In this short ficción, an hommage to the ‘objective’ snapshots of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Dean Kyte recounts a memorable tram ride from the point of view of his Super 8 camera—and a cartridge of expired film.

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.

Super grainy: A tram passing before the Elizabeth street entrance to Flinders Street Station.

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 tableaux vivants, 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.

You can support my work by purchasing the soundtrack of this film, available in MP3, FLAC, and other formats, via my artist profile on Bandcamp, or by clicking the “Buy” link below. The price is $A2.00, or, if you’re feeling generous, feel free to name your own price.


Click the cover to preview.

One of the several top-secret creative fruits which occupied me during the Melbourne lockdown has now arrived!

I’m pleased to announce the release of The Melbourne Flâneur zine, which collects the most popular posts appearing on The Melbourne Flâneur vlog between July 2019 and June 2020, as voted by you, chers lecteurs.

Your all-time faves, “What is a flâneur?” and “Are there flâneur films?”, are there, as well as articles about the father of flânerie, Charles Baudelaire, and my innovative art of ‘flânography’.

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!

Dean Kyte recites his translation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Les Bijoux” from his book Flowers Red and Black: Love Lyrics & Other Verses by Baudelaire.

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.

The light of the banker’s lamp cast obliquely on me like a green fire evokes something of the hallucinatory, dream-like sense of the poem, and as I worked with the raw footage in post, I had l’idée géniale to try to use the green light to make myself appear progressively more ‘ghostly’—like the way the green neon sign outside Judy’s apartment in Vertigo (1958) gives her an eerie, uncanny air.

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 ouievidemment.

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.

Including love.

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 invite you to purchase one of few remaining copies of the first edition of Flowers Red and Black. In fact, I’ve done a complete renovation of the Dean Kyte Bookstore (check out the groovy comic book-style links to the various product categories!), with dedicated pages for all my books, DVD and Blu-ray Discs.

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!

Experience the ultimate book unboxing with new Dean Kyte gift tags, handmade and signed by the author!

I can also do custom orders for you. There is a contact form on each product page, so if you’re thinking of purchasing some original Christmas gifts, you can make a direct inquiry with me. I can negotiate a deal with you in terms of cost and delivery time frames; I can write a thoughtful personalised message on your behalf to the recipients; and I can even handle gift-wrapping and postage on your behalf—to multiple recipients, even.

And if you would like to buy your Melbourne Flâneur half a java and have his dulcet tones seducing you with his rendition of “The Jewels”, I’ve released the soundtrack of the video above on my Bandcamp profile. For two Australian shekels, you can lube someone into the amorous mood with my vocals.

I’m not Barry White, but it does work. Just click the “Buy” link below, bo.

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

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

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

—Dean Kyte, “Black Mercury”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permanently, you dig?

One shot, one setup, one scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can purchase the soundtrack to my video essay, “Black Mercury”, for $A2.00 by visiting my profile on Bandcamp. Just click the “Buy” link below.

Cherchez la femme: In this prose poem, Dean Kyte visits Chinatown, meditating on its exotic mystery.

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.

Robert Towne, who won the picture’s only Oscar for an original screenplay that has become legendary as the pinnacle of screenwriting perfection, has said that he always conceived Chinatown as a ‘state of mind’, and that he never intended the real location, in Los Angeles, to be shown.

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 “Buy” link below.

A page from the manuscript of Dean Kyte’s forthcoming book, “Letter to My Niece”.
A page from the manuscript of Dean Kyte’s forthcoming book, Letter to My Niece. Listen to Dean read the page 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.

It was, as I said in the post where I discussed the process of writing this letter, an unexpectedly emotional experience for me. There were times when tears were streaming down my face as I penned the final, handwritten draft of the 31-page letter to her.

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 added new internal product pages for four out of five of my books, as at the time of this post. If you click on Flowers Red and Black, Brazen Gifts for Gold, Things we do for Love, or Follow Me, My Lovely…, you will be taken directly to internal pages for these books, where you can now preview them online in their available formats, hear and watch me read excerpts, and order copies from me directly.

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.

Self-portrait of Dean Kyte.
In captivity:  Self-portrait of Dean Kyte, locked down in his West Melbourne hotel room.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
— W.B. Yeats,
“The Second Coming”

 

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.

