Flâneur

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842

Flâneur (pronounced  [flɑnœʁ]), from the French noun flâneur, means "stroller", "lounger", "saunterer", or "loafer". Flânerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations. A near-synonym is boulevardier.

The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 19th century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. The word carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. It was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who made this figure the object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, as an emblematic archetype of urban, modern experience. [1] Following Benjamin, the flâneur has become an important symbol for scholars, artists and writers.

Etymology

Charles Baudelaire

The terms of flânerie date to the 16th or 17th century, denoting strolling, idling, often with the connotation of wasting time. But it was in the 19th century that a rich set of meanings and definitions surrounding the flâneur took shape. [2]

The flâneur was defined in a long article in Larousse’s Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle (in the 8th volume, from 1872). It described the flâneur in ambivalent terms, equal parts curiosity and laziness and presented a taxonomy of flânerieflâneurs of the boulevards, of parks, of the arcades, of cafés, mindless flâneurs and intelligent flâneurs. [3]

By then, the term had already developed a rich set of associations. Sainte-Beuve wrote that to flâne "is the very opposite of doing nothing". [3] Honoré de Balzac described flânerie as "the gastronomy of the eye". [3] [4] Anaïs Bazin wrote that "the only, the true sovereign of Paris is the flâneur". [3] Victor Fournel, in Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris (What One Sees in the Streets of Paris, 1867), devoted a chapter to "the art of flânerie". For Fournel, there was nothing lazy in flânerie. It was, rather, a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape. It was a moving photograph (“un daguerréotype mobile et passioné”) of urban experience. [5]

In the 1860s, in the midst of the rebuilding of Paris under Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann, Charles Baudelaire presented a memorable portrait of the flâneur as the artist-poet of the modern metropolis:

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.

— Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life", (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964). Orig. published in Le Figaro, in 1863.

Drawing on Fournel, and on his analysis of the poetry of Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin described the flâneur as the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. More than this, his flâneur was a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism. For Benjamin, the flâneur met his demise with the triumph of consumer capitalism. [6]

In these texts, the flâneur was often juxtaposed to the figure of the badaud, the gawker or gaper. Fournel wrote: “The flâneur must not be confused with the badaud; a nuance should be observed there…. The simple flâneur is always in full possession of his individuality, whereas the individuality of the badaud disappears. It is absorbed by the outside world…which intoxicates him to the point where he forgets himself. Under the influence of the spectacle which presents itself to him, the badaud becomes an impersonal creature; he is no longer a human being, he is part of the public, of the crowd.” [7]

In the decades since Benjamin, the flâneur has been the subject of a remarkable number of appropriations and interpretations. The figure of the flâneur has been used—among other things—to explain modern, urban experience, to explain urban spectatorship, to explain the class tensions and gender divisions of the nineteenth-century city, to describe modern alienation, to explain the sources of mass culture, to explain the postmodern spectatorial gaze. [8] And it has served as a source of inspiration to writers and artists.

The female counterpart of the flâneur, the passante (French for 'walker', 'passer-by'), appears in particular in the work of Marcel Proust. He portrayed several of his female characters as elusive, passing figures, who tended to ignore his obsessive (and at times possessive) view of them. Increasing freedoms and social innovations such as industrialisation later allowed the passante to become an active participant in the 19th century metropolis, as women's social roles expanded away from the domestic and the private and into the public and urban spheres.

Other Languages
català: Flâneur
čeština: Flanér
Deutsch: Flaneur
español: Flâneur
فارسی: پرسه‌زن
français: Flâneur
italiano: Flâneur
norsk: Flanør
norsk nynorsk: Flaneri
polski: Flaner
português: Flâneur
русский: Фланёр
svenska: Flanerande