Walk with a Turtle

Comeback  of the flâneur
Comeback of the flâneur | Photo (detail): © cédric chabal - Fotolia.com

In current thinking about urbanity, the ideal of the citizen is making a comeback. It is a citizen for whom the city is more than a zone for consumption and is, on the contrary, a fascinating source of inspiration. A short introduction into the world of the flâneur.

London, the middle of the nineteenth century. In the late afternoon of an autumn day, a man sits behind the large window of a street café and observes the street. Darkness falls, gas lanterns are lit and more and more passers-by flow past.
The man seeks to decipher the stories behind the hurrying people, recognizes in the shimmer of light businessmen, nobles, employees and workers. After a time, he is struck by an uncanny-looking old man. He follows him. The old man seems strangely driven, hurries through the streets, squares and shops for hours. Until both, the pursuer and the pursued, suddenly stand again before the café where everything began.

The man of the crowd

The observer in the café, the city as a stage and a man driven – this strange tale was invented by Edgar Allen Poe. It appeared in 1840 under the title Man of the Crowd. At its conclusion, the narrator stands openly in the path of the old man. Yet he ignores the narrator, and simply walks on. Here a person has been literally absorbed by the city. And it is actually futile to pursue him and try to coax his “secret” out of him. “He refuses to be alone. He is the man in the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds”, the narrator says at the end. With this story, the flâneur entered the world of literature.

The Parisian writer and dandy Charles Baudelaire was fascinated by Poe’s story. He established the flâneur as a literary subject that treats the fascination with a completely new experience of the city. Suddenly it was possible to develop oneself freely and at the same time be part of a crowd. A mass of people that can be uncanny, consisting of uprooted, driven ramblers, but at the same time also a source and enabler of a new kind of adventure: the anonymity and individuality of an unmonitored life, as is possible in a metropolis. And in just such a world lived Baudelaire – in nineteenth century Paris.
It was the birth of the street as public space. Suddenly it became attractive to leave one’s apartment and to mingle with the crowd. The stink of city had disappeared thanks to newly constructed sewers; pavements protected people from the mud and a maze of narrow streets was traversed by boulevards, which enabled perspectival vistas along the long line of streets. There also arose so-called “arcades”, luxurious roofed shopping passages through which the Parisians could stroll even when the weather outside was dirty.

Strolling – deciphering the city

In 1830 there were already twenty-one of these covered shopping streets, which gradually merged into a rambling system of pedestrian passageways. It was a paradise for dandies, educated citizens free of financial cares, who passed their time in strolling about. And this with a definitely political note: as protest against the division of labour, specialization, the stress of the big city, as it was already then being massively felt by people at the beginning of industrialization. In 1840 it was apparently good form, or so would say the philosopher Walter Benjamin later, to lead turtles on walks through the arcades.

Benjamin, however, actually sought to discover much more in the figure of the slightly jaded city flâneur than merely a bored poseur. From Baudelaire he adopted the concept of the “flâneur”, the dandyish metropolitan whose purportedly aimless ramblings are far more than an upper-class pose. In his Passagen-Werk (Arcades Project), a collection of notes, Benjamin developed the concept of “flanerie” as a special form of urban perception. Like the narrator in Poe’s Man of the Crowd, the flâneur can decipher everyday urban life like a secret code. Behind the face of every passer-by, at every street corner or on every wall, a secret could be lurking. The flâneur is the master of so-called “physiologies”, finely drawn character studies of city visitors, which were en vogue in Baudelaire’s time in Parisian intellectual circles.
The flâneur is, in other words, a highly sensitive literary man. And as such, unlike the dandy, by the way, he is not really interested in an anti-capitalist gesture. On the contrary, “As flâneur, he embarks in the market; to look at it, as he says, but in truth in order to find a buyer”. The social basis of flanerie, according to Benjamin, is journalism.

Baudelaire’s comeback

Today, so at any rate the writer Hannelore Schlaffer is confident, a flâneur in Benjamin’s sense would no longer be thinkable. In her essay Die City (i.e., The City) she proposes that an arrogant loner, “who acted as an observer in order to be observed would seem either provocative or ridiculous”. The inner cities, once the home of the flâneur, have mutated into so-called “cities”, and his favourite haunts such as museums, libraries and arcades have long been dominated by the climate of consumerism.

But perhaps a new type of flâneur has been emerging for some time now to populate our cities. Flâneurs for whom metropolitan arrogance and haughtiness no longer play a role, but for whom observing, discovering and designing urban life has all the greater significance. Whether to turn ugly wasteland into gardens (urban gardening) or fuse boxes into works of art (street art). Or, quite in the tradition of the urban writers of the nineteenth century, to fan out and re-discover urban life – as “true wanderers” who “travel like balloons”, as the young editor of the magazine Der Flaneur wrote in the editorial of the second issue. The quotation comes from Charles Baudelaire’s famous volume of urban poetry, The Flowers of Evil.

At the initiative of the Goethe-Institut, the Berlin cultural magazine “Flaneur” has come to Montreal to work on an issue dedicated to Bernard Street. Published summer 2014.