Botanizing on the asphalt
The following is a treatise written some 5 years ago which treats, among other things, of the Flâneur
Botanizing on the asphalt
The life of Paris is a life lived on parade. Paris was built long before there were means to quickly move from one area of a city to another, and when a city was the hub of social life…seeing Paris, you’d think that was still the case. Paris has been the inspiration of many artists, and artistic people, and the home of some the histories most creative movements. Rebecca Solnit approaches Paris as she approaches most things as she walks, she observes and thinks. Paris, she observes, has changed a lot from its roots as a medieval city, but much of the original attitude remains. Solnit will notice three main trends in her walk though Paris. The first is the phenomenon of the Flâneur, The strolling philosopher, the professional vagrant always on parade. Next she will consider the literary romantic, the poet in love with the idea of love, the enigmatic woman who he never gets to meet, but only catch a glimpse which sets his soul on fire. Finally she will concentrate on those writers who were present when the city was overhauled and watches them rediscover the new Paris as a lover caresses the body of his mistress. To love a city is no easy thing. It takes effort, perhaps more so than to love a woman. Loving a city means getting to know her, walking her streets seeing her sites feeling her pulse, her fever, and her temper. The only way one can get to know and consequently love a city is to become a solitary stroller. One would not expect a woman to believe them if they told her they love her, yet spent no time with her alone, a city stroller would tell you the same thing. Each city has a personality, a story to tell. To love a city requires one to put in the time to get to know her, caress her hills and valleys and arrive at an intimate knowledge of her from having been there…listened to her. Nowhere else was this better seen than in Paris.
One of the most interesting of the Parisian phenomenons is the Flâneur. The origin of this word is not well known, but its place in the world of French culture is without dispute. A Flâneur is something between of a mix between a dandy, a decadent and a silent poet; a professional waster of time if you will, a man always on parade. Even the word itself gives a real feel to the idea, for it does the opposite of what word should do. Normally a word wants to leave the mouth, to express the idea being conveyed, the word Flâneur seems to want to go backwards. It starts with a slight burst of air, slowly heading up till rests heavily at the back of the mouth. After the first burst of air from the mouth for the “F”, the “L” sticks a little before giving way to the round “A”. Then the sound slides over the “N” like following the roll of the tongue. Finally rolling up to rest heavily in the flat diphthong “EU” and finally in the classic French “R” which can either be ground out of the nasal cavity, or flatly pinched by the back of the tongue. Each letter important, each sound pronounced and noticed [an oddity in the French language where silent letters are commonplace] just like the idea of the man wandering the city, more to be noticed than to notice. It was once remarked that the Flâneur should go out everyday to walk his turtle [more of a rhetorical statement than a comment on a trend in Parisian pets], which gives one some idea of the style of walking adopted by the Flâneurs. The main problem with the Flâneur is that it did not really exist, except as a type, an ideal, and a character in literature. Various writers like Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire spoke of “men” [there is still a debate about whether a female Flâneur could exist?] who frequented certain areas of the city for mysterious reasons, or who took walks as a form of entertainment. But these men were writers, and writers of fiction at that, creating personalities was their specialty and the bigger they were, and the more life they could infuse in them the better.
Paris of the 19th century was home to a number of prominent writers, who dedicated themselves to the study of writing about love; the previously mentioned Hugo and Baudelaire being perfect examples. These writers were more in love with love than with anyone in particular, and were more than content to create enigmatic women of whom they were only granted fleeting glimpses. They considered beauty, affection, and loss; for them women were dangerous, and love was not. They dedicated themselves to probing every sentiment, suffering every heart break, and experiencing every detail of love…women were a secondary element. The women they pursued were frequently enigmatic, prostitutes for whom love was a business, not a goal or obsession. They wanted to understand love themselves without the interference of a lover who would complicate the situation. These kinds of stories, like Nadja and Last Nights, spoke of foreigners who came to Paris and encountered women in clandestine fashions, short affairs that ended inevitably in heart break. Or they spoke of women from strange, exotic corners of the world, who for secret or unusual reasons found them selves in Paris. They would inevitably meet a man who would see them, fall in love, and then lose them to their secret business and suffer the heart ache. Hélas, The world of 19th century Parisian romance!
In the mid 1800s Baron Haussman, architect to emperor Napoleon III, designed a new city with three ends in mind. One to make the city easily accessible to military action [three public riots had taught him his lesson]. Two, to create a clean organized modern city, for Paris was still mostly a medieval city with small winding streets where disease frequently lived. Three, to create a city with as much if not more charm than the previous one had been. Many believe that Haussman not only succeeded, but allowed the new Pairs to be given her title of the capital of the West and soon became a center for various writers to rediscover both their capital and their home. They approached it in what could be called a French fashion, for they began to rediscover their city with the language of love. The streets and buildings were described as the twisting body of a woman and their favorite areas are compared to the erogenous zones. Several writers composed novels or poetry which described in great detail city streets. The stories they wrote, which frequently dealt with prostitutes, were written in a very sensuous tone, and unsurprisingly enough, their language would vacillate between admiring the city, and admiring the woman. Others like Baudelaire chose darker imagery. He complained that Paris was cut down like a forest and spoke of the new city again as a great forest of palaces, scaffolds, and piles of stone; being Baudelaire he compare its darkness and foreboding that he felt in the new city to that of his soul lost in the jungle of the world.
Paris is the capital [or perhaps favored mistress] to that group of people who feel themselves most at home on the streets. Not as vagrants, but as both spectators and participants in the great parade that is city life. This culture, that of city life, is one filled with parties, processions, and revolutions. A life without the ebb and flow of humanity and its ideas wouldn’t be city life, it would be quiet peaceful and tranquil; nothing a city dweller seeks. These people want to be a part in the human experience. To be the life of the party, the head of the procession, and a member of the revolution means never getting left behind, and never getting left out. Human civilization is an ever moving dynamo and for those who love the city this is an essential part of the life they love. Cities have personality, style, and character; each unique and particular to it, and it is this character which makes each city different. It is participation in this life and what it represents that is what sustains these citizens of the streets.