Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can take in all the rich (if muted) detail. The loiterer, the flâneur, has a long, distinguished pedigree in France. An Italian traveller said in 1577, „Looking at people go by has always been the Parisians’ favourite pastime; no wonder they’re called gawkers.” A few years before the Revolution a writer named Louis Sébastien Mercier wandered the streets of Paris taking notes about the cries of strolling vendors, studying boutiques and watching the hundred and one crafts of the great city being practised. In a massive work called Picture of Paris in twelve volumes (published from 1781 to 1789) Mercier argued for wider streets (with sidewalks and latrines) and called for an improvement in the desperate lot of the poor.
These practical and noble goals, so typical of a man of the Enlightenment, were of course transposed into a discordant key by the Revolution and the Terror. In any event, they seem little more than a pretext for Mercier’s entraptured inventories. As he admitted, „I’ve run about so much to do the Picture of Paris that I can say I’ve done it with my legs; and I’ve learned to wald the pavements of the capital in a manner that is nimble, lively and eager. That’s the secret you must possess in order to see everything.” As an observant flâneur, he studied the habits of the city’s thirty thousand prostitutes, its multitudinous beggars and the six thousand children abandoned every year, its soldiers and police („They all seem suited to subjugate for ever the outbreak of any serious uprising”, Mercier commented with a singular lack of prescience); its washerwomen and greengrocers – as well as that ubiquitous figure, the décrotteur, who scraped boots clean after a tromp through the muddy, filthy streets („He readies you to put in an apperance at the houses of ladies and gentlemen; for you can get away with a slightly worn jacket, a cheap shirt or clother that have been taken in, but you mustn’t arrive with dirty boots, not even if you’re a poet”).
Like a true flâneur, Mercier found his „research”, disorganized and fragmented as it might be, endlessly absorbing. As he put it, „I haven’t been bored once since I started writing books. If I’ve bored my readers, may they forgive me, since I myself have been hugely amused.”
In the nineteenth century the consummate Parisian flâneur was Baudelaire. One of the key texts of the modern urban experience is „The Painter of Modern Life”, in which Baudelaire talks about the caricaturist Constantin Guys (a man who so shunned public attention that Baudelaire refers to him only under the misleading initials M.G.). In one sweeping passage, translated below, Baudelaire extols the modern artist who immerses himself in the bath of the crowd, gathers impressions and jots them down only when he returns to his studio. For him a foray into the cityscape is always undirected, even purposeless – a passive surrender to the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets.
Of the flâneur, Baudelaire writes:
The crowd is his domain, as the air is that of the bird or the sea of the fish. His passion and creed is to wed the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it’s an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you’re not at home, but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you’re at the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody – these are just a few of the minor pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial minds whom language can only awkwardly define. The observer is a prince, who, wearing a disguise, takes pleasuer everywhere… The amateur of life enters into the crowd as into an immense reservoir of electricity.
Baudelaire goes on to compare the flâneur to a mirror as huge as the crowd – or to a kaleidoscope outfitted with a consciousness that at every shake of the tube copies the configuration of multifarious life and the graceful movement of all its elements.
Of course we must bear in mind that the cosy, dirty, mysterious Paris Baudelaire is discussing (or Balzac or even the Flaubert of A Sentimental Education) is the city that was destroyed agter 1853 by one of the most massive urban renewal plans known to history, and replaced by a city of broad, strictly linear streets, unbroken façades, roundabouts radiating avenues, uniform city lighting, uniform street furniture, a complex, modern sewer system and public transportation (horse-drawn omnibuses eventually replaced by the métro and motor-powered buses).
Edmund White, The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, 2008, pp. 34-37.