I was throwing my foulard over my shoulder and buttoning myself up against the bitterness of another Melbourne winter, half-longing that Sunday was Wednesday, when I would be in Bello and practically in a bikini (stripped, as I would be, of the brown overcoat, scarf and gloves), when my cover as a man of the crowd was temporarily blown and I made an éblouissement to the eye of a passing photographer.
A shout-out to Melbourne guitarist and composer Mastaneh Nazarian, one-fourth of the collaborative quartet Kafka Pony, who tied into your Melbourne Flâneur outside the Tin Pot Café in Fitzroy North as I was tying off the loose ends of my toilette in public, preparatory to braving the bitter wind, and managed to break through my brooding mood de bourreau enough to persuade me to lighten up a little and stand still for a few photos.
‘You’re not really that serious,’ she jokingly chided me as she wrangled me into bearing my fangs in a grin.
Il Divino, with his nez cassé, his saturnine, satyr-like features, and his filthy black rags and boots, would go glowering about le vie di Roma, according to Raffaello, alone and looking for all the world ‘like a hangman.’
As I explained to Mastaneh, even when I think I’m smiling, my face seems to naturally wear the mien of an executioner. Being an introvert, I am so mired dans les profondeurs of my dark dreams and deep cogitations, so far from the sunny surface of life on which le reste du monde mindlessly floats, that even when I make an epic breaststroke and launch myself off the ocean floor towards the surface in a display of exuberant extroversion, I still only get half-way, my ideas of extravagant, gregarious gaiety being, it seems, so subtle and leaden that they resemble the deadly seriousness of Keatonian, granite-faced gravity much more than gay levity.
As I joked to her while we walked to the Edinburgh Gardens, following a brief stop-off at her apartment to grab her camera, I noticed that she didn’t invite me up in case I was Jack the Ripper.
I must admit, I have become a deal less tolerant of adventitious tyings-into by interested strangers on the streets of Melbourne since the CV. As a gentleman of the old school, I dislike familiarity and informality as a rule, and I was a little vexed when Mastaneh tied into me in front of the Tin Pot.
She caught me coming out of the café, where I had been plotting the literary crime I intend to commit against the citizens of Melbourne, and I was still half-dreaming of the heroine of my literary thriller, trying to see and understand who this fatal ‘girl of my dreams’ is.
Mastaneh caught me in a state of confusion, a kind of hypnopompic state as I emerged from both the café and the trance-like reverie of introverted intuition in which I do my best writing. Coming slowly to my senses, I was attending with the drunk’s narrowness of focus to the extroverted sensing activities of sorting out my toilette ahead of a long trudge back to Abbotsford in the cold.
My tongue was tied and rather tardy in coming loose as she launched a dozen questions at me, and I was faced with that problem which perplexes the person who habitually lives, as I do, in the platonic realms of thought, and for whom a dandified appearance, howsoever glamorous, is but the least and weakest anchor attaching him to this material reality; to wit:—how to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’
I confess, between the befuddlement of awaking from the waking dream of writing and the regrettable reluctance to allow myself to be abordé by a stranger (a consequence of the Coronavirus), I didn’t make it altogether easy for Mastaneh to get to know me, but all credit to her for breaking down my resistance, getting me to stand still for an impromptu modelling session in the Edinburgh Gardens—and even getting me to smile.
It’s my anecdotal impression that people have become a great deal less pleasant to interact with—even casually—since the Coronavirus, so it was a blessed relief to have an encounter with a stranger in Melbourne that left me feeling richer, not poorer, for the experience.
When I think of the often grating encounters I’ve had with people in Melbourne post-pandemic, full of casual impolitesses towards me, an assumed familiarity and informality with a perfect stranger I find detestable, and a marked decline in people’s social skills and graces after two years of enforced isolation, I’m reminded of the poetic homily which the Toronto radio DJ intones at the end of the Canadian short film Cold (2013):
When I first moved to Toronto, a lot of people told me to be ready for the cold. It’s funny, you know, because you get used to the weather pretty quick. It’s the city that takes a while to warm up to you – the people.
We’re so safe in everything we do, hiding behind head-phones and cell phones, stealing glances on the subway, sticking to what we know, who we know. God, do we ever stick to who we know! Maybe if we didn’t, we’d realize that we’re all a little lonely out here. Each of us is a little cold.
Melbourne is not quite as intemperate as Toronto, but certainly, the metaphor of the city’s weather as an analogue for the froideur of the people transfers rather neatly to Melbourne: each of us has become a little colder in the last two years, not least of all your Melbourne Flâneur, who has become a great deal more guarded in his dealings with people and colder of eye.
Despite the Victorian Government’s rhetoric, staying apart has certainly not kept us together socially, and I make no bones about the fact that, having observed a noticeable decline in people’s social skills during the past two years, the less I have to do with my fellow Melburnians post-pandemic, the happier I generally am.
What a regrettable state of affairs! It really oughn’t to be that way. As the Toronto DJ says at the beginning of Cold:
Well – I just think what makes the city colder is the fact that we’re so busy trying to stay out of each other’s way….
—Devo G., Cold
Although she tied into me awkwardly, my interaction with Mastaneh was perhaps the first pleasant encounter I’ve had with a stranger in Melbourne in two years—the first one where I didn’t wish that my mien de meurtrier was not merely a façade of pre-emptive defence against being bothered by someone who wants to take energy and value from me rather than, as Mastaneh did, generously give it.
Her impromptu approach was a pleasant premonition of what I was to expect later on in the week, for your Melbourne Flâneur is currently ‘out of the office’ and on holiday in Bellingen, that little town tucked away on the North Coast of NSW which is like the whole of Melbourne folded down to two small streets—a street-corner even, the corner of Hyde and Church streets being as legendary in the flâneurial experience of your peripatetic scribe as either Collins or Bourke streets.
If Paris is my spiritual home, my Mecca of memory and flânerie, and Melbourne my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, a colony in the cultural caliphate of that ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, then Bellingen—(Bello to the locals)—is some kind of ‘home away from home’ for me:—it has, like Paris, some spiritual resonance for me, some sympathetic vibration which makes my heart beat more easily here than it does even in Melbourne.
I’ve looked forward to my holiday for almost as long as I’ve been away. Last year I wrote a post, “The Bellingen Flâneur”, in which I recorded the gratifying discovery that, after five years away from this town, which I lived in comparatively briefly and left under a cloud of heartbreak to take up my life in Melbourne, I had merely to take one circuit of Hyde Street to find myself back in the bosom of people who thought well of me—a revelation which I hadn’t at all expected.
A poetic note I wrote in my notebook earlier this year, as I sat on the platform at Macedon Station, says it all:
I’m always searching for Bellingen, I realized, as I strolled beneath the low, lichened branches of Macedon, but I did not find it here. As I passed the welltended hedges, the verdant rues-murs of Victoria street, like Proust before the hawthorns, I had an intimation of something—too dim to be the image of a memory, yet too sharp to be a presentiment—but, like the inverted exposure of a negative, I could not say what it is. Except, perhaps, it occurred to me, it might have been the equation of an analogy: Macedon is to Woodend what Dorrigo is to Bello: beautiful but dead.
Why am I always searching for Bello? What did I leave behind there when I came down here? what life, or vision of life? I don’t know. But if I’m honest, even more than Paris, it seems a paradise lost I’m always searching for, a heart’shome, in these Victorian climes. Perhaps, as much as I hate to admit it, in Bellingen I found a community, a collective of which I was a part.
I ‘hate to admit it’ because, being a dandy and a flâneur, I am necessarily a solitary soul—wolfish, un homme à part. The dandy-flâneur may indeed be Mr. Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’, ‘the type and genius of deep crime’ who refuses to be physically alone. He may find himself, as its guiding spirit, the genius of that ambulating loci, in the amorphous foule as it vomits itself over the sidewalk, but like the old man of Mr. Poe’s tale, the dandy-flâneur, as a man who stubbornly stands outside the hierarchy of bourgeois masculine values, has nothing but an icy, Flaubertian contempt for the crowd he is ‘in’ but not really ‘of’.
He is only ‘of the crowd’ in the sense that Mr. Poe gives in his classic formulation, as being ‘the type and genius of deep crime.’ I have written elsewhere of the dandy’s ‘operative identity’, his ‘cover’ as a spy, a saboteur and æsthetic terrorist, a résistant to bourgeois, capitalistic values who blows up his whole life in an economic Non serviam, detonating himself in a vision of Truth and Beauty in the densest midst of the blandest crowd. The crowd too is part of the dandy-flâneur’s ‘operative identity’, a shield and a cover, a part of his fashionable armature, under cover of which he prosecutes his æsthetic crimes of resistance against the bourgeois madness of technocratic capitalism.
In Bellingen, I made a spectacular explosion every day on Hyde Street in my hat and my suit which, as people have frequently told me since, was an éblouissement which gladdened their eyes. In Melbourne, too, I make the same daily detonation, but the crowd is thicker, denser, more obviously a shield behind which even as conspicuous a dandy as myself can fade into the background of the crowd, an æsthetic terrorist ready to pull the pin of my poetic wit in the midst of this foule.
As a man of fashion, I pose a narrow portal onto immeasurable depths. And as a writer, the best and truest part of who I am lies in another dimension to the fashionable frame that wanders, lonely as a cloud, as a mere man of the crowd.
Melbourne has certainly grown a little colder since the Coronavirus, and I wish I hadn’t become more reluctant to engage with people.
In the days when I used to do Daygame myself, I believed it was the best way to cut across the frame of coldness people wear in the city to insulate themselves against importunate approach. You never know who an attractive stranger is—or could be—until you cut across their frame with a pre-emptive offer of value and warmth.
I didn’t know what a talented person was generously giving me her attention when Mastaneh tied into me. It was only when I was through two days of train travel and safely ensconced in Bello that I was at my leisure to see who Mastaneh was. As a literary man, I can only approve of a band with the good taste to name itself after a writer who was content to be another anonymous ‘man of the crowd’ and subversive saboteur of bourgeois society, and I invite you to check out Kafka Pony’s music on Bandcamp and show them some warmth.
Mastaneh gave me a good lesson as to what to expect when I got up to Bello, and what I missed about the place—that sense of warmth, of community.
I didn’t just shuck my overcoat when I got up here, out of the cold of Melbourne and into the bosom of people who think well of me, despite my singular oddity as the dandy of Hyde Street. I got into the warmth of who I really am when I don’t feel I have to wear the face of an executioner just to get from one end of Collins Street to the other unmolested by energy vampires.
It would be nice if, instead of staying out of each other’s way, we could get back into each other’s way in Melbourne—not with the sense that I have so often experienced it, post-pandemic, of strangers seeking to take energy and value from one another, but in the way that Mastaneh so generously demonstrated—of seeking to freely give a little warmth and value to a stranger.
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.
If you would like to read how it turned out with la Emma, you can purchase a personally inscribed and wax-sealed copy of Follow Me, My Lovely… below.
“Follow Me, My Lovely…” [softcover]
Personally signed and sealed by author. Comes with custom bookmark. Price includes worldwide postage.
“Follow Me, My Lovely…” [eBook]
PDF viewable on any device. Portable and easily stored.
Worldwide delivery within 24 hours.
I’ve got a year’s worth of film cooling in le frigo, and a number of Super 8-based videos either finished or in the works, with more to be shot throughout the year.
Today’s video comes from my rather abortive voyage to NSW last year. I brought one cartridge of Kodak Vision3 50D with me when I booked out of Melbourne last May, beginning what turned out to be a five-month dance of dodging and weaving the Coronavirus as it chased me from Wagga to Coffs, and finally ran me to ground, forcing me to take cover in Newcastle.
Thus began the uncanny experience of spending three-and-a-half months locked down in a place so distant in memory that, for all practical purposes, I had no experience of Newcastle to draw upon. The unfamiliar streets were like a hedge maze to me: the ten-kilometre rule came into effect two days after I arrived, almost instantly narrowed to five, which meant that half of Newcastle was soon outside my radius of legal flânerie.
Before the snap lockdown was announced, I had had one opportunity to get my bearings and see what the place looked like. To be in a city I didn’t know and couldn’t explore was disorienting. I got to know about a dozen streets in Shortland, Jesmond, Lambton, and New Lambton well. Those were the vectors of the hedge maze I had cause venture down with regularity as I hoofed it to the IGA, sometimes even to Officeworks.
Beyond that, I knew nothing of where I was for a good two-and-a-half months. I felt like I was in a prison of fog.
It was only towards the end of October that I had a chance to look around me and see what had been in darkness, but being excluded from most places I should have liked to enter, and fatigued by the distances between things in Newcastle (which is just barely ‘walkable’ and strained even my prodigious appetite for ambling), I hardly stirred myself to enjoy my freedom.
It was only on the Sunday before I was due to risk another cross-border dash, getting home to Melbourne while the getting was good, that I decided to try and fill in some of the map of downtown Newcastle, and to use up my cartridge of film on a venerable advertisement for ETA peanut butter I had espied on my very first day.
The film above is not that film, which is still in production. I managed to get material for three films off the reel of 50D, and the video above is the first one, taken as I was wandering randomly around Cooks Hill.
Drifting up Laman Street, I found myself confronted by the elegant pillared and pedimented façade of the Newcastle Baptist Tabernacle. I was taken by the photogenic contrast between the plastered façade in Laman Street and the red brickwork extending behind it on the Dawson Street side.
The sky was a brilliant blue that day—and the sun was brilliant also, a combination not only perfect for Super 8, but perfect for 50D, Kodak’s finest Super 8 stock, designed specifically for outdoor shooting in natural light. There was no traffic in the street—not even foot traffic, which was also perfect since, as you know by now, I love shots of empty places.
The brilliant blueness of the sky, the pitiless yellow of the sun, the fatigued feeling before the beauty of this neoclassical pile that a man might have felt in the jardin des Tuileries the day after the Terror had ended:—that’s what I felt before the Baptist Tabernacle as I crouched down and set up my camera.
I was exhausted with life, overcome with the beauty of architecture and of nature in this city I was only now able to see in my last hours there, and bitter at my fellow man for keeping me out of the ‘insides’ of this city I couldn’t properly explore;—for one half of flânerie is walking, and the better half is loitering, or loafing, on some café terrace.
That’s the sense of the prose poem accompanying the image of the Tabernacle: the bourgeois madness of the Coronavirus had died down temporarily, but still I felt as though I was in the eye of the storm, and outside that sanctuary of peace, beyond the ambit of Newcastle I was permitted to see, that area of blue sky and yellow sun, the dark clouds were already gathering for another round of insanity.
I set up the self-timer on the camera and took one shot. Two people walked past the church and a car came by, spoiling the shot. After taking a backup shot with my trusty Olympus Stylus, I decided to spend another ten seconds of precious film risking a second shot from the same set-up.
And then the miracle happened.
Three children cycled past the façade of the church, interrupting the perfect emptiness of my shot, but in a way I was grateful for. Did kids ride bikes—unaccompanied by an adult—these days?
It was completely unexpected, strangely uncanny, and, as you can see, on Super 8, there’s an innocence and a nostalgia to the kids’ cameo appearance as they cycle through my frame, as though they come from another time, before helicopter parents and too much ‘screen time’ had atrophied a generation’s legs and love of the outdoors.
My heart gasped when it saw them, and I knew the shot would be a good one, worth the interruption: they were the antidote, the soupçon of optimism to leaven my feeling of fragile exhaustion with life, my éblouissement at the dazzling beauty of nature and architecture, indifferent to the frenzy of madness which had emptied Newcastle’s streets for months, and the bourgeois cruelty of people keeping me out of galleries and cafés.
I had, in my fine, my ‘image of happiness’, that shot at the beginning of Chris Marker’s flâneuristic documentary Sans Soleil (1982) which cannot be paired with anything else, and is self-evidently an image of happiness for the creator but cryptic as a koan to the rest of us.
The film—the English version, at least—opens with a quotation from Eliot: ‘Because I know that time is always time / And place is always and only place’. Then there is blackness—and a woman’s voice. ‘The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965,’ she says. We see the children walking along a country lane, looking at the camera in a way we will see repeated many times throughout the movie: it is a gaze which is both timid and direct, one that reveals both flattery and annoyance at the attention directed toward it. Then, once again, there is blackness.
‘He said that for him, it was the image of happiness, and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked,’ the woman continues. As if to demonstrate the point, we see a brief fragment of film that is utterly incongruous with the preceding image: a fighter jet descending into the bowels of an aircraft carrier, just as we descend back into the same airless blackness when the shot ends. The woman says: ‘He wrote me: “One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”’
Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil is a travelogue. But M. Marker, the consummate global flâneur, is a time traveller, and his dispatches come to us from that foreign country L. P. Hartley called ‘the past’. In some critical orthodoxy, the documentary film is supposed to ‘show us the world’, as if it were holding a mirror up to nature. Sans Soleil certainly does that, but it reflects back another continuum of thought and experience, as if M. Marker were a traveller into a parallel universe—the first filmmaker to take a camera through Alice’s looking glass. ‘What we call the past is somehow similar to what we call abroad,’ M. Marker once remarked. ‘It is not a matter of distance, it is the passing of a boundary.’
For anyone who has not seen a Marker film, their varied effects may be compared with that obtained in reading the journal of some eighteenth-century traveler: Johnson in the Hebrides, Rousseau’s promenade through his own sensibility, or Goethe’s visit to Rome. The work makes no attempt to be cinematic or literary; it is based, instead, on the assumption that a cultivated man should express himself in words or in film.
We never see Sandor Krasna, the globetrotting cameraman whose images enliven the screen, and whose letters are read and commented on by the anonymous woman who narrates the film (smoky-toned Alexandra Stewart in the English version). An inveterate flâneur, Krasna travels the world seeking images, those souvenirs which are the tangible records of memory for a filmmaker, but he is drawn most often to Japan and Africa—‘the two extreme poles of survival’, as he calls them.
In Japan, he sees his own images of civil unrest transformed into the pixelated vortices of another reality by his friend Hayao Yamaneko, who creates digital graffiti with his image synthesizer, ‘The Zone’, named after that region in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) in which a liminal boundary is passed. And in the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, Krasna ruminates on the failure of revolutionary politics, which collapsed after the assassination of guerrilla leader Amílcar Cabral, who was murdered in 1973 during his crusade to liberate the peoples of Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands.
In San Francisco, he scouts the locations used by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958), reworking the film’s story of obsessive love into a twisted spiral of time and memory. The visit inspires Krasna to return to Iceland to scout out locations for his own movie, a Borgesian science fiction tale about a man with total recall who travels back in time from the distant future to learn what it was like for human beings to forget. Krasna’s own journey ends back in Tokyo with the filmmaker watching his images filtered through Yamaneko’s Zone, the digital distortion of re-creative memory already altering the molecules of celluloid ‘truth’.
‘In place of fiction’s access to “a world”,’ Bruce Hodsdon wrote in his notes accompanying the State Library series, ‘documentary claims to provide access to “the world”, a claim for special status, even moral superiority….’ Where Sans Soleil earns its special status is in its blurring of the distinction between the definite concepts we have about cinema’s ability to represent the world either as fact or as fiction.
M. Marker shows us ‘the world’ in all its solidity and the immutability of objective fact, but he filters ‘the world-as-fact’ through the visceral, subjective prism of ‘a world’, the hero’s. To use the word ‘hero’ to describe a personage in a documentary might seem a little problematic, since this is a term we usually reserve for fiction, but Sandor Krasna, it transpires, is a fictional construct, his letters and diaries (and even the anonymous woman’s commentary on them) literary inventions of the director himself. Like ego and anima, these two ‘characters’ are fictionalized aspects of the director himself, and carry on, at the level of fiction, a coded communication between themselves that comments upon the filmmaker’s actual experience.
I’ve had the good fortune to see Sans Soleil twice on a big screen, and watching the documentary, therefore, is rather like having an out-of-body experience: there is an ectoplasmic, ‘floating’ quality to the images and the logic of reverie to their unfoldment which is quite unique in cinema, but highly characteristic of Chris Marker’s flâneurial style of filmmaking.
Divested of our bodies and of our individual egos, parties to a conversation between M. Marker’s conscious and unconscious minds, we are at once of the world and in a world, citizens of a soul without borders. The English translation of the title, taken from a song cycle by Modest Mussorgsky, is Sunless, as if in the darkness of the cinema we become mole-like creatures, groping blindly toward some subterranean reality. In truth, watching the film for the first time, I felt as if I were at last feeling the sun’s rays upon my face.
At its essence, Sans Soleil encapsulates its own purpose and meaning early on in a digression on Sei Shōnagon, the eleventh-century lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress Teishi who composed The Pillow Book, one of the pillars of Japanese literature. ‘Shōnagon had a passion for lists,’ the narrator explains to us, almost certainly speaking on behalf of M. Marker himself, albeit through Krasna. ‘The list of… elegant things; distressing things, or even of things not worth doing. One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of things that quicken the heart. Not a bad criterion, I realize when I’m filming.’
Shōnagon-sama’s criterion is the one constant in an endless, disparate catalogue of cats and owls, people and places, ideas and images, a flânerie through the exquisite sensibility of M. Marker, who was as sensitive and witty a soul as Shōnagon-sama herself. Nothing so much as the foreignness of travel makes us aware of what we truly value at home. Sans Soleil is itself a meditation on those things that quicken M. Marker’s heart, an hommage to them—like the people he films gathered to pray for the souls of broken dolls at the Temple of Kiyomitsu, or the distorted images so prized by Yamaneko (‘“Pictures that are less deceptive,” he says with the conviction of a fanatic, “than those you see on television”’).
Mr. Thomson’s remark that ‘a cultivated man should express himself in words or in film’, goes to the heart of this concept I call ‘flâneurial cinema’. M. Marker exemplified the ‘cultivation’ of the flâneurial filmmaker. In a previous post, I wrote that there is a certain dandysme in the nature of the flâneurial filmmaker, a kind of ‘ostentatious modesty’ to his idiosyncratic visual style. I don’t know that Chris Marker was ever a dandy in the proper sense of the term, being too undercover an assassin of images to ever affect a Bondian devotion to deportment, but the immense cultivation of the literary man, the dandistic finesse de l’esprit, the erudition and urbanity of his intellect, was certainly there—remarkable in a man who devoted himself to mechanically reproduced images.
In fine, if M. Marker had not the dandy’s passion for fashion, he had at least the flâneur’s breadth of spirit, a literariness borne of ‘literateness’—and the literacy de l’homme de lettres is none too common a quality among les hommes du cinéma, that rare breed of men—almost as rare as dandies themselves—who devote their lives à l’écritures des images.
Observateur, amateur: M. Marker was a collectionneur of the crowd, whom he gathered, in its multiplicity, through images. He wrote with the camera as few are capable of doing, having both the breadth of spirit and the force of a cultivated, literate vision to reach through the dead eye of the machine and impress himself, as a sovereign auteur, upon les images qu’il cueillait. He himself was the ‘kaléidoscope doué de conscience’, and consequently he made this ‘box for transporting images’, as John Berger calls the camera, a ‘kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness’ in its turn.
M. Marker once said, ‘I claim for the image the humility and powers of a madeleine,’ referring, of course, to the scallop-shaped cake from which the whole edifice of M. Proust’s cathedral of memory springs. But not only to that, for if M. Marker is literate enough to pass among the cognoscenti as a thoroughgoing Proustian, he is equally well-read in the literature of images, and as his CD-ROM Immemory (1998) showed, he had wit enough to perceive that the cake by which M. Proust found the possibility of regaining lost time was consubstantial with the woman through whose image Mr. Hitchcock lost his impossible dream of love in the spiral of time.
In the image is contained the atom of memory, and in memory the comprehension of time. ‘I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining,’ Krasna/Marker says in Sans Soleil.
At one point he recounts a dream which becomes the dream of all of Tokyo, its mass transit system acting as the corridor along which image passes into memory. ‘The train inhabited by sleeping people puts together all the fragments of dreams, makes a single film of them –the ultimate film,’ he rhapsodizes. ‘The tickets from the automatic dispenser grant admission to the show.’ We watch as people rush by the ticket collector in a torrent, passing through the portal into dreaming: a train moving through the arteries of Tokyo like a thought along the neural pathways of the brain.
There is a sombre grey light to the montage of closeups that follows, showing the passengers caught in various attitudes of rest and reflection. This grey light gives their journey almost a Stygian quality, as if they were crossing a river whose two banks were life and death. As they sleep, oneiric snatches of anime and Japanese horror movies insert themselves into the montage: one young man dreams he is the hero (or perhaps the heroine) of a samurai movie; a salaryman flashes on a private pornographic fantasy, while the mind of the woman beside him remains curiously blank.
In this way, M. Marker demonstrates how an image, like a crumb of petite madeleine, can become freighted with the personal significance of a souvenir. The images are like windows in the walls of the train, but these windows don’t look out, they look inward at the passengers. The boundary separating definite objectivity and indefinite subjectivity has been made so porous by the flux of images that all we accept as solid and immutable about the world has become an osmotic partition through which image takes on the appearance of memory, just as the sleepers on the train take on the appearance of the dead in repose.
During a ceremony for children held at the Ueno Zoo in memory of animals who have died during the past year, Krasna meditates on the way our perception of images informs our views of life and death. ‘I’ve heard this sentence: “The partition that separates life from death does not appear so thick to us as it does to a westerner.” What I’ve read most often in the eyes of people about to die is surprise.’ Marker inserts a brief piece of file footage into the sequence showing a giraffe gambolling across the African savannah. ‘What I read right now in the eyes of Japanese children is curiosity, as if they were trying in order to understand the death of an animal to stare through the partition.’
