Lauren Elkin | Flâneuse | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | March 2017 | 26 minutes (6,613 words)
Below is the first chapter from Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s incisive hybrid book of memoir, cultural criticism and social history about the female urban walker, the contemplative, observant and untold counterpart to the masculine flâneur. Our thanks to Elkin and FSG for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris at university, back in the 1990s, but I don’t think I found it in a book. I didn’t do much required reading, that year. I can’t say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or ‘one who wanders aimlessly,’ was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway, has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never ‘get’ anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the façade of an hôtel particulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed, which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work, a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food, or its museums; not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse; but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the Avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of ‘& co,’ and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for ‘pinecone,’ pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Sélect, Le Dôme, and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up.
My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food or its museums, not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse, but through all that walking.
Soon, emboldened, I wandered off into the streets shooting out from the Jardin de Luxembourg, a few minutes’ walk from school. I found myself up near the church of Saint-Sulpice, which was under renovation then, and, like the Tour Saint-Jacques, had been for decades. No one knew if or when the scaffolding around the towers would ever come down. I would sit at the Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice and watch the world go by: the skinniest women I’d ever seen wearing linen clothing that would be frumpy in New York but in Paris seemed unreplicably chic, nuns in twos and threes, yuppie mothers who let their small boys wee on tree trunks. I wrote down everything I saw, not knowing yet that the French writer Georges Perec had also sat in that square, in that same café, during a week in 1974 and noted the same comings and goings: taxis, buses, people eating pastries, the way the wind was blowing, all in an attempt to get his readers to notice the unexpected beauty of the quotidian, what he called the infraordinary: what happens when nothing is happening. I didn’t know, either, that Nightwood, which would become one of my favourite books, was set at that café and in the hotel upstairs. Paris was just beginning to contain — and to generate — all of my most significant intellectual and personal reference points. We had only just met.
As an English major I had wanted to go to London, but thanks to a technicality wound up in Paris instead. Within a month I was transfixed. The streets of Paris had a way of making me stop in my tracks, my heart suspended. They seemed saturated with presence, even if there was no one there but me. These were places where something could happen, or had happened, or both; a feeling I could never have had at home in New York, where life is inflected with the future tense. In Paris I would linger outside, imagining stories to go with streets. In those six months, the streets were transformed from places in between home and wherever I was going into one of my greatest passions. I drifted wherever they looked interesting, lured by the sight of a decaying wall, or colourful window-boxes, or something intriguing down at the other end, which might be as pedestrian as a perpendicular street. Anything, any detail that suddenly loosened itself, would draw me towards it. Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn’t have to be anywhere I didn’t want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting.
I remember when I’d take the metro two stops because I didn’t realise how close everything was together, how walkable Paris was. I had to walk around to understand where I was in space, how places related to each other. Some days I’d cover five miles or more, returning home with sore feet and a story or two for my roommates. I saw things I’d never seen in New York. Beggars (Roma, I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs; homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.
And then, somehow, by chance, I learned that all that walking around, feeling intensely, constantly moved to scribble what I saw and felt into the floppy notebooks I bought at the Saint Michel bookstore Gibert Jeune — all that I did instinctively, others had done to such an extent that there was a word for it. I was a flâneur.
Or rather — a good student of French, I converted the masculine noun to a feminine one — a flâneuse.
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Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.
That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don’t even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for ‘flâneur, -euse.’ Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.
Is that some kind of joke? The only kind of curious idling a woman does is laying down?
This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today: Google image search ‘flâneuse’ and the word brings up a drawing of George Sand, a picture of a young woman sitting on a Parisian bench, and a few images of outdoor furniture.
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Back in New York for my final year of university, I enrolled in a seminar called ‘The Man of the Crowd, the Woman in the Street.’ It was the second half of the title that interested me: I was hoping to build a genealogy, or a sisterhood, for this eccentric new hobby of mine. The notion of the flâneur as someone who has slipped the bounds of responsibility appealed to me. But I wanted to see where a woman might fit into the cityscape.