And while I aim to be unfailingly courteous and considerate of my clients’ feelings in framing my criticisms, as you know by now if you have followed me this far in my critique, I don’t pull any punches, so if there are weaknesses in your writing, you can trust me to tell you so, and I will also suggest some strategies, techniques and approaches to strengthen your message so it lands well with your intended audience.

My special skill is providing what I call ‘content strategy’ to my clients: I can counsel you on how to logically organize your writing at its deepest level so as to ensure maximal comprehension on the part of your readers.

Of course, it would be a much more pleasant experience for both of us to work together face-to-face, but that’s not an option at the moment.  Nevertheless, we can get a good rap going over Zoom, so if you’re further afield than Melbourne—parbleu! if you happen to be overseas, even—there’s no obstacle to us working together remotely as we edit, design and lay out your book.

Visit the Contact page to get in touch with me or to book a consultation.

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 Bovary and 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.

As the Peter Principle famously predicts, everyone in a Scientific Managerial hierarchy rises to a position just beyond the level of his competence.

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.

Take, for instance, the issue of masks.

It’s well-known that transmission of the Coronavirus is not principally a function of whether one’s face is uncovered or not: transmission is principally a function of human mobility.  Hence the justification for repressive stay-at-home measures and social distancing.

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.

Antique shop, Brunswick street, Fitzroy, photographed by Dean Kyte.
Closed:  Antique shop, Brunswick street, Fitzroy.

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.

Your Melbourne Flâneur’s much-vaunted capacity to exercise his gams more dexterously than a Las Vegas showgirl is not even tested in this situation: a twenty-minute stroll would take me to 33 Alfred street, the North Melbourne tower block where 500 souls are battened down while the Coronavirus creeps among them.

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.

This is unfortunate, as it highlights the problems in schematic collective sensemaking of the Coronavirus which I have been at pains to parse in this series.

A number of factors, psychological and political—not all of them obvious—seem to me to have more directly caused the escalation in cases which led to the Melbourne lockdown.

Let’s take a range at the timeline of events.

In Victoria, to my eye at least, the graph line tracking the total number of confirmed cases appears to take on a distinct but shallow gradient around 3 May, coincident with the Cedar Meats outbreak in Brooklyn, in the City of Brimbank.

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.

On 8 May, following a meeting of the National Cabinet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a three-step plan for the gradual easing of Coronavirus restrictions in Australia.  Each step would be implemented approximately four weeks apart commencing in May, but the precise timetable for rollout would be at the discretion of individual states and territories.

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.

Just as a global dissolution of credulity in the Coronavirus began in America with the unfortunate death of Mr. Floyd, we already begin to see that societal fault-line manifesting itself in America.  While the Victorian Government hasn’t made the wearing of masks mandatory, the Premier leant the colour of his support to the wearing of masks over the weekend.

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.

That’s my bet.  Anyone care to take that action?

Today The Melbourne Flâneur comes to you from Sydney!

Well, the video above does, anyway.  The footage—and the story contained in the brief essay I regale you with in the video—comes from a weekend stay in the inner-city suburb of Paddington some eighteen months ago.

I had just finished a housesit in Gosford.  I had been invited to stay a couple of nights in one of those beautiful old terrace houses which are so common in Sydney, looking after a couple of dogs for the weekend before I booked back to Melbourne.

The terrace house was a couple-three blocks back from Oxford street, overlooking the Art and Design campus of the University of NSW, housed in an old brick schoolhouse.  The terrace was two storeys and a sous-sol, one of those gloriously perverse constructions with Escher-like staircases, mashed in a block of similar houses on a slight slope.

When I have a housesit, I don’t usually go out at night.  As a flâneur, the street is my home, and I feel like I spend enough time on it, spinning my wheels ça et là in search of romance and adventure.

But to be so perfectly placed in Sydney for 48 hours was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Night #1 I ambled up Darlinghurst road to Kings Cross for dinner.  I was armed with my trusty Pentax K1000 and Minolta XL-401 Super 8 camera, both loaded for bear with Kodak Tri-X film.

My mission was to scout and clout some suitably seedy Sydney scenes on celluloid.

I chowed down in an Italian joint in Potts Point; took a tour of the lighted windows of the handsome homes in that part of town; dipped the bill on the terrace of Darlo as I scratched a dispatch to myself in the pages of my journal; and bopped back towards the pad.