We too stare through a partition, but our partition is the cinema screen, and it serves to insulate us from the death of the giraffe, which is shot and killed by a hunter, and then preyed on by vultures. Not surprisingly, the first part of the dead animal they feast on is its eyes.
These vultures are like entities from the other side of that partition which separates life from death and real from reel, communicating directly with us from beyond the screen, warning us against trusting too much to our eyes, which are deceived by images, just as Krasna’s friend Hayao has stated. ‘I returned from a country where death is not a partition to cross through but a road to follow,’ Krasna concludes.
As virtual flânerie, Sans Soleil is such a restless, peripatetic film that I remember seeing it for the first time and not being sure where that road was going to take me. And yet, as if by some magical intuition embedded within its labyrinthine, spiral structure of random randonnée, I wound up at the very place I most wanted to be, the setting of one of my favourite film.
‘He wrote me that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo,’ the woman tells us. Few movies are so thoroughly immersed in their locales as Vertigo is immersed in the city of San Francisco, and few movies are so adept at triggering the things which quicken my own heart as Sans Soleil.
I remember that when I first saw the screen fill with the blood-red suffusion of Saul Bass’s famous title sequence, I felt that innate tranquillity of a traveller who has, at last, arrived at his destination—the San Francisco so scrupulously evoked in Mr. Hitchcock’s movie of course, but also in the private place it occupies in my heart. It is the documentary’s most perfect sequence: a beautiful extended video essay avant la lettre in which Marker-as-Krasna tours the locations used by Mr. Hitchcock, re-imagining the movie’s themes of obsessive love and the resurrection of the dead as an ode to time and memory.
We see contemporary San Francisco juxtaposed with stills from Vertigo as Krasna drives the hilly streets of the Bay Area, just as James Stewart once tailed Kim Novak. At the Palace of the Legion of Honor, he sees time trapped in the hair of the portrait of Carlotta, ‘… so carefully coded within the spiral that you could miss it, and not discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.’ And at San Juan Bautista, he runs beneath the arches of the plaza at the Mission, just as Madeleine does when she runs toward her death, and re-imagines Scottie as ‘time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it, inventing a double for Madeleine in another a dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him….’
Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve (1921-2012) was the Ulysses of the twentieth century, carrying a camera on his shoulder just as the cunning voyager of antiquity once carried an oar, searching for a place to settle. Like Ulysses himself, the flâneurial M. Marker was a part of all that he had met in his travels from Siberia, to Israel, to Cuba, and beyond.
Although his documentaries are justly famous among cinephiles, M. Marker’s best-known work is, paradoxically, his only foray into fiction, the short film La Jetée (1961). Referencing Vertigo both overtly and covertly, it is about a time traveller from post-apocalyptic Paris whose future depends upon him falling in love with an image from his past. Composed almost entirely of haunting black and white stills, it encapsulates so much of Marker’s unique vision even as it diverges from it.
But Chris Marker is not just a promise of a world to come. Perhaps his physical existence in the era of Hitler, Hiroshima, Castro, and the new Israel is simply a nexus of ideas that reach back and forward in time. Marker is here, with us, but perhaps he is a man of the twenty-second and of the eighteenth centuries. Of course, it is easier to look for men who resemble Marker in our past than estimate where he stands in the future. It is quite possible that he is an ordinary enough fellow in the twenty-second century, for he does not carry himself with the self-importance expected of filmmakers in our present age. His films see nothing exceptional in an inquisitive traveler sending back films about the lands he has seen and the thoughts he has had while there.
—David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
They say that one should never meet the people one admires. That’s relatively easy for me: feeling, like M. Marker, a man adrift in his century, almost every artist I admire is dead; and like dead stars, their fading light calls me back to another century, another time when a man could be ‘cultivated’, and, in expressing himself with cultivation, would not go misunderstood by his contemporaries.
But if I could have met one of the few artists living in my own lifetime whom I admire, I should have liked to have met M. Marker one afternoon in Paris in 2009. His films—not least of all Sans Soleil—influenced me as a writer long before they ever exerted the influence of style upon me as a filmmaker.
Through M. Marker and Sans Soleil, I was introduced to Sei Shōnagon, and through her to Murasaki Shikabu, discovering the pleasures of ancient Japanese literature. Those two ladies, with their proto-flâneurial concern for the small thing, the overlooked incident, the decorous, poetic touch, have exercised as great an influence upon me as a writer as James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and I owe my acquaintance with those ladies entirely to M. Marker.
If I could have met him one afternoon in Paris on that odyssey in flânerie he had, in part, led me to as a film critic and could have thanked him for the introduction, that would have been honour enough.
But when I finally began to make my own videos and, later, films like the one above, when cinema became more than academic for me and I had passed, like MM. Truffaut et Godard, that reverse apprenticeship which only applies in film, from the theory of literary critique to the practice of discovering just how one produces cinematic effects on no budget at all, M. Marker was one of the half-dozen guiding lights for me in personal cinematic style.
L’avenir du cinématographe est à une race neuve de jeunes solitaires qui tourneront en y mettant leur dernier sou et sans se laisser avoir par les routines matérielles du métier.
The future of filmmaking belongs to a new race of young loners who will sink their last penny into shooting without letting themselves be tied down to the worldly routines of work.
M. Bresson might there have been describing M. Marker, who maintained a youthful curiosity about the means of multimedia production to the end of his days. Certainly, as I choose to translate it (and there are a couple of ways his typically cryptic koan can be read), M. Bresson is prophetically describing a ‘cinematic dandy’—a broke and quixotic idiosyncrat, rich only in style, who throws himself bodily into the lucre-devouring art-form, living only for it, for the expression of himself through it, willing to pawn the tailored shirt off his back for the expensive element.
If it isn’t clear by now, there’s a fundamental, an essential loneliness in flânerie, a solitude to the practice of the drifting hunt for beauty that cannot be shared, and which thus makes it cognate with the artistic practice of writing. And likewise, the solitude of flânerie makes it as antithetical to the collaborative, compromised and capital-intensive seventh art as literature is.
M. Marker is almost unique among filmmakers in that he took the lonely practice of writing and somehow transferred it to the practice of making a film: all those tedious little chores of detail, divvied up by department because of the sheer, encyclopædic mass of them, M. Marker took upon himself—the absolutely essential ones at least, getting rid of the rest. As Mr. Thomson said, he never allowed himself to become ‘rigidly professional’, and if there is a certain homely quality to his films—even Sans Soleil, an epic of production values by his one-man standards—it is because he took the amateur æsthetic of the home movie, the film-souvenir and made a virtue of the solo effort.
He was truly the auteur of his films, as no other director can quite claim to be. And as a writer, a filmmaker manqué endlessly seduced by images, I respond with fraternal sympathy to this photographer and filmmaker who seemed to be as much in love with words as a writer. Among his many adventures—wartime résistant, Marxist provocateur—M. Marker was briefly a writer after the war, a one-book novelist of no renown—un écrivain manqué, one might say, a poet who just missed his calling, as if he narrowly slipped into one of those Borgesian parallel times depicted in La Jetée.
In the alternate universe we exist in, someone put a camera in his hand instead of a pen, and away the legend of Chris Marker went, our man in Havana, our man in Peking, our man in Siberia and Israel—our man everywhere, a spy behind his Minox, leaving no trace behind him, like a grin without a cat.
The process of making films in communion with oneself, the way a painter works or a writer, need not now be solely experimental. Contrary to what people say, using the first-person in films tends to be a sign of humility: All I have to offer is myself.
He’s a constant inspiration to me as both a writer and a filmmaker. Flâneurial cinema is about this lonely, literary détournement du spectacle that is ‘cinema’, so uncultivated an art-form. There are no special effects, nothing but the magick of actuality, of real places undergoing the imperceptible metamorphosis of real time.
It’s about a singular, cultivated sensibility expressing itself in words, images, and sounds, writing with light and movement, but also with stillness, silence, and darkness. And it’s about trying to get cinema to do its opposite, to get that magick kinesis out of mu, out of the ‘nothingness’ of actuality, of unspectacular ‘isness’.
Flâneurial cinema is, therefore, a kind of ‘amateurish maîtrise’ of the elements of cinema—shooting, editing, recording and mounting sound—in such a way as to preserve the homely intimacy, the mono no aware, of memory, some of the ‘roughness’ of a sensation or experience re-membered in a film-souvenir.
For me, M. Marker exemplified, avant la lettre, this concept of flâneurial cinema I have coined, and which I am seeking every time I crouch down behind my camera. We are two artists whose violons d’Ingres are precisely the inverse of each other’s medium of expertise, and in some sense, I feel I am carrying the torch for M. Marker, continuing a project he began naïvely, without self-consciousness, in film, but which requires another, more sentimental soul, a more cerebral and literary mind, to codify as a definite æsthetic and a distinct branch of the art-form we both love.
If you would like to donate a few sous to the film fund and keep me in the expensive element, consider purchasing the soundtrack of “Quelle belle journée!” below.
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.
Someone ought to stop me. Last Saturday I took a flânerie to Kyneton, a town I’ve long intended to visit, and trawling the thrift shops for a fashionable trouvaille (as is my wont), I walked out of the Salvation Army op-shop in the main street 75 scoots lighter.
I hadn’t even been looking at it. Perusing the glass cabinet behind the counter where they keep the precious stuff, my eye had been pursuing a pair of Parisian cufflinks with interest when it fell on the lowest shelf.
Camouflaged under a heavy patina of dust and looking as battered and dinted as a busted fender was a dark grey Fedora doing everything it could to fool the unwary that it was unwearable.
My connoisseur’s eye knew better.
As a man with more hats than Zaphod Beeblebrox could ever wear, one glance told me that it was my diminutive size. And if a hat is my size, dear readers, you better believe it’s got my name written on the sweatband.
God help me. Someone put the cuffs and camisole on me quick before my mitts reach my pocket!
It was too late. I asked the lady if she would let the beast out of captivity for a moment, and she obliged. It didn’t jump up and lick my face, but then it didn’t need to. It knew it was in the hands of its new owner.
The only surprise on my side was when I turned the hat over and gave it the customary glance inside the crown. I had thought that I was dealing with a vintage Akubra, some model they don’t make anymore, and I wanted to see what creative name the marketing boys had dubbed it with.
There was a lot of gold lettering on the leather sweatband, and all legible, telling me that this hat hadn’t been worn in two or three generations. But instead of the Akubra logo I had expected to find, I saw the much rarer shield of the John B. Stetson Company U.S.A., and beneath it, the words ‘MADE IN AUSTRALIA’.
It’s hard to find an Australian-made Stetson these days. I have two others, a Springaire and a Whippet, the latter of which I was wearing when I found this baby in Kyneton.
Aussie Stetsons were made by Akubra under exclusive licence between the 1950s and 1970s, representing a synthesis of two new-world hat-making traditions. The ruggedness of the American plains and the Australian outback both demanded native brands of durable headwear suited to those environments, and the Stetson and the Akubra brands have since become synonymous with the myth of the cowboy in one country and the myth of the bushman in the other.
At the time of writing, I own about a dozen hats, including four Akubras (three of which are vintage), three vintage Stetsons, a vintage Christys’, and a number of venerable hats from British and American brands so ancient they don’t exist anymore. These chapeaux are so old that even our all-seeing oracle, Mr. Google, is ignorant about them and incapable of giving me much enlightenment as to their age and provenance.
I have rarely bought a new hat. Almost all the quinzaine of hats I have ever owned, even those that have merely spent a season with me, have had a history preceding their visitation on my head, and the older the hat is, the more I adore it.
The Stetson Centennial, for instance, gives every evidence of hardly ever being worn, and certainly not in recent decades. But after I gave it a brisk brush, a thorough treatment with B.K. Smith’s Felt Hat Care Kit, and a good steam and block over the kettle, dust and dints dropped away like the years, and the Centennial came up as nicely if it had just come out of the Myer Store for Men.
And therein lies the point: abandoned in the corner of an attic for decades, suggesting, with their mute testimony, that they may never even have seen the light of day atop some gent’s head, these antique hats have their proper lives with me. Antique as they are, they’re not curios to be displayed and never worn. They do a daily job of practical work for me, braving rain and shine as the companions of my flâneries.
I love my hats with a mad passion, and it’s fair to say that if I have one irresistible vice, it’s the acquisition of more hats, whenever and wherever I find them.
These days, I can withstand the blandishments of a beautiful dame with Olympian aloofness. But if that Lorelei were to wave a 6¾-size hat at me, I would just about debase myself in the dust at her feet in my urgent urge to acquire it. Give me more hats, O God! Let me swim in a river of rabbit fur like Scrooge McDuck in his lucre!
I don’t know where this bankrupting addiction to headgear came from, chers lecteurs, except to say that it emerged along with the passion for suits in my teenage years.
The dandy, the true-blue, pure-blood dandy, acquires a style in his youth and never renounces it. He would sooner abandon his mistress than his style. Sometimes he chooses poorly in these tender years, naïf as he is in the ways of fashion, and selects a style that does not age gracefully with him. This was the unfortunate fate of Barbey D’Aurevilly and of Robert de Montesquiou.
I think—(although I may flatter myself on this score)—that I chose more wisely than those two gents. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda say in Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), ‘[t]he dandy in historical regression most often directs his attention to those periods in history that provide a great wealth of æsthetic ideas.’ It would seem that for me, in my teens, when the love of suits and ties, hats and shoes overtook me as a commanding passion, that the years between roughly 1920 and 1960, between the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment and the idiotic youthquake, I found that period of history rich in æsthetic ideas that are resonant for me.
In my soul, I’m essentially a mid-twentieth-century man, a grey flannel suit man, a silent generationer, if we take the average of those two arbitrary dates. The twenties, thirties, forties and fifties are the decades of high modernism in art and literature, which is to say, the period when the classic is at its most avant-garde. My style, as a man of letters and a man of fashion, is both classic and avant-garde, which is to say, highly modern.
The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the single most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.
Having chosen the modern period as that period of history from which I draw æsthetic inspiration, and having a personal style, both literary and sartorial, that is simultaneously classic and cutting-edge, I think I have avoided the fate of those two aforementioned gentlemen. There’s still something very futuristic about the modern style, antique as it appears in our hellish period of postmodern decadence, and in a business meeting with other suited men, I can still pass, dandy that I am, as a contemporary at the forefront of creative imagination while simultaneously appearing to be a conservative standard-bearer of traditional taste.
The dandy ‘passes’ because he is the rigorous refinement of the rectitude and merciless geometry of men’s fashion: he is so ‘correct’ in his style that he shines with an uncommon éclat. Likewise, the littérateur of supreme style shines forth a unique light through the formal perfection of his manipulation of language.
In the art, the literature, the cinema of mid-century—and in its fashions—I seemed to see the diffuse image of my ‘Ideal of Personality’ as a teenager. And in the rule, the T-square, the compass and the protractor of mid-twentieth-century men’s fashion (which is to say, the suit, the tie, the shoes, the hat), I must have seen the elements of the dandy’s geometric art of correctness and precision, a supremely modern art where classical proportion meets avant-garde abstraction in the ‘putting-together’ of the individual’s vision of himself, just as the stylish writer communicates the totality of himself—his vision of the world—through the precise selection and assemblage of words.
Is it possible, dear readers, that I am the only writer who is known by his hat? The hat—more particularly, the Fedora—has become almost symbolic of me, and this seems infinitely à propos for an artist who makes his living by manipulating the abstract, cognitive tools of human language.
Hamlet claimed that he could be ‘bounded in a nutshell’ and yet call himself ‘a king of infinite space’. Similarly, that vast universe of imagination I Napoleonically command could be circled by the girth of a Fedora’s crown, say, 6¾ in size—6⅞ at most.
In thinking about this post, I scoured that sovereign empire I reign over as a despot, like Herod hunting out the boy babies, but I could not think of another writer whose image we automatically associate with the hat as a symbol of the cognitive world he commands. The closest I could come to another writer for whom the hat seems to have some stylish significance as a sartorial gesture towards literary panache is James Joyce.
As a fellow Aquarian (and thus no stranger to setting outrageous trends, literary and otherwise), Mr. Joyce had a dandistic taste for exotic headgear. Several photographs show the immense, lucid dome of Shem the Penman variously swathed in a newsboy’s flat cap, a Greek fisherman’s cap, a straw boater, and dinted, shaggy Fedoras worn with sprezzatura.
Undoubtedly, the Irish monarch of modern English letters liked a crown as much as I do. But despite this, I would hesitate to say that the first thing most people think of if they deign to bust a bissel of thought on the author of Ulysses is his hat. If anything, it’s his cane, the precious ‘ashplant’ he bequeaths to pretentious Stephen Dedalus.
So, being an ‘outdoor auteur’, a devotee of the café terrace, the park, and other undesked expanses in which it is impracticable to write, it could be that I have made the hat as much a part of my literary toolkit as my Montblanc, my Moleskine, or my manual typewriter.
I just turned 39 last month, and I bought my first hat in 1999, when I was 16 years old, so I have been wearing un beau chapeau for more than half my life—and much longer than it has been fashionable to do so.
My first hat was a black Derby of American origin—a particularly bold choice for a neophyte, and it was a bit of a false start in my hatting journey, for I recognized with the wisdom of hindsight that a Derby, or bowler hat, is better suited to a round face rather than to my narrow, delicate features.
It’s a hat that looks splendid on a fat man. Sydney Greenstreet, for instance, in The Maltese Falcon (1941), incarnates the corpulent elegance of classic British tailoring while on safari in San Francisco à la recherche du ‘black bird’, and he caps his cutaway ensemble off superbly with that signal symbol of ‘Britishness’, the black bowler hat.
Likewise, Alfred Hitchcock is everything the well-dressed London rubbernecker ought to be when he assists, at the beginning of Frenzy (1972), at the revelation of the Necktie Murderer’s latest divertissement along the Embankment. The black bowler hat completes the Master of Suspense’s funereal uniform in his brief cameo, the upward arc of the brim giving him a more than maudlin air as it contrasts with his pendulous jowls and protuberant downturned lips.
I still have my Derby, some 22 years later, and feel déchiré about the prospect of ever parting with it, even though I rarely wear it. As the most formal of my hats, it’s on active retirement, reserved for black-tie, or the races.
If you’re a gentleman, you ought to have at least one good hat that you wear regularly. A hat is the crown to any outfit you wear, and there’s rarely a man who is not improved by a good hat on his head.
And here’s a word of wisdom I can offer to the hesitant hat-virgin: If you fail to catch the hatting bug after your first acquisition, at least make sure that your sole purchase is based on what will sit well on your features; for a good hat should complete a man’s face. It should not only fit your head in girth, but in style.
With my second acquisition, made in 2000 when I was a mere gamin of 17, I was on surer footing than with the Derby. It was then that I purchased my first Fedora, a black number by Varden, a Melbourne brand that I believe has gone the way of all flesh, and which I purchased from a theatrical outfitter in Brisbane.
My goodness, did I cop some stick for wearing that hat! I was porting Fedoras years before the rappers re-popularized this piece of headgear to my generation, and you wouldn’t believe the brass-ball confidence it took to carry my crown off before the rappers made the Fedora ‘respectable’ to my millennial contemporaries.
Though the imprimatur of ‘legitimacy’ that the rappers’ gave to the Fedora subsequently made it easier for me to port my crown, it is questionable whether, in the long run, they have done the hat I loved avant la lettre any favours by their adoption of it.
Legion are now the online memes in which manboys port sweatshop ‘Fedoras’, cheaply made from synthetic patterned fabrics. And in Australia, one has to regularly swallow one’s bile at the sight of wrinkled-kneed Boomers, dressed like their grandsons in Bermuda shorts and printed T-shirts, pretending they’re at Byron with their scabrously woven sweatshop Trilbies.
Let us be clear: these cheaply-made, narrow-brimmed things clinging to the heads of Boomers and manboys are not Fedoras. A Fedora is not made in an Asian sweatshop from separate pieces of synthetic, patterned fabric machine-sewn together. It is a soft, malleable hat moulded from felted fur, such as rabbit or beaver, and as such, there is an artisanal handicraft to the creation of a Fedora.
Moreover, these imitation hats which the uninitiated partisans of YouTube cringe compilations are calling ‘Fedoras’ are, by any strict definition, no such thing. To call these ugly things ‘Trilbies’ is to give them too much dignity, but if they bear resemblance to any respectable variety of hat, the narrowness of the brim (which I suspect is more a function of the manufacturer’s miserliness than a function of fashion) brings them in line with the Trilby rather than the Fedora.
Another disservice that the rappers have done to the Fedora, and which their partisans have adopted by imitation, lies in the fundamental matter of how one wears the hat.
The problem is that the chain of succession in hat-wearing was broken by the Boomers somewhere in the mid-sixties. The abandonment of the hat, as of the suit, is one of those innumerable generational crimes for which the Boomers should be made to answer at a new Nuremberg. Contemptuous of their fathers’ style, the Boomers discarded suit and hat, and thus failed to model to their children how these items of apparel ought properly to be worn.
Consequently, when the rappers took up the Fedora a couple of generations later, they were not educated in the art of elegantly wearing it. One should never wear a Fedora straight down, with a level brim, on one’s head. Even worse, one should never wear a Fedora on the back of one’s head, like some striped-shirt hipster in Thornbury.
The Fedora, like almost all hats with a curved brim, is designed to be worn cocked forward on one’s temple, over one eye. This unwritten law was well-known to men between 1920 and 1960, in the days when a well-dressed man was not complete without his hat and fathers educated their sons in the arcanities of natural elegance by their example.
The Boomers would have had this example modelled to them by their fathers and grandfathers, but deprecating tradition, they abandoned the brimmed hat to go abroad bare-headed and bearded to the eyes, with Samson-like locks on full, flowing display.
I remember my mother said to me once, in the early years after the rage for Fedoras had been reignited by the rappers, that the hat suited me, but that she thought it rarely suited most men’s faces. I disagreed with this, as I do now, but I understood the subtler point she was making: most men who port a Fedora today don’t know how to wear it, and the Boomers who have taken up cheap imitations of the Fedora have actually forgotten how their fathers and grandfathers wore their hats.
Cock your hat—angles are atttitudes.
It’s not obvious that a brimmed hat, particularly a Fedora, should be worn at a distinct angle. It actually took me some time after acquiring my first Fedora to realize this fact. I would put it on in the first year and wonder why it didn’t look good.
It was Humphrey Bogart who taught me, by his inestimable example, how to port a Fedora with confident panache. While the hat, with its soft, casual elegance, eminently appropriate for most occasions, was the standard piece of all-purpose headwear for men between the wars, Mr. Bogart has become the only man one thinks of when one thinks of the Fedora.
Possibly this is due to the fact that, starting his film career in earnest as a screen gangster in the 1930’s, Mr. Bogart’s sartorial style owed a great deal to Messrs. Capone, Luciano et al., all great aficionados of the Fedora.
With the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Bogart seemed to transfer the image of the gangster to that of the crooked, though honourable, American gentleman in ambiguous circumstances—the M. Rick of Casablanca (1942), for instance. The Fedora, with its democratic adaptability, seems an appropriate hat for a man like Rick Blaine to port as he hobnobs casually with European refugees from all strata of society.
But to return to the Stetson as the best-selling brand of American Fedora, in the war years it became popular to say, quoting the company’s advertising, that one should keep information that might be valuable to the enemy ‘under your Stetson’. Mr. Bogart, representing, as no other Hollywood actor did in those years, the ‘grace under pressure’ of a kind of democratic American elegance, was perhaps the most famous wearer of a Stetson Fedora in the world at that time.
The Fedora is not a hat of the frontline, and yet it was the hat of the war years. That democratic adaptability which makes the Fedora casually elegant and appropriate for most occasions that a man might find himself in seems to fit neatly with the ambiguous image that adhered to Mr. Bogart during the war as a kind of ‘rugged gentleman’, a ‘cultivated gangster’, like glamorous M. Rick, who may be a racketeer, but who is ultimately shown to have a heart of gold.
Most days I port a Fedora of some sort, and I’m known to tout-Melbourne by my Fedoras, but my absolute favourite hat is a navy blue Homburg I acquired at an antique shop in Clunes about five years ago.
Like the Derby, I rarely wear this hat, but because, in the hierarchy of formality, the Homburg is a rung lower than the Derby, being a semi-formal hat, I wear it much more often. It’s a hat I will go months without wearing and then decide, on some random day, to wear for a ‘special occasion’—the special occasion being the occasion of wearing the hat itself.
The reason I love the Homburg so much is that it suits my features as well as the Fedora does, but adds several degrees of refinement to any outfit. I have one of the smallest heads it’s possible to hat, with a heart-shaped face and delicate, rather feminine features, so the soft yet masculine lines of the Fedora suits me well in the day-to-day. The Homburg, by contrast, has a tall but soft guttered crown and a stiff, exuberantly curved brim with a flamboyant ribbon trim, so the effect of the Fedora’s elegant lines is amplified.
The Homburg has acquired something of a reputation for stodginess, being the preferred hat of prime ministers and presidents from Eden to Eisenhower. Moreover, Tony Hancock, in his maudlin comic persona, made the lugubrious black Homburg and Astrakhan coat synonymous with postwar misery, misanthropy and miserliness in Britain.