As I began researching my senior thesis on Zola’s Nana and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, I was startled to find that scholars have mostly dismissed the idea of a female flâneur. ‘There is no question of inventing the flâneuse,’ wrote Janet Wolff in an oft-quoted essay on the subject; ‘such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.’ The great feminist art historian Griselda Pollock agreed: ‘There is no female equivalent of the quintessential masculine figure, the flâneur: there is not and could not be a female flâneuse.’ ‘The urban observer (…) has been regarded as an exclusively male figure,’ noted Deborah Parsons. ‘The opportunities and activities of flânerie were predominantly the privileges of the man of means, and it was hence implicit that the “artist of modern life” was necessarily the bourgeois male.’ In Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, she turns away from her ‘peripatetic philosophers, flâneurs, or mountaineers’ to ask ‘why women were not out walking too.’
This woman in the street, according to the critics, was most likely a streetwalker. So I did a bit more reading and came upon two problems with this idea of the flâneuse as prostitute. One: there were women on the street who weren’t selling their bodies. Two, prostitutes didn’t have free range over the city. A prostitute’s movements were strictly regulated: by the mid-nineteenth century there were all sorts of laws dictating in which parts of town they could pick up men and between between which hours of the night they could prowl, what kind of clothing they could wear, and so on.
Our most ready-to-hand sources for what the streetscape looked like in the nineteenth-century are male, and they see the city in a particular way. Baudelaire’s mysterious and alluring passante, immortalised in his poem ‘To a (Female) Passer-by,’ is thought to have been a woman of the night:
The deafening street roared around me
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic in her grandeur
A woman walked past me, her sumptuous hand
Lifting and swinging her hem as she went.
Swift and graceful, with legs like a statue’s
Twitching like a madman, I drank in
Her eyes, a pallid sky where storms are born
the sweetness that charms and the pleasure that kills.
Baudelaire can barely gauge her: she is too fast (though somehow, at the same time, statue-esque). He is disinclined to consider who she might actually be. For him she is the keeper of mystery, with the power to charm and to poison.
Maybe she is a prostitute, maybe she isn’t. Either way: her walk through the city could have had nothing to do with the search for a john. Perhaps she simply enjoyed the view.
Of course the reason the flâneuse was discounted from histories of city walking had to do with the social conditions of women in the nineteenth century, when the figure of the flâneur was codified. The earliest mention of a flâneur is in 1585, possibly borrowed from the Scandinavian noun flana, ‘a person who wanders.’ A person — not necessarily a male one. It fell mainly out of use until the nineteenth century, and then it caught on again, this time gendered. In 1806, the flâneur took the form of ‘M. Bonhomme,’ a man-about-town who comes from sufficient wealth to have the time to wander the city at will, hanging out in cafés, and watching the various inhabitants of the city at work and at play. He is interested in gossip and fashion, but not particularly in women. In an 1829 dictionary, a flâneur is a man ‘who likes to do nothing,’ who relishes idleness. Balzac’s flâneur took two main forms, that of the common flâneur, happy to aimlessly wander the streets, and the artist-flâneur, who poured his experiences in the city into his work. This was the more miserable type of flâneur, as Balzac notes in his 1837 novel César Birotteau, ‘just as frequently a desperate man as an idle one.’
Baudelaire’s flâneur is an artist who seeks ‘refuge in the crowd,’ modelled on his favourite painter, Constantin Guys, a man who ambled about town, who might have fallen into obscurity had Baudelaire not immortalised him. Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Man in the Crowd’ opens us other questions: is the flâneur the person who follows or is followed? Does he blend and elude, or step back and write what he sees? In French the words for I am and I follow are identical: je suis. ‘Tell me who you follow and I’ll tell you who you are,’ wrote André Breton in Nadja. Even for the male flâneur, flânerie does not universally signify freedom and leisure; Flaubert’s version of flânerie reflects his own feelings of social discomfiture. In the early nineteenth century, the flâneur was compared to a policeman. In Québec, says a friend who’s spent time there, a flâneur is a kind of con man.
To suggest that there couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city.
Both surveyor and surveyed, the flâneur is an unstable figure, a beguiling but empty vessel, a blank canvas onto which different eras have projected their own desires and anxieties. He appears when and how we want him to. There are many contradictions built into the idea of the flâneur, though we may not realise it when we talk about him. We think we know what we mean, but we don’t.
What kinds of spaces women had access to, and which they were barred from, is an important question. In 1888 Amy Levy wrote, ‘The female club-lounger, the flâneuse of St James Street, latch-key in pocket and eye-glasses on the nose, remains a creature of the imagination.’ Fair enough. But surely there have always been plenty of women in cities, and plenty of women writing about cities, chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city any way they can — including Levy herself. The joy of walking in the city belongs to men and women alike. To suggest that there could be no flâneuse because she wasn’t literally a female flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.
