To wander aimlessly through a city is so French there’s a word for it that has no English equivalent: flâner.
Almost-translations abound, from “stroll” to “lounge” to “saunter”, but none perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the word, which evokes a certain directionless – but far from purposeless – wandering through an urban centre. The flâneur ambles with no destination in mind, despite a clear goal: to be at once part of a place and to be on the outside, observing it in a philosophical spirit that Antoine Compagnon, professor of French literature at the Collège de France in Paris and author of Un été avec Baudelaire, said, “is linked to not knowing exactly what you’re looking for”.
The French word “flâner” has no English equivalent
For Compagnon – and many other French experts – the flâneur is an archetype linked not just to France but specifically to 19th-Century Paris. Following the 1789 French Revolution, which capitalised on the Enlightenment-era philosophy of egalitarianism, suddenly, any man could be an intellectual, a philosopher, an anthropologist of the present. And Paris was his ideal domain. At the time, the French capital was rapidly undergoing not just social but architectural changes at the hands of Emperor Napoléon III, evolving from a cramped amalgam of medieval streets to the clearly defined avenues, parks and vistas that define today’s city.
“Factories stood side-by-side with refined boutiques,” said Andrea Schellino, director of the Groupe Baudelaire at Paris’ Ecole Normale Supérieure, of the evolving 19th-Century city. “The flâneurwas privy to this spectacle, turning this changing world into a vast theatre.”
In fact, the flâneur was a sort of revolutionary of his own: in a society that was suddenly marked by an ideology of progress, the flâneur desired not to participate, but to observe.
“The flâneuris the anti-bourgeois in the 19th Century,” Compagnon said. “The bourgeois knows where he’s going: to work; to church; to the bank. He doesn’t flâne. The flâneuris in conflict with bourgeoisie, with materialism, with capitalism.”
The flâneur ambles with no destination in mind, to be at once part of a place and to be on the outside
The 19th-Century French prose-poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire is often credited with being the first to assign a literary quality to this practice of directionless wandering, elevating the flâneur from a mere loiterer to a philosopher-at-large, thanks to his essays set in Paris, including The Painter of Modern Life, first published in Le Figaro in 1863.
“Flânerie makes even he who does not have a particular talent into a poet and artist,” agreed Schellino. “It gives them a bit of the spirit of Paris.”
“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, 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,” wrote Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life, of the distinct pleasure of disappearing into a crowd beloved by any city-dweller. “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 – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”
For Compagnon, Baudelaire’s conception of the flâneur is not just inextricable from his life in the 19th Century – a time when “everyone walked,” he said, from Gérard de Nerval strolling through Paris with his pet lobster on a leash to Arthur Rimbaud supposedly walking the 200-odd km from Charleville-Mezieres to the capital – but also from the home of all three writers: Paris itself.
“Paris is a shell-shaped city,” Compagnon explained, referencing the arrondissements that swirl in the shape of an escargot (snail) from the 1st in the centre to the 20th in the north-east, creating the ideal path for an aimless wanderer, never retracing his steps, often unsure of where exactly he is or where he is going.
German philosopher Walter Benjamin associated the flâneur specifically with Paris’ street arcades
German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin associated the flâneur specifically with Paris’ street arcades, which were built under Emperor Napoléon III in the 19th Century as a means of providing safe, weather-protected shopping areas for the new middle-class. Benjamin, who famously analysed Baudelaire’s conception of the flâneur in his Arcades Project, written between 1927 and 1940, called attention to “these elegant ancestors of our malls,” noted Schellino, “which made up, in his eyes, the living quarters of the flâneur.”
At the time, these covered passageways that traverse the city, especially the arcades surrounding the Palais Royal gardens, were known as places where all walks of life converged: high-end boutiques and cafes coexisted with gambling salons and whorehouses: perfect for the withdrawn, philosophical observation that so characterised the flâneur. In fact, for Benjamin, the passages and arcades were the flâneur’s natural habitat. Today, however, these spaces are far more within the purview of Instagrammers drawn to Daniel Buren’s iconic black-and-white striped columns, a controversial art installation built in 1986, or to the antique book shops that line some of the remaining covered passages.
“Can we really wander idly and destination-less in cities saturated with tourists, with the permanent temptation to declare our route with a smartphone, or isolate ourselves with headphones?” Schellino asked. “At the risk of seeming pessimistic,” he continued, “flânerie today is probably privilege of a few incurable nostalgics who insist on searching in modern Paris for the Paris of yesteryear.”
Paris’ sidewalk cafes almost exclusively feature chairs that face outwards, towards the moving, living city
But in today’s world, while many people are far removed from walking as a principal method of locomotion, Paris nevertheless remains the ideal city for the sort of withdrawn, philosophical observation that characterises the flâneur. The French, after all, are conditioned to take the time to observe their surroundings in a literary, philosophical way.
In keeping with a national love affair with intellectualism as detailed in The Week, French students still take philosophy classes through high school, and a philosophy degree is a frequent stepping stone to a career as a political speechwriter or government minister. In France, in contrast with many Anglophone cultures, this philosophy largely remains ensconced in an ideal of happiness that isn’t linked to doing, but rather to being: in fact, the French have no word for forward-thinking, anticipatory excitement; and they’ll happily remain at lunch for two hours, even in the middle of the week.
This rootedness in the present is an essential characteristic of the flâneur – and the indissociability of the flâneur from Paris is no coincidence, even today. Paris’ sidewalk cafes almost exclusively feature chairs that face outwards, towards the street, towards the moving, living city. Its tiny streets still crawl across the city in a serpentine, spiral fashion, spitting the walker out, without warning, onto a massive boulevard or artful bridge offering views of monuments from Notre-Dame to the Eiffel Tower, the Pantheon to the Opéra.
The French are conditioned to take the time to observe their surroundings in a literary, philosophical way
A few of the city’s 19th-Century covered arcades remain, dotted with bookstores, cafes and curiosity shops. Any corner could display echoes of nostalgia – an accordionist playing Edith Piaf; an artist sketching a vista – but also reveal a more modern metropolis that is no less enticing to the practiced observer. Older women walk tiny grocery carts and tinier dogs to their local morning markets for fresh, seasonal tomatoes; office workers dressed in impeccably tailored suits puff on e-cigarettes, emitting clouds of vapour that curl around 19th-Century lampposts; teenagers pop ollies on their skateboards in front of the Marianne statue, a symbol of equality and freedom standing tall and proud on Place de la République.
Even today, Paris is a city that caters to people-watchers, to observers of the urban. It remains, more than 150 years later, the world capital of the flâneur.