The Modern Metropolis - the Flaneur, the Flaneuse



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The Modern Metropolis - the Flaneur, the Flaneuse


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The Modern Metropolis - the Flaneur, the Flaneuse

The Modern Metropolis and the Flâneur/Flâneuse
Literature is full of solitary walkers, strolling anonymously through city crowds, observing
people’s faces, imagining their dreams. For Baudelaire, Proust or Joyce, this lonely city-dweller
not only serves as the writer’s eye, but he also serves as a mark for his urban claim. In literature,
this character is known as the flâneur - the connoisseur of street life.
The term comes from the French word “flânerie”, that is the activity of strolling and
looking, which is done by the flâneur. Flânerie is a recurring motif in literature, sociology and
urbanism, being an important aspect of the metropolitan existence. It was first used by Charles
Baudelaire in his prose and poetry, being most noticed in the Paris Spleen collection of 1869.
Later in time Baudelaire’s flâneur was analyzed by Walter Benjamin in an essay in which he
reflects upon modernism. (Wolff 4)
Therefore, the initial figure of the flâneur was tied to a specific time and place, that is the
Paris of the 19th century. Baudelaire (in the essay “The Painter of Modern Life”, 1959) refers
strictly to a male figure as observer of the places and spaces of Paris, as Baudelaire’s flâneur is a
man of the crowd:
He goes and watches the river of life flow past him in all its splendor and majesty…He
gazes upon the landscapes of the great city – landscapes of stone, caressed by the mist or
buffeted by the sun. He delights in fine carriages and proud horses, the dazzling smartness
of the grooms, the expertness of the footmen, the sinuous gait of the women, the beauty of
the children… (Baudelaire qtd. Wolff 6)
The figure and the activity, of the flâneur is essentially about freedom, the meaning of
existence (or the lack of a meaning of existence) and being-with-others in the modern urban spaces
of the city. However, the term was then adopted by the critics in order to convey the nature and
implications of modernity. Thus, the activity of flânerie conveys a spectatorship involving male
gaze. As a result, the flâneur’s characteristic gazing on women on the city streets suggests the
impossibility of the female flâneur or flâneuse. (Tester 2)


However, Virginia Woolf challenges all these aspects, in her novel, Mrs Dalloway. As the
characters (Clarissa, her old friend Peter Walsh and th...

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