The the labyrinth of the city as a

The flâneur was born in the first half of the 19th century under the steel and glass covered passages of Paris, within the writings of the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). From the verb ‘flâner’ meaning ‘to walk quietly without purpose’, Baudelaire’s flâneur was the embodiment of modernity: a masculine figure of privilege and leisure, who wandered the labyrinth of the city as a witness to the phantasmagoric patterns of life within it. Nowhere is this better presented than in the section ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ from the second edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, published on 9 February 1861. These urban vignettes are no romantic “hymn to the homeland”, instead, they present the volatile nature of life on the margins the modern city undergoing Haussmann’s urban projects, a sense of alienation within society and a nostalgia for le vieux Paris. 

It was Baudelaire and his Fleurs du Mal that, later in the Twentieth century, formed a cornerstone of  Walter Benjamins Das Passagen-Werk or ‘The Arcades Project’. This seminal work, which occupied the German Jewish philosopher for thirteen years until his death in 1940, preserved an archive of cultural heritage in which Baudelaire and his flâneur were key figures; offering his observations and explorations of the transient experience of the metropolis and how streets of modernity influenced the human psyche. ‘Modernity’ has been continuously defined and redefined over the centuries, always with its antithesis ‘antiquity’; it marked the consciousness of the dawning of a new epoch. For Baudelaire “Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other half being the eternal and immutable . . . If any particular modernity is to be worthy of becoming antiquity, one must extract from it the mysterious beauty that human life involuntarily gives it.” 

The subjective nature of then flâneur’s gaze had been a key point of interest to me, my own experiences of living in the 16th arrondissement and moving around the city would certainly have been quite different to those of Baudelaire and Benjamin, both of whom looked to the past in order to interpret and understand their modern culture. My initial wanderings were influenced not by any real knowledge of the past but rather by (naïve) preconceptions of the city. It was only after months of inhabiting the city, an aversion of the metro and straying from the paths of selfie sticks that I found an understanding of the unabridged Paris. It is in this spirit that I seek to discern how the flâneur has transcended into the 21st century and the contemporary city. 

* * *

PARIS, 1861. At the time of the second publication of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, Paris was in a period of radical social and aesthetic transformation under Haussmannisation, Napoleon III, and the Second Empire. In 1865 the French photographer Charles Marville (1813 – 1879) was commissioned to photograph those streets Haussmann had slated for destruction. This dialectical photograph of Marville’s (above) captures a small street scape in the fifth arrondissement, the nostalgic aspect of pre-modern Paris would charm any contemporary viewer, as well as possibly Baudelaire himself. It served also, however, as evidence of the city’s declining conditions; dark narrow streets and inadequate sanitation. 
The centre of the vieux city, the quarters of revolutions and barricades were thus ravaged; the old narrow streets and arcades made way for broad boulevards and monuments. Parisians such as Baudelaire declared a growing sense of alienation within their city as well as an awareness of the inhumanity of the metropolis as they were being pushed both literally and figuratively towards the outskirts of the new regime.

Composed of eighteen poems, Baudelaire’s ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ offers a variety of sketches of this mid 19th century Parisian Society and could be seen as a political critique of the new establishment. It is amongst the unique characters of this sequence that the street itself appears as a unifying poetic figure and metaphor for the urban existence. Of these, the three Baudelaire dedicated to the French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885), his friend and compatriot, offer the most insightful view of the demolition of vieux Paris to make way for Haussmann’s mass projects of urban renewal; in order Le Cygne, Les Sept Vieillards, and Les Petites Vieilles. At the time Baudelaire was writing these poems, 1861, Hugo would have been abroad in a period of self-imposed exile that lasted nearly 20 years; corresponding to that of the Second Empire and Napoleon III. Baudelaire’s choice of protagonists; the anachronistic elderly men and women in Les Sept Vieillards and Les Petites Vieilles, as well as the self-conscious narrator and effective encyclopaedia of exiled figures of Le Cygne, present a sense of non-belonging, powerlessness and loss of identity as a result of the marginalising and homogenising effect of Haussmann’s Paris. For Baudelaire, it seemed that the new face of the city was that of a ‘scaffold’ that builds itself upon the ruination of the old.

