Special shout-out to one of my readers in Brisbane, Mr. Glen Available of Scenic Writers Shack. Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the fulfilment of the infinitely delayed promise to Mr. Glen that the third instalment in my ongoing series of extracts from the novel I am currently writing, set in what he describes as ‘Australia’s third best city’, would be delivered ‘soon(ish)’.
‘Soon(ish)’, for me, evidently means eighteen months after Episode 2—but in my defence, Your Honour, I plead extenuating circumstances and throw myself upon the mercy of the Court. As I explain in the video above, I was all set to shoot Episode 3 at Broadford, or Seymour, or some equally picturesque spot in the vicinity of same, in March of last year when the Coronavirus caused us all to slam down steel shutters everywhere.
I never got to Broadford, but I think the universe was saving the video for a more suitably picturesque locale—the beautiful San Remo, a mere bridge-span from the world-famous Phillip Island, which you can just see behind me in the video.
I only had to get through three lockdowns (including one last week at San Remo itself) before circumstances finally smiled upon me and I had the perfect opportunity to shoot this video. Perfect, that is, except for the light shower you see occasionally moistening your Melbourne Flâneur, who was sans his trademark trenchcoat because the BOM promised him a sunny day!
The excerpt I read in the video is set in the Pig ’n’ Whistle, a veritable Brisbane institution with venues all over town. I was in the Brunswick street pub, in Fortitude Valley, one evening, debriefing my brains with my journal, when I happened to look up and see a scene from John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) playing, silently, on the TV in the corner of the bar. It was the scene where Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones are enjoying una bella giornata on the terrace of an Italian villa, and no twist of fate could have pleased me more than to have an opportunity to regale you with my blow-by-blow analysis of Bogie’s textbook seduction with the Italianate backdrop of San Remo and Phillip Island alle spalle.
I hope it was worth the eighteen-month wait.
Eighteen months to go from 62 per cent completion of the second draft to 91 per cent might seem, to the blissfully uninitiated, a rather leisurely pace of literary production. What was, when I last updated you in this post, a novella of less than 40,000 words has, in that time, crossed the Rubicon into novel territory and is now advancing on 60,000 words. It’s been a difficult project for me since its commencement more than four years ago, and it’s only since February last year, when I finished revising and rewriting the section I share with you in the video, that I’ve really started to get a firm handle on this project.
Mr. Glen, in a recent post on his blog, admits—stout fellow—that he hasn’t the stamina for the marathon which is novel-writing. It’s a brave admission. But you may as well say that you haven’t the strength to write a book, for whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the discipline of long-form writing is the same, and I would argue that the literary demands of non-fiction are as great, if not greater, than those of fiction.
Even I, after five books, went through a dark period just a few years ago, when this story was still in the infancy of its second draft, where I came to the sobering conclusion that it would die stillborn with me and I would never publish another book. Like Glen, I feared I hadn’t the strength and stamina to write in the tens of thousands of words anymore.
Fortunately, I recovered my mojo pour les mots, and though, having just passed my thirty-eighth lap of the sun last month, I find my physical energy for the mental exertion of writing is appreciably less than it was when I was 28, or 18, I nevertheless feel, as a writer, that I’m just coming into my prime.
It’s a strange intimation from the universe, for I’ve made no renovations in my style; that, I think, was set in stone by the age of thirty. Rather, I think, a writer, as he ages, uses his voice more adroitly. What he has to say and how he says it more seamlessly dovetails into one another; and perhaps, like all artists whose late styles have a loose, bravura freedom about them, a sense of the elegant essence of their youthful style now unconstrained—like Henry James in his late novels, for instance—there is more efficiency in how what an aging writer has to say dovetails with the way in which he says it.
Oy vey, that was a rather late-Jamesian sentence. But to summarize: the two, in other words, are more firmly and happily wedded.
The exigencies of being a businessman, of hiring my Montblanc out aux autres, of course eats into one’s time and energy for one’s own writing, but if anything, the mid-life rigours of running my pen on the rationalistic basis of a business has put infrastructure and processes under my own writing process, so that, even if I still sweat blood over every word I commit myself to, trying to make it le seul mot juste, I’m still more efficient than I was when I practised my art merely for art’s own sake.
And when, during our epic second lockdown in Melbourne, the decline in confidence correlated with a dip in demand for my personal services, I had not just the free time but the infrastructure and processes in place to really advance this work in progress—along with all my other artistic projects.
You’ll have to peel off my fingernails one by one to get me to admit there’s any good in lockdowns, but for writers or anyone else who is the least artistically inclined, I can offer this from my own experience of house arrest: Treat your art in a business-like manner and develop an infrastructure and internal processes for managing your time and assessing your progress. For when something like a four-month lockdown comes along, it’s manna from heaven in terms of making day-to-day progress on your projects.
And this commitment to day-to-day doing, I think, is the essential difference between being ‘an author’ and being ‘a writer’.
I first heard Hunter S. Thompson advance this line of reasoning many years ago, and it stuck with me. I don’t remember where I read it, but it may have been in The Rum Diary (1959). You can be the author of a book, he said, without necessarily being a writer. It doesn’t necessarily require any literary predisposition to be the author of a published book—and I can say without any irony or glib disparagement that the publishing landscape of today amply justifies Mr. Thompson’s view.
Of course, on deeper examination, the equation balances the other way, too: you can be a writer without necessarily being an author. But that realization is less revelatory than the one implicit in Mr. Thompson’s distinction between writers and authors.
And that realization is this: The fundamental difference between being a writer and being an author can be boiled down to the grammatical difference between being someone who does something and someone who has done something, between the present-tense act of writing itself and the past-tense achievement of having written a book which has then been published.
I’ve never forgotten how my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Foley, drummed into us the notion that the ‘-er’ and ‘-or’ suffixes mean ‘one who’—one who does something in the present tense. A writer, therefore, is ‘one who writes’.
But, English being a devil of a language, it doesn’t quite work the other way around. An author is not ‘one who auths’.
Shakespearean as it sounds, ‘to auth’ is not an occupation; it’s not even a verb. And yet to be ‘an author’ of a book signifies a past-tense achievement, some work that has been written and has been crowned with the ultimate literary laurel of publication, but which does not indicate that the individual in question is presently engaged in literary labours.
Having published five books, I guess I have the right to call myself ‘an author’, to rest on those laurels, but if I firmly believe, as I said in my last post, that a man is what he does, it follows that he isn’t what he has done.
It gets philosophical here, for at some fundamental level, to do is to be. When an animal stops doing, it dies. And then it stops being. The same with a man. When we stop engaging with all the living passion of our being in the creative activities which define us and instead sit in the empire of our past achievements, we’re as good as done.
In the dark days when I seriously thought my days of ‘authoring’ were over and I wouldn’t have the distinction to call myself an author on a sixth day of my life, the work in progress on that day being achevé, my thoughts born and holdable in my hands as a book, the only thought that cheered me was the notion that the doing is the thing.
We confuse being ‘a writer’ with being ‘an author’, the doing with the done, and consequently place too much value on publication as the quantifiable, verifiable product of our labours, when really it is the present-tense production of words, written by our own hands on pages, that signifies the ‘one who’ activity of being a writer.
As Jasmine B. Ulmer observes in her journal article “Writing Slow Ontology” (2017), there is an ontology, a specific mode of being coupled with this activity of doing. One isn’t a writer when one has ‘done’ the writing, but as one does it. The internal economy of the being who writes is connected, in that present-tense activity, with the words that pour out of his hand, thought and act being uniquely united in the process of writing.
And the awareness that there is a unique ontology to my profession and my art-form, that there is a unique mode of being in this doing which I do for its own sake, day by day, drawing slowly, inexorably, and with hope and faith towards the single day when what I am writing is done and published—but never counting on that day, never taking it for granted as a given vouchsafed by God—is particularly relevant to what I write; to what I have to say as a writer; and how I say it through my style.
This work in progress, like all my books, being a Sistine Chapel I’m always on my back to, the tirelessly retouched tableau of days of my life first sketched in the pages of my journal, is the infinitely rewritten act of that first writing, and therefore of experiences and sensations which my being actually did and had done to it.
And when it comes to the question of why a man would waste whole days of his life (as it might seem to denser souls) tirelessly rewriting in successive drafts the history of minute acts and experiences in other days of his life, the answer is circularly resolved by the ontology of the craft: I am a writer, and writing is what I do.
I look forward in hope and faith to the day when I can say this work is done and I can share with you the whole story of a few minutes of my life when a woman gave me a strange revelation between her legs, one which has always stuck with me as a tale I owed it to her soul, her being, as much as to my own, to tell—a modest testament to what James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), calls ‘the reality of experience’.
But if I were to meet with an accident before the work was achevé, that day of doneness when, mother unburdened of her travail, and I could call myself, for the sixth time, ‘an author’, I would feel more sanguine about the prospect than I used to as a younger man. Franz Kafka died a writer rather than an author and couldn’t even finish the three novels upon which his reputation rests. Indeed, he ordered his friend, Max Brod, to burn his writings, the evidence of his peculiar being on this plain, which must have seemed to him a hilarious hell.
The doing was enough for him. He would have been joyously, beatifically content if we had lost the evidence of his unique being. Achievement and the past-tense plaudits of publication were anathema to Herr Kafka’s perverse soul.
So I say to other writers who, as I do, despair of finishing what they start, the doing is the thing. Be a writer and let the achievement of your project take care of itself in the doing of your days.
I’ve observed elsewhere on The Melbourne Flâneur the intimate (though not obvious) relation between the writer and the dandy, between the man of letters who precisely crafts his persona through the stylish arrangement of words and the man of fashion who precisely crafts his image through the stylish arrangement of clothes.
While intimate, I say the relationship between these two artists is not obvious because, on the one hand, words and images are diametrically opposed, with a genius in the literary field rarely transferring to the visual (and vice versa), and because, on the other hand, there is simply nothing obvious about the dandy.
More amorphous, more contradictory, more paradoxical even than the woman, the dandy is a circle impossible to square, and no writer on the philosophy of fashion has yet or ever will define the full economy of his androgynous yet über-masculine soul.
The abiding difficulty in defining the dandy is that these men who so scrupulously define the rules of fashion for other men are always the exception to the rule. That is perhaps the only definite thing we can say about them.
And one of their chief paradoxes is that they strive with a supermanly effort to appear absolutely effortless. This is like the writer whose finished work does not reveal the sweat of labour, the enormous volume of words written and culled behind the final, perfect selection and arrangement.
Laziness (or at least its scrupulously maintained appearance) is both a charge leveled at the dandy and the ultimate æsthetic end that he aspires to. The same charge is often leveled at writers: our labour, despite being a manual handicraft, is almost purely mental, and we are often accused (not unfairly) of paresse by the brawny menials who do not imagine that a man can sweat in his study from the labour of lifting and laying the bricks of words, arranging them in vast cathedrals of thought.
‘L’arte che nasconde l’arte’—‘the art that conceals art’: this was the pre-eminent virtue of sprezzatura that il Signor Castiglione ascribed to his ideal courtier, and the dandy, as the democratic gentleman descended from the Renaissance nobleman of Castiglione’s time, shares with the writer both the desire and the necessity to hide his pains of effort off-stage. His performance is entirely a rehearsal. Only the finished capolavoro goes before him, trundling onto stage like the Trojan Horse, dead and done, but not empty of the animating spirit which will take the agape spectators by storm.
Thus, as diametrically as these two arts are opposed to one another, it is no surprise that the one labour (other than the narcissistic cultivation of himself) that is fit to cause the dandy to turn up his French cuffs and get down to it is the work of writing. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda write in Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989): ‘… [I]f the dandy is æsthetic and self-concerned, his natural affiliation with professions is only with the poet, the artist, or the writer.’
It’s a perfect profession for a man whose ultimate badge of virtue is to be accused of the social vice of dilettantisme: let’s face it, most jokers who call themselves writers are lazy dilettantes who never publish a word. The boulot takes place so deeply undercover that one may safely maintain one’s front before society as an unredeemable wastrel indefinitely.
M. Proust, a spy in the houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and, by his own unstinting self-recriminations, the laziest man to ever write a novel, got away with this deception for years before his cover as a social butterfly was blown.
So you see, dear readers, abstruse as my connection between the man of words and the man of (self-)images is, it is not sans raison. The abstruseness owes to the indefinable paradoxicality of the dandy who, despite being as defined and definite in his image as the greatest writers are in the words they ultimately choose to represent them, is haloed in an aura which takes nothing away from the high—the highest possible—resolution of his image.
Which leads me to the speculation as to whether there are dandies among film directors. If the dandy is so deeply allied with an artist who is his opposite number in discipline, wouldn’t it stand to better reason to seek him among other men of images?
The contemporary portmanteau of the ‘writer-director’ would lead us to suppose that a reconciliation between les hommes de lettres and les hommes du cinéma exists, but although it is fashionable to speak of the writer-director as the ‘auteur’ of his film, one who wields the ‘caméra-stylo’, we are not comparing apples to apples when we compare these two types of authorial control.
In my last post, I talked about Alain Robbe-Grillet, almost the only novelist to enjoy a second career as a film director. M. Robbe-Grillet expresses the basic temperamental distinction between a writer and a director, for although writers can be extroverted and directors introverted, I would argue (and I think M. Robbe-Grillet tacitly agrees) that the nature of writing is basically introverted, and the nature of film directing is basically extroverted.
This is because one is a solitudinous occupation where authorial control is exercised directly over material and form, and the other is inescapably a social occupation where control is exercised indirectly over people and objects, to whom the various aspects of material and form are delegated.
As M. Robbe-Grillet expresses it: ‘… If I have problems [as a novelist], I have them with myself. Shooting a film is a communal labour, and if I have any problems, I have them not only with myself, but with the actors, with the crew, with the sun, with… the real world.
‘So, in my first film, L’Immortelle , for example, I attempted to constrain all this in order to regain some of the solitude of the writer. I realized very quickly that this was absurd, and in the film I eventually made, I welcomed all these elements: whatever the actors wanted to do, whatever the crew wanted to do, whatever the sun wanted to do, I accepted it.’
This is perhaps the chief reason why the dandy, the man of (self-)images, is deeply allied to the writer but, to my mind at least, almost impossible to find among the ranks of other men of images whose work is pseudo-literary. A director, even if he writes his own film, is less a writer by constitution than a conductor: his art is co-ordinating others in the achievement of a coherent vision.
The dandy is the absolute outlier among men. No type of man is more extreme. Co-operation, co-ordination, collaboration are not among his skills or his interests. A small clique of men inevitably gather around the dandy as around the director, but he publicly tolerates them and privately despises them, for the dandy transcends the primitive hierarchies into which men, both alpha and beta, ridiculously organize themselves. He is not interested in setting trends as a leader of fashion, but fashion inevitably follows him because it—and people—are craven.
Even alpha males.
To wit, see George IV, first among followers of Mr. Brummell.
Like the writer who exercises direct control upon material and form, the dandy exerts direct and imperious control upon the form of himself and the materials he accoutres himself in. It would be as ridiculous for a writer to shape his vision by a committee of lesser peers as a dandy to shape his vision of himself. Both are rugged individualists.
The temperamental predisposition towards introversion, towards narcissistic self-regard and an art that one can directly control, rather than extroversion and an art that one ‘manages’ by social interaction, would explain why one finds dandies among writers but not, it seems, among directors. As interior designer Nicky Haslam puts it: ‘It seems clear that the dyed-in-the-wool dandy—as opposed to the merely dandified, the “nattily dressed”—is, au fond, an introvert.’
Three things would seem, to my mind, to define the dandy-as-director, and I can’t find an exemplar who satisfies my three criteria conclusively. A predisposition to introversion is the first. An iron will to total æsthetic control similar to that displayed by the most ruthless writer is the second. And third is what we know the dandy by: an obsessive love of men’s clothes.
Let’s take the last first, for it is the most difficult criterion to satisfy, and the one, I think, where all the possible contenders I will name appear to fall down.
Our authority on this rare man’s pathological love of fashion is Thomas Carlyle, who, in Sartor Resartus (1833-4), provides the best working definition of the dandy at the birth of the movement. The dandy, according to Mr. Carlyle, is ‘a man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecrated to the wearing of Clothes wisely and well: so that as others dress to live, he lives to dress.’
We see at once that this primary occupation does not interfere substantially with the less taxing pursuits of the leisured intellectual gent, such as penning the odd verse in idle minutes between social engagements which put this heroic peacock on the stage of life. Indeed, quite the contrary: for as every tradesman must have his uniform, the ensemble of jacket, trousers and waistcoat is as much the uniform of the man who manipulates his pen in elegant endeavours as the businessman who operates it in pragmatic and profitable ones.
Wearing the suit, the uniform of the dandy, therefore, does not interfere, as a primary vocation, with the avocation of the writer. It need not necessarily interfere with that of the film director, either, but I cannot find a man among men of film who consecrates his life above all to being elegant in every breath of his life, whether on location in the dark heart of Africa or on a Hollywood soundstage.
The uniform of the film director, stereotypically, is the one given us by Cecil B. DeMille in his conquering youth. It is the flat cap (perhaps worn backwards at times in a democratic gesture towards one’s cameraman, who has his eye forever pressed to the viewfinder on our behalf), tweeds, jodhpurs and riding boots—maybe even the extravagant detail of a riding crop.
The ridiculous anachronism of attempting to look like an English country gentleman on a blazing Hollywood backlot is eminently dandistic, but it falls more in Mr. Haslam’s category of being ‘dandified’ and ‘nattily dressed’ than looking good at every instant for some slavish, private religious purpose.
But I don’t use the words ‘extravagant detail’ lightly in reference to the riding crop. Extravagant details whose practical purpose are obscure define the whole uniform outlined above. One no more knows who or what the director plans to whip with the anachronistic crop than what he plans to ride with his anachronistic jodhpurs and boots.
Extravagant details whose practical function as working uniform are novel, innovative, and even obscure define the dandy, and we see examples of these extravagant details in the working uniforms of directors who are certainly dandified if not actual dandies.
For example, the most dandified director in the world today has to be David Lynch. He has such a recognizable personal style that it appears even in his films—in the proxies who stand in for him, like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986). The eccentric detail of the collar button done up sans cravate which Mr. Lynch affects at times transcends the nerdish faux pas of fashion it would be for most other men because the eccentricity belies a practical purpose which is obscure to the rest of us.
According to Mr. Lynch, he hates the feel of wind on his collar bone, and hence he buttons his shirts up to choking point—a personal eccentricity he bequeaths to any character in his films who stands in for him.
But the mania for a warm chest goes even further than that. So high-strung is Mr. Lynch that in his youth he affected the doubly eccentric and dandyish detail of wearing not one but three neckties as a foulard to keep his sensitive collar bone warm.
