virtualDavis

\ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs\ Blogger, storyteller, flâneur. G.G. Davis, Jr's alter ego…
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The Flâneur Lives Underground

The Flâneur Still Lives! (Credit: Culturethèque)

The Flâneur Still Lives! (Credit: Culturethèque)

I lead off this chilly morning with a hat tip to the good folks at Culturethèque for their flâneur-London-tube post, “The Flâneur Still Lives!“, which hit the interwebs last Sunday. More flâneurial paean than anything else, Mélissa’s short tribute leads off with this 0h-so-excellent mashup borrowed above.

Bravo! I shamelessly covet Mélissa’s graphic. (Until I discover otherwise, I’ll credit her for this homemade remix of popular iconography. And I’ll inevitably awaken at 4:00am with my own derivative collage. I’ll be unable to sleep until I jot a few notes, doodle a sketch, liberate the idea from my sleepless mind…)

The character emerged from the concrete of 19th Paris… a lazy yet intelligent person who strolls around… a particular personality who loves their city. That’s right, not a striking form of patriotism, just a genuine love of their city. Baudelaire… take it away: “To see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” (Culturethèque)

Baudelaire par lui même

Baudelaire par lui même (Credit: Wikipedia)

Despite the obligatory Baudelaire citation and a nod to Benjamin, there’s little enduring here except the jolly image. Or, perhaps I judge too hastily. Meandering a city via public transportation offers endless fodder for a flâneur. While I’m drawn less to the conductor’s announcements and more to the diverse parade of humanity swimming around and past me, I too savor public transportation. Somehow staring is more acceptable on a subway or a bus, especially if you allow your eyes to glaze, unfocused. This is a skill mastered early on in a commuter’s maturation. And it serves the flâneur well.

So, Mélissa, thank you for the troglodytic immersion and the flâneurial London tube image above. I hope you’ll excuse my carrying your idea forward. Soon…

Smile! I’m blogging you…

Smile! I'm blogging you... (image of and by virtualDavis)

Smile! I'm blogging you... (image of and by virtualDavis)

I remember seeing a t-shirt for sale once that said, “I’m blogging this.” Nothing more. Just a black t-shirt with bold white lettering across the front. I’m blogging this!

I should have bought it. It would make people laugh. People who know me. Especially the ones who don’t quite get it. Blogging, I mean.

But I didn’t buy it. I liked the idea, but I wanted to edit the message slightly as follows:

Smile! I’m blogging you…

On the one hand, it’s humorous, and on the other it’s an increasingly relevant disclaimer. The “fine print”. Not just for me, but for all bloggers. All journalists, storytellers, writers, artists, etc.

What do I mean by relevant? We are photographing and video recording and quoting each other around the clock nowadays. Look at the ubiquity of blogging, micro blogging, YouTubing, Facebook-ing and Google Plus-ing. We are busy documenting our lives as well as anyone else who flits across our paths.

I walked down Madison Avenue this evening as a man filmed all of us. Not a news reporter, but a plain clothed civilian. John Doe. Or Juan Sanchez… Why was he filming us? What will he do with our stolen souls? Thievery! Or not…

Smile! I’m blogging you…

One of my favorite English language writers, Michael Ondaatje, returns again and again to the theme of thievery in his writing. It’s a large part of storytelling. I suspect many writers, artists, etc. ponder the idea.

I prefer to think of storytellers as borrowers, not kleptomaniacs. We borrow characters, scenes and plots. We borrow the smell of bacon cooking three doors down, the sound of a cello being practiced (badly) somewhere on the other side of an overgrown juniper hedge.

Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948)

Vicente Huidobro (image via Wikipedia)

Not all writers admit that they are recyclers, borrowers or thieves. Chilean poet Vicente Huidobrodeclared, “The poet is a little God.” He aspired to invent worlds of words out of thin air and ambition. I invite you to evaluate his success.

With the advent of widespread social media it’s easier and more enticing than ever to collect and curate the perfect pair of eyebrows, the seemy backstory, the unpredictable twist of fate, the melodic denouement peppered with the fragrance of jasmine and fireworks on a summer evening… All from the comfort of our own desktops. Or smart phones. The 21st century storyteller is everywhere you are.

Of course, flanerie still serves the storyteller well, but his boulevards have been extended exponentially. I am an unabashed flaneur, but not just in the Baudelarian sense. I’m an urban flaneur, but I’m also a rural flaneur. I’m a café and sidewalk flaneur, but I’m also a digital flaneur. And I’m collecting and curating 24×7 (to the occasional regret of my bride and friends, I hesitate to add.)

I apologize. I understand that not everyone wants to be onstage all the time. Not everyone wants to have their almost lofty soufflé or their offkey arias recorded for posterity. I get it. I’m with you.

