For the praise of the contemporary European flâneur

Article written by Jacopo Giraudo, in English.

Brëdang, Stockholm, Sweden – Photo by Bastien Hervé on Unsplash

To understand cities, one must have an inside view. (1) If it is correct that one should not overdo with subjective perception because one still needs proper methodological tools (2), the first-person experience allows us to better appreciate what encompasses us. It is evident and predictable that only what we are used to can be represented adequately. If we accept this paradigm, we find ourselves restrained to being able to discuss our hometown or a few other realities that we know in-depth. Yet, every time we are in a new context, a foreign environment that we are visiting for the first time, the appeal to scrutinise our surroundings is primary. The most predictable and obvious tool we have at our disposal is that of walking, of strolling to admire the place. In this sense, the first-person singular prevails over the impersonal first-person plural of academic texts. With all its limitations, direct observation still guarantees the possibility of not remaining indifferent.

Consequently, the time has come for real praise of the walk as an instrument of understanding reality. Because strolling makes it conceivable to speculate and reason on two levels. The first is the inner level: during a walk, one has time to reflect. It is not something to be taken for granted, because the frantic rhythms we are accustomed to having not always ensure the possibility of understanding each other thoroughly. Sometimes, the attitude to pursue should be to carve out a personal space devoted to self-analysis. During a walk, one reflects on one’s inner self, on his past, on limitations and possibilities for improvement, on his future, on emotions, on one-sided loves too complex to be born, on the difficulty of managing emotions, and so on.

The second level is, instead, the external one: walking allows people to experience the surrounding reality through subjective vision. This is the main point to highlight: there is nothing objective in these processes. It is a perception shaped by the mentality and the lenses we decide to wear to examine the context. If the big oak tree at the corner of that park has bright green leaves, a colour-blind person can perceive them as, for example, of a grey shade. Then, all reality changes, and what appears in a particular way can be the opposite for someone else. Evidence never subsists in unequivocal terms: we can only get there by grasping the signals we receive. Yet again, you need the experience to observe the world. And courage is required to accept that leaves can appear grey instead of green.

Walking allows people to experience the surrounding reality through subjective vision. … It is a perception shaped by the mentality and the lenses we decide to wear to examine the context.

What is being intended here is to envisage a new type of flâneur that can fulfil the task of narrating cities and regions through his reflections resulting from a thorough investigation of reality. Consequently, it is primary to introduce the very concept of flâneur. With this term, we indicate a person who is traditionally linked with Paris and the 19th century.(3) He was engaged in the activity of strolling across the French capital to scrutinise modernity and its outcomes. Because of his commitment to the analysis of his surroundings, it becomes unambiguous that sight was his most relevant sense, such as his ability to walk for long distances.(4) Notwithstanding, one should not envision someone entirely involved in the social life of his time: he was present at every change but on a peripheral side. As Walter Benjamin emphasises, “[t]he flâneur is still on the threshold, of the city as of the bourgeois class. Neither has yet engulfed him; in neither is he at home. He seeks refuge in the crowd. … The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city lives the flâneur like a phantasmagoria.”(5)

The flâneur became the most prominent witness of both modernity and the development of capitalist metropolises: therefore, it must not be of surprise to acknowledge that the creation of department stores became the object of his scrutiny and attentive enquiry.(6) He directed his gaze towards everyone and everything, to the point that the flâneur can be depicted “as painter of modern life.”(7) He was able to appreciate what was evolving and transforming around him, in a never-ending investigation stemming from his strolling along the trottoirs.(8) Because of his attitudes, he had the chance to decide whether or not to write about his experience. About this point, David Frisby maintains that “[t]he flâneur may therefore not merely be an observer or even a decipherer, the flâneur can also be a producer, a producer of literary texts …, a producer of illustrative texts … a producer of narratives and reports, a producer of journalistic texts, a producer of sociological texts.”(9)

Charles Baudelaire is presumably the most exceptional example of flâneur. One of his poems, included in Les fleurs du mal, is entitled Le Voyage. In a passage, Baudelaire writes:

Étonnants voyageurs ! quelles nobles histoires / Nous lisons dans vos yeux profonds comme les mers ! / Montrez-nous les écrins de vos riches mémoires, / Ces bijoux merveilleux, faits d’astres et d’éthers. / Nous voulons voyager sans vapeur et sans voile ! / Faites, pour égayer l’ennui de nos prisons, / Passer sur nos esprits, tendus comme une toile, / Vos souvenirs avec leurs cadres d’horizons. / Dites, qu’avez-vous vu ? (10)

Commenting on Baudelaire’s unending journey, Benjamin asserts that the flâneur is in permanent research for novelty, and his final destination can only be death.(11) In the meantime, it is evident that Paris was the natural habitat for the flâneur. His fame became so widespread that he turned out to be a symbol “of the ‘city of pleasure,’ … a key element of this construction.”(12)

Reasoning about this subject implies the introduction of the term flânerie, namely the activity performed by the flâneur. It might seem odd but it is challenging to suggest a precise definition for both of them. Tester underlines: “Because the flâneur is fundamentally a figure who can only be known through the activities of flânerie, a certain mystery is intrinsic to his identity. … In himself, the flâneur is, in fact, a very obscure thing. And, therefore, he cannot be defined in himself as very much more than a tautology.”(13) Accordingly, one should articulate his strolling and never-ending observation of modernity, through “modalities of intersensorial experience.”(14)

