Entry 98: Fleurs du Mal– It’s the first of April. And I got up late enough to escape the prank planned by my daughter to make a fool out of me. She had to leave to catch the bus (for something or other) and my wife came into the bedroom to advise me that I had just dodged a bullet. But, me being me, I lolled in bed for a further three hours to make assurances doubly sure. I’ve been fooled before, of course, and I will be again.
As I lie in bed, I think of the situation I find myself in: I luxuriate under the sheets while the rest of the family are up and moving and shaking and generally making a good impression of being productive citizens. So, I reprise, if only for a short while, the part of an indolent dandy. As a teen I discovered mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron. I dressed, for a time, in paisley cravats, bell-bottom trousers and floral shirts ensuring hoots of derision as I walked past Belfast building sites on my way to visit my Mod girlfriend- later, wife.
The scorn of the whistling workers only validated my choice of attire and attitude at the time. That I would fall under the spell of Baudelaire was inevitable, I guess. He wrote, that to be a dandy, one must have no profession other than elegance… no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons… The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror. His poems, especially in the 1857 volume, The Flowers of Evil, with their themes of sex and death, are perennially appealing to youth.
To shock disapproving adults and institutions is de rigueur for the aspiring dandy who will quote with approbation such lines as, Slowly, luxuriously, I will hollow a deep grave,/ With my own hands, in rich black snail-frequented soil,/ And lay me down, forspent with that voluptuous toil,/ And go to sleep, as happy as a shark in the wave. These lines from the poem, The Grateful Dead, or, what about, With bold and insolent grimace,/ Love laughingly bestrides/ The bare skull of the Human Race,/ And, as enthroned he rides,/ Blows bubbles from his rosy cheek/ Which soar into the sky, this, from Love and the Skull.
Sooner or later, though, most of us out-grow the fashion for feculence and recognise dandyism for what it ultimately is: nihilistic nonsense. Camus points this out in his 1951 book-length essay The Rebel, The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance…He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others’ faces. Other people are his mirror. A mirror that quickly becomes clouded, it’s true, since human capacity for attention is limited. It must be ceaselessly stimulated, spurred on by provocation…Perpetually incomplete, always on the fringe of things, he compels others to create him, while denying their values. He plays at life because he is unable to live it.
When it was safely past 12 noon and I could emerge from the bedroom without getting pranked by my wife (who, for all I knew, was in cahoots with my daughter to visit some indignity on my spirit or person) I resolved to get a fix of culture and so I drove across the Nepean River and along the River Road to the regional art gallery. A great place to chill: it looks out over the Nepean River and is set in a beautiful garden with a lively café and an interesting collection.
Today, I take in a fascinating exhibition entitled Punuku Tjukurpa from the central and western deserts of Australia that include Uluru, that great red omphalos in the centre of the continent. From the exhibition notes it is, an exhibition celebrating the stories and Law of Anangu culture told through intricate carvings and artefacts…for Anangu the country dies without its people because human beings, who act according to the law, are fundamental to the wellbeing of the land.
As usual, I am overcome with feelings of inadequacy even as I think I recognise the deep authenticity of what I am viewing: perentie lizards, boomerangs, desert serpents and spears produced by Aboriginal artists from the centre of Australia. In the same venue, there is an exhibition by a non-Aboriginal artist who spent months in the east Kimberley region and who has a number of large modernist paintings with three colours only- black, white and orange in blocks reminiscent of Mark Rothko. A couple alongside me remarked that their daughter, at pre-school, could do better.
I thought about Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word that I had read in the mid-seventies and Andy Capp’s quip about abstract art that sums up, it seems to me, Wolfe’s acerbic critique, a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered. And I really feel for the young artist who would struggle, and I hope successfully, to overcome the cynicism made so manifest by the young couple also getting their fix.