Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Reflections on the art of flânerie

Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am going to bring up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later.This chapter marks the start of a bigger section entitled people and place.   
Flâneur – the stroller, lounger, saunterer
Flânerie – the act of strolling with all its associations
To be a flâneur is to idle without purpose, interested in what you find.
When practicing the art of flânerie, it is important to stop and observe. The pleasure lies in the discovery of the unexpected
 John Baxter’s book The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A pedestrian in Paris introduced me to the concept of flânerie. Baxter, an Australian born writer, journalist and film maker, has lived in Paris since 1989. There, by accident, he became a guide taking walking parties on literary tours through the streets of a city that he had come to love. The book describes his experiences in that role.

I enjoyed it in part because I have been to Paris several times and so knew many of the places and some of the stories he wrote about. It’s a well written easy to read book. I was also interested in a professional sense since I see part of my role as a story teller.

Baxter used the concept of the flâneur to introduce his view of the pedestrian in Paris. I had not heard the term, although I later found it to be in widespread and growing use, especially in a travel context.

Wikipedia records that flâneur comes from the Old Norse verb flana “to wander with no purpose”. The term flânerie, strolling or idling, dates to 16th or 17th century France. However, it was in 19th century Paris that the flâneur became a cultural icon, someone who wanders the streets as an observer and philosopher, an urban explorer, a connoisseur of the street. The concept spread to related activities such as photography, was applied in other fields including literature and became wrapped in social analysis and theories. It also spread to other places, including England and Germany.

In Germany, for example, the writer and translator Franz Hessel became one of the first exponents of the idea of flânerie, culminating in his 1929 collection of essays Walking in Berlin. Most essays describe a walk or an outing centred on a theme or part of Berlin. Hessel weaves history into his observations of people and place, capturing the rhythm of Weimar Berlin at a time of profound shifts in life and culture.

Today Hessel is probably best known as the inspiration for the character of Jules in Henri-Pierre Roche's 1953 semi-autobiographical novel Jules et Jim. This novel inspired the famous 1962 French New Wave romantic drama film of the same name directed, produced and written by François Truffaut. The 2016 release by Scribe of a new English translation of Walking in Berlin subtitled a flaneur in the capital may redress the balance by bringing Hessel to a wider audience.

Reading Baxter, I was immediately attracted to the idea of flânerie. It provided a perfect justification for my habit of just wandering, following my nose to see what I could find. It justified a sometimes insatiable curiosity that could verge on sticky-beaking. I was now engaged in a respected cultural practice! Most of all, I liked the idea of combining history with current observation.  However, I faced a problem in adopting the art.

The concept of idling, of strolling, of sauntering, of observing without fixed purpose or destination runs against a deeply held Australian cultural trait, the need to do something, to achieve something.

This need is embedded in us from childhood. We go to school to learn things, to meet required standards, to achieve and help the school achieve targets. Out of school, we engage in organised activities; our lives are a series of activities carried out at particular times for particular purposes. In adulthood, we try to practice the seven habits of effective people, we are told that we must practise continuous improvement, that we have to learn new skills, that we have to adjust to an ever changing world. At national level, governments constantly tell us that we and our children must work harder, must do better so that the country can do better.

.I am not immune to all this. The idea that I should go sauntering to see what I could find with no objective other than interest conflicted with my deep conditioning that I should be doing something productive. I knew that that view was silly, but I could not help myself. And yet, despite all this, for a time I became a most dedicated flâneur, wandering the streets with a camera looking for detail and stories. .

I think I was helped by the fact that I was doing it with a friend who shared my interests. Then with time I drifted away, although I introduced a remarkable number of people to the concept.

One of the reasons for my drift is that I started walking for exercise, itself a modern target oriented approach. This came about in part because work had a health program. I was given my own little step counter and was expected to enter my steps into a web site that tracked my path across the world.

This may be healthy, but it tends to defeat the point, the discoveries that can come from random idling. I find that when walking for exercise I have in mind distance and time, two things in direct conflict with the art of flânerie. What's worse, I tend to get very bored and thus stop walking! Even the desire to achieve a minimum number of paces (10,000 per day appears to have become an almost universal target) provides insufficient incentive. The irony, of course, is that I actually walked more as a flâneur than as an exerciser because I was simply more interested, was inclined to keep moving.

I really rediscovered the art of flânerie on my second trip to Copenhagen where eldest had moved for work. I was really on my own, had no things that I had to do and had lots of time. I knew the bones of the city quite well after the first trip . Now I decided to flesh out the details.

There is something enormously relaxing about heading out with only a rough idea of direction and time scope. I wandered almost at random, looking a the buildings and shops. Sometimes, I would find myself back at a familiar place and then wander around working out just how I had got there. Finally, I would head for home by the shortest route.

Suitable rewards add to the enjoyment of flâneuring. I found Copenhagen's Cafe Sommersko by accident. I had been wandering for well over an hour and felt like a coffee.

I was fascinated by the place. Obviously moderately posh, a restaurant at night, it was starting to fill with casually if well dressed young Danes. They knew each other, and hugged or kissed as they unfolded their outer street-ware to reveal the plumage underneath, ordering coffee and drinks.

Investigating later, I found that the Cafe Sommersko. was opened in 1976 to provide a place for the city's artists to meet, introducing a new cafe concept to the city. I must say they struck me as very well dressed artists!

I had enjoyed my coffee reward. It was time to move on to the next step in my exploration of Copenhagen, its life and people.

Since returning from Copenhagen, I have tried to maintain the practice of flânerie for practical as well as personal reasons.

As an historian, I know just how important it is to walk the ground. I studied ancient Greek history at school and university, but had no idea on key underpinnings until our 2010 visit to the Greek Islands. I was surprised at their small size, I had not properly realised the importance of water nor the importance of trade. The same holds with my studies on New England history. You cannot understand relationships or patterns unless you actually know the geography.

At a personal level, flânerie has given me many unexpected pleasures. It remains hard sometimes to actually stop and look, especially when travelling. I still find it hard to break from the need to do something, to achieve something, to get to a destination or objective. To just wander without defined purpose remains hard. I guess that I will have to keep working on that. 


Evan said...

The supervision of childhood and people wanting to educate children from young ages is relatively new I think. It was different in my childhood in the 60's.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think I agree with you, especially on the first, Evan. I'm not absolutely sure on the second, although I think the obsession with education at an ever younger age is new.

I am a little older than you, so we can add the fifties. My father made me do spelling exercises because my primary spelling results were so bad. This carried through to maths tutors and an argument that I should not go shooting on a Saturday arvo because I should be doing my homework! All that was pretty ineffective.

But when it came to school and many aspects of life I escaped modern scrutiny. Thank god for that!