But, I can’t resist. You’re interesting. Not just your eyebrows and your bacon and your cello practice and your seemy backstory and your perennially deflated soufflé and your upside down melodies. You.

But rest assured that mine is an imperfect lens, a distorted microphone. I won’t steel your soul. I promise. I can’t. It’s yours as long as you choose to nourish it. I will borrow liberally, borrow, not steel, and I’ll do so with a sometimes distorted, always playful filter.

Will you lend me the mischievous glimmer in your eye when I ask you what you want for Christmas? Will you lend me the fierce gate, knees high, hips restrained, stride impossibly long that I remember from the first time I watched you walk toward your airplane when heading back to New York City from Paris? Will you lend me your hurt and confusion and quirks and dreams?

I’ll do my best never to betray you, and I’ll always resist your soul.

I promise.

Mindfulness and Flânerie

Just another listless dreamer...

New Yorker marginalia by virtualDavis via Flickr

Linda Hollier’s Mindfulness and The Flâneur examines a topic near and dear to my heart, soul and senses: flânerie.

I’m honored to be mentioned and grateful because she inspired me to update my Metro Flaneur post with a list of my favorite flanerie miscellanea. But ego and overdue “housekeeping” are just the tip of the iceberg.

Ms. Hollier (@lindahollier) is positing an insight that intuitively resonates truth to me, but which I’ve never before heard.

Speed, whether online or offline, is a characteristic of the modern world. The flâneur reminds us to set the pace of our own lives.

Cast as a character in the 21st century drama of life, the flâneur thus begins to play the role of consciousness. (here2here)

Amen. The pace and the scope. Flânerie demands an elasticity of time and space. Freedom to meander, to lose oneself in the other, perhaps even to become the other without fully detaching from self. For a while.

Anthropologist Grant McCracken reflection on Joy Walking comes to mind.

It’s a little like joy riding, except we’re not stealing cars, we’re stealing moments. Joy walking happens when we leave the house or office and start walking. We don’t have a plan. We just go… We step in and out of people’s lives. Couples in love, couples at war…  The tiny courtesies and rudenesses of public life… The key is to get out and about. To get away. To see what you can see. Steal a moment. Make it your own. (PsychologyToday.com)

Ms. Hollier’s suggestion that flânerie and conscioussness may overlap is intriguing, an idea worth passing along to my mother who’s a student of Buddhism and a proponent of mindfulness. Let’s see if I can get her to weigh in. Stay tuned.

Off to meander the digital meadow with the mingling masses…

Update:

Great news. My mother, Melissa Davis, shared her impression. Thanks, mom! Here’s what the wise lady thinks:

Mindfulness, flaneuring and turtles

Reading this after an abbreviated mindful yoga session with Jon K-Z (on tape), I am delighted to chime in. Linda Hollier’s reference to turtles on leashes reminds me of walking with a 2- or 3-year old, a great flaneur opportunity. I recently grandparented my 3-year old granddaughter for a week which required walking her to preschool and back in Georgetown, a fascinating place where equipment and men with shovels were digging up the ancient trolley tracks. Took us forever – which was as good as it gets – even better than a turtle because she had a couple of feet more within her purview AND she asked questions!

Years ago I read a NYTimes op ed that shared the unscientific findings of a city dweller observing adults accompanying small children around a neighborhood in Manhattan. She reported that the majority of them pushed strollers which ensured timely arrivals wherever the adult was headed. She contrasted them with the handful of adults who walked – meandered – alongside their youngsters, stopping to examine every interesting flower or bit of flotsam along the way. She pointed out that there was nothing more important for a child that age to do than poke along – and through – every curiosity.

I think flaneuring is like drawing, something we are born with but that schedules and school steal from us. I agree that mindfulness – being totally present in the moment – goes hand in hand (or leash) with flaneuring. I am not surprised that so many people wonder if they ate, lose their keys, forget names, obsess about how stressed they are given the mindless speed that propels them through their days. A little daily flaneuring would sort them right out! (Melissa Davis)

Amen! Way to go, mom. Just goes to show that my decision to meander the digital meadow with the mingling masses yesterday restored the cosmic balance, inspiring my mother to opine. Perhaps I should meander the soggy non-digital meadow this afternoon?

Related articles:

Metro Flaneur

Yesterday Linda Hollier (@lindahollier) put me on to “a new concept: a metro flaneur!” A what?!?! Of course, she had me at flaneur (What is a flaneur?), so I headed on over to Shoba Naraya’s post,”Solution to urban isolation: become a Metro flaneur“. The article, looking inside of the much anticipated opening of Dubai‘s Metro Gren Line, pits enthusiasts against indifferent Dubaians. She’s sympathetic to the former, helpful to the latter. Her wonderful waterfall of flaneurial advice flows from her friend Ria’s question: “And what would I do on the Metro?”