The reputation for stuffiness is decidedly unfair, but it’s adhered so firmly to the Homburg that it’s a very uncommon chapeau to see abroad these days. Consequently, it’s a hat that requires a great deal of confidence to wear, and I would say that in our times it’s definitely the preserve of dandies like myself, because if you port a Homburg abroad, people will certainly look at you. It’s a hat that turns heads.
My Homburg is uncommonly dandistic, being a gorgeous shade of navy. The Homburg, traditionally, is either black or pearl grey, this latter being especially elegant. One often sees the grey hat paired with a black grosgrain ribbon, and it’s this variety that Michael Corleone ports in The Godfather (1972).
Though popular with gangsters in the thirties, the Homburg has less direct connection with those gents in the popular imaginary than the Fedora, and it signifies a man of affairs who is equally a man about town. It’s thus suitable for both street- and evening wear, and you can even get away with mixing a grey Homburg and black-tie if you have sufficient chutzpah to pull the combo off.
I would love to own another Homburg and am always on the lookout for one. I am a man of brims: though I have a small head and narrow features, the horizontal lines of a pencil-curled brim—not to mention the bounding arches of a Homburg’s crown—complete the bone structure of my face with an emphasis that even my customary Fedoras don’t achieve.
And here is the final tip I’ll offer about hats: When choosing a style, ask yourself to what extent the height of a crown or the width of a brim will ‘feature’ the shape of your head and your bone structure.
With a small head and delicate features, I’ve always been accused of a certain ‘prettiness’. When the lines are in proportion to my head, the exuberance and flamboyance of a brimmed hat make my head and face a site of interest.
I remember wearing my Homburg in Adelaide a few years ago and walking into a hat shop near the Central Markets. ‘The hat love you,’ the little Chinese lady behind the counter said to me. Whether she was referring to that particular hat or to the genus ‘hat’ generally, I don’t know, but certainly, having spent more than half my life wearing good hats, the confidence of a flamboyant, wide-brimmed hat says something, I think, about the strength of will, the character and cognitive capacity bounded by the crown.
I am, as I say, a ‘man of brims’. You may not be. Some men are well-served by a flat cap. The bad flat cap, however, is even more of a pestilence upon the land than the sweatshop Fedora. Be sure to get yourself a good tweed newsboy with a flexible crown attached to a short brim.
Out of curiosity, I picked up a newsboy of venerable quality from a church op-shop in Kings Cross in Sydney some years ago. You can see me sporting it in the photograph at the top of this post.
I got a lot of compliments about that cap. The flexibility of the crown was such that I could wear it with a considerable degree of beret-like jaunt, giving me the look of a Parisian apache as I wandered the streets of Melbourne with my Pentax. But despite the compliments I received, I eventually gave up the newsboy—with some lingering regret, I admit—because I had to come to terms with the fact that I am just not a ‘flat cap’ man:—I’m a man of exuberant brims, and if, as people say, there’s a touch of Gatsby about me, I’m the Gatsby of the white suit, not the newsboy cap.
The man of fashion is not complete without his hat. The dandy pur-sang is a celestial prince, like a prince of the Church. He carries the consciousness of his heavenly estate within him, and the hat is the prince’s crown. Go forth, therefore, in peace upon the earth and port thou thy hat!
When I fled Bellingen for Melbourne, making, in one day, the greatest southward bound in my soul’s expansion, crossing a border as yet unmet by my eyes in this lifetime, my heart leapt in intuitive recognition of a place where it thought it might find a new home: When I first glimpsed Euroa flying by my window on the XPT, I had the brief intimation that here I might refind that paradise of bourgeois bohemia I had, only hours before, reluctantly renounced, fleeing the scene of my longestlasting happiness.
Many times since, shuttling in my aller et retour entre Sydney et Melbourne, I have, beyond Benalla in the one direction, and Seymour in the other, made a point to look out for it, that viaduct over a dusty stream, dapplegladed, which seemed to mark on a map in my mind, the afternoon after my départ de Bellingen, a past in un lieu perdu and a potential avenir, here, which recalled it.
When I had, for the first time, the opportunity to alight at this nom de pays which evoked nothing of Ned Kelly for me and everything of Bellingen, I knew—but not at once—my intuition’s error: this place is not that one. In seeing, one afternoon, a fleeting image of a landscape which reminded me of the one I had left the day before, I was mourning a life I had lately fled, not imagining the future I was flying to.
—Dean Kyte, “On having left, but not yet having arrived”
In my last post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I alluded to my dream of a ‘flâneurial cinema’, a cinema that is, in effect, the poetry of cinema’s prosy vision of life. It’s a topic I’ve touched on in other posts on this vlog, but today I’m going to explain what I mean by ‘flâneurial cinema’ by examining my own practice.
In essence, my concept of flâneurial cinema has its foundations in the famous definition of the term ‘documentary’ as coined by John Grierson. According to Mr. Grierson, a documentary film is ‘the creative treatment of actuality.’
The actualité is, in fact, the primordial cinematic form. It’s the thing that Edison and the Lumière brothers made when they merely pointed their silent movie cameras at some corner of life and started to crank.
No pans, no booms, no dollies, no cuts, no sound. Just the shot. Unscripted, undirected, unacted.
For me, the actualité, the plain, unvarnished shot of life, the least inflected cinematic shot you can get—even down to the absence of sound—the equivalent of a ‘moving photograph’, is the primordial, autonomous form of cinema.
The shot of actuality is the acorn from which the vast tree of cinematic genres has spread its branches. The most absurd—(some crude souls in love with spectacle would say ‘the most sublime’)—shots of CGI kayfabery that Hollywood shovels out to us today as ‘cinema’ would be unimaginable without the primordial shot of actuality. It is the foundation-stone of cinematic language, the shot from which we build the edifice of a film.
And it’s that primordial primitivism, a return to the fertile root of cinema in the plain, unmoving, silent shot of life, that undergirds my style of flâneurial filmmaking. The video essay above—a ‘video essay’ half-shot on Super 8 film—attests to that æsthetic of elemental, poetic revelry in the prose of reality.
In a taped interview conducted by fellow filmmaker Willie Varela in 1980, Paul Sharits discusses his extensive use of Super 8 and … attempts to strike what he considers an optimistic note by raising the topic of the imminent death of not only film but also video. He informs Varela that, within three years, computer-based systems will allow users to ‘image anything,’ with ‘no discs, no nothing. Digital, just a program … High resolution, total control.’ This is a sea change Sharits claims to be ‘waiting for,’ and he declares with confidence, ‘Some day, film and video will be passé, man. But not imaging systems.’ Since Varela still regards Super 8 as his format of choice and video as an inferior alternative, he replies that Sharits’ prognostication ‘sounds terrible,’ because digital imaging is ‘not the same as going out in the world and shooting something.’
The essence of flâneurial cinema is ‘going out in the world and shooting something’—something actual. Going out into the world is going deeper into oneself. The world without is the world within, and the flâneur penetrates the inward labyrinth of his sensibility and maps it by walking the variegated ways of the world with his Ariadne’s thread of film, charting the landmarks of his voyage en retour à soi-même.
In my films and videos, I generally focus on empty space, art and architecture because in these motionless places and landmarks, I continually see the inward image of myself reflected in these externalized symbols of emptiness, stillness, silence and darkness—the self-哀れness of 無.
In the absence of the human presence, in the absence of movement, in the absence of sound, and even in the absence of light, the things of actuality, these 物の哀れ, have a vivid ‘livingness’ for me, particularly in their contingent interactions with le temps—time, but equally, the weather which does the corrosive work of time.
Flâneurial cinema, in its focus on actuality, is exclusively un cinéma des ‘images-temps’—of Gilles Deleuze’s time-images: In my films and videos, I’m capturing images of time, not movement, the slow—indeed, almost invisible— movement through time of unmoving things which have a soul and transcendent beauty for me. And, trammelled through the cinematic apparatus of filming and editing, I hope that I bring the transcendent, eternal aspect of the ephemeral things of this world to life once again in my films and videos.
Almost every day for three weeks last April and May, I passed the former Court House in Euroa in my flâneries up and down Binney street. Euroa, as I say in the video essay, had long been a nom de pays with as much significant potential for me as the names of Balbec or Venice had for M. Proust. A fleeting image of it from the train when I had first fled Bellingen for Melbourne fooled my intuition into believing that there I might find another Bellingen, redux.
When finally I had an opportunity to investigate the town, I realized, with some disappointment, that I had been mistaken in that tantalizing whiff of vibe I had got from it en passant. Although it’s a very nice town, with many beautiful buildings of provocative weirdness well-preserved, it hasn’t the bourgeois-bohemian atmosphere of Bello.
One of the more provocatively weird is the Court House, built in 1892, ‘a rare example of a courthouse designed in American Romanesque style,’ as the legend alongside it advises. ‘It is noted for its picturesque massing, the heavy portico with its arched entry and the large bulls-eye vent over the portico.’
I recognized it as a landmark in my consciousness, though of what I could not say. But the image of it—that mass of red bricks, the yellow leaves of the linden weeping in dishabille before it, the green bench fencing off the linden on three sides, the red-and-white poteaux marking the school crossing and rhyming vividly with the red bricks and white trim of the Court House behind them—somehow this sunny image of stillness, silence, and emptiness, this sanctuary of restful attente before the halls of the law, with its unblinking bull’s eye, kept calling out to me as the complex of some thought, or dream, or memory as I passed it.
Perhaps, in retrospect, as I suggest in the Super 8 images of the aspects of the Court House façade, and its spatial relations with tree, benches, poteaux—images which came to me, pre-cut, in my mind, in the order you see them monté in the essay—it is the image of the sanctuary I sought—le nouveau Bello—but didn’t ultimately find in Euroa.
Even now I can’t be certain what relation the images I shot of the Court House that morning and the words I felt compelled to write immediately afterwards—the first draft of the short essay I narrate over those images in the film—had for me, unless I was unconsciously channelling some complex of thought, dream, or memory which the image of the Court House evoked and educed from me.
The smaller filmstrips of Super 8 were more difficult to edit than 16mm … but many reconfigured this supposed limitation as an opportunity to edit in camera and subsequently compared this aspect of 8mm production to ‘a kind of writing with the camera’ or ‘sketchbook cinema’.
—Windhausen (2011, p. 74)
This, too, is a crucial aspect of flâneurial cinema: in its focus on images of time rather than images of movement, it is, perforce, un cinéma littéraire.
Many have been the occasion on this vlog where I have hammered the point (as I do with my clients) that writing is the algebra of thought. M. Truffaut spoke of ‘le caméra-stylo’, the camera as a pen, and the director as the ‘auteur’ of his film. We speak of ‘cinematography’ as ‘writing with movement’, just as we speak of ‘photography’ as ‘writing with light’, the implication being that certain ‘graphic’ manifestations of cognition are better transcribed and translated with the visual lexicography of images than the hieroglyphs of words.
The embodied act of flânerie is of a consciousness moving through a spatio-temporal environment, the external world of Nature, observing the refracted ephemera of time and space, as M. Baudelaire said, like ‘un kaléidoscope doué de conscience’ (a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness).
In Super 8, we have a viewing medium capable of kaleidoscopic colour and abstraction—just compare the backup shots I took with my trusty Olympus Stylus, flat, digital, prosy, to the poetic, psychedelic world of impressionistic blues, reds, whites, yellows, and greens in the Vision3 footage. It’s the same place viewed from the same setups, but the actuality of the world is gloriously transformed.
Digital is prose. Writing with Super 8 is poetry.
As it turned out, when I got the developed and digitized Vision3 footage back from nano lab in Daylesford and fed those shots into the mock-up edit I had made with the digital footage, just to see how that Super 8 montage I had seen in my mind might play, the contrast in textures between two modes of seeing—the prose of digital versus the poetry of film—made both sets of actualités worth preserving in the same piece.
The result is a ‘fildeo’, a ‘vilm’, some film/video hybrid for which there is no name other than the one I have given it:—‘flâneurial cinema’, a type of filmmaking, a type of videography couched in that primordial root of mechanical vision, the greatest special effect I know of, the quotidian miracle of the actualité.
There was a time, right at the dawn of cinema, when the poetry of the prosy actualité was enough to inspire wonder and awe. Maxim Gorky wrote a memorable essay—itself a poem in prose—on his first encounter with the Lumières’ cinématographe in 1896, “Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows”. It must surely rank with De Quincey’s and Huxley’s reports of psychedelic experience as one of literature’s great dispatches from an altered state.
Admittedly, the great man’s reaction to his flâneuristic ‘trip’ was one of mingled fascination and horror at this ‘grey world’ where the boulevards of Paris teemed with ghosts in a silent frenzy, but still, fascination and horror count as wonder and awe.
Seventy years after Gorky’s surreal dérive grâce aux frères Lumière, Jean-Paul Sartre called the spectacle of cinema ‘les délires d’une muraille’—the frenzy on the wall. By then, the actualité had been subsumed and assimilated as backdrop and pick-up shot into the manifold ramifications of generic cinematic fictions.
But the phrase, as a summation of what le septième art is, au fond, is a telling one: The frenetic delirium of actuality and the wall upon which it madly batters itself in simulation, trying to break out of the screen and into our actuality, are both key to defining what cinema ‘is’.
In our ‘post-cinematic’ era—cinema strictly defined as a palpable artefact shot on film—the tendency among moving image-makers is to use the term ‘filmmaker’ rather too loosely to describe their visual productions.
Certainly, I was guilty of that sin for many years. But, when I first got into Super 8, I became deeply conscious of the difference between videography, between shooting and editing a moving image artefact in the low-risk, low-cost, completely abstractive environment of digital screens, one which has no life as an artefact but on digital screens, and filmmaking pur-sang.
The discipline is altogether different, more rigorous, and once you’ve gotten into film, it brings a whole other sensibility of rigour and care even to your videographic productions.
Even if a film is shot on film, the strip of celluloid itself is almost useless. It’s what M. Odin calls an ‘operator’, an object that requires a device, a ‘modem’ in fact, to modulate and demodulate the signal written on the celluloid in a way that is legible by our eyes and brain.
We’re now surrounded by a plethora of such devices. We don’t need, as Maxim Gorky did in 1896, to be in a specific space for the modulation encoded by the cinématographe to be decoded by it onto a wall. That experience—the most purely cinematic of all possible cinematic experiences—is what M. Odin defines as an ‘exclusive rigid connector’—a ‘connector’ being, in his parlance, the device-mediated relationship we, as viewers, have with the multitude of spaces in which cinema occurs.
The projection of a movie in a dark room, the time prescribed of a more or less collective screening, became and remains the unique experience of perception and memory defining the spectator and that any other situation more or less alters. That alone can be called ‘cinema.’
—Raymond Bellour, as cited in Odin (2016, p. 178)
We now carry in our pockets devices analogous to the same elegant design of the Lumières’ cinématographe, capable of both shooting a moving image in one environment and projecting it on a screen in another—or even in the same environment a moment later. Contrary to M. Bellour’s contention, whatever is artistically unique about the experience of cinema is now a kind of ‘portable caliphate’ we evoke and enact within ourselves.
This is the condition of the ‘inclusive rigid connector’, which does not exclude all possible environmental permutations of viewing other than a darkened, chair-filled box ergonomically designed for the optimal accomplishment of a collective screening. The nature of inclusion, M. Odin says, is that a ‘mental cinema screen encompasses and erases the physical space’ surrounding the spectator.
The relationship of connection to this imagined cinema space still remains rigid, as in the traditional, exclusive relationship, because in this internalization of the monolithic cinema screen ‘the spectator makes the effort to mentally force the physical communication space to mimic the cinema space, even in conditions that might first seem incompatible with the cinema experience’.
As a writer, I like precise definitions of words. Along with M. Bellour, I would be quite willing to dismiss the hand-wavy notion that anything other than cinema pur-sang could possibly be ‘cinema’ if it weren’t for the fact that I am neither a digital native nor someone who did all their growing-up before the choking empire of digital screens overran our environment.
But if I am not a ‘digital native’ pur-sang but, rather, one of the first colonists to establish a beachhead in the realm of the digital environment, I am, like all my readers, a native of the world of screens, of which the monolithic cinema screen is the first invader, the conqueror of our impressionable sensibilities, and still the Emperor.
As someone who actually has memories of growing up mostly in an analogue world, and for whom the exclusive rigid connective experience of cinema pur-sang is not a curious anachronism on the bill of fare of media consumption but the Emperor of all moving visual media, I can attest that there are certainly generational differences between screen natives.
The most ‘native’ of these generations born in an era of translucent boxes which surround them, and which are projected, mentally, from the tiny screens in their hands as they walk, are those for whom the computer and the mobile phone were not late-coming novelties when they were already on the threshold of adulthood, but an abstractive environment which was already the environment in which their childhood development took place.
Their lack of a sense of ‘privacy’—indeed, their rejection of the entire notion of privacy—stems from an ontological sense that a screen is not something to shield someone from the gaze of the world but something upon which you actively project the persona of your ego.
We children of the Cold War, like our most purely filmic, pre-televisual ancestors, went to the cinema as to a confessional, to indulge our dreams and phantasies in the privacy of darkness. The great god ‘Screen’ equally boxed us up in our private booths as much as brought us together in communion.
But the post-Millennial generations live in such a mediated relationship to Nature that media is their environmental medium:—they live in their screens. They are naked in their tents, and their tents are made of glass.
Super 8, as a medium of cinema, while it is clearly filmic, with all the æsthetic autonomy that comes along with the plastic film form, thus satisfying my criterion of what is cinematic, clearly does not fit with M. Bellour’s. Indeed, it falls awkwardly among M. Odin’s needlessly nice taxonomy of mental cinemas.
As Super 8 is not generally intended for theatrical exhibition, it is not an exclusive rigid connector, and by M. Bellour’s definition, would not even be classed as ‘cinema’, despite being an artefact of film.
Yet, by M. Odin’s definition of the inclusive rigid connector, Super 8 still ‘aims at preserving the specificity of the “cinema” experience, [although] here the spectator makes the effort to mentally force the communication space to mimic the cinema space’.
This was certainly the case for Super 8 in its classic usage as a convenient small-gauge format for home movies. The object operator (the fifty-foot reel of celluloid itself) was fed into a projecting device in domestic circumstances, a darkened living room with loosely arranged chairs that imperfectly mimicked M. Bellour’s pure cinema experience.
In Les Structures de l’expérience filmique (1969), published at the height of Super 8’s popularity, Belgian psychologist Jean-Pierre Meunier used the term ‘film-souvenir’ to describe the type of domestic cinema we, in English, call ‘home movies’. But the translation is deceptive. As Marie-Aude Baronian puts it in her essay “Remembering Cinema: On the film-souvenir” (2019), the term would more accurately describe ‘a film that addresses an object that is existent and known; in other words, the opposite of a fiction film’.
To put it in still other words, the film-souvenir is a kind of actualité, but one that ‘looks beyond the image, to the person-in-general that it depicts, in order to produce and maintain his existence even during the screening’.
… Meunier’s term ‘refers to films made for private purposes, with the goal of acting as a keepsake or record of an event in the individual’s life, such as weddings, vacations, family gatherings, etc.’ …
The hyphen indicates the closeness and dynamic relationship between souvenir and film and, in so doing, accentuates the value and motif of film as a mnemonic device.
—Baronian (2019, p. 224)
This is certainly far from M. Bellour’s narrow conception of cinema. M. Meunier, en revanche, sees the kind of domestic filmic productions for which Kodak designed Super 8 as ‘mnemonic tools’ or ‘remembering machines’.
The notion of film-souvenir also surpasses its formal and cultural dimensions to become, as it were, the consciousness of cinema itself [my emphasis].
I wonder if the film-souvenir is not solely in the attitude of the spectator, but, as it were, in the attitude of cinema tout court. It is as though the film-souvenir epitomizes, in a sort of media-archeological fashion, the emergence of filmic practices (including proto-cinematic ones) and the numerous practices that pervade the digital age. In that case, could the film-souvenir not be the zero degree of cinematic practice; one that reminds us that, beyond the desire to comprehend (documentary) and to participate (fiction), film is an ongoing search for something or someone that is no more or, at the very least, ‘out of focus’?
—Baronian (2019, pp. 224, 225)
Super 8, therefore, is ‘a medium of memory’, a type of cinema that isn’t capital-C ‘Cinema’, in M. Bellour’s sense, but goes far beyond the traditional cinematic experience to evoke, as in a séance, the living spirit of people who might even be in the same room with us as we watch the film, to re-member them, to reconstitute their living presence in time, just as our memory does.
As Meunier writes: ‘We “play” at believing in this presence, but we never get there since we are always aware of the absence of the other’ (p. 122). And he adds: ‘In the home-movie attitude, our behavior consists of a vain effort to “presentify” the object, an attempt to enter into the intersubjective relations with other people, which necessarily leads to disappointment’ (p.123). This type of identification entails a vain effort to induce a presence that ‘remains irremediably out of our grasp’ (p. 124).
—Baronian (2019, p. 221)
In some sense, my narration in the video essay above serves this purpose: I evoke an invisible place (Bellingen) through a visible one (Euroa). The photo-poetic suggestion is of similarity, analogy; and yet both image and, ultimately, words conclude, with some disappointment, that one is not the other, that the images on the screen are not even similar to the place of memory. The triumph of finally seeing and shooting a place I have long desired to visit ends in Mme. Baronian’s ‘sense of failure’ as I recognize that I do not see in Euroa what I had thought that I might see there.
The film-souvenir, the memory written in moving images, on celluloid, across time, is an interstitial, hybrid space in M. Odin’s taxonomy of mental screen worlds where Super 8, as the pre-eminent medium of memory, would appear to neatly fit, as in its natural niche.
Even if Super 8 exemplifies the cinematic attitude ‘tout court’, as theatrical products, Super 8 films have the ‘para-cinematic’ existence of inclusive rigid connectors, and an apparatus of what M. Odin calls ‘pragmatic introducers’, deliberate interventions designed to replicate the theatrical experience as much as possible in the conceptual screen space, are required to give them even the similitude of being capital-C ‘Cinema’, or ‘cinematic’.
Mme. Baronian’s apprehension of this ‘cinematic attitude tout court’ makes it clear that the caliphate of cinema extended far beyond the experience of sitting in a purpose-built viewing box long before the digital revolution diffused the cinematic experience across multiple platforms, formats, and media. It’s clear, also, that if what Mr. Windhausen terms an ‘anti-artisanal’ small-gauge film format designed for informal home exhibition carries within its tiny celluloid windows ‘the consciousness of cinema itself’—all the higher cognitive capacities of thought and ideation, of dream and memory, in visual form—then the locus of ‘Cinema’—its Mecca—does not really reside in the Kaaba of the purpose-built viewing box.
As a form of actualité, the film-souvenir of Super 8 is the acorn from which cinema, as a means of poetic visual cognition, spreads its branches. And its take-up by artists and experimental filmmakers from Derek Jarman to Guy Maddin indicates that this ‘intimate’, ‘domestic’ form of moviemaking, which has, at best, a tangential relationship with ‘Cinema’, possesses an intrinsic æsthetic of its own that, paradoxically, goes right to the very heart of ‘what cinema is’ as a device for remembering actuality.
… [T]he compact cameras of … Super 8 …, machines small enough to be used often in everyday life, are seen as altering the look of the pro-filmic world in a manner analogous to distillations and distortions of memory.
—Windhausen (2011, p. 76)
It isn’t ‘Cinema’, and yet Super 8 is the essence of cinema: it is the mental screen made actual. This humble medium of memory is the Caliph of the conceptual caliphate of cinema. It’s the stone that the DeMillian builders of ‘Cinema’ refused, but which has subsequently become the cornerstone of the edifice of cinema in its true, poetic function as a ‘remembering machine’, just as, for M. Proust, Swann, the dubious Jew, forms the cornerstone of his own monumental machine of memory.
In its original filmic function, under home-theatrical conditions, Super 8 might be considered an inclusive rigid connector, but it might equally be what M. Odin terms an inclusive flexible connector, in that the mediation of the space around the mental screen in the living room ‘aims at doing everything to preserve our cinema enjoyment, including intervening into the physical viewing space and the cinema space itself.’
But we’re no longer watching Super 8 film in conditions which seek to evoke, even in an ersatz manner, the theatrical conditions of a cinema for which it was never commercially intended: the medium itself, these days, prohibits this. I shot the video essay above on Vision3, a film-stock that has been expressly designed by Kodak as a colour negative film, with the intention that it will not be projected but instead transferred straight to a digital format.
Thus, with my own ‘films’—films on the digital video formats of WMV, or MP4, or MOV—a potential flexible connector is introduced into the experiential mix, one at the discretion of the individual viewer. And I know from my stats on Vimeo that most people who watch my ‘films’ view them on computer screens, mobile phones, and tablets.
These viewers have it within their own power to make the inclusive connector of their experiential relationships with my films as rigid or as flexible as they want or their technology of the moment permits.
M. Odin defines the open connector as one where ‘viewers enjoy, without asking themselves too many questions, the different ways of watching a movie on the various screens available to them’. And, indeed, one could say that the digital video after-life of films like mine, which are shot on Super 8 but can never be screened as a film in a pseudo-theatrical setting, now enables us to have an ‘open connector’ experience with the object operator of the film, one where the multiplicity of potential viewing formats is accepted by spectators as a natural assumption of the environment of screens.
