Flânerie

November 19, 2019

As a nomad maker, travel is an integral part of my creative process. But not all travels are equal.

Some can hurt you, they are the manifestation of an unsustainable escapism. Flânerie, on the other hand, originates from a quest for truth.

As a Frenchman, I’m deeply attracted to the concept of flânerie to describe what’s a sustainable form of travel, which is not an easy term to define.

Reading The Painter of Modern Life, a series of essays written by the infamous poet Charles Baudelaire, I hope to shed some light on the mindset of a flâneur.

Baudelaire was a contemporary of Rimbaud, and it is undeniable that the search for beauty — the search for truth (”to distil the eternal from the transitory”) — was at the center of their art.

In the essay “The artist, man of the world, man of the crowd and child”, Baudelaire presents the flâneur as an ideal, personified by a certain “Monsieur G”: ”a great traveller and cosmopolitan […] a man of the world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and lawful reasons for all its uses […] he wants to know, understand and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our globe […] the mainspring of his genius is curiosity,” to which he adds, ”genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will […] a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated”. The act of flânerie is exactly about that: getting back to a child-like state, driven by passion and curiosity.

Curiously, this definition of “genius” is exactly how Robert Greene defines mastery and I wouldn’t be surprised if Baudelaire inspired him to a great extent.

In addition to being a man of the world and a man-child (capable of great curiosity), a flâneur is a man of the crowd: ”for the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement […] To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world […] The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family […] The lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy”. A flâneur finds beauty in the most mundane aspects of life.

As Baudelaire describes, a 19th century flâneur is the exact opposite of a modern tourist: ”The world is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or a Raphael — one of those that have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my Museum.’“.

In modern French, flâner is a common verb used pejoratively to express a lack of action: ”arrête de flâner” could be translated to ”stop fooling around”. It’s pretty far from the original mindset of a flâneur, which is exactly not about doing nothing. It’s about living in the present and being mindful of our surroundings.

Walking around the city aimlessly, writing from coffee shops, meditating on a park bench… those are forms of flânerie. Flânerie is the opposite of busyness, and in the busy world we live in it’s time to re-learn how to unbusy ourselves.