Walking with Daphne: Literature & Flânerie


Walking with Daphne: Literature & Flânerie

The first time we met, it was under aggressive circumstances. She was furious with me for wearing her mother’s diamond ring to the party. The ring had been given to me by her brother, upon our engagement. She’d hurled accusations at me, sometimes giggling uncomfortably after each one. I decided she was a nutbar—the kind of gal that made you think twice about marrying into the family.

It was at one of those murder mystery parties at my friend Tiger's house. Such a curious way to meet someone! I was Molly Moll and I think she was called Natalie, but in real life her name is both whimsical and sturdy: Daphne Gordon

This Monday past we met in a sunlit cafe, a few minutes from both our residences. We live almost diagonally to each other, just off Queen Street. The previous week, in a summer downpour after getting eggs at the grocery store, I had retrieved a book that Daphne had left for me in her mailbox, carefully enclosed in a taped-down brown paper bag. Not just any book, but her fresh-off-the-press book—the reason for our meeting. I will tell you more about it after a necessary digression. 

Do you know the term flâneur? It is from the French, meaning “saunterer”. I didn’t, though I myself am a walker. (I’ve even gone so far as to once tinker with the word “strive” in a poem of Tennyson’s to reflect my proclivity for strolling: To stride, to seek, to find and not to yield.) Here’s what ever-helpful Wikipedia says:

The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 19th century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. The word carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. It was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who made this figure the object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, as an emblematic archetype of urban, modern experience.


In 1917, the Swiss writer, Robert Walser—who Susan Sontag calls “the missing link between Kleist and Kafka” (finally solving that mystery, thank god)—wrote a modernist novella, called Der Spaziergang, or, in English, The Walk, that fully embodies the tradition of flânerie. Daphne came across it on a literary treasure trail, one that had started with Julie Hecht and somehow led her to Walser. She ordered the hard-to-find book online and found, through a close reading, that her own walks came to life. Her homage—a sort of contemporary rewriting or “radical translation”—is Walking with Walser, a novella in which, the narrator, Ursula, spends the day strolling where else but Queen Street. Along the way she stops in a bank and finds out about a direct deposit from the Toronto Arts Council; buys a new scarf (“Though in actual fact it was not merely a sheaf of white chiffon; it was my own inner light made manifest.”); is fed (and fed) by her friend, Senorita Sofia; posts a letter to the detestable Mayor Rob Ford; visits the tax office to make a donation; and gets fitted for a “downtown dress”... among other things. 

Knowing that I’d be meeting Daphne, a former reporter for the Toronto Star, to talk about the book, it would’ve been politic either way to say that the book was interesting and that I’d enjoyed it. But I did. I really, tremendously did. It is so modernly modernist and socially astute. It is also terribly funny. 

In the inviting cafe—Daphne in pink and a fetching straw hat, I in a dress adorned with blue birds—we talked about the making of the book. Rejected by a very reputable small publishing house, not for lack of merit, but for concern over how many copies could be sold, Daphne decided to “humbly make it” herself. It is a fine thing to talk about the making of books, and rather more appealing than talking about self-publishing, though they are virtually the same thing. The latter has some unfair connotations while the former somehow more accurately reflects the artistic truth—the act of making. With its illustrated cover of a Queen streetscape by Toronto artist Tom Chitty, it is a thing of beauty that one might look quite fashionable reading while out and about.  

We talked about Ursula, who is much like Daphne, in the same way that Walser’s narrator is much like him—all four of them sharing certain things, such as a dislike of cars. Though, Daphne does not have the same ire for “toxic wheat” that Ursula does. 

Then we had to decide where to begin our walk. What would Ursula do—head west along Queen to get away from the Pan Am Games, or east into them? East, she’d go east.

We hopped on the streetcar to expedite our journey (Daphne’s young Arlo needing to be picked up in short-ish order), and rode past places in the book, like Trinity Bellwoods park, where Ursula lays under a tree and has admiring thoughts about Sidney Crosby.

We got off at Nathan Phillips Square, the Pan Am Games hub downtown. Daphne, who loves sport, felt that perhaps she should be experiencing  more Panamania, while I remained perfectly comfortable in my Panapathy—which seemed to be the predominant feeling in the underwhelming public square. Even Pachi, the official mascot who looks like a chipmunk who’s been stabbed in the back with colourful dinosaur spikes—but is really a visually-impaired porcupine—lacked energy as he posed for photographs. When Pachi’s handler led him away, the spot he’d occupied remained empty.

Daphne and I talked about the idea of the empty public square—not that it was entirely empty, after all there were two or three hundred people milling about, half-listening to the band on the huge stage, as well as children crawling through the giant Os in the new Toronto sign, but there was room for many more. Daphne mentioned a time when she was in that very urban plaza to protest Rob Ford being in office, but hardly anyone else turned up. Why were the public not in their square, caring about their own governance? 

We continued on to Osgoode Hall, following in Ursula’s footsteps, which meant going into the bushes, as she had done, to peer through the wrought iron fence at the home of the Canadian Opera Company, behind it the CN Tower. “Someone is going to think we need to pee,” said Daphne.

It was hot out and the temporary shade had been a reprieve. Daphne and I, both fair, had begun to wilt, so after only a little more walking (including one stop so I could buy a cheerful yellow begonia), we boarded the westbound streetcar and exited near the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, “the institution once known as the ‘Provincial Lunatic Asylum’” that, appropriately, appears near the end of Walking with Walser. Reminded, at the last moment, that I hadn’t yet taken a photo (street photography being another form of flânerie) to document our walk, I snapped Daphne walking past The Great Hall. When I came home and uploaded the photo, it was not merely the image of a passerby caught in a glass reflection, nor the image of a fictious crazed sister-in-law, but that of a literary fellow traveller.