Super 8, it seems to me, as a filmic medium of cinema, an object operator which demands multiple mediations and interventions to view it—and even invites them—is the ultimate mental screen space.
It’s film that was never intended to be ‘cinema’ in M. Bellour’s purist definition of the word, and yet, whether projected in the domestic, communal setting of the home theatre or given a digital after-life on a palm-sized screen, the object operator of Super 8 still retain film’s plastic, æsthetic autonomy of form.
As such, it’s a type of cinema that exists purely in the mind, in conceptual space, in the imaginary cinema of living room or digital screen, and it’s perfectly adapted to its interstitial, liminal condition of film as both physical artefact and digital artefact.
Although Super 8 is technically a device operator, an operator which requires a projecting device to demodulate the signal registered on those tiny 8mm squares, the mere object operator of the film, its status as a physical artefact, is now so uncommon in our abstracted, digital media environment as to make it a fetishistic ‘device’.
To preserve its heritage, the ‘family’ institution has used, throughout history, various operators: graves, chapels, sculptures, painted portraits, medallions, fetish objects (hair strands, menus, candied almonds) that are displayed under a glass dome in the living room or bedroom, or captured on sound recording, photography, film (16mm, 9.5, 8, super 8), analog then digital video. These operators can be classified into two categories: operators with the status of objects (they are there, present, visible to everyone) and operators whose function requires the use of a device that allows them to produce meaning and affects (without this device they communicate nothing). This distinction seems essential to me in order to understand what happened to home movies.
In the early years of cinema, people kept emphasising the benefits of this technology compared to photography. In its issue dated December 30th 1885, the newspaper La Poste wrote: ‘When these devices [film cameras] will be available to the public, when everyone will be able to photograph their loved ones, not in their immobile form, but in their movements, in their actions, in their familiar gestures, with words on their lips, death will cease to be absolute.’
—Odin (2019, p. 180)
As that quotation from La Poste makes evident, the collective consciousness of the cinematic time-image, the significance of cinema as a device for remembering the dead moment, the actuality that can no longer be seen in actuality, was present fully ten years—almost to the very day—before the Lumière brothers inaugurated the first cinematic experience, the first cinematic ‘happening’ of actualités, at the Grand Café in Paris.
To a far greater extent than the photo, the home movie, by means of the life that movement confers on it, is conducive to inducing a high degree of nostalgia, regret, or other sentiments in us.
—Meunier, as cited in Baronian (2019, p. 226)
The simulacrum of life in cinema is really dead, a memento mori, a reminder of death, and thus movement, in this view, makes every image a time-image.
For me, part of the appeal of getting back to cinema’s roots, even in a deeply modified, hybrid fashion, is that, despite the uselessness of the Super 8 film itself for projecting through a device, there is some physical artefact of the art should the digital artefact succumb to death by decommission, by format change, and not survive.
Moreover, as I was getting to the end of my fifty-foot cartridge of Vision3, having got all the shots of the Court House, the tree and the bench which I had envisioned as a preassembled montage in my mind, I saw that there were still maybe ten or twenty seconds left on the reel, a few feet and frames with which I could grab a quick shot of myself sitting on the bench I had filmed, empty, in front of the Euroa Court House—which image you can see in the thumbnail of the video above.
In quite a miraculous shot I didn’t plan and couldn’t predict, bathed in the beautiful shadows of Super 8, hovering between colourful sunlight and deep shade, ‘a bright blot / Upon this gloomy scene’, there is my silhouette, recognizable yet rendered almost invisible by the shadows, as vague and yet as human as a figure on a cave wall at Lascaux.
In other words, on the fetish object of the film itself, there are a few feet in which I exist in longevity, if not perpetuity; for film, despite its fragility, is still a more robust and enduring medium than digital. And again, M. Odin’s classifications break down when it comes to Super 8, for the operator, in this instance, is both object and device: without the enlarging, projecting device, that little sign of me severally repeated at the end of the fifty-foot reel, like a signature on the artwork, will be difficult to see with the naked eye. But even if the last Super 8 projector in the world perishes before that reel of film does, I will still be barely visible on the object of the film itself.
M. Odin is conscious of this problem, the fallacy inherent in the statement made by La Poste, for while a separate projecting device is required to optimally view the object operator, the figure of a loved one inscribed on a sliver of film does not bring him or her back to life. Death continues to be absolute, and the image of the loved one’s movements a time-image.
The solution to this, he proposes, is the ‘dream screen’, a device operator ‘that one can hold in one’s hand, watch as long as one likes, as many times as one likes, alone or with others, a screen that one can carry around, that one can keep with oneself at all times’.
In essence, the dream screen collapses, as the early cinématographe did, image-capture and image-projection into one device, and in the digital after-life of Super 8, where images shot on film can only be screened as ‘videos’, the fetishistic dream screens we port on our persons would appear to square the circle of the object/device problem.
My films and videos are made for this ‘dream screen’: in the last financial year, 39% of all the views of my videos on Vimeo came from either mobile or tablet devices, and the curious thing I’ve observed in the last year and a half is that mobile and tablet viewers tend to be more engaged when viewing my works on these smaller dream screens than desktop or television application viewers.
But beyond the quantifiable stats, the flâneurial cinema of my films and videos are adapted to this diffuse, miniature medium, this conceptual cinema one ports with oneself and imaginatively imposes, by an act of will, upon the environment, because the æsthetic of dreams, of memories, of ideas, of altered states, of abstract, conceptual space informs all my art as a writer and as a filmmaker.
My œuvre is itself native to this conceptual caliphate of a purely ‘mental cinema’, for, in some sense, the mental cinema is a literary space. And similarly, the writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the only novelist to successfully establish a second career for himself as a filmmaker, imitates the imagistic and the cinematic, the sense of framing, tracking, panning and cutting, of the contiguity of literary ideas-as-images, and their Eisensteinian disjunction in dialectic with each other.
One might say, with respect to M. Odin’s argument, that the conceptual cinema of the mental screen is, to use André Gide’s term, a ‘mise-en-abyme’, a set of nested frames, and that the variety of introducers and connectors—the media and devices and ‘frames’ by which we screen films—also places them in this reduplicated, recursive dimension of the dream, the memory, the idea, the altered state, which is the abstract, conceptual, eminently literary space.
Carrying our cinema(s) about with ourselves in our va et vient as portable dream screens, we lead ‘framed’ lives, and M. Odin calls this the ‘constructed screen’, whereby the in-built cinematic apparatus of framing, zooming and panning which are features and affordances of our tablets and mobile phones constructs a kind of ‘cubist’ relationship with the external world of Nature.
We frame it by cutting it up into little squares; we frame others, and we frame ourselves in selfies.
… [T]he mobile phone works both as an optical filter (with the zoom it becomes a sort of ‘cultural series’ of prisms, lenses, distorting mirrors, etc.) and as a frame that, as emphasized by Laurent Jenny, violates reality by coercing it. The physical screen is the place of a construction that transforms its into a mental screen leading the viewer to see the world through the pictorial space.
—Odin (2019, p. 182)
Similarly, in experimenting with a dual analogue/digital shooting strategy, as I did in the video essay above, using the latter as ‘backup’ and seeking to emulate in digital the setup of the Super 8 camera as closely as possible, the 4:3 aspect ratio of Super 8 ‘coerces’ actuality to conform to a tighter frame of vision and, consequently, a narrower frame of memory, which, as you can see in the digital sections of the video, the wider aspect ratio of digital more ‘objectively’ expands.
This is to say that the autonomous plastic form of Super 8, the narrowness and constriction of the gauge, acts as much as the impressionistic artifacting of the photo-chemical medium to induce these ‘distillations and distortions’ of vision that are analogous to memory. The narrower aspect ratio is like the constricted diaphragm of our concentrated, microscopic vision on some small corner of actuality we wish to preserve to memory, and which, whenever we seek to re-evoke it, to re-member it, running it through the projector in our mind, we distort and make less clear, gathering more dust and scratches on the positive which obscure the belovèd image.
M. Odin cites my belovèd maître, M. Proust, who made the field of memory his literary empire, and who, in several passages of À la recherche du temps perdu, presents a proto-cinematic, cubistic vision of the external world of Nature, such as the famous approach to Martinville, with its church spires which seem to move across the landscape, or, as in M. Odin’s example, the vision of Balbec severally framed, as on a strip of film, through the dawn-flooded windows of a train carriage.
As M. Proust’s always à propos impressions of the external world make clear, the act of sensitive observation is itself a framing device. Having read one of his memorable analogies, one never sees a thing in the external world of Nature quite the same way again. The moon will always be an actress before her entrance, a box at the theatre an aquarium, a long-distance phone call a propitiation of the Danaids. In making the field of memory his sovereign literary empire, he too induces the altered state. He too creates an abstract, conceptual space in which, as in a dream, things with no obvious relation metaphorically ‘rhyme’ with one another in a way we instantly recognize as a ‘true’ perception of the latent nature of reality, however extravagant M. Proust’s juxtapositions may seem.
Framing is not just simple observation: the screen is a mental operator, a filter that produces distance and changes the perception of reality as it introduces points of reference (the edges of the frame) that lead us to build relationships that do not exist in reality.
Very often, this process is coupled with a will to communicate. … All photographers and filmmakers know this: framing means choosing a ‘view’ on the world and transmitting it to the viewer.
—Odin (2016, p. 183)
And moreover, the self-conscious act of photographic or cinematic ‘framing’ which attends this diffuse, democratic, conceptual cinema reflects, as M. Odin states, ‘a will to transform the world into an aesthetic space’.
This is precisely the dearest existential desire of the dandy-flâneur, that quixotic résistant to the anti-human horror of decadent, late-capitalistic modernity. And failing—as we must do—in our vision to reform the world except through the personal vision of Art, we pedestrian men of fashion turn our pathological desire for ‘a world of Truth and Beauty’ upon the only thing in this landscape of wreckage, ruination and horror we can reform and make an æsthetic object—the object operator of ourselves, a screen upon which we project our civilized ideal of the world.
I have not quite made up my mind whether M. Proust, famously elegant as he was, could be legitimately considered either a dandy or a flâneur, let alone the two combined. Phillip Mann, in his book The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2018), is also undecided on this score, although he suggests that the Proustian Recherche, while not being a dandy novel in the manner of Disraeli, Bulwer-Lytton, or Huysmans, takes full account of the panoply of techniques the dandy employs to æstheticize his life.
M. Proust, in other words, constructs a conceptual persona, ‘Marcel’, le Narrateur, as carefully as the dandy constructs his image. The Narrateur is the dream screen—or the magic lantern, in M. Proust’s case—upon which he projects the image of his own life, rarefied through memory—which is to say, through the creative treatment of actuality.
And if I grant that the technique of æsthetic reconstitution in the Recherche is dandistic, I would add that M. Proust’s ambulatory technique, full of asides off the Guermantes way or the way by Swann’s, the two paths of social progress which direct his neophyte’s journey to the heights of Parisian fashion, is eminently flâneuristic in both design and execution.
The dandy, as Hr. Mann tells us, is a modern Narcissus, and in a world of screens where these operator objects/devices are now used to project rather than to shield the ego, to project a vision of the persona, often unreflecting, often un-self-aware, which we more and more often call ‘narcissistic’, into conceptual space, wherein lies the difference between Narcissus, the dandy in love with his own unattainable Ideal of Personality, which he nevertheless strives to gather into himself in the transcendent image of Art, and narcissist, the bourgeois consumer of images who is in thrall to his or her own selfie?
The matter is a delicate one, but the distinction, I think, lies in this: As I said at the beginning when I spoke of flâneurial cinema as ‘going out into the world and shooting something’, the dandistic gaze, paradoxically, is turned outward on the world, as I think M. Proust gives monumental and consistent proof of doing across 3,000 pages in his Recherche for himself.
Narcissus finds his image mirrored back to him in the Truth and Beauty of the external world of Nature—evanescent, barely (or rarely) graspable, but out there, somewhere, in some transcendent platonic image of what the world—and life—can be like on the best days of flâneuristic æsthetic investigation.
The narcissist, on the other hand, is completely self-regarding and incurious about the external world of Nature, which is merely a backdrop that ‘frames’ his or her selfie. Existing in a totally artificial, conceptual environment of screens, the narcissist is trapped in a self-referential mise-en-abyme of psychosis.
It is only by a creative treatment of actuality, by getting out of oneself and going out into the world and shooting something—some external object in Nature that is real, and tangible, and actual, one that stands as a landmark and a symbol in the inner landscape of the filmmaker—that we escape the abysmal, recursive psychosis which the artificial environment of screens has induced in us.
… Narcissus is not completely without object. The object of Narcissus is psychic space; it is representation itself, fantasy. … If he knew it he would be an intellectual, a creator of speculative fiction, an artist, a writer, psychologist, psychoanalyst.
—Judith Butler (as cited in Mann, 2018, pp. 255-7)
Or a filmmaker.
Going out into the world and shooting something is going deeper into oneself. The world without is the conceptual space of the mental screen, as M. Odin has shown us. The images we choose to crop and frame and subject to the process of ‘cinema’ are very much self-portraits of our own vision and sensibility.
And in the hybrid way in which I manipulate film form, through the abstractive tools of digital media, I am very much seeking a rapprochement with cinematic ‘content’.
Any personal vision in contemporary moviemaking must now come solely from its content, not its form.
—Scott Stark, as cited in Windhausen (2011, p. 72)
But if, as Mr. Windhausen says, ‘for film, the experiment is over’, and the personal vision now lies in the content of a film, not its form, I would argue, as Slavoj Žižek does, that the autonomous, plastic form of film itself, in this conceptually exhausted space, is cinematic ‘content’, an assimilated trope or device of the medium in the conceptual caliphate of cinema(s).
I’m very much of the view that digital media exert such preponderant countervailing resistance to artistic manipulation that the enormous breadth of affordances in digital media negates personal vision.
But I’m a writer, an artist raised in an analogue era and educated in the most analogue and conceptual art forms. I think, by contrast to many artists embracing the digital far less cautiously than I, that my personal æsthetic, what I call the ‘Ideal of Personality’ which manifests itself, for an artist, as his intrinsic sensibility and style, has been sufficiently cultivated by the rugged self-reliance that analogue media, such as the humble pen and typewriter, engendered, the ability and the necessity to cognitively conceptualize and execute the literary work of art for oneself, that I bring a countervailing resistance to digital media’s resistance to manipulation, and that my manipulations of cinematic form ultimately produce ‘content’.
If, as I said at the beginning, flâneurial cinema is a ‘literary’ cinema, then by my definition of writing as the algebra of human thought, flâneurial cinema is a continuation of that cognitive activity, a writing of thoughts, ideas, dreams and memories, inward, altered states in a conceptual space of images composed of the external world of Nature.
There is, therefore, an external object which the dandy-flâneur seeks to represent in the conceptual space, the dream screen upon which he represents himself. We call this external object ‘style’, or ‘artistic vision’: we recognize the independently verifiable world of the senses refracted through the peculiar lens of some subjective mode of seeing, the writer’s unique manner of laying words on the page in such a way as to build up the densest representation of the external world as inward conceptual space.
It is the world, but not as we have seen it before, a world of rare Truth and Beauty, and we see it mirrored, reflected in the elegant sensibility of the artistic dandy, who shows us, as much in his own person as in his artistic productions, his ideal what the world could be.
I’ve found my style as a filmmaker, and it lies in the same dandistic, flâneurial style that undergirds my writing. In the void of emptiness, stillness, silence, and darkness, in images of the external world that reflect the self-哀れness of 無, I continually see the Narcissus-portrait of myself, my inner world, writ large.
Thus, as a screen native at the cusp of the analogue/digital divide, if there is a ‘projection of the self’ in my flâneurial films and videos, it is one where the image of the external world is turned inside out and made into a mental landscape.
Every film and video I shoot is a selfie of some kind, even if the human form—(least of all my own)—never appears in it. In my flâneurial cinema of actualités taken of empty spaces, from which I rip the recorded location sound and substitute for it my own cobbled-together soundscapes, I forge a psychic space which reflects my inward vision of outward things in a creative treatment of actuality.
I create cloistered worlds, artificial paradises of dream, memory, idea, altered state and conceptual space which give an outward representation in images and sounds of the perfect world, the Ideal Image of a World of Truth and Beauty within myself, which I hope I reflect in myself, in my person, and in all my artistic productions.
The dandy invents nothing. It is reality that is rendered artificial. Abstract dreams inspired by memory unfold from a position that seems already to be impervious to time. The dandy has a past but no future. …. While the dandy per se confines himself within the tragic world of Narcissus when he employs his æsthetic memory in the cultivation of his own person, the writer-dandy and by extension the director-dandy are arguably in a privileged position as they can apply their ideals to the limitless realm of fiction. The latter even has the potential to fulfil the depressive’s ultimate dream, the creation of a hermetic, artificial and complete world in accordance with his own highly individual ideal of beauty, his specific tastes….
—Mann (2018, pp. 257-8)
If you’d like to keep me in Super 8 film, you can purchase the soundtrack to the video essay below for $A2.00 via Bandcamp. It’s an expensive hobby, and I’m planning to put out more Super 8-based content this year on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, so all your support will be greatly appreciated.
‘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!
Formats currently in stock
“The Spleen of Melbourne” [CD audiobook]
Personally signed, sealed and gift-wrapped by author. Price includes worldwide postage. Purchase the physical CD and get bonus MP3 versions of all the tracks absolutely free!
“The Spleen of Melbourne” [MP3 audiobook]
12 MP3 tracks downloadable onto any device, plus bonus trailer. 24-page PDF booklet featuring Dean Kyte’s evocative photographs of Melbourne. Worldwide delivery within 24 hours.
“Office at night”: A ficción by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through earphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur I release a new ‘amplified flânograph’ for your delectation, chers lecteurs—one of those snapshots bagged in the course of my flâneries, enhanced with an atmospheric soundscape and a short story to animate and enliven the static image.
The photograph above was taken about two weeks before I booked out of Melbourne for warmer climes. I don’t usually shoot on colour film, being a black-and-white purist, so I wanted to use up the roll before I headed north. There were two nights in mid-May when I went a bit mad, and this image of a bald man on the ameche in his office on the first floor of Block Court, just before he shut up shop for the night, was snapped on the first.
Usually when your Melbourne Flâneur is between homes, he’s a night-cat, prowling the streets of the city after dark, and sometimes armed—with cameras, of course. But with all the lockdowns we endured in Melbourne last year, it had been a long time since I had been locked and loaded for a nighttime expedition to hunt down ‘the wonder’, ‘le merveilleux’, the magic mystery of the city at night.
It was a cold and bitter evening even in mid-May, and I cast off from The Miami Hotel, in West Melbourne, at sunset on a crazy trudge around the CBD and Carlton, bagging a number of sights I had thought, in my constrained flâneries during lockdown, might make good images—better ones in colour than in black-and-white.
Photographically inclined followers of this vlog will perhaps recognize this feeling, but when I exercised my inner cat (who had been housebound for too many months) and went on my first nighttime hunt in ages, the predatory activity of adding images to my bag took on an impetus of its own: The crazy, zigzagging walk, alone at night, through disparate zones of poetry and danger, guided only by the associations of memory, as I recalled some romantic place where I had added a girl to my trophy tally, or the instinct for a mystic image which seemed to hover, shimmering and glimmering, in the dusky light of a distant streetcorner, took on its own drunken momentum.
And the sound of that momentum (largely unknown to you souls too young to know the rigorous dérèglement de tous les sens induced by the LSD alchemy of film) was the mechanical ratchet, like a rising tempo, of winding on and snapping one image after another.
I’m usually stingier than Scrooge when it comes to using up my film, but that night I went through a third of a roll of Ektar, and the image above, taken halfway through my passeggiata ubriaca, was definitely the most memorable, an experience in itself.
It was so memorable an experience, in fact, that nearly two months later, as I was on the train to Coffs Harbour, I was inspired to write the first draft of a short story, “Office at night”, based on that image. I wrote two further drafts at Coffs and two in Bellingen during my holiday up there. The soundscape which accompanies the short story was also created in Coffs and refined during my fourth lockdown in Newcastle.
The six-minute tale is a fictionalized version of the taking of that photograph. I had always wanted to get a shot of Block Court, one of the great art déco arcades of Melbourne, and I think I was right in believing that it would look better on colour film than in black-and-white, as that eerie green glow over the bay window—like the Empire Hotel sign in Vertigo (1958)—gives some indication.
It was around 6:15, nearly an hour after sundown, when I hustled up Collins street to nab the shot. I just happened to be in time to see light in the office on the first floor directly over the arcade. There was a bald man framed in the corner of the window frame. He was standing in profile behind his desk and was taking a call on his mobile phone. He gave the impression of having just gotten up from his desk to leave for the evening when the phone call had come through and had been caught in that transitional moment of being physically still in one place while having left it mentally.
I don’t usually take photographs with people in them. I get photographed a good deal myself, and so I’m aware that there’s a certain moral dilemma about ‘stealing people’s souls’ which I’d rather avoid. And in any event, my interest (as you’ve doubtless gleaned from my films, videos, and photographs) is architecture, not people. Empty spaces are the actors in my dramas, not those pesky humans. I will usually disdain to take the shot if someone strays into my frame—unless their back is turned or (as in the instance above) they’re at a sufficient distance as to be individually unrecognizable—a mere generic sign for the human presence in the empty architectural spaces that fascinate me.
So I had to make a quick decision about whether to clip the bald man’s soul or pass up the shot, but that second source of light on the first floor directly over the arcade was too photogenic—as was the bald man’s presence, en plein action, right in the corner of the frame, as smeary a sign for the human presence as an artist’s signature in the corner of a canvas.
Those impromptu additions to the image of the arcade at night I had imagined were ultimately too good to pass up.
I’m not so hot at photographing action—which is another reason why I disdain to photograph people. I’m too considered a photographer, take too much time over composing the shot and testing my settings, to be good at snapshooting. But in this instance, I knew I had to be quick to get the shot without traffic—either vehicular or on the hoof—getting between me and the image of the arcade with the lighted windows above it. Moreover, I had to nail down the bald man before he changed his pose too dramatically or rung off.
I had hardly time to check my settings. I was really winging it—and in fact, I had to grab two shots, because the first one did involve some unphotogenic intrusions of silhouettes passing before the arcade. By the time I wound on and recomposed for shot #2, the bald man was hanging up.
There’s a useful phone kiosk à deux pas down Collins street, more or less in front of that engraved pilaster you see on the left-hand margin of the frame. I had my Pentax K1000 resting on the metal tray, which I was borrowing to note down the time, the settings I had used, and the exposure of the two shots. As I was rounding out my notes (a job that took no more than a minute), I looked up and was just in time to see that the lights in the office above the arcade were off. My eyes flicked to street level, and I was just in time to see the bald man walking out of Block Court and turning east up Collins street, towards Swanston.
And that image—both the photographic one that I took and the memorable, puzzling image a minute later of the darkened office and the man walking out of the arcade—is, in essence, the backstory which forms the story of “Office at night”.
Now I don’t know who the bald man is, and I don’t know what goes on in the office on the first floor above the arcade. I did try to find that information out when I was writing the subsequent drafts of the story in Coffs and Bello, but decided that I would rather the mystery to remain inviolate.
In any event, those facts are immaterial to the story that I tell in the ficción—mere MacGuffins, as Mr. Hitchcock would call them.
Don’t even ask me who the bald man is my fictionalized version of the story: I don’t know who he is even in my imagining of him, though I know what he does, and I have a very vague idea of what he takes out of the safe.
The point is that the image of him, with his gleaming pink pate and ill-fitting grey jacket, both taking the mysterious call in the office and leaving it to walk up Collins street towards the Paris End, carved itself indelibly upon my memory in those few brief seconds of sighting him through my viewfinder and, a minute later, when I looked up from my Moleskine to see him walking away from me forever.
Which is to say that, despite the physical distance between us, and despite the fact of his ignorance of me watching him, I formed ‘a connection’ with the bald man. The bullish bald head and the jacket too tight for his stocky body were the two details on the surface of that image that were enough to catapult me across Collins street and into the office with him, to empathize with him even in his mystery.
For the next seven weeks, first in Melbourne, and then, for much longer, in Wagga Wagga, as I worked at unkinking the larger story of which “Office at night”, like my previous flânograph on this vlog, “Dreidel”, is an experimental episode, the ‘total image’ of the bald man—of my brief encounter with him—stayed with me, percolating in my unconscious in other landscapes, so that, when I came to be sitting on the XPT, bored, tired and anxious on my way to Coffs as I struggled to breathe behind my mask, the total image of him swam up to consciousness again to distract me briefly from my discomfort, and to be transcribed in a fictionalized version of our encounter and connection, apparently from his perspective.
Why should this ‘total image’ of the bald man, of my brief encounter with him at a distance, have had such an enduring impact on me that I carried that image, in my mind, to Wagga, and Coffs, and Bello, and even to Newcastle?
Well, in large part it has to do with the fortunate intersection of what I had consciously come to Block Court to do on that particular evening in mid-May and the wholly unexpected illumination of another facet in my evolving æsthetic philosophy of flânerie which that lighted window on the second storey above the arcade represented.
