I’m walking. Walking in no particular direction in a city that is new to me. At this moment I am on the Rue Pargaminières, an unobtrusively picturesque street that runs its cobbled length through to the Capitole. There are kebab joints and trendy bars both, so the old pink-brick buildings don’t feel as if they’re being put on a pedestal. I’ve enjoyed today’s flâneuring. Toulouse is good at elegant consistency; most of the city centre is beautiful.
I’ve been walking, fairly aimlessly, for most of the day – trying to get a sense of the city. It’s late Friday afternoon, and you’d know that even without needing to check a calendar. There’s a mellow kind of festival atmosphere on the streets. The student-centric Place Saint-Pierre is behind me and is still silent, but its silence promises something more. Stylish couples are already enjoying pre-dinner drinks, sat out smoking on tables by the roadside. Old men sit in the satisfied orange gloom of a nearby, Belgian-looking pub. Bearded 30-somethings cycle past, six packs of bottled beed under one arm. Music and muffled voices waft from third storey windows like heavy perfume, and this experience of synesthesia makes me smile as I continue on with my studies. As much as the menus du jour, as much as the cobbled streets and the old brick townhouses, I watch my fellow passers by. So many new faces, none of them shocking in their novelty.
If I had a 9th Century Anglo-Saxon bard’s gift for reciting words, rather than the awful goldfish memory with which I am resentfully endowed, I might recall Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’:
‘The crowd is his 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.’
Flânerie is a fantastic hobby. And everytime I find myself in a new town, especially when my wallet is even more empty than usual, I like to walk. I’m of the firm opinion that aimless walking, as a ‘passionate spectator’, is the finest and freest way to understand and enjoy a city.
Now – now is more complicated. But back then, the flaneur was a member of the intelligensia. Defined by his comparative wealth, education and leisure, he strolls to pass time, he sees the people and objects of his journey as texts to be read. But at the same time, he is also a participant, inexorably part of the crowd he observes – in a refined and dignified sense of course.
Walter Benjamin imagined the death of the Flâneur. The arcades of Paris were the Flâneur’s original natural habitat, his feeding ground, where he found intellectual nourishment in the crowd:
‘Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes’
But as the maze-like, half inside, half outside arcades gave way to the deaprtment store, the Flaneur was euthanised by the forces of commercialisation. The department store makes ‘use of flânerie itself in order to sell goods.’ It is the flâneur’s ‘final coup’, his corpse lies wasted in the sterile expanse of the capitalist’s department store and the new urban space. The flâneur is lured into these new commercialised spaces by the same force of attraction that takes him onto the street. But instead of his usual dignified position as observer, he is co-opted into the role of consumer.
Benjamin’s flâneur is obviously a bit political. There is undoubtedly a lot of truth in The Arcades Project, but he declares the flâneur’s death prematurely, misses the philosophical significance of flânerie. At least, as I walk these cobbled streets and people watch, flânerie still feels relevant.
The Flâneur is still relevant. Perhaps he is not so when decked out in his original finery, his coattails, tophat, and with all the trappings of history’s artistic and critical thought. But in his modern incarnation, he is still useful.
Even more so when we set him beside his counterpart, the badaud, an urban type of the same milieu. The badaud is the crowd, the foil to the Flâneur’s individualism. While he does participate in some sense, he also maintains a dignified, almost cold distance. She is a symbol of the urban masses. He is the gourmet, she the gourmand, the gawker, the dual participant/observer, who observes in such a participatory, undistinguished sense that she might as well be the whole of the crowd. She gapes rather than studies, she relishes the comotion of the street, the gossip and the spectacle. She is emotional, gullible, predictable, common.
And now the belated apology: in this day and age we can of course do away with the gendered pronouns and all the sexism. While it is hard for the 19th Century to imagine the female Flâneuse, it is no problem for the 21st. Likewise, the baudaud nowadays is just as easily a man. As I walk towards the Place du Capitole, I find myself almost accidentally in that huge, majestic space. The square bustles with people, whom I study like galavanting antelope, or the dance of seaweed caught in the crest of a wave. I am the flaneur, they are badaudes.
They probably don’t feel like Baudades. The woman walking her small, fluffy dog; the tall, old gentlemen dressed up for the evening; the overtly cool brass band; and the eclectic assortment of people watching them, they might well be insulted if I told them that they were all symbols of the urban masses, devoid of intellectual distinction, simply gapers, while I alone am a Baudelairean poet.
