I was at a meeting, not long ago, when the term "flâneur" came up. I had never heard it before. A fellow art professor said, in essence, "I want to receive a grant so I can be a flâneur for an extended period of time.” Another professor, reacting, chimed in that she fully understood that desire, because she was investigating the effect of boredom on creativity. I was confused and, frankly, a bit put off. It all sounded self indulgent to me, and so foreign. Investigating the term online, later, only made me feel even more uncomfortable. Even the little hat on the letter "a" was off-putting.
|Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842|
|From Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur (1841)|
What could be more foreign, I wondered, in the modern world we live in, than someone who's just wandering around looking? I can't picture many people sauntering anymore. Except dog walkers and joggers. Everyone is kept busy nowadays. When I was a kid, we had lots of free time. My friends and I walked in the woods, and to the store, and made many stops along the way. Puddles, streams, construction sites, trash trucks, animals—they all slowed us down. We stopped and looked. Old folks, too, would watch on the streets. We used to hear the term "sidewalk supervisor" for men who hung around at construction sites. Now we have camps and play groups and lessons for kids. We have Senior Centers for the retired. Everyone is kept busy. Everyone in America is off the streets.
Which leads me to the subject of sketching. The more I think about it, the more I think the sketcher is the modern day flânuer. That makes me a flâneur? Not all the time, and not with a top hat, but still, I (and my fellow sketchers) may very well be part of an international flâneur resurgence. Sketchers wander, and watch, and wonder on the streets. How else to describe the fact that I'm prone to walking around for hours—then sitting and observing closely, the light of a sunset as it crosses a car, on a small back street in Italy?
Yet, I don't feel like I fully match the flâneur profile. It's not a comfortable fit. When I'm wandering, I’m busy wandering. Like others, I have a job to do, and a family to attend to. I have commitments to keep. So, in a thoroughly modern way, my flânerie (the act of being a flâneur) is a scheduled activity. To see me wandering, or sketching, is to see me working. I'm a sweaty flâneur.
Being a flâneur is my favorite job, flânerie my most treasured time—a perfect antidote to a fast-paced world. A dandy indulgence.