For a certain type of person, there’s no better way to experience a city than by walking through it, without obvious purpose beyond the enjoyment you take in walking and observing. Members of this tribe were given a label in the 19th century — the flâneur, from the French verb flâner, meaning to wander aimlessly. Originally a slang term, the word flâneur came into use around 1840 and peaked in popularity in the early 20th century.
The term is still known today but is more often used in a historical sense to refer to the notable real or fictional flâneurs of the past, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” and Charles Baudelaire’s Painter of Modern Life to Franz Hessel, who published a series of reports based on his observations of street life in the Weimar Republic.
Anyone can walk through a city, but the flâneur is a specific type of walker. He walks for the pleasure of the experience and observes more than takes part in the life around him. He has a certain aristocratic status, and thus has the leisure to spend his time walking rather than working.
He is also most certainly a he, the masculine pronoun used not in the universal sense of “all human beings” but to designate that only half of humanity (“males”) is included in the description. In the conventional view, a female flâneur (or flâneuse, to inflect the noun in the French manner) simply cannot exist, because women do not stroll about a city for their own enjoyment. In this (positively Victorian) view, proper middle- and upper-class women are at home taking care of their families, while lower-class women may walk to work but do not have the leisure to stroll purposely.
A slang term for prostitute – the streetwalker – demonstrates just how much the streets were considered the property of men as if a woman seen walking in public could be assumed to be there for the purpose of selling her body.
Those were the bad old days, right? Maybe not so much, as women still experience harassment simply for walking down a city street. But as a counterbalance to such repressive forces, some women today are claiming the right to walk, observe, and write about such experiences, offering their perceptions and opinions as equally valid to those of the men who have previously dominated the literature of flâneurie.
One strong voice among these women is Lauren Elkin, whose book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London combines exploration of her own experiences as a walker in many cities with reflections on other women who were notable walkers and observers.
Elkin, by her account, grew up on suburban Long Island, where the usual form of transportation was the automobile, walking for its own sake was considered eccentric, and cities, in general, were considered dirty and dangerous. She discovered the pleasures of flâneurie while studying in Paris, and one day while on a walk realized that “I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.”
As many walkers can testify, once you’ve felt that freedom, you won’t give it up willingly. You will also search out others of the tribe — people who love to walk for walking’s sake and who are willing to share their experiences and observations. Because the voices of female walkers have not always been heard, or honored, one of the most useful aspects of Flâneuse is Elkin’s well-researched accounts of the experiences of some notable women walkers, including George Sand, Martha Gellhorn, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Agnès Varda, and Sophie Calle.
Elkin constructed Flâneuse to mimic the practice flâneurie, so reading it feels like taking a pleasant but meandering stroll rather than purposefully walking from one fixed location to another. Elkin’s chapter on Bloomsbury, for instance, mixes her own experiences as a walker in contemporary London with those of Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and other members of the Bloomsbury Circle, as well as bits and pieces from Woolf’s novels and other writings. The material Elkin incorporates is often fascinating — for example Woolf, in a 1927 essay, describes her practice of “street haunting”, which is pretty much flâneurie by another name — but this style of writing can be exasperating if you prefer books that progress in an orderly and straightforward manner.
The varied materials incorporated in Flâneuse are not always as well integrated as they might be. Sometimes it seems like Elkin is delivering a series of core dumps, combining a series of potted biographies with her own, fairly mundane walking experiences. However, if you can overlook her occasional stylistic lapse, Flâneuse is crammed with information and loaded with insight and may go a long way toward correcting the view that flâneurie is an art only practiced by men.