veulent l’Éternel. Ils disent: pierre
Desire immortality. They say: ‘Stone,
May you live forever...’
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Le livre du pèlerinage (my translation)
A quick and dirty video postcard from your humble servant, currently on tour in the bristlingly cold Canberra. It’s the first time that your Melbourne Flâneur has visited our nation’s capital, and as always, for as voracious and avaricious an aficionado of art as I, a flânerie through the National Gallery of Australia was in urgent order.
True to what I have rapidly (and disconcertingly) discovered to be Canberran form, there’s not a lot going on there.
Apart from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952), the coup de scandale of the Whitlam Government, most of the international collection is jungled up.
But I did encounter a familiar face—albeit at a distance. Behind the velvet rope in a salle being prepared for a future display, I espied Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Buste de jeune fille (1791), which had been passing several seasons in Melbourne, on loan to the NGV.
That delightful demoiselle was one of the first femmes de Melbourne I met when I decamped down there, and she has always remained one of my favourite dames at the NGV, so much so that I photographed her gracious gorge in situ when she was living in our second city.
I think it’s one of my best photographs: a very shallow depth of field and a reasonably tight aperture at a reasonably fast shutter speed gives the little angel the look of swimming in a starry night. You can just see the ghost of her left profile reflected in miniature—hardly more than a memory—on the inside of the glass cage which was this little bird’s home in Melbourne.
So I was surprised to see ma p’tite chérie out of her box and out of the NGV;—surprised, a little saddened to know I would no longer be able to pay an occasional call on her at her hôtel in St Kilda Road, the Faubourg St-Germain of Melbourne, but also happy to see her free and proud as a figurehead on her new plinth, with a pair of Monets off to one side in her new boudoir, and a beautiful Japanese screen by Mochizuki Gyokusen at her back, draped round her bare shoulders like an exquisite kimono.
I’ve always loved this little girl because, like that glimmering ghost of her double profile mirrored in the glass, she is a link for me with the distant dream of Paris, where I first came to appreciate M. Houdon, one of the great French neo-classical sculptors of the eighteenth century. He was one of those aristocrats of talent, a favourite of both the ancien régime and the enlightened philosophes, who was able—narrowly—to keep his head pendant la Terreur.
He served, in fact, the court of Louis XVI, the cause of the Revolution, the Directory of the First Republic, and the First Empire of the Corsican Gentleman, the immortal Lui. Not a bad bit of politicking for an artist in days when being a priest du Beau was not protection enough to keep one’s head and neck together.
Heads and necks, perhaps unsurprisingly, figure beaucoup in this sculptor’s œuvre.
M. Houdon’s best-known for his busts and statues of the grand personages of the Siècle des Lumières, from Catherine the Great to George Washington. He was particularly well-disposed towards literary gentlemen, and his marble portrait of a seated Voltaire is still enthroned in the library of the Comédie-Française to this day, presiding over that section of la Maison de Molière.
The work is entirely characteristic of M. Houdon, who is almost like a photographer in marble: there is an extraordinary vivacity to all the sculptor’s portraits, which are distinguished by their extreme netteté, a precision of line, a sharpness of definition that puts one in mind of a candid snapshot.
The author of Candide is set before us with sparkling modesty, flirtatiously informal as he sits sans perruque in that work, one of several that M. Houdon made from the subject. There is, in fact, a beautiful small bronze bust of M. Voltaire by M. Houdon in the collection of the NGV which testifies to the great satirist’s generosity of spirit. His crooked, close-lipped smile and benevolent, shining eyes make him almost as great an object in my affection as the Buste de jeune fille.
She is indicative of another significant strain in M. Houdon’s œuvre; for in addition to being a lively and reliable recorder des grands hommes, there is another, more domestic side to this sculptor very much in demand and en vogue through successive French political fashions.
Rather like his late contemporary M. Ingres, M. Houdon was not above putting his precious materials and skills to use in making society portraits, including études of the children of his wealthy patrons which are numbered among his greatest works.
Even more beautiful than the Buste de jeune fille is the darling little portrait in terra cotta of Louise Brongniart, the daughter of an architect, which is one of the treasures of the musée du Louvre. There are nearly 40 photos of the bust on the official website of the Louvre showing the terra cotta study of Louise (who would then have been about five years old) from every angle, and which reveal an alertness, a quiet intelligence, and a sense of character which is truly exquisite in a head small enough to fit into your hand.
All the art of Jean-Antoine Houdon, that vivacité et netteté I spoke of, is contained in that charming little head, the surviving shadow of which I see, on this side of the world, in my little friend, the Buste de jeune fille.
Having finally seen ‘the Bush Capital’, Canberra’s not a place I have any burning desire to revisit, and it’s hardly a place worthy of a perky Parisienne. So I may not see her again any more than I may see la petite Louise, or my best-belovèd, le grand Paris, in this life.
So it was good to take a final video souvenir of her ensconced in her permanent home, a shaky shadow of the bright bust I had more accurately captured on film.
I intended to shoot this video when I was up in Bello last year, on the actual location where the scene I read to you takes place—the Meeting Place Park in front of the town library, the romantic backdrop to my famous attempt to ‘mash a pash’ out of the Norwegian tourist as it was to some of my other (more successful) efforts at seduction.
But I was having too much fun running the gab with my friends in weighty convos as we solved the problems of the world, so the video above didn’t get shot until after my abortive voyage to NSW was over and I was back in Victoria. You’ll have to imagine Geelong’s Johnstone Park—an altogether more grandiose green space—as standing in for the humble Meeting Place Park while you listen to me lube your lugs with the lubricious details of my adventitious adventure date with la Norvégienne.
Your Melbourne Flâneur goes on tour again to NSW from the middle of June—and hopefully this year, it won’t be an abortive experience!
First stop is Bello il Bello, where I alight on 15 June, so to all my friends in Bellingen, you will find me safely ensconced in my ‘office’, the Hyde café, and holding court for une quinzaine de jours from the following day, that feast day sacred to all writers (particularly those of a flâneurial disposition), the holy Bloomsday.
After that, it’s on to Sydney for another dizaine de jours in early July, and then your Melbourne Flâneur gets diplomatic and makes an embassy to our nation’s capital, running amok among the Canberran architecture for two weeks.
But to return to the raconteurial anecdote I unpack in the video above, the escalation of la belle Emma to the bedroom was the most memorable and significant of several such flâneurial encounters I had in the couple of years I lived in Bellingen.
As I say in the video, there are a few places in the world more romantic than Bellingen at night—particularly in the dead of winter, and the Meeting Place Park, which more than once served me as an impromptu boudoir for entertaining some lady-friend met fugitively, always had a resonance of Paris for me.
Indeed, even alone (and there were certain evenings when I went and huddled in the park for an hour or so, enjoying the triste twilight of winter), the flâneur in me could evoke from the trio of lamps in the Meeting Place Park and the façade of the Memorial Hall across the street the memory of the humble little neighbourhood parks of Montmartre—the one in the place Constantin Pecqueur (since renamed the square Joël Le Tac, after a hero of the Résistance), or the square Carpeaux, places I would go to sit on a summer evening before dinner.
At the risk of ‘Byronizing’ Bellingen and having a foule de touristes descend upon it, I’ll go so far as to make the bold claim that, on a winter’s night, nowhere in the world—not even my best belovèd Paris—is as romantic as Bellingen when you have a girl on your arm—particularly when she’s a beautiful Norwegian tourist with dark hair, pale, delicate features, and a smile as inscrutable as la Gioconda’s.
And without wishing to inflate my credentials as a pocket-edition Casanova too greatly, I’m no stranger, as a flâneur and a former Daygamer, to the peculiar pleasure of playing cicerone to some girl I’ve just met, conducting her on an epic escalation that ends in a place and an experience I could not have anticipated when I first tied into this attractive étrangère on the street, this passante I heroically resist passing by but choose to approach.
I’ve given you, dear readers, some hints, some teases of a plot I’ve been plotting since our second lockdown in Melbourne, when the only flâneries I could take were through memory and imagination, transmuting some of the experiences I had had doing Daygame on the streets of Melbourne into my first substantial work of fiction in about fifteen years.
And though I hesitate to tell you more about the literary crime I am plotting, which emerges as an off-shoot of The Spleen of Melbourne project, suffice it to say that, like Thomas Hardy re-entering ‘the olden haunts at last’ in one of my favourite poems, “After a Journey”, I have had cause and occasion in the last three months to re-enter ‘the dead scenes’ of my Melburnian amours and attempt to track, digital sound recorder in hand, the ‘voiceless ghosts’ of myself and some girl I briefly loved lingering in the traces of these places.
Last Tuesday night, for instance, I was up till after 2:00 a.m. in the city, re-tracing with my sound recorder the steps of a flânerie I had taken with a Canadian lady who had tied into me, liking, as she did, the cut of my dandified jib, from a certain cocktail bar in Swanston Street to a point, in Elizabeth Street, which ended in enigma and mystery for me.
I have written elsewhere on this vlog of the immense pleasure that nighttime flânerie gives me when I go out, analogue camera in hand, to bag some image of beauty that has caught my eye in other wanderings, how the walk takes on an intoxicating momentum of its own, leading me to other prospects, other potential images. In the last three months, I have found a similar, but even more rarefied pleasure in retracing my night walks through Melbourne with women using the sound recorder.
There’s a fair amount of ‘method acting’ involved even in the passive process of recording: four times between midnight and 2:00 a.m. last Tuesday, I retraced the steps I had taken, arm-in-arm, with la Canadienne. I was reliving in my memory what I had actually experienced with her and simultaneously imagining myself in the fictional version of our flânerie, which is altogether more surreal and sinister.
By the third time I set off from my ‘first position’ and passed the security guys in front of The Toff in Town, treading stealthily so as to get as little sound of a solo set of footsteps on the recording as possible, they must have thought I was some fou and wondered what the hell I was up to.
One woman with whom I shared a few beautiful flâneries de nuit in Melbourne used to call me ‘Puss in Boots’ due to my dandified prowling. The nickname confused me at first. Dredging up a dim memory of the fairy tale from childhood, I asked her: ‘Wasn’t he some kind of con man?’
Bien sûr, and she was savvy enough to intuit my Machiavellian admiration for these artists who are, as David W. Maurer calls them in The Big Con (1940), ‘the aristocrats of crime’. But more than that, she was savvy enough to tell me, in that intuition, what my ‘totem animal’ is: at night, I am the cat, that furry flâneur who is the urban hunter of big cities, as aristocratic a prowler as the little black panther who treads stealthily through Saul Bass’ title sequence to Walk on the Wild Side (1962).
I can’t wait to get up to Bello and do some night shooting. All the time I lived up there, the magic of midnight in Bellingen seemed so much a part of life it never occurred to me to record an instance of it. When I was up there last year, on my final night, loitering in Church Street after even No. 5 had closed, I knew I had had too much fun—I had been so run off my feet with it, with my Proustian obligations to be the literary social butterfly of Bellingen, that I had forgotten to haul out my camera even once to capture the ‘dead scenes’ of all my amours.
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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.
If you would like to support my work, consider purchasing the audio track below.
‘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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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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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.
What esprit de flânerie had drawn him here he could not say. But the image of it,—the rusted tracks, their ties overtaken by the marauding verdure; the red, unrolling rollingstock blocking tracks which vanished in the horizon of ruinous green,—seemed an apt metaphor for his life with women.