I have three words for her: be a flaneur. As the essayist Alain de Botton says, flaneurs stand in deliberate opposition to the two imperatives of modern society: to be in a hurry and to buy things. Flaneurs do neither. They stroll and saunter; eavesdrop on conversations; watch people, wonder who they might be, and construct narratives about their lives. All this is possible on a train. Even better, your environs are air-conditioned and spanking clean. The Metro provides a convivial, civilised way to be a flaneur. (The National)

I couldn’t have answered any better myself! Though her words, her advice, her logic are oh-so familiar.

I remember discovering the metro trains and buses in Washington, DC as a college undergraduate. Fair to say I was an unusual freshman in plenty of ways, but one was that I’d wander the city for hours, sometimes entire days on busses and metros. No, not to commute. Not even to get somewhere specific, not always at least. If you haven’t ridden public transportation in Washington, it’s worth trying. Impeccably clean. Efficient. Safe. Well layed out. And well used. It’s this last merit of the metro system that attracted me the most. People. So many people, and so many different kinds of people. I was most familiar with NYC where the subways, although fascinating in their own right, are often filthy, sometimes a bit unfriendly and even a bit more crime prone (think pick pockets). In DC it was so civilized. I felt safe. Safe enough to ride all day on a rainy Sunday learning my way around the city and observing my fellow travelers. I began to record my observations, “found poetry” I called it. Narrative sketches and fragments of dialogue… I even mused over the direction people faced when traveling, positing a theory that those who selected forward-facing seats were commuters, racing off to their next commitment. While those content to face backward – to watch where they’ve been instead of where they were going – were travelers, tourists, joy riders. Somewhere in a ratty notebook there’s a poem to this effect, though I’ll have to bury it if/when I ever unearth it.

Naraya dishes on whether or not a handful of countries/cultures are flaneur-centric or even flaneur-likely, but it is her reflection on the origin and nature of flanerie that I find appealing:

It was the French poet Charles Baudelaire who came up with the word “flaneur” to describe the attitude that he thought we should adopt while walking the streets… sauntering… eying the women walking by and enjoying the drama of the streets… [taking the time] to observe, imagine and gossip… Great cities of the world engender people’s hopes and aspirations. To plunge into Piccadilly, Fifth Avenue, Boulevard Saint-Germain, or Paradeplatz is to feel part of a great and variegated group of beings who are both similar to us and intensely different. Being in a public place is an exercise in subsuming the ego for the pleasures of being a part of the great tide of humanity. Sitting together on a subway allows people of different classes to mix and even decompress together. Soon, commuters will start talking, sharing stories and chores.(The National)

Intoxicating idea. Addictive occupation. I believe that many feel the flaneurial tug, but most have trained themselves to resist the siren-call in the name of focus, discipline and productivity. Fair enough. No doubt these ambitious souls are accomplishing and producing more than I. But at what cost? And not just to themselves. Is the race to the swift? Sometimes. But not always. And even when it is, is the race worth winning if you’ve missed the swish-swish-swish of the tedder raking the freshly cut hay into labyrinthine mounds for the hay bailer? If you’ve missed the smell of freshly drawn sap being boiled into maple syrup? If you’ve missed the feel of cool water against your skin while skinny dipping in Lake Champlain, swimming in the shimmering moonbeam? If you’ve missed the sight of three pheasants chicks breaking out of their shells in a corner of the back meadow?

In addition to Naraya’s article Hollier shared a blog post that she’d written a year ago to commemorate the passing of a date which intrigued her. There is much to ponder this fellow flaneur’s thoughtful post, but it’s her train reflection which offers the most apt and eloquent denouement for this morning’s rumination on the metro flaneur.

09.09.09 is a special day in Dubai’s history. It sees the opening of the Dubai metro which has taken 49 months, 30,000 workers and Dh28 billion to achieve. It will be the world’s longest automated driverless rail system and this new system… will no doubt have far-reaching effects on the lives of all who live here…  As I think about the metro, I think too of my late father whose love for trains and railways finds itself somehow continued within me. As Dubai’s first Metro train rolls out of the station today, another page of history will be turned. I am one passenger on the train of life.  Today is one station along the way.  Today is my birthday.  I feel privileged to be on this train. (Integral Life)

Why should you take the metro? What would you do on the metro? Be a flaneur. At least once in a while.
Related articles

A Flâneur’s Tour of Toronto

It’s a at least a pair of decades since I explored Toronto, and I’ll admit a bit of embarrassment on this front. It’s a day’s drive away, and a pleasant drive at that. I’ve added it to the short term bucket list, with ample time for flânerie. Until then, two delightful nubbins to pass along…

