According to its dictionary definition, a flâneur is little more than a loiterer, but to thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire this figure plays the role of a city’s cultural camera. But what does it mean to do what Virginia Woolf calls street haunting?
In “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire’s comparison of the flâneur’s crowd to a fish’s water has always stood out to me since we all know a fish will die without that particular fluid. This statement assigns life or death stakes to the art of taking in the city scene, and that’s just how I like it.
I also like the joining together of one’s passion and one’s profession. I like even more when that profession involves merging with the urban spectacle to such an extent that you become a single skin. Baudelaire seems to say, if this creeps you out, you may not be flâneur material.
What does it mean to make your home in the jostle of the “fugitive and the infinite”? I suppose it means to inhabit that which is at once fleeting, even vaguely menacing, and also everlasting.
As an adjective, fugitive, too, means fleeting, but as a noun it’s someone who must flee due to persecution. I imagine here that Baudelaire’s flâneur inhabits some mixture of these two definitions: living evanescence and fleeing any life that doesn’t prioritize ardent cultural spectatorship.
Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur is full of contradiction, or at least the play of paradox. In his view, in order to be a flâneur you must be outside the house, out in the city, eating culture. But this stalking of the exterior must be so native that it becomes your only real home.
There’s a relationship to the crowd here that’s at once distant and intimate. You must remain hidden from the people of the city but they also become your family. And to love them is to love electricity itself. In Baudelaire’s rendition, you are the kaleidoscope that grew a philosophically inclined brain that recreates the details of all it captures and recasts.
Benjamin’s take on the flâneur, a “werewolf roaming restlessly in the social wilderness,” is as fervid as Baudelaire’s but also contains a warning; this urban detective and delighter is also the perfect victim of the city’s less savory offerings: capitalism and alienation.
Another disturbing aspect of flânerie is the degree to which it has been the province of men—an issue Lauren Elkin takes up beautifully in her book Flâneuse. Nevertheless, I live to walk my city. Let’s just say that, even though this role wasn’t readily offered up to me as a woman, I took it.
I often compose my writing as I stroll. This sense that my eyes are cameras, that what goes in is image and what comes out is writing has long been with me. As I walk, I insert a frame on what I’m looking at, and the whole city becomes edited, through this particular sort of attention, into art.
I often think how far from the original notion of the flâneur I am as I push two squawking kids in a double stroller along Greenwood Cemetery on the way to school. This makes me embrace the identity all the more. And so here I am, the “werewolf roaming restlessly in the social wilderness” . . . with a double stroller.