My bowtie drew some comment as I crossed Oxford street, but I managed to make it to the other side without being assaulted.  As I was mainlining it down South Dowling street, my eagle œil de flâneur clocked something curious in Taylor street, a narrow, one-way artery branching off the Eastern Distributor.

That’s the footage you see in the video above.  My eye was caught by the gentle, teasing undulation of the verdant leaves veiling and unveiling the moon-like gleam of the streetlamp.  I set up my camera on the corner to capture it.

I sauntered back to the terrace house and ambulated the hounds, first one and then the other, before we all reported for sack duty.  The dogs were staffies, but the older one, Bella, was weak on her pins and only needed to go as far as the corner and back.  Buster was young and vigorous, and I was under orders to give him a tour of the whole block before retiring.

I got him on the lead.  The eerie, pregnant peacefulness of Paddington after midnight, an inchoate intimation of which I had scoped in Taylor street, symbolized for me in the striptease played by the leaves and the streetlamp, took hold of me as we passed the dark terrace houses.

I tried to imagine the inconceivable lives behind these elegant façades, the way you might take the front off a doll’s house to get a glim of the works inside.  I couldn’t do it.  The lives of Sydneysiders seemed too rich and strange.

We turned the corner into Josephson street, another narrow, one-way thoroughfare similar to Taylor street.  Buster got the snoot down to do some deep investigating while yours truly lounged idly by, doing some snooping of his own.

I took a hinge on the quiet street, attempting to penetrate the poetic mood of this friendly darkness which was in Josephson street too.  This ‘mood’ seemed to be general all over this part of Paddington.  I patted the pockets of my memory.  What did this place remind me of…?

It was then that ‘The Girl’ tied into us, and if you want to know what happens next—you’ll have to scroll up and watch the video essay!

It’s adapted from a couple of paragraphs I scribbled in my journal a couple of nights later, when I was on the train back to Melbourne, meditating on my weekend as a ‘Sydney flâneur’.  As the familiar scenes unspooled beside me on the XPT, taking me away from that brief oasis of unexpected experience, a nice coda to my Central Coast ‘holiday’, I got some perspective on what that poetic mood—which possesses me in all my photographs and videos—might be.

Nothing refreshes the flâneur, that restless spirit perpetually in search ‘du nouveau’, more than a fresh city to test his navigatory chops on.  My experience traipsing the streets of Paris has given me a navigatory nonchalance in any new urban environment which often astonishes—and sometimes even alarms—people.  Put a map in front of me and I’ll betray my bamboozlement by turning it ça et là, but my sense of topographical orientation—the map I make of places in my mind—is very good indeed.  I don’t have to be in a place very long before I’m naming streets to locals as though I’ve lived there all my life.

Sydney, however, still poses a challenge for me.  One of my readers, James O’Brien, put me on to the trick.  According to James, the secret to navigating Sydney is to think of it in terms of hills and Harbour: if you’re going uphill, you’re heading towards the Blue Mountains; if you’re going downhill, you’re heading towards Sydney Harbour.

It’s a neat trick.  I wish I had known it during my 48-hour furlough in Paddington.

On the Saturday, I decided to test my mastery of Sydney in a walk which will no doubt leave my Sydney readers wondering how I managed to do it without map or compass, a tent and several days’ provisions, and the assistance of a sherpa.

And indeed, as I look at my parcours in retrospect on Google Maps, the rather incredible breadth of that expedition (which included a few wrong turns) does seem to show up the difference between a ‘Melbourne flâneur’, like yours truly, and a ‘Sydney flâneur’.

A Sydney flâneur, I dare say, would never have attempted it, because the main difference between Melbourne and Sydney is that the former is a much more ‘walkable’ city.

In Melbourne, you can walk quite a distance, if you’re inclined to.  To walk from the city to Brunswick, or from the city to St Kilda, is not a wearisome proposition.  The streets are logically arranged, the terrain is not fatiguing, and the experience is altogether a pleasurable one.

But to be a Sydney flâneur requires strategy rather than rugged endurance.

To walk from Paddington to Green Square via Bourke street, then back up to Redfern via Elizabeth street, and finally across to Newtown, with no map and nothing but the sketchy guidance of the bicycle lane to orient you, probably strikes my Sydney readers as the flânerie d’un fou.

With time out for coffee at Bourke Street Bakery and diversions for the dispensing of dosh on vintage bowties and button suspenders at Mitchell Road Antiques, how on earth did I accomplish such a trajet in one day with hardly an idea where I was going?

