity into which an erotic horror enters, like the almost painful pleasure of the ‘petite mort’.
As romantic as his love poems are, there is nothing wilting and effeminate about Baudelaire, which is perhaps why women like this book. His voice is forceful and potent, and it seems to combine well with my own style as a writer, such that we make some ‘beautiful music’ together.
I’m thinking of publishing a second edition of Flowers Red and Black, revised and expanded, even including some of Baudelaire’s prose poems. But that project is some way in the future.
In the meantime, I have a very limited stock of the first edition on hand—about a vingtaine. It makes an original St. Valentine’s Day cadeau, and the dames do grok it. As I say in the video, I’ve been reliably informed (regrettably post facto) that ladies have regaled one another with my verses in bed.
I’ve also had a friend rip off my translation of “Les Bijoux” and try to pass it off as his own poem to placate a squeeze who wasn’t in the mood to be squeezed. (She saw through his play at once, which only served to further inspire her ire.)
You can purchase a copy through the Dean Kyte Bookstore, but if you want to buy a copy from me directly, you can do so either by clicking this link, or by registering your interest with me via the Contact form.
This allows me to get in touch with you to arrange payment and delivery details. It also enables me to get some particulars from you so that I can write a thoughtful, personalised message on your behalf to the lucky person you want to give the book to.
Plus, I will flourish the magic wand of my Montblanc Noblesse over the flyleaf and affix my personal seal in wax to it, so your first edition will be doubly exclusive.
A question I am often asked is, ‘What is a flâneur?’ As I explain in today’s video, a flâneur is a kind of ‘Parisian idler’.
Flâner (the French verbal infinitive from which the noun is derived) means both to stroll, saunter, walk or wander more or less aimlessly, and to loaf, laze, or lounge about. The ambulatory motion of the former would seem to preclude the stasis of the latter:—how does one walk and sit at the same time?
This paradox is merely the foundation of a complex structure of irreconcilable logical paradoxes which comprise the ludic enterprise of flânerie and constitute the characteristics of the flâneur.
The question then follows, what is it like to be a Melbourne flâneur? If to be a flâneur is to be a Parisian idler, then to be a Parisian idler in Melbourne would seem to add one paradox de trop to the complex character of the flâneur.
Pas du tout.
I find a lot of similarities between Melbourne and Paris. People often ask if Melbourne is like Europe. The answer is yes. Of all the Australian capitals, Melbourne has the strongest ties to Europe, and despite its fraternal links to Greece and Italy, there seems to me to be an unmistakable soupçon parisien to its arcades and laneways, its bars and cafés, such that I sometimes think of Melbourne as being ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’.
Key to Melbourne’s Parisian flavour is its walkability. It is, like Paris, a remarkably ‘walkable’ city: you can go very far on foot, and to be a flâneur you must be prepared to travel Melbourne without a car.
Fortunately, its famous tram network (the most extensive in the world) serves roughly an analogous rôle to the Paris Métro, being thoroughly integrated into the peculiar character of the city and the fabric of its streets.
This means that if you get tired of walking in Melbourne, you don’t have to go too far to find the nearest tram stop!
The reason why the flâneur is necessarily a pedestrian is because the pace of idle observation is measured by the foot. In his essay Le peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Charles Baudelaire defines the flâneur as a ‘passionate observer’ whose home lies in the crowd; as a ‘mirror’ large as the crowd itself; as ‘a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness’ which reflects its movements.
In fine, the flâneur is an instrument of observation which reflects the colourful spectacles it observes in two ways: both matter-of-factly, as a mirror reflects actuality, and interpretatively, as a thoughtful subject who reflects upon what it sees.
You can see why the observational avocation of the flâneur might be an amusing exercise for someone whose vocation it is to be a writer: the writer’s desire to transcribe the external details of reality with the rigorous exactitude of a piece of recording equipment finds its playful analogue in his detectival attempts to divine the hidden causes and motivations behind the riddle of events observed obliquely, en passant.
The art of writing is essentially the art of thinking, and there must necessarily be objects upon which the writer may reflect if he is to express his thoughts articulately. To wander dreamily through a beautiful city like Paris or Melbourne is, for a writer, both physical and mental exercise: it allows him scope to play with objects in the landscape, practising his powers of observation and description as he reflects them and reflects upon them in articulations he makes to himself.
‘To feel and to think’, to satisfy the desires associated with such abstract work, to cultivate the ideal of masculine beauty about their persons, this, for Baudelaire, is the sole profession of the dandy, whom he conflates with the flâneur, that ‘prince who revels in his incognito everywhere he goes.’
Indeed, there must always be something of the dandy about the flâneur. Among his many paradoxes, this slumming spy who loves ‘to be in the midst of the crowd and yet hidden from it’ is very much a ‘man of fashion’ in the classic sense, like an heir-apparent travelling in a foreign country under an assumed name, with nothing but the unmistakable marks of his elegance to betray his royal birth.
You cannot be a flâneur pur sang and not have more than a soupçon of the dandy about you. Precision of observation does not extend to external objects before it takes account of the correctness of one’s own comportment.
It is perhaps surprising to notice how many great writers, whose idle profession of feeling and thinking takes place in the ‘backstage’ of life, away from the observation of others, such that these spies are rarely the cynosure of all eyes, have nevertheless a touch of the dandy about them, a concern for dapper deportment.
An orderly mind is best expressed by orderly dress. And it is rare to find a writer who expresses himself on the page with unusual stylistic panache and who does not also possess some exquisite sprezzatura in his personal style.
Elegant writing, like elegant suiting, is the mastery of convention and the transcendence of strict limitations which define the correctness of expression.
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Melbourne transforms itself into a foreign wonderland at night. Armed with my Pentax K1000, I venture forth after-hours to capture ‘a Brassaï moment’—the moment when Highlander lane, between Flinders street and Flinders lane, reminds me of the square Caulaincourt in Paris—the setting of my first book, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012).
As a writer, I move from obscurity to clarity. For me, writing is a flânerie through the chiaroscuro of consciousness and unconsciousness. I enjoy the frisson of venturing into dark places which are foreign to me—like alighting from a taxi in a cosmopolitan European locale late at night, not sure where you are, barely speaking the language, some menacing silhouettes in the milieu to greet you.
Before I was ever a Melbourne Flâneur, I was a flâneur in Paris, the Mecca of flânerie. In L’Arrivée I wrote about my experience of feeling both fearful and fearless, arriving alone, late at night, in a small Parisian square in Montmartre. Despite barely speaking the language, I had a strange sprezzatura, a strange confidence in myself—in my mission and message as an artist—going forward.
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This morning I was re-reading Albertine disparue, by one of my chers maîtres, M. Proust.
One of those gems of perspicacity (either forgotten or unremarked in previous readings) which stand forth from the great forest of his text struck me with its elegant force and I was compelled to attempt the translation of it.
After watching the documentary about the fire at Notre-Dame on 4 Corners last night, the Monsieur’s observation reminded me of the places I knew well on the Île de la Cité and the Rive Gauche.
I never liked Notre-Dame when I lived in Paris: Kilomètre Zéro would always strike me as the epicentre of the touristic ‘cirque parisien’, the place we go to Paris ‘hoping to find’ and ‘giving ourselves such trouble in our attempts to discover’.
Yet when I saw the footage taken from behind the cathedral with the great plume of black smoke rising from the burning spire, I remembered a sketch I had dashed off one dark, overcast afternoon on the pont de la Tournelle.
It was hardly a premonition of future events. Yet life had given me ‘une vue de Notre-Dame de Paris’ which I was very far indeed from imagining.