Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
‘The Flâneur’ by Walter Benjamin, from Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism
In this essay, Benjamin explores the construction of the figure of the Parisian flâneur in relation to French poet Charles Baudelaire. This character is central to some modernist writing because the flâneur only exists in and because of the modern metropolis, a new world in which this dandy figure finds itself. Even in the middle of a crowd, the eccentric flâneur is abandoned, apart and different. At the start of his essay, Benjamin explains the concept and popularity of diorama: the diorama represents the city and its people and allows spectators to see the world they live in from another perspective. With the diorama, the focus is on the street and also on the people who fill in the pavements.
Benjamin then talks about the history of the flâneur and how this figure could only exist and develop thanks to the modernisation of the cities: ‘strolling could hardly have assumed the importance it did without the arcades’ which revolutionised the metropolis but also society itself. Similarly, the flâneur could not stroll and wander among the crowd until large pavements were built. The street and the outside is identified as a “dwelling” for the dandy and there is little distinction made between the outside and the inside. Benjamin then mentions the privileged position of the flâneur who observes the world: there is something fundamentally judgemental about this character since only a rich middle-class or bourgeois person could have assumed this position. To flâneur, the street is an endless source of entertainment which provides multiple experience, these experiences reflecting the diversity of the world and of the people. Later on, Benjamin refers to sociologist Simmel: he believed in a “sociology of the big city” which shows the strong impact of modernity on people and on all aspects of life, as modernist literature often suggests. Simmel also examines the “preponderance of the activity of the eye” rather than that of the ears due to new means of public transportation.
The figure of the flâneur participated in the idealisation and “phantasmagoria of Parisian life” throughout the nineteenth century. According to Benjamin, this fashion foreshadows the wake of modernism: “the literature which concerned itself with the disquieting and threatening aspects of urban life was to have a great future”. Indeed, modernism was concerned with the metropolis, both as a threat (prostitution, drugs) and as a liberation or source of freedom (like in ‘Street Haunting’ by Woolf’). Finally, Benjamin explores the unique way in which Baudelaire uses and describes the city: to him, it is a refuge of love as his poem ‘A une passante’ shows. The metropolis is a like a mirror reflecting all aspects of urban life, the good and the bad ones.
This text is an extract from a piece of writing I wrote and submitted for my Modernism formative assessment. Remember that plagiarism – including self-plagiarism – is absolutely unacceptable.