During our dreary second lockdown in Melbourne last year (the one in which we earned the unenviable honour of being ‘the most locked down city in the world’), when opportunities for flânerie were constrained by a five-kilometre radius; only two permitted hours of exercise per day; a strict curfew; and the Stasi-like harassment of the cops, I took to wandering around the immediate neighbourhood of The Miami Hotel, in North Melbourne, and particularly, in my daily quest for that black nectar, the ebony ambrosia to which I am matutinally addicted, to the Mecca of cafés around Errol street.
An idea began to form for me in the streets of North Melbourne, one of those ideas, as Walter Benjamin says, that ‘feeds on the sensory data taking shape before [the flâneur’s] eyes but often possesses itself of abstract knowledge—indeed, of dead facts….’
Last year, during our second lockdown, I wrote a post entitled “A flâneur in Chinatown” in which I cited a journal article by Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong, “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019). While McDonogh and Wong used the metaphor of the verticality of global Chinatowns as an analogue for the verticality of Chinese writing—and the consequent illegibility of these densely layered urban spaces to Occidental eyes—I began to look at my circumscribed flâneurial neighbourhood through McDonogh and Wong’s lens of inscrutably illegible verticality.
Melbourne is actually a rather low-built city. But the impression of horizontality as a superordinate architectural æsthetic which strikes one rather forcefully in Adelaide, for instance, is not immediately obvious to the naked eye in Melbourne. On the contrary, Melbourne gives one a somewhat deceptive impression of verticality, which is perhaps partly a function of its density and narrowness even in suburbia.
But even in the inner-city suburbs with their famous and picturesque row houses, such as North Melbourne, the terraces rarely extend above two storeys. I think, in addition to the density of these terraces built cheek-by-jowl and the narrowness of the old streets and lanes tranched between the major thoroughfares, the grandiosity of the façades contributes to an impression of verticality which is slightly deceptive.
The horizontality of Melbourne is somewhat concealed from immediate perception by such nineteenth-century tricks as the love of iron Corinthians pegging the corrugated skirts of wide awnings to the edges of the street, as we see so picturesquely along that block of Errol street leading to the North Melbourne Town Hall; by rows of pilasters and harmoniously arched windows of Venetian Renaissance variety leaping along upper-storey façades; by the cowled escutcheons which bear the central plaques telling the musical, perfumed names of the terraces, or featuring crenelated shells, deeply recessed, evoking the Way of St. James; by plinth-like corners terminating in spiked and spired urns, and mass-produced mascarons bearing what I consider to be ‘the face of Melbourne’, that neo-classical, rather matronly dame of nondescript aspect with her Venusian hairdo.
I love all this with a rapture that sends me into flights of poetry, but it was the windows—particularly those arched, Venetian Renaissance-style windows, not entirely indigenous to Melbourne on our shores, but deeply characteristic of the place as of no other town or city in Australia—which captured my attention in my morning scuttles outdoors for coffee.
More than once, of a morning, as I waited on the sidewalk in Errol or Victoria streets, regarding with curiosity the row of terraces opposite me, I had to be awakened from my rêverie by having my name called twice. And in Queensberry street, standing in the bluestone gutter outside Bread Club, I was particularly fixated on the four, paired first-floor windows above Ace Antiques and Collectables across the street, around which faded advertisements for The Age and the Herald Sun still barely emblaze the red brickwork.
Who lives behind these first-floor windows which look down on Melbourne through winking, half-drawn curtains, or sleepy, half-lowered shades? Does anyone at all? In some perhaps, but in the suburbs of Melbourne immediately adjacent to the CBD where I was, that potential seemed more doubtful than likely, since the ground floors of many terraces in West and North Melbourne are occupied, as their nineteenth-century architects intended, by shops.
The question of who—or what—was up there on the storey above the street became a source of flâneurial fascination for me, the one riddle of the city which lockdown allowed my legs to consider as they carried me to one coffee shop or another. Forced to read into their sombre depths from the angle of the street below, I tried to make up with lateral movement what I couldn’t gain in vertical, eyeballing them in a tracking pan as I surveilled them in my passage so as to gain the widest arc of vision into their interiors from below.
Alas! to no avail. A view of ceiling, sometimes truncated by a slash of grimy, half-drawn curtain or half-lowered shade, gave some suggestion of a resident human presence domiciled (perhaps indigently) in the dress circle above the stage of Errol or Victoria streets, but just as often, an intimation of haphazardly piled and abandoned boxes, or dusty emptiness, implied their use as storerooms—sometimes storing nothing at all.
I began even to wonder if these first-floor windows were accessible to the tenants or owners of the ground-floor shops, or if, like Rapunzel’s tower, internal staircases hidden to my eyes had atrophied and fallen away in the sedimentary archaeology of Melbourne’s history, so that all that remained was an empire of empty or forgotten rooms which hovered at that stratum in the air above the city, and which could only be reached and explored if you cast a ladder up to the windows.
The mystery of who or what is up there on Melbourne’s second storeys remained, like the bald man’s grift on the first floor of Block Court, inviolate.
It’s not as though this question of what is on the upper storeys of buildings, inaccessible to penetration beyond their ground-floor commercial façades, hasn’t occurred to me before. Take an hour off to sit in the Bourke street mall and regard the opaque windows of the Diamond House and the Public Benefit Bootery, for instance, and the question of what all this commercial space—apparently empty, apparently even in disrepair—above the famously affaireux level of Bourke street is being used for will doubtless occur to you too.
But it took reading McDonogh and Wong’s journal article during lockdown for me to really begin formulating embodied ideas—these Eleusinian inferences and intuitions about the mysteries of actuality which strike the flâneur, in his ambulations, with the abstract force of ‘dead facts’—of my own.
And it’s from that place of inference and intuition, my sense of the tantalizing inaccessibility of the life (or lives) behind upper-storey windows when seen from the level of the street, that the mystery I’ve attempted to articulate in “Office at night” proceeded.
Those lit first-floor windows fortuitously intersected with my errand to make a record of Block Court on colour film at night, and the latter image (which would doubtless have been beautiful in itself) was enlivened by the image of the former, personified by the figure of the bald man engaged in his eternally mysterious activity of taking a phone call to which I had no access in a space to which I also had no access.
Prior to my encounter with McDonogh and Wong, the image of lighted windows at night had long fascinated me. There is an inaccessibility about these too, for although the ground-floor lighted windows of houses would appear to allow the voyeur to gaze directly in and see who, or what, exists inside the black box of the façade, when seen in lateral passage from a moving vehicle (from whence the image of lighted windows at night obtains its mysterious romance and power), this voyeuristic desire is denied.
Many has been the time, taking the overnight XPT between Melbourne and Sydney, or between Sydney and Brisbane, when, nearing some little country town in the dead of night and seeing a small flurry of these lit windows at a distance, I have felt (as I did with the bald man) a sense of my soul leaping across darkness and distance and wishing, for a moment, to be within that lighted window; to sample the atmosphere of respite from movement which it shines, like a welcoming hearth, to the weary traveller in flight past it; to know who also is awake at that hour (albeit in the moored comfort of their own home) and how their little bower is decorated.
I had a more localized experience of this sensation in Melbourne, on my birthday, some years ago.
I had dinner and drinks with some friends at Fed Square and had left their convivial company, as I often do, feeling more dissatisfied by the social experience than satisfied by it. I was staying at Fairfield that week, in one of Melbourne’s old brick-veneer bungalows. This one had been modernized and redecorated somewhat, but not so much, fortunately, as to ruin the charm of stoical discomfort which these old-fashioned suburban homes possess.
As it happened—annoyingly—Metro was doing trackwork on the Hurstbridge line that week, so I had to transfer onto a rail replacement bus at Clifton Hill which would swing by the inner-eastern stations of Westgarth and Dennis before depositing me at Fairfield.
It was late when I left my friends, and later still when the Hurstbridge train terminated at Clifton Hill and I transferred, along with the other tired, late-night refugees from the city, onto the bus. As it passed through Westgarth in the dark, I had that same experience of seeing an occasional lit window streak across the panes reflecting nothing back but my weary visage, and I felt my heart lift and leap towards these fugitive examples of Melbourne’s charming old suburban homes—brick-veneers behind low, redbrick fences and California bungalows with their columned porches—in which some soul, wealthier than I, was still awake.
There was the sense that the ‘black boxes’ formed by their attractive, tantalizing façades, beckoning to me (weary traveller that I was), were somewhat like Rubik’s Cubes, or Chinese puzzles:—they contained the mystery of an unimaginable life within which my mind, nevertheless, set itself to imagining, seeing a world of old-fashioned luxury and ease, of bibelots and bric-à-brac consonant with their exteriors—a world of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ I would feel eternally at home in and would be endlessly content to explore, like a museum.
But the mystery of penetration had to be foregone as the bus bore me on to bed, and I could at least be satisfied that this week I would be able to penetrate one such example of the general mystery of what lies behind the façades of Melbourne’s delightfully decrepit inner-city houses.
And to extend the metaphor a little further, I had something of the sense which I imagine cat-burglars to have when I saw those occasional lit windows in Westgarth, provocatively beckoning me to peep at them and pry them, so forceful was the denied desire of the voyeur in lateral flight past them to pause, to stop, to investigate, and to know what manner of life lay behind the beautiful black box of the façade.
In some sense, I am fortunate, with my itinerant manner of life as a ‘writer-at-large’, to have had a wide experience of Melbourne homes, in many suburbs, and rather than being a cat-burglar, I am more like a safecracker: by the instinct bred of professional experience, I turn the mysterious dial of social convention and the door of the vault swings open to occasionally reveal to me the secret of what lies behind Melbourne’s beautiful suburban façades.
Être flâneur, c’est être voyeur.
One who understood this deep alliance between fleeting observation in movement and fixed, illicit spectatorship was Edward Hopper. During our second lockdown, I read Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography(1995), a book I cannot recommend but from which I managed to dredge a few things that were barely useful to the ideas about windows and verticality then forming in me.
The window, of course, is the signature of Mr. Hopper’s art, the frame within the frame which subjects the private sphere of occluded domesticity to public speculation, the proscenium which externalizes the internal.
When I chanced serendipitously on the bald man publicly framed in private action in the bay window on the first floor of Block Court, it was with the consciousness that his presence in the corner of the lighted window above the empty arcade made the collision of these two images I’ve described somewhat ‘Hopperesque’.
And of course, when I came to write the ficción accompanying my flânograph, I chose the title “Office at night” with a deep tip of my Fedora towards Mr. Hopper, whose 1940 painting of that title, with its equally ambiguous narrative, hangs in the Walker Art Center at Minneapolis.
Of that work, Mr. Hopper explained to his patron at the Walker:
My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me. … Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.
—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Mr. Hopper’s spirit of scrupulous crypticity, where the angle of vision is emphasised as salient, and the surfaces of things are described with a minuteness that almost invests them with an aura of obscure significance, but where all the internal, interior qualities of narrative are stubbornly elided, certainly guided me in the writing of this story.
And, certainly, I ‘worked on’ the central image of it much as Ms. Levin describes Mr. Hopper ‘working on’ the images of his paintings, trying to draw out something very vague yet very crystalline from himself through successive sketches and couches of colour as he modelled the concrete, physical details of images that are ultimately clairvoyant inner visions. A comparison of the five drafts I wrote of “Office at night” (including the final version in the audio track) would reveal significant differences, showing how much I cut, changed and sculpted the details in order for each one to add up to the final revelation of perspective expressed in the last sentence.
Likewise, the angle of vision in Mr. Hopper’s Office at Night is significant, if only because it jars the spectator. We are not moored to the floor, with its rich green carpet, but ‘rather high in the air’, floating within the office.
The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the ‘L’ train in New York City after dark glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind.
—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Like myself, Mr. Hopper loved the flâneuristic experience of travelling by train at night, the way vision in movement mingles with a certain voyeuristic scopophilia excited by the flashes of light and life issuing from windows which ‘tell a picture’, but ‘no obvious anecdote’.
Another of his ‘snapshots’, Night Windows (1928), also painted from the vantage of an elevated train in flight, features three windows, like the bay window of the office on the first floor of Block Court, which presents a kind of ‘triptych’, the central panel of which is the slightly pornographic image of the fesses of a girl in a pink slip bending over, her head out of frame.
Just as I said the gleaming pinkness of the bald man’s pate and the fashionable faux pas of his ill-fitting jacket were enough to suggest a ‘character’ to me in the weeks after seeing his fleeting image, Mr. Hopper said obliquely of his pornographic Madonna in Night Windows:
The way in which a few objects are arranged on a table, or a curtain billows in the breeze can set the mood and indicate the kind of person who inhabits the room.
—Edward Hopper, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 219)
Which is to say that, chez Hopper, the external world, comprised of superficial details, is the interior landscape of the ‘characters’ depicted: his interiors are their psychological interiors externalized. Just as we cannot see a person’s character but obliquely, as manifested in behaviour and action, dark façades, like the corner of the building depicted in Night Windows, are ‘cranial vaults’ which allow us, through their ocular fenestrations, to catch oblique glimpses of the private person fluttering about, like a moth, among the furnishings of their mind.
Moreover, what gives his paintings their uncanny, slightly surreal quality is his unique manner of representing people by the objects which surround them. I do not mean to imply that Mr. Hopper engages in any cheap literary symbolism of the type that we are used to, where x object is perfectly equivalent to y person—pas du tout.
Rather, as a writer with a visual bent myself, one who abhors the human presence in his films and photos and is perversely entranced by the photogenic possibilities of humans’ artistic and architectural products, the ‘ruins of modernity’ manifested as, and personified by, statues and buildings, I see a fraternal sensibility in operation chez Hopper: As in a dream, architectural details—houses, railroad tracks, tunnels, advertising signs, chimneys—are the people of his paintings. By an immense, convoluted process of displacement, things which have no obvious figurative similitude to the human being nevertheless stand in for the absent people of Mr. Hopper’s architectural ‘portraits’.
In one of his rare, groping moments of self-explanation, Mr. Hopper stated:
It’s hard for the layman to understand what the painter is trying to do. The painter himself is the only one that can really know…. And in the case of the objective painter, he uses natural phenomena to communicate … perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.
The ‘universal vocabulary’ of concrete objects is Mr. Hopper’s private symbology, and you will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my last post I alerted you to Louis Aragon’s provocative claim, in Le Paysan de Paris, that the image—and the concrete image at that—is the singular source of the poetic and the surreal.
Hence, when I say that concrete objects, the elements and details of architecture ‘symbolize’ people in some substantial sense in Mr. Hopper’s work, it is with an eye to M. Aragon that I class Mr. Hopper among the surrealists—at the very pinnacle of the movement, in fact, an honour he would doubtless deprecate.
But he is more surreal than the surrealists, for in his conscious devotion to ‘objective painting’, to the draughtsman-like description of material reality, he unconsciously paints the sur-reality, the reality that is over and above this one, sharing with M. Aragon the same stubborn, innate sense that le merveilleux is not a Platonic conception but is deeply embedded in the world’s mass. For Mr. Hopper too, certain sights, certain places, certain objects become divinely transfigured merely by the fact of their ugly, debased being as actuality: they take on ‘neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol’, nor do they ‘so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea.’
In that sense am I suggesting that buildings and architecture, as well as the modest objects of modern life, are deeply symbolic of the absent people in Mr. Hopper’s paintings. By a kind of Freudian dream displacement, people become the buildings they inhabit, and a painting like House by the Railroad (1925), for instance, can easily be read as a portrait of Mr. Hopper’s starchy Gilded Age youth, ‘gone with the wind’, struggling, like the gangling Nyacker himself in his stiff wing collar, to maintain a faintly ridiculous Victorian dignity against the locomotive onslaught of modernity.
To take just three examples, all painted in 1939, of how the concrete manifests its deep symbolism chez Hopper, there is such a dream-like collapse between the ‘natural phenomena’ which constitute Mr. Hopper’s universal vocabulary and the symbolic freight these objects of the world are intended to carry in Bridle Path, Cape Cod Evening, and Ground Swell.
These paintings which have, in their ostensible subject matter, nothing at all to do with the war in Europe and the looming threat that conflict posed to isolationist America, are in fact deeply obsessed by it. Indeed, there is not only such a surcharge of symbolic freight placed upon the ‘natural phenomena’—a rearing horse confronting a dark tunnel in Central Park; a dog amidst tall grass pricking up its ears; a shelf of wave threatening a pleasure craft on a sunny day—that serve as a universal vocabulary for Mr. Hopper’s anxieties about inevitable American involvement in the European conflict that these images, as symbols, collapse under the burden of communicating a diffuse and generalized state of anxiety, but, as in a dream (and there is an undeniably oneiric quality to Mr. Hopper’s employment of natural phenomena as a hieroglyphic vocabulary), between the original symbolic meaning, the hyperobject of world war that he intends to vocalize and express, and the final image, several displacements occur, so that the symbol undergoes multiple slippages, transfers, transformations, as in an intellectual game of Chinese Whispers.
It is as though, in these three paintings, Mr. Hopper is placing the original symbol of the war in Europe through such a succession of verbal and visual rhymes as to arrive at three separate images which, as ‘natural phenomena’ conveying only a disquieting sense of generalized anxiety, have nothing even implicit to do with the subject of the war, but in which, as in the images of the Tarot, the subterraneanly latent, chthonic significance of the original symbol can just barely be read in the manifest content of the tableaux.
Flâneur that he is, Mr. Hopper draws (to put another spin on that Benjaminian principle of ‘embodied knowledge’ I enunciated earlier) inferences and intuitions from a world of concrete symbolism: the ‘dead facts’ of concrete objects release, under his slavishly descriptive brush, the perfume of the marvellous and the surreal which is deeply embedded, as their Platonic substrate, in the DNA of dead matter.
As a quintessential surrealist, Mr. Hopper belongs for me among a very small cadre of artists—M. Ingres in the world of painting, and Mr. Hitchcock and Ozu-sensei in the world of cinema. What distinguishes these four artists is their slavish, obtusely unimaginative commitment to the depiction of concrete reality. They are so committed to the cause of realism that, as Sr. Picasso admiringly admitted with respect to M. Ingres, they are the greatest abstractionists of all.
The ‘abstraction’ of Mr. Hopper (again, he would deplore to be numbered among the non-objectivists) is similar to the abstraction of Ozu-sensei; and that abstraction, as a function of cinematic décor, is similar to M. Aragon’s apperception that the objects of the world ‘embody’ ideas rather than ‘manifest’ them. In Mr. Hopper’s concrete abstraction, as in that of Ozu-sensei, the objects of reality (or the reality of objects, if you prefer) are so compositionally potent in sensuous form and colour that they embody a symbolic character—the transfiguration of themselves sensed by M. Aragon.
Like Ozu-sensei, Mr. Hopper is one of the great painters of incidental still-lifes—those ‘few objects arranged on a table’ which reveal the psychological potency of a given space.
And it is perhaps this quality of the spiritual life of ‘things’ that M. Baudelaire referred to when he said that the marvellous and the poetic surrounds and suckles us like the air, but that we are oblivious to it. It requires some visionary sensibility that these artists had but denied—even to the point of doing violence to their own souls, attempting to ‘amputate’ it through repression—a ‘photogenic orientation’ towards the objects of reality, to draw out of them that store of poetry they are so fecund in—la photogénie—the abstract aspect they concretely embody.
These four artists lived so rigidly in their consciousnesses that the unconscious, for them, was pushed into such repressed abeyance that it could only manifest itself as concrete images that are abstractly distorted reports of reality. David Fincher talks about the ‘iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s vision, the suffocating rigour which murders creativity, foreclosing all other creative possibilities but the one he has decided upon in their cradle.
All these artists put up their iron umbrellas, erecting a suffocating bell-jar over their work, through whose translucent but distorting glass we see a world we recognize as rational fact, but fact viewed through the irrational prism of a deeply personal vision. For Ingres, Hopper, Hitchcock and Ozu in their respective ways, the rigorous, iron-clad verisimilitude of technical draughtsmanship is the very superstructure from which their deeply personal and idiosyncratic dreams emerge.
And for all these artists, the fetishization of material verisimilitude produces an ultimately symbolic, dreamlike effect upon us, but one which is eminently disavowable by the artist himself because the conscious concentration on describing what is material and actual is so scrupulously rigorous as to occupy all his artistic energies.
The deep affinity between Mr. Hopper’s painting and the art of the cinema has been exhaustively examined—not least by Ms. Levin, who devotes an appendix to the subject in her biography. Mr. Hitchcock himself was not shy in giving credit to Mr. Hopper, graciously confiding to interviewers that the Bates maison in Psycho (1960) was directly modelled on the House by the Railroad.
The trans-disciplinary respect was mutual. Mr. Hopper too, Ms. Levin tells us, was an avid cinephile, regularly ducking into cinemas in his predatory flâneries after fresh subject matter, and he kept abreast of developments in cinematic storytelling well into the age of Godard.
The cinema, and its root art-form of photography, were identified early by critics (not always favourably in an era of encroaching non-objectivism) as being unusually apposite to an understanding of Mr. Hopper’s painting.
I don’t think it is exactly accurate to say that Mr. Hopper was one of the last remaining adherents of ‘photorealism’ in a desertifying ocean of non-objectivism, the tide of which was ever-rising in his lifetime, and which he fought, with the valiant conservatism of his faith, to repulse. His style, to my mind, is slightly too gauche in its ponderous grasping for crystalline precision to be rightly compared with the dazzling illusions of photorealism that academicians like Cabanel and Bouguereau were capable of.
This is partly what I’m indicating when I talk about Mr. Hopper’s ‘inadvertent’ surrealism. He was an American commercial artist at the turn of the twentieth century, and his æsthetic is fundamentally based on the realistic and naturalistic premises of American commercial art.
He anticipates—but also, to my mind, emerges from, or in reaction to—the pulp fiction æsthetic of American commercial art. The ‘realism’ of this ‘genre painting’, its photographic veracity—which is to say, its legibility as an image—is in turn founded on the gritty ‘objectivity’ of nineteenth-century literary naturalism, imported into the Anglophone world from France. We know that Mr. Hopper was an immense Francophile, that he knew the language intimately, and was thoroughly versed in French nineteenth-century prose and poetry.
Mr. Hopper draws on the same ‘hyper-lucidity’ of pulp fiction and paperback cover artwork, a brand of realism that is both gritty and natural, and surreal and melodramatic. Being designed explicitly to advertise narratives, the paintings of pulp fiction are deeply premised on the narrative conventions of literature: the static, photographically veracious image must convey a proto-cinematic sense of ‘story’, of a beginning preceding the image we see; a middle it concretely represents; and an end, after it, we can anticipate—multiply—in tantalizing predictions of what might happen next.
Likewise, there is a sense of ‘narrative in motion’ in Mr. Hopper’s paintings which is a far more ‘literary’ corollary for the hyper-lucid mode of pulp fiction artwork. And to have a narrative that can be discerned across a narrow tranche of time in a single image, you require photographically realistic figures in recognizably naturalistic locales and situations.
But while Mr. Hopper partakes of the same conventions as American commercial painting, and while a tantalizing ambiguity similar to Mr. Hopper’s does exist in pulp fiction illustration, the point of divergence is this: the image depicted in the pulp cover painting tends to be what M. Cartier-Bresson calls ‘le moment décisif’ of the narrative in motion, whereas Mr. Hopper routinely chooses a ‘transitional moment’ in the narrative told by his paintings, one which renders their legibility, despite their photographic veracity, problematic.
Art director Robert Boyle, a close collaborator of Mr. Hitchcock, sees this same tendency between the two artists and calls it the ‘penultimate moment’:
‘The Hopper Look’ is the look of a moment in time before something has happened, or very often after it’s happened, but never at the moment of the happening. If you see a young woman in her room, very often bare, and she’s in a contemplative mood, has it happened? Or is it about to happen?
We’re used to the quick delivery, and we’re not always intrigued by the development. And with a Hitchcock film, the development is the interesting part. And I don’t mean to just say Hitchcock; I think this is true of most good films – maybe all of them.
The painting Mr. Boyle is referring to in that quote is Mr. Hopper’s Eleven a.m. (1926), another image in which the upper-storey window plays a significant rôle as a vector for voyeurism, although in this early instance, as in many of his later paintings, the angle of regard is reversed, from within to without.
Eleven a.m. … shows a woman in a quiet pose…. Yet, as so often, Hopper’s suggestion that this is a real, precise situation is not entirely borne out by the visual evidence….
Hopper presents us with a transitional situation. He permits us a tiny glimpse of the city outside, and, at the left, he gives a non-committal suggestion of another room behind the slightly open curtain. … The sense of mystery, instead of residing in an immaterial phenomenon, is engendered by the simple fact that we cannot see its origin. It is not metaphysical, but merely outside our field of perception.
—Ivo Kranzfelder, Hopper, p. 37
The décor of physical space is in some sense consubstantial with this transitional quality of time in Mr. Hopper’s paintings: he chooses what he going to be ‘real’ about, and works over certain areas of the canvas while treating others summarily. The effect of this is to complicate our reading of the image, to put us in the position, as Mr. Boyle observes, of wondering what has happened, or if it has happened yet, or what indeed may happen in this locale and situation which is photographically veracious enough for us to instantly recognize it, but not so realistic as to give us, as in the hyperlucid world of pulp fiction painting, an immediate sense of spatiotemporal orientation at the decisive moment of action in the drama.
In Mr. Hopper too, it is the ‘development’ that intrigues us, and the quick delivery of American commercial painting is infinitely delayed.
