“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Day 70: The Flâneur and the Dog, Part One

When I taught in France we read a book I love by Edmund White called The Flâneur.  To be a flâneur is to be an ambler, or as Thoreau said, a saunterer.  Someone who strolls and wanders for hours without a fixed destination.  It was a word Baudelaire used and applied to someone who likes to explore the crowded city streets of Paris.  He wrote:
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 center of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody--these are just a few of 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 pleasure everywhere . . . The amateur of life enters into the crowd as into an immense reservoir of electricity.
In Paris, Baudelaire especially loved the old arcades.  The twentieth century philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin was writing his great tome to Baudelaire's flâneur and those arcades--what was to be published posthumously as The Arcade Projects--when the Nazis marched into Paris.

That aren't many of these arcades left.  Lizzy and I walked through one when she visited me in Paris a year ago.

My favorite thing to do in Paris, either alone or with a visiting friend, was to not make a plan.  We might decide that, at some point in the day, it might be nice to eat our picnic in a park, but that just gives us a general direction and until then, our backpacks aren't heavy and there's so much to see.

Now and then we might study a map, but then we had a destination, and we were no longer flâneurs.

The flâneur just goes where her feet lead her.  As a passionate observer, she loses herself completely.  She becomes part of the crowd.  She is just another point in the composition, the person in wine-colored boots sauntering beneath those gas lamps on gray cobblestones, another passionate observer among the crowd of people clumped near Notre-Dame watching the boy with the shaved head eat fire.  The flâneur is also that boy, and is also the fire.
When Zoe was in Paris with us, the question was, how does the crowd smell?  And is there meat?  And is there grass somewhere? 

When she pulled us with vigor, it wasn't always because there was something she just had to see like another dog in the next block.  Sometimes there was something she wanted to get away from--usually, a crowd, or the sound of something loud, like fireworks.

As a flâneur, Zoe prefers the sparsely populated path.  That's hard to find in Paris.

One day when Zoe was only a year old and her friend Cooper was maybe three, we walked with Cooper's person, Pat, on the path through the woods on the campus across from our house.

At the end of the walk, Pat asked me a trick question.   She said, "Did you notice anything unusual about today's walk?"

I thought about it.  We had marveled at the trillium.  And Cooper had coaxed Zoe into swimming further into the river than she ever had.  I mentioned those things.

"No," she said.  "We didn't pass another person in ninety minutes.  Not another living being.  That won't happen to you again until you come home from your trip."

I was about to leave for China, and I would be be gone for three weeks.  I would never not be in a crowd.

So the question is: can you be a flâneur without other people around? Without a crowd to absorb your individual identity?

The story continues tomorrow.

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