Je ne sais pas.  But it was a thrilling experience to walk a city which I don’t think any city planner ever intended to be seriously trod.  You may be able to travel through Melbourne without a car, but Sydney?

Though I cheated on the way back, training from Newtown to Central, and bussing from Central to Flinders street, I wasn’t done filing down the heels on my handmade Italian shoes that day.

Night #2, heavily armed with cameras, tripod and paraphernalia, I attempted an even more ambitious nocturnal sortie for a flâneur who isn’t altogether au fait with Sydney.  My plan was to make a massive foot-tour to Circular Quay and back.

I struck out along Oxford street and rambled through Hyde Park around dusk.  I inhaled a digestif at Jet, in the Queen Victoria Building, while I unburdened myself to my journal.  Then I went on the prowl, Pentax primed, tacking stealthily towards Sydney Harbour by way of George street.

There was some sort of to-do in George street between the QVB and Martin place—I forget what, but a lot of revellers and rubberneckers.  My cat-like spirit bristled at the noise and lights and I was glad to get clear of them as I stalked north.

There was a full moon set to scale the sky over the Opera House that night.  Having purchased a fresh cartridge of Tri-X from Sydney Super 8, I set up my Super 8 camera by Circular Quay, counting off a long timelapse of the Harbour under my breath and remembering how I had once, on a disastrous second date, walked past this spot, arguing about the comparative architectural merits of the Harbour Bridge vis-à-vis the Opera House with a French girl I had picked up at Darling Harbour two days earlier.

We had not been able to agree on that or on anything else that day, and I had been glad to get my luggage out of her apartment, get rid of her, and get on a train back to Melbourne.

It was getting on towards midnight.  I retraced my way back to Town Hall via Pitt street, the lunacy of the high moon and the memory of past amours working their poetic powers upon my spirit, inspiring me to squeeze off a shadowy shot with the Pentax here and there.

I was too foot-sore to trudge on to Central.  I had been on my dogs all day, so I saved some Tuscan shoe leather and shouted myself a trip on the Opal card at Town Hall station.  On the short train ride, tired as I was, I had my senses sufficiently about me to admire the hard, shiny Sydney girls, hot and fast as the slug from a Saturday night special.

Once I had had it in me to cut across their frames and charm even the hardest chica, but I was beginning to think my days as a pocket-edition Casanova were over.

I thought of the girl in Josephson street.  Was I getting fussy in my encroaching middle age?  Or was I just developing belated good taste?

When I got back to the terrace around one a.m., I got the hounds out for their third and final walk of the day, but lightning did not strike twice:  I did not see the girl in Josephson street again.

I hope you enjoyed this reminiscence of one of my flâneries.  I received a lot of positive feedback from followers and visitors to this vlog saying that they enjoyed listening to me reading the audio versions of articles I wrote on the subject of the Coronavirus.  So I decided to start releasing the soundtracks of my videos—like the one at the head of this post—for purchase via my Bandcamp profile.

For $A2.00, less than the cost of a coffee, you can have my dulcet tones on your pod pour toujours.  Just click the “Buy” link below to support me.

Dean Kyte, as photographed by Alfonso Perez (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram).
Hors des ombres: Portrait of Dean Kyte, photographed by Alfonso Perez de Velasco.

Being a Daygamer myself (albeit one who considers himself ‘retired’ from the Game), your Melbourne Flâneur is a very tough cookie to crack: knowing every trick and technique for stopping a stranger in the street, you can’t arrest the flow of my flânerie if I don’t want to stop for you.

But photographer Alfonso Perez de Velasco (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram), ‘loitering with intent’ near the corner of Lonsdale street, caught me on a good day as I sailed confidently down Elizabeth street, and I couldn’t turn down his sincere and complimentary request to snap a portrait of me, the photo you see above.

It’s perhaps too much of a cliché to say that this talented Madrileño now living and working in Melbourne has painted me in a typically Spanish light, with shades of Ribera about me, but I think he’s captured something essential about your sombre, sombrero’d scribe, that blend of light and dark inside a single look which is eminently Goyesque.

With my humour and melancholy, my Machiavellianism and my empathy, I am nothing if not contradictory, and I think Alfonso captures that ambiguity nicely.