As afternoon segued to evening with the savageness of a cut, he saw himself as an empty, twilit platform where no woman would again alight, the unchalerous shell of a darkened station which would no more warmly receive the transitory train of her ambassade through the embassy set over the foreign country of his interior life. A lamp which illuminated nothing; a sign which apprised no one of nowhere; a bench conveniently placed, and upon whose convenience no one rested and refreshed themselves:—Sometimes places, in their abstraction, resemble us more closely than do other people.
—Dean Kyte, “駅の物語” (“Conte de gare”)
I’ve always had a fascination with trains and train stations. You might think train travel a rather contradictory passion for a flâneur, the most freewheeling of voyageurs: Why should this epic pedestrian, drawn in his dreamy dérive by lines of random desire which sing out to his eye from every street corner, be inexorably attracted to the most restrictive and linear mode of movement through space, one which offers only limited scope for him to exercise his predatory passion for æsthetic investigation?
Hélas, if, like Walt Whitman, I contradict myself, then, dear readers, I contradict myself. As I hope the video and prose poem above attest, I contain multitudes. My soul is as large, as empty and as cryptic a labyrinthine structure as that palatial tomb which lounges alongside the Yarra, receiving and debouching visitors to Melbourne.
And it is certainly no coincidence that as a Melbourne flâneur, I should equally be an aficiónado of that kissing cousin of the train, the tram.
As an aristocrat of the gutter, a gentleman who makes his home in the street, to park my wheels momentarily in the tram, democratic chariot of Melburnians of every caste and class, and exercise my penetrating gaze over Collins or Bourke or Flinders streets from the very midst of them is to enjoy a flâneurial delectation which no other city in the world can offer to as extensive an extent. Verily, to make one’s royal procession up Bourke street on the back of one of these reines de la rue, shaking her bells at the milling mallers who make deferential way for her, is really to get a recherché experience of one of the world’s great thoroughfares.
I’m not quite sure what it is about trains and stations that has always attracted me to them, except that, as Sig. De Chirico seemed to apprehend in paintings such as Gare Montparnasse (1914), both the station and the train are places of dream.
Like Cole Porter, I get no kick in a plane. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do. But lay me down in the gently rocking berceau of a roomette and let me nurse my dreams on that flux of images flying by the window, towns known and unknown, and I will feel myself swaddled in a womb of contentment.
Soon my month-long sojourn in Wagga Wagga ends and I reboard the train, bound for the destinations which are the purpose of my three-month voyage in NSW—Coffs Harbour and Bellingen.
Of course, the destination is a woman. Or women, as the case may be.
I’ve been nursing the dream of seeing Bello again since our second, soul-destroying lockdown in Melbourne last year. In the four months I was under house arrest in a West Melbourne hotel room, my restless esprit ennuyeux de flâneur confined to perambulations through dreams and memories inspired by old photographs and footage taken, as in the video above, during other voyages, writing the second draft of my current work in progress, set in Bellingen, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, was one of the few things that kept me sane.
When our ‘Dear Leader’, Mr. Andrews, deigned to release us last November, dangling a tentative morsel of liberty before us (albeit one bounded by a radius of 25 kilometres), my experience of coming out of deep freeze was the inverse of what my Melburnian confrères had complained of all through lockdown: I had lived tensely on my nerve endings for so many months that I felt a sudden crash in energy and an onset of depression at being abbreviatedly free, whereas most of my fellow Melburnians had had their dose of depression in the prison of their homes.
Almost the first thing I did as soon as I was out of the cage was to re-open lines of communication with a woman, the thought of whom, like Dulcinea, had been one of those few things which kept my windmill-wizened brain sane when it seemed eminently possible that the Victorian Government and Victoria Police would go full Stasi on us.
And, as you can imagine with these undependable dames, even a polite inquiry into one’s health was met with radio silence.
That, and freedom, and the American election all coinciding at once seemed to soak my vibe of every adrenal ounce I had needed to endure four months of lockdown in a state which had descended with frightening rapidity towards totalitarianism.
And it was in that state of physical and emotional exhaustion that I made the video above and penned the attendant prose poem.
Trawling through my footage, I seemed to find in the abandoned Trentham train station an image of my soul at that desolate moment. Trentham’s a little town, about halfway between Woodend and Daylesford, which reminded me a great deal of Bellingen when I had stayed there about two years before. As refugees from Newtown in Sydney ‘tree change’ to Bellingen, imagining a verdant, paradisal embassy of inner-city liberalism in the country, so Fitzrovians fleeing Melbourne are steadily driving the property prices in Trentham up above a million dollars.
I’m told you can follow the old railway ties, half-buried in the verdure, from the station to quite a good pub in the next town, but that was a flânerie too energetic for yours truly, being more in the way of a ‘hike’, and my Italian-shod soul demands a nature denuded by copious asphalt and good paving to support it. I probably walked no further towards the slaking refreshment of that mythical pub than where you find my camera set up in the first two shots of the video.
But in the image of an abandoned country railway station at dusk, and in the ghostly sound of a spectral steam train puffing along a ruined route down which no train could nowadays pass, I saw an image of myself, shagged and fagged and fashed on the threshold of middle age, my days as a ladies’ man now well behind me down that ruined pike, having decided that there was one woman left for me in the world to conquer or none at all, one whose tardy silence to my text seemed to leave me, like my camera in the video, lingering restlessly for a train that had been infinitely delayed—and maybe even derailed long before I had arrived at the terminus of this moment of realization that there was but one woman in the world I would deign to travel to the end of the line with.
That sense of the mood—and often the melancholy mood—of empty places which I have elsewhere called ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’, a dark, ponderous sadness about the unpeopled spaces of the city, the unfathomable, heart-breaking mystery of the real and manifest and visible which I and my cameras seem very sensitive to, was potent for me then.
I did eventually hear from the lady in question, and her perky obliquities were worse than if she had left me mired in my tristes mystères of unknowing and Jamesian speculation upon the multiple potential motives of her silence.
And I admit that, since November of last year, I haven’t been quite myself, and I certainly haven’t been at my best. I haven’t entirely recovered from that triple blow of sudden decompression from lockdown, a conversation unresolved and infinitely deferred, and the latest (as it then was) apocalyptic twist to the devolving screw of Western civilization which an American election in the time of Coronavirus represented.
Mostly since then I’ve just tried to beat back my spleen, tamp it down by blows and kicks and cudgels until such time as I could get on that train and find out for myself what goes on with this dame.
Now the train of months has just about drawn up to the platform, and I’m about to find out if this whole trip to NSW, assiduously planned, was worth the price of knowing the truth, or whether I would have been happier trying to decipher unhappy mysteries from the distance of another state.
The train and the station seem quite significant symbols for me in my writing, as in my life. My latest work in progress, a memoir of seduction, is about an occasion when I took the XPT from Bello (or Urunga, to be more precise) to Brisbane, partly to catch the last few days of David Lynch’s exhibition at GoMA, Between Two Worlds, and partly to slay myself in the kind of unfettered Daygame you can’t do but covertly in a small town.
I was all set to get on the train at around 11:00 that night when, an hour or two before I was due at the station, I had the romantic encounter, right there in Bello, I was going to Brisbane for.
I almost missed my train: the lady in question was showing me such a good time I almost blew off a whole trip to Brisbane just to finish what I had started with her. I didn’t sleep that night—and not because it’s damn difficult to do blanket duty on the overnight XPT: I nursed the memory of her kisses as the train rocked and rolled me to Briz Vegas, tried not to let their reality dissolve into dreams until such time as I would be able to write this totally unexpected victory down verbatim in my journal.
I’m now 93% through the second draft of that book, and last week I had a chance to get down to the commencement of the finale, my second round with the redhead, when I was back in Bello, finishing off the pleasure I had deferred for the love of art.
Possibly it makes a difference to be on this side of the border, to be this much closer to the place, both in space and time, for there was a moment, in rewriting the scene, when the sensual reality of the experience—not just her hand in my lap and mine under her dress, but the little park before the library with its globes of yellow light giving it a Parisian air, and the delicious freddezza of Bello in June, made more delicious still when you have the warmth of a woman in your arms—produced the same sensual frisson in me as I felt that night so many years ago.
I could see the place and hear it again. I could feel the chill, valley night which I’ll know again, after so many years’ distance, in another week or two. Having taken me away from a place where the spectres of myself in scenes of dead love with various women are still vivid in my memory, the train will take me back there.
If I were to connect the psychological network map of my amoursmorts, I think I would discover that women and trains and stations all seem unconsciously connected to me, and that, indeed, I can plot the points of some of the stations of my experience as equally the terminuses of my affairs with several women.
There was the French girl, never to be forgotten, and never, I fear, to be sufficiently honoured in the pearl-like words of peerless prose her soul deserves, whom I kissed goodbye with the heart-breaking knowledge that I would never see her again in this life at the turnstile to the Métro in Belleville.
A few hours hence, I would be getting on the Eurostar to London, and thence, by tube, to Heathrow, carrying the sacred chalice of her kiss across continents and time zones as I wrote the memory of her down in my journal.
The last girl who was of any significance to me before I gave up Daygame, I also saw off on the Metro—at Eltham Station in Melbourne. A Dutch girl of Persian descent, I still see her pretty, dark face framed with ringlets becoming as small as a postage stamp through the pane of the door as it flies away from me, back to Holland.
And as for the object of my fact-finding mission north of the border, the last time I saw her was when we were on a train together in Brisbane, far removed from the climes in which we had known each other in Coffs.
I remember writing to her in a belated birthday card about a year after that last rendez-vous that, when I had gotten off the train at Roma Street, I had not looked back at her—had not been able to look back at her—because I was looking forward to the next time I would see her.
After a lot of near misses in the intervening years, the moment I have been looking forward to may be imminent. The tragedy would be to discover that that last moment of loving vision I sacrificed for this next moment, and which I have looked forward to with anticipation, was really the end of our relation; that I missed my connection with her; and that, for years, I have been wandering around the tomb of Roma Street, not even realizing that I am in the terminus of love.
If you enjoyed the video and the prose poem, you can download the soundtrack for $A2.00. Just click the “Buy” link below.
I was either concentrating very hard, or Denis was very jungled-up (which is hard to do in Centre place at the moment, still beaucoup underpopulated as Melbourne struggles to shake off the enduring shackles of lockdown), because I didn’t notice anyone lurking in the laneway with a camera trained on yours truly.
But I remember the day—how could I not when I had opted to break out the white tie, white French cuff shirt with spread collar, and white opal cufflinks to go with my dark grey suit with its alternating pink and white pinstripes? Consequently, I remember what I was writing that day, and I’ve got a pretty good idea what I was studying so intently when Denis captured me peering at my screen.
I think I was probably plotting a literary murder at that moment!
Yes, beneath the serene, snapbrim-shaded visage of your Melbourne Flâneur, it looks like Denis has caught me, not red-mitted, but with full mens rea and Machiavellian malice aforethought.
It’s a great photo. I particularly like the way Denis has dialled down the vividness of my preferred location for literary enterprise to emphasise the grey and white camouflage of my ensemble. The skin tone of face and hand are the only sign of anything human hiding out in the monochrome locale.
Though you probably wouldn’t imagine from Denis’s photo that I was meditating on hinky deeds at that moment, I think he’s probably captured something essential about me, wrapped up in dark labours which seem externalized to the environment around me. As a writer, I am as ‘un prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’ (‘a prince who revels in his anonymity everywhere he goes’), as M. Baudelaire puts it: to be an homme de lettres is to possess an exclusive species of celebrity—the freedom to walk the streets and still remain utterly unknown.
This is a deeply satisfying species of celebrity which Delta Goodrem, for instance (who just walked past me in Centre place wearing a horrendously ugly white overcoat, like the shaggy pelt of some synthetic beast), will never know.