The image of a man wearing triple neckties may be absurd so that we wonder if he is the victim or the bold setter of some obscure fashion which has bypassed us, but key to understanding the dandy’s sway over other men is the knowledge that all his novel and innovative sartorial choices stem from some practical consideration of comfort which is personal to him.
Just as Gianni Agnelli—a genuine dandy—affected the eccentric habitude of wearing his wristwatch over his sleeve—(a fashion faux pas so thunderingly obtuse that it boldly doubled as a brilliant time and motion innovation for the busy head of Fiat to affect)—the uniquely personal considerations of comfort that dandies make only become stale form when they are cravenly imitated by men, clueless about fashion, who take their personal eccentricities as general edicts.
As far as I know, the triple necktie as foulard has not caught on. That unique eccentricity in personal style as well as Mr. Lynch’s high-strung nature might qualify him as the closest contender for a dandy among living directors that I know of—for one cannot be a dandy without being as high-strung and neurotic as a thoroughbred.
But even though nowadays he affects the black suit, white shirt and black tie of Alfred Hitchcock as his unvarying uniform, I do not know that Mr. Lynch anymore than Mr. Hitchcock is slavishly devoted to the suit as high art.
In my post “A writer’s style”, I quoted approvingly the opinion of Messrs. Martin and Koda that a man’s dress signifies his ‘operational identity’: as men, we are our professional rôles, and one of our highest masculine virtues is to make who we are indistinguishable from what we do. A man is the uniform he wears in life.
Of all directors, Mr. Hitchcock is the one who best worked out an operational identity for himself early on, one which involved the democratic uniform of the professional man, the suit. The funereal combination of black suit, white shirt and black tie which Mr. Hitchcock typically affected not merely consolidated his operational identity as head man on-set, but the operational identity of his lugubrious public persona—which was as much a put-on as his suit.
This was an operational necessity for as neurotic an introvert as Mr. Hitchcock. For as much as he was a commanding Leo, one of that extravagant, limelight-loving breed fit to dominate a film set, one derives two abiding impressions from reading the early pages of John Russell Taylor’s Hitch (1978) and Patrick MacGilligan’s A Life in Darkness and Light (2004).
The first is that the shy, lonely young Hitchcock might not have gotten his chance to direct had he not put on the extroverted front of continually putting himself forward with feigned confidence for jobs he had no prior experience at. The second is that, in the early days of his English career, his association with a certain type of film we now associate with his name and image was more a product of chance than inward inclination towards darkness.
There’s almost nothing in Mr. Hitchcock’s background to suggest that he would become, as Jean-Luc Godard called him, the only poète maudit to achieve commercial success in his own lifetime. The early output of the future Master of Suspense is more varied than that princely title allows, and his career could have gone in any number of directions if he had not hit on a repeatably bankable formula early on.
And the formula, the poetry of bizarre, nail-biting images in fulgurant succession, is of course a rhyme for that distinctive silhouette which appears as a signature in the corner of each of his films, the portly, soberly-suited trickster. Mr. Hitchcock in his very appearance was the type of film he made. Life, he once complained, typecasts us: according to him, his inward suavity of spirit would have been better suited to the outward shell of Cary Grant.
He had the introverted dandy’s necessity of an extroverted operational identity, a uniform which was distinctive and inimitable, but one which equally commanded respect on the set. The funereal suit and tie ensemble gave Mr. Hitchcock an appearance somewhere between a bank manager and an undertaker, and the implications of sobriety and discretion in that uniform, of honest, well-balanced books, of loved ones precisely and delicately attended to, indicates my second criterion: almost no director exerts as ruthless and singular a control over every detail of his image—at least, as the images of his films are his image in the popular imaginary—than Alfred Hitchcock.
The suit suits him. This symbol of masculine rectitude and rationality, clothes precisely designed by rule and compass, is eminently suitable for a director who emerged from the ranks of production designers, and whose training and only job outside films was in engineering.
As British fashion critic Colin McDowell says in his book The Anatomy of Fashion (2013), ‘The true dandy … sees dress as an expression of highly masculine qualities, such as precision, consideration and respect. … Dandies depend on a rational approach to clothing, relegating all other considerations to making a powerful statement without falling prey to the cardinal sin of ostentation.’
Powerful visual statements, not ostentatious but certainly striking, emerge from the fabric of Mr. Hitchcock’s films, which were always made out of respect and consideration for his audiences. The precision of rational design in the well-cut suit might be seen as an analogy for the way Mr. Hitchcock designed and made his films for people ‘out of whole cloth’, controlling every element with absolute precision, measuring every detail, stitching every shot together to form an ensemble far greater in effect than the sum of its exquisite parts.
David Fincher has described this ruthless authorial control as ‘the iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s style, a sort of overarching échafaudage which protects what’s under it, as a good English suit, for instance, is a kind of armature for the body, repulsing the intemperate English elements. But the iron umbrella of Mr. Hitchcock’s style not only repulses what is external to his creative vision, it also suffocates any spontaneous input from others who are under it.
Even as late as his last film, Family Plot (1976), when he was working with the long-haired, bearded contemporaries of Spielberg and Lucas, young technicians going to work on Mr. Hitchcock’s set were discreetly advised at the commencement that a suit and tie, rather than T-shirt and jeans, would be the de rigueur uniform at all times.
The genteel uniform of the professional man was eminently suitable for Mr. Hitchcock’s ruthlessly regulated, standardized style of filmmaking, which some actors and technicians described as like ‘working in a bank’: Mr. Hitchcock’s phobia for the impromptu had caused him to prepare so well in advance that one could safely start at nine and leave the set each day at six.
But if he had the dandy’s introversion and iron-clad control of details, what lets Mr. Hitchcock out as a dandy, in my view, is that his passion appears to have been for women’s wardrobe rather than for men’s.
Legion are the examples of the exacting requirements he had for his leading ladies’ couture. As resoundingly silent is the record on what he specified for his men. To his eternal credit, Mr. Hitchcock does have what has been justly called ‘the greatest suit of all time’ in one of his films, the famous—and much-abused—grey Kilgour sported by Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959). About eleven copies of this suit were required to film the cropduster sequence alone. But it is believed that Mr. Hitchcock, who regarded Mr. Grant as a cut above the usual cattle he had to wrangle on-set and trusted his judgment in most matters implicitly, allowed him a free hand in commissioning the suit from his tailor, Kilgour French and Stanbury of Savile Row.
This is in contrast with the control he exerted over his leading ladies’ deportment. No expense was spared to repeatedly secure the services of Edith Head as ladies’ costume designer on his films. Miss Head reported that, like James Stewart in Vertigo (1958), the gentleman knew what he wanted: perhaps owing to his background in design, Mr. Hitchcock was uncommonly well-informed in matters of women’s fashion and demanded the famous grey suit for Kim Novak despite Miss Head’s protests that grey was not a blonde’s colour and would make her look washed out.
That was precisely the ghostly effect he wanted.
He personally escorted Eva Marie Saint to Bergdorf Goodman in New York and selected her wardrobe for North by Northwest. He also had Christian Dior design Marlene Dietrich’s costumes for Stage Fright (1950). Mr. Hitchcock was fond of quoting the playwright Sardou’s maxim that in drama one should always ‘torture the women’. M. Dior, who was as fastidious about details as Mr. Hitchcock and tended to erect an iron umbrella of his own about the feminine silhouette, would doubtless have concurred with this eternally sage advice.
But while I think there are dandistic elements to Mr. Hitchcock personally, and while his films comport themselves with an idiosyncratic visual style which is dandistic, such that he is often imitated by other directors but never equalled, his predilection for female fashion, which is at irreconcilable odds with masculine style, seems ultimately to disqualify him as a dandy.
His great equal as a visual storyteller, Orson Welles, is even further from the mark than Mr. Hitchcock, though Mr. Welles too has elements of the dandy about him. His affectation of exuberantly-brimmed sombreros and capes—(capes are eminently dandistic)—ought to qualify him on prima facie inspection, but on deeper consideration these are the very things which let him out.
Mr. Welles always reminds me of Oscar Wilde, who is often mistaken for a dandy—and who mistook himself for one. Both are hommes du théâtre, and I think the native extravagance and peacockery of theatre people always counts against them. They evince the kind of ostentation that the true dandy abhors.
There are few cases in cinema of men so pathologically addicted to an art-form that Mr. Welles called ‘the biggest electric train set a boy ever had’ than Orson Welles himself. But despite his addiction, despite the fact that he had cinema in the blood, Mr. Welles was always, first and foremost, a man of the theatre, like Mr. Wilde, with all the vulgar flamboyance, the extroverted ‘larger-than-life-ness’ that no man of the theatre can ever quite get rid of.
It’s always in a stage man’s manner, and you won’t find a single interview with Orson Welles where he is not entertaining, performing for a public audience. It’s charming, but it’s also a straight-up disqualification, for despite his extraordinary vividness, there is no peacockery at all in the genuine dandy: the common mistake that people uninformed on this subject make is to think that because he publicly shines with a special lustre, the dandy, like the man of the stage, is somehow a whore for the spotlight.
Pas du tout.
The dandy’s seductive éclat comes entirely from within. As Philip Mann writes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), ‘… [J]ust as the dandy’s suit is glamorous and his melancholy sombre, so his suit is sombre and his melancholy glamorous.’ The dandy thus burns with a dark, self-consuming light, like a white dwarf.
Mr. Welles’ egotistical extroversion under a veneer of false modesty lets him out. For the same reason, Charles Chaplin is not really a dandy—although his childhood in Dickensian poverty is a crucial psychological plank in the nascent pathology of dandyism. Chaplin, in his later life, is said to have developed a mania for shoes—an obsession which all true dandies will recognize as central to the complex, but which is perhaps more acute in someone who went barefoot through the freezing streets of London in childhood.
The Little Tramp is perhaps what we might call an ‘inverted dandy’—particularly the wing-collar specimen of the genus that Mr. Chaplin portrays in City Lights (1931). While the Little Tramp as archetype is always waging a dandistic war of specious respectability against the grinding reality of his poverty, the Tramp of City Lights goes through the most horrendous crucible of attrition in all of Mr. Chaplin’s œuvre, starting off with wing-collar, boutonnière and a rather snappy bow-tie, and ending up collarless, his bowler mortally wounded, his trousers out-at-arse, and altogether looking the most tragic we will ever see him.
But it’s really the post-Tramp Charlot of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), and A King in New York (1957) who reveals Charlie’s soul-deep pretensions towards aristocracy, not merely as a man of the theatre, but as a waif of the working-class. Dandies always emanate from the lower orders, but rarely from as low as the future Sir Charles did.
This is tacit in the example set by the bourgeois social mountaineer Mr. Brummell, who, as Titan of the Regency, could not have shaken the fashionable firmament of his betters if the English class system was not showing, to his canny eye, the first hairline fissures of encroaching democracy. As M. Baudelaire sagely observed, the phenomenon of dandyism is most pronounced in those transitional periods ‘when democracy is not yet all-powerful and aristocracy is tottering and only partially debased.’
Hence, not so many years after Mr. Brummell died in English disgrace and French exile, a nineteenth-century slum-child and music hall entertainer could become one of our monarch’s knights in the twentieth century. And when I look at the foreign royalty which Mr. Chaplin, with his gorgeous snowy hair and dulcet voice, makes himself over as in A King in New York, I am struck by how much he resembles our present monarch’s despised uncle in old age, the pre-eminent dandy of the twentieth century, the erstwhile Prince of Wales, the erstwhile King Edward VIII, the man who ended his career as the husband of Mrs. Simpson, the Duke of Windsor.
Of all the immortal Charlot’s creations, Henri Verdoux, the æsthete serial killer who makes a genteel art of dispatching wives and defrauding them of their cash, is the most dandistic. If the Little Tramp was a romanticized version of how Mr. Chaplin perceived himself and the grindingly modest Londonian origins from which he sprang, I think that M. Verdoux represents the romanticized version of Mr. Chaplin’s aspirations for himself as a democratic American gentleman with European pretensions.
He’s the creation, I sense, for whom Mr. Chaplin had the most affection, for M. Verdoux is, as the final shot attests, the Little Tramp’s satanic side. As a man whose dark side also encompasses Machiavellian aspirations towards cash, artistic crimes, and the conquest of women—(all in great quantities, for ‘numbers sanctify’)—I also love M. Verdoux for his consummate dandyism, and I must confess an obsession with Charlie’s outfit in that film. The grey chalk-stripe suit, double-breasted waistcoat with shawl lapel, fulsome, billowing cravat, divine pearl Homburg, gloves and walking stick which Charlot affects in his flâneries comprises the perfect uniform for picking up game grisettes as one treads the streets of Paris.
I intimated above that it’s the striking detail, the incongruous element in the otherwise correct wardrobe, a gesture towards personal comfort, that marks out the dandy. We’d be hard-pressed to award Federico Fellini the dandy laurel, for although often suited on-set, the bullish-looking Maestro never quite wore his suits with sprezzatura—certainly not the sprezzatura that Guido, his perennially harassed and hen-pecked film director proxy, played by the gorgeous and elegant Marcello Mastroianni, wears them with in 8½ (1963).
To the peerless Italian tailoring of tight black suit, white shirt and black tie are bequeathed two characteristically Felliniesque touches—the omnipresent scarf and the cowboy hat. Whether on il Signor Fellini himself or on Guido, that cowboy hat is the crowning touch of oddness that breaks the strict correctness of the classic Italian suit.
Il Fellini’s black cowboy hat was particularly odd, with a low crown and a short, though acutely shaped, brim. One might, at a pinch, have expected his compatriot, Sergio Leone, the gran regista of spaghetti westerns, to sport such a hat, though that gent often went around bareheaded, or with a tweed newsboy’s cap at best. But il Signor Fellini was not a maker of westerns—not even of westerns as far-removed in style from those classic models bearing the Ford insignia as Cinecittà is from Monument Valley—and his cowboy hat, which is almost a more savagely stylized and deformed Fedora, reflects his weird visions of the ordinary.
Indeed, with its connotations of the Rio Grande displaced, as in a dream, to the banks of the Tiber, il Signor Fellini’s incongruous cowboy hat lent that beautiful dreamer the appropriately quixotic touch, on-set, of a high plains drifter tilting, as Guido tilts, at the windmills of his mind.
In The Dandy at Dusk, Philip Mann makes a case for Jean-Pierre Melville, another Euro-fan of the cowboy hat combined with the suit, as a dandy, and though I’m not entirely convinced of the argument, I am prepared to assert that of all the filmmakers I can think of, M. Melville comes probably the closest to my criteria of a dandy director.
He was an écrivain manqué, I think, a writer who, by an immense détournement, found his native literary instinct luckily diverted into the visual. When M. Melville says that editing a film is equal in his passions to writing one, but that he absolutely hates shooting films, you get an intimation of that ruggedly individualistic, utterly ruthless attitude of the writer who loves total control and hates the ‘communal labour’ of filmmaking.
M. Melville is perhaps unique among all directors in that he seemed to realize the dream of solitary, literary filmmaking enunciated by M. Robbe-Grillet: as an independent producer/director, he built his own studio as an adjunct to his home and could work alone in the midnight hours, setting up lights and arranging the set before the arrival of his actors and crew.
He was an introvert, and the Melvillian man of his melancholy, violent dreams is introverted to an hermetic extent—like ‘un tigre dans la jungle… peut-être,’ as M. Melville himself writes at the beginning of Le Samouraï (1967). And being as much a ‘men’s director’ as filmmakers like Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Woody Allen—or even the woman-torturing Alfred Hitchcock—are ‘women’s directors’, filmmakers whose first sympathies lie with their suffering heroines, M. Melville, in his deep love and sympathy for the condition of men in all our melancholy and violence, seems equally to have loved the savagely restricted uniform of the suit with which we elegantly repress and civilize ourselves.
He is perhaps the only director, if Herr Mann’s argument is to be credited, who had the superordinate passion for menswear which is my third condition of dandyism in directors: days after seeing Gone with the Wind in London in 1940, he met Clark Gable at a shirtmaker’s shop in Jermyn street—which star-crossed encounter M. Melville took to be prophetic of his destiny in film. Herr Mann also alleges he once abandoned a film mid-tournage after getting into an argument with an actor about how wide his hat-brim should be.
Given the dandy’s mania for the details of correct masculine deportment, that sounds about the appropriate level of obsession—and expensive, individualistic recklessness—to qualify M. Melville, prima facie, as a dandy director.
Watch any interview with him and you will be struck by a man who is ruthlessly correct in his courtly deportment and demeanour: M. Melville conducts himself en parfait gentleman. The only extravagant touches added to the dark, sober suit which reflects his saturnine nature are the exuberant cream Stetson and the mirrored aviator sunglasses—fetishistic touches of the Americana which decorated M. Melville’s films as much as his person.
There’s a photo in Herr Mann’s book of M. Melville, circa 1960, in a boxy dark grey suit and tie, his ensemble topped with shining Stetson and les trous noirs of his aviator sunglasses, and carrying an elegantly thin briefcase—but no raincoat—through the rainy streets of Paris. Even more than a gangster on his way to a rendez-vous (an eminently appropriate look for an independent producer/director with shady contacts), this incongruous figure briskly whipping along looks like a Texas oilman—a premonition of J. R. Ewing, no less—plopped down in the rue de la Paix.
This américainophilie is de rigueur for a man who, in a supremely dandistic gesture, adopted the surname of the author of Moby Dick as his codename in the French Resistance and never renounced it upon the laying down of arms. As a man who constructs an operative identity which he is ruthlessly prepared to both live and die by, the only profession other than literature for which the dandy is eminently suited is espionage, and M. Melville, the chronicler of gangsters, corrupt cops, con artists and members of the Armée des Ombres, comported himself as an undercover résistant all his life—résistant à tout.
As an operative identity, the codename ‘Melville’ is as much a charmed imperméable in the grey ville de merveilles of Paris as the raincoat he accoutres Alain Delon with in Le Samouraï. It’s perhaps an ironic coincidence that the French Mafia is colloquially known as ‘le Milieu’—literally, ‘the Place’, ‘the Scene’, for M. Melville, like his idealized assassin, seemed to strive to live up to Mr. Brummell’s dictum that the perfect dandy is a man who is never out of place, but blends into his environment, never drawing attention to himself with a mistake of deportment or comportment.
He is so correct as to be invisible.
As Mr. Hitchcock took the dressing of his leading ladies to be a personal duty not to be delegated, M. Melville similarly undertook to be valet to his leading men. ‘I’m very prone to clothes fetishism,’ he once said—surely an understatement for a director who named one of his films—Le Doulos (1962)—after the gangster argot-word for ‘hat-wearer’. ‘[T]he clothing of men plays a decisive rôle in my films, while women’s clothing alas concerns me less. When an actress has to be dressed, an assistant usually takes care of it.’
