Interview with Philip Mann

Born in Germany, Philip Mann has lived in London since 1988 and has a degree in the History of Art. He has written for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Vogue and has lectured on matters of taste in Paris, Vienna, New York, Bern and London. In 1994 he curated the comprehensive retrospective of the Archigram group at the Kunsthalle, Vienna. He co-edited the anthology “Geld muss man in der Tasche haben, sonst geht das Schwein nicht aus dem Wege: Bittbriefe von W. A. Mozart bis Henry Miller” published by Berlin Press in 2008. He also contributed essays to various books including “Höflichkeit: Aktualität und Genese von Umgangsformen” published by Wilhelm Fink Verlag in 2002 and “Ernährungsgrundlagen für den leidenschaftlichen Trinker” published by Metrolit in 2013. His book The Dandy at Dusk – Taste and Melancholy in the 20th Century was published by Head of Zeus in 2017.


James Fisher: The Dandy at Dusk elaborates your extensive research on six sublime personalities of the twentieth century. I was first drawn to your work because of the book’s remarkable subtitle: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century. What makes ‘taste’ such a privileged term for the dandy?

Philip Mann: The inability to see the world in terms other than aesthetic is part of the dandy’s pathology as well as his raison d’être. When his aesthetic sense ceases he becomes an empty, burnt-out vessel. Taste understood as aesthetic judgement (Kant’s Geschmacksurteil) is indispensable to the dandy. He needs to achieve distinction in the only field in which he can excel. Taste to the dandy is more than the enforcement of received notions of ‘good’ taste. The constant wrangling around what constitutes the latter obfuscates his true competence more than explaining it. At the same time the dandy fared better in times (modernism in the widest sense) when parameters of taste still existed, so he could place himself just inside or rather just outside them: he mastered the convention to such a degree of perfection that he transcended it.

Historically the notion of ‘good taste’ developed hand in hand with the dandy. At the beginning of modernity, neo-classicism codified tastes in art, architecture and design. The concomitant codification of the gentleman in its artificial epitome, the dandy, was inextricably bound up with neo-classicism. What the individual genesis of taste is – in anybody but specifically in the dandy where it takes such a dominant position – is probably the most intriguing question in this context. Taste is developed throughout a life and might indeed change. Of course dominant discourses are hard to ignore, especially if one seeks to posit oneself against them. But the not quite rational – a childhood memory of your grandmother’s interior or a woman’s freckly skin – is far more crucial. The dandy objectifies aesthetic realities through the filter of his individuality alone: instinct, fantasy, imagination and memory successfully occupy the domain of the ‘merely’ subjective. Finally and perhaps paradoxically the ‘true’ dandy doesn’t find his longing for distinction through taste satisfied by the visible world. When Proust heard of Wilde declaring the death of Lucien de Rubempré to be the saddest event in his life, he was moved to say that “such banal aestheticism could not be my aesthetic philosophy”.

JF: In the book’s final chapter you quote Viollet-Le-Duc who states, “Le goût consiste en paraître ce que l’on est, et non ce que l’on voudrait être”. This seems to make taste a principle of identity, whereas melancholy pertains, in your sense, to “man’s mourning of his own alienation from his timeless origin” (p. 329). What precisely has the dandy lost and why is it so important for him to have lost it?

PM: L’habit fait le moine or as I have said in the dandy’s case l’habit est le moine. The dandy’s good taste consists in being true to his identity. Indeed taste appears to me closely tied up with the question of identity. Identity understood as the sum of lived experience and comfortably enough removed from mere accidents of birth like nationality. At the same time the dandy of course invents himself at some stage in his life and then tragically sticks to this invention. What makes this invention tasteful is its truthfulness or as Quentin Crisp puts it: “If at first you don’t succeed, maybe failure is your style.”

What the dandy is born with however is an innate hypersensitivity as well as an unquenchable longing for more that produces a desperate need for distinction. The only way he is able to exercise this sense of distinction is through refinement of taste. The simple existence of taste creates distinction which in turn creates distance from the crowd and taken to its ultimate end solitude. There is melancholy at the source of the dandy’s longing as well as – decidedly – at its end. Which probably makes the pairing of taste and melancholy so pertinent.

What precisely has he lost? To Walter Benjamin the dandy is a Hercules without labours. Modernity has no place for him and abandons him to an eternity of idleness. Robert Burton – before presenting us with myriad causes for melancholy – says in his introduction (to The Anatomy of Melancholy) that there really is only one cause: idleness. The dandy’s philosophically determined idleness leaves him with a convulsive desire for a fulfilling content in life.

