The Flâneur

I was reminded of the figure of the flâneur recently, and thought I'd write a short note on the subject since the wandering artist-poet concept has gone out of fashion -- the OED defines a flâneur as an idler or lounger. Balzac and Baudelaire depicted such a character in a positive light: a dashing young lad with literary prowess, a "gentleman stroller of the streets." For Walter Benjamin, a flâneur was "a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and investigator of the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism." In The Painter of Modern Life (originally 1863) Baudelaire says:

"The crowd is his element, 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. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life."

And in T.S. Eliot's The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock (a favorite of mine), the protagonist takes the reader for a journey through his city in the manner of a flâneur -- Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky. . .

The flâneur of nineteenth century France was wealthy and educated, a gentleman whose privilege put him at his leisure (note: there were also flâneuses, e.g., George Sand). But flânerie in a wider sense is not necessarily tied to perambulation or even to wealth; the idea is to participate fully through observation. It's an interesting concept that may be beneficial in our very busy and "success"-oriented lives.