This candid admission seems to clinch it, but I take Philip Mann’s offering of Jean-Pierre Melville as a dandy director under advisement. It’s a matter I will have to think about more before I offer M. Melville a membership in the club. Doubtless, like Groucho Marx, he wouldn’t take it anyway if it was offered—and if so, that would be the concluding proof of M. Melville’s dandysme;—for we dandies are such rugged individualists that (like the only Marx whose dicta are worth repeating) we would refuse to belong to any club that would have us as a member.
If you can think of any other hommes du cinéma you think might live up to the high bar of being a dandy, dear readers, I would be interested to hear the names of other contenders bandied in the comments below.
A cartridge of expired Kodachrome 40 Type A film of indeterminate date; a Chinon Super 8 motion picture camera dating presumably from the 1970’s—these two bounced and lunged with the movement of the 58 tram, Toorak-bound, as it turned left—that is to say, eastward—in an S from William street into Flinders lane, and thence almost immediately right—which is to say, south—into Market street. Of this elegant manœuvre, the only instance where one of Melbourne’s 25 tram routes proceeds for even one short block along any of the ‘little streets’ or laneways which accompany the city’s major thoroughfares, neither film nor camera (which were then in operation to record this unique spectacle) captured anything. Instead, during the ninety-second journey, both film and camera were fixated upon another image of uncertain definition, whether a scratch in the glass pane directly in front of the operator, through which he was filming, a mark too fine to be clearly perceived upon its surface except by film and camera held close to, or else a hair or fibre, itself of unusually elegant curvature—almost the only thing, despite its abstraction, with sufficient force of being to impress itself with permanence upon the expired film, rendered nearly blind by time, as a clearly discernible object—one which happened to lodge in the camera’s gate at the commencement of the journey, shuddering in consonance with the movement of the tram, and alighting coincident with the end of the trip at Flinders and Queensbridge streets, it is difficult to say with certainty.
Thus history, in its nearsightedness, chooses to record the passage of odd figures upon a background it retrospectively reduces to rheumy grain.
—Dean Kyte, “Objectif”
I got a nice surprise on Christmas Day: a cartridge of ancient Kodachrome Super 8 film, which I sent to Film Rescue International in Canada to have developed in October, was now ready for download.
I had low expectations for this film: my guess was that, at the time when I opened the cardboard box, cracked the mint-condition foil wrapping, and snapped the magazine into the butt of my Chinon Super 8 camera, the cartridge was at least thirty years old—probably closer to forty.
The cartridge of expired Kodachrome came with the camera, which I picked up for $20 at Hunter Gatherer, the boutique op-shop in the Royal Arcade. The shop assistant sliced ten clams off the price because I almost ruined the white shirt I was wearing just in handling the camera: the rubber eyepiece had melted all through the case and had gotten onto everything—including the box of film.
That gives you some sense of the conditions in which the film had been stored.
Nevertheless, I wanted to see if anything could be gotten out of three-and-a-half minutes of ancient Kodachrome. I locked and loaded my prize and went hunting for sights to clout.
I took it to Ballarat and prowled all through the Art Gallery, spending a lot of those precious frames on the two enigmatic Norman Lindsay paintings housed there. We took what I intended to be our own “Trip Down Market Street” together—(Market street, Melbourne, that is)—and various other things I don’t recall.
The problem is that you can’t get expired Super 8 film developed in Australia: the good folks at nano lab, in Daylesford, who have the domestic market cornered on this expensive obsession, won’t do it. Instead, they’ll refer you across the pond to Film Rescue International.
So what is, under normal circumstances, a prohibitively expensive hobby becomes more expensive still with expired film stock. There’s the cost of international postage to consider, and dealing in Canadian dinero, which adds a bump to the price.
Plus a long lead time, as you wait for your parcel to get across the pond and for Film Rescue to queue it into their bimonthly processing regimen.
Plus the fact that the colour dye couplers for Kodachrome no longer exist, so Film Rescue has to process your film in black and white.
All good excuses for me to procrastinate getting the film developed, and as I exercised my procrastinating skills, my cartridge of Kodachrome suffered further mistreatment: I stuffed it in my duffel (which, with my peripatetic lifestyle de flâneur, does not stay stationary for long), and for two-and-a-half years I lugged it all around the country under all kinds of weather conditions.
But finally, during lockdown, I decided to send it across the Pacific to our confrères in Canada and pay the price of discovering what, if anything, was on my cartridge of used and abused film.
Not much, it turns out. Apart from three very washed-out seconds at the end of the reel showing a tram passing before the Elizabeth street entrance of Flinders Street Station, the only clearly visible thing on the reel is the odd figure in the film above.
As I say in the short film I made of this miraculous mistake, I’m not altogether sure what it is, but it accompanied me all through my tram trip along Flinders lane and down Market street, an unwelcome passenger I did not see at the time, but almost the only thing on the whole reel that my film and camera did see.
I had just finished reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s collection of short stories Instantanés (Snapshots) (1962) the day before the reel of Kodachrome turned up in my inbox, ready for download. When I saw this curious figure sketched on the otherwise blank film, the only image clearly preserved for posterity on a reel of film which is probably as old as I am, and which required decades of abused waiting and movements through space and time before its life intersected with mine so that we could both fulfil our destinies together as recorders of images, I was reminded of Robbe-Grillet’s ambiguous ‘court-métrages en mots’, and thought I would have a go at writing something in his style to accompany the short film I made of the out-take above.
I scored Instantanés off Amazon during Melbourne Lockdown 2.0, when the level of unread words left on my nightstand was verging on blinking red light territory. I was sold on disbursing my dough to the Bezos monolith after watching this discussion on Robbe-Grillet in which English writer Tom McCarthy intriguingly describes the first story in the collection, “Le mannequin” (1954), accompanied by his own ‘cute-crappy’ illustrations of it. (His exegesis of “Le mannequin” is between 4:28 and 7:15, if you’re interested.)
If you’re unfamiliar with Alain Robbe-Grillet, it’s probably not surprising. I find that most French people I mention him to don’t know who he is—at least not until you mention his most famous assignment as scenarist of L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961)—and even then, they tend to confuse him with the film’s director, Alain Resnais. This despite the fact that M. Robbe-Grillet was elected to the Académie française in 2004, to take his place among ‘les Immortels’ of French literature.
I guess having the magick formula ‘de l’Académie française’ after one’s name doesn’t count for much with the average Frenchman these days.
His writing is definitely an acquired taste, and the taste is difficult to acquire, because M. Robbe-Grillet is the most bitter, asper of all writers. There is no sweetness at all in his implacably ‘objective’, almost anti-human, novels, which focus obsessively on a world of external detail. Against these backgrounds, delineated with almost geometric precision, his ‘characters’ move, like the chess-piece people of L’année dernière à Marienbad, as vectors, algebraically quantified by letters (‘A’, ‘X’, ‘M’, etc.) rather than qualified by names.
M. Robbe-Grillet was the foremost exponent and theoretician of the nouveau roman (or ‘new novel’), a typically French literary movement of the fifties and sixties which rejected the humanist assumptions of the classical nineteenth-century novel, the novel of human-focused drama and intrigue with its roots in Balzac. You can well imagine that such a rigorously experimental literary movement would appeal to the French and that it would have little appeal or traction in the Anglophone world, for whom the premier nineteenth-century novelists are writers like Austen and Dickens—people deeply interested in other people.
So while M. Robbe-Grillet and his coterie (including Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras) made some strategic incursions into the Anglosphere, the nouveaux romanciers were largely a phenomenon restricted by the language of a culture—and thus of a particular place—and seem, in retrospect, to be very much a product of their time. They were part of the first generation of postmodernists, and in their work of rigorous deconstruction, they did for French fiction what writers like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida were doing for French non-fiction at the time.
And as we have seen with the poisonous fall-out of postmodernism in the Anglosphere, these ludic games with language that French intellectuals like to play—and which the wonderfully supple French language allows—do not translate well into English. The airy structural ambiguity of French, with its genders and tenses, collapses into oversimplified terms in English, which is a much more pragmatic language of ideas than French, focused as it is on material reality, efficacy of practical outcomes, and the terse eloquence of clipped statements that convey facts with no wastage of words—all the virtues of our ‘scientific’, ‘journalistic’ language which have made Hemingway, since the 1920’s, the supposed ideal of Anglophonic literature.
Given our cultural taste for the concrete and material, you might think that M. Robbe-Grillet would have found more popularity in the Anglosphere. It’s true that he had, with Richard Howard as his translator, the best possible letter of introduction to our world at the height of his intellectual respectability in France.
But despite the rigor of his factual, objective style, M. Robbe-Grillet is not merely a French Hemingway, and the deleterious narrowing of our ideals of good, clean, English prose does not adequately prepare us for the sum that cumulatively emerges from M. Robbe-Grillet’s laboriously delineated parts.
His French is not at all ‘simple’ as we might say that Hemingway is the epitome of good, simple English prose. He was a scientist, an agronomist, prior to becoming a novelist, and because his language is so precise, M. Robbe-Grillet’s French vocabulary is surprisingly large, studded with technical terms of art which further tax the English reader as we attempt to mentally construct the spaces described sentence by sentence in his novels and stories.
To give an example of how complex his deceptively simple language is, here is my translation of probably the most famous single passage in the whole of M. Robbe-Grillet’s œuvre—the description of a slice of tomato in his first published novel, Les Gommes (The Erasers) (1953):
A truly flawless wedge of tomato, machine-cut from a perfectly symmetrical fruit.
The peripheral flesh, compact and homogenous, of a handsome chemical red, is regularly thick between a band of shining skin and the cavity where the seeds are magazined, yellow, well-calibrated, held in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along a bulge of the heart. This heart, of a slightly grainy, attenuated pink, commences, on the side of the lower depression, through a cluster of white veins, one of which extends itself towards the seeds in perhaps a little uncertain manner.
On top, an accident, barely visible, has occurred: a corner of skin, peeled away by one or two millimetres, raises itself imperceptibly.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes (translated by Dean Kyte)
Alors, you get the sense in this snippet of the formality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language, which I haven’t substantially changed, just transferred across to English, and his use of the present tense and passive voice as a means of rendering an ‘objective’ present.
It’s almost impossible to adequately translate ‘d’un rose atténué légèrement granuleux’ which, as an adjectival phrase juxtaposing softness and roughness, lightness and slightness in four words, appears almost to contradict itself when one starts, from a literal place, to render it in English. Moreover, you get a sense of the technicality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language with the ‘heart’ of the tomato sitting inside its ‘cavity’ (‘la loge’). I’ve been a little creative in availing myself of the very obsolete English verb ‘magazined’ as a translation of ‘où sont rangés’ in an attempt to give my vision of the seeds, ‘bien calibrés’, of this tomato ‘découpé à la machine’ as being almost like the bullets of a well-balanced automatic weapon.
If a prose poem dedicated to a quarter of a tomato doesn’t turn you on, you won’t get much kick out of the stories of Instantanés, published after L’année dernière à Marienbad, with its long tracking shots, its sculptural tableauxvivants, and its unreliable narration, had demonstrated what M. Robbe-Grillet’s very cinematic style of writing ‘looked like’ when translated to film.
But what I like about these super-short stories is that he seems to do in words something similar to what I try to do with my short films: they are descriptions of locales in which nothing (or nothing of dramatic import) happens, and yet there is a vaguely sinister air about the environments he describes, whether it’s the unattended room of “Le mannequin”, the theatre of “Scène” (1955), or the Métro station of “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain” (1959).
And in a couple of stories, like “Le remplaçant” (1954) (in which a dull history lesson is juxtaposed with a boy’s attempt to jump up and grasp the leaves of a tree outside), or “Le Chemin du retour” (1954) (which ends with an embarrassed trio failing to communicate their gratitude to the boatman who rescues them from an island), there is a sense of an ultimately more satisfying, more sinister moral emerging as a function of Robbe-Grillet’s description of the plotless, undramatic actions of everyday life—more satisfying and more sinister because the morals of these ‘fables of the everyday’ seem even more obscure.
I think it’s no coincidence that M. Robbe-Grillet (along with his nouveau roman colleague Marguerite Duras) is really the only writer to have ever made a second career for himself as a filmmaker: more than merely being boring ‘photographs in words’, the ‘snapshots’ of Instantanés are deeply cinematic short films.
In “Scène”, for instance, the description of a theatre performance, you can almost sense the placement of the camera in M. Robbe-Grillet’s words: for most of the story, it feels fixed at a point you might regard as the natural placement for a camera photographing a play—a master-shot that frames the whole proscenium, with maybe a telephoto lens affixed which allows us to see some of the smaller details alluded to in the text.
Then, at a point far advanced in this brief story, the implicit ‘camera’ of M. Robbe-Grillet’s prose draws back appreciably: the ‘master-shot’ through which we have been watching this performance is not the true master-shot at all. That shot would encompass the auditorium as well as the stage. By introducing an unexpected line of dialogue into the text, he creates a ‘cut’ that changes our perspective, a new placement in space that simultaneously alters our conception of the time at which the performance is occurring.
That line’s a bit of a spoiler, and I’m not going to give it away here. Infinitesimally slight as it is by comparison with the traditional plot twists the dramatic mechanics of the nineteenth-century novel have taught us to expect, the slightness of that revelation makes it all the more satisfying in reading and is an example of those sinister and obscure morals about the hidden order of the world which seem to emerge as the natural function of M. Robbe-Grillet’s implacable commitment to objectively describing the visible.
Moreover, certain of the stories, like “La Plage” (1956) and “L’escalier mécanique” (part of the triptych “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain”) evoke, as cinematic images, one of M. Robbe-Grillet’s abiding themes, that of temporal recursion.
If he will permit himself a metaphor (and Alain Robbe-Grillet is so dogmatically unromantic a writer that he will permit himself very few), the one metaphor that comes up time and again is the equation of the infinite repetition of space with the endless loop of time. The slow, stately tracking shots through the mirrored corridors of the château in L’année dernière à Marienbad is the visual evocation of this theme, which is equally present in the improbable recursive structure of Les Gommes, in which a detective sent to a city to investigate the murder of a man the night before ends up assassinating him exactly 24 hours later, with all the clues he gathers in the course of the day pointing to this unpredictable yet inevitable fait accompli.
Like Borges, the visual metaphor of the labyrinth, the repetitive extension into space which symbolizes the infinitely ramifying extension into time, obsesses M. Robbe-Grillet as a perfect geometric arrangement to describe the hidden order of the objective world. As in Koyaanisqatsi (1982), the cinematic image of people riding up an escalator in the Métro in “L’escalier mécanique” leaves us with the uneasy sense that the five people we watch getting on the conveyor belt at the beginning of the story are the same people we watch getting on again at the end of the story.
At the end of a fascinating, funny, and delightfully informal lecture at San Francisco University in 1989, M. Robbe-Grillet is challenged on the influence of the cinema upon the nouveau roman. A young man who is not easily dissuaded by the great man’s Gallic shrug of indifference presses his point: surely the nouveau roman, with its concern for surfaces and objectivity, is a reaction of the novel itself to the medium of cinema, just as Impressionism was a reaction against the objectivity of photography?
‘Ouais, j’n’cwois pas,’ M. Robbe-Grillet drawls, indulging the possibility, but clearly antagonistic to the idea, albeit humorously so. He shrugs with all the Olympian Gallic boredom he can muster—De Gaulle-grade stuff—and shakes his head. ‘Cwois pas.’
The cinema, he says, is more of a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence: it’s there in the culture, one of innumerable major landmarks which have erupted in modern life—like Marxism, or psychoanalysis, for example—and one which had equally influenced Surrealism and Existentialism before the advent of the nouveau roman.
It seems a remarkably facile—even disingenuous—remark for a novelist almost unique in having had a second career as a film director.
It’s indeed inevitable, as M. Robbe-Grillet admits, that the novel, after the invention of cinema, should adapt—or seek to adapt—itself to the innovations in the grammar of storytelling which are natural to the visual medium. But his style of writing (like that of his nouveau roman colleagues) is more deeply engaged with visual storytelling, with the problematic assumptions of objectivity which clear depictions of external surfaces allow, than would have been imagined without the referent of an economical visual storytelling medium for literary storytelling to react to.
For myself, as a wordsmith who is, paradoxically, primarily a visual thinker, a writer whose first love is film, not books, and who enjoys making short films as a relaxing creative alternative to the mental rigors of crafting perfect words, it’s not an error in my process that I make my films before I write the scripts for them.
I’m deeply marked, as a writer, by the grammar and conventions of visual storytelling. It is indeed a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence upon my books, but in terms of my films, they must work first of all as films—as the cinematic unfoldment of visual images across time—before I write the prose poems, ficciones or video essays I will read over them as narrations.
Even in the film above, where the image is no image, where I can’t say objectively what it is that has made this permanent imprint upon the fifty-foot conveyor belt of film as the only thing that can be clearly seen, the image comes first.
And there is, for me, a satisfying, albeit sinister moral about the hidden order of the objective world in that the one film I could make from those fifty feet of ancient, expired Kodachrome was a film in which the one objective image was a mistake that must be subjectively interpreted.
The temporal labyrinth of film records an endless loop of nothing but one inscrutable mistake that perfectly repeats itself each time, like a Rorschach test which is also a koan about the simultaneously objective and subjective nature of reality.
What I subjectively saw through the Chinon’s viewfinder as we bounced through Flinders lane and down Market street was not what it and the Kodachrome were objectively seeing at the moment when we three were realizing our destinies together as recorders of images.
As M. Robbe-Grillet says, the essence of his writing, and what, I think, brings it closer to the medium of film than that of any other writer, is that his rigorous objectivity is but a mask for the most rigorous subjectivity. It is both simultaneously. And only film and literature working together can realize each other’s strengths as both objective, and subjective, storytelling media.
I’ve even included a bonus spread showcasing my moody black-and-white film photography. It features pix of Melbourne’s mean streets and gritty laneways as yet unorbed by you, dear readers.
A piece of fiction, plenty of groovy graphic design, and—most ambitious and gruelling of all—I even turned one of my videos, “Dismembrance of things past”, into a six-page, 54-frame comic strip.
Thank God the video was only one minute. Photoshop almost went into meltdown, and me with it.
Check out the super-short video below as I take you through a whirlwind flick-through of what you’ll find inside!
I’ve always loved the grungy zine æsthetic. As you can see in the video, with the slick paper and full-colour pages, this zine isn’t quite ‘grungy’, but it’s as close as a dandified fellow as your Melbourne Flâneur can come to getting ‘down and dirty’. I chose a dirty, low-res printing option to give it that grungy, Risograph-style sprezzatura.
