Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris, back in the 1990s, but I don't think I found it in a book. I didn't do much required reading, that semester. I can't say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or 'one who wanders aimlessly', was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel-covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never 'get' anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the facade of an hôtel particulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed (which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work) or a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food or its museums, not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse, but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of '& Co.', and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for 'pine cone', pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Select, Le Dôme and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up.
Soon, emboldened, I wandered off into the streets shooting out from the Jardin de Luxembourg, a few minutes' walk from school. I found myself up near the church of Saint-Sulpice, which was under renovation then, and, like the Tour Saint-Jacques, had been for decades. No one knew if or when the scaffolding around the towers would ever come down. I would sit at the Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice and watch the world go by: the skinniest women I'd ever seen wearing linen clothing that would be frumpy in New York but in Paris seemed unreplicably chic, nuns in twos and threes, yuppie mothers who let their small boys wee on tree trunks. I wrote down everything I saw, not knowing yet that the French writer Georges Perec had also sat in that square, in that same café, during a week in 1974, and noted the same comings and goings – taxis, buses, people eating pastries, the way the wind was blowing – all in an attempt to get his readers to notice the unexpected beauty of the quotidian, what he called the infraordinary: what happens when nothing is happening. I didn't know, either, that Nightwood, which would become one of my favourite books, was set at that café and in the hotel upstairs. Paris was just beginning to contain – and to generate – all of my most significant intellectual and personal reference points. We had only just met.
As an English major I had wanted to go to London, but thanks to a technicality wound up in Paris instead. Within a month I was transfixed. The streets of Paris had a way of making me stop in my tracks, my heart suspended. They seemed saturated with presence, even if there was no one there but me. These were places where something could happen, or had happened, or both; a feeling I could never have had at home in New York, where life is inflected with the future tense. In Paris I would linger outside, imagining stories to go with streets. In those six months, the streets were transformed from places in between home and wherever I was going into a great passion. I drifted wherever they looked interesting, lured by the sight of a decaying wall, or colourful window boxes, or something intriguing down at the other end, which might be as pedestrian as a perpendicular street. Anything, any detail that suddenly loosened itself, would draw me towards it. Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn't have to be anywhere I didn't want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting.
I remember when I'd take the métro two stops because I didn't realise how close together everything was, how walkable Paris was. I had to walk around to understand where I was in space, how places related to each other. Some days I'd cover five miles or more, returning home with sore feet and a story or two for my room-mates. I saw things I'd never seen in New York. Beggars (Roma, I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs; homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.
And then, somehow, by chance, I learned that all that walking around, feeling intensely, constantly moved to scribble what I saw and felt into the floppy notebooks I bought at the Saint-Michel bookstore Gibert Jeune – all that I did instinctively, others had done to such an extent that there was a word for it. I was a flâneur.
Or rather – a good student of French, I converted the masculine noun to a feminine one – a flâneuse.
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Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.
That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don't even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for 'flâneur, -euse'. Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.
Is that some kind of joke? The only kind of curious idling a woman does is lying down?
This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today: search for 'flâneuse' on Google Images and the word brings up a drawing of George Sand, a picture of a young woman sitting on a Parisian bench and a few images of outdoor furniture.
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Back in New York for my final year of university, I enrolled in a seminar called 'The Man of the Crowd, the Woman in the Street'. It was the second half of the title that interested me: I was hoping to build a genealogy, or a sisterhood, for this eccentric new hobby of mine. The notion of the flâneur as someone who has slipped the bounds of responsibility appealed to me. But I wanted to see where a woman might fit into the cityscape.
As I began researching my senior thesis on Zola's Nana and Dreiser's Sister Carrie, I was startled to find that scholars have mostly dismissed the idea of a female flâneur. 'There is no question of inventing the flâneuse,' wrote Janet Wolff in an oft-quoted essay on the subject; 'such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.' The great feminist art historian Griselda Pollock agreed: 'There is no female equivalent of the quintessential masculine figure, the flâneur: there is not and could not be a female flâneuse.' 'The urban observer [...] has been regarded as an exclusively male figure,' noted Deborah Parsons. 'The opportunities and activities of flânerie were predominantly the privileges of the man of means, and it was hence implicit that the "artist of modern life" was necessarily the bourgeois male.' In Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, she turns away from her 'peripatetic philosophers, flâneurs, or mountaineers' to ask 'why women were not out walking too'.
This woman in the street, according to the critics, was most likely a streetwalker. So I did a bit more reading and came upon two problems with this idea of the flâneuse as prostitute. Firstly there were women on the street who weren't selling their bodies. And secondly there wasn't anything like the flâneur's freedom in the street prowler's prowl; prostitutes didn't have free range over the city. Her movements were strictly controlled: by the mid-nineteenth century there were all sorts of laws dictating where and between which hours she could pick up men. Her clothing was strictly policed; she had to register with the city and visit the sanitary police at regular intervals. This was no kind of freedom.