And thus, as the critics of his time recognized, while there is something of the ‘snapshot’ quality of photography in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, his brand of realism is not of the ‘photorealist’ variety—the kind of hyperlucidity that photography had already rendered redundant by the time MM. Cabanel et Bouguereau came on the scene:
This is an art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement. Nature’s sayso is not the artist’s affirmation.
—Edward Alden Jewell, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 220)
Ms. Levin tells us that during his youthful apprenticeship in art and flânerie in Paris, Mr. Hopper flirted briefly with photography, taking pictures of architectural details such as those immensely photogenic staircases in Parisian apartment houses, the streets of the Rive Gauche, and the bridges spanning the Seine, emulating the lonely, melancholy manner of M. Atget, but that he gave up photography as an aide-mémoire to painting because ‘the camera sees things from a different angle, not like the eye.’
And this is the point that many photographers—particularly digital photographers—fail to grasp, but which, as a writer who takes photos and makes films, I am painfully aware of. It may be redundant to say it, but the camera is not capable of that ‘art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement’ which can only proceed from a human consciousness deeply schooled in some art of representation. The camera, reporting Nature’s sayso with unimaginative veracity, sees things ‘from a different angle’ to the artist’s eye.
Particularly when the photographer works in the expensive medium of film, as I do, he becomes distinctly aware that what looks like it could potentially be ‘an image’ when regarded with the naked eye sometimes loses its apparent photogeneity when the arbitrary cadre of the viewfinder is set around it. And just as often, the putative ‘image’ of some architectural detail composed in the viewfinder with settings carefully adjusted turns out to be a picture of rien de tout.
In other words, what dissatisfied Mr. Hopper about photography, an art-form he would appear to have some natural affinity with, is that the photographic image can rarely tell a story. The mere veracious reporting of everything in the frame at a given moment of time, unselected, unemphasised, unarranged, is antithetical to his deeply literary style of painting, where there is a transitional sense of ‘narrative in motion’.
It’s exceedingly difficult—impossible in nine instances out of ten—to take a ‘good photograph’, which I define as one that requires no words, no story that has to be supplied after the fact as a commentary, to gloss what is visible in the image. That moment in time should be compositionally sufficient to supply a beginning and an end to the action frozen in time in the image which may be logically inferred—and almost no photographs, of the many billions that have been taken, do this.
Certainly, it is my consciousness of the insufficiency of photography as an art-form, its inability to reliably supply that narrative dimension of time to physical spaces (a problem which the invention of cinema solved), that has led me to write fictions like “Office at night” ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ my own photographs.
And certainly, in making a deep tip of my Fedora to Mr. Hopper in “Office at night”, I wrote that short story as a deliberate exercise with the conscious intention of ‘reverse-engineering’ the transitional, literary nature of his painting from imagistic description back into descriptive words, that sense, in his painting, that the obscurity of time is consubstantial with the obliquity of space.
I start my narrative at the moment the photograph was taken, the bald man finishing up his phone call. It’s a transitional moment, the moment, as Mr. Boyle says, after something significant has happened, and implying that the scene comes before some other significant happening. As in a Hopper painting, legibility of the bald man’s affect and behaviour is rendered difficult, for although the narrative voice carries on matter-of-factly as if the subject of the phone conversation were known to us, we cannot infer the cause from the effects we witness in the story.
The cause remains, as in Eleven a.m., ‘outside our field of perception’—but temporally, not, as in Mr. Hopper’s painting, spatially.
If you listen to the track a few times, you’ll notice that there are times when the description of objects, spatial relationships, the bald man’s affect and behaviour, seems needlessly minute for such a short story—minute to the point of redundancy. And yet there are other instances where, with the summariness of Mr. Hopper, I have treated these same details cavalierly.
Listening to the story a second or third time with the last sentence in mind will reveal the reason for this inconsistency of vision in a narrative whose tone gives the impression of being an objective report. As in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, perspective, in the final mental tableau completed by the crowning sentence, is shown to be the key to how clearly we see and interpret objects and their spatial relationships, and how clearly we can read behaviour and affect.
That inferential synthesis is really the purview of cinema as an art-form. It appropriates the spatial veracity of photography and supplies the missing dimension of time which gives physical objects in relational actuality to one another an experiential coherence, and it can, from without, approximate with more or less success the internal psychological drives and dynamics of human beings which is more perfectly realized in literary narratives.
It’s in this sense that Mr. Hopper’s painting is more closely aligned with cinema than with photography, despite the limitation of stasis. Mr. Hopper is a poet, essentially, but he is a prose poet, a master of the short story.
As I intended with “Office at night”, his paintings are like a handful of pages ripped out of a novel: they puzzle and intrigue us precisely because they are the moments of ‘development’ in a larger narrative they assume we are following, like a film, but can only see in a single frame, like a photograph.
Many of his works are like camera shots consciously framed to give us a purified version of that strange blend of communicativeness and incommunicativeness that is ‘Hollywood.’
—Parker Tyler, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 506-7)
The paradox in Mr. Tyler’s quote is illuminating, for if we can conclude one definite thing about Mr. Hopper it is that ‘communication’ was very important to him, a problem made galling by the fact that this very poetic, literary man with the quality of the novelist about him was more adept at writing in the hieroglyphs of images than in words.
… Introspective and intellectual, yet distrustful of verbal communication, he continued to struggle when he had to express himself in writing. As he had throughout his life, he preferred to speak through visual images…. In his painting, this visual communication took on a subtlety: details, shapes, colors, postures, scale, and specific juxtapositions join to convey many levels of meaning.
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 282
Ms. Levin tells us that after reading the book The Naked Truth and Personal Vision by the director of the art gallery at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Mr. Hopper felt sufficiently exercised to write to him:
I do not know what the ‘Naked Truth’ is, but I know that a ‘personal vision’ is the most important element in a painter’s equipment, but it must be communicated [doubly underlined].
—Edward Hopper, letter to Bartlett Hayes, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 486-7)
We noticed above his telling remark that the ‘objective painter’ uses ‘natural phenomena to communicate perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.’ As a literary man at heart, he recurs to the metaphor of vocabulary to express what kind of tools are in his ‘painter’s equipment’.
Robert Frost, a poet whom Mr. Hopper greatly admired, and with whom he had a distant, occasional correspondence, stated that ‘every poem is an exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood’, and as Ms. Levin explains:
[Hopper’s] reality, as always, was fabricated, not just from casual memories collected, but out of his personal vision. His every painting is an ‘exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood.’
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 493
It is this ‘exaggeration’ that I mean when I talk about the ‘poetry’, the abstract quality deeply embedded within the mass of the objects of reality. In the paintings of Mr. Hopper or the films of Ozu-sensei, the ‘photogenic orientation’ of these artists abstracts the harmonious exaggeration of their poetry from objects, that harmonious exaggeration being the mood which is an emergent property of the Gestalt of décor in Mr. Hopper’s paintings as much as in Ozu-sensei’s films.
Writing in the first issue of the journal Reality, which he founded in 1953, Mr. Hopper made what amounts to his manifesto on this score, stating with earnest conviction:
Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision [my emphasis] of the world.
—Edward Hopper, “Statements by Four Artists”, Reality, Spring 1953, p. 8
In some sense, as I said above, the means of expression at which he was most adept was incompatible with his message, the ‘inner life of the artist’ being perhaps better communicated through poetry or fiction than through the sculpting of the outward forms of objects in paint. Hence the admixture of ‘communicativeness and incommunicativeness’ which makes Mr. Hopper’s paintings seductive and intriguing.
In this struggle to communicate by one artistic means a message which is better suited to another medium, I can certainly sympathize with him, though in the opposite direction; for if Mr. Hopper, as a visual artist, is really a poet or novelist manqué, as a writer with a distinctly visual style, I am definitely filmmaker manqué. We have both missed our callings and have attempted, in mastering the arts we came to early in our lives, to make them do the opposite of what they are intended to do. He attempts to tell stories through images. I attempt to paint images through words.
But there is another sense in which the notion of a ‘personal vision’ to be communicated by imperfect means links us fraternally. I commenced by saying that to be a flâneur is to be a voyeur. Personal vision predicates both avocations, the latter pathologically, although if I am arguing for the studied idleness of flânerie as a fine art (and I am), in its close relationship with dandyism, it too is certainly also pathological.
We cannot claim for Mr. Hopper election to the academy of dandies, but he does belong to a very rare corpus of visual artists we can justifiably call flâneurs, other exemplars of this rare species being MM. Manet et Degas. Among painters, these gentlemen represent the arcane strain of flâneurism that runs, like the barest trickle of an underground stream, often lost for decades, the torch being carried by one man alone who doesn’t bear a direct heir, through the intellectual tradition of European modernity.
Mr. Hopper undertook his apprenticeship in the arcane tradition of flânerie on the holy ground of Paris, a spiritual successor to MM. Manet et Degas, and like them, he is un romancier des mœurs. The libertine French spirit suffuses his repressed Puritan soul, and smuggling that deep saturation of Parisian influence back into America, he paints the modes and manners of his native place and time with the same Flaubertian irony of those great moralists, MM. Manet et Degas.
To be a flâneur is to live a much more transitional, a much more osmotic existence than most people are comfortable with. The exteriority of the street is our salon; we are no more privately ‘at home’ than in the public sphere. And certainly, there are flâneries and there are flâneries that one might take: the æsthetic quest for the marvellous and the beautiful we undertake by day is very different from the more ruthless, predatory hunt after these same things we undertake by night.
Light (or the lack of it) determines the moral nature of the beautiful and marvellous things we discover in sunlight or in shade.
What comes out of Ms. Levin’s biography is that Mr. Hopper had a predilection for the nocturnal hunt. It more deeply inspired him, which is paradoxical, as his Puritanical Yankee nature reacted with apparent fear and loathing at the moral quality of the beautiful and marvellous things he saw in Paris at night. He was constitutionally unsuited to embrace his eyes’ desires and was self-condemned, like his youthful hero, M. Degas, to artistic voyeurism, flâneuristically sketching his croquis of Parisian mœurs in cafés.
Both Night Windows and Office at Night were products of nocturnal prowls. New York Post film critic Archer Winsten wrote that Mr. Hopper ‘spends a great deal of time walking in the city he loves and has always loved. He likes to look in windows and see people standing there in the light at night. For this same reason he likes to ride on els.’
Mr. Hopper betrayed himself as the perfect type of the artistic flâneur, the deceptively indolent man of the crowd driven by a deep, barely expressible vision of surreal beauty, when Mr. Winsten asked him what he did—outside of painting—for ‘fun’.
I get most of my pleasure out of the city itself.
—Edward Hopper to Archer Winsten, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 270)
The idea of ‘fun’ is as imponderable to a working artist as to an idle flâneur. Our only pleasure lies in the scopic activity of looking, whether with the fixity of the voyeur, or in fleeting movement, collecting those croquis des mœurs on the run, dashed down in a notebook as poetic snapshots of the city, this ruinous theme park of modernity we are wandering through in a continuous death march. The enforced leisure of our work is our pleasure.
And what makes Mr. Hopper a card-carrying member of this extremely exclusive clique of flâneurial artists is very much his subscription to an æsthetic cause articulated by M. Baudelaire in Le Peintre de la vie moderne; that is, to draw out the eternal from the ephemeral, to ‘crystallize’ or ‘arrest’, as Mr. Hopper said to his wife, ‘a moment of time acutely realized.’
We think of Mr. Hopper as a great painter in oils, a medium which, in visual terms, is the equivalent of the novel—slow to paint, slow to dry, with a heavy, enduring stasis about it, a substantiality equivalent to eternity, and not at all well-suited to the ‘portability’ of the transitory flâneurial quest to catch impressions on the fly.
But just as M. Manet was an exquisite café watercolourist, and M. Degas was capable, in his monotypes, of recording impressions of brothels almost daguerreotypic, Mr. Hopper was, in the twenties, a great printmaker, as capable as they of capturing immediate—almost photographic—sensations of the city. And all his life he remained a great field-sketcher, taking notes, in his flâneries, which he would then ‘work up’ into those novelistic fables of American morals and manners given enduring life in his oil paintings.
Herman Gulack recalled running into Hopper at the Automat, sitting by a window with just a plate with two rolls. When Gulack asked if he would like a cup of coffee, he replied that he was only making believe to be a customer in order to observe the view through the window and across the street. Hopper, having made sketches for the overall disposition of his composition, would then retain in his memory his impression of what he had seen.
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 518
It’s much easier, in the main, to be a flâneurial writer than a flâneurial artist, for, like spies, we can not only scope out our intel and note it down in the field without breaking cover, but because we carry the novelistic tableau we are painting in words in our heads, we are able, like guerrillas, to paint it in the sites and sights of the city without being discovered, to sail in, make our terroristic assaults upon the banality of the city, detonating our visions of beauty in the midst of the unsuspecting crowd, and sail out again.
Certainly, in my work, the weapon of the camera aids me in arresting that tableau of the ‘spleen of Melbourne’ I am building up in words. I’m not quite ready to tip my mitt and tell you, chers lecteurs, what great literary crime I am up to, but yes, both “Office at night” and “Dreidel” are episodes in a larger narrative, and the image of a third short story based on one of my photographs, a further clue to the big plot I am plotting, is just about developed in the darkroom of my mind and ready for writing.
If you enjoyed “Office at night” and want to hear episode 3 sooner rather than later, you can inspire me by plinking some coffee-cash in the fuel fund below. I have just had a new batch of branded Melbourne Flâneur postcards featuring “Block Court, Collins street, evening” printed, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Office at night” for $A5.00 using the link below, I will send you a copy of the postcard, featuring a short, personalised message of thanks just for you.
“Office at night” [MP3 audiostory and postcard]
An atmospheric short story where more is going on than meets the eye—or the ear. Purchase the MP3 of Dean Kyte’s new ficción and receive the postcard above, signed by Dean and featuring a handwritten, personalised message just for you!
Today The Melbourne Flâneur comes to you from Eltham, a charming suburb on the northeastern outskirts of Melbourne where urbanity begins to shade into rusticity.
I love Eltham. It’s got a good bookshop in the main street, a multitude of nice cafés in which to write, and it was the memorable scene of your Melbourne Flâneur’s last great seduction before he retired from Daygame, so its streets have the vivid imprint of potent memories embedded in them for your pocket-edition Casanova.
But rather than reflect on that, in the video above I lounge with all my flâneurial indolence in Eltham’s gilded greenery (reminiscent, when viewed through heavily squinting eyes, of a Parisian park) as I read you a few pages from my first book, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012).
That’s the non-fiction novel where a very thinly disguised avatar for yours truly (one who is hardly more than a floating consciousness with a mythological nom de guerre) makes an epic voyage as laborious as walking across the bottom of the sea in a diving bell.
The premise of the book is very simple: my first night in Paris, the first night of my life off the terrestrial shore de l’Australie in foreign climes. But the extended metaphor I use throughout the book to describe the experience of being halfway around the world, at night, in a foreign country is the metaphor of space travel and setting foot on the moon. And nowhere do I use this metaphor more extensively than in the extract I read you above, which I think contains one of the longest sentences in the entire book, a burlesque of President Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University which lasts more than an entire page.
Watch for the moment in the video when I have to sneak a breath to get through it!
I don’t really consider myself to be a comic writer, although some people have told me that they like my writing best when my satirical fangs show through. In this book, the fangs are definitely embedded in myself—right up to the gums: I never miss an opportunity to ironize my own neurotic foibles, frequently styling myself, in my Chaplinical dandyism, as ‘our presumptuous little hero’.
In that sense Orpheid: L’Arrivée is a ‘comic epic’: the ‘comedy’ lies in the fact that I treat—with a Keatonianly straight face—what would ordinarily be the most banal events and actions as I undertake to manœuvre myself and my small mountain of luggage de l’aéroport Charles-de-Gaulle à l’Hôtel Caulaincourt as if these were noble and heroic acts worthy of immortalization in an Homeric epic.
Like an astronaut setting foot upon a foreign world, everything that passes before my eyes becomes fascinating, exerts its own peculiar gravity which arrests my progress momentarily, drawing me towards it to pause and investigate. In fine, the experience of the book is intended, for the reader, to be what the experience of that night was for me: the most acute example I had yet known of the psychogeographic experience of flânerie itself—what M. Rimbaud calls ‘un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ (‘a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses’).
I’ve described Orpheid: L’Arrivée as an ‘epic prose poem’, and I think that sums up both my strengths and my limits as a writer. In a recent post on this vlog I asked the question ‘Can prose be poetry?’, and admitted that, like M. Flaubert, one of the great banes of my life is that I’m a prosateur by nature, not a poète—although I have the reputation of being one.
As I said in that post, the habits of mind associated with prose and poetry are really antithetical to each other, and I’m rarely so inspired as to write verse. Most of my poetic output was written in France, when, like a flower, I felt my soul expand in its natural climes, swimming in the sea of soil and air, of Truth and Beauty, which surrounded me every day.
Otherwise, like M. Flaubert, whatever inclination to lyricism there is in me (et l’inclination est forte) finds itself kinkily perverted away from prosody and funnelled along the unnatural channel of prose, a narrow watercourse most unsuitable for the efflorescent floods of rhapsody which overtake me. Like M. Flaubert, I have the rather painful experience, as a writer, of being a poet by inclination but without natural talent in that direction, my analytic habits of mind, like his, being more suited to prose than prosody.
And yet, for reasons which mystify and miff me, I have the reputation of being ‘a poet’.
In recent years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never succeed in talking people out of this misconception of me, and even to feel that, if they’re so stubbornly insistent in their error, then they’re probably right.
In lieu of forcing my mind into the crystal lattices of verse, a skill and habit I admire in poètes pur-sang but cannot emulate, I have always written my peculiar espèce de prose prosodique with its multilingual patois and neologisms, and have always been, bastard cousin to them, un poète en prose.
The essence of prose poetry, I think (an essence which Orpheid L’Arrivée demonstrates at quite a remarkable scale of simultaneous expansion and concentration, considering the typical brevity of the form), is ‘seeing the ordinary anew’.
What people have most often remarked to me about a prose they deem to be ‘poetic’ is that there is an unusual capacity in my writing to present a new vision of things, a different angle on the familiar which they recognize but which they tell me is not necessarily obvious to them until I drew their attention to it, a quality which is more ‘latent’ in the things themselves than apparent on first view.
Well, this is a perfectly natural skill for someone who began his career as a professional writer in the domain of film criticism to possess. My ‘journalistic training’ was as a foreign correspondent in a realm which is all about reporting vivid descriptions of vision, about lyrically communicating the experience which these visions in the dark provoked in me. It was a training which both formed and rewarded the analytic habit of mind, the incontournable désir to break down the parts of my pleasure and analyse what makes the machine of it run, which is natural to me.
I don’t know that I was ever conscious, as a young man writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, of styling my thumbnail reviews as ‘poems in prose’, but certainly I was so conscious of the little space I was afforded that, in retrospect, it seems I schooled myself in squeezing my mind into something like the crystal lattice of verse. I made a form of my own which was so tight that the rhapsodic results were often explosive for the readers.
In order to see the prosaic world painted anew on the page, a lyrical, rhapsodic style of prose is called for. If I’m honest, I don’t know if there are any poètes pur-sang today. A poet is a flower of humanity that can only grow up in a natural environment, and we live in such an artificial one, where technology is the very air that we breathe, that perhaps prose is the only weak poetic weapon with which to tackle and attack our prosaic reality, to beat back its encroachment on our humanity.
M. Aragon was a poet first and prose-writer second, a survivor of the race of poets when there were still some lines of lineage of that endangered species left to dribble into the future. He was also a surrealist in the first, enthusiastic, misguided but organic flush of that movement when, weak as it was, surrealism was yet a shield to bludgeon and beat back a usurping technological artificiality which was not yet all-powerful.
The English title of Le Paysan de Paris does not quite give the sense which M. Aragon intends to convey in French. Yes, ‘paysan’ may be translated as ‘peasant’, but in poetic conjunction with the name of the French metropolis, the Capital of Modernity, he is trying to suggest that to be a Parisian is to be a type of provincial, someone who is yet still close to nature in the midst of this technological marvel with all its glittering, seductive artificiality.
Now, here we have a little secret password of freemasonry by which fanatical Paris aficionados, French as well as foreign, recognize one another. This word is ‘province.’ With a shrug of the shoulders, the true Parisian, though he may never travel out of the city for years at a stretch, refuses to live in Paris. He lives in the treizième or the deuxième or the dix-huitième; not in Paris but in his arrondissement—in the third, the seventh, the twentieth. And this is the provinces.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, “First Sketches”, p. 832
It took reading Hr. Benjamin’s insight to put the vague apprehension into sharp relief, but as soon as I read those words, I recognized the truth of them in my own experience.
Only the day after the events recounted in Orpheid: L’Arrivée, as I ambled about the 18e, seeking by daylight what I had but glimpsed in a tourbillon of light and colour the night before, I would have the sense—which would never leave me in Montmartre—that this paradis artificiel would be sufficient for a lifetime. You could live in this small tranche of Paris, on its northern outskirts, and never be bored, never have cause to venture outside it.
I seem to associate that sensation of mind—too diffuse to be a thought—with the memory of a man, grey-haired, who shuffled out of the dazzling sunlight and into the cool, wood-panelled oasis of the Café de la Place and up to the comptoir beside me as I was drinking my demi. Between him and the patron passed that secret handshake of freemasonry, the handshake of merely being Montmartreans together on another day in bourgeois paradise, and by the end my time there, the ineffaceable patina of being a ‘Parisian provincial’, a ‘dix-huitièmard’ (to coin a term), would varnish the wood of my soul too.
In her journal article “The Surrealism of the Habitual: From Poetic Language to the Prose of Life” (2011), Alison James discusses surrealist prose poetry with respect to Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations into language. She cites André Breton’s argument in defence of M. Aragon when he was accused, after the publication of one of his poems, of incitement to murder.
… [T]he goal of poetry and art [according to Breton] has always been to soar above the real and above common thought…. In formulating this argument, Breton refers to Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics and in particular to Hegel’s insistence on the distinction between poetry and prose. For Hegel, poetry is the most perfect and universal of the arts because it comes closest to the self-apprehension of spirit. However, its linguistic medium poses a problem, for art ‘ought to place us on ground different from that adopted in everyday life, as well as in our religious ideas and actions, and in the speculations of philosophy’…. Language, when used in poetry, should therefore not be left ‘in a state in which it is used every day’ … but must set itself apart from the ‘common prose of life’ … —an expression that Hegel uses to refer to both the ‘prosaic’ dimension of existence and to linguistic signs that mediate this level of experience.
But in Le Paysan de Paris, M. Aragon (who himself has not infrequent recourse to Hegel) is most trenchant in his view that the prosodic lies in the prosaic. This is perhaps one of the few genuinely revelatory concetti to emerge from surrealism as an intellectual movement and as an artistic mode of militant resistance to the increasing ‘banalization’ of technologically-driven modern life.
I felt the great power that certain places, certain sights exercised over me, without discovering the principle of this enchantment. Some everyday objects unquestionably contained for me a part of that mystery, plunged me into that mystery. … I felt sure that the essence of such pleasures was entirely metaphysical and involved a sort of passion for revelation with regard to them. The way I saw it, an object became transfigured: it took on neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol, it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea. Thus it extended deeply into the world’s mass.
—Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, “A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), p. 128
This anti-platonic intuition that objects themselves—in all their crude, material reality—are the eternal Forms is perhaps, as I say, the only really revelatory idea to come out of surrealism, and sets the stage for a ‘poetry of modern life’ that is deeply immersed in the prosaic and the temporal, in the marvellous flux of artificial forms that speed surreally by the flâneur’s eyes in his investigations of arcades and parks.
In his coda to Le Paysan de Paris, M. Aragon indulges himself (perhaps satirically) in one of those chauvinistic manifestoes favoured by the surrealists—or at least by his hierophantic, inquisitorial friend, M. Breton. But M. Aragon is a greater intellect than M. Breton, just as he was a greater writer, and the slash and sweep of his pronouncements cut vividly through, just as the notion articulated in the quote above does, to add in one breathless burst of premises several firm planks to a nascent æsthetic philosophy of literary flâneurism:
From the swiftest glimpse an apparition arose. I did not feel responsible for this zone of the fantastic in which I was living. The fantastic or the marvellous. It is within this zone that my knowledge constituted true notion. My access to it was by a secret stairway, the image. Abstract research had induced me to consider it a crude illusion, yet finally notion, in its concrete form, with its treasure of particularities, no longer seems to me in any respect different from this despised method of knowledge, the image, which is poetic knowledge; while the vulgar forms of knowledge are nothing more, under their guise of science or logic, than the conscious halting places past which the image scorches, the image transformed marvellously into a burning bush.
I realize how shocking such a conception seems, I know the objection that may be made to it. A certain feeling for the real. For how did the idea come about that it is the concrete which is the real? Is not the concrete, on the contrary, all that is beyond the real, is not the real the abstract judgment which the concrete presupposes only in the dialectical process? And does not the image, as such, possess its own reality which is its application to knowledge, its substitution for it? The image is not in itself the concrete, of course, but the consciousness, the greatest possible consciousness of the concrete. In any case, whatever kind of objection may be made to such a view of the mind is itself of little importance, that very objection being an image. Basically, no way of thought exists that is not an image. However, most images are registered so weakly by the mind employing them that they incarnate absolutely no estimation of reality, and consequently retain the abstract nature which determines their impoverishment and ineffectiveness. The property of the poetic image, as opposed to the essential image, … is to incarnate this quality of materialization, one that exercises a tremendous power over man and is quite capable of making him believe in a logical impossibility in the name of logic. … [T]he image is the path of all knowledge. One is then justified in regarding the image as the resultant of all the mind’s impulses, in ignoring everything that is not image, and in devoting oneself exclusively to poetic activity at the expense of all other activity.