Mostly, I used the zine æsthetic as a licence to take some innovative liberties with graphic design. You’ll notice, for instance, that in the article titles, I do some funky things like turning the lettering on its side, back-to-front, etc. I primarily designed The Melbourne Flâneur zine for print rather than for on-screen reading because, even though I crafted it on the laptop through my Artisanal Desktop Publishing process, I wanted it to be tangible, substantial, like an old-school zine, but handmade new-school-style.
The primary purpose of the zine was to create something exclusive I could give to my clients as a piece of added value. Often when I’m working with businesspeople, academics or other creatives, they evince an interest in reading my work or looking at my art, but the urgency of servicing their projects doesn’t leave a lot of time for that.
I wanted to design something tangible and substantial which would give them an insight into my world as a peripatetic writer, the Melbourne I see through the lens of my Pentax K1000 and my Minolta XL 401 Super 8 camera, as well as something a bit off-beat, design-wise, mixing the funkiness of the zine with the boutique approach I take to writing, editing, designing and publishing documentation.
The thing I like about zines is that the artisanal, handcrafted aspect of these typewritten, photocopied, stapled-together little mags gives them a sense of ‘exclusivity’.
The magazine proper is a totally commercial creation: it’s always pushing products at you. The zine, on the other hand, takes the commercial form and makes it distinctly personal. The exclusivity which comes as a function of a zine’s tiny print run subverts the slick-paper mag’s purpose to push as much soulless product to as many faces as possible and makes the format a humble, intimate ‘advertisement for oneself’.
I often drop in at Sticky Institute, the zine shop in Campbell Arcade, and pick up a few weird little creations. I love owning a few handcrafted zines by Melbourne writers and artists that I can puzzle and ponder over, and I wanted to give my clients something of that experience of exclusivity, of entering intimately into my world of flânerie, into my dark vision of Melbourne as a place of friendly menace.
The Melbourne Flâneur zine is now available for purchase in the Dean Kyte Bookstore. If you want to experience this feeling of exclusivity and re-read all your favourite articles, revised and illustrated for print, you can purchase a physical copy for $A25, including worldwide postage, or you can download the PDF eZine for free!
Just click this link to go straight to the product page in the Dean Kyte Bookstore.
And I now have brochures for my print and video products!
The two new brochures below are more of the many creative fruits I pumped out during lockdown. I’m really pleased with the designs I came up with. After a rocky start, I caught a wave of inspiration. I invite you to download my new brochures and check out what I came up for yourself!
In a recent post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I wrote that this period of ‘enforced leisure’ here in Melbourne has turned my flâneur’s eyes inwards to a remarkable degree: Unable, under pain of fine and police harassment, to walk the streets and seek in the world without the exteriorized symbols of my interior world, I have had to content myself with taking flâneries through old footage garnered in the course of my travels.
Scrounging around among my old footage for something to turn into a video, I chanced upon something I recorded more than two years ago, and which became the basis of the video above—an idle Friday night in Oakleigh, the Greek neighbourhood of Melbourne.
I was staying in an old California bungalow and the house had a beautiful study overlooking the quiet street, just perfect for a writer. It had a massive oak desk, glass-topped, with green leather blotter, and a beautiful antique office chair of stained wood, also upholstered in green leather. To cap it all, a gorgeous green-shaded banker’s lamp on the desk.
I decided to rotate the green shade of the lamp away from me and record myself reciting “The Jewels”, my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s erotic poem “Les Bijoux”, famous as one of the poems which caused M. Baudelaire to be hauled before a court on charges of obscenity when it was published in the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1857).
The poem, along with five others, was banned from publication in France until after World War II—some eighty years after the poet’s death.
The poem is almost like a short story. In just eight verses, Baudelaire takes us thoroughly inside his remembered experience of fooling around with his Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval, as they sport by firelight.
Under the druggy influence of Jeanne’s ‘chiming jewels’ dancing in the lamplight, Baudelaire sees his ‘Black Venus’ undergo a series of metamorphoses, changing into different animals and allegorical figures as they play together beside the fire.
My translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem into English is very popular; having heard it once, it’s always the poem of Baudelaire’s that people ask me to read at poetry gatherings. I’ve recited it so many times by now that it’s practically committed to memory.
So I thought that beautiful old-fashioned study would be the perfect setting in which to commit my version permanently to pixels, a place similar in atmosphere to the muffled chambre evoked by M. Baudelaire.
One of the foundations of Baudelaire’s æsthetic theory is his idea of ‘correspondances’—a kind of ‘poetic synæsthesia’ in which ‘[l]es parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent’ (‘sounds, scents and colours to one another correspond’).
In the second verse of “Les Bijoux”, Baudelaire expresses how he loves ‘à la fureur’ the experience of ‘hearing’ the colours of Jeanne’s jewels, and ‘seeing’ the sounds they make as they chime and clash with one another.
Similarly, there’s a correspondance, I think, between the green light, evocative of envy, a jealous craving, and of envie, a lustful yearning. But green is not just a colour which tells us to go ahead, to proceed without caution into love and lust. It is also a colour we associate with morbidity and putrefaction.
The obverse of Baudelaire’s lyrical elegy to Jeanne’s livingness in “Les Bijoux” is his imagining of her as a stinking corpse rotting in the sun in the poem “Une Charogne”. In that poem, he evokes her no less tenderly than in “Les Bijoux”, even as he flagellates her mercilessly with his scorn.
M. Baudelaire’s experience of love is necessarily a ‘sick’ and ‘decadent’ one in which sex and death, ‘les Deux Bonnes Sœurs’, twist and tryst.
The question, then, for this poet who (along with Ronsard) is the greatest lyricist of l’amour in the French language, and the greatest limner of women in French prosody, is whether Charles Baudelaire is a romantic?
Can one be as ineffably, as evanescently romantic as M. Baudelaire gives evidence of being in his highest raptures and still be as sadistically misogynistic as he also gives evidence of being in his most hellish fantasies?
The answer is mais oui—evidemment.
If I wanted to give a statistical answer to support the contention, I would merely point out that I have had many more female purchasers of my book of Baudelaire translations, Flowers Red and Black, than male: the dames do grok a bad boy, and among men of letters, they get no more brooding than this bow-tied dandy.
Even Lord Byron—mad, bad, and dangerous to know—has nothing on M. Baudelaire when it comes to being an homme fatal.
Baudelaire is fundamentally a romantic in both senses of the word—as a member of an intellectual and artistic movement that championed sublime passion and the heroism of the individual, and as a poet of erotic verse.
But to say firmly yes on both scores is not to overlook the fact that including M. Baudelaire positively in both definitions is not an unambiguous statement.
As regards Romanticism, M. Baudelaire emerges at the tail-end of the movement. Les Fleurs du mal, as I said above, was published in 1857, and it is not coincidental that Baudelaire was successfully prosecuted for obscenity at the same time that M. Flaubert successfully skirted the same charge for Madame Bovary.
We cannot properly call Flaubert a ‘naturalist’ or a ‘realist’: in his heart of hearts, he is as deeply and perversely a Romantic as Baudelaire. But with Madame Bovary, M. Flaubert inaugurates a new movement in French literature and art, one that is diametrically opposed to Romanticism, one that embraces and recuperates the scientific, industrial, capitalistic and consumeristic assumptions which the Romantics were reacting negatively to.
The naturalistic novel of Zola and de Maupassant is the logical (and humourless) extension of an ‘objective’ formal æsthetic which M. Flaubert employed in his ‘modern novels’ with a glacial irony. In his heart of hearts, M. Flaubert was as morbid and unbridled a creature of perverse passion as M. Baudelaire and would have preferred the erotic phantasms of St. Anthony to the moronic notions of romance entertained by Emma Bovary.
For here is the thing: in both these writers materializing on the scene at the end of the Romantic movement we see the tenets of Romanticism—a lust to experience intense emotion and transcendent sublimity; an earnest belief in the heroism of the individual artist; an equally fervent belief in ‘l’art pour l’art’; and a passion for nature which reacts negatively against the encroaching mechanical artifice of industrialism and the city—morbidly present and perverted.
Both M. Flaubert and M. Baudelaire are to Romanticism what the Mannerists were to the Renaissance. They are the Mannerists of Romanticism.
The key feature of mannerism as an artistic tendency which manifests itself late in the life of a movement is exaggeration: what has been deemed to be formally beautiful during the life of the movement in its high style is pushed to an æsthetic extreme.
One might say that Romanticism, in its advocacy of ‘l’art pour l’art’, was already a form of mannerism in its own right, even though it was not an æsthetic exaggeration of Neoclassicism, but a reaction to it. But the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ which underwrites Romanticism, when pushed to its æsthetic extreme, becomes grotesquerie.
We see this most vividly in Baudelaire, and in his visual ancestor, Goya, for whom the dream of reason brings forth monsters. The only other figure of late Romanticism I can think of who produces similarly grotesque imagery in which a high æsthetic style is pushed to a histrionic extreme is M. Baudelaire’s American twin, the brother of his soul, Edgar Allan Poe.
In the final chapter of his book La Folie Baudelaire (2008), Roberto Calasso cites the withering judgment of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most authoritative French literary critic of the nineteenth century, upon his contemporary Baudelaire.
M. Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve says, is like a little pavilion—what the French call a folie—on the extreme point of Kamchatka, that icy, volcanic Russian peninsula which juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk. From this inhospitable toehold of fire and ice, according to Sainte-Beuve, M. Baudelaire gazes avidly out upon Japan, the Orient, all that is weird and exotic to French prosody in the nineteenth century.
Baudelaire’s ‘Orient’ was the future. He makes a music in his rhymes (which are not without charm, Sainte-Beuve hedgingly admits), but the ear has not yet been born in the France of the nineteenth century which can make sense of this strange and foreign music, which apprehends a sublime and transcendent beauty in the fire and ice of Hell.
Which leads me to the perversity—the inversion, even—of Romanticism when pushed to this æsthetic extreme, the Baudelairean state of ‘Kamchatka’:—For Baudelaire’s natural abode is not merely an architectural folie in the sense of whimsy, nor even a folly to erect in such an unhospitable clime, but an uninsulated belvedere gazing out upon the frontier of madness—the madness of the modern world which will come after him.
As a very late Romantic to the scene, Baudelaire has no feeling for ‘nature’, as such. He would never, like Wordsworth, pen an elegy in praise of a flower: vegetables didn’t interest him.
The closest Baudelaire gets to the Romantic feeling for nature are a few lyrical poems about the sea and foreign ports, as he remembers an abortive voyage to India he was forced to take by his hated stepfather, General Aupick. Baudelaire never saw Calcutta. Taking grateful advantage of a shipwreck in Mauritius, he returned to Paris.
This is instructive. Baudelaire is thoroughly a man of the city, the first poet to write about it, and he does so glowingly, feeling none of the repulsion for its multitudinous horrors which drove his Romantic predecessors back to the countryside so as to escape ‘the dark Satanic Mills’ of industrial modernity.
Nothing is ‘grown’ in the city. It is a place of pure artifice—un paradis artificiel, to paraphrase the title of Baudelaire’s treatise on drugs.
And because nothing can grow in an artificial environment, everything must be manufactured in the city, or imported there from the countryside. The city, therefore, is the place of consumption, where everything can be bought.
Where Ronsard emulates the Dantesque and Petrarchan model of glorifying tony dames like Cassandre and Hélène, Baudelaire is the lyricist of bought amour, venerating the venal souls of Parisian prostitutes in all the protean manifestations that the Belle Époque gave to the world’s oldest profession—actresses, dancers, singers, syphilitic little bitches, mewling Jewesses, regal African orchids transplanted to colder climes, widows fallen on hard times.
Baudelaire loves the soiled feminine face of Paris, that paradise of decadent luxury, as sterile and useless as a rented womb.
Paris, as Walter Benjamin stated, is the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. It is the pre-eminent paradis artificiel. It is the triumph of scientific industry and commerce over nature, a purely artificial environment, an utter repudiation of the humanistic spirit of Romanticism.
And yet the place is ineffably romantic—and was so in Baudelaire’s time.
But something happens to the nature of a man or a woman who lives in the purely artificial environment of a city. It rapidly becomes ‘decadent’, and Baudelaire, the total man of the city, the poet of the city who lauds Paris’s transcendent beauty in her hellish, whorish ugliness, marks the critical juncture where Romanticism curdles, turns perverse and inverted.
What M. Baudelaire said to his friend and fellow flâneur, M. Manet, he might have equally said of himself: ‘Vous n’êtes que le premier dans la décrépitude de votre art’—‘You are merely the first in the decadence of your art-form.’
Both artists are Kamchatkas of their kind—the pinnacle of European artistic evolution, the æsthetic distillation of the wisdom and skill of the Old Masters which reaches its finest point in the peculiar persons and sensibilities of M. Baudelaire and M. Manet—only then, with the next generation, to collapse under its own weight headlong into degeneracy.
These gentlemen still had the classical education in the craftsmanship of their respective art-forms necessary to make radical yet intellectually rigorous innovations based on an intensely personal vision and acute sensibility.
M. Manet could spray the canvas with paint and not wind up with a meaningless chromo à la Pollock. Likewise, M. Baudelaire could lavish elegies upon ugliness without degenerating into the ‘prose broken into lines’ which the grunting Beats called ‘free verse’.
In La Folie Baudelaire, Calasso invokes Max Nordau, a nineteenth-century essayist in that cradle of Romanticism which would become, in the next century, the sink of horror—Germany. Contemporary with Freud and Krafft-Ebing, Nordau published a two-volume tome in 1892 called Degeneration—a kind of Psychopathia Sexualis of art.
Calasso writes: ‘In Nordau’s view, the forerunner of all degeneration was Baudelaire. All the others—such as Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Barbey d’Aurevilly—were instantly recognized by a certain “family resemblance” to him. These were the numerous insidious and indomitable crests of the Baudelaire wave.’
Though Nordau was probably not familiar with him, I cannot help but think, in tracing the lineage of artistic degeneration down from the pinnacle of Baudelaire and across the Channel, how impossible the most decadent of the English Decadents, Ernest Dowson, would have been without the forerunner of Baudelaire.
That young man who would take the bitterness and perversity of love as his only theme in poetry and in prose, who had such a French sense of its diabolical nature that he would translate Les Liaisons dangereuses, and who would pursue ‘madder music and stronger wine’ until they hustled him into an early grave, had Baudelaire’s syphilitic example of a life lived at Kamchatka’s dagger point—a life lived only for love and art—before him as his perversely heroic example.
Such a soul deformed by intimate infatuation with the artificial paradise of the city has a different experience of romance than the Romantics of the high period.
For M. Baudelaire, the sublimity of love, sex and eroticism is inseparably conjoined with the sublime, transcendent horror of decadence and death. Woman is a ‘Black Venus’ like Jeanne Duval, a murderous goddess whose womb is a tomb we want to plunge the dagger of ourselves into—like a bee who commits suicide by availing itself of its sting.
Given the deformity of M. Baudelaire’s soul and the perversity of his sense of romanticism, you might wonder why I have such a feeling for Baudelaire, why I have translated so many of his love poems—and why I find I can’t stop.
I really don’t know, except that he speaks to me, and that I find, in my translations of Charles Baudelaire into English, I am able to speak for him to people very far removed in place and time from the Paris of the Second Empire.
I’ve been told by readers of Flowers Red and Black, or by listeners who have heard me read some of the poems in that volume, that it seems as though I am ‘channelling’ M. Baudelaire. His lofty, distant voice, spewing offence in the most elegant and eloquent terms, is utterly unique in French literature and very difficult to convey in modern English without falling into pastiche.
The delicate feeling one must have for him can only really come, I think, from a sense of life like his own—a sense of ruthless desperation lived at the edge of Kamchatka—the mad desire to either transcend oneself or slay oneself in the sublime realization of one’s art.
‘Lis-moi, pour apprendre à m’aimer’—‘Read me, so as to learn to love me,’ he writes in “Épigraphe pour un livre condamné”. If you’re a curious soul who suffers like Baudelaire, you must learn to read him with a sympathetic spirit, letting your eye plunge into Hell without being charmed by the vertigo induced by the Abyss.
I have also been amusing myself in my cell during lockdown by creating some handmade gift tags, like those in the picture below. In addition to being signed and wax-sealed as a mark of artistic authenticity, any physical product you purchase from me will come gift-wrapped and garnished with an autographed gift tag featuring your Melbourne Flâneur’s logo!
I can also do custom orders for you. There is a contact form on each product page, so if you’re thinking of purchasing some original Christmas gifts, you can make a direct inquiry with me. I can negotiate a deal with you in terms of cost and delivery time frames; I can write a thoughtful personalised message on your behalf to the recipients; and I can even handle gift-wrapping and postage on your behalf—to multiple recipients, even.
And if you would like to buy your Melbourne Flâneur half a java and have his dulcet tones seducing you with his rendition of “The Jewels”, I’ve released the soundtrack of the video above on my Bandcamp profile. For two Australian shekels, you can lube someone into the amorous mood with my vocals.
I’m not Barry White, but it does work. Just click the link below, bo.
I remember seeing the monumental black gallows of Andy Warhol’s Telephone many years ago. Like Louis Aragon, for whom the objects of modernity were transfigured by a kind of æsthetic frisson, Warhol seemed to have painted the platonic ‘Form’ of the telephone: the black Mercury who calls for us in the dead of night, the psychopomp bringing only bad news, upon whose line we hang, breathless.
As Aragon observed, what brings out the ominous symbolic shadowface cast by this homely object is cinematographic découpage and cadrage: ‘To endow with a poetic quality something which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify its expression: these are the two properties which make décor the appropriate frame for modern beauty.’
—Dean Kyte, “Black Mercury”
About twelve years ago, when I was writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art hosted a major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s art. It was quite a coup for GoMA, which in those days was still fresh and shiny: it had only opened its doors a year before.
I scribbled a feature article on the exhibition for one of the magazines I was writing for, focusing on the connection between Warhol’s art and the art of cinema. For the most part, I was underwhelmed by the bewigged one: there was something self-consciously fraudulent about Warhol’s art (the title of the article I was published was “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Fraud”), but one painting stood out for me.
Telephone  (1962) is a monumental floor-to-ceiling canvas, as hieratic in its overwhelming authority as an altarpiece. Painted in stark monochrome, this enormous gallows handset caught in its shaft of light and stretching over one’s head as ominously as an actual gallows revealed a rare degree of sustained patience on the part of Warhol in his finely observed rendering of it.
It’s perhaps an unremarkable painting, except for its size, but as I state in the video essay above, in cutting this homely instrument out of the cadre of everyday life and magnifying it in extraordinary close-up, Warhol seemed to me to paint the platonic ‘Form’ of what a telephone is:—an ominous messenger on whose line hangs life and death.
That painted close-up reminded me of a shot early on in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). It comprises the third scene, in fact, just six minutes into the picture: a close-up of a black gallows handset, vaguely limned by moonlight, while white net curtains billow behind it.
