My articles No.3 – Paris as the modern site of the flâneur

The transformation of space in Paris, from the traditional to the modern, in the 19th century was a powerful attraction to the artist and the flâneur – so much so that it was said that “the flâneur can be born anywhere; he can only live in Paris.” (Paris des cent-et un, quoted in Tester, Keith (ed.) (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge, Page 22).

Paris, more than any other city, encouraged the flâneur and flânerie. Hannah Arendt said that Paris was “the paradise of all those who need to chase after no livelihood, pursue no career, reach no goal – the paradise, then, of bohemians, and only of artists and writers but all those who have gathered about them because they could not be integrated either politically or socially.” (“Introduction” in Benjamin, Walter (1992), Illuminations, Fontana Press, Page 27.)

The flâneur was generally a wealthy man who would wander around the new boulevards and arcades of Paris, watching but not participating in the life on the streets. Priscilla Ferguson said of him (and the flâneur in 19th century Paris was always male): “He walks through the city at random and alone, a bachelor or widower … the flâneur is in society as he is in the city, suspended from social obligation, disengaged, disinterested, dispassionate.” (“The Flâneur on and off the streets of Paris”, in Tester, Keith (ed.) (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge.)

The flâneur is detached from the city and the people he watches. He is fascinated by the thrills and excitement of the city, of the life around him, but at the same time he is disturbed and confused for being tempted by these attractions.

Walter Benjamin speaks of how the flâneur’s relationship with the city is often one of estrangement: “To the flâneur his city – even if he was born in it, like Baudelaire – is no longer home. For him it represents a showplace.” (quoted in Frisby, David, “The flâneur in social theory”, in Tester, Keith (ed.) (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge, Page 94.)

The flâneur will always be an outsider, never able to be part of the city he gazes upon. The flâneur uses the city and its people as a sort of theatre. He needs to be separate from the action. As Zygmunt Bauman says: “he needs to preserve the elbow room of the man of leisure while sunk in the crowd; he must see without being seen.” (“Desert Spectacular”, in Tester, Keith (ed.) (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge.)

Keith Tester explains that the flâneur observes the public, who are themselves drawn by the growing consumpiton of post-Haussmann Paris, but he is perhaps being as much duped by the spectacle of the public as the consumers he watches are of the hollow attractions of consumerism. (Tester, Keith (ed.) (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge, Page 14.) Baudelaire’s flâneur in The Painter of Modern Life, sums up the attraction of Paris:

“He marvels at the eternal beauty and amazing harmony of life … so providentially maintained amid the turmoil of human freedom. He gazes upon the landscape of the great city … He delights in fine carriages and proud horses, the dazzling smartness of the grooms … the sinuous gait of the women, the beauty of the children, happy to be alive and nicely dressed … he delights in universal life.” (cited in Bruce Mazlish, “The flâneur: from spectacuclar to representation”, in Tester, Keith (ed.) (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge, Page 49.)

Rob Shields in his article “Fancy Footwork: Walter Benjamin’s notes on flânerie” in the Keith Tester book says that Walter Benjamin describes the flâneur as a detective of street life, discerning the subtle pleasures of urban life and the truth of the street, consuming the urban environment, its sights, smells, characters and action.

Shields says that flânerie emphasises and preserves the separateness of the individual, creating a fascination with anonymity and guardedness. The flâneur is a figure of excess, an incarnation of a new, urban form of masculine passion.

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(Notes from this point mostly based on Priscilla Ferguson’s “The flâneur on an off the streets of Paris”, in Tester, Keith (ed.) (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge.)

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For Ferguson, the flâneur is an emblematic representation of modernity and the personification of contemporary urbanity. She says he took his first steps in the streets of Paris as the city emerged from the Revolution into Empire and was part of the new regime, the new century and the new city. She says the flâneur was cast in the image of their own changing attitudes to social order as the city faced with disruption of urbanisation and renewal. In her article Ferguson talks about writers who write about flânerie as reflecting their own ambiguous and ambivalent relationship to the city.

Benjamin says the arcades mark not only the birth of a new Paris, but were also the perfect setting for the flâneur, or as Luis Huart says “without the arcades, the flâneur would be unhappy, others would argue that without the flâneur the arcades would not exist.” (in his Physiolgie due flâneur.)

