Walter Benjamin on the Flâneur

I think Albert Camus (along with his translators) was the dead philosopher who was my traveling companion in 2021. I read The Plague, The Stranger, and The Myth of Sisyphus this year. The first book helped me get my head around the expressions of human nature that I’ve been observing since the beginning of our current, ongoing pandemic; the other two helped me survive a vacuum created by the deconstruction of certain epistemological certainties that came with the religious ideological baggage I’ve been carrying with me since my youth. (And no, I haven’t abandoned Christianity nor become an atheist, but my thoughts on my mother-religion and “god” are ever-evolving.)

I’m beginning to think that this year might be the year I get to know Walter Benjamin. Now, as with Camus, I’m not saying I will know their writings at any level of expertise. My professional life requires that I do most of my reading in fields related to biblical studies and religious studies, which already stretches me out far beyond any level of “specialist” comfort into my necessary role as a generalist who keeps up with scholarship on the Hebrew Bible over here, the Gospels over there, American religion over here, the concept of “religion” over there, etc. But I do like to have a dialogue partner, even if the dialogue is minimal, and maybe not as deep as I’d like.

(Image Source: “Not Even Past”)

Benjamin was put on my radar by a recent episode of the “What’s Left of Philosophy?” podcast: “Wake Up and Choose Divine Violence”. I listened then I went and found Benjamin’s essay “A Critique of Violence”. Now, I’m still reading it, and processing it, and eventually, if I feel like I know how to say anything about it, I may write something here. For now, I’m captivated by a different idea over which I’ve stumbled that Benjamin seems to have gotten from his analysis of the writings of Charles Pierre Baudelaire. It’s the concept of the flâneur.

Apparently, the flâneur was/is a “stroller” in the crowd, especially the crowds found in the arcades of Europe. But, if I’m understanding things correctly, we must interpret them in contrast with the active crowds going here and there, busily, as cogs in the urban machine. In fact, in Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” he begins his exploration of the flâneur through the prism of writers/thinkers who despise or mourn the state of the urban crowd. For example, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels mourns how “two and a half million human beings” could be in one place, which “has multiplied the power of these two and a half million people a hundredfold,” and yet all they do is hurry “past one another” as if “they had nothing in common” except the agreement to stay out of the other’s way: “their only agreement is a tacit one: that each should keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honor another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each person in his private interest becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together within a limited space.”*

Benjamin says of Engels, “Engels is dismayed by the crowd. He responds with a moral reaction, and an aesthetic one as well; the speed with which people rush past one another unsettles him. The charm of his description lies in the blend of unshakable critical integrity with old-fashioned views.” ** Other writers such as the aforementioned Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe appear, in Benjamin’s estimation, to have a similar distaste.

In Benjamin’s essay “The Return of the Flaneur” (1929), he makes an interesting comment that there’s a difference between someone who is visiting a place, a tourist, and a native of a city. He writes, “If we were to divide all the existing descriptions of cities into two groups according to the birthplace of the authors, we would certainly find that those written by natives of the cities concerned are greatly in the minority. The superficial pretext-the exotic and the picturesque – appeals only to the outsider. To depict a city as a native would call for other, deeper motives — the motives of the person who journeys into the past, rather than to foreign parts. The account of a city given by a native will always have something in common with memoirs; it is no accident that the writer has spent his childhood there.”*** I read this to mean that the flâneur is someone who comes to know a place intimately. They’re not there just to work and go home; they’re not there as tourists to take pictures and leave. A flâneur is there to know a city; to love it.

Later, Benjamin writes this:

“Just as every tried-and-true experience also includes its opposite, so here the perfected art of the flâneur includes a knowledge of ‘dwelling.’ The primal image of ‘dwelling,’ however, is the matrix or shell-that is, the thing which enables us to read off the exact figure of whatever lives inside it. Now, if we recollect that not only people and animals but also spirits and above all images can inhabit a place, then we have a tangible idea of what concerns the flâneur and of what he looks for. Namely, images, wherever they lodge. The flâneur is the priest of the genius loci. This unassuming passer-by, with his clerical dignity, his detective’s intuition, and his omniscience, is not unlike Chesterton’s Father Brown, that master detective.”****

All of this is relevant to me as it reminds me of the city I call “home” in spite of having lived there for maybe five years of my life: San Francisco. I’ve told people that they must visit “the City,” as we Northern Californians call it. Some have. They may enjoy it, a bit. Others think it’s ok. Some think it’s dirty. I think it’s the greatest city in the world. But why?

