January 31st, 2011 / 3:58 pm
Craft Notes

Craft and the City: Writer as Flâneur

A while ago, Lily pondered the flâneur in this post, and in the comments section Ken referenced Nassim Taleb, and it seems that interest in the flâneur, like the figure of the flâneur itself, meanders around the consciousness of many of us, possibly. There is something perennially appealing and perhaps romantic about the flâneur–the apartness, the deliberate purposelessness–and I remember that it took, for me, reading Benjamin’s The Arcades Project to understand Baudelaire (the man and the work) in a more complete and meaningful way. Some years ago I wrote an essay (whose title is the title of this post) that sought to explore the idea of text-as-city and reader as flâneur, and then, by extension, the work of writing as its own kind of flânerie. (Really wanted to publish it as Flânerie O’Connor, but then I would’ve had to punch myself in the face really hard. And also get it published.) Anyway, here are some excerpts/cut-ups from that essay:

The flâneur represented, both for Baudelaire and for Benjamin, a way of navigating and comprehending, in Benjamin’s description, the “dialectical poles” of modernity, of making “visible and legible [its] elusive landscape.”

For Baudelaire, the flâneur was one through whom the world was siphoned: “things seen [were] born again on the paper, natural and more than natural, beautiful and better than beautiful, strange and endowed with an enthusiastic life, like the soul of their creator.” For Benjamin, the flâneur was a walking bifurcation, distinguishing dream culture from commodity culture with every step. The writer-flâneur strives for Baudelaire’s vision, and is acutely aware of Benjamin’s. She perceives a difference between the language of the marketplace, and the language of “Art,” and she will exploit each vernacular as befits the work.

Heather McHugh: the poet is “susceptible” and “materially engaged in estranging language.”

The writer zigs and zags between defamiliarization and refamiliarization.

Jed Rasula: “wreading, or how poetics exceeds its poetry.” The wreader’s word is not only duplicitous but multiplicitous; it changes with each utterance and encounter.

As the flâneur was a hinge between worlds, so too is the writer/reader/wreader. Language and the labyrinth of the city are not so very different.

The walking that presupposes and accompanies [my] writing is not purposeful; it is, at its best, the kinetic equivalent of idleness, mulling made physical. This idea, what was for the Romans solvitur ambulando—it is solved by walking—applies to certain works that have informed not only my “craft,” but also my attempt at a hermeneutics of language. The text cannot escape its textuality, its confines of time and space, and it cannot be absorbed in a glance, wholesale, as if by osmosis. The text is traveled, walked, paced; its sweep is trodden; and its spatiality, while finite, hemmed in by the page, is latently transcendable. The flâneur may walk thirty blocks, but we say he walks the city. For the writer, every word is a chorus; every story becomes many stories, a landscape of stories.

As teachers of form and craft, I wonder if there is a way to shift the focus of our creative writing classrooms: rather than teaching our students how to write, we might do well to teach them how to walk. To again invoke Baudelaire: “He began by looking at life, and only later did he contrive to learn how to express life.”

Like the flâneur, we are in a self-imposed exile; we are removed. This impasse, again, represents the difference between commodified language and what we will loosely call “poetic” language—the “dream,” in Benjamin’s terms.

Wallace Stevens: “a poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words”: an incisive portrayal of the poet’s conundrum in a culture burgeoning with too many things.

John D’Agata: “anything you read to a fetus [or, I’d add, a flâneur] will go in one ear, but not come out.”

Calvino’s cities are invisible because they are the cities of dreams—they vanish upon waking and materialize, vaporously, upon being recounted. Fact and reality are upended by memory—the city “repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind,” and in turn, memory “repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.” As cities and the things they contain are reduced to “emblems,” Kublai Khan, too, becomes an emblem, a stand-in for Marco Polo’s need to bear witness; to etch, everlastingly, his exploits. But there are only so many words to describe so many cities; each city becomes a “negative mirror,” an echo of its elsewhere. Polo’s chronicles are in a constant state of slippage, held hostage by nostalgia and by the limitations of language and only able to emerge (ponderously, but with Calvino’s signature deftness) through Khan’s participation.

Edmond Jabès:  reading as its own kind of writing; the excavation created by the “physical, violent act” of reading is the space of the text, passivity made passage, the “activating of an errant language.” As writers, we find that we are never able to say the thing; the thing absconds and leaves only its traces, remnants that we use to build wholes, knowing, painfully, that we will only ever achieve fragments. It is in the transaction of reading, however, that these fragments have a renewed hope of wholeness. The flânerie of both writer and reader makes us experience the text “as space and as movement rather than as meaning.”

My aspiraton: word following word as readily and meaninglessly as footsteps.

Lynn Emanuel: “Because someone must be gertrude stein, someone must save us from the literalists and realists and narratives of the beginning and end, someone must be a river that can type”



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