Ms. Goodrem, God bless her, is no princess enjoying her incognito. She wishes very much to be seen by her serfs, if not actually approached by them.
When I’m at work at the 3 Little Monkeys, I often fancy myself (as Denis seems to have intuited) as being deep undercover—practically invisible to the environment, so invisible does the environment become to me when I enter deeply into the meditative state of writing. But being an unreconstructed dandy, even camo’d up in my grey combo, I recognize that I stand out as the one of the more conspicuous pieces of wildlife in vibrant Centre place.
Although I have many other secret and not-so-secret writing locations cached around Melbourne, the 3 Little Monkeys has been the Melbourne Flâneur’s ‘head office’ for as long as I’ve lived here: as tiny, as ‘inconvenient’ a locale in which to write as this little café might appear, practically from Day 1 of my vie melburnienne I have colonized a table on its shoulder-width terrace in Centre place, come rain or come shine, and have done the boulot of writing.
As a flâneur, the thing I love about Centre place is the Parisian ambiance of this narrow café strip. I fell in love with that ambiance almost immediately, for the dark grey slate of the ledge of sidewalk running along both sides of the laneway reminded me of the asphalt trottoirs of Paris. Then too, the absurdly narrow width of those sidewalks, crammed, on either side of the garage-like doorways of the cafés, with postage-stamp tables, stools and the upturned milkcrates which serve, in Melbourne, as our native seating, recalled to me some of the tiny, tavolino-lined terrasses I sat on in the backstreets of Paris, scribbling away.
From my vantage at either of the two tables on the terrace of the 3 Little Monkeys, I have a narrow vision of the grey Melbourne firmament between the CAE and the Punthill Hotel—almost as grey as the platinum sky of Paris. When I first came to Melbourne, the no outdoor smoking rule had not yet been introduced, so—most Parisian of all—the grey atmosphere of Centre place was typically further clouded with carcinogens.
Moreover, the 3 Little Monkeys faces the side entrance of the Majorca Building, one of the jewels of art déco architecture in Melbourne. It didn’t take me a week to realize the cinematic potential of the terrace of the 3 Little Monkeys, and very early on in my vie melburnienne, I made the video below, in which you can see me sitting in meditative bliss on the terrace of the café but reflected, ghost-like, in the elegant side entrance to the Majorca Building across the laneway.
I’ve always written outdoors, in parks and cafés. When I was a film critic on the Gold Coast, I got into the habit of writing the first draft of my reviews as soon as I came out of the cinema. I would write in cinema foyers, on the platform of train stations, at bus stops. The most uncomfortable locations served as ersatz offices for me, and I learned to block out the environment and go inward, projecting my thoughts onto the landscape around me.
I learned to enter something like a ‘conscious trance’ in public: within a few minutes of picking up my pen, all the noise and distraction of the place falls away, and it is almost as though material reality becomes a symbolic projection of what I’m thinking. The words are ‘out there’, occluded in the shapes of streets and people, trees and flowers, and the deeper my gaze penetrates into the environment around me as I write, the more I am mining out of myself the precise shape of a thought.
It’s in one of those trance-like states, when my introverted intuition is operating at maximum revs and, despite the manifold colourful distractions posed by Centre place, I’m locked onto an image deep within myself, one which I can see spelled out in the environment around me as I search for le seul mot juste, that Denis has captured me in the picture above.
But although I had gotten into the habit of taking the office outdoors on the Gold Coast, it was not until I went to Paris that the habit of conducting the most private, the most introverted of arts in the most public of places became a matter of the deepest necessity. In Paris, the streets were my office: having no private place in which to write, I bared all, exposing myself to the public gaze in parks, gardens, galleries, bars, cafés, street-side benches.
The analogy of the flasher, the exhibitionist is not sans raison for the écrivain en plein air—particularly one who is as unreconstructed a dandy as myself. I have written elsewhere of the deep introversion which is a prerequisite of dandysme pur-sang, and of how the dandy’s shy propensity towards introversion makes the literary art, one typically conducted in deepest privacy, almost the only profession that this ‘splendour among shades’ is fit for.
But for the writer who is a dandy and a flâneur, a man of the street, a man who is forced to make his home in the street, to treat the most public, the most impersonal and uncomfortable of environments as casually and comfortably as if he were relaxing in his own private parlour, there is almost a samurai-like discipline about the way in which he makes friends with discomfort, performing the most private art-form, the ‘art of thinking’—which is what writing is when it is performed with absolute sincerity—in the most public of places.
In fine, in making himself, in his deepest reflections and meditations, vulnerable to view, in entering that trance-like state of deepest, most concentrated intuition in public, he ‘exposes himself’ in the act of thinking.
Like public onanism, there’s something rather aberrant about writing en plein air, I admit, because we usually regard it as so difficult a task that a setting of perfect comfort and seclusion is required to optimally milk the muse of inspiration. All distractions must be banished so that we can concentrate.
There’s something aberrant, moreover, about thinking in our society, so that someone who is clearly ‘doing it’ in public is making rather a spectacle of himself!
But after a certain point in my career, having been jostled and hassled out of my sedentary nature by life, I found it almost impossible to have a private place in which to write, and having been forced to discipline myself by doing the work in public, making the best of all possible conditions, making myself oblivious to all external distractions by entering a conscious state of trance, I would not want to go back to the days when I had my own desk and chair in my own private office.
The experience of making do with my lap, with dirty park benches, with cramped and narrow tavolini or corners of noisy cafés and bars in Paris, of having my pages rained on or blown away by the wind, of being harassed by distracting gypsies wanting to gyp me out of a euro, was a salutary training for what my life, as a peripatetic writer living out of a suitcase and a duffel, has largely been since then. Like the samurai who makes a pillow of a stone, as a writer I have made the street my ‘private thinking parlour’, and I am perfectly comfortable and relaxed doing my private business of thinking in public.
In Paris, ‘my office’, the place I repaired to every evening to do my writing, was Le Cépage Montmartrois, at 65, rue Caulaincourt, the golden café I immortalized with page after page of hallucinatory description in my first book, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012).
For the price of a demi of Amstel, I could sit for hours on a grey-gold Parisian evening, my notes of the day, the drawings I had sketched before the works of the masters in the Louvre, the maps tracing my flâneries, my dog-eared copies of Flaubert and Baudelaire, my beautiful monograph on Ingres all spread open before me on the tiny table as I wrote, like fantastic celestial maps linking all my disparate thoughts.
I was, for a time, a subject of curiosity to the indulgent folk who ran Le Cépage, so extravagant and strange was the wealth of material I produced every evening in the arcane alchemy of converting the reality of experience into scintillating prose. They’ve probably forgotten me by now, but there was a brief period when the burning question of the day was what ‘le M’sieu’ (as I was then known aux bons gens du Cépage) was up to with all these puzzling pages covered in his cryptic script.
As Les Deux Magots was to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, so Le Cépage was to me—and is, for it remains the café by which I have measured all my far-flung ‘offices’ ever since. As I wrote in L’Arrivée, the moment the taxi drew up, in the dark of night, before ‘le sein d’or du Cépage’, I knew (as one occasionally knows with a woman one meets by chance) that my life was inextricably linked to this café, and that we had been predestined by our mutual karma to meet and become historically significant to each other.
But Orfeo did not yet know that le mystère du nom de ce café-ci would be the least of les mystères which Le Cépage Montmartrois would pose for his sensuous investigation, nor that tous les mystères which it would pose before him would in one way or another be connected avec la question du nom. How could he? He had had no connaissance of its existence avant ce soir. Nevertheless, faced avec ce café-ci with its enigmatic nom, ce café which immediately invited Orfeo’s sensuous investigation, he had the inescapable sense that somehow he had known that Le Cépage Montmartrois would be here, as if it were somehow connected à son destin and all that he had come à Paris à la recherche of, although he had had no premonition of it beforehand. He had had no conscious premonition of it, but nevertheless he felt as though he had had some unconscious intimation of its existence; and however hard he stared into the alluring lueur of it, Orfeo could not for the life of him make out what it was about ce café-ci, what hovered in its golden radiance which made him feel as though its mystère—its mystique, même—was somehow personally and intimately connected with him, avec son destin. He was bouleversed by the 哀れness that ce point-ci at which he had been destined to arrive since the dawn of his days, which he had worked towards in his soul without any conscious connaissance that this physical point dans l’espace was destined to be consubstantial with Orfeo’s psychological, and spiritual, and developmental arrivée à sa nouvelle réalité, was indeed ce point-là; and that henceforth ce point, as le cœur et l’épicentre of that experiential map which Orfeo would draw de sa nouvelle réalité, would be his anchorage, le point to which he would habitually return, whether or not it was precisely le point to which he had asked le chauffeur to deliver him to. For the golden allueure du Cépage Montmartrois was too strong to be resisted, so that Orfeo felt that whatever was mystérieux about Le Cépage Montmartrois, whatever impalpable allure was atomized in that golden agency which had called to Orfeo’s unconscious mind from across oceans and was consubstantial avec la forme de ce café-ci, whatever it was that was in the yellowmellow beurrelueur of this particular café—nay, even inside of it—to be explored, was destined to be intimately connected with Orfeo’s sensuous investigations du monde parisien; and his explorations du nouveau monde de sa nouvelle réalité, as he redrew his own experiential map du monde de jour en jour, pushing back the boundaries of himself, would have their bearing upon ce lieu-ci as much they would derive their bearings from this anchoring point, such that whatever was le mystère du Cépage Montmartrois which le détective des belles choses, in his unique destin, had been called this great distance to rationalize and resolve, to reveal to all in all its mysterious relations, parttopart and parttowhole; this mystère had its inevitable cœur—its starting point—au sein d’or du Cépage Montmartrois.
—Dean Kyte, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012)
I think you can tell by the babel of lyricism which Le Cépage evoked in me that it was love at first sight!
Only in Bellingen, where the rather restless lifestyle I’ve led for the last seven years really began, have I had a similar experience of a café which felt as much to me like a ‘home’, a place where I would effectively ‘live’—and do my best living—when I went there every day to write.
When I stepped off the XPT and my friends straightway took me to the Vintage Nest (as the Hyde was then), a café-cum-quirky-antique-store in a former drapers’ shop on the main drag, I knew I would love Bellingen. At that time, the café was run by the church who owned the op-shop next door, as a rather upmarket outlet for their more valuable wares.
It was tragedy to me when it changed hands and the ever-altering array of beautiful antiques which gave the place so much character and charm gradually disappeared, but faithful to the last, for more than two years, rarely a nine o’clock would chime without me coming through the door to set up my laptop, pour a long black into the fuel tank, and start writing.
And it’s as much a testament to my affinity with the Hyde in the early days after the change-over that, as Le Cépage occupies so many pages of my first book, there’s a significant scene set at the Hyde in my last book, Follow Me, My Lovely… (2016). I think I devote some of the best writing in Follow Me, My Lovely… to the morning-after moment when I took the most beautiful girl I have ever had in my bed to ‘the best café in town’ for breakfast.
So cafés are, for me, more than merely ‘my office’, the places I go to in order to write: they are significant sources of inspiration in my writing. I love them as much as some of the women I have known, and like women who have left some lasting impact upon me, sometimes I feel driven to immortalize the ‘souls’ of these cafés in which I have done my work.
I don’t think they saw me at the 3 Little Monkeys for the rest of the year after lockdown was declared in mid-March. But I still needed the matutinal fuel of writing. I discovered some good java-joints in North Melbourne, where I hunkered down to weather the storm, but it was not the same to have to dash out for five minutes each morning, hiding my beautiful mug behind a mask, simply to port back to my room a paper chalice I could suck on while punishing my brains.
