WALKING & THE MIND: The flâneur

From the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece to modern-day psycho-geographers, walking has long been associated with thinking. In this series, we look at how artists and writers have consistently used walking as a tool to unlock creativity, and explore how walking and thinking are often seen as one and the same.

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the sea of fog (1818)

Born out of the city, the flâneur has permeated our collective imagination through literature, art and film. In this piece, we trace this enigmatic archetype back through time – and consider its relevance today.

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the sea of fog (1818), Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany

The idea of the flâneur was conceived in 19th century Paris by the poet Charles Baudelaire. Elusive and detached, this ambulatory figure and icon of leisure was both a wanderer and riveted observer of the city. We might picture them stepping soundlessly into the night, a cigarillo clamped between their lips, smoke billowing aesthetically into the air like a misty orbit.

Maybe he (flâneurs were almost always portrayed as male) stops to survey the crowd eddying around him, the streets illuminated by the hazy glow of gas lamps. Like a long exposure photograph, the flâneur remains transfixed while a tangled blur of humanity engulfs them. But, we wonder, what are they looking at – or more precisely, what are they looking for?

Ernest Dudley Heath – Piccadilly Circus at Night 1893

Baudelaire wrote in depth about the flâneur in his 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”. The flâneur, he said, is like a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness”, a “passionate spectator” at home in the centre of a crowd: “For the perfect flâneur… it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.”  

Evading a clear definition, the flâneur is loaded with contradictions: are they a participant or observer? Visible or invisible? Engaged or detached? Baudelaire doesn’t seem to have the answers. Maybe it’s the contradictory nature of the flâneur that makes them so compelling.

Étienne Carjat: Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862

Despite Baudelaire’s claim that the flâneur originated in Paris, the flâneur was not exclusively Parisian. Across the Channel, London was already evolving into a city ideal for flânerie – with its gaslit streets and shopping arcades predating those of Paris by some decades, and its crowds surpassing those of the French capital.

Writers like Charles Lamb waxed lyrical about the magic that the metropolis could offer to the pedestrian (“an accumulation of sights – endless sights”; “London itself, a pantomime and a masquerade”). For Charles Dickens, city walks offered a vital source of inspiration for his stories, which are often framed against the dark, labyrinthine backdrop of London’s seamier side. Dickens was also part of an emerging genre of urban reportage – the city sketch. Under the pseudonym ‘Boz’, he prowled the capital recording vignettes of London life, which were printed in a series of newspaper columns between 1834-1836 and culminated in the publication of his first book, Sketches by Boz. Styling himself as a ‘speculative pedestrian’, Boz is intimately acquainted with the social and geographic map of early 19th century London. Even to Londoners, he was able to make the city seem fresh and unfamiliar. Undirected wandering, or ‘amateur vagrancy’ (as Dickens called it), was the lifeforce of his writing and he walked the city almost every night.

A selection from Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne

Likewise, for Virginia Woolf, walking was integral to her writing practice. She describes how, stepping out into the street, we “shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers.”

In her essay ‘Street Haunting’ (1927), Woolf is on a quest for a lead pencil (her ‘excuse’ for walking), when a series of encounters throws her off course. A dwarf, two blind brothers and a stout lady swathed in shiny sealskin all tumble in and out of Woolf’s vision in quick succession. She writes: “into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.” This ability to leave herself and submerge in the lives of others, even if just momentarily, implies a kind of empathy which counters the idea of the flâneur as an emotionally detached, aloof figure.

Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï stalked the streets of Paris at night, bewitched by what he saw

Rebecca Solnit, who has written extensively about walking and its relationship to culture and politics, explains how walking in Paris is often compared to the act of reading, “as though the city itself were a huge anthology of tales.” Like Woolf, she echoes the sense of multiple stories playing out simultaneously. Faced with limitless possibilities, it’s up to the flâneur what they tune in to or out of. Eschewing maps, they are guided instead by serendipity and intuition. 

Though they might hide behind a shield of anonymity on the streets, the flâneur is not totally invisible or immune to interaction; in fact their aloneness might even draw others to them. Strangers can emerge on the path and offer cryptic, or elucidating messages – lighting the way forwards. A fleeting glance, like the mysterious passante in Baudelaire’s poem ‘To a (Female) Passer-by’, may be enough to rouse the imagination: “The deafening street roared around me / Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic in her grandeur / A woman walked past me, her sumptuous hand / Lifting and swinging her hem as she went.”

Virginia Woolf, 1902

In the 19th century, to wander aimlessly in the city was a luxury afforded to men. A male flâneur might be called “streetwalker”, but when applied to a woman the word took on a whole new meaning. A lone female loitering on the street – especially after dark – often signalled one thing: she was a prostitute. “There is no question of inventing the flâneuse,” wrote Janet Wolff in her frequently cited essay on the subject. “Such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.” Art historian Griselda Pollock agreed, saying: “there is not and could not be a flâneuse.” 

Yet, Lauren Elkin’s book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (2016) proves otherwise. Travelling across time and continents, she identifies a cohort of female urban walkers from the 19th century to present-day, showing that there have always been women engaging with the city – from George Sand and Jean Rhys, to Sophie Calle and Agnes Varda. Once she began searching, she “spotted [the flâneuse] everywhere”: “I caught her standing on street corners in New York and coming through doorways in Kyoto, sipping coffee at café tables in Paris, at the foot of a bridge in Venice, or riding the ferry in Hong Kong. She is going somewhere or coming from somewhere; she is saturated with in-betweenness.”

American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin, 1951

Often cast as a lonely, solitary figure, could it also be true then, that the flâneur/flâneuse is motivated by an inherent longing for connection? are they simply a product of urban isolation? “Cities can be lonely places,” writes Olivia Laing in The Lonely City (2016), “and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship.” Walking offers both distance and connection, a way of seeing deeply into the city and its many guises. It allows the walker to step out of oneself and one’s own problems for a moment, and reclaim perspective in the transitory crowd. 

Today, the flâneur remains a paradox. Just when we think we know them, they evade us. In modern culture – which is geared towards constant productivity – aimless wandering seems an almost subversive act. Many of us spend more time roaming the internet nowadays rather than physically wandering the streets. We have become cyberflâneurs, no-destinationers, navigating the endless corridors and crevices of the interweb. Does technology make it harder to wander without purpose (since we are always reorienting ourselves on Google Maps) and harder to wander anonymously (since we are always documenting everything)? 

Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace

Writing in his 1909 essay London: A Book of Aspects, the British poet-critic Arthur Symons felt that rapid urban modernisation was rendering the flâneur extinct: “The great crowd among which the flaneur loved to wander has become subservient to the mechanised age… The verbs to loll, to lounge, to dawdle, to loiter… are losing their currency.” 

At the same time, the flâneur is surely a timeless figure. There will always be people who are curious, people who feel alienated or estranged, those seeking meaning and connection in the street. Next time you’re out in the city, look closely and you might spot the flâneur – but don’t be surprised if – just as quickly as they appeared – they slip away again between the shadows of the crowd.

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