Happy Bastille Day! In honor of the storming of the Bastille, the disapproval of feudalism and all that jazz, today’s post is going to have a French theme. First, let’s check out a wonderful addition to modern French culture, courtesy of pop star Yelle:
And now let’s move on to the French language. Your favorite French word may be “croissant” or “champagne,” but pretty high on my list of preferred words is the verb “flâner.” What does that even mean, you ask? WordReference.com gives us a few options, with wander, sashay, loiter and dawdle among them. But the reason this word is so powerful is not because of its literal meaning. And, in fact, part of why it is wonderful is because there is no direct translation into English. The weight of the word comes from its connotations and its impact on French culture. Charles Baudelaire was a 19th century French poet who is often described as a forefather of Symbolism. His work is full of hidden meanings, questions of morality, and references to urban environments. His work is also quite popular in French literature courses, partly due to his general fame and partly due to the richness of his writing style. One of the concepts Baudelaire pioneered was the idea of the flâneur, someone who wandered the city for the sake of experiencing the city. The flâneur is both part of the city, and an observer of the city. As he wanders the streets, he has a sense of relationship with his surroundings even as he looks at them from a distanced eye. A key aspect of the flâneur’s situation is that there is no end goal in his wandering. He strolls through the city for the sake of experiencing it, rather than for the sake of getting from Point A to B. What happens during the stroll could be any number of things, as there is no plan. He is a part of urbanity, but also looking at the world from a critical perspective.
Ultimately, the flâneur culture became linked to the dandy culture, and sometimes the verb “flâner” carries with it the negative connotation of idleness. However, the word also became rather important to the Modernist movement as thinkers tried to understand the individual’s relationship to society. And it became important to urban planners as a way of understanding how humans interact with their surroundings. In the sense of urban planning, thinkers focused on humans’ responses to different types of environments and societies. Thus, the flâneur becomes a sort of test subject, almost like a subject in an ethnography experiment. Understanding how individuals interact with surroundings is paramount in a world like ours where our environments are often controlled- think mall vs. living on the prairie back in the day. So, by studying how people use their environments, planners can get a better sense of how to design spaces to appeal to common human responses. I personally like to put on my flâneur hat when I go to big cities. For me, it is about losing myself in the city and seeing where I end up. Every now and then I suddenly perceive something around me as interesting, I think about it a second, and then I carry on. With no real goal, no hurry, and no need to take in every single detail of every single thing I see. It is about the experience, the moment, and the journey.
If you are interested in Baudelaire, I suggest you start with The Spleen of Paris, a book of poetry rife with symbolism and allusions to the modern world. Fun fact: spleenparis used to be my login password at work. The guys at tech always looked at me funny when I had to write down my password for an upgrade. If you are interested in other applications of the flâneur, check out Walter Benjamin, a modernist author who wrote a ton of essays about interactions with different parts of the city. His “Arcade Project” is a massive collection of pieces, but you only need to read a few to get the gist of it.