The phone’s ringing rather urgently on the nightstand in the apartment of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). There’s a few other objects grouped in a loose still-life around it: an alarm clock crouching rather furtively on a copy of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America; a radio set, stoically silent; a racing rag, its leaves loosely folded; Spade’s pouch of Bull Durham tobacco, its puckered mouth half-open in a toothless sneer; a shallow enamel bowl in which a pipe sleeps, the dark, seductive curve of its bowl like the haunch of a curled-up dog.
A groggy hand reaches out from off-screen and fumbles the ameche off the nightstand. In quite a lengthy sustained shot, elegant in its simplicity, Huston holds on the vacant space left by the absent telephone without racking focus: as you might do when someone takes a phone call in the room with you, the camera continues to stare vacantly into space, its gaze politely out of focus as it pretends to interest itself in the breeze playing idly with the net curtains in the background.
All the while, our lugs are hanging out half a mile rightwards as we strain to make out the muffled voice off-screen informing Sam Spade that his partner’s Christmas has been cancelled.
Permanently, you dig?
One shot, one setup, one scene.
It’s masterful filmmaking—and one ought not to forget that The Maltese Falcon was Huston’s directorial début: right out of the gates, this thoroughbred writer-cum-director demonstrates his capacity to elegantly tell stories through simple yet potent images.
Key to the effectiveness of this scene, I think, are the cast of props who support the peerless Bogart—particularly that memorable black gallows telephone which takes centre stage on the nightstand, ready for its close-up, ready to trill into life as a herald of death.
I remember seeing The Maltese Falcon on the big screen at the South Bank Piazza in Brisbane, and this shot of the telephone, as a kind of cinematic subtext that communicates, sotto voce, the ‘mood’ of the scene it sits at the head of, has an outsize impact when viewed at scale.
The magnification of the close-up, in detaching an everyday object from its circumambient reality, is what brings out this potent symbolic aspect—its platonic ‘Form’ as trumpet, herald, fleet-footed, instantaneous messenger—and it was this that I apprehended so powerfully—as a visceral sensation—in Warhol’s painting.
As I state in the video essay, Surrealist poet Louis Aragon seemed to be the first to notice this subtle interplay of cutting and framing in cinema as the means of making visible the poetic quality that everyday objects invisibly possess, and yet don’t possess at all.
In his article “Du Décor” (1918), Aragon stated (and as I translate it in the video essay): ‘Doter d’une valeur poétique ce qui n’en possédait pas encore, restreindre à volonté le champ objectif pour intensifier l’expression: deux propriétés qui font du DÉCOR le cadre adéquat de la beauté moderne.’
It would take a Surrealist to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary, and that the intense découpage and cadrage of the close-up is the means by which filmmakers can make the invisible, poetic, dream-like quality of ‘le merveilleux’, beloved property of the Surrealists, visible and manifest.
One need only look at a shot like the famous close-up of the key clutched in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious (1946) to see, for instance, how Hitchcock makes the tiny object at the centre of the scene the overwhelming impetus and motive of the entire expensive party around her, surcharging it with a dream-like freight—a mood of irrational anxiety.
But Aragon’s prescient observation is not without precedent. He seems, in fact, to be re-stating in terms precisely geared towards the nascent visual art-form of the cinema a provocative maxim that Charles Baudelaire had stated, several decades earlier, for painting.
In Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Baudelaire states that beauty is composed to two elements, the general and the particular, the timeless and the timely—or, to put it another way, the ‘classical’ and the ‘modern’.
One gets the sense with M. Baudelaire that he regards the absolute value of ‘Beauty’ to be, in its quintessence, something like a chemical compound that can be ‘extracted’ and ‘distilled’ into its constituent parts.
In his most provocative assertion, M. Baudelaire states that this quality of ‘modern beauty’ must always contain an element of the weird and strange about it—‘Le beau,’ he says in Curiosités ésthétiques (1868), ‘est toujours bizarre.’
That quality of ‘weirdness’ is the ‘novelty’ of modern beauty, a certain seductive repugnance we sample with reluctant, distrustful fascination, only to find, in time, that we have acquired the taste for it, incorporating it into the economy of ‘good taste’ which characterizes classical beauty.
When Aragon says, therefore, that cinematic décor, the set-dressing of mise-en-scène, is ‘the appropriate frame for modern beauty,’ he is, I would argue, enunciating a Surrealist ésthétique du merveilleux which has its roots in Baudelaire’s proto-Surrealist conception of the Beautiful as inherently ‘bizarre’.
Take a flânerie through Taschen’s All-American Ads: 40s and All-American Ads: 50s if you want to see to what extent a cinematically-derived æsthetic of grandiose enlargement and removal from quotidian context magnifies the ordinary commercial objects of modernity and transfigures them, through advertising, as the surreal, dream-like keys to the problems of everyday life.
What the French Surrealists (like the Italian Futurists only slightly before them) were trying to communicate in their sense of ‘the marvellous’ behind the ostensible objects of their commodity-lust, was, I think, their inchoate apperception of classical beauty, the eternal and timeless couched behind the bizarrerie of modern objects.
Cars and æroplanes and trains, for instance, are merely visual metaphors which, when cinematically rendered, communicate the poetic impression of the platonic Form of speed, as once, in pre-modern times, the horse did.
Likewise, the telephone, that quintessential object of modernity which has transcended and remade itself to become the quintessential object of post-modernity, potently symbolizes the speed with which news—and particularly bad news—carries, and which once was personified by the ancient figure of Hermes, or Mercury.
We have assimilated the novelty of the uncanny phenomenon which the telephone represents so thoroughly into our modern economies of taste that we cannot readily see this archetypal dimension, the magic of an ancient deity, in the banal faces of our mobile phones.
And yet I’m reminded of a passage in Proust, in Le Côté de Guermantes (1920-1), where the Narrator recounts the surreal experience of telephoning his grandmother in Paris from the garrison town of Doncières. These were days, Marcel tells us, when the telephone was not yet in as common usage as it is today.
And yet habit takes so little time to strip of their mystery the forces with which we are in contact that, not being connected immediately, the only thought I had was that this was taking a very long time, was very inconvenient, and I had almost the intention of making a complaint. Like all of us these days, in my opinion, she was not fast enough in her brusque changes, that admirable fairy for whom but a few moments suffice to make appear beside us, invisible yet present, the being to whom we might wish to speak, and who, remaining at her table, in the city where she lives (for my grandmother, this was Paris), beneath a sky different to ours, in weather that is not necessarily the same, in the midst of circumstances and of preoccupations we are ignorant of, and of which this being is going to tell us, finds herself instantaneously transported hundreds of miles (she and all the surroundings in which she remains immersed) close to our ear, at the moment when our fancy has ordered it. And we are like the character in the tale to whom a genie, acting upon the wish that he expresses, makes his grandmother or his fiancée appear with a supernatural lucidity, in the midst of flicking through a book, of shedding some tears, of gathering some flowers, right beside the spectator and yet very far away, in the same place where she currently is. We have only, in order to accomplish this miracle, to bring our lips close to the magic horn and call—sometimes for a little too long, I admit—the Vigilant Virgins whose voices we hear everyday without ever seeing their faces, and who are our Guardian Angels in the dizzying darkness whose portals they jealously guard; the All-Powerful Ones by whose grace the absent rush to our sides without it being permitted that we should see them: the Danaids of the invisible who ceaselessly empty, refill and pass to one another the urns of sound; the ironical Furies who, at the moment when we are murmuring a confidence to a lady-friend, hoping that no one might overhear, cruelly shrieks at us, ‘I’m listening!’; the servants constantly irritated by the Mystery, the shadowy priestesses of the invisible, the Young Ladies of the Telephone!
—Marcel Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes (translated by Dean Kyte)
Like all of M. Proust’s exquisite observations, that passage reminds us palpably of his awareness of and presence to the ‘livingness of life’ that easy habit and overfamiliarity with our devices (who haunt us like magickal familiars) have made us blind to.
His ‘personification’ of the inanimate device of the telephone as a classical deity—fairy, genie, Vestal Virgin tending the wires, guardian angel, Danaid, Erinye—to be appeased and placated, a tyrannous servant who carries us the news instantaneously, and yet, despite circumnavigating the globe at the speed of sound, is a household god we still regard as much too slow, reveals the poetic quality of this quotidian object which, in Aragon’s words, ‘does not yet possess it.’
The telephone is too ‘new’ to be classically beautiful, but when, whether through M. Proust’s exquisite attentions to it, or through the cinematic poetry of detaching and framing, it is decoupled from its surroundings and regarded as an æsthetic object in itself, it too is as weirdly noble as a classical statue personifying our human foibles and passions.
I watched Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) a couple of nights ago, not having seen it in many, many years. Much like M. Proust’s vision of the telephone as the thread of the classical underworld, there’s a scene late in the picture where the telephone as symbol becomes the wires of the web which connects the criminal underworld of London, drawing inexorably tighter to entrap hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark).
Suddenly the innocuous sound of a telephone bell becomes a harbinger of betrayal as Fabian realizes that the fellow crook hiding him out has already phoned ahead to the gangster who is hunting him.
In a wonderful piece of acting, beautifully abetted by the lighting and décor, Widmark gently takes the receiver from the hand of his host and gently lays it down in the cradle with that beautiful hollow click the old Bakelite handsets make.
It’s a lovely gesture in its economy, conveying by means of acting, lighting and décor—just as in The Maltese Falcon—the potent yet underlying mood of menace which the big black rotary dial phone, similar to one I feature in my video essay, has as an æsthetic object—the telephone as weapon.
You can’t shoot a man with an ameche and you can’t knife him with one. But that sweet trill of the bell can be a death sentence, as it is to Harry Fabian.
In whatever city Chinatown is located, these Chinese embassies are zones of mystery and ambiguity.
And the tragedy for the flâneur is that these places we know so well know us so little. We are erased from the faces of places as soon as we depart them. We are as unpermanent a mark upon the memory of their streets as a lover’s caress is upon our skin.
And for the flâneur, the Daygamer left over in the labyrinth, whose streets are the dædal of his days, to re-encounter the coin de rue where he passed a moment of amour with some passante and to encounter no trace of her, nor of himself, evokes a sensation not of ‘déjà vu’, but of jamais vu—jamais vécu.
—Dean Kyte, “Chinatown(s)”
The one compromised pleasure that a man used to moving his gams as energetically as yours truly can take in the current, prison-like atmosphere of Melbourne is that forced confinement focuses the flâneur’s gaze inward.
Like Xavier de Maistre, who, in Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), takes the reader on a six-week walking tour around the room of a young officer under arrest in Turin, during the Melbourne lockdown, I’ve been taking flâneries through the footage I’ve shot in the course of my travels.
Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the product of one such prostrate promenade undertaken in bed as I flick through the files on my laptop.
One tires, after a time, of the narrow view afforded onto King street, and in such a blank, impersonal setting, eyes which are used to scanning the streets for occult meaning turn inward. Except in Paris, my introverted intuition has never been stronger than during this time: forced to look within myself for the visual stimulation I would usually seek externally in walking through the world, these days when I write or fool around with my old footage, new syntheses of memories and dreams emerge, new crystallizations of thought and image kaleidoscopically collide in miraculous revelations.
The prose poem I intone in the video above, “Chinatown(s)”, is one such synthesis of dream and memory, one such crystallization of thought and image.
I shot the raw footage on a rainy night in Little Bourke street a couple of years ago. Melbourne’s Chinatown is a particularly photogenic sight to see on nights when it’s raining hard, the red lanterns and the neon signs reflected viciously and viscously by the treacherous slate sidewalks.
Initially, I shot the footage with the intention of using it as the basis for one of the interactive menus on my latest Blu-ray Disc, Cinescritos: Writings in Image & Sound (2018). I set the camera up at a particular site in Little Bourke street which was as near as I could recall to the exact spot where I had tied into an attractive-looking dame whose life—and body—had briefly intersected with mine.
The dark and teary sky weeping on the camera lens, creating kaleidoscopic aureoles around the lanterns, had been intended to silently suggest what that spot means to me now.
But in looking back at the footage from the distance of two years hence, I suddenly recalled that this spot in Chinatown was significant to me for another brief but flaming intersection of bodies and lives: A deux pas behind the camera is Tattersalls lane, where, on another rainy day even further back in time, I had been lugged by a girl I had just as randomly picked up at my ‘office’ in Centre place.
One of the fun things for couples to do in Melbourne is to take a dérive around the city on a rainy winter’s day. Clinging to each other, flâneur and flâneuse, we took a random randonnée in the vicinity of Chinatown, escalating each other all the while.
In the course of our dérive, she steered me into Section 8, one of the more unusual Melbourne bars. It’s a popup bar cobbled together out of shipping pallets and packing containers in a carpark off Tattersalls lane. It’s not an ideal intimacy venue, but on an overcast, drizzly weekday morning when no one else is game to sit outside, you can end up going pretty far with a girl at Section 8—if the vibe between you is right.
We ended up going very far indeed that day—though not, the management will be relieved to hear, at Section 8. The place where she parted from my arms, a block east of Chinatown, was even more exposed than that, and again, the gentle rain that fell upon us as we inhaled each other’s kisses would seem, an eternity of minutes later, like a curtain of tears before my eyes as I watched her walk away forever.
I wrote in another post that I feel, after all my aventures, like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’: every femme is fatal for me, pumping a slug in my heart. And as I watched this one exit behind the curtain of tears that Melbourne lowered over the back-alley stage of our brief encounter, the mystery of the real, the way that what is external to us seems somehow to uncannily reflect the inner landscape of our consciousness, was an appropriate metaphor to mirror my perplexity at her départ.
So there is, as I evoke in the prose poem above, a sense of ‘oneiric encounter’, of sensual threat and promise for me about Melbourne’s Chinatown. It’s a place I tend to avoid in my flâneries, for the unbelievable successes in Daygame I’ve enjoyed there—(like dreams, they seem, in rational retrospect, almost too good to be true)—have left a couple of scars upon my heart.
Those two blocks of Little Bourke street evoke for me the ineffable yet dagger-like douleur au cœur I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
And because of the fragrant odour of sensual threat and promise they evoke, Chinatowns more generally arouse this acute, erotic melancholy in me. The last night I spent in Paris, a girl hauled me back to her apartment in the Chinese quartier of Belleville. I remember standing at her balcony that late summer evening as she showered off the day’s work. Snoop that I am, I was looking across the street—as narrow as Little Bourke street—at the little dollhouse lives of the Asian families in the apartment-house opposite.
Their quotidian reality seemed as sensual to me as the wooden railing beneath my hands, the image of them before my eyes as sensual as the image in my mind of the girl, as magnificent as a bather by Ingres, sudsing her pearl-like belly in a room behind me.
And like her, like the railing, like tout Paris, they too would disappear from before my eyes in a couple of hours.
In the prose poem, I refer to these enclaves of sensual mystery as ‘Chinese embassies’, for there is a sense of autonomy about Chinatowns, in whatever city you encounter them.
They are privileged zones. The Chinatown of a city is like an arcade without a roof: it has all the phantasmagoric characteristics of the ‘dream street’ that Walter Benjamin identified with the passage.
Their friendship arches, like the two polychrome portals which bracket the approach to Chinatown in Swanston and Exhibition streets, serve to delimit the zone of foreign exclusivity just as the entrances of an arcade delimit its exclusivity from the street. Their lanterns hang above the street like the gas-lamps which hang in serried rows around the peristyle of the arcade.
The only difference is that, instead of internalizing the external by putting a roof over the street, Chinatowns externalize the internal, by unroofing the multi-storey rue-galerie of shops, exposing these ‘cathedrals of commerce’, with their naves and side-chapels, to the scrutiny of heaven.
As Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong observe in their journal article “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019), this organization of the street upon different levels, mixing the commercial with the residential, the public space with the private, is more semantically crucial to how we interpret the architecture of global Chinatowns than in other built-up urban areas.
‘While Chinatowns worldwide vary in their histories, configurations, peoples, power, and imagery,’ McDonogh and Wong write, ‘they are invariably lived at street level …. [T]hese street-level interactions mean that our eyes stray upwards only momentarily to arches, signs, or cornices or downward to half-hidden shops….’
Franz Hessel, in his book Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital (1929), declared emphatically that ‘[t]he flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new.’
McDonogh and Wong touch upon the fact (although it seems to me that they miss its fundamental significance) that the verticality of Chinese calligraphy in neon signage attached, over several storeys, to the façades of buildings is key to the unique way in which the flâneur ‘reads the street’ of global Chinatowns.
With a pinch of Japanese and Chinese at my disposal, the lurid neon swooshes of Hànzì leering in the night is a little less obscure to me than to most occidental barbarians. Nevertheless, as a cunning linguist, the pleasure I derive from ‘reading the streets’ of Chinatowns is not unlike the difficult pleasure I derive from attempting to read a book written in a language I am not yet proficient in: the words, sentences and pages formed by the hieroglyphs of all those things Herr Hessel enumerates are not just fragrantly ‘new’, but however bright the Sinograms beam, there are still lacunas in my understanding as vast and dark as the night itself.
You can perhaps intuit why I equate the quotidian yet mysterious banality of Chinatowns with the matter-of-fact mysteries of female behaviour.
This admixture of clarity and obscurity is the exclusive province of those ‘zones of mystery and ambiguity’ we call Chinatowns, and they seem an environmental metaphor for the ‘trade’ (deniable as such because it is plausibly deniable) that women make of love. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the Chinese genius for commerce in a hostile environment locates what is readable by the barbarian with a minimum of interpretation squarely at street level. The exotic mysteries of the Orient, however, are discreetly concealed in storeys above or below.
The intrepid—or foolish—flâneur who ventures into Chinatown must cast his eyes in the direction of his desires, must read the promises or threats opaquely veiled behind façades, just as a man must read a woman’s essential character behind the glittering mask she puts up as a front. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the ‘resolutely ordinary’ character of actual Chinatown streets interacts with our imaginary of them as ‘mythic’ and ‘mystical’ places. Likewise, behind the smoke and mirrors, the prosaic banality of women interacts with our ‘pedestalization’ of them as idols of virtue or of vice.
The ‘walk on the wild side’ afforded by Australian Chinatowns is a pretty tepid flirtation with vice. Brisbane’s Chinatown is now—like the rest of Fortitude Valley—a desert of gentrification. Sydney’s is a very shabby affair. Adelaide’s seems like an appendix to the Central Markets—which is where the real flâneurial action lies.
Only in Melbourne, it seems to me, can some vestigial sense of exotic danger still be experienced in Chinatown, and it is, I think, a function of Victoria’s more intimate and symbiotic historical relationship with China. Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t an ‘historical Disneyland’ of a Chinatown, a ‘World’s Fair’ pavilion set down between Swanston and Exhibition streets; that much of its history has mercifully been erased.