If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street.
He noticed so many things. He just didn’t notice her.
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If we read what women had to say for themselves, in the nineteenth century, we do find that bourgeois women out in public ran all sorts of risks to their virtue and their reputations; to go out in public alone was to risk disgrace. Upper-class ladies displayed themselves in the Bois de Boulogne in their open carriages, or took chaperoned constitutionals in the park. (The woman in the closed carriage was a figure of some suspicion, as the famous carriage scene in Madame Bovary attests.) The distinct social stakes for an independent young woman of the late nineteenth-century are made very clear in the eight volumes of the diaries of Marie Bashkirtseff (abridged and published in English under the incredible title I Am the Most Interesting Book of All), which recount her transformation from cosseted young Russian aristocrat to successful artist, showing her work at the Paris Salon a mere two and a half years after she started seriously studying painting, until her death from tuberculosis at the age of 25. In January 1879 she wrote in her journal:
I long for the freedom to go out alone: to go, to come, to sit on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries, and especially to go to the Luxembourg, to look at the decorated store windows, to enter churches and museums, and to stroll in the old streets in the evenings. This is what I envy. Without this freedom one cannot become a great artist.
Marie had relatively little to lose; she knew she was condemned to an early death — why not walk alone? But she nurtured a hope she would get well until the month before she died; and while she would have happily embarrassed her family, she had also internalised her culture’s objection to a young woman of good family going out alone to such an extent that she would chastise herself for even wanting to, writing in her journal that even if she did defy social strictures, she ‘would only be half free, because a woman who prowls is unwise.’
Though she trailed an entourage behind her, she did spend days walking the slums of Paris with her notebook in hand, sketching everything she saw, research which would produce numerous paintings including 1884’s A Meeting, which now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and depicts a group of young street urchins gathered on a street corner. One of them has found a bird’s nest, and shows it off to the others, who lean in with that boyish interest that tries to disguise itself as total indifference.
But she found a way to include herself in the streetscape. To the right of the group of boys, leading down another street, we can see in the background a young girl from behind, braid down her back, walking away, possibly on her own, though it’s difficult to know for sure because the frame cuts off there; we can’t even see her right arm. This, for me, is the most wonderful part of the painting: Marie’s signature is placed below the young girl, in the lower right-hand corner. I don’t think it’s over-reaching to surmise that Marie has painted herself into the canvas in the figure of the possibly solitary young girl on her way off, leaving the boys to it.
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The argument against the flâneuse sometimes has to do with questions of visibility — ‘it is crucial for the flâneur to be functionally invisible,’ writes Luc Sante, defending his own gendering of the flâneur as male and not female. This remark is at the same time unfair and cruelly accurate. We would love to be invisible the way a man is. We’re not the ones who make ourselves visible, in the sense that Sante means, in terms of the stir a woman alone in public can create; it’s the gaze of the flâneur that makes the woman who would join their ranks too visible to slip by unnoticed. But if we’re so goddamn conspicuous, why have we been written out of the history of cities? It’s up to us to write ourselves back into the picture, in terms we can live with.
Though women of Marie Bashkirtseff’s class were mainly identified with the home until late in the nineteenth century, women of the middle and lower classes did have many reasons to be in the street, going out to play or to work as shop-girls, charity workers, maids, seamstresses, laundresses, or any number of other occupations. And these were not merely functional or professional outings; in his vivid picture of working-class women’s lives in his study of Paris in the 18th century, David Garrioch shows that in a way, the streets belonged to women. At the Parisian markets they ran most of the stalls, and even at home they would sit out in the street together, practicing what two hundred years later Jane Jacobs would call ‘eyes on the street’: they ‘kept an eye on what was going on and were often the first to intervene in quarrels, even plunging in to separate men who were fighting. Their commentary on the dress and behavior of the passers-by was itself a form of social control.’ They knew more about what was going on in the neighbourhood than anyone.
