Navigating Paris: What’s the flâneur got to do with it?

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By Gary Girod. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Gary: Today’s special episode is by Lauren Quigley who is a PhD candidate in French Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, Ireland. Her dissertation ‘Parisian Poiesis: Architecture and the Aesthetics of Contemporary French Poetry’ explores the relationship between aesthetics, architecture, and form in the poetry of Jacques Réda, Jacques Roubaud and Michel Houellebecq.

Today, Ms. Quigley will talk about the French concept of the flâneur, a near-exclusively French idea, centered around life in 19th century Paris. The flâneur is a man who can walk through the twisted streets of Paris and observe society without being affected by it. The flâneur was especially important in the tumultuous 19th century. First Napoleon III tore down vast sections of Paris and installed the grand boulevards, then industrialization rapidly altered the city. Caught in the midst of change and constant upheaval the flâneur is one who lives within this society, but is untainted by it. Ms. Quigley will introduce us to the subject, its development over time, and how the idea has persisted, even being portrayed in major films, such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Please enjoy.

Introduction

A quick Google search of the question ‘what is a flaneur’ yields 619,000 results. It’s a term you might have heard, generally used to explore a casual exploration of the city through aimlessly walking, deriving from the French verb flâner, meaning to stroll, or to walk in a leisurely manner. This term is commonly employed in conjunction within the context of walking in the city of Paris, where the practice has its origins. But where did the term come from within Paris? What does it actually mean? How does this practice of walking sit with regards to the Paris of 2020? Can we navigate the city in an alternative way? These are some of the question we’ll aim to address during the course of this podcast.

My name is Lauren Quigley and I’m a PhD candidate in French Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, Ireland. My thesis, ‘Parisian Poiesis: Architecture and the Aesthetics of Contemporary French Poetry’ examines the relationship between architecture and poetic practice in the work of French poets who take the city of Paris as their subject. Today, I’ll be walking you through a brief history of the practice of flânerie, focalising on 19th century Paris as the city was rebuilt under the direction of Baron Haussmann. We’ll look at what characterises this practice, what doesn’t, the problematics of the practice, and how it has undergone various changes and deviations during the course of the 20th and 21st century.

What is flânerie?

At its core, Keith Tester defines flânerie as the activity of strolling and looking which is carried out by the flâneur, a recurring motif in the literature, sociology and art of the urban, and most especially of the metropolitan, existence’.[1] The flâneur, then, is a little more difficult to define, but is widely acknowledged as a dandified male, stemming from the 19th century, a product of the new bourgeois class of males who stroll through the brand new streets and boulevards of Baron Haussmann’s Paris.

In her attempt to define what the figure of the flâneur stands for, Rebecca Solnit posits that ‘among all the versions of the flaneur as everything from a primeval slacker to a silent poet, one thing remains constant: the image of an observant and solitary man strolling about Paris’. She also acknowledges that it is this specific figure, from a cultural perspective that dominantes the discourse on the term, especially within Francophone culture: ‘it says something about the fascination public life exerted over Parisians’, she says, ‘that they developed a term to describe one of its types, and something about French culture that it theorized even strolling’. [2]

A brief history of flânerie

So far so good. With that settled, then, let’s dive deeper into the history of the term, so that we can understand how we arrived at its 19th century standard definition. Interstingly, in the Romantic era, the verb ‘flâner’ and the figure of the ‘flâneur’ were not that which were made popular by the definition we now know of today, this 19th century dandy. As Nesci notes, the 1808 Hautel’s Dictionnaire du bas-langage defines the verb flâner as ‘walking from one place to another without any real motive; leading a vagabond and nomadic life’.[3] Similarly, the flâneur is described as ‘a truly lazy man, idle; a man whose idleness is completely insufferable, a nuisance, a man who doesn’t know what to do with his ennui’.[4] The foundation is set here for the act of walking without motive. The flaneur, on the other hand, is described as a lazy man who doesn’t know where to walk in order to relieve himself of his boredom. Moreover, in the context of the eighteenth century, flânerie was not always a solitary act: French Romantic walkers in particular were known for having ‘compagnons’, or companions.[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most famous French walkers and thinkers in history, on the other hand, explored the concept of solitary walking in a rural context. In the canonical text Les confessions, Rousseau utilises walking as a means by which to ‘work through’ ideas that reveal themselves: ‘I can only meditate when I am walking’, he states, ‘when I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.”[6] Yet, the difference between this principle in practice between urban and rural walking is that, as C.W Thompson states, rural walking provides ‘an exhilaration of a consciousness freed from concern with others’.[7] As is easy to imagine, within the confines of the city, it is difficult to achieve this same effect. It might therefore be wishful thinking to assume that Rousseau’s model of walking as a quiet generator of ideas may also apply to the city we navigate today.

