The flaneur

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

In the streets of early nineteenth century Paris, a new figure emerged. Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur. The urban observer, a poet-wanderer, a reporter of everyday street life, an artist, a loiterer, a city dweller who was as Baudelaire describes, “a lover” of  “universal life”.

In his La Pientre de la vie Moderne, he writes:

“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.”

Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project (1939), resurrected the flaneur when he wrote:

“For the flaneur, a transformation takes place with respect to the street: it leads him through a vanished time.”

And about the lost art of walking he says:

“An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. WIth each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grows the temptations of the bistros, of shops, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next street corner, of a distant square in the fog, of the back of a woman walking before him.”

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

This romaticism of urban exploration, of bearing passionate witness to movements of city life, of being an almost insatiable observer of the human condition, is an indulgence our techno-economic lives deprive us of. There is an undeniable spiritual characteristic to the existence of the flaneur, which Walter Benjamin called “auratic”. This urban explorer was enveloped in an aura of transcendence; he was almost other worldly.

This idea gets even more interesting when placed in our present context.

One wanders to become familiar. People usually explore their surroundings when they’ve arrived in a new city or when on holiday. There is already a sense of “longing to belong” about wandering. One almost has to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to become a flaneur. So walking and exploring becomes a medium to feel united to the spirit of the city.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

One of our class’s favourite texts, is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” from his infamous Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Equally popular is Virgina Woolfe’s, Street Haunting. (Check out our intervention inspired by both these writers) Both describe “a hunger”, as Benjamin wrote, “to prowl through unknown districts”. Both Poe and Woolfe take to walking as an excuse – the former to satiate his curiousity about a distinct looking man, the latter to buy a pencil. Both evoke images of their cities with magical detail; offering charming spectacle to life on the streets.

To nurture a sense of belonging, one has to lay claim to the city by traversing it on foot. Paths forged in the city, through our imagination and curiosity, create indelible connections in our minds and entwine us in a unique relationship with the city.

Try it. Our Urban Writers are here to help.