Le Cygne swings like a pendulum between disjointed images of classical antiquity and Parisian modernity; these vignettes illustrate Baudelaire’s inability to reconcile himself within the new Paris. From the start he uses the grieving character Andromache to conjure the image of the Greek sacking of Troy as an allegory for Haussmann’s demolition work. This is subsequently reinforced by the use of the river Simoïs as a metaphor for the Seine. Baudelaire locates himself twice within the poem, first in the second quatrain ” … Comme je traversais le nouveau Carrousel. … ” and then again in the ninth ” … Aussi devant ce Louvre …”. This reference to the Carrousel is somewhat ambiguous, it may have been reference to the new esplanade that the Second Empire was establishing between the Louvre and the Tuileries, demolishing the old mansions which occupied the location. Or, in consideration of Baudelaire’s reference to the Sïmois, it may well have been allegorical of the Pont du Carrousel, originally designed and built in the period 1831 to 1834 by Antoine-Rémy Polonceau. The bridge was an innovative combination of cast iron and timber. As seen in the image captured by the  the French photographer Gustav Le Gray, the lightweight construction of the bridge contrasted significantly with the massive river facade of the Louvre’s Grande Gallerie. (Interestingly neither of these elements exist in their same forms today.) Thus either of these locations translates Baudelaire allegorically into the  space between modern industrialism and classical intellectualism. It is here that we see his internal struggle to come to terms with the new whilst yearning instead for the old, and Paris itself becomes the agent of Baudelaire’s alienation. The poet of Le Cygne is consequently indistinguishable form the character of the Flâneur, the urban wanderer who’s relationship with the modern city and role as an observer was, at the time, caught up in an ever-changing reality. 

The poet-flâneur becomes further established in the following set of poems: Les Sept Vieillards and Les Petites Vieilles, where we the readers follow the narrator through one of his walks. In the former the narrators hallucinogenic encounter with seven identical old men  in “Le faubourg secoué par les lourds tombereaux”, attacks his sense of identity in an euphoric manner and drives him to the brink of madness. We leave him attempting to stay afloat in a “frolicsome tempest” on an sea of eternal sameness. Whilst in Les Petites Vieilles the tension between tradition and modernity escalates, from the start we are introduced to a tortuous urban topography where the poet creates a spectacle of misfortune out of  “Des êtres singuliers, décrépits et charmants.”, these creatures were once women and the diminishing, distortion and dehumanisation of these petites vieilles becomes a metaphor for the streets of Paris and “des vieilles capitales”.  The women present the image of bygone grandeur “Each pressing to her side, as if it were a relic, | A small purse embroidered with rebuses or flowers:”; by going out of fashion these women and their purses have become “inexhaustible containers of memories.” It is also in the final verse that Baudelaire  directly addresses the role of the flâneur as an affectionate observer, the invisible man at the edge of the crowd: “Mais moi, moi qui de loin tendrement vous surveille,”. It is evident that Baudelaire felt an affinity towards his protagonists, and yet he as a flâneur was equally aloof from them. To read his poetry is to experience his walks through the city, observing the vieille characters of the men and women, seeing reflections of himself in their eyes, looking back into the past in order to help clarify the present, all the while feeling a sense of estrangement. 

