The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I first became familiar with the word “Flaneur” when a collection of Walter Benjamin’s writings called “The Arcade Projects” was published in 1999.
It included a 1929 review called “The Return of the Flâneur”.
In it, Benjamin speculates on the significance of the “Flaneur”, a French word meaning “stroller” or “saunterer”.
It describes someone who walks the street, apparently idly, not intending to simply get from point A to point B, but seeking more to observe and experience the street and its surroundings.
In Paris, not only does the Flaneur experience the streets or boulevards, he explores the shop-lined arcades that radiate off them and join other streets.
What the Flaneur observes is the full diversity and complexity of modern life in the city.
Seeing Beyond the Crowd
The Flaneur is a spectator who joins the crowd that is moving with intent, but he remains somehow separate from it.
He is both in the crowd and detached from it. He is both an individual and a member of society.
He is both a participant and an observer, a witness to the sometimes opposing forces of tradition and modernity.
Where these forces are in conflict, the Flaneur detects the paradoxes that result from their co-existence.
The Flaneur sees both interaction and flux.
"A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris"
This is the sub-title of Edmund White’s non-fiction work.
Outwardly, it presents itself as a guidebook to the culturally aware tourist.
It starts tantalizingly:
"Paris is a big city, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zurich a backwater."
I like the hint of argumentativeness and controversy planted in this otherwise innocuous first sentence.
He then quotes a “reckless friend” who defines a big city as “a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night” (although he admits that Paris is deficient in tall buildings).
In the Footsteps of the Flaneur
While I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, White was already starting to flirt with our expectations of a travel guide.
I just knew him as one of the world’s greatest gay writers and a formidable intellect and writer of any gender or sexual persuasion.
However, superficially, there was no intimation that this would affect his approach to his subject matter.
Curious, I flicked quickly through the contents of the book.
There were no photos or illustrations, the six chapters bore numbers rather than headings, and, shock, shock, there were no sub-headings in the body of the text.
This guide consisted solely of thoughts and observations, all conveyed by words alone.
Still, I was already seduced and captivated by these words.
So I innocently walked up behind Monsieur White and followed him on his stroll.
How was I to know where he would lead me?
Cruising the Margins and Cracks of Paris
Of course, where he took me was to the places where you could find the true character and secrets of Paris, the City not just of Light, but of Light, Darkness and Shade, a city where the Past, Present and Future live side by side, awaiting the Flaneur.
What follows is a highly individual, informed, informative and affectionate tour through Paris’ intellectualism, sophistication, variety, foreigners, Jews, Arabs, blacks, gays, dandies, artists, jazz musicians, royalty, royalists, monarchists, town houses, temples, cathedrals, palaces and museums.
While White sings the praises of Paris’ boulevards and grand design, it’s in the cracks that he finds “those little forgotten places that appeal to the Flaneur, the traces left by people living in the margin – Jews, blacks, gays, Arabs – or mementoes of an earlier, more chaotic and medieval France.”
Paris as Palimpsest
Paris is a work of art which is being constantly altered and added to, but scratch the surface and you will find that it is a palimpsest that reveals the former work that still resides below.
It is the role of the Flaneur to impose a personal vision on this palimpsest, to use it not so much as a source of abstract or dry knowledge, but to create from it a picture or record of experience, a collection of impressions or mental snapshots or “instantanee”, of life lived and still being lived.
Paris as Refuge
Paris accommodates all tastes, from the most extravagant and luxe to the most commonplace, but it also accommodates life’s fugitives, those who are marginalized in other parts of the world.
People who are scorned or cast out from elsewhere are welcome here.
They put down roots and they start to grow and create, paradoxically within a short distance from cathedrals, palaces and museums, the institutions by which we know Paris.
Ultimately, it’s these people who hold the greatest interest for White, not to mention the objects they surround themselves with and the record of their existence and their experience:
"...these mental snapshots, these instantanees of fugitive life, these curving banisters and lacquered portals, these cold, empty quays beside the Seine where someone under a bridge is playing a saxophone – all the priceless but free memories only waiting for a Flaneur to make them his own."
Be Your Own Flaneur
We are lucky that Edmund White was one such Flaneur, because in making these memories his own and writing about them, he has also made them ours.
However, I won't be content to be an armchair Flaneur.
One day soon, December, 2012, I hope to be a Flaneur strolling down the boulevards of Paris.
I’m sure there will be a few paradoxes waiting there for me to discover.
I might even incorporate some of my instantanee as appendages to my review.
Meanwhile, I'm getting in as much strolling practice as I can.
Here is a YouTube video reading of Walter Benjamin's discussion of Flaneurs:
Here is a little flanerie (well, sort of):
And some photos:
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