As misanthropic as I am at mid-life, I missed the people, whose hubbub in the laneway makes the jangling music that accompanies my mental labours. Inured to distraction as unconducive circumstance has made me, I am probably one of those writers Ms. Temple cites in her post as actually requiring a measure of background noise to focus me: my literary antibodies need something in the environment to fight against.
There is, as Ms. Temple says, something vaguely ‘performative’ about being a café littérateur, but only, I would argue, if you’re there to make a ‘show’ of writing rather than to write. Whatever the artist, we can all tell a poseur from a professional—except, it seems, the poseur himself. As Denis’s portrait reveals, there is an earnestness, a look of presence—of investment in the present moment—which radiates from the writer who is really thinking, and who is not just licking the end of his pencil.
As a case of a writer who undertook the public performance of his craft with sincerity, Ms. Temple cites Harlan Ellison, who had the idée géniale of writing in the windows of bookshops, like a cobbler or a watchmaker plying his trade in his shop-window. ‘I do it because I think particularly in this country people … think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere,’ Ellison said. ‘… So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job … like being a plumber or an electrician.’
Living a peripatetic lifestyle, one of the joys of being a writer on the hoof is having an ‘office’ in every city, town and suburb I visit, just as a sailor has a girl in every port. Wherever my flâneries take me, the first order of business is to find a café that serves good coffee but, more importantly, has a good ambiance in which to write.
So in Sydney, you will typically find your Melbourne Flâneur stationed at Parisi or Jet, his ‘field offices’ in the Queen Victoria Building. In Brisbane, I have my command post set up at the suitably European Marchetti in the Tattersall’s Arcade, where you might hear me pass a few terse words of Italian with the wait staff.
Adelaide still poses a problem for me. Being a Parisian in my soul, I do like the French crêperieLe Carpe Diem in Grenfell street, but there’s unfortunately not a lot of visual interest or colourful foot-traffic at the eastern end of Grenfell street. The coffee is great, but the location is comme ci comme ça.
En revanche, you can get a good brew at the well-situated Larry & Ladd in the Regent Arcade. Unfortunately, if you want to write, you need to sit at the big benches outside the café in the middle of the arcade, because Messrs. Larry and Ladd play their dance music so loud it’s like a nightclub inside.
It certainly gives your literary antibodies something to fight!
By far the best café for writing in Adelaide, in my experience, is a little out-of-the-way place in Somerton Park, so if any Adelaidean writers can recommend a more central location, I would be happy to hear any suggestions in the comments below.
And I invite you to take a closer look at Denis’s Instagram. With so much of photographic interest in Bendigo to occupy him, I was very complimented to receive his picture of me out of the blue and discover that I had caught his savvy eye while revelling in my princely incognito! Check out more of his work here and on Facebook.
As we huddled, cuddling under my raincoat, in the Treasury Gardens, and kissing in the quickening winter’s dusk, I had a dim sense of the con being worked upon me—the futility of victory with a woman I had already conquered.
It doesn’t matter if you have already slept with them these days:—For no matter how much she is attracted to you, or how much she genuinely likes you at any given moment, each time you encounter her, you must reconquer her as if you had never conquered her before, like Sisyphus re-rolling the rock.
In the Treasury Gardens, I had a palpable sense of the unreality of her reality beneath my touch, like clutching an armful of clouds. As much as I didn’t want the moment to be over, I wanted it to be over quickly, for I sensed that she was not really there.
—Dean Kyte, “The Touch”
The abiding theme of my writing—and, indeed, all my art—is the mystery of women. To say that every femme I encounter is fatal to me in some way, and that all my amours eventually devolve into bitter, baffling mysteries on which I never get any closure, is to give you just a hint, dear readers, of the oneiric altered state that is your Melbourne Flâneur’s permanent reality—the surreal, half-lit world I walk through where the landmarks of quotidian banality are big symbols, clues and metaphors for a mystical conspiracy hiding in plain sight.
Major agents of that universal conspiracy? The dames, Jack, the dames…
I used to be a bit of a ladies’ man. I used to do a bit of Daygame, but I walked away from the Game a few years ago after an experience which ought to have been—and was—my greatest triumph at persuading a woman out of her clothes and into my arms.
Having been forced, by a conflation of circumstances, to take some time away from what had been my heart’s passion—the pursuit of those trying beings who inspire one half of the human race to their highest creations, their wildest follies, and their darkest crimes—I felt no burning urge to go back to the dating game.
And these days, no matter how hard I jam the keys of Comfort, Attraction and Intimacy in the ignition and turn them, I just can’t get my motor purring over the prospect of a date anymore, those mystical occasions for the flâneur, as evoked in the video and prose poem above, when lonely exploration of the dark yet luminous mystery of the city intersects with the mystery of a dame in your arms.
I gave up the Game when I realized, dimly, that it was rigged. No matter how good a man gets at it, he is always at a disadvantage to the prey he is hunting, for feminine seduction is to masculine warfare what persuasion is to force—a cold warfare – which is the only kind that can disable the kinetic variety without a shot being fired.
As Robert Greene says in The Art of Seduction (2001), many thousands of years ago, women developed their seductive capacities to disarm and render compliant their more physically powerful counterparts. Today’s iterations of Eve have it evolved into them, so matter how good you get at the Game, you’re always playing catch-up with a born pro.
And with my interest in con artistry and other social games of deception, it’s perhaps no wonder that, suffering from my latest heartbreak and seeking rational answers to the irrational, insoluble mystery of life, I’ve begun to pick apart the trope of the fatal woman.
Since giving up the Game, the question which has puzzled me is What the hell has gone wrong with women in the last fifty years? I was just getting some clarity on that research question in February last year when the CV struck town.
Then we went into lockdown, and with the external world closed to me, I went deep into intuitive introspection on this question. I began to conceive a plot—my first exercise in fiction in over ten years—which seeks to answer this question based on some of my baffling experiences tying into dames on the streets of Melbourne.
More on that project to come. Consider the video above—and its attendant prose poem—to be a provocative down-payment on the dark plot I am plotting…
But as I began to recollect and re-member my exploits and failures in my hotel room, applying the patina of imagination to them in an altered state deeper than LSD, vamping on and amping up the fatal aspect of twists, frills, jills and janes, dolls and dames who had pumped enduring slugs in my heart, I began to grok a discernible difference between the girls of today and the classic lady/killers who run the gamut of modern literature and art from Baudelaire to film noir.
The femme fatale is the Goddess in what I would call ‘the Myth of Modernity’. From Sacher-Masoch to the most self-desecrating porn star of today, modernity appears to celebrate the Kali aspect of the Eternal Feminine—Woman-as-Destroyer rather than Woman-as-Nurturer.
The ‘classic’ femme fatale—which is as much to say, ‘the modern woman’—is, in my view, the most conspicuous product of high European modernity. The femme fatale in her ‘classical’ state is essentially the nineteenth-century idea of ‘the New Woman’.
I don’t use the word ‘product’ to describe the modern woman, or femme fatale, casually; for the salient features of high European modernity are capitalism and consumption. As Thorstein Veblen observed in his Flaubertian economic analysis, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), in the nineteenth century, the project of ‘bourgeoisification’, of gradual enfranchisement and homogenization into the middle class, produced a society of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in which women were tasked with much of the ‘work’ associated with ‘consumption for display’.
The modern woman as femme fatale emerges, therefore, as the pre-eminent ‘product’ of the City, site and sight of high capitalism, place of conspicuous consumption, and she necessarily emerges in the cradle of artistic modernity, the place that Walter Benjamin called the ‘capital of the nineteenth century’, Gay Paree.
The artificiality of the City, as I wrote in that post, induces a condition of artificiality in the men and women who are among the alienated ‘parts’ in this fabulous machine of commerce which is the modern city. It necessarily induces a condition of artificiality in their relations with one another: the core logic of the circumambient environment being a zero-sum game of exploitative value exchange, romantic relationships are ultimately reduced to a commerce of mutual sexual exploitation.
M. Baudelaire, in his poetry and art criticism, was the first person I know of to recognize a pathological instinct in women which the modernity of the City seems to bring to the fore as a positive maladie de l’âme. These most ‘natural’ of entities, these creatures who are, by their very biology as nurturers and nourishers, rooted to the soil of human existence, have a perverse propensity towards ‘unnaturalness’, towards artificiality.
Knowing that their economic fortunes lie in attaching themselves to the men most capable of providing, women, since prehistory, have availed themselves of exotic furs, stones, ochres, balms and unguents as erotic artillery in their seductive quivers, unnaturally enhancing the natural majesty that God gave to Eve. In “Éloge du maquillage” (“In praise of makeup”), M. Baudelaire makes a positive case for artificial feminine display as essential and praise-worthy weaponry in seduction, while in his poem “Un Fantôme”, he loses himself in the dazzling array of devices—fabrics, scents, jewellery, makeup, lingerie, the play of pudic concealment and immodest revelation—that women use to fatally seduce men.
Spengler, in The Decline of the West (1918/1922), differentiates between plant and animal existence in the life of cultures, between passivity and rootedness, attributes of the plant, and activity and motility, attributes of the animal.
To my mind, the differentiation can be taken further, for, to put the matter in the language of the I Ching, the active, motile life of animals is essentially a function of 乾 (Qián), ‘the Creative’, the Eternal Masculine, while the passive, rooted existence of the plant is essentially a function of 坤 (Kūn), ‘the Receptive’, the Eternal Feminine.
This is the fundamental differentiation of existence. The Creative principle is symbolic of Heaven, which is above the Receptive principle of the Earth. The quickening, vivifying action of the light of Heaven engenders all life on this planet, which the Earth nurtures and brings forth from the deep darkness of its womb. Together 乾 (Heaven) and 坤 (Earth) form 乾坤 (or 天地 [Tiāndì] in Modern Standard Chinese), which variously translates as ‘the World’, ‘the Universe’, ‘the scope of operations’, ‘the total field of activity’.
When Masculine and Feminine combine, therefore, it creates and engenders the world as we know it.
As the I Ching demonstrates, our earliest forebears intuited this fundamental universal division which manifests in the division of the sexes—and in the right and appropriate order of society, with the creative, motile man over and above the passive, receptive woman. In The Perfumed Garden, the great Islamic sex manual of the fifteenth century, Sheik Nafzawi gives us this ‘missionary position’ stated as the same sacred invocation which God gave to his first gardener, Adam:
God the magnificent has said:
‘The women are your field [my emphasis]. Go upon your field as you like.’
—Muhammad al-Nafzawi, The Perfumed Garden (translated by Sir Richard Burton)
The woman, symbolically associated with Earth and nature, is the total operable field of masculine activity. Cultivating her, husbanding her is the synthesis of Creative Heaven and Receptive Earth represented in the World of 天地 .
But the metaphor of motile animal and passive plant in the cultural life of men and women extends even further than that.
In the image of masculine sperm and feminine egg, I also see the principle of active, animal motility and passive, plantlike receptivity symbolically represented: like men themselves, constantly approaching and trying to latch on to an attractive woman who sits, like a Venus flytrap, passive in her stasis, rejecting all suitors but the chosen one she will eventually receive, the millions of sperm coax, compete, co-operate and collaborate with each other as they move towards the passive, distant goal buried in deep darkness, in the soil of the womb.
I use the Venus flytrap analogy pointedly, for (along with the black widow spider and the praying mantis) the femme fatale is often equated with this passive yet carnivorous plant that preys upon the venturesome motility of animals who stray into its alluring array of thorny leaves reminiscent of the vagina dentata.
