“A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.” (Rebecca Solnit: ‘Wanderlust’)
Just this morning – in a sustainability online group chat – to a guy who’s having a revelation rediscovering where he lives. He walks a different route every day for an hour. He’s falling in love again with his own back yard. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that local wonder is a theme I’ve been following for a while.
I cut back dramatically my own flying and changed from a mostly international tour guide to a mostly domestic tour guide, then set out to see if I could replicate the buzz of travel on my own doorstep. It’s been a rewarding experiment. One of the things I discovered is I’m not the first by a long way. Going away to come back is an old theme of literature and spirituality. The answers lie within…
But even if you’re not spiritual or mystic, we find ourselves under Lockdown, and the local is all we have. Some of us are even shielding and unable to go out. One of Marcel Proust’s key quotes is suddenly very apt:
“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
If ever there was a time for us to remake the Flâneur, it’s now. If you can get out, if you can move through the streets or the parks, you can do it. There’s a certain level of privilege baked into the traditional notion of the Flâneur, traditionally a white male of certain means. It’s harder to go unnoticed (unmolested) if you don’t fit in or if you don’t have the privilege of being accorded respect. I can walk the streets at 11pm ignored. I won’t be wolf-whistled or stopped and searched.
“The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family” (Charles Baudelaire: ‘The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays’)
But also, if you were walking through a Parisian market in the 1930s observing the market traders wearily pushing their carts, perhaps you were lucky enough not to need to graft all day like them.
“…by definition endowed with enormous leisure, someone who can take off a morning or an afternoon for undirected ambling, since a specific goal or a close rationing of time is antithetical to the true spirit of the flâneur.” Edmund White (‘The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris’)
You could say there was something voyeuristic about watching the prostitutes hustling for trade, the beggar on the ground, the drunks and the drug dealers and the other assorted characters from inside your bubble. But isn’t that what we do when we gawp at the Other on holiday? At what point does observation become poverty tourism?
If you were a wandering writer, then that voyeurism spiced up your prose, injecting the picaresque tone that your readers enjoyed. But then that is the writer’s job, to bear witness. To be an observer requires time and a certain mindset. If you’re rushed or distracted, you can’t notice the particular way an arch curves, or zone in on the beggar juxtaposed in front of an exclusive shopping arcade. And the Flâneur is changing. Sometimes they are a Flâneuse:
“The streets of Paris had a way of making me stop in my tracks, my heart suspended. They seemed saturated with presence, even if there was no one there but me. These were places where something could happen, or had happened, or both; a feeling I could never have had at home in New York, where life is inflected with the future tense.” (Lauren Elkin: ‘Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London’)
If you have kids, if you are a carer, if you can’t get out – it’s harder to be a Flâneur/euse. Though you can dally with the Dérive and do a group exploration. But some of us have been presented an opportunity to democratise the idea of the Flâneur. Now that we’re on lockdown, we’ve been offered (willingly or not) a slowed-down distraction-free opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Baudelaire and Benjamin (Walter).
We have the chance to re-follow familiar paths with new eyes, as Proust suggested. We can slow down, notice and really appreciate what we previously took for granted…