In our perception, the flânerie should find its place in a globalised and interconnected world as the one we are living in nowadays. If everybody is running towards his next destination or task, disremembering about the place he dwells in, finding time to explore a city or a region through a walk becomes a central necessity. In this process of reflection, a distinction between flânerie and promenade can be offered, as Stefano Bartezzaghi does in his M. Una metronovela. The Italian semiologist is convinced that the flâneur walks without any time restraints, just with the aim of strolling; on the contrary, a promenade has a time limit. Bartezzaghi argues that the latter can turn out to be the former, but, at that point, it will be no more a promenade, but a flânerie.(15) Nonetheless, it may seem manifest that this is a semantic difference that should not take our attention away from our objective.

The flânerie should find its place in a globalised and interconnected world as the one we are living in nowadays.

Both flânerie and promenade are mechanisms to experience our world. Specifically, Europe can be a remarkable case-study since the variety of its landscapes and History are so kaleidoscopic that it will be stimulating to find its lowest common denominator. If we resolve not to remain cemented in a single place but we move across regions and cities, we appreciate a noticeable mélange of connections and contradictions. And the sole way at our disposal to enjoy such a variety is strolling. Losing oneself in another context can let us understand the concept of identity.

The interaction with a foreign reality is based on three levels. The first one is our attitudes and habits. Our identity is always with us, and it is difficult to gaze at the world without our perceptions. But identity possesses both positive and negative features because it associates us with a group (16): in this sense, a separation arises. The point is to keep this division as an element of strength, and not as the basis for discrimination and a sense of supremacy. Consequently, the second level is the discovery and acceptance of the existence of other identities. Thanks to his strolling, the modern European flâneur becomes cognisant of what is unconventional from his daily life. If he is not mindful of this element, he cannot be considered as a reliable witness of his contemporaneity.

The third, and last, feature descends from the two previous factors. Thanks to the actions of moving and walking, the flâneur explores the notion of multiple identities. Scrutinising his surroundings, he appreciates what is in common and what is in contrast between regions and cities. In a certain way, we might assert that strolling can let attentive people be aware of European identity. Although the “discourse on European identity is complex, elusive, with an erratic and fragmentary trend, so outdated; nevertheless indispensable,”(17) the modern flâneur can be a real actor and promoter of the unity of Europe. Consequently, the invitation is to keep moving across the continent to explore its variety. And without any hesitation, to walk around its regions and cities. In this way, the two levels of reflection that a promenade guarantees will emerge. On the one side, you will have the opportunity to think about yourself and your inner sentiments. In one word, about your identity. Because ideas, emotions, and feelings are the features that define us and our relationship with others. On the other side, your surroundings will let you deem about the different and various identities. They might diverge from your own; nevertheless, they cannot do anything but enriching you and your ability of analysis.

Let us dismiss the role of the intellectual stuck in his office to speculate about his world. On the contrary, let us move around and walk. The first-hand observation of our contemporaneity ensures more solid perception of ourselves. Flâneurs are not dead: they will be the promoters of the development of a genuine European identity.

  1. Jane Jacobs, “Downtown Is for People,” in The Urban and Regional Planning Reader, ed. Eugénie L. Birch (London – New York: Routledge, 2008), 131.
  2. Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City. How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 11.
  3. Keith Tester, “Introduction,” in The Flâneur, ed. Keith Tester (London – New York: Routledge, 1994), 1.
  4. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, “The flâneur on and off the streets of Paris,” in The Flâneur, ed. Keith Tester (London – New York: Routledge, 1994), 27.
  5. Walter Benjamin, Reflections. Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Shocken Books, 1978), 156.
  6. Bruce Mazlish, “The flâneur: from spectator to representation,” in The Flâneur, ed. Keith Tester (London – New York: Routledge, 1994), 43.
  7. Aimée Boutin, “Rethinking the Flâneur: Flânerie and the Senses,” Dix-Neuf 16, no. 2 (2012): 124.
  8. Ibid., 127-29.
  9. David Frisby, “The flâneur in social theory,” in The Flâneur, ed. Keith Tester (London – New York: Routledge, 1994), 83.
  10. Charles Baudelaire, “Le Voyage,” Les Fleurs Du Mal (consulted on 07.07.2020)
  11. Benjamin, op. cit., 157.
  12. Claire Hancock, “Capitale du plaisir: the remaking of imperial Paris,” in Imperial Cities. Landscape, Display and Identity, ed. Felix Driver and David Gilbert (Manchester – New York: Manchester University Press, 1999), 70.
  13. Tester, op. cit., 7.
  14. Boutin, op. cit., 131.
  15. Stefano Bartezzaghi, M. Una metronovela (Turin: Einaudi, 2015), 10.
  16. Nicole Sindzingre, “Identité. 3 Anthropologie. L’identité des personnes,” in Encyclopaedia Universalis. Corpus 11. Guerre et Paix-Incendies (Encyclopaedia Universalis France, 1992), 900.
  17. Gianfranco Bettin Lattes, “L’identità europea tra memoria e futuro,” SocietàMutamentoPolitica 1, no. 1 (2010): 23. [Our translation].

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