The symbolic image of the femme fatale that emerges from this analogy drawn from nature is of a passive predator, almost rooted in her immobility, who conserves her energy as she waits with infinite patience, employing alluring display, in place of motility, to attract her victim into a seductive matrix that closes about him like a steel trap and is almost impossible to escape except by death.
Irving Berlin wrote a song, the title of which is the most eloquent formulation I know of to describe the dynamic relationship between masculine, animal motility and feminine, vegetable passivity, evocative of the Venus flytrap: “A Man Chases A Girl (Until She Catches Him)”.
This also reminds me of Isaiah Berlin’s famous analogy of the hedgehog and the fox, which has been variously applied to Dante and Shakespeare, to Bracque and Picasso, and to other artistic examples of manifold, mobile, creative genius and passive, patient receptivity to one big, God-like intuition which the mind traps and thoroughly absorbs. It could equally be applied to the relationship between men and women.
Men, in our motility, are like Berlin’s fox: nous allons, nous courons, nous cherchons. We have our snouts in everything. All the fecund multitude of creations, innovations and inventions we bring forth from our brains and brawn are but the sublimation and compensation for the one creative thing we cannot do: bring a child to term from within ourselves.
Women, in this respect, are like the hedgehog of Berlin’s analogy: they have a single in-built task—a labour, or travail, as we say in French—one great job that God has given them as the field upon which we go, sowing our fecund seed. Within themselves and without themselves, they have been charged with the sacred duty of nurturing and nourishing life, of bringing forth the next generation of humanity and tending it, making sure it attains to maturity so that it can bring forth the next generation in its turn.
All the various masculine infrastructure, all the fecund fruits of masculine creativity, innovation and invention, is but the setting of the boundaries of the hospitable garden around the woman so that she can safely perform this two-decade travail. She grows as a great tree in the centre of this garden, which is ‘the home’, and she in turn tends the saplings grafted from her heavenly union with the motile male, who sets and defends the boundaries of home and hearth.
In this respect, returning to Spengler’s notion of Time and Destiny, we can say that women are, by nature, politically conservative. Being rooted to the deep nature of the Earth by their plantlike biology, they must, like the Venus flytrap, be essentially conservative in how they deploy their energy and the strategic calculations they make in expending it. In her natural state, woman is as slow as a plant to move and change, because uprooting oneself in movement and change involves embracing venturesome risks whose odds of success are difficult to calculate.
Women require stasis and stability, they require a stable garden around themselves and their children in order to optimally raise up their offspring. Human beings being the slowest animals on the Earth to mature and the most vulnerable to predation, taking energetic risks which involve transplanting the tribe across an inhospitable wilderness is not in the essential nature of the woman.
To use Spengler’s analogy, the wife and mother’s eternal lament against her husband and son going off to defend the borders of the polis is essentially a conservative political reaction—the wish and desire to conserve the prime source of resource provision, whose locus resides in the venturesome, motile male.
And, en revanche, we can equally say that it is in men’s essential nature to be politically progressive. As manifestations of the Creative principle, all the sum of masculine creativity and innovation is predicated upon the personality trait of openness—the creativity dimension.
The innovations in art and science which have progressed humanity to its current pinnacle of civilization are almost exclusively the result of the motile, venturesome, risk-taking instinct in men, who push back the boundaries, who widen the garden of the polis for the comfort and safety of their women- and children-folk, who civilize and husband the dark, feminine nature of the Earth to provide for wife and offspring.
To propose a basic hypothetical answer to my research question of what the Sam Hell has gone snafu with the dames in the last fifty years, let me say this: It would appear that these two innate instincts of feminine conservatism and masculine progressivism have become politically reversed in the last half-century and are now on increasingly divergent, derivatively expanding paths.
In acquiring a physical mobility outside the garden of the home, in taking on the motile, questing, predatory attributes of the Masculine and forsaking the static, stable garden which the fox-like men have created to allow women to fulfil their one, lifetime labour, the modern woman—which is to say, the femme fatale—has forsaken her intrinsic nature and adopted an artificial one.
She has the physical attributes of a woman, but the pretended drives of a man.
The existential crisis in sensemaking whose inexorable logic is leading to the self-terminating conclusion of our species is essentially, I think, a schismatic division along Masculine and Feminine lines. The Universe has been rent and 乾 and 坤 have exchanged their poles, with an animus-driven Feminine embracing an unnatural progressivism that is actually regressive in its logical unfoldment, and a Masculine, clouted into its anima by the Feminine, digging its heels into the earth with an conservatism unnatural to its progressive instincts.
It is men who now want to conserve and maintain an empty garden which the janes have vacated, while venturesome women, progressing beyond the borders of reason, are out sowing the wild oats they biologically do not possess.
Hence the trope in modern literature and art of the femme fatale—an artificial entity, the product of the unnatural City, with the biology of a woman and the psychological drives of a man. She’s fatal to men, and in the mad state of affairs of the sensemaking crisis, she’s ultimately fatal to man—the species—itself.
The female of the species is, of course, born with an intrinsic centre of value between her legs—and thus a site of potential commercial exploit. To put it in rather cynical terms, if diverted from the strict course of nature, of sex for procreation rather than recreation, she has upon her person not an in-built labour but an in-built ‘trade’; and in fact, we go so far to dignify this ‘trade’ by calling it a ‘profession’—the world’s oldest.
Following this logic, a woman has upon her person an in-built means of obtaining economic value in that machine for exploitative value exchange which is the City. And in referring to prostitution as ‘the world’s oldest profession’, it is perhaps not coincidental that, since ancient times, prostitution, as a well-organized, commercial ‘racket’ conducted at scale, has always been an auxiliary to urban agglomeration. The City—and even the Town, if it grows to a certain size as a geographic and economic centre—has always been a sinkhole for prostitution—and hence the modern fears, in the unconscious imaginary of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for the moral safety of daughters leaving the natural environment of the countryside to seek education or employment in the City as secretaries, shopgirls, waitresses, barmaids, etc.
In this site of the commercial spectacle, any job, however superficially ‘respectable’, that exposes a woman to public view—that ‘puts her on display’, as it were—is allied to prostitution in the modern unconscious imaginary of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and exposes her chastity to moral hazard. By the dream logic of the modern unconscious imaginary, the pretty secretary is merely a displaced mistress to her employer, the shopgirl sporting the latest fashion among the mannequins of the department store is another commodity on sale.
One need only look at Dimitri Kirsanoff’s “Ménilmontant” (1926) to see the short path described between being ‘respectably’ employed in a Parisian atelier making artificial flowers and being falsely made up to sell the flower of one’s virtue dans les rues de Paris.
In the Paris of M. Baudelaire’s day, the Haussmannized Paris of the Second Empire, this trope of the modern, city-dwelling girl or woman, drawn inexorably into the glittering sinkhole from the countryside, being forced by economic circumstance to abandon her natural, agrarian life and seek work in the City, was already well-established. One might start off with tenuous respectability, like the two orphaned sisters in Kirsanoff’s film, but the condition of urban women in the nineteenth century was exceedingly vulnerable, and there was really only one way that a vulnerable woman could make the money to survive—by selling her one vendable commodity.
A woman is not constitutionally fit for the heavy, mechanical labour that a man can do to make his pittance in the City, and the physical nature of her bodily constitution is not one where its intrinsic value lies in a utilitarian capacity to do heavy labour. She might, on a handful of occasions in her life, be called upon to do one major day of labour which would make the strongest man qualm, but otherwise the intrinsic value of the female body lies in graceful display—and what graceful feminine display inspires in men, drawing them, like the prey of the Venus flytrap, inexorably towards it.
At all periods and places of human flourishing, from the England of Elizabeth I to the Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there has been a strong social prohibition against women taking the stage. Across cultures, there seems to be remarkable uniformity in human ethical views on this subject. To take the Spenglerian perspective, when a culture is firmly rooted in its natural environment, the public display of women is regarded as fundamentally indecent and immoral.
The Koran’s encouragement to women to veil themselves, to keep the display of their charms restricted to the privacy of the home, is not a peculiarly Islamic custom, echoing, as it does, St. Paul’s exhortation to feminine modesty and submission in I Corinthians 11. Moreover, the Muslim phenomenon of the harem, the gynæceum concealed from the gaze of all but uncastrated males, the inviolable, almost holy sanctuary of women who may be exclusively viewed only by the apex male of the society, has its analogous phenomenon in every organic culture where procreative sex has not yet been replaced by inorganic recreative sex.
Taking the morphological view, we can see the same, apparently perverse moral logic of deliberately preventing men from physically seeing women manifest itself parallel to the birth of Islam in as radically different a society as Heian era Japan. The Pillow Book (c. 1002) and The Tale of Genji (c. 1021) show us how a complicated seductive ritual was developed around the deliberate concealment of women behind layers of clothing, screens, curtains, blinds, physical displacement into other rooms while conversing with men, the darkness of night, and go-betweens.
To attain the garden of earthly pleasures that is a woman (and he attains a lot of them!), Prince Genji has to bust through wall upon fragile wall of barriers, both physical and moral, which would fatigue James Bond. As Royall Tyler explains in the introduction to his translation of The Tale of Genji:
Yume (‘dream’), for example, is the stock literary word for sexual intercourse between lovers. Some readers have wondered whether the men and women in the tale ever actually do anything, since they seem to spend their nights merely chatting; but katarau, which ostensibly means that, actually refers to other intimacies as well. … A man who ‘sees’ or ‘is seeing’ a woman (a standard expression) is at least to some extent sharing his life with her, and Genji’s having ‘seen’ Utsusemi in a pitch-dark room (chapter 2) means bluntly that he has possessed her. With all the conventions of architecture, furnishings and manners designed precisely to prevent a suitor from seeing a woman, the effect of an accidental glimpse (through a crack in a fence, a hole in a sliding panel, a gap in a curtain) could be devastating.
—Royall Tyler, introduction to The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikabu
In our Western culture, the phenomenon of the convent as a place where one sends jeunes demoiselles of breeding, and the costume of the nun, are likewise manifestations of this deep, archetypal intuition that women must be concealed from masculine view, and Casanova, in his Mémoires, gives a master demonstration of what heroic heights a man who was not the apex male of the society had to scale in order to see and abscond with these zealously defended treasures.
It may be concluded, therefore, that human beings across all times and places intuitively understand, when their cultures are in their organic phases of growth, how politically disruptive to the society the public visibility of women, and their unchaperoned movement through the population, is. The logical assumption seems to be that men cannot control themselves and the sight of women is intrinsically fatal to them.
When a culture calcifies and transitions to a civilization, however, such moral prohibitions are loosened, as happened during the English Restoration, the Belle Époque, and the multi-media era which commenced with the cinema and found its highest expression in the phenomenon of Golden Era Hollywood. During periods of civilizational decline, there is an inexhaustible appetite for sexual innovation—which necessarily requires a loosening of feminine morals to facilitate.
It seems to me that, faced with existential crises whose complexity the society cannot compass and comprehend let alone do anything to avert, instead of attempting to evolve strategies of survival, human genius exhausts itself in innovating increasingly perverse sexual practices which outrage the social covenant of marriage, and hence the family. The contract of marriage being the foundational dyadic building block of a coherent, civil society, the traditional covenant of the society in its organic, cultural phase demands that the woman be veiled from public view and protected in the privacy of the home.
In other words, in historical moments like the present hour, under the smoking shadow of Vesuvius, we humans would rather use our last moments of life to nihilistically slay ourselves in Roman orgies than waste time attempting to cogitate a solution.
