The Body Dandiacal
The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century, 2017, Philip Mann, Head of Zeus, £25, reviewed by STODDARD MARTIN
For one who grew up by the sea and sequoias of California in the 1960s, there is no more perfect condition than to amble in solitude in a warm, dappled wood. This is an instinctive creed. To be barefoot or nude wearing nothing but beads was a style of the soi-disant New Age. It travelled cross-country to Woodstock, not far from where Emerson tread, Thoreau and Whitman notionally alongside. Over the ocean, a renaissance of Wandervögel and Kibbo Kift kindred flourished, donning old tapestries and furs and boa-like scarves – anything begged, borrowed or fallen from the curtain-rails – during the inevitable tragedy that winter becomes for children of a forest of Arden.
Nature, in short, was our milieu, the body the ultimate dress. Pasolini, clothing his dramatis personae in gaudy costume in Decameron or Canterbury Tales, revelled in disclosing the vanity, nay absurdity, of such sumptuousness by repeated uncoverings of youthful flesh. Clothes are a substitute, or necessity. Having lost simian hair, we need protection from the elements. So evolved ‘fashion’, with its inevitable preferences. Because it is a creation, artifice if not art, we have generated theories about it. Like cookery or the lore of perfume, it is a sensual craft liable to be dismissed as frivolous or delectated with ardour and prescriptive rules by dedicated connoisseurs.
Philip Mann is German, born in 1966. Native to Berlin, he spent part of his youth in Ibiza where he was exposed to free spirits of the post- ‘60s, perhaps not always to his liking. He came of age in the ‘80s, that post-Punk decade sometimes called neo-Romantic. Since then, phases in Vienna and Paris have alternated with a life mainly in London. Mann is one of those cosmopolitans whose mastery of great European languages – German of course, French, some Italian – is allied to exactitude of grammar and expression in English exceeding that of most native speakers. He has gone to school to a strain in Anglo mores long attractive to urbane continentals, Germans not least: the wit, rigour, manner, lifestyle, self-assurance and mix of epicure with stoic that constitutes the English gentleman.
In Mann’s version, this has a French inflection – one thinks of Barbey d’Aurevilly, Baudelaire or Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, whose long-anticipated trip to London gets no further than roast beef and ale in a pub outside of the Gare du Nord. That is to say that Mann’s driving idea – dandyism as conceived by Beau Brummell – was ever a condition of mind over matter, form over reality; an urban ideal par excellence, modernist literally as well as avant la lettre and as allergic to Rousseau-esque cults of Nature as Baudelaire claimed to be. I say ‘claimed’ because, however Brummell-ian Baudelaire appeared in his severe suitings of black, his descriptions of crépuscule in, say, ‘L’Invitation au Voyage’ suggest transcendental natural longings as intense as in Emerson or his revered Wagner or their antic heir Nietzsche.
Mann admires Baudelaire and refers to him often, but not in this aspect. Though crépuscule lurks in his title via Dämmerung/Dusk, it is not burnished skies he is after, full of variegated colours and other-worldly hopes, but the other side of sundown – night. He disdains the strain of dandyism stretching from Byron in Albanian garb, to an outlandish young Oscar Wilde, to Carnaby Street prancers of the later 1960s. The flamboyant is antipathetic to a taste distinctly formal, almost pietistic. As Nicky Haslam explains in his preface, Mann’s dandy is not related to the Macaronis and Exquisites of the 18th century, Lady Blessington’s paramour the Comte d’Orsay or even young Disraeli, who opportunely engaged the late Byron’s gondolier to be his footman. Nor to that type of dandy whose principal motive is épater – to be flippant and to shock but rather to one whose core is self-mastery, signalling introversion and masking grave melancholy.
This dandy’s garb is laid out via Brummell in Mann’s introduction. It is a species of uniform playing on convention rather than upbraiding it. Neo-classical, it discloses a cult of body inasmuch as it seeks to enhance what is within in a direction of the Apollonian. It is male-oriented, eschewing the feminine and what is received as ‘fashion’. The dandy is opposite to woman (as Baudelaire maintained) yet he would find it vulgar to appear homosexual or possibly erotic at all. Sex life is secreted behind the pose of ‘gentleman’, defined here less as aristocratic than snob (sine nobilitate), not professional though of the middle classes, arriviste yet not pushy; amateur, dilettantish, Renaissance mannish in knowledge, though of a kind with scant practical application. This dandy is an end in himself, not a vehicle for external realizations in art, poetry or music. He is what might later be called a ‘beautiful loser’ though without the sentimentality: too clever to act, aware of his superfluity and marked by that invisible ‘yearning for a tragic fate’.
The definition is not absolute. Over the following six chapters, Mann essays the careers of many who stray from it in peculiar variation. The Viennese Adolf Loos is an active, influential designer. The Duke of Windsor is a deliberate transgressor of Brummell-ian severity, yet just as rigid in display. Bunny Roger and Quentin Crisp add self-conscious elements of eccentricity and daring to what remains an essentially ascetic lifestyle. The Franco-Jewish director Jean-Pierre Melville manipulates motifs of evasion and noir. The sole German and most recent subject, Rainer Maria Fassbinder, violates the mode by increasingly outré gestures, and his relevance may be meant as counterintuitive, indicated perhaps in the title of the chapter he inhabits: ‘Barbarian at the Gate’. An epilogue, ‘Après le Déluge’, indicates a way forward with a cartoon of a skeleton in a precisely-tailored three-piece suit raising a glass of bubbly over the caption ‘Le dandy est mort, Vive le dandy!’
It is central to Mann’s argument that mass production has replaced fine tailoring, providing worldwide in an instant much of what in days past would have been wrought with careful specificity on Savile Row. A walk-on in his last chapter is the late Sebastian Horsley, who claimed tidiness as his vice yet dabbled in hard drugs and transgressive sex with criminals to achieve ‘a convincing hybrid of punk and dandy’. Here as in the case of Fassbinder which precedes it and that of Brummell with which we began, a tendency to self-destruction grows triumphant – the latent, seductive daemon hiding in the fatalism, melancholy and pessimism emblematized by Brummell-ian black; dusk again as it leads into darkness, not as it might via Baudelaire’s crépuscule into visionary tableaux of multihued light.
The Dandy at Dusk ends, then, by telling a sorrowful tale. One approaches dandyism anticipating wit, insight and scintillation: a kind of brilliance calculated to turn the ordinary into a gorgeous other. But what one finds here instead is keen observation, withdrawal, retrenchment, retreat and closing-off. That the book should have been written by a postwar German looking for new paths via French and yet more English models is a subject for consideration in itself. Perhaps these models end by leading nowhere? Perhaps the nowhere they lead to is a utopian Erewhon? Philip Mann is an adept writer and thinker who may travel further, even towards destinations more hopeful. Without doubt this is a definitive work of acute retrospection.
Stoddard Martin is an author and publisher