Saturday, August 27, 2016

Radical Flâneuserie

I started noticing the ads in the magazines I read. Here is a woman in an asymmetrical black swimsuit, a semitransparent palm tree superimposed on her head, a pink pole behind her. Here is a woman lying down, miraculously balanced on some kind of balustrade, in a white button-down, khaki skirt, and sandals, the same dynamic play of light and palm trees and buildings around her. In the top-right corner, the words Dans l’oeil du flâneur—“in the eye of the flâneur”—and beneath, the Hermès logo. The flâneur though whose “eye” we’re seeing seems to live in Miami. Not a well-known walking city, but why not—surely flânerie needn’t be confined to melancholic European capitals.

The theme was set by Hermès’s artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas. While the media coverage of the campaign and the traveling exhibition that complemented it breathlessly adopted the term, Dumas gave a pretty illuminated definition of it. Flânerie, he explained, is not about “being idle” or “doing nothing.” It’s an “attitude of curiosity … about exploring everything.” It flourished in the nineteenth century, he continued, as a form of resistance to industrialization and the rationalization of everyday life, and “the roots of the spirit of Hermès are in nineteenth-century Flânerie.” This is pretty radical rhetoric for the director of a luxury-goods company with a €4.1 million yearly revenue. Looking at the ads, as well as the merchandise—including an eight-speed bicycle called “The Flâneur” that retailed for $11.3k—it seems someone at Hermès didn’t share, or understand, Dumas’s vision.

There’s something so attractive about wandering aimlessly through the city, taking it all in (especially if we’re wearing Hermès while we do it). We all, deep down, want to detach from our lives. The flâneur, since everyone wants to be one, has a long history of being many different things to different people, to such an extent that the concept has become one of these things we point to without really knowing what we mean—a kind of shorthand for urban, intellectual, curious, cosmopolitan. This is what Hermès is counting on: that we will associate Hermès products with those values and come to believe that buying them will reinforce those aspects of ourselves.

The earliest mention of a flâneur is in the late sixteenth century, possibly borrowed from the Scandinavian flana, “a person who wanders.” It fell largely out of use until the nineteenth century, and then it caught on again. In 1806, an anonymous pamphleteer wrote of the flâneur as “M. Bonhomme,” a man-about-town who comes from sufficient wealth to be able to have the time to wander the city at will, taking in the urban spectacle. He hangs out in cafés and watches the various inhabitants of the city at work and at play. He is interested in gossip and fashion, but not particularly in women. In an 1829 dictionary, a flâneur is someone “who likes to do nothing,” someone who relishes idleness. Balzac’s flâneur took two main forms: the common flâneur, happy to aimlessly wander the streets, and the artist-flâneur, who poured his experiences in the city into his work. (This was the more miserable type of flâneur, who, Balzac noted in his 1837 novel César Birotteau, “is just as frequently a desperate man as an idle one.”) Baudelaire similarly believed that the ultimate flâneur, the true connoisseur of the city, was an artist who “sang of the sorry dog, the poor dog, the homeless dog, the wandering dog [le chien flâneur].” Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, on the other hand, was more feral, a figure who “completely distances himself from the type of the philosophical promenader, and takes on the features of the werewolf restlessly roaming a social wildness,” he wrote in the late 1930s. An “intoxication” comes over him as he walks “long and aimlessly through the streets.”

And so the flâneur shape-shifts according to time, place, and agenda. If he didn’t exist, we would have had to invent him to embody our fantasies about nineteenth-century Paris—or about ourselves, today.

Hermès is similarly ambiguous about who, exactly, the flâneur in their ads is. Is he the man (or woman?) looking at the woman on the balustrade? Or is she the flâneur, too? Is the flâneur the photographer, or the (male?) gaze he represents? Is there a flâneuse, in Hermès’ version? Are we looking at her? Are we—am I, holding the magazine—her?

But I can’t be, because I’m the woman holding the magazine, being asked to buy Hermès products. I click through the pictures of the exhibition Hermès organized on the banks of the Seine, Wanderland, and one of the curiosities on view—joining nineteenth-century canes, an array of ties, an Hermès purse handcuffed to a coatrack—is an image of an androgynous person crossing the road, holding a stack of boxes so high he or she can’t see around them. Is this flânerie, Hermès-style?

Many critics over the years have argued that shopping was at odds with the idle strolling of the flâneur: he walked the arcades, the glass-roofed shopping streets that were the precursor to the department store, but he did not shop. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, writing on the flâneur in her book Paris as Revolution, argues that women could not flâner because women who were shopping in the grands magasins were caught in an economy of spectacle, being tricked into buying things, and having their desires stimulated. By contrast the flâneur’s very raison d’être was having no reason whatsoever.

Before the twentieth century, women did not have the freedom to wander idly through the streets of Paris. The only women with the freedom to circulate (and a limited freedom at that) were the streetwalkers and ragpickers; Baudelaire’s mysterious and alluring passante, immortalized in his poem “To a (Female) Passer-by,” is assumed to have been a woman of the night. Even the word flâneuse doesn’t technically exist in French, except, according to an 1877 dictionary entry, to designate a kind of lounge chair. (So Hermès’s woman reclining on a balustrade was right on the money, for the late nineteenth century.)

But why must the flâneuse be restricted to being a female version of a male concept, especially when no one can agree on what the flâneur is anyway? Why not look at what women were actually doing on the city streets? What could the flâneuse look like then?

by Lauren Elkin, Paris Review | Read more:
Image: John Singer Sargent, A Street in Venice