My new favourite word: Flâneur

I recently came across this word in a funny little book I found in a funny little art shop in London: Patrick Keller’s The View from the Train. This book is a collection of essays which explain Keller’s work and how he came to produce films such as London and Robinson in Space, his influences, his own philosophy and artistic practice. As I’ve seen these films, and loved them, this book caught my attention. It isn’t disappointing me. It’s a fascinating little book. I recommend it. It is a bit geeky but it is very good.

My book

My book

In one of the essays, Keller discusses the idea of the flâneur, a term coined by Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, which I have subsequently read. The flâneur is a literary motif for a wanderer or dreamer. Translated into English it means: stroller, loafer or lounger. However, in contemporary life it is more than that.

The flâneur frequents coffee shops to watch and observe the everyday. This figure was first seen in 19th-century Paris. The modern flâneur might be Martin Parr or Joel Meyerowitz with their posh cameras and people-watching skills. The original flâneur was just someone with too much time on their hand and an ability to hide interest behind a facade of boredom.

The flâneur is Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘man of the crowd’. The flâneur observes places and people, and also objects. They are able to take metaphorical (and literal) snap shots of urban life. The flâneur is more aware than other people of the beauty of the everyday and, crucially, they are able to translate it into something of substance. As Baudelaire describes this person: ‘Sometimes he is a poet; more often he comes closer to the novelist or the moralist; he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains’ (Baudelaire, p. 5). Baudelaire describes this person as curious.

Curiosity is certainly what mostly defines them. He also describes them as akin to a child or to someone returning from a period of illness. They are an ‘eternal convalescent’ (ibid, p. 8). They are hyper aware. A child sees everything as if in a state of newness, as does the flâneur. They observe form and colour in a state of delight, just as a child might. Colours are heightened. Form is exciting. However, they differ from the child in that they are able to do something with what they see and condense it into something meaningful. They, therefore, are also a genius, says Baudelaire. The flâneur is at home everywhere. Yet he can remain hidden: ‘He is an “I” with an insatiable appetite for the “non-I”‘ (ibid, p. 9).

Charles Baudelaire, thinking about the loungers of Paris

Charles Baudelaire, thinking about the lazy cats of Paris

Although I would argue against the ‘genius’ part of the definition (I am not exactly on the same plane of cerebral glory as more famous flâneurs in the art world), I feel that this word belongs to me.

I LOVE coffee shops. When I am in a coffee shop (which turns out to be most days), I sit, I watch, I listen, I draw, I note down, I think and I have ideas. Most of these ideas are lost before I get home but they come to me in coffee shops when I am surrounded by ordinary people like me, drinking coffee and reading the paper, checking their phone or talking to their companion. I love people. I love the urban landscape. I love the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday, the minute, the timy moments and the sudden glimpses I get of treasure when I overhear an exchange or see a face or a form. Most of all, I love coffee.

I spend a lot of time in arty cafes

I spend a lot of time in arty cafes

So I will no longer feel guilty about my daily coffee stops. I’m not procrastinating. I’m not being lazy. I’m being a flâneur.


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