“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. ” ~ Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire was a French poet and artist who is largely credited with being the first to adopt the term flâneur to mean one who wanders through urban spaces, disappearing into the crowd, observing society.
French word meaning “one who strolls”.
From the intransitive verb flâner:
to stroll, saunter, lounge
“J’aime flâner sur les grands boulevards,” comme le chantait Yves Montand .
Charles Baudelaire was a white, scholarly French man who, upon graduating law school, chose to pursue a career in the literary arts instead of practicing law. When in his twenties, he published a few pieces of work, including several that became well-known for his creation of the flâneur, as we know it today. The word flâneur comes from the French verb flâner which had originally meant only “to stroll” or “to wander”. Through Baudelaire’s writing, in the 1860s, it came to be known as a person (a man) engaged in a very particular type of activity, as one who wanders aimlessly and observes silently in urban spaces, blending and disappearing easily into the crowd. Baudelaire’s writing of his own observations positioned himself as a flâneur but he also wrote of one he named only “Mr G” and his vision of the city in The Painter of Modern Life. Mr G. was later revealed to be Constantin Guys, a dutch journalist, war correspondent, and painter – also a man, and also white. The mold of the flâneur was born as a man of the world: an intellectual, educated, well traveled. Baudelaire does, in fact, say that Mr G is a “man of the world” – a phrase that seems to continue to carry through every incarnation of the flâneur onward.
In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Man of the Crowd translated by Baudelaire, we see the flâneur again as a man quietly watching from his seat in a coffeeshop in London making judgements about and speculating on the lives and occupations of the people passing by on the street. (This eventually leads to him following one particular man throughout the day and into the night, completely unnoticed.) In several of my readings, I came across the idea of the flâneur as a detective of sorts. In The Flâneur, the Sandwichman, and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering, Susan Buck-Morss wrote, “’The reporter, a flaneur become detective, covers the beat” (Buck-Morss, 1986). Walter Benjamin calls up the flâneur in The Arcades Project, describing him as a symbol of changing times, of capitalism, of modernity and all the issues encapsulated within. ”Flaneur – sandwich man – journalist in uniform. The latter advertises the state, no longer the commodity,” he says (Benjamin, 2003). And on and on, as I made my way through the history of and commentary on the flâneur I came across these words: man, he, him.
Not only has the flâneur been written primarily as white and male but in fact, the flâneurs – the observers – are male while women feature as spectacles. Women, as spectacles in Baudelaire’s day, are often interchangeable as prostitutes. (Even in more modern times, a woman may be mistaken for a street walker if seen out alone, especially at night.) If not a prostitute then, as he wrote in Painter of Modern Life, “She is a kind of idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching.” (Baudelaire, 1964). Laura Elkins tackles this idea in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London:
“Call them what you will; these late-century heirs to the Situationists also inherited Baudelaire’s blinkered approach to the women on the pavement. Self has declared [Will Self, writer at “The Independent”] – not without some personal disappointment – psychogeography to be a man’s work, confirming the walker in the city as a figure of masculine privilege. Self has gone so far as to declare psychogeographers a ‘fraternity’: middle-aged men in Gore-Tex, armed with notebooks and camera, stamping out boots on suburban train platforms, politely requestiong the operators of tea kiosks in mossy parks to fill our thermoses, querying the destinations of rural buses […] prostrates swell[ing] as we crunch over broken glass, behind the defunct brewery on the outskirts of town.’” (Elkin 2017)
I wanted to disagree – after all, I had spent a great deal of time wandering urban spaces alone, particularly in Europe. Then I thought about all the details I hadn’t recorded in my travel journals because they weren’t unique but just occurrences that I had accepted as part of the experience, par for the course: the cat calls, the being grabbed by the arm or having the back of my shirt tugged on under the pretense of “wanting to see my tattoo”, the sunglasses and headphones I wore like armor (even when the part of the headphones that were to be plugged into something just dangled loosely in my pocket), the constant warnings to be careful as I headed out on my adventures alone, the persistent and sometimes uncomfortable feeling of always being watched. Even though the times have changed and women can, and are often, out walking along without automatically being assumed as prostitutes, they most definitely are not able to disappear and blend into the crowd like “Mr G” in Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life. In all my times attempting to sit alone in a cafe in Prague, Amsterdam, Berlin, etc my silent observation was often broken by men assuming that I must need or want company (or should want theirs) or perhaps, that I would be easy prey.
Until recently, I had never stopped to consider how my experience differed from that of all the men who grasped onto this erudite-sounding French word and all it’s implications. It really wasn’t until I spent time in Berlin, “flânering” with an Iraqi refugee (who has since become a good friend) that I began to consider the inherent privilege of the flâneur, as it’s currently known, not only as a “westerner” and white, but also as it has generally been defined as being male.
And then what of Mohamad, a young man from an Arab country who spent his days walking and observing the city of Berlin; Though he is male, he also does not fit the flâneur mold and is also, like the flâneuse, unable to disappear into the crowd, a spectacle himself in a city fraught with tension over immigrant and refugee rights and a rising AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, a far right group in Germany that’s been prone to violent attacks against places where refugees and immigrants are known to be staying). The flâneur is a described as a passive observer, never an activist – but what does this mean when one’s very existence in a place is seen as a political act?
These are the questions I am seeking to illustrate and explore within. I am not attempting to give answers but to raise awareness and hopefully propel others to reevaluate how they frame their travel experiences and movements through European urban spaces. I once thought that I was so brave and cultured and worldly for having the courage to strike out and wander through the unknown terrain of a cobblestoned city, fetishing and romanticizing the notion of being in Europe, as many Americans tend to do. I then realized that, even in the pre iPhone days (when I lived in Prague), salvation from any problem was just a phone call away. Though even with my American passport and white skin, I was still female and that mean always being on guard and choosing off the beaten paths routes at my own peril. My friend, Mohamad, who lived in Berlin for nearly three years, would always be noticed and in any part of the city, would always be at risk of being told to “go back to his own country.”
Focusing primarily on European urban spaces, I will be exploring the notion of freedom of mobility through the figure of the flâneur. In this site, I will step back and reframe my own experiences living and flâner-ing abroad in addition to inviting others to share theirs – not only immigrants and refugees but anyone who does not fit this long-held definition of the white, male flâneur disappearing into the crowd.
Baudelaire, Charles, and Jonathan Mayne. The Painter of modern life: and other essays by Charles Baudelaire. Translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne. Phaidon Press, 1964.
Benjamin, Walter, et al. The Arcades Project. Harvard University Press, 2003.
Elkin, Lauren. Flâneuse: women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Susan Buck-Morss, “The Flâneur, the Sandwichman, and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering,” New German Critique, no. 39 (Autumn 1986), 103.