In 1808, a Dictionary of Popular Usage described the flâneur as “a lazybones, a loafer, a man of insufferable idleness, who doesn’t know where to carry his trouble and his boredom.” This is perhaps reflected in what Keith Tester says when he argued that the flâneur was “going about the city in order to find the things which will occupy his gaze and thus complete his otherwise incomplete identity, satisfy his otherwise dissatisfied existence, replace the sense of bereavement with a sense of life.” (Tester, Keith (ed.) (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge, Page 7.) These two quotes suggest the flâneur is someone who is a deviant or someone to be pitied and although I am focusing on the flâneur in the modern setting of Paris, these quotes could easily relate to the youths who wander around the‘post-modern settings of shopping malls, in search of something to excite them and themselves as a sort of post-modern flâneur.

The flâneur has a detachment from the ordinary social world, and an attachment to the city. He is, however, an integral part of the urban spectacle – he requires the city and its crowds, yet strives to remain aloof from them. He is alone and companionship is undesirable. Another flâneur is barely acceptable and female company is out of the question.

The flâneur sees women as compromising his detachment from the city and that women cannot disconnect themselves from the city and its enchantments – she is unsuitable as a flâneur because she desires the objects, whereas he desires the city as a whole, not a particular part of it. In reality, women to the flâneur are essential components of the urban drama the flâneur observes – she is to be consumed and enjoyed along with the other sights of the city.

The flâneur consumes the city at one step removed, savouring the display without expenditure – financial or emotional. He remains anonymous and has an imaginative and intellectual link to the city and this sets him apart from the ordinary idlers and gapers. Balzac spoke of what he saw as the contrast between idler and flâneur when he said that “to stroll is to vegetate, to flâneur is to live.” (quoted in Ferguson.) This is perhaps a contradiction, after all is someone who is alone, detached, unemotional, apart from society actually living?

The incompetent flâneur lacks knowledge, neither knowing the city or how to use it. The‘amateur flâneur is impelled to act upon what he sees and therefore loses his detachment.

Unlike the ordinary man, who can be disturbed and confused by the expanding city, the flâneur is actually entertained by the ever-changing urban spectacle – coping with it by reducing it to a marvellous show.

By the 1880s flânerie was in decline and was moving from the streets to the department stores and other indoor sites. Even the world flâneur is appropriated by the masses in the form of advertising which takes up the word and uses the almost mythological image of the flâneur from the literature of the 19th century.

The altered urban context eventually disables the individual, and the flâneur. This is largely tied up with increasing conspicuous commodification of everyday life. The flâneur’s disregard of the commercial therefore alienates him further – again this can be seen as deviant. Not even the artist can keep the commercial at bay. Intellect and reason give way to ever more extravagance, ever more conspicuous displays of commercialism.

Once in the department stores, flânerie becomes a feminine pursuit. Although the department stores are a natural progression from the arcades, they completely change flânerie. In the stores the flâneur can no longer exert a singular relationship to the city, one that was emblematic of his relationship to society – in that he was neither fully outside on the street nor altogether inside in the shop.
The department store changes the individual’s relationship to city and society, the demarcation has gone and so has the flâneur’s distinctive status. His dispassionate gaze dissipates under pressure from the shopper’s passionate engagement in the world of consumerism. The flâneur has nowhere to retreat and ends up simply going shopping. He becomes just another consumer thus ending his connection with creativity.

Consumption is the only motivation for anyone’s presence in the department stores, where the superior individual is not the flâneur who can lose himself in the crowd, but rather that capitalist who rules the crowd.

Flânerie was a response to particular cultural and social conditions. The confusion wrought by relentless political and social change all undermined his ability to narrate on the city. Thus the flâneur comes and goes with the century, moving on then off the streets of Paris.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY AND  FURTHER READING

Benjamin, Walter (1992), Illuminations, Fontana Press.

Benjamin, Walter (1997), Charles Baudelaire, Verso. – Features chapters on the flâneur, modernism and Paris.

Berman, Marshall (1994), All That is Solid Melts into Air, Verso. – Useful for background material on the development of Paris in the 19th century as well as material on Walter Benjamin and aspects of modernism.

Tester, Keith (1994), The Flâneur, Routledge. – Features a variety of essays on the flâneur and flânerie.

Walkowitz, Judith (1992), City of Dreadful Delight, Virago. – The chapter “Urban Spectatorship” brings out some issues of the flâneur in relation to London.

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