Because the distinction must surely be sustained by pretention, or in the olden days, a class affiliated sense of superiority – at least a little bit. There is more to it, I know. But the flâneur is at least in part a statement of hyper-conscious individualism, reconciling himself within the masses of which he himself is part: While the badaude is the crowd, I, the flaneur, am part of the crowd but not of it… Unless of course, you are considering it all from the persepctive of a lone badaude, in which case they might very well think me the badaude, and themselves the flâneur. Shift perspective, and I am now of the crowd.
Except, I am not, am I? Not part of this crowd at least. I do not live here; this is the first time I have visited this city. I am not even French. This is Toulouse, and I am currently being a tourist. The distinction between tourist and local involves a different power balance to that of Flâneur and Badaude. Who would not rather be a local, with local knowledge? It is not always comfortable being a tourist, being the awkward observer. I am left to the textuality of the crowd ill-equipped. It is a text written in a foreign language, pretty much literally. But aside from this, the participant/observer dynamic is still firmly in play.
I sit alone on a stone bench by the brass band, and take a swig from the water bottle that I carry in my back-pack.
The tourist, who walks all day through an alien city, is even more distant an observer than the flâneur, who is distinguished by his leisure, class, and poetic tendencies alone. The tourist, who is here for a brief moment only, is even more aware that his environment, and the locals that inhabit it are experiences to be had, texts to be read, decoded and translated into opinion and idea: I’ve been here barely three days, but I know Toulouse, I’ve seen its old churches and studied its people. It’s a self-assured city dressed in fine clothes, but with a young, student heart and a refreshingly anti-Parisian lack of pretention. Maybe this is true. But how true?
Participation is not the norm for the tourist, it comes with spontaneous invitation, or in the form of anodyne, prostituted experience: the tribal dance or the market tour. So here, amongst the Badaudes, who gape and gossip, because they are too familiar with the crowd to take notes, I am more distant an observer than the Flâneur. I am all the more distant because walking these streets, even for the second or the third time, I am an explorer. The 19th Century Flâneur at least knows the geography of his Arcades. He concentrates on content, because at least the form is familiar. I don’t have that priveldge.
The brass band have really gotten into the swing of things, and a fat man – late fifties, grey head of hair, squats to take a photograph on his Nikon. His wife is very cheerful.
But despite the distance and the knowledge imbalance, the gullibility of the tourist is still placated by a Flâneurial sense of superiority. I am still master of my element, the foreign city reduced to raw material. I challenge you to deny it – that the pretentious distance of the flâneur is not present in the modern, self-assured tourist. It’s all to obvious when two flâneurs awkwardly cross paths. An individual recognising another individual, vividly; two tourists with their alienation in common. Because then the feeling crumbles a little, along with the realization that I’m not special after all. The sight of a tour group is something different. These are not flâneurs – these people, led through the heat of the day by bossy guides, they have sacrificed their individualism. They are perhaps the corpses of flâneurs that Walter Benjamin predicted: The flâneur bought out by commercial pressure, his freedom of strolling observation reduced to a market value and a to do list.
I’m starting to walk again; the brass band have stopped playing. It’s the individualism of isolation that does it, along with the priveledged position of observer. Those who walk the streets alone, leisurely, for pleasure and englightenment, have that in common throughout the ages.
My reverie is broken as I step into a small cornershop, on a narrow street just off the Place du Capitole – I don’t know its name. I’m looking for tobacco, but the choice is bewildering. Behind the counter sit rows of colourful brands, some I am familiar with, others that I am not. The more unfamiliar brands beckon me, and I end up going for some rolling tobacco in a light blue packet. Ending up at this point however, takes me a while. I stand, awkwardly surveying the wares, unable to coherently say that I’m just having a look, thank you. God, my French is really awful. Saying ‘my French’ is hyperbole it doesn’t deserve – my French consists of a lonely and rag-bag assortment of words. There is a small queue forming behind me. The shop keeper is amused, thankfully. ‘Je voudrais… ca’. Mumbling through, I buy the tobacco. Between waiting for my change, and making eye contact with the shopkeeper, I question whether voyeurism is maybe just the recourse of those who do not have enough familiarity to understand. But I soon return to the matters at hand.
I step into the rapidly cooling dusk, and decide to walk back the way I’d come, towards Place Saint-Pierre, which by now should be starting its evening programme of debauchery. I am certain that this city will at least allow me to participate in the universal European ritual of the Friday night. I soon learn that I was not wrong.