Monday, January 4, 2010

The Passages of Paris - The flâneur

Passage Verdeau

Walter Benjamin's "Passengenwerk" or "The Arcades Project" was the result of some 13 years of his fascination with Paris's covered shopping arcades, which, as he wrote; "radiated through the Paris of the Second Empire like fairy grottoes."

Originally intended to be a series of brief essays, Benjamin's interest expanded the project. It was still unfinished when he died in 1940. The manuscript is really a collection of notes and fragments, roughly organized by subjects, into groups he called "Convolutes."

His notes included not only his own writings, but quotes and citations from others - histories, popular novels, song lyrics and magazine snippets.

Benjamin considered the arcades an important urban phenomenon that changed the way people interacted with commerce. He quoted an 1852 tourist guidebook to describe the structures:
We have repeatedly thought of the arcades as interior boulevards like those they open onto. These passages, a new discovery of industrial luxury, are glass-covered marble-walled walkways through entire blocks of buildings, the owners of which have joined together to engage in such a venture. Lining both sides of these walkways are the most elegant of commodity shops, so that such an arcade is a city, a world in miniature.
He mused how consumer culture of today arose from the architecture of the arcades - the gathering of shops together, protected from the weather, space created for the purposes of browsing, gathering, gossiping, observing.

Galerie Vero-Dodat

The 19th Century poet Baudelaire coined the word "flâneur" to mean a person who strolls about the city, leisurely exploring and observing life and other people. Benjamin was fascinated by the idea of the flâneur - the man who is both of the crowd and apart from it; there to see and there to be seen.

Benjamin wrote: "the flâneur seeks refuge in the crowd. The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city is transformed for the flâneur into phantasmagoria."

Galerie Vivienne
An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. With each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; even weaker grow the temptations of shops, of bistros, of smiling women, even more irresistible the magnetism of the next streetcorner, of a distant mass of foliage, of a street name. Then comes hunger. Our man wants nothing to do with the myriad possibilities offered to sate his appetite. Like an ascetic animal, he flits through unknown districts – until, utterly exhausted, he stumbles into his room, which receives him coldly and wears a strange air.
Passage Verdeau

The idea of the flâneur was much discussed in the literature of the 19th century. He is distinguised from mere tourists or rubberneckers, wrote Victor Fournel in 1858, because the flâneur is "in full possession of his individuality, while that of the rubberneck disappears, absorbed by the external world....under the influence of the spectacle, the rubberneck becomes an impersonal being. He is no longer a man - he is the public; he is the crowd."

Passage des Panoramas

In 1843, Jules Gabriel Janin wrote of the flâneur in a magazine article geared to tourists, "The American in Paris," calling him in translation, "The Lounger"
The Passages des Panoramas is [the Lounger’s] abode, there he is under shelter, there he is at home, there he receives his friends and makes his appointments, and there you are sure to meet him. And what finer saloon can he have, than this Passage des Panoramas? Where will you find more numerous visitors, and more liberty? Where will you find prettier faces in the morning and more brilliant gas in the evening? Never was a saloon better filled with masterpieces, music, refreshments of every kind. …He walks in the rich galleries of the Palais Royal; this is his summer saloon, just as the Passage des Panoramas is his winter saloon. From merely running over the brilliant windows of these magnificent bazaars, he knows what sales have been made during the day; a bracelet has been bought; a false tuft has disappeared; what has become of the woman who sold stocks?
For Janin, the Lounger's familiarity with his territory casts him in a role almost as a caretaker. While Benjamin likened him to the hunter, for whom "there is always something more to see."

Many of the idle young men who hung around the arcades were fashionable dandies, who were there to be seen and show off. There were gambling rooms located in the upper arcades. There were dancers and opera singers from the nearby theatres to impress, seduce, and woo. In the 1840s some wealthy young men found it fashionable to walk turtles on leashes among the shoppers in the arcades, causing tongues to wag. The turtles set the pace for the idle strollers, as they slowly moved among the crowds, much as today's teenagers hang out in shopping malls and try to impress one another with their fashions and antics.

As Benjamin saw it, the flâneur was a product of modern life, of the Industrial Revolution. He could not have been possible without the architecture of the arcades providing a place where commerce could be displayed in a sheltered environment, where people would linger; where one could browse without buying. And without the ability to produce mass quantities of goods, there would be no such displays of abundance. And without the wages paid to everyday people to produce such goods, there would be no market for them.

Galerie Vero-Dodat

If you think about the way we enjoy ourselves at shopping malls, you can see that it's all designed to appeal to the flâneur in us. Attracting the flâneur is the driving force behind current day design of urban gathering places and retail establishments. Isn't it marvelous, to tour these elegant galleries from almost 200 years ago, and see where it all began?


Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

wonderful, informative post - with some terrific photos!

"...The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city is transformed for the flâneur into phantasmagoria." what a terrific quote!


With these wonderful travellogs, I am learning so much. I don't need to bother with air flight. Paris in my PJs. Now that's delightful.

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

You are becoming my teacher! I would love to walk there. How wonderful, great post.