The Flâneur

In late 19th century Paris, Georges Haussmann made a plan to reorganize the city. The building of boulevards was one of the most influential changes of Haussmannization.  The boulevard became a culture of theater, cafes, and shopping, creating an environment of entertainment. The beauty of Paris including the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe draws in people looking for entertainment and sightseeing in the city. Individuals, known as flâneurs, described as “that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his steps” (White 16). The flâneur was a central figure of 19th century Paris. “Looking at people go by has always been the Parisians’ favorite pastime,” so much so that the wondering behaviors became a distinctive part of Parisian culture. These walkers wondered up and down the boulevards, not participating but observing people, activities and the environment. Paris is a city intended to be taken in “by the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can taking in all the rich detail” (White 34). These walkers notice things about the city that the typical observer fails to direct their attention towards.  “The flâneur is first and foremost a ‘reader’ of urban life,” (Burton 2) he is devoted to learning and observing the city. These individuals typically live a life of leisure; they have time to take off from work to enjoy some aimless wondering.  A distinctive characteristic of the flâneur is a lack of concern for time and having no plan or motivation behind his wonderings, “an excess of the work ethic inhibits the browsing, cruising ambition to ‘wed the crowd’” (White 39).

A distinct trait of the flâneur is that “he strives to be both all-seeing and invisible,” (Burton 5) he is able to observe everyone while blending into the crowd and remaining unnoticed by others. The flâneur became an expert on the city and its people, as a result of the detailed observation and exploration of Paris. The flâneur had the unique ability to become “incognito” and be completely immersed in a crowd yet, without the feeling of ever being alone (Lauster 142). He would easily become engulfed in another individual’s life, living vicariously through their experiences in the world. Instead of focusing of particular people or aspects of Paris life, the flâneur viewed the city as a panorama, seeing the entire scene at one time and understanding the city as a whole.  Some views of the flâneur argue that his observations were “obscured by a veil” (Lauster 141) allowing a dreamlike and artistic interpretation of the city. Despite the flâneur’s unique ability to experience and see while remaining unnoticed, there was nothing distinctive about these individuals, they do not have a unique artistic vantage point. These individuals were typically city-dwellers, whom have nothing more to do with their days than observe the people of Paris. The flâneur learned the networks of the city; to them the city is not a public place but became a familiar world.

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