No, it’s part of the historical fabric of Melbourne itself as a nineteenth-century city, a Gold Rush city, with all the cosmopolitan grandeur of fabulous wealth built on the corrupt grasping of international chancers.
Though he makes no direct allusion to Chinatown, in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), the great nineteenth-century novel of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, Fergus Hume situates Little Bourke street as the epicentre of poverty and vice. After a dazzling tour of its big brother (as busy as its proverbial reputation), he leads us into Little Bourke street, whose lineaments we can still vaguely discern in Chinatown to this day:
‘But his guide, with whom familiarity with the proletarians had, in a great measure, bred indifference, hurried him away to Little Bourke Street, where the narrowness of the street, with the high buildings on each side, the dim light of the sparsely scattered gas lamps, and the few ragged looking figures slouching along, formed a strong contrast to the brilliant and crowded scene they had just left.’
San Francisco is another of these ‘nouveau riche’ nineteenth-century Gold Rush cities whose tony veneer of sophistication is like so much gilt over its foundations built on the hard graft and grasping for gold, and like Melbourne, it is famous for its Chinatown.
The symbiotic relationship that the Chinatowns of these cities have to their circumambient urban fabric is, I would contend, a function of the historical symbiosis of Orientals and Occidentals in San Francisco and Melbourne.
Their Chinatowns are more than ‘Eastern embassies’ that have failed to really take root on Western soil: they are, through their Gold Rush heritage, thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of their cities. The piquant charm of the Far East they add to the gaudy neoclassical architecture pining for the respectability of a European capital is part of the peculiar native charm of San Francisco and Melbourne.
The similarity between these two cities separated by an ocean is striking. In his story “Dead Yellow Women” (1925), the quintessential writer of San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, has the Continental Op loosen his laconic tongue just enough to provide this vivid description:
‘San Francisco’s Chinatown jumps out of the shopping district at California Street and runs north to the Latin Quarter—a strip two blocks wide by six long….
‘Grant Avenue, the main street and spine of the strip, is for most of its length a street of gaudy shops and flashy chop-suey houses catering to the tourist trade, where the racket of American jazz orchestras drowns the occasional squeak of a Chinese flute. Farther out, there isn’t so much paint and gilt, and you can catch the proper Chinese smell of spices and vinegar and dried things. If you leave the main thoroughfares and showplaces and start poking around in alleys and dark corners, and nothing happens to you, the chances are you’ll find some interesting things—though you won’t like some of them.’
Swap Swanston for California street, and Little Bourke street for Grant avenue, and the description might almost hold for Melbourne—including the final, stinging remark. For if I have found the femmes I’ve stumbled over in the laneways leading off Little Bourke street to be ‘interesting specimens’, in my bafflement after the fact, when I’ve woken up from the opium dream of their seductive charms, I haven’t liked the feeling that I’ve just had my breast pocket picked.
As an operative of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch, the Op is what we might call a ‘professional flâneur’ in Chinatown, though he would prefer the title he often gives himself of ‘manhunter’. I might occasionally tail some quail in Chinatown, but the Op is a big game hunter, after birds of any feather who are up to their necks in bad juju.
McDonogh and Wong state: ‘Chinatowns as mythic places often are linked to icons … of underground mysteries from film and literature that contribute to the global imaginary of Chinatowns.’ They remark ‘how powerfully Chinatown is an imagined space in popular culture, where truth and fiction mingle and images flow from cinema to history to tourism.’
Which leads me to the greatest depiction of this fluid, feminine zone of mystery and ambiguity in literature and film—Roman Polanski’s flâneur movie par excellence, Chinatown (1974), in which the eponymous, putative setting hardly figures as a physical place.
Chinatown, to which the movie’s hero, Angeleno private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), makes constant, obsessive reference, is the primal scene of sexual trauma from which he cannot escape. Gittes, with his sharp suits, Florsheim shoes, and polished Hollywood manner, may have transcended his days as a flatfoot in L.A.’s Chinatown, but his profession as a ‘bedroom dick’ puts him right back in the torrid zone of fluid, feminine ambiguity.
He tells his paramour, black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), that Chinatown is a place that bothers everyone who works there. ‘You can’t always tell what’s going on,’ he says to this dame who’s as difficult to read as a Chinese newspaper. ‘Like with you.’
When you’re playing spoon with such a dish, it’s best to follow the advice the District Attorney gives his men in Chinatown and do ‘as little as possible’—for, as Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), tells Gittes, while ‘you may think you know what you’re dealing with, … believe me, you don’t.’
Gittes is the flâneur figure-cum-detective: his social mobility gives him a unique droit de cité in L.A., transcending the strata of society from grand monde to demi-monde, allowing him to read the tenor of the streets with the same vertical orientation that the flâneur must use as his compass in Chinatown.
In this world turned on its side, one might almost say that in the all-encompassing diffuseness of the criminal and sexual conspiracy he finds himself drowning in, ‘Chinatown’, for Gittes, is hardly a localized place but a state of doubleness, of recursive multiplicity that constitutes the whole of L.A.—a fluid nexus of evil whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
And, of course, at the heart of Gittes’ fearful yet fascinated relationship with Chinatown, there is his relationship with a woman—or women, rather. ‘Cherchez la femme,’ Mrs. Mulwray philosophically says as they lay abed after exertions, echoing the demands and directives of Gittes’ clients—and other interested parties—that he should ‘find the girl’ if he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.
But like water, there is no bottom to women’s mystery, and the alluring vessel is as arbitrary a beginning or ending point as the portals set over Chinatowns worldwide.
These are some of the thoughts I attempted to express in the video and prose poem above. In these times when contact with the outer world of Melbourne is forbidden to me, I turn my gaze inward and meditate on the mysteries of the women I have known in my flâneries around town, whose painful memories and perplexing dreams I thought I had drowned in the heart of me.
But, like the Lady in the Lake, they are not drowned, merely sleeping, and can be awoken once again by a pure heart.
I’ve made the soundtrack of this video available for purchase on my Bandcamp profile. If you would like to shout me half a coffee, you can download “Chinatown(s)” for $A2.00 and have the pleasure of my dulcet tones intoning the prose poem in your lugs pour toujours. Just click the link below.
What’s Melbourne like to live in at the moment? Grim, Jack. Very grim.
The world’s most liveable city has descended into something like the Mexican hell that Jim Thompson describes at the end of The Getaway: once you’re in the gulag, baby, there ain’t no way of getting out.
Except via the wooden kimono.
It was a little less than three months ago that I announced to you that long-term parking during Lockdown 1.0 had not been wasted time for yours truly. In this post, I announced that, besides having time to pen 27,000 words of commentary on the Coronavirus crisis, I had had time to write five complete drafts of a 6,000-7,000-word book on same for my seven-year-old niece.
Well, today I can announce that another massive step towards publishing this book has been accomplished: During Lockdown 2.0, I’ve had time to completely edit the audiobook version of my next book, recorded while I was ‘on parole’ between incarcerations.
You can listen to a sample of the audiobook above.
I am also pleased to announce the title of my forthcoming book: Letter to My Niece: Reflections during Lockdown on COVID, Technology, and the Next Generation’s Future.
It took me nearly 66 hours to research and write five complete drafts of this letter in which I attempt to explain the Coronavirus situation to my little niece; discuss the rôle I think that technology—particularly artificial intelligence—will play in her future; set forth some principles for moral comportment which I hope will serve her in times of existential uncertainty; and try to impart to her some spiritual message of hope, despite the darkness I foresee.
When I finished writing the letter on June 2, stay-at-home restrictions in Victoria were tentatively easing: we were at the end of our first week of post-lockdown liberty, although I, in a fever of literary activity, had still not left my little room at The Miami Hotel in West Melbourne.
I had my first housesit in two months scheduled for two days later in Bacchus Marsh, and I was determined the finish the manuscript before booking to Bacchus, so I could record the audiobook whilst there.
I said it took me nearly 66 hours to research and write the book from end to end. Well, to give you some comparison, it took me 5 ½ hours to record it and 48 ½ hours to edit it—a total of 54 hours.
In other words, it took me nearly as much time to record and edit what I wrote as it took me to write it.
But if you had told me at the beginning of June that five weeks later, after a brief flirtation with freedom, Melbourne would be slammed back in the slammer, and I would be editing—for weeks on end—the audio version of what I had written in the same little cell where I wrote it for weeks on end, I would hope, Señor, that you are—how you say?—loco.
No estás loco.
Copying the mail of chatter from states to the north and west of us, I doubt that anybody outside Victoria can really appreciate how dark the last two months have been for us—especially for those of us here in Melbourne.
We’re in a Stasi state: we’ve been jailed by our government for their incompetence during Lockdown #1.
When I announced the completion of Letter to My Niece to you in June, I said that I felt privileged to be a writer during the first lockdown, that the process of writing a book by hand for my little niece under such circumstances had felt like a reconnection with my ancient avocation: As the greatest minds have passed the lessons of their experience down to us by hand, their words surviving wars, pandemics and other catastrophes, so I was passing on a few sign posts gleaned from my own experience to the next generation.
But in Lockdown #2, there have been nights when I have sat in the little hotel room I am obliged by law not to leave and have literally cried at the unbelievable and escalating horror of Soviet-style repression I am ‘privileged’ to live through and bear witness to as a writer.
When I hear the horrendous tales of people’s despair in Melbourne during this second lockdown, I don’t feel privileged to be a writer, I feel fortunate.
I feel fortunate to have spent 37 years of life honing the mastercraft of focusing one’s mind and directing it, day after day, towards the realization of a distant goal: the translation of abstract thought into crystallized words on paper.
But for honing the mastercraft of focusing my mind and striving each day of this second incarceration to create—and re-create—the words I wrote three months ago in Letter to My Niece as an audiobook, I might easily be one of the heart-breaking number of people in Melbourne who, imprisoned by the Government, have ended their empty days in despair.
As I argued in this post, in understanding the situation here in Melbourne which precipitated a second lockdown, you cannot underestimate the rôle that boredom, that ennui, that a society of the spectacle suddenly relieved of all its levers of distraction played in metastasizing the discontent Melburnians feel with the Andrews Government.
A vacuum was created―and into lives and minds made suddenly empty, the Devil can find plenty of work to fill idle hands.
Fortunately, as a writer, I have work that occupies both mind and hands, and as much of an unendurable grind as I found it to edit 5 ½ hours of my own voice down to 67 minutes and 12 seconds, to turn up each day and winnow four more minutes of audio out of three hours’ work was as satisfying as that feeling a writer gets when the unenvisageable end of his book is finally glimmering on the horizon.
Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t the pleasure of hearing my own voice for three hours a day that kept my bird up!
No, it was a repetition of the effect I had experienced in writing the words during Lockdown #1.
It happens very, very rarely, but occasionally I write words that move me to tears, and being as merciless a critic of my own work as I am, when that all too rare event happens, I know the words are good.
Getting no words of hope from the Premier, I got them from myself.
When I recorded the voice track at Bacchus, I wasn’t aiming for anything except to get through what I knew would be an all-day slog of reading as efficiently as possible.
But when, several weeks later, I began to assemble and edit the raw tracks on the timeline and cobble together ‘perfect takes’ of each sentence, much as, when writing my books, I edit my sentences down to their final, ‘perfect’ form, I was astonished to hear something in my voice I was too exhausted to notice as I was recording it.
As I edited the voice track, I was occasionally moved to tears to hear my message to my little niece delivered with an intensity, and a sincerity, and a sternness of conviction we don’t often hear from so-called ‘leaders’, and other public speakers, today.
There isn’t a parental—let alone a paternal—bone in my body, and yet I was surprised to hear an almost ‘fatherly’ tone of intense, stern conviction—as of a man setting forth an uncompromising vision with the rectitude of absolute candour—in my voice, a tone which I hardly recognized as my own.
In keeping with the bespoke æsthetic of Letter to My Niece, it was important to me that my little niece should not only be able to read my words to her in my own hand, but that she should be able to hear my voice speaking the message of hope I had written to her.
The number of times I’ve spoken to her on the telephone could be counted on less than five fingers, so she has no knowledge of who her uncle is, what kind of character that man has, or what he believes in. The audiobook, as a kind of ‘read-along’ accompaniment to the text, was intended to give her as bespoke a reading experience and as intimate an introduction to her uncle as it’s possible for so intimate a medium for communicating thought to give.
So, having got through the grind of editing the audiobook, I’m up to the design and layout phase of my Artisanal Desktop Publishing process. I hope to be able to post one more update on my progress, giving you a glimpse of what I envision for the handwritten manuscript in book form, before I officially release Letter to My Niece in the Dean Kyte Bookstore.
I can hardly wait to add a fresh product to the Bookstore, but as I tell my clients, the working of writing and publishing is ‘a work of many days’, and wait I must—at least for a few more days yet.
Have you checked out my Bookstore lately? It’s undergoing a renovation and revamp, and I’m very pleased with how it’s progressing.
I’ve also instituted a new ‘custom order’ service, so each product page has a contact form whereby you can inquire with me directly about bespoke orders.
If you have any special requests, such as that you would like me to write a specific, personalised message when I sign and dedicate the book to you, or if you would like to purchase a number of books as gifts and want me to take care of distribution on your behalf, you can drop me a line via these contact forms and I can negotiate a custom deal with you, bespoke to your needs.
You will find me very willing to accommodate you as best I can. Particularly if you know someone down here who could use the company of a good book, I’ll go out of my way to write an encouraging dedication and prepare a thoughtful package for them.
Your Melbourne Flâneur has been conspicuously quiet the past few weeks, despite events in Melbourne which demand urgent comment and analysis.
The reason for the buttoned-up bouche is very simple: I’ve been trying to keep the little barque of my small business afloat—in spite of the unconscionable economic vandalism being visited upon Victoria from week to week by Daniel Andrews and his government.
So I may as well throw in a plug for myself at the start. If you’ve been following my critiques of the Coronavirus situation with interest, you might also be interested in the personal services I can provide to you. If you’re a creative writer and you’re seeking to self-publish a thoroughly bespoke book, my Artisanal Desktop Publishing service is probably the ticket for you. I can bring the same critical scrutiny to editing your work as I’ve brought to analysing the Coronavirus crisis.
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All right, enough with the word from our sponsors. Let’s unbottle the tough talk.
So in my last post on the Coronavirus, I made some predictions that rapidly proved to be prescient. Principally, I said that the next frontier in the battle about the deadly reality of this invisible belief would be fought over masks, and I noted that Victorian premier Daniel Andrews—while not making the wearing of face coverings compulsory in Melbourne at that time—had strongly lent the colour of his support to them, which suggested an imminent move towards mandating masks.
A week later, the Premier announced that you could not put your snoot outside your door in Melbourne without a muzzle over it, under pain of a $200 fine.
There are times I hate being right, particularly when it comes to my occupational talent for reading the characters of people and predicting what they will do.
Mr. Andrews couldn’t win a hand in a poker game: he telegraphs his tells a week in advance of his play.
I was sincerely hoping he would not prove me right because I knew what it would mean for his character, and for the consequential state of play of this crisis in Victoria.
It would mean that the Premier was not capable of strategic thinking, merely tactical, and that he was prepared to risk plunging not just Melbourne or Victoria but the whole country into a Hobbesian state of nature for the sake of one ill-defined goal on the health dimension.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a political philosopher who lived through the English Civil War. He observed to what a spectacular extent civil society can break down into a naked competition for individual power and resources. Hobbes defined this condition as ‘the state of nature’—a multi-polar environment of mutual fear and distrust in which individuals leverage whatever tools, tactics and strategies of violence they have at their disposal to extractively centralize power and resources to themselves in a zero-sum game.
In his book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes described this state of nature as a ‘war of every man against every man’, and he said that the life of the individual in the state of nature would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
The zero-sum dynamics which underwrite our Faustian civilization in decline tend necessarily to drive us towards a Hobbesian state of nature: the fallacy of infinite derivatives in a world of finite resources must eventually lead to a societal collapse as our civilizational Ponzi scheme folds under its own unsustainable exponent.
You can’t keep Hoovering resources up to the top of the pyramid without the foundations collapsing under the weight. And when that happens, alienated individuals start taking resources for themselves.
If you want to see what a state of nature might look like, take a glance across the pond at Portland and Seattle: the looting and rioting in those cities should be read as a cautionary tale of the civilizational collapse humanity is courting.
We’ve been slowly sliding towards the abyss of an all-out war of all against all for a very long time. But it took the Coronavirus to expose just how weak the veneer of civility—and civilization—is in Western society.
Way back in March I raised the alarm with you in my first post on the Coronavirus, stating unequivocally that a global systems collapse had been triggered by the pandemic which would cascade through the economic system, through the political system, and ultimately through the geopolitical system.
I would propose that the more a civilization in its late period of senescent decadence tends towards a Hobbesian state of nature, the more one sees a quality I would call ‘mediocrity’ emerge—not only in the macro-character of its social and political institutions, but in the micro-character of the people who comprise them.
More specifically, in the descent towards a Hobbesian state of nature, we begin to more conspicuously notice in failing institutions such as governments the progressive emergence of individuals who are adept at playing the Hobbesian zero-sum power game of resource centralization and extraction from the commons.
Indeed, in the Hobbesian state of nature, I would argue, these mediocre individuals are naturally selected for by the mediocre conditions of the system.
In other words, mediocre individuals whose only genius is the tactical animal cunning which enables an organism to more or less optimally negotiate a salience landscape of risks and rewards in a state of nature begin to populate social and political institutions with increasing conspicuousness.
In the Western Anglosphere, for instance, it is hardly controversial to notice that the leaders of the four major English-speaking democracies—Mr. Trump in the United States, Mr. Johnson in Great Britain, Mr. Trudeau in Canada, and Mr. Morrison here in Australia—are all men who, prior to entering political life, had careers in the public sphere involving pretence, mendacity, deception or dissimulation—qualities which, if we were not living in conditions of an escalating state of nature, would have disqualified them for public office.
As an entrepreneur, Mr. Trump was an unashamed con man. Mr. Johnson debased the profession of journalism with his lies. Mr. Morrison had a career in ‘marketing’, and Mr. Trudeau was, of all things, a drama teacher.
In the Hobbesian state of nature, a capacity to pretend, to deceive, to dissemble, dissimulate or outright lie with bravura is not a political liability but a positive asset—for in a multi-polar environment of mutual distrust, in order to maximize one’s personal resources, one must be able to forge alliances of a temporary and contingent nature with other actors.
There are some resources which cannot be extracted from powerful rivals by main force but which require the subtle dissimulation of allyship in order for one to gain access to them. These men at the apices of the pyramids of power in their respective countries are currently the most adept exemplars of the socially pathological phenomenon I call ‘mediocrity’.