Why is it so important for him to have lost it ? The dandy’s tragedy is also his raison d’être. He prides himself on his alienation.

JF: As per Nils Dardel’s painting The Dying Dandy, the dandy is always in the throes of death without ever actually dying. At the same time, you remark that the dandy’s suit is “a uniform for living” (p. 5). What in the dandy is most alive?

PM: Historically the dandy has died quite a bit by now. Dardel lets him die in 1918 after the Great War, while I declare him dead in 1983 after modernism. Philosophically, he indeed appears rarely to be far from death. Given the dandy’s nature as a work of art, the passing of time poses particular problems for him. His life is only partially the natural progress from naivety to maturity. Having realised himself early, he faces eternity. The perfection that the dandy desires and that at some stage he simply claims for himself – “I don’t need to practise, I’m already perfect” – is a constant reminder of death. Often the dandy’s life is a suicide postponed. Emil Cioran said what kept him alive was the possibility of suicide. In the meantime the dandy contents himself with suffering. In the second half of his life Baudelaire sought redemption in suffering and turned from poète maudit to Catholic writer. In De Profundis, Wilde, comparing himself to Jesus, sees his fate perfected only through suffering, as it is through suffering that the spiritual side of his soul is fulfilled: “Pleasure for the beautiful body, pain for the beautiful soul”.

The dandy’s suit is a uniform for living but, according to Baudelaire, his life is spent in constant mourning. Flaubert so splendidly seems to echo this sentiment when, in L’Éducation sentimentale, he shows us a glimpse of a true dandy in the mundane crowd, distinguishable for his impeccable funeral-black attire. What in the dandy is most alive? The need to manifest himself before he dies.

JF: There’s a sentiment in your book that the true dandy disdains publicity, and you yourself have resisted lingering in the public gaze. What is the dandy’s relation to the gaze? Can he tolerate any lighting other than dusk?

PM: Again it was Cioran who pitied Borges because the misfortune of recognition had befallen him. He wished for him to have remained a nuance. Considering the importance of nuances in the dandy’s universe, it would indeed be beautiful if he could remain one himself. The whole disdain for worldly success, the wish to fail flamboyantly goes along with that. On the other hand the dandy wouldn’t exist in our minds without publicity: everything we know about Brummell comes through word of mouth. So maybe it is truer to say that the dandy refuses to court what he secretly craves.

The dandy’s relationship to the gaze is equally ambiguous. Bunny Roger countered Brummell’s dictum, ‘If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed’, with, ‘I should be very upset if he didn’t!’ In terms of his own gaze, I suppose one could say the dandy goes through an ongoing mirror stage: he’s constantly and fastidiously observing his relationship to culture and the world. But this forensic gaze doesn’t always yield the results that please him: Michel Leiris found catching his reflection in the mirror a humiliating experience. It is precisely the physical faults that he perceived, that let him to dress with a maximum amount of elegance. He used his clothes to erect a wall around himself.

In terms of lighting it is true that the melancholic prefers the Venetian blinds to be half shut. But dusk – the blue hour – of course has its own magic : it is the time when reality is at its most poetic and self-knowledge most acute.

I haven’t evaded the public gaze so much as it has evaded me. I would welcome any publicity. Though it would definitely find me at dusk.

JF: Your biography specifies that you’ve lived in London since 1988. Did your anglophilia spawn your interest in dandyism, or was it the other way around?

PM: A strong interest in clothes has accompanied me from a relatively young age. Quite often this interest expressed itself in the form of distaste, in accordance with Renard’s “Je ne réponds pas d’avoir du goût, mais j’ai le dégoût très sûr”. My mother tells me that age three or four, I buried an Indian cheese-cloth shirt deep in the sand of a Spanish beach never to be found again. After my parents divorce, I suppose I was emulating my absent father, a fastidious dresser. His first bespoke suit of the early 1960s became almost mythical in my mind through his tales and the occasional glimpse on a photograph – it was also the suit he had wed my mother in. It had of course not survived so I was not able to ever lay my hands on it.

