Tuesday, April 29, 2014

the feline art of the flâneur

A day arrived when I could no longer be silent on the subject of my darling tortoise-shell cat: Odelia, the delight of my eyes, velvet-limbed pall of my pillow, exhalation of elegance, adorer of the diaphanous, and connoisseur of dragonflies. In absence of dragonfly, a cellophane wrapper is a temptingly treacherous alternative. Flicking an oily leaf of seaweed across the floor--grants her a near brush with pleasure. Odelia is attracted inexorably to a stray ray of natural light arcing through a window onto a mirror, or to her reflection in the dark-glass of the oven door; she leaps at these shiny, impossible rainbow-worlds, and scritch-scratches with her tiny paws, begging to be let in.

With the luscious lyrics of my curly locks often on the tip of her tongue, and a pair of curiously golden eyes, diminutive Odelia slinks effortlessly into the role of household flâneur. Our home is her citadel; its hallways are the boulevards where she encounters adventure, usually in the form of the other cat, a laid-back, rotund, Buddha-like tabby who flicks her tail in warning and saunters past.

If you noticed that I have been sneaking up on the mention of other notable flâneurs, and the art of flânerie in general, it is because I am a bit out of practice.

Charles Baudelaire on the flâneur:

"The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.  His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.  For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.  To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.  The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.

...And so away he goes, hurrying, searching.  But searching for what?  Be very sure that this man, such as I have depicted him - this solitary, gifted with an active imagination, ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert - has an aim loftier than that of a mere flaneur, an aim more general, something other than the fugitive pleasure of circumstance. ... He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory.

Oscar Wilde, while in prison, described himself as a bit of a reformed flâneur:

I amused myself with being a flâneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy....

 ...to one so modern as I am, 'Enfant de mon siecle,' merely to look at the world will be always lovely....I know that for me, to whom flowers are part of desire, there are tears waiting in the petals of some rose. It has always been so with me from my boyhood. There is not a single colour hidden away in the chalice of a flower, or the curve of a shell, to which, by some subtle sympathy with the very soul of things, my nature does not answer.

...Still, I am conscious now that behind all this beauty, satisfying though it may be, there is some spirit hidden of which the painted forms and shapes are but modes of manifestation, and it is with this spirit that I desire to become in harmony. I have grown tired of the articulate utterances of men and things. The Mystical in Art, the Mystical in Life, the Mystical in Nature this is what I am looking for. It is absolutely necessary for me to find it somewhere.

Walter Benjamin on the flâneur:

The flâneur, with his ostentatious composure, protests against the production process....

The crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flâneur. In it, the city was now landscape, now a room. And both of these went into the construction of the department store, which made use of flânerie itself in order to sell goods. The department store was the flâneur's final coup. As flâneurs, the intelligentsia came into the market place. As they thought, to observe it—but in reality it was already to find a buyer. In this intermediary stage ... they took the form of the bohème.

—Walter Benjamin, "Paris: the capital of the nineteenth century" (1935)

The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker: it conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history.....What it reveals is the endless spectacle of flânerie that we thought had been finally relegated to the past. ...The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved. And isn’t the city too full of temples, enclosed squares, and national shrines to be able to enter undivided into the dreams of the passer-by, along with every paving stone, every shop sign, every flight of steps, and every gateway? The great reminiscences, the historical frissons-these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist.

--Walter Benjamin, The Return of the Flâneur

Hannah Arendt considered the figure of the flâneur central to Walter Benjamin's writing: "it is to him that things reveal themselves in their secret meaning."

My cat lifts her head, and flashes me an enigmatic glance. She knows.

The flâneur has some quirky fans in Liverpool:  La Société des Flâneurs Sans Frontières.

Baudelaire and Benjamin both rhapsodized on the city as the natural habitat of the flâneur. I, however, tend to the theory that the art of flânerie can, and should be practiced in any locale, whether urban or rural. The flâneur is remarkable because he ambles along, observing, until his attention is seized by a sudden insight--then he pounces on it.

Although there has appeared, aready, a New York Times editorial describing the death of the cyberflâneur, I smile, because I am sure that he (or she) is still out there, lurking and observing, waiting for just the right moment to emerge: the flâneur of flâneurs, to whom all the world is either Paris or Prague, and for whom illumination is stylishly--and alluringly--obscure.


bluestorm said...

I smile. Thank you for the joy of reading this.

Harlequin said...

Sleight of hand before the eye, the very art of appearing the do very little whilst in actual fact observing everything ... Ha, the very feline art of feigned indifference personified. It requires a nicely wrought out piece to bring to life such readers thought and whilst I am allergic to cats, never the less well done.

Iulia Flame said...

I wish you both joy, and bow in gratitude to you for reading.

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