The 19th century city and its flaneur

Speaking of the cities and its confines, in order to understand the context in which the flâneur walks in the city, let’s move on now to briefly explore Haussmannisation, the process of a total renovation of Paris as carried out by Baron Haussmann between 1853 and 1870. Responsible for the boulevards, avenues, and apartment buildings which have been characterised as the uniquely Parisian features you recognise in the city today, the process of Haussmannisation both destroyed the city and rebuilt it from the ground up, granting Napoleon the Third’s wish of a city characterised by the glory of the French Empire.

Napoleon’s devised plan to ensure the city would rise to become the industrial, intellectual and cultural capital of Europe, however, soon became overshadowed by his increasing frustration at the slow pace of his engineers to carry out his plans. The city was an integral part of his retention of power, and he was perhaps among the first of leaders to realise the importance of the relationship that the planning of architecture had with this political and personal space in the city. Napoleon himself planned to ‘embellish’ the city, planning to ‘open new streets, make the working class quarters, which lack air and light, more healthy, and let the beneficial sunlight reach everywhere within our walls’.[8] Thus, the city becomes doused with bright colours; the yellow of the sunlight, the sand-coloured buildings and the brightness of new ideas, reflecting in itself a type of second Enlightenment: an urban enlightenment that brings the city from darkness into light. Leisurely activities such as flânerie, and outdoor events in new green spaces such as the Bois de Boulogne in the north-west of the city, served also to remind citizens of the sacrifice that the previous generation of Parisians made for the city in order for them to enjoy (and maintain) the city as it was under Haussmann’s renovation. As a result, the flâneur’s experience became a lot more meaningful than simply wandering the street – it became particularly politically charged, even if unconsciously so. It is no wonder, then, that the urban poet is simultaneously linked with the notion of flânerie.[9] That, however, risks digression – and so back to what this means for our flâneur.

The urban scene is now set for our flaneur, placed in Paris, which Walter Benjamin termed ‘the capital of the 19th century’ in his text, the Arcades Project.[10] A city entirely new and unfamiliar to its residents, it’s this capital of the 19th century that places the flaneur historically as a product of this Haussmannisation. Culturally, the sketching out of this figure primarily stems from 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire, who bases his perception of the flaneur on the painter Constantin Guys (who may or may not have actually existed), and writes about the figure in his essay ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’, or The Painter of Modern Life : ‘The crowd is his element’, Baudelaire states, ‘as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. 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—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito’.[11]

In this essay, Baudelaire identifies the figure of the dandy as the perfect flâneur. But who, ultimately, is this figure? It is important to refer back to Baudelaire’s definition of modernity here to answer this question: modern life in the city of Paris, he claims, is taking part in ‘the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent’.[12] Similarly, Baudelaire identifies the figure of the dandy as ‘the eternal and the unchanging’. Of course, he is also ‘fugitive’ in that he escapes from the heart of frivolous society values in the new city in which he attempts to find his feet. Interestingly, however, this dandified flaneur is part and parcel of a contingent, appearing only during transitory periods when his artifice is most required for the sake of art. Thus, he is the embodiment of modernity in every sense of the word. Yet with modernity comes preoccupation, manifesting itself in the dandy through this apparition during transitory periods such as the uncertainty that is nineteenth-century society. Perhaps, then, it is futile to consider the dandy’s place in the future of society if he is indeed truly transitory. Whilst Baudelaire mediates him between the transitory and the eternal, he proves that he at least has an important literary functionality, portraying modernity as multifaceted whilst posing as an attractive, yet also dynamic and critical piece of art. It is precisely this art, so perfectly captured in the dandy that deflects from the confusion of reality in the city. In this way, this same dandy represents a much larger piece of art: he is the perfect personification of Haussmann’s Paris: its exterior aesthetically pleasing, morally and physically clean, yet on the interior suffering its very own identity crisis, fearing the future, even suffering from a new, self-diagnosed mal du siècle: blaming his ennui on society. Similarly, Richard Sennett notes that ‘to Baudelaire much of modern life had indeed gone stale, especially life in Paris; he goes on to speculate that ‘the Parisians of his day seemed bored by themselves as much as by one another; ennui, inner indifference coupled with constant dissatisfaction, irritation and restlessness without cause or goal’. [13]