I think I first properly became aware of the dandy around age twelve, when I was alerted to the the fact that a friend of my stepfather’s was writing something about the subject, though I suspect I knew of the term before. Growing up in a clothes-conscious environment early on made me appreciate England to be the home of male tailoring and elegance. My anglophilia properly came into its own through the appearance of Brideshead Revisited on our television screens. The Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy Sayers were also read with a keen eye for sartorial detail of which they weren’t short (double breasted waistcoat a sign of the cad etc.). Curiously what finally impelled me to move to London was catching the film Doctor in Clover on East German television ( I grew up in West- Berlin). Not only was it made in the year of my birth, which took equally mythical status as my father’s suit in my mind at that time, it also displayed a sense of humour so joyfully demented to me that I thought it best to leave for the happy shores of Albion straight away. On the whole I’d have to say then that my interest in clothes and dandyism predated my Anglophilia though they seemed to go hand in hand from an early stage.

JF: You write “The dandy is his clothing, with all the multitude of references that entails” (p. 4). Who and what do you reference in your clothing? Has this changed over the years?

PM: The dandy’s pathology has always attached itself more easily to me than his triumphs. My mother had given me some money for my Abitur to be used for a bespoke suit. I had prepared for this for years and the time seemed to be ripe when I arrived in London. Too much (prep) as it turned out. The multiple references I wanted to include (my father’s first suit, Marcello Mastroianni, French gangster films, classic English tailoring, flat front trousers, pleated trousers, the Parisian fashions of 1969, my entire life to that point but specifically the temps perdu of my first five years) proved too much for one garment (or even three as it was to be a three-piece). The whole thing turned out to be a disaster.

More recently a lingering sense of immaturity has impelled me to want to appear like a German grown-up of the 1970s. A bourgeois man as can be found in episodes of Derrick. Not a dandy necessarily. My dandyism would then consist of perfectly representing such an unpopular archetype.

As – tailoring disasters aside – my wardrobe consists mostly of second hand items and e-bay finds, identity has to be constructed by combining items rather than creating from scratch.

JF: As you know, I am speaking to you out of an interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Jacques Lacan has himself sometimes been compared to a dandy (as in this essay: « What do clothes say? »). Does Lacan live up to your standards of taste?

PM: Lacan’s clothing seems to be in the air right now. By sheer fluke I was just alerted to the forthcoming publication La Sartoria di Lacan by Antonio Rainone. I’m sure consulting it would help me greatly with this question. From the pictures I find when doing a google search of the master I can say that he was a man that dressed with distinctive elegance (the bow tie) in impeccable tailoring throughout the 1950’s and 60’s and then with a good deal of flamboyance (the Astrakhan coat, the unusual shirts) in the 1970s. In his sartorial journey he follows the fashion trajectory of the trentes glorieuses though – of course few men did it with such a degree of panache. I’m slightly reminded of my favourite Chabrol film here: Juste Avant La Nuit (1971). The middle-aged Michel Bouquet, the very epitome of the bourgeois, wears very ‘up-to-date’ clothes – the whole film is designed by Karl Lagerfeld. He somehow manages to perfectly inhabit them though.

What makes the dandy is an absolute consistency of image. Quentin Crisp was rather blown out of the water in his identity as an effeminate homosexual when by the late 1960s everybody suddenly dressed like him – all the same he stuck to his image until the end. In that way Foucault appears more of a dandy than Lacan as I can think of him in no other way than with shaved head, slightly stingy square glasses, white polo-neck and jackets that appear a couple of sizes too small. When some time in the late 1970s I came across a man dressed in this manner – he was visiting my stepfather in his office to discuss a publishing project and I happened to be present – I remarked on the fellow’s appearance after his leaving. “An acolyte of Foucault” my stepfather said. Of course I had never heard of Foucault at that stage but the event stuck in my mind. Now what made this person remarkable was not what he wore – a tweed jacket – but the way he wore it.

Now if you ask me whether Lacan lives up to my “standards” of taste I’d still say that he partly does. I put standards in inverted commas because not only does it make me sound intolerably pompous but it is also hard to say how much of my taste is mere nostalgia. As I’m fatally nostalgic for the trentes glorieuses, a great deal of his clothes still appeal to me. If I can’t quite agree with Lacan as a dandy, let’s not forget that the dandy is not in the end something to aspire to. In my book only two characters live to the ripe old age of eighty or over and even they can’t be accused of happiness.

JF: If not to be a dandy, what do you aspire to?

PM: Once all possibilities of finding a fulfilling content to life are exhausted, one is left with the choice between the foot of the cross and the muzzle of a gun (in the phrase applied to J.K. Huysmans by Barbey d’Aurevilly after reading À Rebours). I still long to be saved from this stark choice by some form of conventional happiness. Indeed longing and yearning are more in my line than aspiring.

JF: In the past, you’ve also written about taste in manners and in beverages. Can we look forward to more writing from you in the future?

PM: Hope is the last thing to die.