What is a flâneur?

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire

A flâneur, according to Webster, is “an idle man-about-town”. It’s pretty evident that a man who was compelled to log words and definitions day and night knew little about the art of flânerie (flâneury), French for strolling. For the flâneur is not merely a loafer gadding his short life away.

He or she is a creature so enthralled by the world that the internal yields to the external, so fascinated with the other that the self is temporarily forgotten. The flâneur is misunderstood by the non-flâneur who fails to recognize the endeavor in his art. For the flâneur is indeed striving toward a goal, making a concerted effort to become anonymous in the crowd — an undetected voyeur — and to sate a philosophical, an aesthetic and an almost spiritual fascination with the scene around him/herself.

“For the perfect flâneur, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow. To be away from home, yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” Charles Baudelaire

The flâneur seeks communion with the other, and this requires a receptivity and a yielding to the bustle of the urban crowd.

“[Flâneurs] are opening their eyes and ears to the scene around them. They are not treating the street as an obstacle course to be negotiated; they are opening themselves up to it. They are wondering about the lives of those they pass, constructing narratives for them, they are eavesdropping on conversations, they are studying how people dress and what new shops and products there are (not in order to buy anything—just in order to reflect on them as important pieces of evidence of what human beings are about)… While cities bring together huge numbers of people, paradoxically they also separate them from each other. The goal of flâneur[s] is to recover a sense of community… To do this, they let down their guard, they empathize with situation they see. There’s a constant risk they will be moved, saddened, excited – and fall in love.” Alain de Botton

“Flânerie… is immersion in an anonymous, spectatorial gaze that gives license to wandering and observing… It is an aesthetic action, art form, and social phenomenon… The flâneur… possesses a way of seeing the world and being in the world that intrinsically reveals meaningful, social commentary.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life…” Georg Simmel (The Metropolis and Mental Life)