the intoxicated flâneur

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“The peculiar irresolution of the flâneur. Just as waiting seems to be the proper state of the impassive thinker, doubt appears to be that of the flâneur. An elegy by Schiller contains the phrase: ‘the hesitant wing of the butterfly.’ This points to that association of wingedness with the feeling of indecision which is so characteristic of hashish intoxication.” – Benjamin, W., Eiland, H., & McLaughlin, K. (2003). The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA,: Harvard University Press.

This struck me for the way it romanticizes the idea of being “under the influence” of something (specifically here, hashish). If we think of urban european spaces, Amsterdam is a great example for how white, male, “western” is privileged and granted a pass for activities that others are not. Amsterdam was the first European city I encountered and I’ve been back many times since. Amsterdam is a wonderful city, for so many other reasons than the “coffeeshops” that Americans and others flock to. It’s not a new thought in the world, but I’m always struck by how drugs and and various types of alcohol such as wine, of course, but also absinthe, whiskey, etc are romanticized and even a right of passage for many in the white, “western” world while for others it’s a pathology, a crime. Never has this been more clear than here in the United States where we have so many African Americans serving an exorbitant number of years behind bars for possession or use of the very thing that’s not being sold in hipster mason jars, in twee little shops run by white people all over Seattle. (I’m talking about marijuana, of course.)

What does this have to do with the flâneur? Well, this quote is from chapter M: The Flâneur in Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, for starters. Surely, it’s a component of the activity. Baudelaire, the original writer of the flâneur, dedicated an entire book dedicated solely to the the experience of using hashish and opium titled, Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises). Though wine was his drug of choice, he was part of Le Club des Hachichins. This was a group of Parisian writers (Baudelaire, Balzac, Hugo, etc) who got together regularly to consume hashish. (I’ve read several accounts that stated that Baudelaire himself observed more than consumed.)

Returning to Amsterdam, it was The Place to go on your travels and everyone I knew who had gone would come back telling stories of the “coffeeshops” and hanging out in Vondel Park, stoned. The “westerners” who have the funds to travel across the ocean not only wander the city, but to consume marijuana are viewed quite differently than other groups of people who might be found wandering the city intoxicated on marijuana, alcohol, or something else. The white westerners who run off to the ‘dam to get stoned 24/7 are “cool”, “adventurous”, “worldly”, “experienced” or perhaps elicit nothing more than an eye roll from those who disprove.

The immigrants, refugees, and people of color who do the same are “hooligans”, “lazy”, “disruptive”, and frequently arrested or fined.

Most of my time in Berlin was spent in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, and I was offered hashish, marijuana, and much harder drugs daily in my wandering. Görlitzer Park was particularly interesting – there were many immigrants here trying to make a living from selling marijuana (to locals, to tourists). As far as I’m concerned, this is one way for these particular groups of immigrants to make a living when they are stuck in a system in Germany that won’t allow them to work and hasn’t yet granted them official, permanent residence. I, personally, never felt the slightest bit threatened or in danger. Police raids in this park were common. I never stopped to make any purchases, but I know of a few people who DID, all white kids from “Western” countries, mostly travelers/tourists. It was a thing to get stoned, drunk, and then walk around the city. I want to emphasize here that I am making no judgements on anyone here. But it’s important to be aware of the difference in how groups of people are perceived. White, “western” tourist kids or locals walking around the city stoned or drunk are “just having fun” or perhaps “getting in touch with the city”, or exploring their creativity. If you fall outside of this group then you must be up to no good and a danger to society.


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