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le flâneur


words: madeleine mccartney

image: samine joudat

I often think of the flâneur, a figure who simultaneously evokes a melancholic desire for the past, a drifting contemplation of the present, and a longing for the eternal instead of merely for the future.  This concept, so often discussed in classrooms of literature and philosophy, our only remnants of the intellectual salons of the past, also infiltrates my thoughts and challenges me incessantly. 

As an American raised in Paris and having chosen French literature as my academic specialty, the world of Baudelaire probably enters my mind space more often than my peers’.  His flâneur, born amidst the transformation of the city of Paris and the industrialization of the 19th century, plays a key role in my perspective on our intellectual and creative society today.  

The exact definition of flâneur remains a subject of debate and a question of interpretation.  The Baudelarian bourgeois boulevardier is described as a wanderer who loses himself, who is both everywhere and nowhere, who somehow, all at once, sits on the outskirts and at the center of the world. 'His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd' but he is also 'a mirror as vast as the crowd itself.'

Who is this strange character? How are we to understand an alienated individual who becomes a symbol of the universal? What is his goal? How does he react to his surroundings and, by reacting, how can he transform them?

These questions form the crux of my frustration, not because I seek a simple way to understand a complex idea. On the contrary, it is by constantly forcing simplicity that we risk destroying the beauty of philosophy! However, these questions frustrate me because I possess a strong desire to be a flâneur myself; to take on his role in our everyday life that is so different from Baudelaire’s world; to adopt his method; to observe, wander and discover my surroundings.  Unfortunately, by intentionally trying so hard to be a flâneur, his elegant ease, one of his most attractive qualities, escapes me. 

            Nevertheless, I try…

ageless paris

ageless paris

I start in Paris, the birthplace of the original flâneur and my adoptive home.  Despite the global invasion of Starbucks “to-go” cups, Parisians appreciate and preserve their quiet moments of contemplation, observation and relaxation that come in the form of an afternoon drink on a café terrace, a simple cigarette break, or even a metro ride without the need for headphones.  I am keenly aware of the fact that these vignettes are clichés fueling our romantic visions of the City of Light, but they are also everyday occurrences.  In fact, it is often when I am sitting alone at a café that I find the opportunity to flâne.  I observe, with no particular goal in mind, the world that surrounds me.  I hear the whispers of the American tourists to my right and the young French couple to my left.  I notice the woman hurriedly crossing the street, the music of her heels in prestissimo on the cobblestones.  I watch the old gentleman, sitting on a bench in the distance, who seems lost in his own thoughts, who may be a modern-day flâneur himself. 

Then suddenly I stop because I sense that I am not flân-ing the way I’m meant to.  Baudelaire’s character was always travelling, with no particular destination, but in constant motion.  Is it enough then to simply let our thoughts wander while staying glued to our chairs? It may well be that the ephemeral essence of the present becomes clearer by stopping, pausing, freezing, but this only increases the distance between the observer and the observed, denying him the possibility of participating in the collective. 

My new city, New York, has a different atmosphere, a sense of urgency that tires and threatens to overwhelm my inner flâneur, who is desperately searching for a moment of clarity, for the chance to take it all in.  New Yorkers weave through the streets; they move with intent; they avoid all contact.  In New York, everything, even a simple smile, must be earned, and a moment comes and goes so fast that, as a flâneur, I try in vain to catch fleeting snippets of life. 

This chaotic whirlwind is a strong parallel to the industrialization and transformations witnessed by Baudelaire’s flâneur.  I find myself deeply aware of the risk of routinization, of the power of the mob that threatens to transform me into just another member of the crowd, that tempts me to renounce my flânerie. 

And how can one resist that temptation? How can we force ourselves to be the observers in a world that’s changing so quickly? How can we both participate but also keep our distance from the crowd?

‘a wanderer who loses himself, who is both everywhere and nowhere, who somehow, all at once, sits on the outskirts and at the center of the world’

Questions without answers, but still I try…

In the end, it is not the challenging nature of flânerie that worries me, it is the risk that one day we may stop trying. 

In the end, flânerie is a tool for us not only to understand our complicated world but also to transform it, wherever we may be. 

In the end, we may never be able to perfectly embody the flâneurBaudelaire created, but we will always be capable of wandering, be it with our steps, our eyes, or simply our thoughts. 

I therefore urge you to preserve that creativity, that individual perspective that participates in the crowd while also adding to it. 

I urge you to try.  I urge you to flâne.