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.