It’s a handsome portrait, and very much in keeping with the moody Melbourne style of Alfonso’s street scenes, which really resonate with me. Though he works in muted colour, if you check out his photos on Instagram, I think you will agree there’s a certain similarity with my own black-and-white flânographs around town.

I was feeling ‘everything plus’ that day, all suited up and sharp enough to shave with as I recovered my mantle as a man about town.

As you can just make out in the photograph, I had my chalk-stripe, slightly zootish, suit on—what I call my ‘Big Sleep suit’. It’s my take on that handsome double-breasted chalk-stripe suit that Bogart sports in The Big Sleep (1946) while he’s flirting outrageously with Lauren Bacall.

I was wearing a black shirt with a grey-and-white floral pattern, dark silver tie, black display kerchief with grey Martini glasses on it (courtesy of Fine And Dandy and Brisbane Hatters), and a dark grey vintage Stetson Whippet to cap the ensemble. The slightly clashing touch of chocolate-coloured scarf and gloves was my only concession to the tardy onset of the Melbourne winter. I had my Dunn & Co. trenchcoat slung casually over my Czechoslovakian officer’s map-case, which serves as a stylish satchel for porting my tablet.

I was everything the well-dressed writer-about-town ought to be.

I wasn’t, as Raymond Chandler says, ‘calling on four million dollars’—(tant pis)—but I was just about to call on Elite Office Machines Co. in Carlton to pick up my freshly serviced Silver Reed typewriter.

So I was feeling O.K. that day.

Dean Kyte, as photographed by Alfonso Perez (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram).
Light and dark inside a single look: Humorous and melancholic, Machiavellian and empathetic, writers are ambiguous characters.

During lockdown, I had a chance to catch up on some reading, and one of the books that came my way was Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), by Richard Martin and Harold Koda. It was written at the tail end of the ‘Greed is Good’ eighties, so there’s a touch of quaintness about the authors’ commentary: though acknowledging that standards have slipped since the 1960s, Messrs. Martin and Koda have no clue as to how far they will descend in the thirty years up to the present day.

Their thesis is simple yet compelling: ‘We believe that men are knowing in making choices among style options, and that they dress to create or recreate social roles. Both men and women seek to realize roles and identities, but since men’s options in dress would appear to be the more acutely restricted, perhaps selecting a role has assumed more importance for them than it has for women. A man’s role is his operative identity; style choices follow therefrom.’

I like the phrase ‘operative identity’, for it points to the fundamental ‘uniformity’ of men’s style, the basis of almost every garment in the masculine wardrobe in an historical military analogue.

Indeed, Martin and Koda identify twelve such ‘operative identities’ that we men tend to take on as the social rôles by which we choose to be known, and their book is arranged in an ascending hierarchy of these ‘types’, from the ‘Jocks’ and ‘Nerds’ of the title, through the ‘Military Man’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘Sportsman’, up to the ‘Businessman’, ‘Man about Town’ and ‘Dandy’.

The argument seems true that, due to the mobility of action that is the masculine prerogative, at a certain point early in a man’s life, he chooses the rôle that he is going to play, the branch of ‘the Services’ he is going to go into.

Is he going to be a soldier? a blue-collar worker? a white-collar worker? a professor? There’s a ‘uniform’ for every métier that men undertake, and even the most récherché uniform, that of a literary dandy like yours truly, is thoroughly—albeit subtly—based in a military antecedent.

Martin and Koda go on to say: ‘Conventional wisdom has it that men dress to be conventional, but those with insight into male dress might hold that men dress to realize dreams, to be themselves through being someone other than themselves. If, as Shakespeare would have it, “apparel oft proclaims the man,” perhaps it is true that it both claims and proclaims him.’

I agree, for not only do we know a man by the uniform he wears, but the key point is that, unlike for the dames, our trade, boulot or profession is our operative identity: a man is the job he does, and in subscribing to the uniform, he subscribes equally to the professional etiquette of the rôle.

We have certain expectations of the cowboy, just as we have certain others of the lawyer, and the man who inhabits the uniform of either trade will seek earnestly to inhabit the professional expectations we have of him.

Indeed, for most men, it is a point of honour that their behaviour and comportment is congruent with the deportment of their life’s rôle.

But is there, you may ask, really a ‘uniform’ for a writer?

