BOOK REVIEW / A walk on the Wilde side: 'The Flaneur' - ed Keith Tester: Routledge, 37.50 / 12.99

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IF THE word flaneur conjures up anything now, it is the preposterous, faintly disreputable image of Maurice Chevalier, his hat at a rakish angle, walking in the Bois de Boulogne. This is the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, who does not have to work. He has the leisure to cultivate the metropolitan pleasures of sauntering.

Flaner: to stroll, to idle, to observe, to savour the sensation of being fleetingly observed oneself - the definitions of flanerie are as delicate and elusive as its pleasures. For the connoisseur, they offer a whiff of decadence, a whisper of promiscuity. One cannot be a flaneur in the countryside; it is impossible to achieve in a woodland glade or by a lake. Oscar Wilde is a flaneur, but not William Wordsworth. It happens in crowds, in great capital cities, in man-made environments. Pastoral is the flaneur's enemy. Flanerie is the poetry of intense but exquisitely unproductive activity; it cannot be hurried. It happens at the pace at which Nerval meandered through the Palais Royal with a lobster on a lead.

The purpose of this collection of essays is not to revive the airy pleasures of flanerie, sadly: there is a conspicuously stern work ethic about them, each essay earnestly getting its own bibliography, as well as notes. Rather, the authors seek to revive and develop flanerie not as affectation, or trifling Continental dandyism, but as a vital metaphor for modernity, and post-modernity.

It is an idea crucially promoted by Walter Benjamin in his commentaries on Baudelaire, who found in the 19th-century urban landscape something exhilarating and liberating. The flaneur is the 'painter of modern life', and, Baudelaire notes: 'By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.'

But this, of course, was not just any urban landscape: this was Paris, the 'capital of the nineteenth century', as Benjamin put it. As Baudelaire's flaneur strolls through the arcades - which were to be demolished to make way for the open boulevards - he is alienated from the city, and yet in some occult sense ecstatically at one with it. With elegant detachment, he amuses himself with the 'physiognomy' of the faces of the crowd, reading the thousands of hidden lives and truths of the contemporary urban mass. But he also surrenders to the crowd, he submits to the euphoria, the narcosis of anonymity and self-immolation that the modern city offers. For Benjamin, the investigation of this uniquely contemporary sense of self was 'botanising on the asphalt'. In recovering the truth of Baudelaire's Paris, Walter Benjamin was exhuming the archaeological stratum on which all our lives are founded: it is the 'pre-

history of modernity'. Within this purely man-

made universe of the modern city, concrete underfoot, crowds all about and tall, sleek buildings blotting out the sky, man has the sense of being unmoored from the traditions of God and nature: and with this insight into the experience of modernity comes the weird, sensual thrill of fin-de-siecle weightlessness.

The essays assembled here are pregnant meditations on this theme; they persuasively bring the flaneur in from the margins of our discourse on modernity. The relationship of flanerie with consumerism is traced from the gallerias and walkways of Paris to the shopping centres and edge- city malls through which shoppers drift as unselfconsciously as grazing animals. The professional association of the flaneur with the journalist is also a diverting theme. David Frisby's essay discusses the late 19th-century New York journalist Robert Park, who defiantly claimed that 'acquaintance' with a subject offers a more penetrating and authentic insight than 'knowledge'. It is the epistemological equivalent of Wilde's caprice - lasting longer than eternal love.

Is it possible to be a flaneur now? Is walking in an urban context just for eccentrics and paupers? Does the modern city itself offer any charm or mystery which can be disclosed to the asphalt- botanist? Alternatively, is it possible to be a flaneur behind the wheel - like Chuck Berry, singing about the happiness and sexual opportunity of driving with 'no particular place to go'?

Maybe not. The millennial pleasures of flanerie are more likely to be found elsewhere: channel-

hopping, sweeping the world on the radio dial, roaming the e-mail on the Internet. As one contributor here puts it: 'Bright young people thrill not to Baudelaire's 'shock' of the metropolis, but to the sonic boom of the global world.'