The flâneur

There are few people who warrant the designation of flâneur.  It initially had the connotation of wasting time but has since acquired the incomparable ingredient of Parisian superfluity. The French have sought to expropriate the singular denomination much the way they have with Champagne.

Anaïs Bazin wrote that “the only, the true sovereign of Paris is the flâneur”.  Victor Fournel, in Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris (What One Sees in the Streets of Paris, 1867), devoted a chapter to “the art of flânerie”. For Fournel, there was nothing lazy in flânerie. It was, rather, a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape. It was a moving photograph (“un daguerréotype mobile et passioné”) of urban experience.

Flâneur (pronounced [flɑnœʁ]), from the French noun flâneur, means “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer”. Flânerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations. A near-synonym is ‘boulevardier’. He is an ambivalent figure of urban riches representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of society.

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. Following Benjamin, the flâneur has become an important symbol for scholars, artists and writers. Recent scholarship has also proposed the flâneuse, a female equivalent to the flâneur.

My introduction to the Parisian custom was through the eyes of Jean Genet in Notre Dame des Fleurs. Although the début novel involved the Paris underworld and the homosexuals living on the fringe of society, it nonetheless elevates the largely autobiographical journey by religious canonization of Divine (a drag queen) who dies of tuberculosis. The book was written on brown paper bags while Genet was in prison. The first printing was designed for sale to well-to-do collectors of erotica but Genet never intended the book as mere pornography.  He sought to escape that label and the slur of mopery or being a dandy.

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964). Orig. published in Le Figaro, in 1863.

An ancient friend of mine qualifies like the distilled vapours of a fine cognac as a flâneur. He comes by the degree honestly. Through the accidents of birth, parentage, capacity, intelligence, opportunity, assiduity and inheritance his is a life shamelessly devoted to discovery on a global scale and always by design among the élite and privileged classes. His material expression captures his visceral adoration for brand names of luxury composition. It is fortuitous that he has the further advantage of a graduate education in the one profession which competes with the antiquity and dynamism of the other reputed business as brazenly embracing all manner of commerce, conduct and society.