The word flâneur comes from the French flaner, which means "to stroll". The state of being a flâneur is called flânerie.

While flâneur could describe any person strolling about, it refers primarily to those who prefer to observe, rather than experience directly, the urban existance. Although there is the presumption that the flâneur is male, feminist scholars have discovered representations of the female flâneuse.

A flâneur takes delight in the movement, the smells, and the sounds experienced in an unhurried tour of the city streets, while at the same time holding it all in contempt. To a flâneur, walking about without any purpose is reward enough; the nearer to "where the action happens," the better. To be a flâneur requires the luxury of time, proximity to an urban centre, and a passion for finding oneself in the press of the teeming throng.

A flâneur is differentiated from a crowdsperson in that the former refuses to be part of the surrounding masses. In a film, the flâneur would be the person standing near-still, on whom the camera focuses with a receding down shot, and all about the bustle of humankind. Fin-de-siècle Paris or Rome would be the setting, and they would likely be dressed in a classy, quasi-bohemian manner, perhaps smoking a pipe. Flâneurs take up space.

Perhaps the 1840s would be the height of flânerie. For a short while in this decade, some flâneurs found it fashionable to take a pet turtle for a walk, so as to set a pace for themselves. There was even a newspaper (published but once) in Paris, May 3, 1848, by the title of "Le Flâneur". As the industrial classes began to dominate the market at this time, flânerie was a sort of protest against such business, and a last breath of the political function of the upper class.

The character of the flâneur can be found in the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Alfred Kazin, Fran Lebowitz, Joseph Mitchell, and Walt Whitman. Some contemporary literature that looks at the flâneur is:

Chris Jenks' 1995 "Watching your Step: The History and Practice of the Flaneur " in Visual Culture, Routledge.
Graeme Gilloch's 1996 Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, Polity.
Walter Benjamin's 1997 Charles Baudelaire: A lyric poet in the era of high capitalism, Verso.
Edmund White's 2001 The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury USA.

Although this term does come into English from French, the deeper (but still secure) etymology is Scandinavian, "flana" - to wander.

The term in French and in 19th Century English was ambiguously loaded. It could be positive, as in a person of leisure, or negative, as in an idler or a superficial person.

What makes this term interesting to me is that it has acquired an additional level of meaning which can be read as a play on "wandering/wondering". A variety of writers have explored the term. Feminist critical theory has used the concept to question issues of gender and power in urban spaces in a kind of crossover with psychogeography. The attitude of a "flâneur" is evoked in philosophy to describe an attitude of investigation detached from ideology.

Fla`neur" (?), n. [F., fr. flaner to stroll.]

One who strolls about aimlessly; a lounger; a loafer.


© Webster 1913.

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