Flaneur: The Freedom of Wandering

April 11, 2014 | Posted in: Sociology

In Central Park New York, Maurice Prendergast, 1901.

“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…”  Charles Baudelaire

 

The urban landscape is a visual representation of the values, successes, and failures of its inhabitants. Every city is an endless parade of human creations, desires, weaknesses, and trivialities, mostly lying invisible before our eyes. Most of us today have a tendency to quickly become accustomed to our surroundings, and thus often begin to ignore much of the sensory experience occurring in the unfolding moments of our days. Our modern lives are filled with purpose: daily goals and destinations driving us in a flurry from place to pre-destined place. This is why travel is so valued in our lives: a new destination breaks us out of our habitual numbness with its foreign allure, allowing us to experience the world as we actually sensorially perceive it, with fresh and hungry eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and skin.

But we don’t need to travel far to awaken our sense of wonder. The towns and cities we live in are ripe for re-discovery. And if any word can act as an invitation to re-enliven your experience of the urban landscape, then “flâneur” is it. The word is french in origin and its earliest meaning was a slur to describe an idle, wandering man whose wealth and education allowed him the privilege (though not the respect) of idling about:

“He has been portrayed in the past as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century–a shopper with no intention to buy… a detective without a lead… free to probe his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by the others.”
H. Marcelle Crickenberger

The archetype of the flaneur came into popularity during the 19th century in literary and artistic circles, to whom pointless wandering, far from being regarded as slothful, was applauded as an intelligent response to a burgeoning capitalistic society that increasingly focused on economic ties amongst the ever-growing population, in place of community ties. Walter Benjamin, in his writings on the meaning of the flaneur, described the interactions between the unrelated citizens of Paris as foremostly economic during the mid 19th century (and lest you should judge, our society today isn’t much better): “People knew one another as debtors and creditors, salesmen and customers, employers  and employees, and above all as competitors.”

Boar Lane, Leeds, John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1881.

Boar Lane, Leeds, John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1881.

In contrast to this economic hustle and bustle, the flaneur seeks to decipher the hidden messages of the urban landscape on foot, much like a biologist would seek to understand an ecosystem, ever focused on sensory observation with no destination in mind, no end goal beyond discovery itself.

“Flâneurs ignore the rush hour; rather than hurrying off somewhere, they hang around. Their very being ‘is a demonstration against the division of labour.’ They demonstrate the resistance of the daydreamer to the rise of industry and commerce.” Bobby Seal

Though flaneuring was once the sole privileged of bourgeois white males, such wandering of the cityscape was increasingly made available to anyone with a moment to spare. The word soon became mixed up with idle consumerism, describing an individual searching not for experience, but for a bargain. Authors and artists abandoned the concept of the flaneur. With the deeper meaning lost, the word soon fell out of favor.

“Flâner: to dawdle about, to waste one’s time on trifles.” Dictionnaire de l’Academie francaise

But as I see it, in our time of extraordinary material consumption, the flaneur is needed once more as a rally cry: a return to experience rather than consumption! The city calls to us, not merely as a place to shop, or eat, or rent, but as a landscape filled with wonder, beauty, truth, horror; essentially, humanity.

To become a flaneur takes only a shift of mind, a refocusing of our steps out the door from a known destination to an unknown exploration; following our fancy, intuition, the sensory tugs that cause us to step one way instead of another. When flaneuring, there is no place to go, nothing to do. Indeed, to flaneur isn’t to shop or to sight-see. The only intention is to wander with full sensory immersion in the urban landscape, the built environment within which an endless crowd is pulsating, to surf amongst this mass of humanity, witnessing hidden details and following invisible trails.

In the harsh, but vivifying, words of Charles Baudelaire:

“Anyone who is capable of being bored in a crowd is a blockhead. I repeat: a blockhead, and a contemptible one.”

If you’re eager to flaneur, but need help getting lost, begin here: http://flaneursociety.org/guide.pdf

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Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.