By the late nineteenth century, women of all classes were enjoying the use of public space in cities like London, Paris, and New York. The rise of the department store in the 1850s and 1860s did much to normalise the appearance of women in public; by the 1870s some guidebooks to London were already beginning to feature ‘places in London where ladies can conveniently lunch when in town for a day’s shopping and unattended by a gentleman.’ James Tissot’s series of the 1880s, Fifteen Portraits of the Parisienne, depicts women in the city doing all kinds of things, from sitting in the park (accompanied by Maman) to attending artist’s lunches with their husbands (as stiff in their corsets as the caryatids in the background) to riding chariots dressed as Roman warriors at the Hippodrome, Statue-of-Liberty-style diadems on their heads. His 1885 canvas The Shop Girl takes the viewer right into the painting; the eponymous shop girl, tall and thin, soberly dressed in black, holds the door open to us, in welcome or in respectful adieu. On the table is a disheveled pile of silken fabric; a ribbon has fallen to the floor. The painting aligns women in public with the crass commercialism of the marketplace, but is also suggestive of intimate disarray, of ribbons fallen to floors in other, more private, interiors.
The 1890s saw the arrival of the New Woman, riding her bicycle where she pleased, and the girls who gained their independence by working in shops and offices. The rise of cinema and other leisure activities in the early 20th century, combined with the large-scale entrance of women into the workforce during the First World War, confirmed the presence of women in the public sphere. But this was dependent on the emergence of safe semi-public spaces in which women could spend time alone and unharassed, like cafes and tea rooms, or even, those most intimate of public spaces, ladies’ lavatories. Also key to women’s urban independence were respectable, affordable boarding-houses; very often, it was difficult to find both of those qualities in the same establishment. As Jean Rhys’s novels attest, many women skirted the boundaries of respectability in down-at-heel places whose morals rose in direct ratio to their level of seediness. The more louche the establishment, the more strict the patronne. Rhys’s single women in the city are forever clashing with the landladies of their fleabag hotels.
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The names a city bestows on its landmarks — especially its streets — are reflections of the values it holds, which change over time. In the effort to secularise (and, ostensibly, democratise) public space, cities in the modern era renamed streets that once honoured female saints, royal women, or mythical figures, replacing them with secular, democratic heroes — all men, intellectuals, scientists, revolutionaries. But this fair-mindedness can also ignore those who lack the cultural or gendered capital to rise within a culture’s ranks, and succeeds in identifying women with the outdated regime, associating them with ‘the private, the traditional, and the anti-modern’.
When they do appear — and it’s not often, there are twice as many statues of dogs in Edinburgh as there are of women — women are decorative or idealized, cast in stone as allegories or slaves. The obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, which stands at the spot where the king was guillotined (and the queen, and Charlotte Corday and Danton and Olympe de Gouges and Robespierre and Desmoulins and thousands of others whom history has rendered nameless), is surrounded by statues of women representing the various French cities. The model for James Pradier’s sculpture of Strasbourg was alternately said to be Victor Hugo’s mistress, Juliette Drouet, or Gustave Flaubert’s, Louise Colet. Which is why I like to think of the statue as an allegory not only of Strasbourg but of all the mistresses of great writers and artists, who scribbled and painted and may never get out of their lovers’ shadows, though they sit at the centre of Paris in broad daylight, abstracted into a city fought over by two nations.
It would be nice, ideal even, if we didn’t have to subdivide by gender ─ male walkers, female walkers, flâneurs and flâneuses ─ but these narratives of walking repeatedly leave out a woman’s experience.
In 1916, Virginia Woolf reviewed E.V. Lucas’s London Revisited for the Times Literary Supplement. In his account of London past and present, Lucas includes a catalogue of monuments in the city. But he omits one in particular, and Woolf asks: ‘If Cleopatra’s Needle is to count as a statue, why is there no mention of one of the few pieces of sculpture in the streets of London which is pleasing to the eye — the woman with an urn which fronts the gates of the Foundling Hospital?’ She still stands, or kneels rather, with her pitcher, on a traffic island across from Coram’s Fields, on the site of the old hospital, in what is called Guilford Place. She is there to commemorate William Lamb’s having distributed 120 pails to poor women so they could fetch water from the pump he built, which drew from the nearby River Fleet. She has been placed atop a modern-looking drinking fountain. The sculptor is unknown. Dressed in some kind of toga or tunic, with curled hair in coils down her neck, she is sometimes called ‘The Waterbearer’ or the ‘Woman of Samaria,’ after the woman who spoke with Jesus at a well, and recognised him as a prophet.
