Taking the turtle for a walk and letting him set the pace.

It happens all the time. My own ignorance is revealed to me in the same way. In the course of reading I accidentally discover that for some vague feeling or embryonic notion, which I’ve never taken the time to organize in my mind, or scrutinize, there is already a word. And where there is a word there are bound to be others. When the trouble is taken to name something it’s a safe bet there is a lineage of thought trailing behind it into history.

In this case the vague feeling is the pleasure of walking aimlessly through the streets of New York; the seemingly causeless delight in strolling about with no destination and no hurry, just looking at things, letting myself wander, getting ideas. In the increasingly rare instances I find myself actually doing it I invariably think, “I wish I could just do this all the time, every day.” In truth, and I’ve never really known why, It just makes me happy. Wandering the streets, facelessly weaving through the throngs, feels so natural and comfortable that I’d never even wondered whether there was a word for it. 

Well, reinforcing the awareness of my own ignorance, I just discovered yesterday there is a word for this perfect activity: flanerie. Had I only known as a child I might have answered all the insistent adult inquiries of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” quite differently and said “I will be a Flâneur!”

The precise definition isn’t exactly kind:

n.\flä-‘n&r\ An idle man-about-town; One who strolls about aimlessly; A lounger; A loafer, an Idler.

Wikipedia puts it thusly: “A flâneur is a detached pedestrian observer of a metropolis, a gentleman stroller of city streets.” beyond this he has been analyzed as a literary figure, a narrative device, an attitude towards knowledge and its social context, and the figure who gives voice to the shock and intoxication of modernity.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed the term is French, and there is no exact equivalent in English. It was originally identified by Charles Baudelaire and as such I may as well let him do the explaining. Of the Flâneur he says the following:

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 flaneur, 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…any man who can yet be bored in the heart of the multitude is a blockhead! a blockhead! and I despise him!

Ha ha. A bit of the Romantic wasn’t he? Anyhow, as stated earlier, whenever something has been named there is likely a decent word-count surrounding it. With flanerie and the flâneur it is just so. If you are ignorant of the idea, as I was, and want to know more, I offer you the following for your further internet wanderings…

The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. To him the shiny, enameled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to the bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done. -Walter Benjamin.

From a piece called The Flâneur at the Other Voices section dedicated to Benjamin’s Arcade Project.

Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes. In this way the flâneur parasite is dragging the crowd for intellectual food—or material for his latest novel. In so doing, he wanders through a wonderland of his own construction, imposing himself upon a shop window here, a vagrant here, and an advertisement here. He flows like thought through his physical surroundings, walking in a meditative trance, gazing into the passing scene as others have gazed into campfires, yet remaining alert and vigilant all the while.

From an essay at The Arcades Project Project; The Rhetoric of Hypertext.

Your getting the idea, but enough blockquotes eh? For more in-depth readings on the idea of flanerie, as well as many different takes on its significance, see the following:

Flaneurs, an enjoyable essay brought to us by the fine folks over at The idler, where else?

The Flâneur U.K. official website of La Société des Flâneurs Sans Frontières (Liverpool chapter). Especially enjoyed their Useful Advices and Informations to the Tourists and Other Welcomed Visitations bit.

Modernity and the Flaneur from the Fu Jen University english language pages, which asks “How do we characterize the postmodern flaneur?”

Google cache of a piece called Eye-swiping London: Iain Sinclair, photography and the flâneur.

Rethinking Flanerie from the site Urban spaces | Urban Places which compares the Modernist archetypes of the the flâneur and “the stranger.”

Visual Culture and the Contemporary City. Which is part of an online Sociology course from the University of Salford.

American Flaneur: The Cosmic Physiognomy of Edgar Allan Poe. Which is a review of James V. Werner’s book of that title, and focuses, obviously on Poe.

Then there is Flaneur.org which labels itself under the heading “Urban Enthusiasms.” I suppose it’s a place for other loungers, loafers, and men-about-town to share their thoughts.

Lastly I offer Passage of the Flanuer which makes the almost impossible to miss connection between the rarified, idle, urban wandering of the flâneur and the similar experience, now so common, in wandering through cyberspace.

So there you have it. I (and perhaps by extension you as well) learn something new every day. In that I am neither wealthy nor in possession of endless amounts of leisure time I doubt it is my destiny to become the great New York flâneur I might dream of being, the closest I’m likely to come is the raggedy, penniless version, better known as the hobo.

By the way if you have no intention of reading through those links but were never-the-less wondering what the title of this post meant, it came from the following:

There was the pedestrian who wedged himself into the crowd, but there was also the flâneur who demanded elbow room… Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. the flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them.

05.07. filed under: !. history. ideas. life. 1