It is towards poetry that man is gravitating.
There is no other knowledge than that of the particular.
There is no other poetry than that of the concrete.
Madness is the predominance of the abstract and the general over the concrete, over poetry.
Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction.
The marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.
Love is a state of confusion between the real and the marvellous. In this state, the contradictions of being seem really essential to being.
Wherever the marvellous is dispossessed, the abstract moves in.
The fantastic, the beyond, dream, survival, paradise, hell, poetry, so many words signifying the concrete.
There is no other love than that of the concrete.
—Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, “The Peasant’s Dream” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), pp. 213-4, 217
Thus, in M. Aragon’s surrealistic view, the poetic is quite firmly embedded in the concrete, in the prosaic, and what appeals to the eye as a poetic image provokes M. Rimbaud’s definition of ‘clairvoyance’—literally ‘clear-seeing’—that ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens.’
Etymologically, the concept of ‘surréalisme’ suggests something—a dimension, a reality—above or over concrete reality, and this view of surrealism as a poetic reaction to the banality of the everyday is certainly implied by M. Breton’s appeal to the æsthetic authority of Hegel.
And this doctrinaire view of what it is for a work of art to be ‘surreal’—to be ‘over’-real, too real to be apprehensible with the concrete eye in our diminished platonic state—is a view that M. Aragon appears to reject. One paints not what is in the mind’s eye, superimposing this image, as a kind of overlay, or ‘filter’, upon the image of the world which appeals to our physical vision, but the disruptive element of the marvellous which is always—and already—present within things as their secret substance, the irrational contradictions which are already there, in plain sight but overlooked, ignored by consciousness.
La vie parisienne est féconde en sujets poétiques et merveilleux. Le merveilleux nous enveloppe et nous abreuve comme l’atmosphère; mais nous ne le voyons pas.
Parisian life is abundant in marvellous and poetic subjects. The marvellous surrounds us and suckles us like the air, but we do not see it.
Hr. Benjamin, in his classic essay on surrealism, written when the movement was already on the intellectual decline, speaks of it as possessing access to ‘profane illumination’. With as cunning an artificer as Hr. Benjamin, we must assume that an indirect reference to the title of M. Rimbaud’s prose poetry collection (which he cites directly in his essay) is not coincidental.
Taking the word ‘vulgar’ in its Catholic sense, the ‘vulgar incidents’ and the ‘vulgar objects’ of our banal, artificial modernity shine forth their ‘profane illuminations’, and as M. Aragon states in his preface to Le Paysan de Paris:
New myths spring up beneath each step we take. Legend begins where man has lived, where he lives. … Each day the modern sense of existence becomes subtly altered. A mythology ravels and unravels. … I am already twenty-six years old, am I still privileged to take part in this miracle? How long shall I retain this sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence? I see it fade away in every man who advances into his life as though along an always smoother road, who advances into the world’s habits with an increasing ease, who rids himself progressively of the taste and texture of the unwonted, the unthought of.
—Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, “Preface to a Modern Mythology” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), p. 24
In fine, rather than a superimposition of something above this reality upon our vision of it, the surrealist dérèglement is ‘seeing anew’, perceiving the marvellous reality of the poetic that is already there in our stultifying banality, the irrational discordances between our bizarre, artificial objects and customs—the whole apparatus of ‘le spectacle’, as Guy Debord calls it—which familiarity with them has made us blind to.
As Ms. James explains, Hr. Wittgenstein was deeply concerned with the problem of ‘re-concretizing’ language (to coin a term), to bring words back from the airy abstractions of the intellectuals and re-couple them to the gold standard of everyday usage. But, as she states in her article, ‘[r]ather than “bringing words back”, [surrealism] is a literature that aims to defamiliarize, to make new, to take language and thought away from the commonplace.’
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, cited in James (2011, p. 416)
Refamiliarization by defamiliarization: To take the pseudo-Freudian aspect of surrealism’s revolutionary program, if we are so immersed in the abstract, artificial spectacle of modern life that we cannot perceive the irrational discordances embedded in our artefacts and customs, the defamiliarization of abstracted language serves as a lens to consciously refocus our inward vision upon the madness of our concrete reality.
One might say that the prose poetic impulse to ‘see the ordinary anew’ is a function of Ezra Pound’s demand of modern artists that they should ‘make it new’—create (as M. Aragon seeks to do in Le Paysan de Paris) a mythology of the modern which is itself the basis of a new classicism.
The classical forms of poetry are unsuited to the spirit and conditions of our prosaic modern life, one in which Mr. Kurtz’s horror is kept in continual, uneasy abeyance, but which forever threatens to eclipse and overwhelm us. Beauty and horror, as M. Baudelaire, exercising profound clairvoyance, could perceive at the birth of modern poetry, are the two sides of the coin of banality we trade in daily.
Thus, in this banal, prosy landscape of indentured drudgery which is the modern city, perhaps only a ‘poetic’ prose, one which re-alerts us to the omnipresent but invisible marvellous by stealth, appropriating the utilitarian literary form of prose which science and commerce have elevated to a global lingua franca, is the only means to be authentically a ‘poet’ in this open-air, unbarred prison we all live in.
The poet in prose sneaks his profane illuminations of the marvellous reality, the beauty of our universal horror, out through the horizontal bars of uniform, black-inked type. He squeezes the folded letter out through the bars, but because it is written in prose, the cryptic cypher of the concealed poem fails signally to reach all but his fellow illuminati—the brethren of other flâneuristic souls who suffer in our Edenic Hell.
… [T]he most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.
The situationists, who were really the last inheritors of the tribal, faddish tendencies of European modernism, tracing their line of descent directly from the surrealists, were also, like them, one of the last résistants to the bulldozing banality of modern life, the flipside of its horrible beauty.
In their pseudo-scientific study of the urban environment known as psychogeography, and more specifically in their method of scientific investigation, the dérive(literally, the ‘drift’), the situationists codified a method of experimental urban exploration pioneered by the surrealists, and of which M. Aragon gives us perhaps the first scientific account in the second movement of Le Paysan de Paris: “Le sentiment de la nature aux Buttes-Chaumont” (“A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont”).
In that section, he describes how he, M. Breton, and a fellow Surrealist, Marcel Noll, undertook an ambitious pilgrimage one night to the parc des Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19earrondissement, on the northeastern outskirts of Paris. Assailing the gates of the citadel (which they found, to their surprise and delight, to be open), the three amigos undertook a circumambulation of the park, which centres around a man-made lake and a tiny, mountainous island. At the top of the butte is a very picturesque little belvedere which one approaches by means of a footbridge known to Parisians as ‘le pont des Suicidées’ because it’s a charming spot to take a brodie from.
The dérive, to my mind, is slightly different to flânerie, and therefore more suited to having a ‘surreal experience’ of the ordinary places of modernity, such as the parc des Buttes-Chaumont as M. Aragon describes it in Le Paysan de Paris.
The dérive, in my experience, is more about the absorption and synthesis of the ‘trade winds of vibe’ that course through the vectors of the urban milieu, while flânerie is an æsthetic investigation, and therefore more analytic. The flâneur is on the hunt for modernity, as M. Baudelaire says, whereas the dériveur opens himself up to being a willing prey to modernity’s alternating, alienating vibes of beauty and horror.
Daydreaming is one of the key sources of poetry—a poem often starts as a daydream that finds its way into language—and walking seems to bring a sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind.
A walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it. I am both here and there, betwixt and between, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. I move in a liminal space.
You will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my previous post I said that the bar, the café, the scene of Vivian Sobchack’s ‘lounge time’ and another site of flânerie, was a ‘liminal social space’. Whether walking or pausing in his progress, the flâneur’s natural environment is not so much the city itself as liminal space—adjacent places of multiple, contradictory usage, spheres of ambiguity, sites of transitory passage.
Mr. Hirsch, in his article, delineates the types of walking, and he cites Thoreau, who mistook the origins of the word ‘saunter’, a type of frolicking stroll akin to flânerie at its most energetic, as coming from medieval pilgrimages ‘à la Sainte Terre’ (to the Holy Land). Mr. Hirsch sets us straight on this score, telling us that ‘[t]he word saunter comes from santer, meaning “to muse”, to “be in a reverie”’. Thus, the flâneuristic relationship between walking and thinking is still completed in the word, though not in the way Mr. Thoreau imagined.
Mr. Hirsch goes on to describe this ambulatory form of reverie, this ‘dream-walking’ while wide-awake, as ‘a way of ruminating, … a form of labor without laboring, what Kant calls “purposiveness without purpose.”’
Now, these two paradoxical phrases are instructive, for a phrase of my own which you will encounter time and again in the Orpheid is the description of ‘our presumptuous little hero’ as being engaged in the equally paradoxical occupation of ‘productive indolence’: My flâneuristic days in Paris were taken up with the ‘work’ of walking, of thinking, of lounging in cafés, of writing in parks, of drawing at the Louvre. By the standards of our technocratic society, I was a ‘fainéant’—literally, a ‘do-nothing’, an idler, and yet I have never, in my entire life, turned out more pages of prose, and poetry, and art, than in those days.
That’s the flâneurial paradox of Hirsch’s ‘labor without laboring’, of Kant’s ‘purposiveness without purpose’, and my own ‘productive indolence’: the prosaic poet of modern life is a résistant in the ‘Worker’s Paradise’ of the City, a passive idler by the standards of commerce, but as much of a driven ‘producer’—and not a passive consumer—as one of Ayn Rand’s technocratic supermen.
I had my own ‘dérive à trois’ at the parc des Buttes-Chaumont, with a couple of Californian friends I met in Paris, one of whom I still keep in occasional contact with. It was nothing near as blissful as M. Aragon’s tramp by night with MM. Breton et Noll, but I still remember the vivid poetry of life in ‘les Tuileries des gens’: a girl, lying on the grass in the sunshine, reading Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale in a cream-coloured, Gallimard wrapper; the gaggle of little French schoolchildren who descended on us from the pont des Suicidées as we paused in our ramble under the shelter of the belvedere at the top of the butte.
Rereading my second draft of the account of that day, I notice that I say that the children’s voices ‘perfumed’ the air for me, a poetic tournure that suggests the evanescent beauty that quite ordinary (and I’m sure, for my companions, quite unmemorable) incursion into our sanctuary had for me as we gazed back towards Sacré Cœur.
The ambition is still to tell the story of that day, and of the days preceding it, when an Englishman we met introduced me to my destiny as a poet, albeit in prose. To be a flâneur; to be deeply embedded as an anarchic undercover résistant in this prosaic modern reality, with its banal horror and flashes of beauty; to be able to see, and to say, both; to allow the dérèglement du dérive to surreally overtake one like a drug, but then to be able to apply analysis to the parts of one’s pleasure;—that is really what it is to be a prose poet.
But that memoir of my halcyon days in Paris is some way off. In the meantime, if what I have said here has whetted your appetite for what might just be one of the most surreal reading experiences you’ve ever had, do you dare to take a walk on the wild side, accompanying yours truly on a neurotic comic dérive around Montmartre by night?
Or do you think that Orpheid: L’Arrivée might just be up the (dark) alley of someone you know? If you haven’t tried my custom order service and you’re thinking of buying some original gifts this Christmas, I invite you to take a browse in the Dean Kyte Bookstore. All my products come gift-wrapped by the same two hands that lovingly wrote the books. I also sign and wax-seal them and include a thoughtful, personalised message to the recipient, so if you want to give someone you love a thoroughly bespoke, artisanal reading experience to savour this Christmas, take a flash at my books or click the links below to purchase your own personal copy of Orpheid: L’Arrivée.
“Orpheid: L’Arrivée” [softcover]
Personally signed and sealed by author. Comes with frameable, handwritten manuscript page and custom bookmark. Price includes worldwide postage.
“Orpheid: L’Arrivée” [eBook]
PDF viewable on any device. Includes bonus audio track of page read by author. Worldwide delivery within 48 hours.
‘[Vivian] Sobchack builds on Bakhtin’s salon chronotope to identify the cocktail lounge and/or nightclub as a key film noir setting. What emerges in Sobchack’s analysis is the “lounge time” chronotope, which incorporates such public but anonymous sites as the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the hotel room, the diner, the roadside café, and the motel. In contrast to the respectable domestic spaces of the home, these sites of aimless time and transient space give rise to louche characters and particular sets of, often criminal, activities.’
‘Double Indemnity dramatizes this distancing from and yet reflection upon the nature of ordinary experience…. For anthropologists like [Victor] Turner, the characteristic cultural performance is ritual, in which participants find themselves on the border between “secular living and sacred living,” in a “limbo that was not any place they were before and not any place they would be in”…. Double Indemnity evokes a secular limbo. Walter and Phyllis, to use the term popularized by Turner, find themselves in a liminal social space, defined by its bordering engagement with contradictory social spaces…. Within this paradoxical space, the ordinary forms of everyday living are shown by Walter and Phyllis as what they always already are, that is, performances whose authenticity is by definition in question.’
‘You have just met a woman, you are inches away from the greatest sex of your life, but within six weeks of meeting the woman, you will be framed for a crime you did not commit and you will end up in the gas chamber, and as they strap you in and you’re about to breathe the cyanide fumes, you’ll be grateful for the few weeks you had with her and grateful for your own death.’
Lounge time is this ‘liminal social space’, a limbo where the secular acquires, via the gloss of the sexual, a patina of the sacred. In the chapel of the cocktail lounge, with its soft lighting (softened further still by the fog of cigarette smoke and dulled edges of drink), the social rituals of pickup transform an ordinary bar of chromium, zinc and glass (materials which, in the kaleidoscopic contrivance of their multiple reflectivities, dramatize ‘this distancing from and yet reflection upon the nature of ordinary experience’) into a site like Walker Percy’s ‘wonder’, an oasis outside of space and time, a place the noir man and woman were not in before they met, nor any place they will be in après cette rencontre—c’est-à-dire, la scène du crime.
I’ve felt it myself more than once, this quality of lounge time, at bars and pubs in Bellingen and Melbourne when sex seems imminent (and immanent) enough to touch. It’s an eerie ambiance where the extension of space becomes borgesianly consubstantial with the temporal dimension, and ordinary, slightly tawdry surroundings are transformed, made exotic by the rare encounter with the erotic—which is necessarily dangerous. Ennui, secular prisonworld apparently without end, makes the noir man a ripe rube for this brief encounter with the exotic erotic, and the familiar tools at the ritual of chasing away ennui, the chalice of glass and the censer of cigarette, are eager assistants at the epiphany of transsubstantiation, casting an aureole of precoital mystery around the noir woman, who condescends, in her own ennui, to allow herself to be seduced. L’homme fatal equally presents to her a firedoor through which she may flee l’enfer of her embêtements ennuyeux et fâcheux—which are usually consubstantial with some other man she’s bored with or being bothered by. Thus, this courtly Emil Jannings type presents a distinguished head upon which the maidenly mantis can prey, dispatching one man by chivalrous aid of another who has conveniently chanced across her path.
It is the chance aspect of both Daygame (when played by night in the setting of the bar) and noir, with its character of unremitting, dreary ennui in the unendurable monotonie of ordinary places and days (for the spaces of noir are temporally consubstantial with the experience of time as a jail) that appear eternal and impermeable to chance, which makes the secular transcendence of imminent sex implicit in the experience of lounge time apparently miraculous, ‘merveilleux’, plein with Percy’s wonder. Luck seems so foreign, alien, foregone, impossible to the characters of noir, and yet the whole néant of the noirniverse is predicated on la malchance et le guignon. Indeed, the irrationality of luck, its omnipresence even in its absence, is the one newtonian, urizenian law, firm as iron, in l’univers du noir: ‘Yes, Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you, or me, for no good reason at all…’
In Maslow’s terms, lounge time is such a ‘peak experience’ for the men and women of noir, the place, the privileged moment they recur so often to in their flashbacks and confessions, because it was the one moment where they felt as if all their esperances were actualized, when it seemed as if the endless desert of their luck had broken its drought and they had found—miracle of miracles—in this place—le bar—which had delivered them no good luck before, the gushing rock, the shining penny, the sure thing, in the prospect of this étranger et étrangère they had not yet slept with.
—Dean Kyte, “Invitation to a murder”
I’m grateful to Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London for bringing film scholar Vivian Sobchack’s concept of ‘lounge time’ to my attention a couple of years ago. You can read Pamela’s fascinating article about lounge time in the silent films of G.W. Pabst (and my response to her article) here.
In brief, as the first quotation, by Douglas McNaughton, at the head of my essay above explains, Ms. Sobchack’s concept of lounge time is an extension of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘salon chronotope’. Well, this takes a little unpacking too before we get down to brass tacks.
Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary critic. As Mr. McNaughton elegantly summarizes it in his journal article (thus saving me a bit of trouble), Bakhtin came up with the concept of the ‘chronotope’ (the ‘time/space’), which he defined as ‘the intrinsic interconnectedness of temporal and spatial’ elements in a novel. The chronotope, in other words, is the warp and weft of space and time which forms the background tapestry of a fictional narrative. They need to be verisimilar with one another, and together they provide a sense of verisimilitude to the foreground actions of a fictional narrative.
But ‘chronotope’ is not simply a fancy narratological word for the ‘background’ of your novel. As Mr. McNaughton (citing Bakhtin) states in his article: ‘Chronotopes are “the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied.”’
In other words, the chronotope, as the complex nexus of realistic space and time, reaches directly into the narrative: locations and actions in time directly influence the foreground drama and the dynamics of character which take place against the backdrop of realistic space and time. It’s sort of like a spatiotemporal ‘archetype’ of setting that determines the kind of archetypal characters, situations, and stories that can realistically emerge from the matrix formed by the intersection of particular geographies and particular periods of time.
Bakhtin, as a pioneering narratologist, identified a number of ‘master chronotopes’, ur-spatiotemporal configurations, in novels, including the ‘salon chronotope’, which is a conspicuous setting in French nineteenth-century literature from Balzac to Proust.
But, as the notion of the salon implies, the salon chronotope is no more a ‘setting’ than it is a ‘background’; it’s more mystical than that. As space and time metaphysically meet in this physical room of a grande dame’s house, the chronotope of the salon is a kind of ‘cultural phenomenon’ that informs the total world of the narrative beyond the drawing-room. Tout Paris, c’est le salon (the whole social world of Paris is the drawing-room), if you’ll pardon the pun, and the intersection of physical spaces in time and culturally specific phenomena within them produces a set of determinable characters, situations, and plotlines which can occur within these physical/metaphysical, cultural time-spaces.
That’s the chronotope.
And as regards the salon chronotope, for example, we might say that the typically French, typically nineteenth-century story of the social ascension of Rastignac, charted by Balzac from Le Père Goriot (1835) to Les Comédiens sans le Savoir (1845), is morphologically the same chronotopic story as Georges Duroy’s social ascension in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami (1885), as is the passage of Proust’s narrateur from petit-bourgeois petit bonhomme in Du côté de chez Swann (1913) to elbow-rubbing equal of the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes by the end of Le Temps retrouvé (1927).
At a morphological level of recursion, they are all the same story, for the cultural phenomenon of the nineteenth-century Parisian salon determines the kinds of characters that can exist in nineteenth-century Paris, and the kinds of story that can be told in the space-time of nineteenth-century Paris, the democratic ascension of a clever young bourgeois man to the fashionable heights of quasi-nobility being one of them.
Ms. Sobchack built upon Bakhtin’s concept of the salon as a particularly potent spatiotemporal site of drama, and in an influential essay, “Lounge Time: Postwar Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir” (1998), identified the transient settings of bars, nightclubs, cafés, cocktail lounges, hotels, motels and roadhouses as the key chronotope of film noir.
And again, it’s not that films noirs are set exclusively in cocktail lounges, it is that the spatiotemporal ‘atmosphere’ of the lounge as a transient, temporary space of flâneurial ease punctuating longer passages of anxious wandering through the urban night informs the Gestalt, the total world of film noir. As Ms. Sobchack explains in her essay, the of phenomenon of transient, shared public spaces where one momentarily rests from a condition of anxious displacement (such as the lounge) in post-war America determines, as the salon does for nineteenth-century Paris, the kind of characters that can exist in an American movie in the 1940’s or 1950’s, and the kind of story that can be told in America in the 1940’s and ’50’s.
It turns out that a film noir, an existential story of nihilistic crime resulting from a man’s succumbing to the temptation of a woman’s seduction, is one of those archetypal stories.
Why should this interest me and why should I have been so activated by Pamela’s post when she alerted me to the concept? Because it was one of those rare instances in intellectual life when someone else throws an astonishing sidelight on a problem so knotty (and so deeply, obsessively personal, it seems) that you can barely articulate the dimensions of it to yourself, such that there is a poverty of coverage about it in the literature, and thus, when you do come across a thesis closely linked to it, you are surprised that anyone else has even thought about the problem.
The recherché intellectual question of ‘the mood’ of places (which I seem to conceptualize to myself as an intersection of particular space and particular time), and how to represent the ‘character’ of places, independent of transient human occupancy, has become an increasingly salient æsthetic preoccupation in my writing and filmmaking over the last four years.
As I think my essay above makes clear, the first really important element that Ms. Sobchack’s concept illuminated for me is that, in almost a synæsthetic sense, in the film noir, space is time, and vice versa. The clue is in the name she gives to her concept—‘lounge time’, which connotes not merely a transient place where the characters of noir pass their time, but also the character of time’s passing in such places. There is a certain idleness, a certain flâneurial oisiveté implicit in the notion: time, in the space of the bar or cocktail lounge, does not pass quickly, ‘like sands through the hourglass’, but slowly, spasmodically, like the dripping from a leaky faucet.
There is, in other words, a Bergsonian (and even Borgesian) quality to how the characters of film noir experience time in the cocktail lounge. They experience temporal duration as spatial extension, and I give the image of the labyrinthine prison, the sæcula sæculorum of Catholicism, ‘from everlasting to everlasting’, ‘world without end’, as the metaphor for this Borgesian, Bergsonian space-time.
And Bergson leads us back to M. Proust, my cher maître, for, like the dear, divine Marcel, anyone who has read my flâneurial writing knows that I’m obsessed with spatial specificity and geographic particularity, and the temporal experience of walking through a precisely described physical landscape is likely to take much longer subjectively than objectively, the time between each footfall being measured by the tumult of thoughts that the landscape inspires in me at each step.
In Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012), for instance, it takes me about a hundred pages to walk about a hundred metres, from the edge of the square Caulaincourt to my bed. In Things we do for Love (2015), I more modestly manage to take two train rides and a walk from Indooroopilly Station to Indooroopilly Shopping Centre in only a thousand words, but in Follow Me, My Lovely… (2016), I again haul you on a nine-hour, 20,000-word tour of Bellingen by night and by day as I bounce the most beautiful girl I’ve ever gotten into my bed all over town.
And in the forthcoming Sentimental Journey, expect to walk your eyes off, dear readers, as I march you (at bayonet-point, it might seem at times) through various Gold-Coastian, Brisbanian and Bellingenian locales.
The chronotopic relation between space and time;—the experience of space as time (and vice versa);—is, you might say, rather an entrenched and synæsthetic habit of thought in my writing.
Certainly, I see this apperception of time as spatial extension and space as temporal duration rarely represented in art, and little of the curious obsession I have for it represented in the academic literature, which made the encounter with Ms. Sobchack’s concept refreshing.
For perhaps even more than in my writing (or perhaps just more clearly, more appropriately to the medium), it is the organizing æsthetic principle which informs my filmmaking and videography—the films and videos you watch on this vlog. The confused perception of time as space and space as time is not merely the most conspicuous feature of my flâneurial writing, but it is, I contend, the most conspicuous quality of flâneurial filmmaking.
Elsewhere on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, I’ve answered the question ‘Are there flâneur films?’. In that post, I stated categorically that there areflâneur films, but that it’s usually more a character of the films themselves—that is to say, a matter of style or cinematic technique—than the characters a film possesses that makes it ‘flâneurial’.
More precisely, it’s how a film deals technically, stylistically with space and time that tends to give it a flâneurial character. And as I said in the post “What is a flâneur?”, it’s an absolutely non-negotiable part of being flâneur, core to the definition, that one is a pedestrian by nature.
The word ‘pedestrian’ itself combines connotations of spatial extension and temporal duration, the time it takes to move through a landscape being directly linked to the mode of travel. There must be in the flâneurial film, therefore, a sense (so uncommon—even alien—to the apparatus of cinema) of being tied to a singular perspective, and a singular mode of movement through the world, one that is distinctly human and limited by the human viewpoint and human movement.
In the first volume of his Cinéma (1983), M. Deleuze deals with this type of filmmaking, what he calls ‘l’image-mouvement’ (the ‘movement-image’), and he identifies three types of image which combine to form this sensory motor-action scheme: ‘l’image perception’ (the ‘perception image’), ‘l’image affection’ (the ‘affective image’), and ‘l’image action’ (the ‘action image’).
