Photography of Shopping ArcadeThe Flâneur

This figure who derives pleasure from the hustle and bustle of the city streets, who moves among the urban crowd with the eye of the artist, is the flâneur. For Benjamin it was modern Paris that 'created type of the flâneur' (1999 p. 417). And the home of the flâneur with the city was the arcade (see illustration right) - the interiorised street. As Benjamin points out that "strolling could hardly have assumed the importance it did without the arcade" (1983 p. 36).

The flâneur is the stroller, the pedestrian who finds delight and pleasure in ambling contentedly and unhurriedly through the city. To promenade without purpose is the highest ambition of the flâneur. Walking in the city is its own reward. Benjamin observes: "an intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. With each step, the walk takes on greater moment" (1999 p. 417).

In effect, the flâneur is the incarnation of the 'painter of modern life', the spectator of contemporary manners and urban scenes. To be at the very heart of the crowd in the centre of the metropolis is essential to the flâneur. Baudelaire writes:

the crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. (Baudelaire, 1986, p. 9)

For Benjamin, the distinctiveness of the flâneur resides precisely in his refusal to become part of the crowd. The flâneur is not merely a pedestrian, he is the 'heroic pedestrian'. On the Parisian boulevards, Benjamin notes, "there was the pedestrian who wedged himself into the crowd but also the flâneur who demanded elbow room and was unwilling to forego the life of a gentleman of leisure" (1983 p. 54). The flâneur is that character who retains his individuality while all around are losing theirs and derives pleasure from his location within the crowd, but simultaneously regards it with contempt.

The flâneur is exactly that figure who heroically resists incorporation into the milieu in which he moves. Indeed, the disappearance of the flâneur into the crowd, the instant in which they become 'one flesh', is the moment of the extinction of the flâneur. However, as the city became more crowded, the flâneur was afforded less and less elbow room in the city and was swallowed up by the crowd.

ACTIVITY C

1. Consider the activities of the 'flaneur' - do you ever walk the streets of the city without any particular purpose? Has this most often been when you have been a tourist?

2. Think back to the section on Simmel - particularly the notes that you made on the impact on the individual in the metropolis in activity B and activity C. How do these relate to the flaneur's ability to retain individuality in the crowd?

 



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