The concept of the flâneur enjoys a privileged status in French thought. While it also means “loiterer,” the first definition of the verb flâner in Le Robert du Poche is, “To walk without haste, abandoning oneself to the impressions of the moment.” Baudelaire developed the term as referring to a “gentleman stroller” who, without other purpose, observes the life of the city as a “botanist of the sidewalk.” The Wikipedia entry for flâneur is well worth reading. According to that article, Susan Sontag points out the way in which the camera further energizes this role: “The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.”
The primary characteristic of the flâneur is awareness. This implies consciousness, of one’s surroundings and those who inhabit it. (As I write a young man in the building just across my tiny street, not fifteen feet away, steps onto his balcony with a cup of coffee, glances around at the awakening city, though avoiding my own discreet gaze, and retreats inside.) While certainly a voyeur, a flâneur is more: he is himself present in the street, not just watching life through a keyhole. The flâneur is seen as well as seeing, and is seen to be seeing.
What, then, is the difference between the flâneur and the tourist? The tourist strolls, he looks, and Lord knows he is visible. The distinctions are subtle, matters of degree rather than kind: what they look at, what they see, and where they go.
Tourists are often more or less afraid of the places they visit. They are anxious about getting lost, about missing a top sight, about language or cultural barriers. They clutch their guidebooks or maps as they would life rafts after a shipwreck. One wants to tell them to look up, or better yet throw away the map and just stroll! Get lost! The seasoned tourist, the “traveler,” of course does exactly that. But most tourists follow the route on their tourist map, look at the recommended monuments and artifacts, and are oblivious to the “real” life of the city. Tourists stroll, they look, but in an important sense they are unconscious.
The Memory of Paris.
The city is very conscious, however, of its tourists. They flow through certain streets and districts like a torrent of money and stupidity. Souvenir shops sell trinkets to help tourists preserve their precious memories — of shopping for trinkets in souvenir shops. Bad restaurants flourish on an endless supply of clueless foreigners, having no need for repeat customers or good word-of-mouth. Establishments that cater to the needs of residents are displaced. The “normal” city flees from the “tourist track,” leaving a brightly-colored cultural wasteland, which the conventional tourist carefully stays within. Not only is the tourist unconscious, but where he goes there isn’t much worth being conscious of.
The flâneur, in contrast, should go everywhere, and should be as aware as possible of the life of the city that he strolls through. He must not be afraid to go, and he must not be afraid to look. And, by extension, he must not be afraid to photograph. All that is easier said than done, however, and the prudent visitor must resign himself to being an imperfect flâneur.
Being an outsider both hampers and helps the flâneur. Even if he overcomes his fear of language and cultural barriers, they may nevertheless impair his ability to see and understand what is happening around him. Awareness without comprehension scarcely differs from the ordinary tourist. But being an outsider helps the flâneur avoid the deadening effect of repetition and the distractions of daily life. When you live in a place you gradually stop being conscious of your surroundings, except information you need for practical purposes and unexpected changes. Thomas Mann captured this idea in The Magic Mountain when he observed that the second time you take a trip it seems to go more quickly, and the habitual journey takes no time at all. The flâneur may also see more because his only purpose is to see. He isn’t rushing somewhere or distracted by his own thoughts. Ideally, he is fully in the moment and fully open to where it may take him.
There is a similarity between the flâneur and the person who is trying to “score” something on the street: homosexual “cruiser,” drug addict, pickpocket, vampire, whore. They all stroll, they are all acutely aware of their surroundings. But the overriding goal of these strollers distorts their perception — they see only what might get them what they want, they go only where what they want may be found. The flâneur should have no goal in his walking except to observe. Photography presents a problem, since the camera-carrying stroller is always thinking about how to “score” a great photo. I see no solution to this tension — bringing along a camera makes you an imperfect flâneur.
One sort of goal, however, I consider suitable for a flâneur. Alfred Hitchcock popularized the concept of a MacGuffin, something that the characters in a movie pursue to set the plot in motion. It’s not important what the MacGuffin is; what’s important is the activity and interaction generated by its pursuit. I have often used this idea to energize my own travels: searching for a Go set in Yangshuo, China, for example. This sort of goal need not distract from the primary purpose of the flâneur so long as he remembers that what matters is the journey, not the destination.
One of the books I read in preparation for this trip was The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White. At one point he asks, “Why is the flâneur so sad?” The answer is that the flâneur is in his nature an outsider. Usually, the flâneur is solitary, although it is possible for two people of like minds to flâne together if their interaction isn’t too much of a distraction. But if a flâneur is drawn into the life of the city he becomes distracted and less able to see. The true flâneur is sad because he is only an observer, and as such is more or less excluded from the life that he observes.
While the city flees the tourist, it thrives on the flâneur. A city is a creation, continually being re-created. Like any work of art, the city needs to be seen to fully realize itself. The flâneur is the observer who completes the creation of the city.
Belleville Zoo, rue Ramponeau. (Lisa in the corner.)
Poetic postscript: A friend, Taline, just sent a message with this poem as its footer:
||I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Wallace Stevens, Tea at the Palaz of Hoon
Lovely, and deep, but I think also in some tension with the idea of the flâneur. Is the flâneur walking ultimately through his own mind? Or, even more strange, is he truly interacting with other beings like himself, in person or through appreciation of their art and artifacts?
Practical postscript: This map, pointed out by Alan Norbauer, highlights photos of Paris and environs that have been geotagged, distinguishing between those tagged by tourists and those tagged by Parisians. The “tourist track” is bright red, while the blue areas are also photogenic but less touristy.
Literary postscript: This article from the New York Times describes a piece by Henry James about travel in Tuscany. James says that a visitor’s “first care must be to ignore the very dream of haste, walking everywhere very slowly and very much at random”. I’m pleased, though not surprised, to learn that Henry James was also a flâneur.
Yet another postscript: This excerpt from In Motion: The Experience of Travel by Tony Hiss beautifully describes the ideal state of mind of the flâneur. (A few chapters in I have found the book itself somewhat disappointing since it seems to focus more on the transportation aspect of travel than the being-somewhere-unfamiliar aspect.)
And here is a delicious passage from Paris by Julien Green: “[U]n des privilèges de Paris, une de ses grâces les plus rares qu’il n’accorde qu’à ceux qui savent y perdre leur temps, est de se montrer soudain sous d’insolites aspects, de provoquer à la fois le plaisir de l’inattendu et un subtil inquiétude qui pour un rien tournerait à l’angoisse.” Helpfully, this edition is bi-lingual: “[O]ne of the privileges of Paris, one of its rarest graces, bestowed only on those who know how to waste time there, is suddenly to show itself in unusual guises, arousing both the pleasure of the unexpected and a subtle anxiety that could easily tip over into fear.”
In 2011 the métro cars have a series of literary quotes. Here’s one I particularly liked.
My translation: “At that time, Paris was a city that corresponded to my heartbeat. My life could not write itself anywhere but in its streets. It was enough for me to walk alone at random in Paris to be happy.” (Friendly emendations welcome…)