Saturday, 23 January 2010

The luxury of aimless wandering

There is plenty of mention in literature of the man of the crowd or the flâneur, that invention of poet Charles Baudelaire, sauntering aimlessly here and there about the city streets of 19th century Paris, his eye delighting in the novel sights of modernity. The word flâneur derives from flâner - to saunter, lounge or stroll. The flâneur's journey is aimless and unplanned, lacking a particular destination or purpose; he moves between places, not to places. This act of wandering is traditionally a male pursuit. There are few, if any, true examples of a female equivalent, the flâneuse - in her account of wandering the streets of London (see my last post), even Virginia Woolf needed the pretext of going out to buy a pencil!

In his essay The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire outlines the characteristics of this man of the world who 'wants to know, understand and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our globe', whose main prerequisite is curiosity. Like the protagonist in Edgar Allen Poe's The Man of the Crowd, he views the world in the hyperreal state of the convalescent, where colour and form are exaggerated, 'rapturously breathing in all the odours and essences of life'. He approaches the world with the eyes of a child, delighting in the child's ability to see everything in a state of newness, where nothing has become stale or commonplace.

Just as Woolf relished the anonymity which walking amongst the crowd afforded her, Baudelaire's flâneur takes pleasure in the invisibility which cloaks his presence on the crowded city streets:

"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.... the spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito."

This privilege was rarely accorded to women in the 19th century whose sphere of activity was mainly centred on the home. The majority of those who did venture out onto the streets alone did not have the luxury of this kind of aimless wandering, often being either prostitutes or working women. Thankfully, things have changed somewhat and the vision of a lone woman on the streets is no longer an unusual sight! As a woman with a camera in an urban environment, however, I do not feel that I have the same degree of anonymity and invisibility as the flâneur. My ability to negotiate the city is still circumscribed by certain fears for my own personal safety and well-being. There are areas in any city where it would be hazardous to venture - what will I do if chance directs me there?

The concept of the flâneur is now an outmoded one - 21st century life does not have the time for this kind of aimless wandering and self-absorption. When would we fit it in? In any case, I do not see my proposed journeys as being in the spirit of the flâneur. Their purpose is not so much unbiased observation; nor do I regard them as belonging to the documentary or street photography traditions. I envisage them instead as a kind of personal odyssey, a mapping of the great city of London for myself and on my own terms.


  1. I very like your reflections about the 'flaneur' -a lovely kind of modus vivendi and a (male) literal figure (we prefer this noun and the verb 'flanieren' in German, too, in order to describe this "luxury of aimless wandering" through cities) and the flaneuse/ passante (a word I didn't know)- very interesting are your thoughts about the female position I agree with -and the remarks about "the concept of the flaneur.. now (as) an outmoded one"- in any case in the northern countries of Europe!
    Pic nr. 1 is wonderful - such a broad stripe of afternoon sun light - in contrast to the curved lines leading round the corner- lightens up the street for some moments, creeping up the wall, surely ignored by the most passengers being in a hurry; it gives a touch of beautiful poetry to the daily city life, and I can see the long shadow of the photographer who just stopped her walk to freezen this moment, too! Fine are also the red spots echoing the old-fashined red of the telephone box as a relict of former times as the flaneurs strolled along the streets! Pic nr. 2 is a fine abstract, paintinglike, but I'm not sure if a written word like 'danger' is necessary to understand the message? (I personally know this feeling of "certain fears" in a strange area of the city!)
    The 'flaneur' may be a fascinating boundless topic in literature, fine arts, and street photography - Baudelaire is one important voice in your little essay- beside some expressionistic authors, W. Benjamin, Proust, Robert Walser's story "Der Spaziergang"/The Walk (Paperback, introduction by Susan Sontag (!), translated by Christopher Middleton)...- Your series is very interesting, and the discussions in your University group may be inspiring, of course!

  2. Glad you like the photographs Philine. By the way, the writing on the second pic was already on the wall, not written by me on the photo! It's funny you should mention Robert Walser's book as I have just been reading it. He is not an author I had ever heard of, and came across his name a few weeks ago. Susan Sontag spoke very highly of him in her introduction. I found that his narrative style takes a little getting used to. Walter Benjamin too is someone who I am in the process of investigating. I am ashamed to say that, even though I have a degree in French, I have never read any Proust - a big hole in my education!

  3. I could recommend Fernando Pessoa, if you were in Lisboa you should stroll -while borrowing his eyes- through the city- Poet Pessoa is the prototype of a flaneur!