Women, thus accoutered, appeared destined for a sedentary life—family life—since their manner of dress had about it nothing that could ever suggest or seem to further the idea of movement. It was just the opposite with the advent of the Second Empire: family ties grew slack, and an ever-increasing luxury corrupted morals to such an extent that it became difficult to distinguish an honest woman from a courtesan on the basis of clothing alone. … Everything that could keep women from remaining seated was encouraged; anything that could have impeded their walking was avoided. They wore their hair and their clothes as though they were to be viewed in profile. For the profile is the silhouette of someone … who passes, who is about to vanish from our sight. Dress becomes an image of the rapid movement that carries away the world.
—Charles Blanc, “Considérations sur les vêtements des femmes” (1872), cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, Convolute B: “Fashion”
Theatrical professions of feminine display such as actress, dancer, singer and model have always been regarded in the human unconscious imaginary as code for prostitute, and in the frankly cynical Paris of the Belle Époque, it was taken for granted that any woman who displayed herself upon a stage for money had an auxiliary, more profitable profession off it. The theatre, as the most conspicuous site of consumptive spectacle in the City, was, in nineteenth-century Paris, merely a proto-cinematic, proto-televisual forum for advertisement—a preview of ‘coming attractions’ whereby actresses, ballerinas and sopranos prospectively advertised the ‘personal services’ they could perform for any man with a pecuniary capacity to pay, whether as courtesans, mistresses, or outright whores.
One of my very favourite books, penned by that old roué Anonymous, is The Pretty Women of Paris (1883), a guide, giving the names, addresses, specialities and potted histories of all the notable Parisian whores of the day, from phony duchesses to vedettes who gave their best performances on their backs in their gilded beds. Part street directory, part Who’s Who of Parisian vice, it was penned by a man who was undoubtedly a scholar as well as a gentlemen, for the edification of other English and American gentlemen abroad in the city which was proverbial throughout the world as the sinkhole of prostitution.
The prose in these hagiographies of the porn stars of their day is pure poetry. The stories the anonymous author regales us with about these gloriously bawdy heroines whose talentless names would otherwise have been lost to time are so extravagant that one would hardly credit them if M. Zola, in Nana (1880), had not contemporaneously given us one such extensive, extravagant history, in fictionalized form, as proof that such lucre-thirsty femmes fatales did exist in Belle Époque Paris.
From M. Baudelaire to M. Zola, the characterological line of the classical femme fatale is a pretty straight one: she is an avaricious vendeuse d’elle-même, usually carrying out her venal, venereal trade under the cover of some affiliation with the theatre, or, at a stretch, an even more spurious affiliation with nobility.
This is the chicanery and con artistry of the classical femme fatale in her nineteenth-century form—a transparent deception, almost naïve in its crudity. And as the ludicrous, lucre- and clout-chasing exploits of Nana or the pretty women of Paris make clear, there is something almost comic-operatic in the tragic ways the nineteenth-century femme fatale destroys herself as she sucks the sperm and sous out of the pyramid of wealthy, titled or influential men she climbs over, only to fondre beneath their combined dead weight when she eventually arrives at the top.
This comic-operatic extravagance would be hilarious if there wasn’t, in the figure of the femme fatale from M. Baudelaire to M. Zola, an actually mortal aspect to the trope.
The Modern City, in the nineteenth century, was not only a sinkhole of prostitution but an epicentre for syphilis, and Paris was as well-known as the place where you could catch the clap or worse as it was as the place where you could worship in the venereal temple on every street-corner. Syphilis was to the great centres of Europe in the nineteenth century what AIDS was to the same cities in the eighties: one literally made a mortal decision to enjoy a moment’s pleasure with a woman not one’s wife. Syphilis made these comic-opera duchesses actually fatal.
In Paris, the de facto Capital of Europe in the nineteenth century, the threat of these women was complicated by the blasé cynicism of the sexual enterprise in this shining machine of commerce. In The Arcades Project (1927-40), Hr. Benjamin quotes F. F. A. Béraud, author of Les filles publiques de Paris (1839), who tells us that the clearing-out of prostitutes from the Palais-Royal has been a positive boon to the businesses trading there. ‘Respectable’ bourgeois women now feel safe enough to shop in the Palais-Royal.
For when the Palais-Royal was invaded by a swarm of practically nude prostitutes, the gaze of the crowd turned toward them, and the people who enjoyed this spectacle were never the ones who patronized the local businesses. Some were already ruined by their disorderly life, while others, yielding to the allure of libertinism, had no thought then of purchasing any goods, even necessities.
—F. F. A. Béraud, Les filles publiques de Paris (1839)
I said that it seems to be an eternal ethical given in all human societies at the moment of their flourishing that to display a woman to public view is immodest and immoral. Isis must always remain veiled and private in a ‘decent society’. There seems, therefore, no semantic coincidence, to my mind, that the French term for prostitute is ‘fille publique’—‘public girl’.
In an early note to himself for The Arcades Project, Hr. Benjamin says, moreover, the following:
Trade and traffic are the two components of the street. Now, in the arcade the first of these has all but died out: the traffic there is rudimentary. The arcade is a street of lascivious commerce only; it is wholly adapted to arousing desires. Thus, there is no mystery in the fact that whores feel spontaneously drawn there.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Trade and traffic. As the Béraud citation makes clear, the presence of women, exposed to public view, in the vector of the street necessarily impedes the former. The traffick in ‘necessities’—let alone the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods which is the true trade of arcades like the Palais-Royal—is diverted by the presence of these strolling filles publiques and drives the ‘respectable’ bourgeois enterprises of the arcade, dependent exclusively upon foot-traffic, out of business.
There is, therefore, no such thing as a ‘flâneuse’—the feminine semantic equivalent of a ‘flâneur’. No matter how corrupt and sexually permissive Western civilization becomes in its Faustian decline, there will never be a feminine equivalent, semantic or actual, of the flâneur because, as M. Béraud and Hr. Benjamin make clear, the feminine equivalent of a girl in public walking the streets is simply a ‘streetwalker’.
For a woman, rooted to the earth and the natural order by her biology, to take on the mobile, predatory, hunting activity of the male in the asphalt jungle of the City is essentially unnatural: Isis immodestly forsakes the privacy of home and hearth to become an exploitative chasseur after cash. Both willing prey of and wily hunter after men, she is an ‘artificial woman’—neither fish nor fowl.
Yet this ‘artificial woman’ is precisely the product of the Modern City, and if she navigates the traffic as an agent of the City’s superordinate logic of exploitative, extractive trade—‘trafficking herself’, as it were—what makes these syphilitic, venereal vectors navigating the vectors of Paris actually fatal to men is not simply their capacity to Hoover value out of them, but to kill them, and through them, to kill their wives and children.
The issue is this. The reason I insist upon the notion of the modern, nineteenth-century city woman as being an ‘artificial’ one, a product of exploitative, extractive value exchange in the money-taking machine that is the City, is that most men know the sugar of sex is hard to come by in life.
To put it bluntly, we men don’t value a woman we can get on the bed easily. We value the ones we have to sweat blood for. Women know this, and hence, in her natural state of organic culture, where the traditional covenant of marriage is upheld as a mutual contract to curb both gender’s propensity to sexual excess, the woman withholds access to her valuable real estate until after the settlement.
The prostitute is an ‘artificial woman’ in that she does not withhold. In fact, on the streets of Paris in the nineteenth century, these strolling women were the sexual aggressors. They took the masculine part and approached the men they solicited as potential buyers of their wares. This is a thoroughly unnatural state of affairs, the very definition of ‘artificiality’ in sexual conduct.
In fact, pushing the intuition further, one could say that the woman who vends herself as a commodity in this fashion, not withholding sex but actively, predatorially seeking it out as a man would do, is not really a woman at all, but one ‘in drag’: she is impersonating a woman for profit. For a price, the client can have all the simulated experience of landing a dame on the bed without sweating blood, time and money to effect a seduction which is never a done deal until the deed is done.
In other words, one purchases from the prostitute a guarantee of that which a ‘real’ woman never guarantees: all the uncertainty, the contingency and mystery of women is taken out of the equation by the prostitute, who gives a simulacrum of that wild, untameable feminine energy we find so attractive for a price which guarantees the certain possession of it.
This is to be an ‘artificial woman’, a woman ‘in drag’, impersonating herself. The most natural entity on the planet becomes an inorganic machine for mutually exploitative value extraction: the client extracts a wad of vital bodily fluid via this living Fleshlight, and a wad of cash is concomitantly extracted from his pocket.
Hr. Benjamin also seemed to intuit this connection between prostitutes, mechanical automata in the great machine of the City, the seductive mannequins of commercial display, and children’s dolls, for he entitled Convolute Z of The Arcades Project “The Doll, The Automaton”. Like myself, he seemed to perceive that woman, uprooted from nature and transplanted to the City, finds her innate pathological weakness for artificiality given self-destroying scope to play in this Luna Park.
Thus Pandora: ‘automaton fabricated by the blacksmith god for the ruin of humankind, for that “which all shall / take to their hearts with delight, an evil to love and embrace” (Hesiod, Work and Days, line 58). We encounter something similar in the Indian Krtya—those dolls, animated by sorcerers, which bring about the death of men who embrace them. Our literature as well, in the motif of femmes fatales, possesses the concept of the woman-machine, artificial, mechanical, at variance with all living creatures, and above all murderous.’
—Roger Caillois, “La Mante religieuse: Recherches sur la nature et la significations du mythe” (1937), cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, Convolute Z: “The Doll, The Automaton”
In the trope of the nineteenth-century femme fatale, there is a direct connection, therefore, between the mobility—physical, social, sexual—of the unrooted, displaced woman of the City and death. As an economic ‘free agent’, there is not simply the potential for this attractive siren approaching you, virtually nude, in the Palais-Royal to suck the sous out of you, or even to kill you and your family for the price of a moment’s pleasure, but she actually undermines the foundations of a whole society which is already in decline by robbing and killing the economic pillars of it and damaging the foundational unit of all civil societies—the family.
The Victorian masculine anxiety about women forsaking the safety and protection of home and hearth and agitating for the rights and privileges of men, and which is variously reflected in ‘the door slam heard around the world’ at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll House (1879), in the contrast between the pretty, marriageable evangelist and the crabbed, proto-feminist suffragette in Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886), and in Edna Pontellier’s indefinable discontent in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), is essentially the anxiety about this foundational disruption which manifests in women’s restless clamouring for physical, social, and sexual mobility.
The dames want out of the garden.
It’s a double equation: A woman who is able to physically move outside the home is one who is capable of approaching and being approached (abordé) by all social strata of men in their mobile, hunting quests for cash and sex in the City. Unlike men, who are very much confined to their social class by their capacity to make money, the physical appeal of a woman is her social passport, a ‘droit de cité’ with men. A flower-girl may be as good-looking as a duchess, and if she is, whatever her station, she has a latchkey to the wallets of men all up and down the social hierarchy—provided they have a pecuniary capacity to pay.
And in turn, if feminine physical mobility is equal to social mobility vis-à-vis men, this social mobility is in turn equal to sexual mobility. If a group of high-value men have the pecuniary capacity to pay a price attractive enough to encourage a woman to sacrifice her chastity for lucre, when she realizes that she has, upon her person, a multiply vendable commodity which men of means value, it’s a rational calculation on her side to exploit it.
In this way, the unrooted, displaced, mobile, modern ‘femme de la Ville’ enters into the societally-disruptive ways of prostitution in the nineteenth century. She disrupts the rigid social hierarchy of men as a free economic agent in a peer-to-peer social network. While men remain relatively fixed vis-à-vis each other, stratified into castes by their earning potential, women are able to move freely up and down the hierarchy in mutually exploitative, extractive sexual commerce, thereby becoming vectors of syphilis which disrupt the society both morally and physically.