Let’s pivot slightly to discuss how this (im)perfect embodiment of the sentiments of modernity flowing through the poetry of Baudelaire has become a constant within the figure of the flâneur – even for the poets of Paris today, the struggle between utopian ideals of the city and the struggle to place-make on a personal level compel them to walk, and also to write. There is therefore special relationship between poets and walking. Literary critic Christopher Prendergast, for example, shows us how the language of French alone merges together walking and poetry: he considers the nuances of the French term tour, detailing the fact that the term ‘signifies not only physical ‘turns’ and ‘turnings’ but also of ‘turns of phrase’, as well the notion of a ‘detour’.[14] Thus, as the city’s streets transport the poet, so too does the poet transport the city through their writing – creating a unique journey that cannot be followed by anyone else, hence the popularised concept of the flaneur. In summary, then, in the dominant context of the 19th century figure: the flaneur is a dandy, a poet, an artist, middle to upper-middle class, likes to walk in the city and likes to be a part of the crowd. He’s bored — and crucially, is always white and male.

Flânerie as a problematized concept

As time goes by and the city becomes more open and accessible, it’s already clear how this figure is quite specific to 19th century Paris. Yet, we’ve also been unable to move the figure into the twentieth and twenty-first century with a solid definition. We’ve witnessed many instances of walking in the city in the literature, films and photography that we’ve all come to love. Yet, depictions of contemporary flânerie in cultural production such as literature and film are problematic: take, for example, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which, according to Aimée Boutin depicts ‘a monocultural, nostalgic, and romanticized dreamscape of 1920s (and 2010s) Paris’.[15] To simply apply the idea of the white male walking in the centre of Paris as the flaneur in contemporary terms is to whitewash the experience of walking the city, and excludes the experiences of black and minority ethnic groups, women, non-binary and queer explorers of the city from our depictions of Paris.

Similarly, Chris Jenks reports that ‘the dislike of the flâneur stems, in part, from the fact that he cannot be pinned down’.[16] It is clear that there remains a dislike of the fetishised flâneur’s lifestyle, and this tension is replicated in contemporary scholarship within cultural studies, since no one solid definition on what the contemporary flâneur is has been agreed upon, from the physical makeup of the figure to their relationship with the city.[17] This has been echoed particularly in recent years by critics within literature, urbanism and sociology, who have offered alternative approaches to the flâneur in the form of the flâneuse, a concept emerging from literature such as Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, which shines the light on women walking the city throughout history.[18] Just a few weeks ago, we saw the release of Leslie Kern’s book Feminist City which argues for a manifesto of a harassment-free city through which women are free to navigate. We can and should go further, though, to detach ourselves from the flaneur as a 21st century figure.

The flaneuse aside, within mainstream contemporary culture the verb flâner, for example, has increasingly been used more generally to denote walking: not walking in the city, not walking in Paris, just walking. I noticed this recently in various mainstream fiction and found it really interesting. If you’re a keen reader of French crime fiction, or French novels more generally, you’ll probably remember the success of such as Joël Dicker’s (now translated into English) The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair: I noticed when reading that the verb flâner is frequently used as a substitute for a stroll or a walk (especially within the context of picturesque college campuses and seaside towns in the novel). I’ve also noticed a marked increase in the marketisation of the term: recently I spent a few months in Berlin and noticed that the tagline for the German shopping mall Bikini Berlin is ‘hier flaniert Berlin’, or ‘this is where flânerie takes place in Berlin’; this marketisation suggests that the commodification of goods remains an integral part of the experience of flânerie in contemporary society.

To further dislocate the position of the contemporary flâneur from its 19th century counterpart, it has been suggested that they are not concerned with physical location unlike the dandified walker of Haussmannisation; rather, Régine Robin’s work proposes that the place for the contemporary flâneur is, in fact, online; Robin argues that this flânerie has become ‘digital’.[19] ‘Unlike in the 19th century, the contemporary flâneur, then, is concerned with the screen through which they navigate space.[20] This contemporary flâneur, according to Zygmunt Bauman, is sedentary, noting that the philosopher Baudrillard ‘tied the flâneur to the armchair in front of the TV set. The stroller does not stroll anymore.’[21] Baudrillard’s claim that the immobility of the flâneur renders them into a state of disappearance: unlike the dandy, they’re not visibly present on the streets. Yet interestingly, other critics have differing opinions on this: Susan Buck-Morss’ interpretation of the postmodern flâneur is that the experience of flanerie is now sold ‘in two or four week packets’ to tourists.[22] Is the real flaneur now the city tourist? In comparison with the traditional nineteenth-century flâneur, this postmodern version is readily available to buy. In late-capitalist society, this seems a natural progression from the emergence of the bourgeoisie and globalization.

