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What is a flâneur?

C’est quoi un flâneur?

Rather than give my own interpretation, I will defer to the wisdom of others. Let’s start with Wikipedia, who will soon replace all great writers as the anonymous mother lode of information. She has some great responses (yes, Wikipedia is a woman):

“The term flâneur comes from the French masculine noun un flâneur [ahn flah-NUR]—which has the basic meanings of ‘stroller’, ‘lounger’, ‘saunterer’, ‘loafer’—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll”. Charles Baudelaire developed a derived meaning of flâneur—that of “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”. Because of the term’s usage and theorization by Baudelaire and numerous thinkers in economic, cultural, literary and historical fields, the idea of the flâneur has accumulated significant meaning as a referent for understanding urban phenomena and modernity.”

Also mined from the Wikipedia entry is a great excerpt from Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977):

“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.'” (pg. 55)

Finally, the Mother of Information references Cornelia Otis Skinner:

“There is no English equivalent for the French word flâneur. Cassell’s dictionary defines flâneur as a stroller, saunterer, drifter but none of these terms seems quite accurate. There is no English equivalent for the term, just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city. (Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, 1962, Houghton Mifflin, New York)”

The inspiration for labeling myself flâneur comes from my dear friend Sara D., who recommended to me this book. I love this definition the most, and so it is the final quotation that I will cite:

“A flaneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets he walks – and is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joel permalink
    July 2, 2010 14:42

    What a marvelous word, thanks for posting the explanation. Like so many other French words, the precision and beauty of its expression is difficult to translate, and often requires a paragraph of English 🙂

    Looking forward to following your chronicles!!


  1. Introduction. C’est quoi un flâneur? « The Brooklyn Flâneur

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