How to be a flâneur


Back in the winter of 2012, the leader of a poetry workshop I was attending introduced us to the French term, flâneur, by having us read selections from Edmund White’s, “The Flâneur” (Bloomsbury, 2001). As suggested by the subtitle, “A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris,” the book is an eccentric travel guide through the city of Paris. On a more general level, White explores multiple dimensions of what it means to be a flâneur.

According to White, the flâneur is “that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps,”  the man or woman who takes delight in “those little forgotten places ... the traces left by people living in the margin.”  The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whom White considers to be “the consummate Parisian flâneur” of the 19th century, praises the flâneur as “the passionate observer,” “[t]he amateur of life (who) enters into the crowd as into an immense reservoir of electricity.”

While both White and Baudelaire hold flâneurs in high esteem, honoring such individuals for their artistic souls, others see them in a far more negative light. Detractors define flâneurs as dawdlers, idlers, loafers – lazy and indecisive men and women who are forever ruing the road not taken.

Despite his admiration for the flâneur, White does admit that he is “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.” 

White is quick to point out that we “Americans are particularly ill-suited to be flâneurs.”  We are allergic to wasting time.  We need to pack as many sights – not insights – as possible into our overstuffed tourist itineraries. We consider it a supreme accomplishment not to leave a single moment unplanned, not to leave anything open to chance.

From White’s perspective, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic, is “[t]he last of the great literary flâneurs.”  In a 1929 essay, Benjamin wrote that the flâneur “would be happy to trade all his knowledge of artists’ quarters, birthplaces and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile – that which any old dog carries away.”

White understands Benjamin to be saying, “the flâneur is in search of experience, not knowledge. Most experience ends up interpreted as – and replaced by – knowledge, but for the flâneur the experience remains somehow pure, useless, raw.”

I particularly like White’s choice of the word “useless.” The paradox in his formulation is that in this context “useless” –  supported on either side by “pure” and “raw” – means its very opposite, “useful” – at least in terms of artistic inspiration and creativity. It is the very purposelessness of the flâneur’s experience that opens him up to the infinity of never sought, never thought, and therefore never fought possibilities that come with being open to chance encounters.  In short, it is in NOT seeking that the flâneur finds. 

During my undergraduate years at Columbia College, I often found myself in the role of flâneur, though it has taken me 50 years to learn the French word. While I learned much from the courses I took, I learned as much from my wanderings without worry or direction through the obscure ways and byways of Manhattan.

As a sophomore, I signed up for a two-semester writing course taught by Kenneth Koch, a well-known poet of the “New York School.” For one of his assignments, I wrote a poem titled “Just Riding,” which told of my experience as a bearded flâneur on a three-speed bicycle crossing the Goethals Bridge over the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait separating Elizabeth, N.J., from Staten Island, N.Y. I was just riding – past smiling faces and wheelless hubcaps, reflecting the three o’clock sun and bloated cargo ships and Sunday-empty factories. At the time I was 19 years old, free to observe joyfully and without judgment, unburdened by the responsibilities of family and rabbinical career that were yet to come.

Now, along with the comforts of a long marriage, the seemingly safe launching of our daughter and son, the supreme blessing of five grandchildren, the freedom brought by retirement, I find myself searching for my inner flâneur; I seek that ageless youthfulness not yet buried within my aging body. As a flâneur resurrected, I seek once again to go through life astonished, every day to see the world as if for the first time, to stop the sound of my feet long enough to experience the miracle of that bush burning, burning but not consumed.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington.

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