Well, Martin and Koda are instructive on this point, for not only is their book liberally seasoned with pictures of men of letters, but it opens with a spread lifted from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar Uomo in which a contemporary spin is placed on the ‘looks’ of such literary giants as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller, among others, demonstrating that men who spend their lives ‘off the stage of life’, cloistered in their studies, may be equally ‘leaders of fashion’ to other men.

‘Would a businessman care to walk in the shoes of James Joyce?’ Martin and Koda ask. ‘In the intimacy of a clothing decision, he might, signalling an affinity with the writer. … [T]he male chooses a family tree, a heritage, a sense of identity or likeness that is most compelling because it is not enunciated but simply visually implied.’

And indeed, surveying this spread and the other portraits of writers in this book, one sees a subtle uniform ‘visually implied’: the rakish chapeau, the tie—whether straight or bow—which is more alluring than the usual garotted neckwear, the suit of emphatic cut, or of bold stripes or mysterious patterns, the raincoat which is ported quixotically in all weathers.

I have observed elsewhere on this vlog the unusual number of writers who tend to be dandies. Why should we men of letters, cloistered away from celebrity-hungry eyes in our airy towers of intellect, be so passionate about such an ephemeral subject as fashion?

Well, as I said in my post on ‘What is a flâneur?’, there is no better prima facie indication of an orderly mind than the attention to detail that a man pays to his deportment. If a man cannot order the outer world of his person—(or, worse still, declines to do so, for this betrays a manque of strategy in his thinking)—it is doubtful whether he possesses the energies to order his abstract inner world through words.

In his book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore (2017), fashion journalist Terry Newman made a close reading of thirty authors and their sartorial style, arguing that the distinction between the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ man of letters is not really as invidious as one might think at first glance, with an analogue of the writer’s unique literary style manifesting in the arena of his personal style.

Reversing the lens, is there anything that could be divined about my style as a writer from how I dress?

Dean Kyte, as photographed by Alfonso Perez (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram).
Dandy in the underworld: The dandy and the gangster both appropriate and subvert the businessman’s style.

Well, judging from Alfonso’s pictures, I probably look like the man who runs the Melbourne underworld. More than once have others compared my sartorial style—the love of loud pinstripes and clashing contrasts of dark shirts and light-coloured ties—with that of Al Capone.

As Philip Mann observes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), the gangster, like the dandy, masters the sober uniform of the Businessman and pushes it to a récherché extreme, beyond the conventions of conservative rectitude, to the point of parody. The gangster, like the dandy, is the rebellious ‘inversion’ of the rôle of the Businessman. But whereas the dandy in some sense ‘satirizes’ the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Establishment, the gangster savagely exposes the blood on the Businessman’s hands, making no bones about the fact that the easy wealth of his ill-gotten gains comes from ‘making a killing’.

Certainly, the rather Italianate character of my prose, full of mannerist touches, might have an analogue in my Medicean love of outrageous intrigue.

It’s interesting to note that the Businessman eschews black in his wardrobe, whereas the gangster and the dandy both revel in it. As Martin and Koda say, ‘The rebel wears black. … Black serves as a sign of social militancy and provocation for men in a way that it does not for women. … [M]en in this century have worn gray or a limited palette of colors in deliberate avoidance of black. When black enters the wardrobe, it arrives with arresting authority and with a social goad.’

It’s the colour not merely of the transgressive Businessman personified by the gangster, but the colour of artists and poets, according to Martin and Koda. Citing Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion (1988), they describe the ‘triumph of black’ habitually ported by Charles Baudelaire as a ‘bohemian black’ which synthesizes the poet’s aspirations towards the Establishment of the French Academy with his inescapable outcast nature as an unreconstructable renegade.

And in its rebellious association with men who are intellectual threats to the established order of their societies, there is not merely something ‘clerical’ in the nature of black, according to Martin and Koda, but something perversely ‘spiritual’ about this most abjured colour: there is an almost satanic ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ about black, and the man who takes on the rebellious rôle of artist or poet takes on the uniform of an heretical priesthood, dedicating himself to ‘l’art pour l’art’.

I don’t know that I’m so habitually ensconced in black as I am in Alfonso’s photos, but certainly the Velázquean voluptuousness and elegance of black, its noirish, tenebrist radiance—with all the ambiguity and contradictions it suggests—makes it a staple of my wardrobe, a colour that synæsthetically resonates with my nature.

It’s a colour which symbolically connotes a man—whether he be gangster, spy, priest or poet—engaged in some shadowy enterprise, and as I said above, a writer’s work takes place ‘off-stage’, in the ‘backstage’ of life.