In fine, in M. Deleuze’s theory, we see; we feel something about what we see; and then we act in reaction to what we see. Perception leads to affect leads to action. Montage, the great discovery of the Soviet silent cinema, with its juxtaposition of images of perception, images of emotion, and images of action in a dynamic, plastic composition which is unique to the art-form of the cinema itself, is really the innovation that crystallizes the movement-image as a the central organizing principle of classical narrative filmmaking.
And as Messrs. Saunders and Sinnerbrink discuss, the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock is really the æsthetic high-water mark of classical Hollywood filmmaking in the movement-image style. Rear Window (1954), for instance, is entirely predicated upon the cumulative effect produced by montage as proposed by Soviet theorist Lev Kuleshov, and the tripartite formula of perception, affective, and action images are the technical basis by which Mr. Hitchcock, as a consummate ‘engineer of fright’, cumulatively produces the mechanics of suspense in that picture.
In fine, as Rear Window so peerlessly, rigorously, and consistently demonstrates, the palpable effect of that picture (as of all Mr. Hitchcock’s best work) produces a visceral somatic experience of suspense and fright in us precisely because the total assemblage of the film is rigorously anchored at every moment to this sensory motor-action scheme. Along with James Stewart, we look at something; we are emotionally affected by what we see; and the affect produces a bodily reaction in us. Donald Spoto, in his essay on Rear Window in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1976), notes that the moment when Raymond Burr looks directly at the camera still manages to produce the reactive action of an apprehensive murmur in the audience, despite familiarity with the film.
Indeed, it is this ‘mechanical’ schema about how we perceive spatial relations which gives classical cinema its engaging, involving quality, and it seems to explain (albeit in too neat and over-simplified a fashion) our experience of the world as bodies in space. The miracle is that a mechanical object with no consciousness of its own can (with the aid of judicious editing in post-production) ‘mimic’ how we perceive, react and act in relation to other spatial objects—including people—with some chronotopic verisimilitude.
As Mr. Bordwell and Ms. Smith discuss circa minute 16, thirties cinema is ‘behavioural’, ‘externalized’; it’s about putting on a show that the audience can easily read off through the spectacle of action. And as Mr. Bordwell explains, this æsthetic Gestalt is perfectly consonant with the implicit assumption of thirties cinema, which is that there is a kind of externalized ‘causal social mechanics’ at play which chronotopically produces, for instance, the thirties archetype of the gangster. As Ms. Smith points out, the characters of thirties cinema, whether they are gangsters, chorines, or screwball couples, seem to have ‘no interior life’: they are pure movement and externalized behaviour, bodies in kinetic (which is to say, photographable) spatial relation to one another.
The difference between thirties cinema and forties cinema is something like the difference, I would contend, between commedia dell’arte and Shakespeare’s comedies. Though roughly coexistent, one derives its comedic force from visible actions in space, while the other derives its comedic force from the dynamic collision of antagonistic personalities over time. And ultimately, we find the verbal whaling of Benedick and Beatrice upon one another more comedically satisfying than the mutual physical attrition of Punch and Judy.
Moreover, I would contend that thirties cinema, whether it takes the particular form of the gangster movie, the Busby Berkeley musical, the Fordian western, or the screwball comedy, is the last frenetic spasm of pleasure produced by the movement-image as the defining æsthetic criterion of the cinema as a distinct art-form up to 1940. If Mr. Bordwell’s and Ms. Smith’s intuitions about thirties cinema have confirmable validity, I would say that a general morphological sense of people, objects, and society as being ‘mechanical’ and ‘mechanically determinable’, as a set of discreet bodies in a kinetic spatial relationship to one another that can be photographed in action, is what defines cinema from the Lumière brothers and Méliès up to 1940.
In fine, I am arguing that the conditions of a mechanised modernity chronotopically produced the matrix for cinematic stories which favoured the movement-image between 1895 and 1940. The assumption that the ‘source code of reality’ is fundamentally mechanical, and that even social relations are dictated by a Newtonian physics of bodies in spatial relation to one another, underlies stories in all media, but most particularly, and most perfectly, in the cinema.
But in his second volume of Cinéma (1985), M. Deleuze identifies a rupture in the schema, so that it becomes difficult, dopoguerra, to know how to act in relation to what is being perceived. At about the time of the Second World War (a period of psychological schism which coincides with the ludic iconoclasm that Orson Welles, enfant terrible, will wreak upon the art-form in Citizen Kane), the cinematic image starts to become more temporally salient than spatially.
M. Deleuze identifies what he calls the gradual emergence of ‘l’image-temps’ (the ‘time-image’) during the war years, until it becomes an entrenched trend in cinema post-1945.
Now, it’s not an æsthetic coincidence that the phenomenon of film noir should emerge, as Citizen Kane does, at the commencement of American involvement in the war, nor that the trend toward darker and darker crime pictures should increase with American participation in it, and become an entrenched æsthetic movement after the war ends. The close relation of Citizen Kane to The Maltese Falcon and its successors has been remarked by many film scholars, but certainly, from a technical standpoint, the chief innovations of Kane—chiaroscuro lighting and deep focus photography—are not merely techniques it bequeathed to film noir, but techniques which create the conditions for M. Deleuze’s time-image.
In fine, the technique, in Citizen Kane, of flooding a soundstage with so much sculpted light that one creates an image that is crisp and sharp to the furthest recession of the picture plain, one in which the ‘white space’ of perfect darkness is as photogenic and afforded as much visual weight as well-lit areas of action, now places the onus of ‘what to look at’ squarely upon the individual spectator. This was certainly not the way of 1930’s Hollywood films, where shots were lit in a façon laiteux and creamily focused so as to direct the audience’s gaze to the salient object of the shot.
With this new flâneurial liberty of the eye to roam about the image, time becomes a factor of salience in perception and action. You could say that the ambiguity between perception and action in films from 1941 onwards creates a delay, an interval in which one must process the affect created by a visual space in which everything is now equally salient for oneself.
Certainly the film noir, where the hyper-vigilant clarity of deep focus photography combines with large areas of screen real estate in ominous shadow, creates spaces in which everything is a potential threat—or where a threat could come from any sector of the screen.
No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is being continually cut into ribbons of light.
… [I]n film noir, the central character is likely to be standing in the shadow. When the environment is given an equal or greater weight than the actor, it, of course, creates a fatalistic, hopeless mood. There is nothing the protagonist can do, the city will outlast and negate even his best efforts.
The delay between perception and action as one cognitively processes the affect created by the ambiguous noir image of unfathomable depth and unfathomable darkness is a temporal equivalent, I submit, to that visual metaphor which T. S. Eliot, in “The Hollow Men” (1925), calls ‘the Shadow’:
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
Between the desire
And the spasm
Falls the Shadow
The delay between perceiving and acting is, for post-war man, ‘the Shadow’: what is perceived in movies from Citizen Kane and film noir onwards is no longer clear, and thus there can be no pure, innocent jouissance obtained from the spectacle of action. Nothing that one does, now, ‘after Auschwitz’, is innocent and without consequence, and, as W. H. Auden presciently observed in his “New Year Letter” of 1941:
The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
I suspect that the reason M. Deleuze’s time-image all but takes over the cinematic discourse by war’s end is that we are now confronted with images in which masses and masses of bodies lie motionless. The cameras linger in avid horror on the spectacle of sites where atrocious action occurred with fulgurant mechanical speed.
In an image where there is no movement, time, as I said, becomes the salient factor.
And as Ms. Smith observes at 33:45, time now becomes the subject of forties cinema in the same way that space held salience in the cinema of the thirties. More specifically, the extra-temporal narratival structures that come into vogue in the forties, and which are used with such brio in the film noir (the flashback, the voice-over, the superimposition, the dream sequence, etc.), are obsessed with the subject of the past. It is perhaps no coincidence that the greatest film noir references this obsession directly in its title:—Out of the Past (1947).
There is a definite sense of loss, of rift, of irrecoverable rupture in the films of the forties, and I would suggest that when you are confronted with moving images in which there is no movement, in which you are forced to perceive the consequence of human actions on motionless human bodies, these extra-temporal narrative devices which suggest memory and dream serve to supply the missing action, the joyous movement of living bodies that has been cruelly and irrecoverably lost.
But this sense that additional time is now required to parse and process the affect between perception and action is equally present in Italian Neorealism, in the cinema of Ozu, and that of Tarkovsky, who was wise enough to apprehend that the material he was sculpting his films in was not light, but time. As Mr. Sinnerbrink observes, these filmmakers (along with Welles and Renoir, as for instance) are actively seeking to ‘block’ the circuit of the sensory motor-action schema, and a handbrake is applied to narrative momentum through the cinematic strategies they devise to enhance the ambiguous affect of images.
Italian Neorealism, as a European cousin to film noir, employing many of the same cinematic techniques that Hollywood directors would apply to generic thriller material after the war, such as filming on location and employing non-professional ‘actors’ in the commission of their jobs, serves to effectively illuminate this point.
As Mr. Sinnerbrink says, in Italian Neorealism ‘you’ve got characters in an environment they no longer understand. … The faith or belief in how the world should be … has been severely shattered.’
Indeed, as far as action and movement goes, there is an ‘impotence’, oftentimes, displayed by the characters of Neorealism, best exemplified, I think, by De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948). In that film, the ostensible action which drives the entire narrative (and which is so slender a premise that there is really only enough ‘story’ in it to sustain a one-reel silent comedy), the recovery of the stolen bicycle, is abortive, frustratingly unresolved.
Antonio’s ricerca through Rome (we can’t call it a flânerie, nor even the Italian equivalent, a passeggiata, for it’s too existential a trudge to be undertaken for idle pleasure) as he seeks to find his stolen bicycle is essentially a chase through dreams—or a nightmare. It’s as hopeless a quest as waiting for Godot, and that Sig. De Sica should extend so slight an idea for a film into a drama as endless and desolate as Beckett’s gives you a sense of the emotional ‘freight’ that the affective image must now bear, after the war, as it crowds out the perception-image and the action-image, problematizing the one and infinitely delaying the other.
The time-image of post-war cinema is all affect. The delay that is created by problematizing perception and deferring a decisive action in response to it means that more time is required by the spectator to scrutinize the ambiguous image and decide how he feels about what he is seeing. Paul Schrader says this about the famous shot in De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), in which the camera holds for nearly thirty seconds upon a simple action—the striking of a match:
It was no longer about the activity of striking a match, it was about how long are you going to sit to watch? The filmmaker is using the power of cinema itself against itself to get you into a sense that you have to participate.
Moreover, as Kogonada observes in his video essay “What is Neorealism?”, in comparing David O. Selznick’s cut of Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953) side-by-side with De Sica’s own cut of the same film, Terminal Station (1953), we can easily see that Sig. De Sica consistently employs a narrative/editorial strategy of holding longer on shots, withholding the cut, allowing the camera to linger on extras whose stories we never get to explore, after the main characters have left the frame.
In other words, in Sig. De Sica’s version, the chronotopic setting for the foreground drama, the warp and weft of life that surrounds and enfolds the fiction, is allowed, in Neorealism, to ‘billow in’, like a curtain breathed upon by a gentle breeze, and fill the vacuum temporarily left by the absence of the characters after they have left the frame.
The action of striking the match is perhaps more neatly illustrative of my point, but both techniques partake of a general variety of narrative strategies in cinematic storytelling that privileges the time-image over the movement-image after World War II. That is, as an action that can be photographed, the striking of the match is no longer miraculous as a movement. The match fails to light. It requires a repetition—two repetitions, and they both fail. It requires even a second match and a fourth attempt before the maid in Umberto D. can light the stove.
The time it takes to perform an action is now the spectacle. It’s no longer the movement as an act in space, but the duration of the movement, as an act across time, that becomes visually salient and significant.
And perhaps we can even say that the difficulty of performing an action successfully becomes significant, since there seems to be a misalignment in the maid’s sensory motor-action schema, a momentary misalignment between perception and action before the final, successful striking of the match. In the fraught post-war world, not even the most simple actions (which the cinema of the thirties would have taken for granted) are as obviously simple as they appear.
And applied more broadly to the world beyond the narrative, longer shots which invite a chronotopic reality, redundant to the narrative, to enter and take up compositional space in time as the ‘white space’ of shadow does visually, means that the duration of a film becomes, in the forties, co-extensive with space: As a physical object, the film becomes longer, just as it becomes temporally longer.
Mr. Bordwell notes that forties films, with their obsessive preoccupations with time, now start to aim for a ‘novelistic density’, but he doesn’t notice this point, viz.—that if we accept the premise that thirties movement cinema is a cinema of spectacular theatrical display, the spatial extension of the image is one of length and width, like a framed painting, or like a play framed by the proscenium. But in the forties, cinema becomes, like the novel, a truly temporal art-form where the extension is into the experience of time—the time it requires to apprehend and appreciate the artwork.
The ‘thickness’ of a novel is an index for its temporal, experiential dimension. Likewise, the physical ‘length’ of a piece of film becomes indexical for its time relation. When directors like De Sica, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Renoir and Welles slow down their shots, add frames which freight the film with additional ambiguous affect, problematizing perception and delaying action, what can be potentially discovered in the frame by a self-directed spectator thrown back on his own resources of deciding ‘what to look at’ becomes, potentially, experientially infinite. Like a novel one periodically rereads, discovering something new each time, returning to a film whose spatial extension of length and width is predicated on the time-image now becomes a flânerie through un jardín de los senderos que se birfurcan.
What Mr. Sinnerbrink calls ‘a loss of faith in the world’ which the characters of Neorealism (and film noir) feel is really a loss of faith in the visible appearances of the world. The time-image is deeply sceptical of indexical appearances; hence its ambiguity. A direct line can be traced from the disappeared bike in Ladri di biciclette to the disappearing body in Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), and from Antonio’s impotent quest to recover his bike to utterly abortive quests for meaning, like Jack Nicholson’s odyssey in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975).
The disappearing body of Blowup completely defies a semiotic, indexical interpretation of reality, a 1:1 relationship between image and world—which is a relationship the movement-image confidently assumes.
The pre-war confidence of the movement-image is permanently displaced by the post-war uncertainty that things are what they appear, and that we may act confidently on the report of our senses, a sensibility which is implicit in the time-image.
That seems to be the lesson of World War II: the apparently innocent joy of modern, mechanized movement done at dizzying speed ultimately produces piles of lifeless bodies.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the conception
And the creation
Falls the Shadow
To return more fully to film noir, which, in exercising a particularly nihilistic brush over generic mystery and thriller material, deals by metaphorical displacement with ‘the baffling crime’ of the Second World War, which surrounds everyone and implicates everyone in the forties, we begin to understand the chronotope of lounge time, the necessity for the compromised respite which transient, shared public spaces provide a traumatized and displaced American population.
In the lounge, we drown ourselves in drink and try to fumigate our brains with cigarettes, exorcising them temporarily of the devils we have seen and been. The lounge itself is a site and a period of delay: it too is a Shadow—but a welcome one. The shadows outside the bar, ‘the situation of our time’ which is the circumambient night and the threatening city of film noir, are a purgatorial holocaust we must trudge through when we have used up our ‘money time’, this moment of flâneurial ease between chapters of anxious hustling out there.
Film noir is not a genre in this understanding; it is an allegory. Film noir is a set of stylistic, æsthetic cinematic strategies and conventions which are visually applied to generic mystery and thriller material in such a way as to displace and disguise crime movies as cathartic allegories for the all-enveloping ‘Big Crime’ of modernity, the master chronotope that is the Second World War.
We think—wrongly, at this historical pass, because the conventions of noir have been so disgustingly abused by subsequent generations of filmmakers with no generational experience of all-encompassing crime and trauma and guilt—that film noir was a much more codified æsthetic movement than it was. Even if the term ‘film noir’ was unheard of in America until just before the end of the classic cycle, surely the filmmakers who created this very visually and narratively distinctive body of films were more conscious of what they were doing than they were.
But why should they be if, as I am arguing here, film noir is kind of cathartic allegory, an æsthetic penance by which one exorcises the unforgotten but deeply repressed memory of all those lifeless bodies whose joyous movement one has curtailed in wartime?
In his conversation with Ms. Lucca and Ms. Smith, Mr. Bordwell states that his research has positively shown that in the forties ‘mystery’, as a generic category, became a kind of ‘meta-genre’, that there was a craze in 1940’s Hollywood cinema to inject an element of mystery into almost every other kind of generic story. Although he doesn’t reference Citizen Kane directly, this is the best possible example of the prototypical film noir that isn’t a film noir, a mystery story where the mystery isn’t ‘Whodunnit?’ but, ‘What is the meaning of “Rosebud”?’
In fine, ‘mystery’ becomes a ludic device that structures narrative in forties films. In other words, an impression of ambiguity which disrupts straightforward narrative perception and action—and the affect of anxiety that this delayed resolution produces in the audience—comes to the foreground in how audiences of the forties experience narrative (which is to say, as a subjective interpretation of reality).
This makes sense. If the world around you is in epic upheaval, epic disruption due to war, making sense of what you see around you and knowing how to act appropriately becomes a business of plumbing mystery. As I said with respect to Antonioni, a semiotic sensemaking strategy, assuming that things are actually consubstantial with how they appear, is not necessarily a successful means of navigating a salience landscape of totalizing, existential disruption.
I would argue that people in the forties are essentially so traumatized by the split between appearances and actions that they are primed to accept mystery as an affective temporal dimension to cinematic images. If the perception-image is point A and the action-image is point B, audiences after 1940 become progressively primed to accept that there is a third point between appearances and actions which the films of the thirties elide, and this third, temporal point is the realm of ‘mystery’.
In some sense, the ‘lining’ of a mystery story, the true, unperceived actions which animate it, occur in another, interstitial dimension of the cinematic narrative between the perceptions and actions the narrative consciously notices as images and scenes registered on film. Which is to say that there is ‘lost’ or ‘missing time’ which makes the narrative-as-film necessarily ambiguous, and hence ‘mysterious’.
And this interstitial dimension often coincides with those ‘extra-temporal’ narrative devices which are such a salient structuring feature of film noir: the flashback, the voice-over, the superimposition, and the dream sequence.
Moreover, it is precisely these innovative cinematic techniques which the film noir avails itself of and uses more adroitly than any other type of film in the 1940’s which makes it a kind of ‘avant-garde cinema’ during the cycle of the classic period. As Mr. Bordwell points out, the widespread adoption of mystery as a meta-generic narrative style in the forties means that generic thriller material now becomes consequentially respectable as something to exercise your cinematic chops on, and (as film noir’s symbiotic association with the B-picture demonstrates), the making of thrillers becomes a cheap, effective way for filmmakers (especially young filmmakers) to demonstrate the scope of what they can creatively do with film form.
In fine, as I argued above, rather than being a genre in itself, film noir applies a set of æsthetic visual strategies, cinematic techniques and conventions which have their own chronotopic freight to generic narrative material. A generic crime story, a mystery or a thriller becomes ‘noir’ when a certain visual æsthetic is applied to it: unique to this visual æsthetic as to no other that I know of is a certain chronotopic weight which determines, as I said in my response to Pamela’s post, the nature and the kinds of stories that can be told in settings which are painted with the brush of noir.
In other words, this set of æsthetic visual strategies, cinematic techniques and conventions as a chronotopic meta-setting directly affects the foreground narrative. The types of photogenic and cinematic techniques that filmmakers apply to photograph the places, whether they be settings on a soundstage or actual locations, that constitute the typical locales of film noir in the 1940’s directly impacts the nature of the generic crime story that can be told against such spatiotemporal backgrounds.
In a sense, the visual choices foreclose other narrative choices, dictating the kinds of postmodern narrative devices that can satisfactorily accompany such an avant-garde visual style, narrative devices which are verisimilar to the avant-garde æsthetic. A film consequently becomes ‘noir’ because the dark visual treatment forecloses other narrative options and dictates the kinds of characters who can emerge in a locale painted with the brush of noir, the kinds of situations that can develop in such a place and time, and ultimately the kinds of stories that can be told by the dynamic interrelation of characters with each other, and with the setting.
Moreover, this totalizing visual æsthetic, with its potent photogenic affect, creates the fundamental conditions for the ambiguous time-image, which is so essential to film noir.
Finally, to return to my original premise, how does lounge time, as the organizing chronotopic principle of film noir, the visual æsthetic which carries the seed of the time-image implicit within it, relate to flâneurial cinema?
Well, as I said at the beginning, the clue is in the name that Ms. Sobchack gives to her concept: lounge time suggests a space that is simultaneously temporal, and a period of easeful respite from anxious wandering that is simultaneously a physical site of rest. It suggests an extra-temporal, interstitial realm or dimension, a place and an hour of ‘luxe, calme et volupté.’
The oisiveté of M. Baudelaire’s credo of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ is the beatific condition to which the flâneur aspires. And yet, like the harried, displaced protagonists of film noir, his condition of dandiacal poverty, the existential stress of being a ‘man of leisure’ on no private income, means that he must trudge on ‘à travers le grand désert des hommes’ just as the hopeless losers of film noir must trudge on through the asphalt jungle.
An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. With each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grow the temptations of shops, of bistros, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next streetcorner, of a distant mass of foliage, of a street name. Then comes hunger. Our man wants nothing to do with the myriad possibilities offered to sate his appetite. Like an ascetic animal, he flits through unknown districts—until, utterly exhausted, he stumbles into his room, which receives him coldly and wears a strange air.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Convolute M: “The Flâneur”
We crave the lounge, the place and time of leisure and pleasure, that womb-like matrix where the two intersect. And, as for M. Baudelaire, that terrestrial heaven is not only the place and time we would invite our daughter, our sister, the Elected One of our soul to join us in, but it is a place and time that is eminently feminine and consubstantial with her. That place of timeless ease is the eternal Her.
I said at the start that flâneurial cinema, in contradistinction to the implicit æsthetic of cinema itself as a modern art-form predicated on mechanical speed, is pedestrian and tied to the slow rhythm of the foot. As such, flâneurial cinema is entirely predicated on the time-image: the movement of walking itself, while being an extension into space, is far less salient than the qualitative experience of walking, which is an extension of movement into duration.
Mr. Sinnerbrink has a couple of interesting tournures which are instructive on this point. At 14:11 of his conversation with Mr. Saunders he says: ‘With Ozu and with Orson Welles (others as well, like Jean Renoir), what you get are images that no longer are strictly driven by the narrative purpose, but start to take on a kind of descriptive function’ [my emphasis]. And again, at 22:28, he refers to ‘pure optical and sound descriptions’ [my emphasis].
We’re told, in classical screenwriting theory (as in writing more generally), that one should ‘show not tell’. The movement-image is all show. But the time-image, I submit, is the visual equivalent of a passage of description in literature: it doesn’t necessarily advance the well-oiled machine of the plot as the movement-image does, but, as Kogonada effectively demonstrates in his video essay on De Sica, describes something of the chronotopic reality which enfolds the drama.
The time-image, in fine, ‘tells us’ something about the nature of the world which is auxiliary to the drama, ‘redundant’, even, by the standards of a classical, mechanical cinema predicated on the movement-image.
And thus, if flâneurial cinema is entirely predicated on the time-image, it is entirely predicated on what Mr. Sinnerbrink calls these ‘pure optical and sound descriptions’ which are not ‘strictly driven by the narrative purpose’. Like the lounge, these extended moments which ‘describe’ the chronotopic actuality of the world are moments of rest, of pause, images which allow the eye to flâneurially explore the frame at ease.
Mr. Schrader calls it ‘leveraging boredom’, and certainly I know from personal experience that my films and videos, with their static setups and long takes looking at nothing, the void of empty spaces at dead hours of dawn or dusk, late afternoon and late night, the times of day (as in film noir) when the conditions of light impose their own æsthetic mood on places, are an ‘acquired taste’.
Some people don’t get these paradises of rest and are deeply bored by them. But I know, from having screened some of these films and videos in Melbourne and elsewhere, that for most people the rigorous simplicity of my technique, my foregrounding of the time-image and eschewal of the movement-image, produces a ‘restful’ effect of respite that contrasts pleasantly with the work of other filmmakers who are more focused on people, and the human dramas which take place against these chronotopic backgrounds.
I rarely move the camera, and thus spatial extension of the world (that is, what is visible within the frame) becomes temporal extension: a corner of the world regarded fixedly over time. Moreover, as the soundscapes of my films and videos are wholly invented, like these extra-temporal narrative devices in film noir which evoke the dimensions of time and memory and dream, the imagined aural landscape in and beyond the world delimited by the frame makes the image extend both in space and in time—into the imagination of the audience.
Ultimately, perhaps, it is the extra-temporal dimension of the imagination which the flâneur seeks, a place outside of space and time where he can quit his walk and permanently rest, content that le nouveau will infinitely find and refresh him there.
And having taken you, dear, indulgent readers, at bayonet-point on an epic flânerie through several disparate quartiers of my mental geography, let us turn in at this place and rest our dogs.
Some recent visitors to this vlog have decried the lack of a “Donate” button at the bottom of my posts. I prefer to give value for value, so if you’d like to signal your appreciation for what I write, I’d like to give you something of lasting value in exchange for your support. I’ve made the soundtrack of the abridged version of “Invitation to a murder” featured in my video essay available for purchase, streaming and download via my artist profile on Bandcamp, so for $A2.00 (make it more, if you like) you can have permanent access to the track.
Put me on your pod or phone, and then, when you need a moment of respite from the hurly-burly of the world, check in to my imaginary lounge and let my words lull you into a momentary place of restful ease. Just click the “Buy” link below, or feel free to “Share” the track with a friend.