Walk through the streets of any big city, and it you’re paying attention you’ll notice another kind of woman standing around, immobilised. The French director Agnès Varda made a short film in the 1980s, The So-Called Caryatids (Les dites-cariatides, 1984), in which she and her camera wander around Paris looking for examples of the architectural oddity that is the caryatid, the stone women who serve as load-bearing columns, holding up the great buildings of the city. They’re all over Paris, these caryatids. They come in sets of two or four and sometimes many more than that, depending on the building’s ostentation. Sometimes they’re male. These are called atlantes, named for Atlas, who holds up the world. The male caryatid, Varda observes, is shown with muscles bulging, while the female caryatids are all lithe and lissome, posing elegantly, effortlessly: if they find the building too much to bear, we’d never know it from looking at them.
But then, we never really look at them. Varda’s film concludes with an enormous caryatid in the 3rd arrondissement, so large it takes up three storeys of a building on the busy rue Turbigo. She asks the people in the neighbourhood what they think of the stone woman. They haven’t even noticed she was there. As the writer Robert Musil once pointed out, it is the nature of monuments to go unnoticed. ‘Doubtless they have been erected to be seen,’ he wrote, ‘even to attract attention; yet at the same time something has impregnated them against attention.’ Still, on some level we’re aware of them; in her book Monuments & Maidens Marina Warner surmises that if someone removed the statue of the Law (allegorically represented as female) from the Place du Palais-Bourbon, we would all somehow sense that something was missing, even if we didn’t know what. We’re more attuned to our environment than we realise.
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The flâneuse is still fighting to be seen, even now, when, as we’d like to think, she more or less has the run of the city.
A more politically engaged descendent of Baudelairean flânerie reigns today, one that operates by dérive, or ‘drift.’ A mid-twentieth century group of radical poets and artists calling themselves the Situationists invented ‘psychogeography,’ in which strolling becomes drifting and detached observation becomes a critique of post-war urbanism. Urban explorers use the dérive to map the emotive forcefield of the city, and the way architecture and topography combine to create its ‘psychogeographical contours.’ Robert MacFarlane, a masterful writer-walker of the countryside, offers this summary of the practice: ‘Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street.’ It’s a term that many of MacFarlane’s contemporaries alternately embrace (sometimes ironically) or refuse; Will Self uses the term to title a collection of his essays; Iain Sinclair, is skeptical of the term, as it’s been co-opted to become a ‘very nasty sort of branding’; he prefers to think of it as ‘deep topography,’ a term he got from Self’s buddy Nick Papadimitiou (who talks of making a ‘close study’ of a set environment on certain walks).
Call them what you will; these late-century heirs to the Situationists also inherited Baudelaire’s blinkered approach to the women on the pavement. Self has declared — not without some personal disappointment — psychogeography to be a man’s work, confirming the walker in the city as a figure of masculine privilege. Self has gone so far as to declare psychogeographers a ‘fraternity’: ‘middle-aged men in Gore-Tex, armed with notebooks and camera, stamping out boots on suburban train platforms, politely requesting the operators of tea kiosks in mossy parks to fill our thermoses, querying the destinations of rural buses (…) prostates swell[ing] as we crunch over broken glass, behind the defunct brewery on the outskirts of town.’
Really, he doesn’t sound very different from Louis Huart, defining the flâneur in 1841: ‘Good legs, good ears, and good eyes,’ ‘these are the principal physical advantages needed for any Frenchman to be worthy of the club of flâneurs as soon as we start one.’ The great writers of the city, the great psychogeographers, the ones that you read about in the Observer on weekends: they are all men, and at any given moment you’ll also find them writing about each others’ work, creating a reified canon of masculine walker-writers. As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane.
A glance at the psychogeographical fanzine Savage Messiah, drawn by the graphic artist Laura Oldfield Ford, shows this isn’t true; Ford walks all over London, verging from the ‘inner city’ out to the suburbs, and the sketches she creates out of what she sees reveal a capital surrounded by Ballardian suburbs, cubes of housing estates, disused, temporary structures, anchors in a sea of litter, refuse, anger. Even Woolf, Britain’s most decorous modernist, the favourite target of literary men beefing up their virility by slagging her off, liked to tramp around the filthy places of London. One day in 1939 found her down near Southwark Bridge, where she ‘saw a flight of steps down to the river — I climbed down — a rope at the bottom — Found the strand of the Thames, under the warehouses — strewn with stones, bits of wire… Very slippery; warehouse walls crusted, weedy, worn… Difficult walking. A rat haunted, riverine place, great chains, wooden pillars, green slime, bricks corroded, a button hook thrown up by the tide.’
