Strolling aimlessly – instead of having set routes and set sites to see – is something I’ve always enjoyed doing, especially in big or new cities. I discovered that there was a French term for this aimless wandering, considered to be a kind of art. And that’s flânerie, while the person who engages in this pastime is called a flâneur, a figure who is emblematic of nineteenth-century French literary culture. These terms are derived from the Old Norse verb flana, which means “to wander with no purpose”.
The flâneur is meant to be an acute observer of society. Flânerie is not frivolous, pointless, or lazy. The strolling itself may be ‘aimless’ in a sense, but it still produces valuable changes in one’s psyche or subjectively felt experience of the world. Flânerie does not mean you’re doing nothing. As the French novelist Honoré de Balzac remarked, “To stroll is to vegetate, to flâner is to live,” and he moreover described the pursuit as “the gastronomy of the eye”. (This is not to say that ‘doing nothing’, encapsulated by the Dutch concept niksen, is itself without value; it may actually carry a number of benefits, in terms of enhancing our creativity and mental health.) Flânerie is a way of exploring and looking, held in high regard by those who practise it. According to the historian Anaïs Bazin, “the only, the true sovereign of Paris is the flâneur.”
Such a person is uniquely affected by the urban landscape, which is relevant in the context of psychogeography: the study of how the built environment (intentionally and unintentionally) affects our mood and behaviour. In this field of study, we find the concept of dérive, originally put forward by the French Marxist-theorist Guy Ernest-Debord in Theory of the Dérive (1956); and it refers to an unplanned journey through a (typically urban) landscape. Dérive literally means “drift”. It is very much comparable to the idea of flânerie, although the randomness and serendipity that characterises flânerie is lacking. Debord states that dérive is:
a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
He adds that “Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favourable to our purposes.” So it seems there are strong differences in opinion on precisely how one should navigate the urban network – made up of distinct but connected neighbourhoods – since each style of exploration will have its own psychological effects. As a side note, I found out that there’s an app called Dérive that “gets you lost in your city and lets you share that experience with others” – ideal for the flâneurs out there. The creators have said that the app:
allows users to explore their urban spaces in a care-free and casual way. It takes the ideals of the Situationists and merges it with digital means in order to create a tool that would imply an exploration of urban space in a random unplanned way as a game. Too often in urban centers we are controlled by our day to day activities thus closing off urban experiences that exist around us. Dérive app was created to try to nudge those people who are in this repetitive cycle to allow the suggestions and subjectivities of others to enter into their urban existences.
The active engagement of communities in their urban spaces unleashes in them new understanding of their urban surroundings, to open up channels of dialogue between individuals and groups through a device that makes the unpacking of urban space part of a game.
To better understand flânerie specifically, we should turn to the musings of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, as he wrote influentially on the concept and what he thought defined the ideal behind it. As he said in The Painter of Modern Life (1863):
The crowd is his [the flâneur’s] element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; 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. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.
The flâneur tries to remain hidden while also uncovering what is hidden – the details that would normally be unseen or unappreciated when walking through a city. Instinct, intuition, and playfulness are all central to the concept of flânerie; the flâneur is someone who does not follow clearly established or linear patterns of actions or movements. Through this art of strolling, the flâneur becomes an amateur detective and investigator of the city: someone who is keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, and who may be able to offer unique insights into phenomena such as alienation, class tensions, gender divisions, and mass culture.
The flâneur is traditionally depicted as male and is a figure of urban affluence and modernity since he has the free time and ability to wander detached from society, with no other purpose than to observe contemporary society with keen interest. While traditionally practised and portrayed as a male occupation, there have been famous female flâneurs as well (known as flâneuses), including Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Jean Rhys, Martha Gellhorn, Amy Levy, and more contemporary people, such as the French writer Sophie Calle and the British artist Laura Oldfield Ford.
(The literary scholar Laura Elkin coined the term flâneuse, simply converting the masculine to the feminine in French, and it is used as the title of her book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, which seeks to redefine the concept of flânerie, celebrate female wanderers, and reclaim the city for them.)
Historically, however, the obstacle that female city wanderers have faced is that they have not been able to remain invisible in the way that their male counterparts could be. Baudelaire presents the flâneur as a phantom of the streets who can dissolve into the flux of daily life and thus be in a position to chronicle the minutiae of the surroundings, the people, and the activity going on. Yet as Arnav Adhikari points out in an article for The Atlantic:
Despite their presence on the same streets, historically, women haven’t always shared the same privilege of anonymity or drift in the urban setting; whether because of domestic responsibilities or simply issues of safety, they have often been less free to roam the streets without purpose, to go where they choose or where inspiration leads them.
In Woolf’s essay Street Haunting (1927), the narrator explores the act of walking through a city and imagining the lives of strangers: “What greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality [and to feel] that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others”. The narrator also calls street haunting – Woolf’s name for flânerie – the “greatest of adventures” in winter. So while the winter months can encourage us to retreat indoors (and stay there), cities still leave open the possibility of flânerie, which should motivate us to explore, no matter the weather.
Woolf’s narrator says that when we go out into the city on a winter evening, surrounded by the “champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets”, we are able to leave behind what defines us at home, and we become “part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers”.
In a diary entry from 1930, Woolf reiterates the pleasures and joys of strolling through cityscapes as conveyed in Street Haunting:
A fine spring day. I walked along Oxford St. The buses are strung on a chain. People fight & struggle. Knocking each other off the pavement. Old bareheaded men; a motor car accident, &c. To walk alone in London is the greatest rest.
Flânerie inspired Woolf’s major works, including To the Lighthouse (the author had the idea for the novel while walking in Tavistock Square). The connection between walking and creativity now has strong scientific support, and a case could be made that the specific act of flânerie – not just a routine or planned work, or idle strolling – is particularly conducive to creativity. We certainly see this link in Street Haunting, for example, where the narrator places themselves into the minds of a multitude of others.
Flânerie was also a theme contained in Woolf’s other novels, like Mrs Dalloway (published two years before Street Haunting). The character Mrs Dalloway evinces this in her very first words: “‘I love walking in London,’ said Mrs Dalloway. ‘Really, it’s better than walking in the country.’” She is the epitome of the flâneuse. (Even her surname – Dalloway – means “a woman who likes to dally along the way”, which has been highlighted by Rachel Bowlby, Professor of Comparative Literature at University College London.)
According to Walter Benjamin, the flâneur is a unique product of modern life and the Industrial Revolution, without precedent, paralleling the advent of the tourist. Benjamin himself adopted such a role, making social and aesthetic observations during long walks through Paris. The flâneur is uninvolved but highly perceptive. Perhaps many tourists and travellers don’t adopt such a mindset; they may be uninvolved but not perceptive in the way a flâneur is, instead preferring established sites and routes over unplanned and aimless wandering. However, many travellers have a penchant for flânerie and may prefer it over sightseeing or complement sightseeing with it.
There are also definite connections between street photography and flânerie. Susan Sontag observes in her essay On Photography (1977) that the camera has become the tool of the flâneur. She writes:
The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque.”
Travellers and photographers who are attracted to detached but aesthetically attuned observation are natural flâneurs and flâneuses. Whether exploring one’s own city or a foreign one, one can wander not mindlessly or with a direction or specific goal in mind but both aimlessly and mindfully. Architecture, people, and social interactions can, consequently, reveal themselves anew. In an unfamiliar city, one can perhaps gain a richer understanding of what makes that city – and the culture of the country it is situated in – distinct.
Flânerie does not have to be a bourgeois or pretentious activity. It is a mode of spectating available to anyone walking around a cityscape – a way of imbuing the everyday with a sense of fascination and discovery.