As we have seen, in the epicentre of sexually transmitted disease which is the City, based on its capitalistic logic of exploitative resource extraction, the unrestricted physical movement of women as potential vectors of sexual disease through the Modern City of the nineteenth century not merely disrupts the foundations of a decadent leisure society in a figurative, metaphorical sense by disrupting the family, but has the potential to attack it through the transmission of disease to the family.
The assumption beneath this, from the nineteenth-century masculine perspective, is that men are perpetually weak and vulnerable to the artificial seductive display of women, and that if we run across them in the street, we must approach them and risk the clap or worse. I would say that the safeguard which the Victorians, in their ostensible coyness about matters sexual, depended upon to prevent men importing syphilis into the home as far as possible was feminine stasis—the socially censured limitation upon solo broads abroad in the streets.
And this social censure was not policed by men themselves (for they are the ‘weak, vulnerable victims’ of the strolling woman’s seductive display), but by ‘respectable’ women—by their wives and mothers. Weak men always fear women’s disapproval of the ‘bestial’ aspects of their nature; hence the necessity for compartmentalization of one’s socially aberrant sexual activity outside the home. The feminine propensity for shame, guilt, insults and gossip—a wholly other arsenal of weaponry which keeps men compliant—is a powerful corrective to men’s socially unacceptable behaviour.
Perhaps, at its core, what the ‘respectable’ bourgeois women in the nineteenth century actually feared is not so much the potential for illness, but the constitutional vulnerability we men have to a pretty face or a well-filled pair of stockings. In the mythology of modernity, the trope of the femme fatale depends upon a man, who in confrontation with other men would have his wits about him, being rendered weak and corruptible by the supposed vulnerability and innocence of a physically attractive woman.
The fundamental weakness that women exploit is the illogical equation we humans make between physical beauty and moral goodness. As far back as ancient Greece, Phryne’s defence attorney had merely to rip off her blouse and expose her breasts to the men of the jury to get her acquitted of the capital crime of impiety. His legal rationale: no person who looked so physically good could possibly do something so morally bad.
As providers, we men want to ‘do things’ for these apparently vulnerable, innocent creatures we adore. We share of our means with them as a demonstration of love. Being confronted with a mobile, unaccompanied broad dans la rue might turn a man’s head and open up his wallet to exploit. He might forsake home and hearth for the whore, or he might bring a nasty forget-me-not back into the marital bed. Jealous of their tenuous hold on a man’s resources, married women feared the ‘public girls’ of the Opéra and the Variétés, whose intoxicating advertisements for themselves, pitched from the stage, could get a manna-sucking anchor into a man’s wallet.
Understood in that sense, I think the logical assumption that men are weak and vulnerable to artificial feminine display, potential victims for economic exploit by unscrupulous competitors for their resources, is a just one.
That, I think, sums up the basic relationship between sex and death we see in the femme fatale in her nineteenth-century incarnation. The trope of the mobile, sexually active city woman as potential vector of death can be seen variously described in nineteenth-century literature and art, from the virginal-cum-vampirical Mina of Dracula (1897) to the syphilitic Madonna of Munch’s paintings and lithographs (1892-97). My favourite example is by Félicien Rops, the illustrator of Baudelaire, who makes the siren allure of the strolling femme fatale’s Janus-face explicit in the watercolour Parodie humaine (1878-81).
The theory of the ‘long nineteenth century’ comes somewhat into play when we consider the ætiology of the modern woman as classic femme fatale. When doctors start to get syphilis under control at the beginning of the twentieth century, just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the association of sex and death begins somewhat to recede in the picture.
The inter-war period is, I think, a particularly interesting time in the morphology of the trope of the fatal woman from a distinctly Victorian, madonna/whore archetype to the quintessentially twentieth century figure she becomes in pulp fiction and film noir.
Louise Brooks, taking the lead in Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box ) as the quintessential, century-spanning femme fatale Lulu, is the mobile vector of connection between the democratic American modern woman and the Old World European femme fatale. Louise and Lulu—for they became inextricably intertwined, even in the mind of Miss Brooks herself—is also the critical juncture, the turning point, I would say, from the long nineteenth-century femme fatale to the twentieth-century femme fatale of film noir.
Two things are of critical note when assessing Louise and Lulu in Pandora’s Box. The first is that the film itself goes backward in time, starting in 1920’s Weimar and ending in a Victorian London stalked by Jack the Ripper, that gent fatal to the femmes themselves. That temporal regression of the film seems to echo Brooks’ spatial regression from New World to Old, from America to Germany.
The second is that Lulu is not herself fatal, insofar as being a cold-blooded murderess, as in mid-century film noir, but, like her nineteenth-century antecedents, it is contact with Lulu, contact with her intoxicating presence, that is ultimately fatal to the men who surround her.
She sits at the centre of a sticky, circumambient web, which is merely her intoxicating feminine Erdgeist—her gnomic, earthy spirit, and a man might stray innocently into her presence only to find himself quickly stuck there, a satellite revolving impotently around her, eventually to die when the warm ray of her light ceases to shine on him. Even the ‘murder’ of her husband which Lulu is put on trial for is clearly an accident—one of the many careless ‘accidents’ which might attend any pretty, flighty girl eminently aware of her sexual power over men, and of their clumsy willingness to abase themselves before her fatal charms.
Indeed, there would almost be a ‘screwball comedy’ aspect to the fumbling destructions that go on around Lulu (and the ‘gay divorcée’ screwball heroine is herself a lighter aspect of the noir femme fatale) if the scattergun deployments of her charms did not end in surreal tragedy every time.
Lulu, conceived on the cusp of two centuries and finding her definitive interpreter in the eternal symbol of the Roaring Twenties, is the fulcrum on which the femme fatale transitions from comic opera catastrophe on legs to film noir murderess. In the evolution of the trope from syphilitic vector to lady/killer, Lulu is the missing link.
I could go further with these ruminations, charting the evolution of the type through the twentieth century, and even into the twenty-first, where it seems to me the femme fatale undergoes a further morphological adaptation away from murderess and into the realm of the con artist.
But Lulu/Louise, upon whose jutting, knife-like breast I would, as a devotee of the Goddess of Modernity, willingly impale myself, seems the best place to draw a line under these thoughts.
In the decadent period of late capitalism we are in, where the (self-)consumptive zero-sum logic of resource extraction and exploit is now in its final, game-theoretic death throes, I sense a dim realization creeping into the mainstream of men’s discourse among themselves: every woman is fatal to us—economically, at least.
It’s in no one’s interest—neither men’s, nor women’s—for one-half of the human race to walk away from the dating game. But the Faustian logic of infinite derivatives derived from finite resources has led the Westernized globe to what I called, in an earlier post, a Hobbesian state of nature, a multi-polar civil war of all against all, and the fundamental schism in this Mandelbrot of metastasizing fractures seems, to my mind, to lie on the masculine/feminine fault-line.
Having a centre of economic value upon their persons, the ladies can still play the roulette wheel for a few turns yet. But in this zero-sum game where Jeff Bezos, as the richest man on the planet, is currently the best bet to scoop up all the scoots on the final turn of the wheel, whatever women extract in selfish plays from the ninety per cent of men who have always been the dispensable, disposable drones of human society, the canon-fodder mobilized to defend the garden against external assault, will ultimately be taken from them by the ten per cent of men at the top of the social hierarchy whom they are sexually competing for.
Then those guys will kill each other for the remaining value on the board until one man is left holding all the boodle—and all the dames, for, as Mr. Veblen tells us, at the most primitive level of human commerce, women are a currency of exploit, but a currency which willingly goes to the man most capable of providing for it.
Perhaps the socio-political disruption which began in the nineteenth century with the mobilization of women as free economic agents serves some purpose in that evolution away from game-theoretic pro-sociality and towards human eusociality I posited in an earlier post on the Coronavirus. I sincerely hope so. It would be nice if the ladies could transcend the earth-ward pull of their biology and actualize themselves in individual destinies without running at full tilt backward into the future, as they appear to be doing, dragging the men- and children-folk into the abyss with them.
But frankly, as our institutions and infrastructure fail us at an exponential rate and our sensemaking crisis spirals into mass psychosis, I don’t think we will survive long enough as a species to discover whether women leaving the garden men had built for them was a good idea.
And at that point, the experiment becomes fatal to us all.
In a recent post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I wrote that this period of ‘enforced leisure’ here in Melbourne has turned my flâneur’s eyes inwards to a remarkable degree: Unable, under pain of fine and police harassment, to walk the streets and seek in the world without the exteriorized symbols of my interior world, I have had to content myself with taking flâneries through old footage garnered in the course of my travels.
Scrounging around among my old footage for something to turn into a video, I chanced upon something I recorded more than two years ago, and which became the basis of the video above—an idle Friday night in Oakleigh, the Greek neighbourhood of Melbourne.
I was staying in an old California bungalow and the house had a beautiful study overlooking the quiet street, just perfect for a writer. It had a massive oak desk, glass-topped, with green leather blotter, and a beautiful antique office chair of stained wood, also upholstered in green leather. To cap it all, a gorgeous green-shaded banker’s lamp on the desk.
I decided to rotate the green shade of the lamp away from me and record myself reciting “The Jewels”, my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s erotic poem “Les Bijoux”, famous as one of the poems which caused M. Baudelaire to be hauled before a court on charges of obscenity when it was published in the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1857).
The poem, along with five others, was banned from publication in France until after World War II—some eighty years after the poet’s death.
The poem is almost like a short story. In just eight verses, Baudelaire takes us thoroughly inside his remembered experience of fooling around with his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, as they sport by firelight.
Under the druggy influence of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’ dancing in the lamplight, Baudelaire sees his ‘Black Venus’ undergo a series of metamorphoses, changing into different animals and allegorical figures as they play together beside the fire.
My translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem into English is very popular; having heard it once, it’s always the poem of Baudelaire’s that people ask me to read at poetry gatherings. I’ve recited it so many times by now that it’s practically committed to memory.
So I thought that beautiful old-fashioned study would be the perfect setting in which to commit my version permanently to pixels, a place similar in atmosphere to the muffled chambre evoked by M. Baudelaire.
One of the foundations of Baudelaire’s æsthetic theory is his idea of ‘correspondances’—a kind of ‘poetic synæsthesia’ in which ‘[l]es parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent’ (‘sounds, scents and colours to one another correspond’).
In the second verse of “Les Bijoux”, Baudelaire expresses how he loves ‘à la fureur’ the experience of ‘hearing’ the colours of Jeanne’s jewels, and ‘seeing’ the sounds they make as they chime and clash with one another.
Similarly, there’s a correspondance, I think, between the green light, evocative of envy, a jealous craving, and of envie, a lustful yearning. But green is not just a colour which tells us to go ahead, to proceed without caution into love and lust. It is also a colour we associate with morbidity and putrefaction.
The obverse of Baudelaire’s lyrical elegy to Jeanne’s livingness in “Les Bijoux” is his imagining of her as a stinking corpse rotting in the sun in the poem “Une Charogne”. In that poem, he evokes her no less tenderly than in “Les Bijoux”, even as he flagellates her mercilessly with his scorn.
M. Baudelaire’s experience of love is necessarily a ‘sick’ and ‘decadent’ one in which sex and death, ‘les Deux Bonnes Sœurs’, twist and tryst.
The question, then, for this poet who (along with Ronsard) is the greatest lyricist of l’amour in the French language, and the greatest limner of women in French prosody, is whether Charles Baudelaire is a romantic?