* * *

Whilst Baudelaire’s flâneur was the lens through which we can experience the Paris of the 19th century, it is Walter Benjamin and his work The Arcades Project in the 20th century that further marked him, the flâneur, as an essential part of modernism as well as key to our notions on urbanism today. Benjamin presents his research in a scientific manner, the unedited range of phenomena presents an alternative history of the 19th Century with Paris at its centre. The incompleteness of the work is perhaps a boon, it gives us the essentials to which we might pursue some snippet for our own curiosity. The 1935  publication of Benjamins exposé on The Arcades Project as a documentarian synopsis is both a commentary on the texts and the reality of his own time. The elements of the 19th century Benjamin chose to record reflect the concerns of his own era. Though connections are not explicit it is difficult to imagine Benjamin’s focus on the bourgeois dictator Napoleon III without also considering the rise of Hitler; respectively the state glorifying projects of his architect Albert Speer cannot be utterly disconnected from Benjamins concern for the works of Haussmann. Thus what he referred to as “telescoping the past through the present”, to which the observations of the flâneur (Benjamin) are key to its interpretation. Much like Baudelaire, Benjamin bypassed the more obvious social species and instead focused on the margins of society, singling out the flâneur as his protagonist. A variety of definitions for the flâneur are discussed by Benjamin, thus the character has acquired a certain degree of fictional vagueness, however their habitation of the public space of the arcade is their unifying trademark.

For Benjamin the Arcades marked the threshold of the metropolis and the dawn of consumer culture; they were a transitory phenomena, a physical manifestation of modernity and the flâneur was their idle champion. In order to give an idea as to the tempo of the arcades, it is important to note that in 1839 it was considered fashionable to take one’s tortoise out for a walk. Benjamin names the flâneur a “spy for the capitalists” who perceptual gaze studied the appearance of passersby, presumably in order to sell goods. Meanwhile Haussmann’s clearing of the crowded medieval neighbourhoods along with their Arcades, meant the decline of the flâneur as he was displaced from his natural habitat into the torrent of the street where automobiles were the dominant species. This marked a need for evolution on the part of the flâneur. Though Benjamin noted there was still some of the panoramic pleasure of flânerie (for men at least) in the viewing of the city from those ‘travelling balconies’ otherwise known as the upper deck of an omnibus, they had lost their freedom to change course on a whim. The flâneur did not adapt to the growing rationalism of mid-nineteenth century Paris; the allocation of street names and numbers, the wide Boulevards of Haussmannisation and increased pace of daily life, according to Benjamin subsequently resulted in the fading of this social species into the historic backdrop of the city much like one of Baudelaire’s Petites Vieilles. Nevertheless, the fall of the arcade and the subsequent rise of street traffic should not be regarded as the flâneur’s ultimate demise; though it would surely have endangered their valiant tortoises. It is still Paris that remains associated with flânerie more than any other city,  despite the destruction of Baudelaire’s vieille capitale. 

* * *
 

In the above epigraph the American philosopher, Susan Buck-Morss, reincarnates the flâneur, postulating the theory that his phenomenological characteristics have have permeated throughout contemporary society into every corner of the city. Hence it is not the flâneur’s perceptive gaze that has become extinct but rather its marginality. In her essay The Flâneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore Buck-Morss discusses the fragmentation of the flâneur into different entities from a contemporary perspective; perhaps most notable is her highlighting of the gendered nature of the flâneur and her ensuing conception of the flâneuse. Benjamin in his own time examined the connection between capitalism, advertising, journalism and flánerie and the growing disconnect from the physical reality of the city. 19th century writings of social observations published in newspapers at the time could only have been written by a man, his ability to stroll leisurely through the streets and arcades, unnoticed and unhindered, was not afforded to all of Paris’s citizens. As Buck-Morss has eloquently detailed, if a woman were to roam the arcades in the same method she would have been labelled a ‘streetwalker’, a commodity on sale alongside the other consumer items in the shop windows, to be passed over by the likes of Baudelaire and Benjamin. Nevertheless it was the rise of the department store, specifically the opening of Bon Marché in Paris in 1852, and the act of shopping as a socially acceptable activity for the bourgeois woman that Buck-Morss attributes to the birth of the flâneuse. It is somewhat ironic that the empowering ability for a woman to wander without chaperone in a public space arose specifically from the capitalist consumer culture that had  objectified them. 