What next?

So, we’ve established that 19th century flânerie is a pretty clear-cut identity. The contemporary flaneur, not so much. But surely there must be other forms of navigating the city that have been discussed in French culture and society? The answer is yes – the 20th century has also seen the Lettrist and Situationist International’s creation of the dérive, or the drift, a practice which falls under the umbrella term of psychogeography, defined by Guy Debord as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’.[23] This walking practice was much more exclusive and more intense than flânerie, and its goals much more radical, such as, for example, the goal of changing a city’s identity. As a practice, it was much more playful and ironic than that of flânerie. Despite this, though, it is clear that there are some parallels to be drawn between flânerie and this practice: there is also forms of resistance in both – in flânerie, the postmodern flaneur has evolved into a resistant figure in that walking is seen as an against the grain activity especially in Baudrillard’s figure, resisting hegemonic images, whilst the Situationists resist flânerie as tourism. Whilst we don’t have the time to discuss this in much detail today, the conclusion to be drawn is that the derive was only practised by a small group, the Situationist International, and its impact was not as greatly felt as that of flânerie.

So finally, then what next for this term, flânerie? Do we refer to the flaneur as a tourist? Does the figure of the white middle class man deserve to hold the title of flaneur in contemporary Paris? Is it time to move on from this obsession with the term? I think that it is. In a particularly exciting time for the city, we’re witnessing the uptake of exploring the city by bike through investment in bicycle lanes and a promise to expand on these during mayor Anne Hidalgo’s second term. The city’s expansion plan, known as the Grand Paris plan, will also see the creation of more metro lines and tramways to carry passengers not only to the centre of the city, but in between suburbs. To revert back to its most common understanding at the core of the term, exploring the city in a leisurely manner is key to our spatial and cultural understanding of the city, and this exploration is much more expansive and exciting than the implications of the word flâneur would lead us to believe.

[1] Keith Tester, The Flaneur (London; New York: Routledge, 2015), p. 1.

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 198.

[3] Catherine Nesci, Le Flâneur et les flâneuses (Grenoble: ELLUG, 2007), p. 53.

[4] Nesci, p. 53.

[5] C. W Thompson, Walking and the French Romantics: Rousseau to Sand and Hugo (Bern; Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003), p. 26.

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les confessions: livres I à IV : récit autobiographique (Paris: Larousse, 2013).

[7] Ibid., p. 26.

[8] Patrice de Moncan, Le Paris d’Haussmann (Paris: Les éditions du Mécène, 2009), p. 28.

[9] As will be demonstrated in later chapters, Jacques Réda is a perfect example of this modern day flâneur – yet he has adapted the model to match the form of his own work.

[10] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (London : Belknap Press, 1999).

[11] Le Peintre de la vie moderne, as published in Le Figaro newspaper, 1863.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Richard Sennet, The Conscience of the Eye (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 121.

[14] Christopher Prendergast, Paris and the Nineteenth Century. (Cambridge, Mass. : Blackwell, 1992), p. 206.

[15] Aimée Boutin, ‘Rethinking the Flâneur: Flânerie and the Senses’, Dix-Neuf, 16.2, 124–32 (p. 130).

[16] Chris Jenks, ‘Watching Your Step: The History and Practice of the Flâneur’ in Chris Jenks (ed), Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 147.

[17] See, in particular, Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 198.

[18] Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, (London: Vintage, 2017).

[19] Régine Robin, Cybermigrances: Traverseés fugitives (Québec: VLB éditeur, 2004), pp. 77-78.

[20] Soukup explores this concept via the lens of Apple products; see Charles Soukup, Exploring Screen Culture via Apple’s Mobile Devices: Life Through The Looking Glass (Washington, D.C.: Lexington Books, 2016).

[21] Zygmunt Bauman, Imitations of Postmodernity (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

[22] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT Press, 1999).

[23] Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography (Paris: The Situationist International Text Library, 1955).au

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