Daniel Andrews is also a mediocre person.
But as, when I apply the word ‘mediocre’ to somebody, I mean it as a term of art which describes the integral quality of their character, its capacity under pressure, not as an insulting epithet, it would be as well to provide a technical definition of mediocrity, of the maladaptive, pathological traits which I believe the mediocre person typically possesses in the state of nature where he or she thrives—for the state of nature is the ‘ecological niche’ of the mediocre person.
In essence, my definition of the mediocre person is a conflation of Spengler’s Megalopolitan man and Flaubert’s bourgeois. Spengler describes the pathology of this human phenomenon in The Decline of the West, while Flaubert, in Madame Bovaryand in Bouvard et Pécuchet, illustrates the character of the mediocre person in action.
The mediocre person is a creature of the city in a civilization’s senescent period of decline, and as, in our Faustian Western civilization, the Megalopolis of ‘the City’ is now the World Wide Web, a global caliphate that is everywhere, we are all creatures of the city, and therefore more or less mediocre.
I’ll leave it to Spengler to describe the mediocre late-City man: ‘They are the market-place loungers of Alexandria and Rome, the newspaper-readers of our own corresponding time; the “educated” man who then and now makes a cult of intellectual mediocrity and a church of advertisement; the man of the theatres and places of amusement, of sport and “best-sellers”.’
It’s perhaps worth noticing that in that short sentence, Spengler identifies all the métiers practiced by the four conspicuous examples of political mediocrity I identified above—journalism (Mr. Johnson), advertising (Mr. Morrison), theatre (Mr. Trudeau) and sport and other places of amusement, such as casinos, wrestling and television (Mr. Trump).
In its feminine manifestation, the mediocre person is Emma Bovary, indefatigably fatigued with ennui, and hence the constant victim of fashion. And in its masculine form, the mediocre person is la Bovary’s nemesis, the progressive, pragmatically materialist pharmacist M. Homais, whom Flaubert later reprised as his two hapless copy-clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet.
Flaubert, in his pathological hatred for his own class, the bourgeoisie, delineates the essential qualities of the mediocre person, whom Spengler defines as ‘small and shrewd’, amply possessed of the animal cunning of the trading class. Let us not forget that the etymology of the word ‘mediocre’ stems in part from the Latin medius—‘of middle degree, quality or rank.’
The mediocre person, by Flaubert’s lights, is eminently ‘middle-class’.
And the thing about the mediocre person is that he is not unintelligent. You don’t get very far in the game of mercantile resource centralization and extraction if you don’t have an edge of intelligence over your competitors. But I consider this form of ‘tactical’ intelligence to be ‘mere animal cunning’, the application of the predatory instinct to the social realm which is the human equivalent to the pure state of nature.
This form of predatory intelligence is purely middle of the range. The life of the bourgeois, citified person is entirely geared towards the goal of maximal personal resource centralization and extraction from the commons, and his education system is necessarily geared towards facilitating this practical end.
But intelligence is really an index of one’s problem-solving faculties. It’s true that ‘making a living’ in the social realm, extracting the resources from it that supports one’s life, is as much a demonstration of the human capacity to solve problems as the tactics and techniques that other organisms have evolved to extract resources from their environments.
But at the human level of intelligence, there are higher order problems to be solved than merely extracting the resources that one needs to make a living—particularly when the problems are of a species-wide, existential nature.
The most conspicuous aspect of the mediocre person is what Spengler calls his ‘intellectual mediocrity’, his relatively modest cognitive capacity to perform these higher order mental operations of abstract problem solving.
The mediocre person is narrowly educated to be ‘fit for purpose’ in the economic domain of resource extraction, but he is conspicuously poor in his capacity to perform sovereign sensemaking. Thus, he is the continual prey of ideological possession: the mediocre person doesn’t have ideas of his own; ideas have him. He is their spokesperson.
This is the ‘deindividuated memetic possession’ I spoke of in an earlier post on the Coronavirus as being a characteristic of low internal individualism, the deprecation of individual freedom of thought in favour of individual freedom of action.
And it was this characterological flaw of the bourgeoisie that Flaubert mercilessly satirized at the end of his life with his Dictionnaire des idées reçues, recognizing that mediocre people imbibe their ideas from the air exhaled by those around them.
I would submit that, en revanche, genuine intelligence is a capacity to handle complexity at a sufficiently high level of resolution; to tease all the relevant variables of a problem apart, like the strands of a great tapestry; to hold them separate yet relative in their dynamic relations with one another for as long as possible as one negotiates a solution which strategically balances these variables.
Except in the STEM fields, where we have scientists working tirelessly to discover a vaccine for the Coronavirus, that kind of intelligence, that kind of strategic thinking does not appear to be in very great supply to us in negotiating the aspects of this crisis which touch most directly on people—on the social, political and economic variables of this problem.
The short-term, tactical response of mediocre leaders such as Daniel Andrews is more to throw oneself bodily on the brake of one dimension—the health aspect of this crisis—and say, ‘Well, we will sort out all the long-term damage done on the other dimensions after we have got numbers under control.’
Yet it’s precisely that approach of looking to tactically solve one salient variable in the short term by ignoring, delaying or commuting the long-term strategic solution of tangential variables which has weakened our entangled global systems to the point of civilizational collapse.
The sensemaking capacities of our socio-political institutions—including governments—are found wanting in this crisis, and in Victoria, from day to day new evidence emerges—despite the Government’s efforts to keep mum—that both the institutions responsible for the state’s response to the Coronavirus and the individuals who comprise them are mediocre thinkers—tacticians whose short-term problem-solving skills backfired in the long term.
One of the major problems for collective sensemaking in negotiating the incomputable number of variables associated with our existential crises lies in the realization that democratized universal education—the Western model of mercantile education for narrow economic purpose—has failed our civilization.
We have three generations of the most educated human beings in history currently alive, and their pieces of parchment ostensibly credential these people as the most intelligent cohort of human beings who have ever lived at any one time in history.
But education is a Hobbesian resource extraction game too. In the civilizational Ponzi scheme of infinite derivatives extracted from finite resources, democratized education is another numbers game: You’ve got to get a lot of suckers through the doors of the universities; soak the value out of them; pass them (since that is what they’re paying you for in exchange for the exorbitant debt you’re saddling them with); and credential them—no matter how mediocre the quality of their thought.
And because, in the Western model of mercantile education for narrow economic purpose, universities are the gateways to the professions, you don’t have to follow this Ponzi logic many steps along the chain before you realize the dire consequences for collective sensemaking in all the institutions we depend upon for a civilized life—from law, to banking, to media, to education, and to public policy.
But in this competitive landscape of personal advancement, the capability to rise to an ultimate position of hierarchical eminence which is beyond one’s sensemaking capacity to properly serve in represents one’s optimal capacity to fraudulently extract resources from the economy and centralize them to oneself.
And when all our institutions are populated by people who are not well-placed to serve our collective sensemaking and problem-solving needs, but are excellently placed to serve their own private interests, we are primed for a Hobbesian state of nature to ensue under conditions of common existential crisis and civilizational collapse.
Public life in these periods when the cultural paradigm is in decline attracts only mediocre people—short-term tactical thinkers like Mr. Andrews in Victoria, and Messrs. Trump, Johnson, Trudeau, Morrison et al. on the world stage. It doesn’t attract the long-term strategic thinkers, for ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’
Spengler, co-opting the name given to that sanguinary epoch of ancient Chinese history, calls the Hobbesian state of nature in which mediocre individuals vie for political power ‘the Period of Contending States’. He says: ‘In the degree in which the nations cease to be politically in “condition,” in that degree possibilities open up for the energetic private person who means to be politically creative, who will have power at any price, and who as a phenomenon of force becomes the Destiny of an entire people…. [W]e have now the accident of great fact-men. The accident of their rise brings a weak people … to the peak of events overnight, and the accident of their death … can immediately plunge a world from personally secured order into chaos.’
Tactical thinking is about maximizing short-term benefits by negotiating a salience landscape of long-term costs. Like a pinball glancing off an array of scoring targets, you negotiate a chancy path through this valley of consequential hazards which involves trying to maximize your current resources in the hopes that you will have enough of them at your disposal to eventually deal with the long-terms costs you are ignoring, delaying, or commuting.
The worst leaders are those who are the most brilliant at tactics, for, as Mr. Trump demonstrates, their agile, impulsive responsiveness to the random windfalls of chance in a rapidly evolving situation is often in temperamental contrast to the skill of predictively calculating long-term consequences and orienting micro-actions towards macro-goals.
It’s the difference between playing checkers and go.
Like all the so-called ‘leaders’ of our time, Daniel Andrews, by the evidence of his decisions, amply demonstrates that he is not capable of strategic thinking, the balanced negotiation of short-term costs to ensure the achievement of a long-term goal, because he is, like all the so-called ‘leaders’ of our time, a mediocre person.
The evidence of his decisions demonstrates that he has risen to a position beyond the level of his sensemaking competence, but not beyond the level of his capacity to play the Hobbesian social game for fun and profit.
The quality of Mr. Andrews’ thought is mediocre. His manipulation of the ‘algebra of thought’—human language—to express his tactical calculations is mediocre.
Strategic leadership, the capacity to inspire social coherence by virally communicating a vivid, memetic sense of the situation which can be shared by a population, cannot emerge from tactical mediocrity in conditions of existential crisis.
Statesmen are poets in their thinking and speech: they communicate ‘the big picture’ so that the population can share their strategic vision and get behind it.
In the late period of civilizational decline, however, the politicians who emerge to seize power are small and mean prosateurs—eminently bourgeois in their mediocre thinking and speech.
Mr. Andrews cannot bring the Victorian people together behind a shared sense of what the Coronavirus situation is and what it means because, in his own mediocrity of thought and expression, he himself lacks the strategic capacity to visualize the landscape of salient hazards thrown up by the lurgy at a sufficiently high level of resolution and predictively calculate alternate pathways through it.
The aim of strategy in this situation is to find a pathway which balances the endurance of acceptable costs by the population on all relevant dimensions—not merely the health variable—so as to maximize the long-term benefits for the society from the short-term costs of their temporary distress.
The decisions that the Premier has made on the social, political and economic dimensions of this problem have the hollow, panicky ring of tactics about them rather the solid, reassuring ring of strategy.
Mr. Andrews’ government has lost its legitimacy as a prescriptive authority. The authoritarian, Scientific Managerial approach the Premier has taken to this networkcentric problem—the dictates on mandatory masks, the escalation of repressive restrictions, the imposition of draconian curfews—is evidence that, due to his mediocrity as thinker, speaker, and leader, Mr. Andrews’ has, as I predicted at the end of my last post, lost the capacity to inspire endogenous compliance by Melburnians.
When you take an authoritarian, hierarchical Scientific Management approach to a networkcentric problem, you only attempt to impose more overt control on the problem when it is already clear that you have lost it.
So to anyone studying the science, when the Premier mandated the wearing of masks in Melbourne on 22 July, three weeks into the Stage 3 lockdown when everyone ought properly to have been at home, he was making the tacit admission that the Government had lost control of social distancing, had lost its monopoly on violence to restrict the movement of its citizens, and had therefore lost its legitimacy as a prescriptive authority.
Melburnians were refusing to keep apart from one another by staying at home. In effect, when he mandated the compulsory wearing of masks in public, the Premier, having lost control of the people, was throwing up his hands and saying: ‘If you insist on breaking the rules by going outside and mingling, at least wear a mask while you’re doing it.’
There are calls for Mr. Andrews to resign, but in my view, that too is an example of short-term tactical thinking.
There is nothing to be strategically gained, as far as I can tell, from removing Mr. Andrews now: Despite the revelations of his thoroughgoing incompetence, no challenger has stepped forward who demonstrates that he has a better familiarity with this crisis as it is relevant to Victoria at the macro-level than the Premier has acquired in the past five months, so it makes no sense to change horses mid-race.
The Premier must seek to undo the damage he has done.
Moreover, in the Hobbesian state of nature into which we are entering, you have more to fear in the long term from the person who demonstrates a more exquisite degree of mediocrity by dispatching the present incumbent in a coup than from the incumbent himself.
But if our democracy endures to another election, Mr. Andrews will have to step aside from the leadership of his party. Unless he can tactically capitalize upon some extraordinary and inconceivable stroke of good fortune which entirely cancels out the record of his incompetence in this crisis and puts his reputation with the electorate into surplus, he is unsalvageably tainted and a political liability to his party.
They can’t retain political hold of resources with Lurch at the helm.
But whoever follows Daniel Andrews as premier, from whatever side of politics he or she comes, the odds are six, two and even that his successor will be of even more mediocre character than the Chairman of the Hoard himself.
Better put your seatbelt on. There’s turbulence up ahead.
It’s time once again to take up my pen and make some pragmatic appraisals of the current situation vis-à-vis the Coronavirus here on The Melbourne Flâneur.
As the world’s most liveable city is filed in the deep freeze yet again, your correspondent is embedded in a trench à deux pas from the front line: I have merely to turn my head and take a hinge out the window and I’m nez-à-nez with North Melbourne.
So, what brought Melbourne to the extraordinary pass where the Premier was forced to reinstitute a metro-wide lockdown last Thursday?
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews didn’t exactly fall on his sword in his self-denouncing copping to culpability over the State’s handling of hotel quarantine. It was, methinks, more an energetic probing of one’s innards with a poniard.
It will be for the State and Commonwealth inquiries to ultimately determine to what extent mishandling of Victoria’s hotel quarantine procedures was causative in the increase of community transmission we saw throughout June. But to the snoopy snout of yours truly, the smoking pistol doesn’t seem to lie in this direction.
The breeze seems to my sniffer to be blowing from another direction, and I don’t buy the official line set forth by the Government and the media.
Now, of course, we should bear in mind—(for the Premier has bored us to tears with the repetition of this fact)—that Victoria has had one of the highest rates of testing for Coronavirus anywhere in the world, and the markedly different numbers in Victoria as compared to the rest of the country are in some sense a function of the fact that the testing regimen here has been so thorough.
But, as I’m going to argue throughout this article, Melbourne is once again under lockdown because of what might be called the ‘convenience of invisibility’ associated with this virus, and the more or less arbitrary response people can make in orienting their behaviour towards the reality of it due to its invisibility and its latency of manifestation.
In Victoria, the decision was taken to delay the easing of lockdown restrictions and the phased re-opening of the economy by a week or two, until more testing had been done.
One can debate the virtue of caution demonstrated in this decision, but as regards the rigorous attitude taken towards testing and data aggregation in Victoria with respect to the rest of the nation, the question for collective sensemaking seems to me to hinge on this point:
Given that the enemy is invisible; given its paradoxical speed of transmission and latency of manifestation; given its astonishing breadth of manifestation—from no symptoms at all right through to mortal respiratory failure—if one chooses to believe in the reality of a foe who reconciles all these contradictions in itself, such that it beggars the common sense and credulity of ordinary people to believe in it, and then one tests accordingly for this foe on the premises that it exists, that it is widespread, and that it is a clear and present danger to the community, one is going to find—as in the case of Victoria—more of what one is looking for than if one takes a less rigorous approach based on more limited credulity.
The cautious decisions taken by the State Government seem to reflect these assumptions in sensemaking.
Yet even within Victoria, the competition of credence and scepticism about the reality and severity of the Coronavirus, and the necessity for the hard economic measures which were taken to check it, was gathering political and social momentum.
By the middle of May, the Premier was under pressure for his apparent feet-dragging over the implementation of the COVIDSafe Roadmap. The sedative of cash injections, which had kept people safely closeted on their fainting couches at home, was starting to wear off, and the natives were now getting restless, both physically and morally.
They wanted to get out of the house, and those with any financial stake in the economy wanted to get Victoria, the engine-room of the nation, firing on all four cylinders again.
In an egregious example of what I called, in an earlier article in this series, ‘online viral incivility’, Tim Smith, an Opposition front-bencher, tweeted that the Premier was a ‘friendless loser’ for his lenteur in opening up the state again to free movement and trade, and compared him to Lurch from The Addams Family.
But the criticism that the Premier’s approach to the easing of restrictions during the month of May was contradictory and inconsistent is valid. On 24 May, with daily cases wrestled back down to ‘sustainable’ levels, Mr. Andrews announced that on Tuesday 26 May, the state would slowly begin to unzip the kimono in earnest.
The strategy was to join other states in territories at step 2 of the three-step recovery roadmap on 1 June, but with some modifications. Restaurants, pubs and cafés—the agoras of Melbourne life—which were assumed, under the national roadmap, to be already open, would only be allowed to open their doors to sit-in patrons on 1 June, though at the capacity commensurate with step 2.
Tuesday 26 May is a very significant date on the Coronavirus timeline. For as we were taking our first fresh breaths of the changeable Melbourne climate, fifteen hours behind us in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a man named George Floyd was taking his last breaths of life.
The significance of this event for the metastasis of the Coronavirus situation has not been properly appreciated. This distant event, which would have been hardly remarked in Melbourne if the equilibrium of life had not been so thoroughly knocked off its axis by the world-historical disruption of a global pandemic, is more central to our current local crisis than many people realize, or the institutional authorities of government and media care to admit.
This unfortunate incident took preponderant hold of the public imaginary all over the world, and it also took hold in Melbourne, erasing from memory events in the media cycle which were much more locally relevant and had equally exercised the outrage of Melburnians only a month before.
A Spenglerian view of history is required to appreciate what is not even an irony but a deep morphological accord of nature, a ‘rhyme’ in the poetry of time which connects events in Melbourne and Minneapolis across miles and a month.
It’s a deep synchronicity of history that on 22 April, four police officers should be killed on Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway, the driver allegedly responsible for their deaths videoing and crowing over their final moments before fleeing the scene, and that on 25 May, one man in Minneapolis should be just as outrageously killed by four police officers, his final moments also obscenely videoed.
These two events are mirrors, inversions of each other, beats in the exponentially accelerating tattoo which time, in the 21st century, is undergoing as we cycle at ever-shortening revolutions towards existential catastrophe and civilizational collapse.
In the Spenglerian view, they are, in fact, the same event repeated: only in the superficial details, the ‘manifest content’ of the news stories, are they different from one another. In their deepest morphology, they subscribe in all essentials to the structure and pattern of events which is characteristic of our post-Faustian times.
Both are manifestations of the principle of networkcentricity which I stated, in an earlier post, as being not only the fundamental characteristic of the Coronavirus, but of the conditions of life in the 21st century.
So why, then, should one event as horrific, as callous, and as contemptuous of human life as another, separated only by the beat of a month, have inspired a global phase shift of viral incivility online, the wave of which swept to engulf Melbourne, and the other, closer to home, should not?