Can one be as ineffably, as evanescently romantic as M. Baudelaire gives evidence of being in his highest raptures and still be as sadistically misogynistic as he also gives evidence of being in his most hellish fantasies?
The answer is mais oui—evidemment.
If I wanted to give a statistical answer to support the contention, I would merely point out that I have had many more female purchasers of my book of Baudelaire translations, Flowers Red and Black, than male: the dames do grok a bad boy, and among men of letters, they get no more brooding than this bow-tied dandy.
Even Lord Byron—mad, bad, and dangerous to know—has nothing on M. Baudelaire when it comes to being an homme fatal.
Baudelaire is fundamentally a romantic in both senses of the word—as a member of an intellectual and artistic movement that championed sublime passion and the heroism of the individual, and as a poet of erotic verse.
But to say firmly yes on both scores is not to overlook the fact that including M. Baudelaire positively in both definitions is not an unambiguous statement.
As regards Romanticism, M. Baudelaire emerges at the tail-end of the movement. Les Fleurs du mal, as I said above, was published in 1857, and it is not coincidental that Baudelaire was successfully prosecuted for obscenity at the same time that M. Flaubert successfully skirted the same charge for Madame Bovary.
We cannot properly call Flaubert a ‘naturalist’ or a ‘realist’: in his heart of hearts, he is as deeply and perversely a Romantic as Baudelaire. But with Madame Bovary, M. Flaubert inaugurates a new movement in French literature and art, one that is diametrically opposed to Romanticism, one that embraces and recuperates the scientific, industrial, capitalistic and consumeristic assumptions which the Romantics were reacting negatively to.
The naturalistic novel of Zola and de Maupassant is the logical (and humourless) extension of an ‘objective’ formal æsthetic which M. Flaubert employed in his ‘modern novels’ with a glacial irony. In his heart of hearts, M. Flaubert was as morbid and unbridled a creature of perverse passion as M. Baudelaire and would have preferred the erotic phantasms of St. Anthony to the moronic notions of romance entertained by Emma Bovary.
For here is the thing: in both these writers materializing on the scene at the end of the Romantic movement we see the tenets of Romanticism—a lust to experience intense emotion and transcendent sublimity; an earnest belief in the heroism of the individual artist; an equally fervent belief in ‘l’art pour l’art’; and a passion for nature which reacts negatively against the encroaching mechanical artifice of industrialism and the city—morbidly present and perverted.
Both M. Flaubert and M. Baudelaire are to Romanticism what the Mannerists were to the Renaissance. They are the Mannerists of Romanticism.
The key feature of mannerism as an artistic tendency which manifests itself late in the life of a movement is exaggeration: what has been deemed to be formally beautiful during the life of the movement in its high style is pushed to an æsthetic extreme.
One might say that Romanticism, in its advocacy of ‘l’art pour l’art’, was already a form of mannerism in its own right, even though it was not an æsthetic exaggeration of Neoclassicism, but a reaction to it. But the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ which underwrites Romanticism, when pushed to its æsthetic extreme, becomes grotesquerie.
We see this most vividly in Baudelaire, and in his visual ancestor, Goya, for whom the dream of reason brings forth monsters. The only other figure of late Romanticism I can think of who produces similarly grotesque imagery in which a high æsthetic style is pushed to a histrionic extreme is M. Baudelaire’s American twin, the brother of his soul, Edgar Allan Poe.
In the final chapter of his book La Folie Baudelaire (2008), Roberto Calasso cites the withering judgment of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most authoritative French literary critic of the nineteenth century, upon his contemporary Baudelaire.
M. Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve says, is like a little pavilion—what the French call a folie—on the extreme point of Kamchatka, that icy, volcanic Russian peninsula which juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk. From this inhospitable toehold of fire and ice, according to Sainte-Beuve, M. Baudelaire gazes avidly out upon Japan, the Orient, all that is weird and exotic to French prosody in the nineteenth century.
Baudelaire’s ‘Orient’ was the future. He makes a music in his rhymes (which are not without charm, Sainte-Beuve hedgingly admits), but the ear has not yet been born in the France of the nineteenth century which can make sense of this strange and foreign music, which apprehends a sublime and transcendent beauty in the fire and ice of Hell.
Which leads me to the perversity—the inversion, even—of Romanticism when pushed to this æsthetic extreme, the Baudelairean state of ‘Kamchatka’:—For Baudelaire’s natural abode is not merely an architectural folie in the sense of whimsy, nor even a folly to erect in such an unhospitable clime, but an uninsulated belvedere gazing out upon the frontier of madness—the madness of the modern world which will come after him.
As a very late Romantic to the scene, Baudelaire has no feeling for ‘nature’, as such. He would never, like Wordsworth, pen an elegy in praise of a flower: vegetables didn’t interest him.
The closest Baudelaire gets to the Romantic feeling for nature are a few lyrical poems about the sea and foreign ports, as he remembers an abortive voyage to India he was forced to take by his hated stepfather, General Aupick. Baudelaire never saw Calcutta. Taking grateful advantage of a shipwreck in Mauritius, he returned to Paris.
This is instructive. Baudelaire is thoroughly a man of the city, the first poet to write about it, and he does so glowingly, feeling none of the repulsion for its multitudinous horrors which drove his Romantic predecessors back to the countryside so as to escape ‘the dark Satanic Mills’ of industrial modernity.
Nothing is ‘grown’ in the city. It is a place of pure artifice—un paradis artificiel, to paraphrase the title of Baudelaire’s treatise on drugs.
And because nothing can grow in an artificial environment, everything must be manufactured in the city, or imported there from the countryside. The city, therefore, is the place of consumption, where everything can be bought.
Where Ronsard emulates the Dantesque and Petrarchan model of glorifying tony dames like Cassandre and Hélène, Baudelaire is the lyricist of bought amour, venerating the venal souls of Parisian prostitutes in all the protean manifestations that the Belle Époque gave to the world’s oldest profession—actresses, dancers, singers, syphilitic little bitches, mewling Jewesses, regal African orchids transplanted to colder climes, widows fallen on hard times.
Baudelaire loves the soiled feminine face of Paris, that paradise of decadent luxury, as sterile and useless as a rented womb.
Paris, as Walter Benjamin stated, is the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. It is the pre-eminent paradis artificiel. It is the triumph of scientific industry and commerce over nature, a purely artificial environment, an utter repudiation of the humanistic spirit of Romanticism.
And yet the place is ineffably romantic—and was so in Baudelaire’s time.
But something happens to the nature of a man or a woman who lives in the purely artificial environment of a city. It rapidly becomes ‘decadent’, and Baudelaire, the total man of the city, the poet of the city who lauds Paris’s transcendent beauty in her hellish, whorish ugliness, marks the critical juncture where Romanticism curdles, turns perverse and inverted.
What M. Baudelaire said to his friend and fellow flâneur, M. Manet, he might have equally said of himself: ‘Vous n’êtes que le premier dans la décrépitude de votre art’—‘You are merely the first in the decadence of your art-form.’
Both artists are Kamchatkas of their kind—the pinnacle of European artistic evolution, the æsthetic distillation of the wisdom and skill of the Old Masters which reaches its finest point in the peculiar persons and sensibilities of M. Baudelaire and M. Manet—only then, with the next generation, to collapse under its own weight headlong into degeneracy.
These gentlemen still had the classical education in the craftsmanship of their respective art-forms necessary to make radical yet intellectually rigorous innovations based on an intensely personal vision and acute sensibility.
M. Manet could spray the canvas with paint and not wind up with a meaningless chromo à la Pollock. Likewise, M. Baudelaire could lavish elegies upon ugliness without degenerating into the ‘prose broken into lines’ which the grunting Beats called ‘free verse’.
In La Folie Baudelaire, Calasso invokes Max Nordau, a nineteenth-century essayist in that cradle of Romanticism which would become, in the next century, the sink of horror—Germany. Contemporary with Freud and Krafft-Ebing, Nordau published a two-volume tome in 1892 called Degeneration—a kind of Psychopathia Sexualis of art.
Calasso writes: ‘In Nordau’s view, the forerunner of all degeneration was Baudelaire. All the others—such as Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Barbey d’Aurevilly—were instantly recognized by a certain “family resemblance” to him. These were the numerous insidious and indomitable crests of the Baudelaire wave.’
Though Nordau was probably not familiar with him, I cannot help but think, in tracing the lineage of artistic degeneration down from the pinnacle of Baudelaire and across the Channel, how impossible the most decadent of the English Decadents, Ernest Dowson, would have been without the forerunner of Baudelaire.
That young man who would take the bitterness and perversity of love as his only theme in poetry and in prose, who had such a French sense of its diabolical nature that he would translate Les Liaisons dangereuses, and who would pursue ‘madder music and stronger wine’ until they hustled him into an early grave, had Baudelaire’s syphilitic example of a life lived at Kamchatka’s dagger point—a life lived only for love and art—before him as his perversely heroic example.
Such a soul deformed by intimate infatuation with the artificial paradise of the city has a different experience of romance than the Romantics of the high period.
For M. Baudelaire, the sublimity of love, sex and eroticism is inseparably conjoined with the sublime, transcendent horror of decadence and death. Woman is a ‘Black Venus’ like Jeanne Duval, a murderous goddess whose womb is a tomb we want to plunge the dagger of ourselves into—like a bee who commits suicide by availing itself of its sting.
Given the deformity of M. Baudelaire’s soul and the perversity of his sense of romanticism, you might wonder why I have such a feeling for Baudelaire, why I have translated so many of his love poems—and why I find I can’t stop.
I really don’t know, except that he speaks to me, and that I find, in my translations of Charles Baudelaire into English, I am able to speak for him to people very far removed in place and time from the Paris of the Second Empire.
I’ve been told by readers of Flowers Red and Black, or by listeners who have heard me read some of the poems in that volume, that it seems as though I am ‘channelling’ M. Baudelaire. His lofty, distant voice, spewing offence in the most elegant and eloquent terms, is utterly unique in French literature and very difficult to convey in modern English without falling into pastiche.
The delicate feeling one must have for him can only really come, I think, from a sense of life like his own—a sense of ruthless desperation lived at the edge of Kamchatka—the mad desire to either transcend oneself or slay oneself in the sublime realization of one’s art.
‘Lis-moi, pour apprendre à m’aimer’—‘Read me, so as to learn to love me,’ he writes in “Épigraphe pour un livre condamné”. If you’re a curious soul who suffers like Baudelaire, you must learn to read him with a sympathetic spirit, letting your eye plunge into Hell without being charmed by the vertigo induced by the Abyss.
I have also been amusing myself in my cell during lockdown by creating some handmade gift tags, like those in the picture below. In addition to being signed and wax-sealed as a mark of artistic authenticity, any physical product you purchase from me will come gift-wrapped and garnished with an autographed gift tag featuring your Melbourne Flâneur’s logo!
I can also do custom orders for you. There is a contact form on each product page, so if you’re thinking of purchasing some original Christmas gifts, you can make a direct inquiry with me. I can negotiate a deal with you in terms of cost and delivery time frames; I can write a thoughtful personalised message on your behalf to the recipients; and I can even handle gift-wrapping and postage on your behalf—to multiple recipients, even.
And if you would like to buy your Melbourne Flâneur half a java and have his dulcet tones seducing you with his rendition of “The Jewels”, I’ve released the soundtrack of the video above on my Bandcamp profile. For two Australian shekels, you can lube someone into the amorous mood with my vocals.
I’m not Barry White, but it does work. Just click the “Buy” link below, bo.