Nevertheless, there is a subdued ‘flamboyance’ about the writer: taking the stage only retroactively in the imagination of his readers, the deeply introverted, dandified man of letters perhaps sublimates his repressed performativity in the dark radiance of his uniform.

The trenchcoat, that outrageously démodé relic of the First World War has, ‘[i]n an almost inexplicable combination of meanings and implications,’ according to Martin and Koda, become inextricably associated with men who make their living by the pen and the typewriter, whether they are reporters or writers.

It has transformed itself, they say, from its weatherable functionality as a dependable part of an officer’s uniform, to the ‘sign of the individualist’ in civilian life.

‘It has since come to be identified with good taste,’ Martin and Koda write, ‘but with romantic overtones associated with writers, artists, and individualists…. Defying the convention of the wool overcoat, some men have insisted on wearing the trench coat as standard outer wear, not waiting for rain to justify the versatile and quixotic coat of the visionary….’

On the day Alfonso snapped me, I had just conveyed my freshly relined woollen overcoat to the dry-cleaner in anticipation of the Melbourne winter, so I just had my trenchcoat with me as a potential topcoat.

I would have had it anyway, for in Melbourne, one needs to be prepared for any eventuality—even at the risk of appearing ‘quixotic’—and I rarely step out the door without my trusty Dunn & Co. raincoat, which can equally serve as sufficient insulation against an autumnal Melbourne breeze.

I think the ‘visionary’ nature of this article of apparel probably stems from the ‘quixotic’ tendency of certain careful men (as any man of letters should be) to port it in all weathers, as a dependable, respectable, all-weather topcoat.

Winston Churchill, visionary individualist as a statesman, though quixotic to his contemporaries, was the writer not only prescient enough to foresee ‘the gathering storm’ of the Second World War from a long way off, but was the historian capable of compassing its complexity in retrospect, and he stubbornly ported his Aquascutum in fair weather as in foul.

With certain American writers—Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs among them—the trenchcoat has attained to the status of a signature element in their wardrobes, its patrician associations with officer’s garb and its democratic appropriation after the First World War suggesting a reversal of these writers’ pulpy American origins and their take-up by sophisticated Parisian publishers.

The trenchcoat’s style, like their literary styles, suggests the ‘down-at-heels’ elegance of a declassed gentleman.

For myself, being fundamentally a Parisian at heart, the trenchcoat is an ‘incontournable’ part of my uniform as a flâneur. It’s both strange and a testament to its hardiness and adaptability that this fundamentally British article should undergo so many transatlantic crossings, becoming indissociably associated in the public imaginary first with America, as the garment-of-trade of the intrepid reporter and gumshoe, and then with the French capital, as the grey flag of world-weary existentialists like Camus and Sartre, the tails of their raincoats flapping against the grey Parisian sky.

More than London, the trenchcoat, as article of choice of both Philip Marlowe and Jef Costello, seems as much the symbol of rainless L.A. as of perennially grey Paris, and Melbourne, sharing something of the atmospheric effects of the latter, is also a city in which the incognito camouflage of its mysterious greyness is appropriate for the writer-flâneur, a man whose profession is to be an ‘undercover reporter’ of life.

The thing about a trenchcoat is that, like a hat or a good pair of shoes, it requires the patina of age to look elegant. As Messrs. Miller and Burroughs demonstrate, a trenchcoat needs to look fashionably rumpled—like those gents themselves.

I’ve had my dun-coloured Dunn & Co. almost all my adult life—and it’s probably older than I am, since I acquired it in an op-shop on the Gold Coast when I was a mere gamin of twenty, by which time the venerable British brand had gone the way of all fashion.

It has traipsed with me through the jardin du Luxembourg, as my sole insulation against miserable days in Paris, just as it has served as an improvised blanket under which to do some fooling around with demoiselles Daygamed in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.

The Fedora and the trenchcoat, as the crown and the gown of your Melbourne Flâneur, this ‘prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’, as M. Baudelaire says, are probably the key symbols of my style, both personal and literary.

I’m most grateful to Alfonso Perez de Velasco for his handsome portraits of me, and I recommend that you check out his Instagram or visit his website to see more of his photographs, including Melbourne street scenes, other denizens of our fair city, and interesting travel pictures from around Asia.