If you’d never heard the word flâneur and looked it up using only a dictionary (or, as most of us do these days, Google), you would find definitions that include words like: loafer, stroller, loiterer, dawdler, or the matched with the adjective “idle”. Merriam Webster defines it as “an idle man-about-town”. There is also flânerie (the noun meaning “stroll”), and flâner (the verb meaning “to stroll”). Some entries list it as a French word derived from the Norse word “flana” while others define it as being French with a Germanic origin.
The flâneur is a precursor of a particular form of inquiry that seeks to read the history of culture from its public spaces. – Anke Gleber, The Art of Taking a Walk
None of the static definitions you will find from Google, Merriam-Webster, Collins, or your French first year dictionary will give you the full range of meaning. Baudelaire first used this word to describe a very specific type of person (a man) participating in a very specific type of activity – that is to say a man who strolls, yes, and whether he’s “idle” or not may be subjective.
Beyond “strolling” and “loafing”, Baudelaire’s flâneur has come to be one who strolls or otherwise moves through urban spaces, observing people and society, people watching, and perhaps adding commentary about society at large. Generally, this figure has been molded from the experience of a “western”, white male. (What do I mean by that and why do I say “western, white male” is the question that I’m exploring on this site. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be sticking to the overall concept of the flâneur without the intricacies.) I think that it’s safe to say the flâneur is an intellectual figure, such as “Mr. G” in Baudelaire’s Painter of Modern Life. Baudelaire called Mr. G. a man of the world and, indeed, he was later revealed to be Constantin Guys, a dutch war correspondent, journalist, and painter. The original flâneur? Throughout Baudelaire’s writing and others that followed, the flâneur is a man who easily slips into and out of the crowd, able to watch without being watched, disappearing into the scenery.