Alain de Botton column
A good idea from... Baudelaire
Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is a philosopher, writer and television presenter. His books include Essays in Love (published when he was only 23), How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), Status Anxiety (2004) and Religion for Atheists (2012)
Sunday 09 May 1999
In his prose and poetry of the 1850s and 60s, Baudelaire described walking down city streets as one of the most exciting adventures open to mankind; far more dramatic than any play, far richer in ideas than any book. And he settled on a word to capture the attitude he felt one should adopt when walking along the streets. One should become, he suggested, a flaneur, translated literally as a stroller or saunterer, though Baudelerians usually keep it in the original.
So what distinguishes flaneurs from ordinary people on their way to work? Perhaps their defining characteristic is that they don't have any practical goals in mind. Flaneurs aren't walking to get something, or to go somewhere; they aren't even shopping (which is as near as most of us get to this Baudelerian ideal). Flaneurs are standing in deliberate opposition to capitalist society, with its two great imperatives: to be in a hurry, and to buy things. (As a protest against the former, there was in Paris a brief vogue for flaneurs to amble around town with tortoises on leashes.)
What the flaneurs are doing is looking. They 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). The flaneurs are avid enthusiasts of what Baudelaire called "the modern". Unlike so many of Baudelaire's highbrow contemporaries, flaneurs aren't just interested in the beauty of classical objects of art, they relish what is up-to-date, they love the trendy.
While cities bring together huge numbers of people, paradoxically they also separate them from each other. The goal of flaneurs is to recover a sense of community, as Baudelaire put it, "to be away from home and yet to feel everywhere at home". To do this, they let down their guard, they empathise with situations they see. There's a constant risk they will be moved, saddened, excited - and fall in love.
Baudelaire's " une passante" in Les fleurs du mal is one of the finest poems on the mini-crushes one can - as a flaneur - have in city streets: a man walks past a beautiful woman in a crowded thoroughfare. He sees her for only a few seconds, she smiles at him, and he is filled with longing and a sense of what might have been. The poem ends with the sigh "O toi que j'eusse aimee": "you whom I might have loved".
How to become a flaneur: 1) Read Baudelaire's Spleen de Paris and his art criticism; 2) buy a turtle.
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