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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  1. TFD


      This is a great post, so mightily full of quotes. I can see how this might overtake your thinking for quite possibly the rest of your life. I like how the Norwegian source of flaneur is “to gad about” or “loaf”—I looked this up, being curiously Norwegian in descent, though it has its differentiations from the flâneur that you address. Have you read much T.J. Clark?—he elucidates some of what you’re trying nudging as well, in his book Farewell to an Idea, though mostly in approaching modernity as contingency, which is much like what a writer-walker who isn’t walking in order to generate writing might experience or then produce. I’d love to hear/read more about the text as city, especially the dream state of the “poetic” language in relation to our removal. I am somewhat familiar with Benjamin’s notions but I think that after what you’ve already written and pointed toward here that something fresh is lingering. Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue also exists within the spaces you’ve examined here, yet it is more or a self-aware approach and with theory as its door. Anyway, thanks for the post, I’ll be thinking this stuff over for a while. -Tyler

  2. Ken Baumann

      Yes to this: The writer zigs and zags between defamiliarization and refamiliarization.

      I can’t help but think of writing, performance (all art, really) as oscillation. There are different rhythms (I’d say The Stranger is regular until the final 5th, and then the pendulum barely blips away from the defamiliarizing side), and different presentations and intensities of familiarizing and defamiliarizing (watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 10 was a feeling of total immersion and visceral recognition, a feeling of wonder, or uncanny familiarization), but that it all can boil down to that. Writing is great and simple because it can oscillate a lot for awhile without user fatigue… I’m thinking the difference of listening to a symphony straight through and reading a novel in four sittings. And writing has the capacity for wide and deep psychic burn, which I think is unique.

      Overall: loved this. Thank you.

  3. Correction
  4. Anonymous

      Hi, Correction. In the spirit of flanerie, I’m choosing to believe that nothing is *decidedly* anything. Love the Buck-Morss essay; I’ve consulted it often. Thanks for the links.

  5. Janey Smith

      Kristen? Have you wandered through Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris? Anyway, I’m going to go for a walk now.

  6. Janey Smith

      Kristen? Have you wandered through Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris? Anyway, I’m going to go for a walk now.

  7. lily hoang

      Thanks, Kristen. I actually wrote a paper last term about Chinatowns, Heterotopias, and Asian Americans as the New Flaneur. The paper was pretty mediocre, but I had a lot of fun writing it.

      What’s most exciting to me about the flaneur is how he embodies both the detective and the criminal at once. Plus, there are some very cool things being written about the flaneur these days. Look over some cultural studies journals. They’re full of interesting flaneur-geeky-pleasure.

  8. lily hoang

      SO good.

  9. lily hoang

      O o o! And text as city: Have you read anything on psychogeography and the Situationists? (sorry, I’m running rampant in your comments! This is the last one, promise! Clearly, your post has me all excited!)

  10. Correction

      Fair enough. Thanks for the insightful article.

  11. deadgod

      “One can’t think and write except while sitting.” (G. Flaubert) With that I’ve got you, nihilist! Seated flesh is the very sinner against the Holy Ghost. Only strolled thoughts have value.

      Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows 34

  12. Christopher Higgs
  13. Christopher Higgs

      I also really liked this post, Kristen. Very smart and interesting.

      The gender thing, though, has always troubled me in regards to the idea of the Flâneur. I was studying the French New Wave a few years ago with Judith Mayne at OSU, and we spent some time on Agnès Varda’s brilliant film Cléo de 5 à 7, which certainly engages with this question: can a woman be a Flâneur or is it the province of men. If I’m remembering correctly, Dr. Mayne suggested that women could not properly be considered Flâneurs in French culture at the time of the film’s release (1962) because a woman out wandering the streets aimlessly by herself would be considered a prostitute. Not sure the validity of that argument, but it certainly raises complicating implications.

      But regardless of that aspect, I like your idea of teaching students how to walk rather than how to write. Especially if we think of writing through the body, as a bodily practice, it should stand to reason that changing the way we walk will change the way we write. Very interesting indeed.

  14. Anonymous

      Hi Janey, I am familiar with that one, yes, though not cover to cover ;)

  15. Anonymous

      Ooh, I’d like to read that paper. And yes, it does seem like the flaneur is having a revival of sorts across various journals/disciplines. Or maybe he never left, and was just looping around, taking the long way…

  16. Anonymous

      Yes yes yes. Life/art/siphon.

  17. Anonymous

      I was alerted to this one & have been meaning to get my hands on it…

  18. Anonymous

      Thanks for the good words. That’s an extraordinary film, and yes, Benjamin also positions the flaneur and the prostitute in a kind of binary…the prostitute becomes sort of the anti-flaneur, since her walk is the walk of commerce.

      BUT…now? Can we revisit/reappropriate (dreadful grad school word) the terms, flaunt the ahistoricism, etc.? I say, let’s?

  19. Anonymous

      Cheers, Tyler.

  20. Amy McDaniel

      There is so much goodness here, Kristen.

      If we’re talking writer as flâneur, then it is probably worth mentioning that the French for writer, écrivain, refers to a male or female writer. There is no “écrivaine” at least conventionally speaking.

      When I think about flânerie, I think about the essay “Street Haunting” by Virginia Woolf (not to mention Mrs. Dalloway). From “Street Haunting”:
      “We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.”

      If women can’t be flâneurs, count me as a tramper.

  21. Tim Horvath

      Kristen–Thanks for delivering these great fragments as fragments, which seems perfectly suited to the topic.

      Amy–I was thinking too of the anonymity that walking in a city affords, which has its analogue in reading (you know the text but the text does not know you, exactly, try as it might). Also, tying into Ken’s notion of oscillations above, urban walking, when aimless, allows one to slip between observation and contemplation; one might forget that one is walking at moments, and one might forget that one has a self other than one’s walking-self at others. Also, maybe, like reading–i.e. you lose track that you are reading, or you forget to read even while holding the book aloft, or you read three blocks’ worth but they’re all blur. Do you retrace or go onwards (I’m guilty of both lots of times)?

      I was going to say that texts are more unidirectional than cities by and large, that we traverse them more linearly than on the aimless urban walk. But of course this breaks down. Right now I’m reading Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames, three narratives interspliced, and the juxtapositions of text spawn some amazing chance encounters very much like those that cities pull off so damned well.

      So, thanks.

  22. Craft and the City: Writer as Flâneur / HTMLGIANT « word pond

      […] Craft and the City: Writer as Flâneur | HTMLGIANT. […]

  23. Janey Smith

      Kristen? Gerard De Nerval wrote his novel Aurelia while walking the streets of Paris! I mean, he actually wrote while walking!

  24. Kristen Iskandrian

      Ha, I like that, authors as urban planners.

      And yes, I think certain works lend themselves to a kind of blurred, trance-like reading/tracing/treading. Something like a fugue state. (A lot of Woolf does this for me, in an amazing kind of way.)

  25. Kristen Iskandrian

      Yes! So awesome. Sylvie is one of my favorites.

      Then I suppose there is walking-while-reading to consider, too…

  26. Christopher Higgs

      Legend has it that Nerval also took his pet lobster, Thibault, along for those walks, leashed by a thick blue ribbon!

  27. reynard

      i like wreader a lot

  28. reynard

      i like wreader a lot