The joys of walking the streets
October 24, 2011 3:24 PM   Subscribe

I love to walk the streets observing and experiencing. Recent I discovered the French term "flaneur" which loosely translated, means "someone who walks the city in order to experience it". I was wondering if anyone knew of any essays (historical or modern) written about the joys of being a flaneur or a flaneuse?

More info here.
posted by zaebiz to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 164 users marked this as a favorite

You should check out Baudelaire's essays. I am also pretty sure Walter Benjamin has some stuff on this.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:29 PM on October 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I wrote one for a class. I can dig it up.

try investigating Psychogeography or reading/reading about James Joyce' Ulysses, which read one way is a flaneur text
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:29 PM on October 24, 2011

Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City.
posted by not that girl at 3:29 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please please read Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. It's the best book about walking you'll ever read.
posted by aparrish at 3:31 PM on October 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's a short story, but you may want to read Ray Bradbury's The Pedestrian.
posted by martinrebas at 3:41 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shawn Micallef wrote a series of columns about doing this in Toronto which have been collected into a book called Stroll.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 3:46 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah. There are entire academic careers built on musing over the flaneur. Check out the Google Scholar results.
posted by artemisia at 3:48 PM on October 24, 2011

You should check out Baudelaire's essays. I am also pretty sure Walter Benjamin has some stuff on this.

The essay you want from Baudelaire is "The Painter of Modern Life" about Constantin Guys. From Benjamin you want the Arcades Project. Also try Louis Aragon's Nightwalker (Le paysan de Paris in French) and, ultra recently, Teju Cole's Open City (the last two are novels).
posted by villanelles at dawn at 3:48 PM on October 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

It's a novel rather than an essay, but I've always loved this passage from City of Glass by Paul Auster:
More than anything else, however, what he liked to do was walk. Nearly every day, rain or shine, hot or cold, he would leave his apartment to walk through the city—never really going anywhere, but simply going wherever his legs happened to take him.

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within. The world was outside of him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any one thing for very long. Motion was of the essence, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing himself to follow the drift of his own body. By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere. New York was the nowhere he had built around himself, and he realized that he had no intention of ever leaving it again.
posted by HeroZero at 3:50 PM on October 24, 2011 [9 favorites]

I just looked through the other thread and nasreddin links to a couple pieces by Debord, which is definitely another way to go as he and the Situationists appropriated the idea of the flaneur to come up with the dérive, or walking without purpose. Very worth checking out.

Meant to mention Sebald as well. His narrators act as flaneurs in a Europe wrecked by history.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 4:09 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of Auster's New York trilogy is all about a man who obsessively walks the city, and the man who follows him. It's fiction, but.
posted by carsonb at 4:20 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

a bit out of left field, but postmodern RPG Unknown Armies has a magic school built around being a flaneur
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:31 PM on October 24, 2011

Both threads here point to the (vast, unresolved) Arcades Project as the place to look in Benjamin. That's technically true for advanced study, but for several decades the key texts translated into English were "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century" and "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" in Reflections and Illuminations, respectively--alternatively, Selected Writings III-IV. They're the specific texts that informed what many English readers thought on this topic for a long while, and they remain useful starting points that address the issue succinctly.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:35 PM on October 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Arcades Project, mentioned above, is a bit of a mess but the good thing about it is it is eminently "dip-worthy". You don't need to read it chronologically or even completely. Just read the first couple of lines of each "essay" as they take your fancy.

William Wordsworth was apparently a great walker, though I've not read anything of his.

Seconding Cool Papa Bell's suggestion of Bill Bryson, specifically A Walk In The Woods. That was probably his last truly excellent travelogue.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:06 PM on October 24, 2011

And the main character in Knut Hamsun's Hunger did a buttload of walking.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:08 PM on October 24, 2011

John Stilgoe sort of touches on this as well. (N.B.: I wrote an FPP a long while back on Stilgoe).
posted by jquinby at 5:25 PM on October 24, 2011

Susan Sontag touches on the idea in On Photography (mentioned in the Wikipedia article).

Though it is fiction, Mrs. Dalloway is often spoken of as a flaneur in literature studies.

I love the original Baudelaire essay 'The Painter of Modern Life'.
posted by dumdidumdum at 5:55 PM on October 24, 2011

You might be interested in de Certeau's essay "Walking in the City," which you can find in the book "The Practice of Everyday Life."
posted by dizziest at 5:56 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're also interested in relevant literature, Poe's "The Man in the Crowd" captures something about the relationship between the city and the flâneur, as do many of the poems in "Les Fleurs du Mal."

Annie Ernaux writes a lot about rail travel in Exteriors, but in a way that definitely shares some resonances with the gaze of the flâneur.
posted by dizziest at 6:00 PM on October 24, 2011

John Stilgoe's Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places might be what you're looking for.

One of the academic listservs I'm on just had a similar discussion -- if you go to the October 2011 discussion logs and click on messages about "Walking as methodology and practice in environmental history," you should find some more interesting links or authors to look into, although there's a few who focus on rural/wilderness walking rather than urban perambulation.
posted by heurtebise at 7:00 PM on October 24, 2011

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:33 PM on October 24, 2011

Video art piece (autoplay) with accompanying essay.
posted by BlooPen at 10:17 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]
disclosure: i made this
posted by victory_laser at 1:04 AM on October 25, 2011


posted by victory_laser at 1:07 AM on October 25, 2011

Theory of the Dérive
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:27 AM on October 25, 2011

Walter Benjamin's "A Berlin Chronicle" sorta comes to mind--my favorite thing he wrote, and he's a hero of mine.
posted by ifjuly at 4:51 AM on October 25, 2011

Roger Ebert has a great piece called The London Perambulator which includes a handful of related videos.
posted by The Deej at 6:50 AM on October 25, 2011

Try Iain Sinclair, flaneur and psychogeographer of east London, (sorry, am on phone and can't link)
posted by penguin pie at 1:37 PM on October 25, 2011

Of Walking on Ice: Munich to Paris: "In the winter of 1974, filmmaker Werner Herzog made a three week solo journey from Munich to Paris on foot. He believed it was the only way his close friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, would survive a horrible sickness that had overtaken her. During this monumental odyssey through a seemingly endless blizzard, Herzog documented everything he saw and felt with intense sincerity. This diary is dotted with a pastiche of rants about the extreme cold and utter loneliness, notes on Herzog's films and travels, poetic descriptions of the snowy countryside, and personal philosophizing."
posted by gwint at 4:51 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

See also: Solvitur ambulando
posted by gwint at 4:52 PM on October 25, 2011

Seconding Wanderlust by Rebecca Solint. This is what that book is all about.
posted by chevyvan at 5:22 PM on October 25, 2011

James Howard Kunstler, The City in Mind (Kunstler gives you his impressions of Boston, Atlanta, Berlin, and more, from the perspective of a lay city-planner type who yearns for walkable cities; he's a great writer and I agree with him 100%)
Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (notes from an American in Paris; annoyingly Francophilic but he writes pretty prose)
Fredrik Torisson, Berlin- Matter of Memory (Berlin's history told through its monuments-- an elegant, spare book with really good insights on every page)
Elijah Anderson, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life (decent street-eye view of Philadelphia)

all these books have that viewpoint of the walking, experiencing observer
posted by ms.codex at 2:47 PM on November 12, 2011

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