 
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THERE, THERE // Do Not Feed the Duck


What do you do if you have a crush on someone who is engaged to be married?
~ Randy Duck



Dear Randy Duck,

Thanks to your nom de plume, I’ve just spent a quarter of an hour researching ducks in the hopes of finding something that I could tease into a metaphor to respond to your query.

Are you ready to be shocked?

It’s a widespread misconception that all ducks quack; most species don’t.

Are you reeling as much as I was when I read that? I still can’t process it. It’s like finding out that most lions don’t roar. It brings one’s whole worldview into question, doesn’t it? What else have they lied to us about, Randy Duck?
 
I also discovered that, according to a study conducted at the University of Hertfordshire in 2002 by psychologist Richard Wiseman, of all animals, ducks attract the most humour and silliness. Guilty! I chose your letter because your moniker me laugh. 

Well, not just that. You might be interested to learn that, I’m also a Duck Whisperer. Mr. Margo learned of this little known skill of mine while we sat on a bank on Toronto Island one humid day last summer. Already horrified by having to sit on the damp ground, he was further disturbed by the impropriety of the ritual I went through to attract the waterfowl. In the end, he was duly impressed when my duck calls caught the attention of the nearby Mallards and they climbed up out of the lake and waddled up the bank to be near me. One of them even came close to climbing onto my lap. It was at this point, that Mr. Margo drew a close to the proceedings. 

When I was a kid I could make all the ducks come to me in Beacon Hill Park too. Mind you, back then I was packing bread. Remember when that was okay? I mean, it was never really okay, but it wasn’t widely known in the late 70s and early 80s just how bad bread is for ducks. I just looked it up on the Audubon website and it’s so terrible what it does to them that I had to stop reading.

So, Randy Duck, you need a little duck whispering and I’m here for you. Here’s what I think. You’re the duck, right?  You’re floating there and thoughts of your crush land in front of you in big, tasty hunks. So you lunge and swallow them: nom-nom-nom. You gorge on the thoughts that feed your crush. And what you feed grows. So your crush gets bigger and bigger and you end up with this swelling feeling that threatens to, well... crush you. Your crush, after all, is already promised to another. See... bread is bad for ducks. Am I right?
 
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe your word choice was poor and your crush is more substantial than white bread and you are more than just another horny fowl, in which case don’t let me stop you from making a Big Romantic Gesture. You could, say, pull a Benjamin, à la The Graduate, and charge into the church on your crush’s wedding day and scream out their name. I would only advise doing a BRG if, in your heart of hearts, you know—and think your crush knows—that they are marrying the wrong person. Who knows? Maybe life really can be like it is in the movies. You’d also need to have a pretty big flair for the dramatic to pull it off.

Alternatively, you might also consider something less dramatic, like a simple note to your crush that asks nothing, but plainly and bravely states your feelings, in case there is any chance that your crush feels the same way. At least that way, you’d know whether or not you’d ever had a chance, and either way you could move on.

Because, Ducky, crushes aren’t always what they’re quacked up to be, I suspect you’re better off sticking with the bread theory. If my suggestion for you (remember, I have no answers, only suggestions!) was in the form of a civic sign it’d read: DO NOT FEED THE RANDY DUCK CRUSH. I’m afraid that’s likely your best option—to starve your crush before you end up with a deformed wing (that’s what happens to real ducks if you stuff them with bread—sad, isn’t it?). 

Here’s another fact I learned: ducks are monogamous, but only for about one year at a time. Why do I mention this? Because you, my friend, may find that soon enough your attention may drift elsewhere. Often a crush is but a diversion in time when we are lonely or bored or are recognizing there is a gap in our lives. How easy it is to want to fill those gaps with hunks of baked goods! And, seriously, who wouldn’t want to be constantly pelted with bread, or say, chocolate croissants? But I suspect, as delicious as that fantasy is, it is not the most nutritious thing for one’s well-being. 

It’s obligatory and trite, but I’ll still say it anyway because it’s probably also true: there is another duck or duckette out there for you. Hold out for the one that isn’t already involved—the one who is so, so into you. 

And remember to stay away from the loons.

With a feather smoothing pat of reassurance, 

JM 



To submit a question, confession, or concern to There, There all you have to do is visit this link


 
 

THREE THINGS // The Wowness of Nowness  

Nowness showcases contemporary culture through film. The website (or “video channel”) has existed for half a decade but I just found out about it last week thanks to friends on social media who posted a nice little video about the female gaze. 

Surprisingly, the site is owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. At its best it’s a sumptuous, curated affair with areas devoted to Art & Design, Fashion & Beauty; Music; Food & Travel; and Culture. The tone can be at times pretentious, but don’t let that deter you from finding the fascinating stuff. Most of the films are only a few minutes long.  
 

- 1 -

When Women Look at Other Women on the Street 
Filmmaker Chelsea McMullan takes to the streets to consider the female gaze as part of a series called "The Way We Dress". McMullan asks, “If the male gaze wants to possess, or overcome a fear of, women, than what do I want?”
 

- 2 -

Ralph Steadman: For No Good Reason
In which Johnny Depp visits the cartoonist Ralph Steadman (perhaps most famous for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson) at his English county house (which is not the environment I would ever have imagined for him). Steadman makes a picture while Depp watches, but when he’s done he doesn’t like it, saying, “It’s a shame that I drew it.”
 

- 3 - 

Do the Chandelier
With elegance and absurdity—and while sporting both a mustache and a man bun—choreographer Ryan Heffinton takes us through the moves he put together for the crazy dance Maddie Ziegler does in Sia’s "Chandelier" video. The moves have names like “clean your mustache”, “robot bird” and, my favourite: “wounded dog in one of those wheelchairs”.