Buck-Morss goes further in the transformation of the fláneur/euse with regards to the advancement in technology, specially in the example of the non-ambulatory panoptic form of the television. She notes that the news-programming in the United States is directly geared towards the “distracted, impressionistic, physiognomic viewing of the flaneur”. On this topic, Anne Friedberg, the American historian and theorist of modern media culture, later recast the role of the flâneur as cinematic spectator through the epistemological transition of the modern into the post-modern era in her Les Flâneurs du Mal(l): Cinema and the Postmodern Condition. The commodity experience of arcades, department stores, museums and packaged tourism still encourage the leisurely mobilised gaze of the Baudelairian flâneur, while the phantasmagoria of the panoramas, technological advancements of photography and cinema, with its imaginary flânerie, create a virtual gaze. Suddenly far flung places became accessible to the masses, suspended from spatial or temporal limitations and this virtual gaze changed the nature of memory and experience and transformed our access to history. 

* * *
 
Though the idle wanderer of arcades may have disappeared the spirit of the flâneur as an urban observer still lives on. The lives of the Situationists in the 1950’s clearly shows an adaptation on the part of the investigative conduct of the flâneur-artist to the conditions of the contemporary city, while connecting to it a strong ideological Marxist agenda. Guy Debord’s dérive served as the means to advance  psychogeography; the feelings that a geographical location might evoke in the individual. The Naked City randomly collages different sections of Paris together in a playful and inventive manner to create a new map whereby the user might follow their own route through the city guided by a series of arrows. As an architecture student in Paris, this emotional mapping of the city survives still as a fundamental tool for understanding one’s urban environment; the notion of psychogeography highlights the significance of the city’s historical landscape and depends on the flâneur’s self-abandonment to the unexpected. As students we were constantly encouraged to inhabit, photograph, map and sketch the streets, breaking down the barriers in everyday life. 

Our first task was to take the metro to a new part of the city and explore individually, ignoring the usual impulses that would guide us. I took the line 7 from Corentin Cariou down to Stalingrad and changed to line 2, at this point in its journey it provides elevated views of the city until descending into the underbelly of the city at Colonel Fabien. Emerging again like a gopher on the Boulevard Mélinmontant, the road marking the boundary between the 11eme and 20eme arrondissements, I resisted the urge to find my bearings and followed the skeletal remains of market stalls down the tree lined centre of the boulevard until I found myself again the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the famous resting place of Jim Morrison, and needed to get lost once more. Paris is one of those remarkable places where no matter what, it takes about half an hour to get anywhere, the streets conduct you through the city like portals. So, unlike my fellow pedestrians, I turned left down the residential Rue de la Roquette rather than right into the cemetery. The architecture of this area is rather indistinct, though I could make out the Tour du Montparnasse peeking up above the skyline at the end of the street. Passing in circles the local standards of boulangerie, pharmacie, tabac and ‘petite vieilles’ with their shopping trolleys and tiny dogs, at various points stopping to sketch and interesting feature or detail, (I distinctly remember a red bird house that seemed larger than my chambre-de-bonne), eventually my hour was up and I needed to get back to my next class. Reluctant to rely on my phone to guide me back to La Villette I kept on wandering until a bus stop allowed me to orient myself back into the metro at Voltaire. 

In retrospect, though at the time I had no knowledge of Baudelaire and his poetry, it is now clear that his spirit, lives on today throughout Paris. Though the seminar lasted only the semester I continued to walk the streets in my spare time, what went from homework to a hobby, soon became an addiction. It is perhaps even easier today to wander and observe the city than it was for Baudelaire and Benjamin; the digital age has assimilated new means of collecting and cataloguing everyday information. How often do we go out, armed with our iPhone cameras, in search for things to share on Instagram, facebook or twitter? The comfort of the modern street dweller to the presence of a camera makes them more willing subjects of these digital arcades. Though I would agree with Buck-Morss that in the 19th century sense, the flâneur may well have vanished, it is clear that there are many more of us willing to take up the mantel, be it consciously or unconsciously. 

Comments are closed.