origins: French flâneur/flâneuse, verb flâner.
This week a friend sent me the link to this excellent website: http://www.wordcount.org/. (Thanks Cint!) The site is an interactive list of the 86,800 most frequently used English words and at this moment, flaneur does not make the cut. This is a concern. Today I would like to introduce you to flaneur, one of my favourite words.
Like ennui, flaneur has been appropriated directly from the French because if you ask me, we anglophones just don’t quite dig the concept.
A flaneur (female flaneuse) is defined as one who strolls aimlessly. A loafer, a dawdler, a purposeless drifter. Born in 19th Century Paris, the notion of the flaneur was inextricably linked to industrialisation and the emergence of the urban landscape. This landscape is the flaneur’s hood. Living off unknown means they roam the dense city streets in a sort of luxurious idleness, disposing of their disposable time in a vacuous way.
If you ask me, this view of the flaneur is rather negative. It’s a shame, because if you look beyond the dictionary definition you find a wealth of philosophical and sociological writing which pushes the notion of the flaneur to get to the heart of this occupation which, it turns out, is far more than it first appears.
Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Susan Sontag. These are just three of the many thinkers who have devoted much ink and desk time to exploring this phenomenon, convinced that there was more to it than was immediately clear. According to these guys the flaneur is not an idler but an artist and social critic. An aesthete and a philosopher. Far from being aimless, flaneurs are literate and educated and expend huge amounts of creative energy wandering unfamiliar urban landscapes in pursuit of insight.
Vacillating between profound engagement with their surroundings and lucid meditation on their experiences, the flaneur attempts to understand their world and the people in it. Acutely aware, they are the folk who pause to squint at the banal minutiae ignored by the majority. They devote their days to living the rhythms of their environment and reflecting on its idiosyncracies. This search for clarity and insight is what differentiates a flaneur from an aimless stroller.
But it’s not all positivity and romanticism. The flaneur has been described as parasitic, a leach who rather than contributing actively to the wellbeing of society, stands aloof in the crowd and nonchalantly takes notes. No one knows how they finance their lifestyle: perhaps inheritances; lovers; friends; generous strangers. I don’t know why, but I can imagine a sense of entitlement in these street philosophers.
There is certainly a kind of self-indulgence in this act. However I feel like there’s a certain value in it too. In a world where not many take the time (or have the time) to stop and reflect on the way we live and why, hearing from those who do can offer us insight, hope and the opportunity to change.
It has been said that the flaneur disappeared when the 19th Century city of arcades was replaced by shiny malls and high rises. So where does that leave the flaneur today?
I have been thinking about what might constitute the contemporary flaneur. This is, of course, pushing the definition . . . but just for fun:
Perhaps the teens wandering the mysterious arcades of the internet absorbing, integrating, understanding? Cyber flaneurs?
Or travellers engaging intimately with new experiences and then retreating (either to a hostel or back home) to integrate what they saw. Flaneurs without borders?
To be honest, I think all of us have our days when we flâne. Days when we wander the streets and find ourselves meditating on things which, on any other day would pass us by. The shape of a certain rooftop. The dynamic between a couple drinking coffee outside a local café. The odd rhetoric of the advertisements in bus windows.
I like to think that the flaneur is latent in all of us, freed when we take the time to experience the world we live in. Always a worthwhile pastime.
In peace and wordliness 🙂