“A flâneur is anyone who wanders, and watches, the city. The 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire called the flâneur a “perfect idler” and a “passionate observer.” Baudelaire was a flâneur himself and, when he wasn’t writing poems and spending his trust fund on dandy outfits and opium, he drifted through the streets of Paris. Later, philosopher Walter Benjamin collected a chunk of thoughts on the idea of the flâneur in his epic volume of notes on Paris, The Arcades Project.” (Eye Weekly)

“The old notion of the flâneur will be different for whomever engages in this activity, even in a diverse metropolis such as Toronto. But that doesn’t mean that other flâneurs can’t carve out ways to navigate the city comfortably, recording their own insights and noticing the ways their own particular bodies and histories interact with the cityscape.” (Eye Weekly)

The Invention of Paris

The Invention of Paris

Eric Hazan's The Invention of Paris

Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris is a guide, quartier by quartier, to the “psychogeography” of the first great modern city. Hazan is a far-left radical editor now in his 70s, and has lived in Paris all his life. Not only does he know what a certain street smells like, but he can tell us about the geographical, social and political forces that put it there. A widening or a curve might conceal an entire history of oppression – or the moment Baudelaire admired a passing grisette.

Hazan reckons Baudelaire to be the first truly urban poet, a flâneur at the meeting-point between the nocturnal solitary and the individual lost in the crowd. The book proceeds in his urgent spirit, mingling personal knowledge and reminiscence with a Balzacian grasp of the whole. The ghost of Walter Benjamin, the leftwing thinker of a mystical bent who fled occupied Paris and committed suicide at the closed Spanish border, presides over this magnificent meditation on limits and boundaries.

Read the full review in The Guardian

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What is a Flâneur?

Charles Baudelaire, flâneur originale

Charles Baudelaire,
flâneur originale

A flâneur, according to Webster, is “an idle man-about-town”. It’s pretty evident that a man who was compelled to log words and definitions day and night knew little about the art of flânerie (flâneury), French for strolling. For the flâneur is not merely a loafer gadding his short life away.

He or she is a creature so enthralled by the world that the internal yields to the external, so fascinated with the other that the self is temporarily forgotten. The flâneur is misunderstood by the non-flâneur who fails to recognize the endeavor in his art. For the flâneur is indeed striving toward a goal, making a concerted effort to become anonymous in the crowd — an undetected voyeur — and to sate a philosophical, an aesthetic and an almost spiritual fascination with the scene around him/herself.

“For the perfect flâneur, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow. To be away from home, yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” ~ Charles Baudelaire

The flâneur seeks communion with the other, and this requires a receptivity and a yielding to the bustle of the urban crowd.

“[Flâneurs] are opening their eyes and ears to the scene around them. They are not treating the street as an obstacle course to be negotiated; they are opening themselves up to it. They are wondering about the lives of those they pass, constructing narratives for them, they are eavesdropping on conversations, they are studying how people dress and what new shops and products there are (not in order to buy anything—just in order to reflect on them as important pieces of evidence of what human beings are about)… While cities bring together huge numbers of people, paradoxically they also separate them from each other. The goal of flâneur[s] is to recover a sense of community… To do this, they let down their guard, they empathize with situation they see. There’s a constant risk they will be moved, saddened, excited – and fall in love.” ~ Alain de Botton

“Flâneurs don’t have any practical goals in mind, aren’t walking to get something, or to go somewhere. What flâneurs are doing is looking. Opening their eyes and ears to the scene around them, wondering about the lives of those they pass, constructing narratives about the houses, eavesdropping on conversations, studying how people dress and street life in general. Flâneurs relish what they discern and discover.” ~ Alan Fletcher (The Art of Looking Sideways)

“Flânerie… is immersion in an anonymous, spectatorial gaze that gives license to wandering and observing… It is an aesthetic action, art form, and social phenomenon… The flâneur… possesses a way of seeing the world and being in the world that intrinsically reveals meaningful, social commentary.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life…” ~ Georg Simmel (The Metropolis and Mental Life)

Sometimes it’s best to step aside and let others swing at the piñata. Though none of the definitions/ruminations above precisely encapsulate my personal brand of flânerie, taken together they come close.

“I quote others only the better to express myself.” ~ Michel de Montaigne

My own flâneur précis remains a work in progress, but for now you’re welcome to meander through my piñata swings: virtualDavis: a Flâneur in the Digital Age.

Updates for What is a Flâneur?

Just another listless dreamer...

Just another listless dreamer… (virtualDavis)

The earliest version of this page was coded into existence with clumsy, labored HTML around January 2000. It has dilated and contracted over the years like a stubborn accordion. From time to time I stuff in another tune, then — a month or a year later — I manage to pull it out again, usually adapting it into a standalone blog post (most can be found in the Flâneur category). What remains are a few of the most helpful sources I have found. If you’re looking for a source that has vanished from this page, try using the search function and you can most likely find what you want in a blog post. If not, contact me and I’ll try to help you out.

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