It would be nice, ideal even, if we didn’t have to subdivide by gender — male walkers, female walkers, flâneurs and flâneuses — but these narratives of walking repeatedly leave out a woman’s experience. Our culture reifies the image of the walker as a man. I counter Guy Debord with his ex-wife, Michèle Bernstein. I counter Iain Sinclair with Rachel Lichtenstein, Will Self with Laura Oldfield Ford, Nick Papadimitriou with Rebecca Solnit, Teju Cole with Joanna Kavenna, but also with Patti Smith, Adrian Piper, Lisa Robertson, Faïza Guène, Janet Cardiff, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Vivian Gornick, Lavinia Greenlaw, Amina Cain, Chloe Aridjis, Atiya Fayzee, Heather Hartley, Wendy MacNaughton, Danielle Dutton, Germaine Krull, Valeria Luiselli, Alexandra Horowitz, Jessie Fauset, Virginie Despentes, Kate Zambreno, Joanna Walsh, Eliza Gregory, Annie Ernaux, Annett Groeschner, Sandra Cisneros, Halide Adivar, Oriane Zérah, Cécile Wajsbrot, Helen Scalway, Ilse Bing, Fran Lebowitz, Rachel Whiteread, Banu Qudsia, Zadie Smith, Colette, Emily Hahn, Marianne Breslauer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Berenice Abbott, Laure Albin-Guillot, Zora Neale Hurston,Vivian Maier, Lola Ridge, Nella Larsen, Flora Tristan, and on, and on, and on.
Once I began to look for the flâneuse, I spotted her everywhere.
Sinclair admits that the work he admires in deep topography makes the walker into a very British figure, the naturalist. This is not a way of interacting with the world that particularly interests me. I like the built environment, I like cities. Not their limits, not the places where they become not-cities. Cities themselves. The heart of them. Their manifold quarters, sectors, corners. And it’s the center of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.
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Nearly two decades after those first early experiments in flâneuserie, I still live and walk in Paris, after having walked in New York, Venice, Tokyo, and London, all places I’ve lived in for work or love. It’s a hard habit to shake. Why do I walk? I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement. I like being able to stop when I like, get closer to a conversation I want to overhear, lean against a building and make a note in my journal, or read an email, or send a text message, and for the world to stop while I do it. Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness.
Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps me piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. There’s a small pleasure in seeing how well I’ve come to know the city through my wanderings on foot, crossing through different neighbourhoods of the city, some I used to know quite well, others I may not have seen in awhile, like getting reacquainted with someone I once met at a party.
Sometimes I walk because I have things on my mind, and walking helps me sort them out. Solvitur ambulando, as they say.
Above all, I walk because it confers — or restores — a feeling of placeness. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says a space becomes a place when through movement we invest it with meaning, when we see it as something to be perceived, apprehended, experienced.
I walk because somehow, it’s like reading. You are there, but you’re not really there; you’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them; you can imagine what their lives are beyond the slice of it you observe. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.
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Once I began to look for the flâneuse, I spotted her everywhere. I caught her standing on street corners in New York and coming through doorways in Kyoto, sipping coffee at café tables in Paris, at the foot of a bridge in Venice, or riding the ferry in Hong Kong. She is alone, but not. She is going somewhere, or coming from somewhere; she is saturated with in-betweenness. She may be a writer, or she may be an artist, or she may be a secretary or an au pair. She may be unemployed. She may be unemployable. She may be a wife, or a mother, or she may be totally free. She may take the bus or the train when she’s tired. But mostly, she goes on foot. She gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind façades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it.
I found many correspondences between them; these women all read from each other and learned from each other, and their readings branched outward and outward in a network so developed it resists cataloguing. The portraits I paint here attest that the flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women. She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.
The flâneuse does exist, whenever we have deviated from the paths laid out for us, lighting out for our own territories.
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Excerpted from FLÂNEUSE: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Lauren Elkin. All rights reserved.