When I lived there, I was a flâneur. I remember when I first moved to San Francisco, and I had been hired at Starbucks but had a few days until I was to start work, I decided to just walk the city. I walked from my apartment near San Francisco State University (Parkmerced) past Lake Merced all the way north along Ocean Beach until I passed Sutro Heights. I walked along the beach until I had to climb upward (I believe the tide was rising) and found myself walking the trails through Lands End. I ended up in Sea Cliff where I had my one brief passing with Robin Williams as he was leaving his home there. I kept going through the Presidio and didn’t head south until I reached Fillmore. Then I kept going south until eventually, very late in the day, I made an appointment I had with some friends at a coffee shop on Ocean Avenue. If you look at a map of San Francisco, I traversed so much of the city. As a kid from a small town like Napa, I was in awe of each neighborhood. Each neighborhood was its own story with its own history. I knew then that I’d live there until the day I died. I was wrong.

But when I did live there, even on the bad days when I had to sell my car to afford rent, or wake up at 3 am to walk from Parkmerced to a bus stop in West Portal that took me over to a drop off on the corner of Market and Van Ness, so I could walk up Van Ness to Bush for an opening shift, I loved it. When I lived in Hunters Point near Candlestick and had to catch a bus on 3rd Street to take me to my temporary job downtown, I loved it. When I lived in the very boring Excelsior District, I had my coffee shops, and my favorite local book stores and a sense that this was my city and everything was meaningful and new. Now, I will confess that my final days there were days where I was a bit burnt out on struggling to get by in a very expensive city. I knew I needed to leave, temporarily, but I also knew I’d be back as soon as I was refreshed. I was wrong.

But my love for San Francisco has not disappeared, even if I’m in permanent exile. To this day, I’ve dreamt of having the time and opportunity to research and write histories of San Francisco. (One of my favorite books of all time is David Talbot’s The Season of the Witch.) Amazing considering I’ve lived in San Antonio, TX, longer than I did San Francisco…but there’s a reason why there’s a cliche based on a song about leaving your heart in San Francisco. And I think it has something to do with this idea of being a flâneur, a wanderer and wonderer, who imagines the stories of the places in the city you stand, and cares little about what the tourist sees when you can see decades of history in one building, or one corner, or one mural. And for some reason, sadly, as much as I appreciate San Antonio, and liked Portland, OR, I’ve never felt about those cities the way I feel about San Francisco. I think, at least with regards to San Antonio, it’s just too much sprawl. Can you be a flâneur here? If so, I failed to become one.

There’s so much to say about this idea. I have nothing further to offer at the moment though, of course, Wikipedia is a perfectly fine entry point. And some brighter minds have said clearer and more insightful things, such as this doctoral dissertation in German Studies at the University of Vanderbilt by Curtis Lee Maughan titled “The Return of Flânerie: Walter Benjamin and the Experience of Videogames,” which honestly I really want to read now that I’ve stumbled over it. Also, this random sample chapter made available by Blackwell but without the name of the author: “The City Observed: The Flâneur in Social Theory”. Also, this website by Blake Miner where he tries to put into practice the concept of the flâneur: A Flaneur Life. And there’s even this Danish documentary on YouTube, created by Torben Jensen, that talks about all of this (in subtitles for English speakers).

*This quote comes from The Condition of the Working Class in England, trans. Florence Wischnewetzky [1886], pp. 68-69, found on pp. 321-322 of this PDF.
** This quote comes from p. 322 of the above-linked PDF.
*** I found a translation of this essay online. This seems to be the safest place to download it:
**** From the above translation/PDF.

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