Our most ready-to-hand sources for what the streetscape looked like in the nineteenth century are male, and they see the city in their own ways. We cannot take their testimony as objective truth; they noticed certain things and made assumptions about them. Baudelaire's mysterious and alluring passante, immortalised in his poem 'To a (Female) Passer-by', is generally thought to have been a woman of the night, but for him she is not even a real woman, only his fantasy come to life:
The deafening street roared around me Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic in her grandeur A woman walked past me, her sumptuous hand Lifting and swinging her hem as she went.
Swift and graceful, with legs like a statue's Twitching like a madman, I drank in Her eyes, a pallid sky where storms are born the sweetness that charms and the pleasure that kills.
Baudelaire can barely gauge her: she is too fast (though somehow, at the same time, statuesque). He is disinclined to consider who she might actually be, where she might be coming from, where she might be going. For him she is the keeper of mystery, with the power to charm and to poison.
Of course the reason the flâneuse was discounted from histories of city walking had to do with the social conditions of women in the nineteenth century, when our ideas about the flâneur were codified. The earliest mention of a flâneur is in 1585, possibly borrowed from the Scandinavian noun flana, 'a person who wanders'. A person – not necessarily a male one. It doesn't really catch on until the nineteenth century, and this time it's gendered. In 1806, the flâneur took the form of 'M. Bonhomme', a man about town who comes from sufficient wealth to have the time to wander the city at will, hanging out in cafés, and watching the various inhabitants of the city at work and at play. He is interested in gossip and fashion, but not particularly in women. In an 1829 dictionary, a flâneur is a man 'who likes to do nothing', who relishes idleness. Balzac's flâneur took two main forms, that of the common flâneur, happy to aimlessly wander the streets, and the artist flâneur, who poured his experiences of the city into his work. This was the more miserable type of flâneur, as Balzac notes in his 1837 novel César Birotteau, 'just as frequently a desperate man as an idle one'.
Baudelaire's flâneur is an artist who seeks 'refuge in the crowd', modelled on his favourite painter, Constantin Guys, a man who ambled about town, who might have fallen into obscurity had Baudelaire not made him famous. Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'The Man in the Crowd' opens up other questions: is the flâneur the person who follows or is followed? Does he blend and elude, or step back and write what he sees? In French the words for 'I am' and 'I follow' are identical: je suis. 'Tell me who you follow and I'll tell you who you are,' wrote André Breton in Nadja. Even for the male flâneur, flânerie does not universally signify freedom and leisure; Flaubert's version of flânerie reflects his own feelings of social discomfiture. In the early nineteenth century, the flâneur was compared to a policeman. In Québec, says a friend who's spent time there, a flâneur is a kind of con man.
Both surveyor and surveyed, the flâneur is a beguiling but empty vessel, a blank canvas onto which different eras have projected their own desires and anxieties. He appears when and how we want him to. There are many contradictions built into the idea of the flâneur, though we may not realise it when we talk about him. We think we know what we mean, but we don't. The same could be said of the flâneuse.
In 1888 Amy Levy wrote, 'The female club-lounger, the flâneuse of St James Street, latch-key in pocket and eye -glasses on the nose, remains a creature of the imagination.' Fair enough. But surely there have always been plenty of women in cities, and plenty of women writing about cities, chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city in any way they can – including Levy herself. The joy of walking in the city belongs to men and women alike. To suggest that there couldn't be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions, but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.
If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street.
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If we read what women had to say for themselves in the nineteenth century, we do find that bourgeois women out in public ran all sorts of risks to their virtue and their reputations; to go out in public alone was to risk disgrace. Upper-class ladies displayed themselves in the Bois de Boulogne in their open carriages, or took chaperoned constitutionals in the park. (The woman in the closed carriage was a figure of some suspicion, as the famous carriage scene in Madame Bovary attests.) The distinct social stakes for an independent young woman of the late nineteenth century are made very clear in the eight volumes of the diaries of Marie Bashkirtseff (abridged and published in English under the incredible title I Am the Most Interesting Book of All), which recount her transformation from cosseted young Russian aristocrat to successful artist, showing her work at the Paris Salon a mere two and a half years after she started seriously studying painting, until her death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. In January 1879 she wrote in her journal:
I long for the freedom to go out alone: to go, to come, to sit on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries, and especially to go to the Luxembourg, to look at the decorated store windows, to enter churches and museums, and to stroll in the old streets in the evenings. This is what I envy. Without this freedom one cannot become a great artist.