The answer, I would submit, is that the exponent of belief, of credulity in the reality of the Coronavirus and the necessity of containing it, was higher in the month of April than it was in the month of May, and served to constrain the exponent of metastasizing viral incivility, which had itself undergone a step function in April and May due to the enforced idleness of a global lockdown.
Though the deaths of the four police officers on the Eastern Freeway, and the alleged behaviour of Richard Pusey, the man responsible for their deaths, was equally as outrageous as the death of George Floyd and the behaviour of Derek Chauvin and the other police officers responsible for his death, the response of Melburnians in April was not to stage a ‘peaceful riot’ to protest the outrageous behaviour of Mr. Pusey.
In compliance with what can only be considered (whether justified or unjustified) as the repressive measures of the Victorian Government to constrain freedom of expression and freedom of movement during a global pandemic, Melburnians stayed in their homes, and the extent of their demonstration against this local tragedy was to burn blue lights on their doorsteps, fly blue balloons, and tie blue ribbons to their mailboxes.
This too was an example of the viral spread of imitative behaviour in a networked world, an appropriation of the doorstep demonstrations Britons had lately made in applauding their National Health Service.
The spread of this positive behaviour was a rare example of viral civility: the synchronicity of the tragedy in Melbourne with the gratitude lately evinced towards front-line workers in Britain provided Melburnians not merely with a model for peaceful demonstration against an outrageous tragedy under conditions of social restriction, but it coincided with a positive global sentiment towards so-called ‘essential workers’ who were ‘on the front line’ of the pandemic protecting our health and safety—including police officers.
By contrast, after the death of Mr. Floyd on 25 May, there would be no global sentiment of gratitude towards the police. In a mere month, they would go from being ‘essential workers’ to agents of state repression who ought to be ‘defunded’.
There’s no historical coincidence, no political irony in the fact that on the same day that Mr. Floyd was dying in outrageous circumstances, Melburnians were moving headlong to re-embrace their heavily restricted freedom with more alacrity than caution. In this networked world on fast forward, the global mood, the whole tenor of feeling towards the Coronavirus had changed materially in a month, morphing, metastasizing just as fast as the virus itself via the global network of media.
What I am suggesting is that, by the time the first cautious easing of lockdown restrictions commenced in Victoria on 26 May, a critical threshold of disbelief in the reality of the Coronavirus, and of boredom with the novelty of circumstances which it had brought in its train, had taken hold of the public imaginary, not merely in Melbourne, but all over the world.
As regards the Australian scene, the sedative of cash injections and other bribes to stay at home could no longer placate the plebs. More than two months of enforced idleness where the only social exposure was to a polluted global sensemaking architecture, a cognitive commons which had itself undergone a profound metastasis in viral incivility during that time, now had people hyped up and edgy.
They wanted to get out of the house. They wanted to be near other people again—whatever the risk or consequence.
Moreover, it had taken more than two months of watching the Titanic of the economy sink from the safety of their living rooms for people to grok to some of n-th order infinite impact consequences of the Coronavirus which I alerted you to in my first post on this topic on 17 March. Dimly, people began to compute that the medical component of this crisis was not even the most important aspect of this affair; that there were economic, political—and even geo-political—consequences which had been set in train in Wuhan months ago.
One of the most interesting trends I began to detect in the public conversation about the Coronavirus towards the end of the Victorian lockdown was the degree to which this nexus of crises was constellating itself on the dimension of age demographics.
The young people who would shortly throw social distancing to the wind were beginning to question the moral advisability of the decision taken by governments to preserve the lives of older people, who have done comparatively very well out of our broken politico-economic paradigm, by sacrificing the livelihoods of their impoverished offspring.
The rhetoric in April was that millennials were happy to make that sacrifice, that however atrophied their sense of civic responsibility towards their elders was by the successive deceits of Boomer governments, the fund of generational goodwill was still not entirely bankrupted.
I never believed that rhetoric. A writer is a kind of ‘applied psychologist’, and once you’re cognizant of the psycho-social laws which govern human behaviour, you’re not deceived by such wishful thinking.
I could see a backlash coming promptly. I knew that millennial bitterness over the betrayals of our current politico-economic paradigm ran too deeply to be materially altered by such a novel event—even one of global proportions—particularly as this world-historical event is the direct product of the extractive economic policies of successive Boomer governments, who have kicked the can of debt down the road to their children and grandchildren.
By the time the ABC broadcast their Q&A program focusing on the impact of the Coronavirus on young people on 18 May, just one week before the death of Mr. Floyd, it was impossible for a sensitive observer not to perceive that the tenor of sentiment towards the measures taken by state and Commonwealth governments, valuing human life above economic livelihood, had subtly changed.
In fine, credulity and credence in the reality of the Coronavirus had been corroded by two months of enforced idleness and exposure to a polluted cognitive commons.
The spectacle of our economy is a spectacle of distraction: almost all economic levers in a leisure-class society are pushed in the direction of maximally distracting individuals from thought. With the mechanism largely on pause, people, in their invidious game-theoretic strategizing, began to catch up in their computations and calculate forward to the probable consequences of this crisis which I alerted you to in March.
In the case of the Coronavirus, the political problem for a government who enjoins a responsibility of idleness upon an able-bodied workforce that is normally distracted from civil unrest by the mechanics of an operating economy is that, if people are locked in their homes against an invisible enemy constellated of paradoxical contradictions, and if the government’s stay-at-home directives are successful in driving down mortality (thus rendering the virus even more ‘invisible’), people begin to question the reality of a foe they can’t see, and which beggars their common sense.
As regards the current situation in Melbourne, I argue that the Government’s success in driving down mortality during the first lockdown by miraculously engaging a willing compliance from a populace whose fund of trust they had utterly overdrawn prior to this crisis was instrumental in creating conditions whereby a second lockdown would become necessary, one in which compliance can only be engaged by overt coercion.
The issue for maintaining civil order is this: The vacuum created by a cessation of economic activity which would have ordinarily distracted people from demonstrating their antipathies towards the Government, and the directive to stay at home so that the mortal consequences of the virus were rendered invisible to people, created conditions whereby an idle populace had time to imbibe counter-propaganda about the Coronavirus via a polluted cognitive commons.
Moreover, to put it in Realpolitik terms, if a government doesn’t set a sufficiently high benchmark on the levels of mortality it is prepared to tolerate among the population it is governing, it cannot make the clear and present threat to the public’s health sufficiently visible to encourage endogenous compliance with its stay-at-home directives.
I suspect that the majority of Western democratic governments—including Australia’s—rejected the herd immunity strategy (which would have favoured the economy) and chose suppression instead not out of any principled moral stance about ‘the sanctity of human life’, but because allowing a percentage of your population to die in peacetime not only makes you unelectable at the party-political level, but opens the state up to public liability issues in the future.
In Max Weber’s terms, killing a percentage of your population in peacetime amounts to an abuse of the monopoly of violence which the state arrogates to itself.
As far as I can see, there’s no way, in a liberal, enlightened, Western democratic society, for a government to get the balance right, and in favouring life over livelihood through a strategy of suppression, the National Cabinet opted to create conditions whereby the preservation of one demographic which was mortally vulnerable to the Coronavirus metastasized civil disaffection in another demographic which was vulnerable to its politico-economic effects.
This, I contend, was the nexus of factors which crystallized in the conjunction of George Floyd’s death and the easing of restrictions in Victoria on 26 May, and it was this conjunction which led to a phase shift, a further metastasis of the Coronavirus crisis, ultimately resulting in the present lockdown in Melbourne.
By 26 May, the distracting novelty of the situation and the one carrot the Government had at its disposal to encourage short-term compliance, the sedative of cash injections, had worn off, and the paranoid counter-narratives imbibed through the polluted cognitive commons of legacy media, Internet and social media had taken unconscious hold of the public imaginary.
I submit that when the Premier released us from lockdown, a critical threshold of incredulity had been passed in the public imaginary: people were ‘bored’ with the Coronavirus, and the successful insulation against its visibility which resulted from the Government’s suppression strategy had, during lockdown, given them time to think, to imbibe paranoid, conspiratorial counter-narratives, and to question the reality of this invisible, contradictory foe with whom very few of them had had direct contact and experience.
The rôle that boredom played in the resurgence of cases here in Melbourne cannot be overstated.
For it is one of the most salient contradictions in the behaviour of this paradoxical virus that it should spread exponentially within hours and yet take two to three weeks to become manifest in a population. And in an economy of distraction which is operating on as advanced an exponent as ours, the tempo of which is being continually accelerated by the metastasis of the media cycle, that period of latency is now outside the scope of most people’s patience or memory.
Moreover, for those who were the least physically vulnerable to the Coronavirus but the most economically impacted by it, apart from having their goodwill towards their elders overdrawn, their patience for social distancing was also exhausted. The exercise of liberty which had been severely restricted probably led to an over-compensation in free movement, and the high spirits of youth naturally drew people who had been physically apart more closely together than social distancing allowed.
Those are two of the more ‘innocent’ factors which contributed to the increase in cases during June.
But if one of the fault-lines of social inequality which this virus has exposed is age-based, it’s more than ironic bad luck for the Victorian Government that the death of Mr. Floyd should coincide with the political and economic anxieties of millennials, who have been agitated to civil unrest by a generation who is susceptible to the Coronavirus.
I could not have predicted that the death of a man in Minneapolis would be the catalyst to the backlash I was expecting against the severe social restrictions enjoined on us by governments as measures against the Coronavirus, but I knew that in this networked world it would require only a small historical incident to set the spark to the tinder of discontent that was primed to explode in a cascade of viral incivility all around the world—even in Melbourne.
Despite being equal in its tawdry, banal horror to the event in Minneapolis—and more locally relevant—the outrageous behaviour of Richard Pusey could not have gotten people into Swanston street en masse in late April for two reasons: their patient forbearance with the Government’s social distancing measures was not yet exhausted, and they still believed in the reality of the Coronavirus.
Those factors served to constrain civil unrest. But the death of Mr. Floyd a month later coincided with a moment when the Government had to release people from their homes because willing, endogenous compliance with social restrictions was on the verge of faltering—if it had not already begun to do so.
In such cases, a government, if it is to preserve its legitimacy, must be seen to ‘give’ people back their liberty—for if they choose to take it back in spite of a government’s edicts, that government cannot maintain social order and cohesion in the long run.
And in a world where the legitimacy of all Western democratic governments is now being questioned by their populations, in its caution over the easing of restrictions, the Victorian Government, in mid-May, was entering a more delicate—and perhaps dangerous—period for the maintenance of social cohesion than is perhaps realized.
I doubt they could have averted the defiance of their edicts on public assembly and social distancing at the Black Lives Matter protest on 6 June by easing restrictions earlier, but they certainly judged the balance poorly by waiting until the unlucky date of 26 May.
Like the potential energy contained in an explosive charge, the kinetic impetus to exercise freedom of movement rather more than was permitted after such strict containment, and for atomized agents all feeling this release simultaneously to come closer together than social distancing allowed, coincided with an historical event which had no relevance to Melbourne, but which activated the political and economic angst of people who were bored with the Coronavirus, who were sick of the ‘holiday from life’ it had foisted upon them, and who, having been shut up in their homes, had been successfully insulated from local scenes of horror similar to those in Italy which might have convinced them of its reality.
For these reasons, I would characterize the protest in Melbourne on 6 June as a ‘peaceful riot’;—for it was, if anything, a rebellion against the governmental repression of stay-at-home restrictions and social distancing.
It was peaceful in the sense that there was—mercifully—no violence or property damage such as occurred at other protests around the world, but it was a ‘riot’ in the sense that the participants mutinied against the Government’s restrictions on public assembly and social distancing as set forth in the COVIDSafe Roadmap.
Moreover, they defied the Government deliberately and with forethought, for they had two weeks, between 26 May and 6 June, to organize the protest.
To regard the protest at a deeper level of morphological recursion, it was a deliberate rebellion against the Coronavirus itself—an emphatic statement of disbelief in it by those who were not demographically vulnerable to it, and whose economic futures had been wrecked by the Government’s response to it.
When the decision was taken to stage that protest in Melbourne, it was as imitative an instance of viral incivility in a networked world as the behaviour of Melburnians had been an instance of viral civility a month earlier, when they had imitated the behaviour of Britons by protesting the deaths of the four police officers on the Eastern Freeway from their doorsteps.
They had believed in the reality of the Coronavirus then, and the necessity to keep socially distant from one another even in a moment of communal grief and outrage. That belief had corroded by 6 June to the point where only a demonstration of overt repression on the Government’s part could have prevented the contravention of its edicts regarding social distancing at the Black Lives Matter protest.
The morphological significance of that protest for the metastasis of the Coronavirus situation in Melbourne has not been properly understood because commentary has addressed itself to the manifest content of the protest.
It is a mistake to regard the protest in Melbourne—or any of the worldwide protests which metastasized from the incident in Minneapolis—as anything other than an unconscious movement of people together who no longer believed in the invisible reason they had lately believed in as a legitimate reason to stay apart.
What actually happened in Melbourne on 6 June, I contend, is something in line with the historical principles that Tolstoy sets forth at the end of War and Peace—some unconscious, psycho-social transmission of memetic virality.
As Tolstoy argues in his account of the campaign of 1812, unconscious beliefs command masses, and so long as those beliefs hold, an army can be swept from Paris to Moscow, carrying all before it. But as soon as that common belief fails, as soon as a critical threshold of people no longer believe in the motive idea that was driving it, the social coherence of a people, their unity in decision and action, dissolves messily.
On 6 June, an unconscious decision was taken by a great mass of people in and around Melbourne to no longer believe wholeheartedly in the reality of the Coronavirus. They did so in deliberate, premeditated imitation of other people they had seen take this same unconscious decision in America because another belief had supplanted the Coronavirus in the hierarchy of urgency and importance through the viral memetic transmission of social media.
This was an example of the imitative behaviour which attends the viral metastasis of incivility in a networked world which is now preponderantly tending towards a Nash equilibrium of global chaos.
In the morphological view, the protest was merely a convenient cover for the global disbelief, the global doubt in the reality of this invisible enemy that beggars belief in its weird contradictions and requires too much undistracted patience to observe its reality as visible effects. It was the desperate searching for an excuse—any excuse at all—to shuck off the shackles of repressive restrictions and social distancing enjoined on restless people by governments they know do not have their best interests at heart.
Mr. Floyd’s unfortunate death provided a convenient excuse to get out of the house en masse.
Let us not read too deeply into the demographic makeup of attendees of the protest. Except on the dimension of age, I think it’s a much less important factor in why this event was so key to the lockdown of Melbourne a month later than the fact that a mass communal event which defied social distancing acted unconsciously to set a visible—and to some observers, legitimate—precedent for less and less social distancing in the month of June.
The rise in cases in northern and western Melbourne throughout that month is less a function of the protest per se than it is a consequence of the implicit licence that event gave to Melburnians to become (as the Premier said with understandable exasperation) ‘complacent’ in their attitude towards social distancing.
Until a vaccine is rolled out, control of this virus will always be a function of the population’s endogenous compliance with social distancing.
The particular virulence of outbreaks in northern and western parts of Melbourne—the City of Hume, the City of Brimbank, the City of Moreland—is in some part a function of socio-economic levels in the northern and western suburbs which have been inordinately affected.
Socio-economic level as a function of education implies that in conditions of enforced idleness where the only constant social contact is via a polluted cognitive commons undergoing a metastasis in psychosis, people in these communities are more vulnerable to paranoid, conspiratorial counter-narratives to the Government’s propaganda, and therefore less likely to heed or trust its haranguings about the need for social distancing.
And it is precisely in these lower socio-economic suburbs of Melbourne where a more casual attitude towards social distancing is likely to manifest itself as an increase in cases.
In my flâneries, I have had a wide experience of Melbourne and Victoria since the beginning of June. I’ve ventured into the City of Port Phillip and the City of Yarra; I’ve been to Sunbury, in the City of Hume; I was in Bacchus Marsh, in Moorabool Shire, at the time of the protest; and I’ve lately come back from Sale, in Wellington Shire.
In greater Melbourne, at least, my anecdotal observation in June and July was that, wherever I went, people had utterly abandoned the idea of social distancing. It’s been rather vexing to endure people trying to sit in your lap while you’re standing up the last several weeks, practically draping themselves over you like a mink stole as you wait at traffic lights.
In the acceleration of the media cycle, the Coronavirus, in the minds of Melburnians, was ‘over’ weeks ago.
By means of online viral incivility, the outrageousness of the death of Mr. Floyd hijacked a sufficient threshold of attention in this economy of distraction as to push the Coronavirus down the news feed in people’s minds.
My prediction is that the next phase shift, the next level of metastasis that the Coronavirus will undergo is as a tool of overt coercion and repression by governments around the world. In Australia, at least, our Government had a honeymoon period of trust with people which had more to do with self-interest than goodwill towards the Government: as long as people believed their lives to be threatened by this invisible foe, they were prepared to go along with the repressive measures prescribed.
But as Professor Liam Smith, a behavioural psychologist at Monash University who has been advising the Victorian Government, stated on the ABC’s 7:30 program, it is probable that we will see lower levels of compliance with a second lockdown in Melbourne.
This is because people are exhausted and bored with this pandemic, which is no longer a novel experience, and in their distractibility, their minds have become hardened and resistant to the Government’s message of social distancing.
Having heard Mr. Andrews’ uninspiring rhetoric all before, they’re tuning ‘Lurch’ out this time around.
Throughout human history, institutional authorities have used invisible beliefs to coerce endogenous compliance with their policies in the populations they govern. The principle is that the belief is invisible but immanent within the population: the evil walks among us. It is probably even within our own hearts and minds.
But unlike ‘the Devil’ in medieval times, the threat of ‘Communism’ during the Cold War, the threat of ‘terrorism’ after 9/11, or even the threat of systemic ‘racism’ that has undergone a phase shift in metastasis since the death of Mr. Floyd, the Coronavirus is the most ‘made-to-order’ invisible belief that governments have had to coerce endogenous compliance from their populations in a long time, because unlike the examples cited, the actual mortality of this invisible belief means that there is less room for doubt and plausible deniability by naysayers.
Moreover, if you don’t think the Coronavirus is a carpet-bagging gold rush on coercive data collection, another tool by governments to track and surveil your movements each time you enter a shop or sit down at a café, you’re not thinking about the long-term ramifications of the short-term justifications for ‘contact tracing’.
I’ll wager that the next front in the metastasis of the Coronavirus as an invisible belief to justify coercive endogenous compliance is the wearing of masks.
As an identitarian flag identifying those who subscribe to the faith and those who don’t, the wearing or not wearing of masks, I wager, will soon become weaponized as another convenient tool of governments to divide populations and keep them distracted from the carpet-bagging data-grab. Mask-wearers will be suborned by their sense of duty into policing the infidels, shaming them into compliance through viral incivility on social media.