Perhaps Satan was the original fl芒neur.
The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
I’ve always been intrigued by this exchange in the Book of Job. We tend to think of Satan as lurking in Hell working his evil designs through various intermediaries and only rarely making a personal appearance to someone. So the picture of him strolling around the world, presumably just to observe the various human activities is quite striking. The fact that he makes a wager with God regarding Job’s faithfulness and that God “fails to consult his omniscience,” as Carl Jung put it in his remarkable Answer to Job, is outside the scope of this essay. (For those interested, Jung’s book is a brilliant meditation on the problem of evil.)
My suggestion is that in his wanderings on Earth Satan is playing the role of fl芒neur.
What, exactly, is a fl芒neur? According to Wikipedia, “Fl芒neur…from the French noun fl芒neur, means ‘stroller’, ‘lounger’, ‘saunterer’, or ‘loafer’. Fl芒nerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations.” Wikipedia further notes that “[i]t was Walter Benjamin drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who made this figure the object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, as an emblematic archetype of urban, modern experience.” For Benjamin, writing in the early 20th century, the fl芒neur connected a rapidly urbanizing Paris to its already almost lost past.
Benjamin’s musings on this fascinating figure run through his enormous, unfinished opus, The Arcades Project, in which he draws from an enormous range of literary and historical sources to supplement his own brilliant engagement with fl芒nerie. While his interest was largely historical, I contend that fl芒nerie is alive and well in the 21st century and in fact, is central to my own practice of poetry.
“To the fl芒neur, his city is—even if, like Baudelaire, he happened to be born there—no longer native ground. It represents for him a theatrical display, an arena.” (qv)
The first poem in my first book—as much as anything I’ve written—serves as one attempt at an ars poetica:
Sunlight falls indifferently
among grass and leaves
and broken glass and gravel
but the radiance is there
anywhere you care to look,
sparks and dazzles
fly out and upward,
daytime fireflies glancing
off the sidewalk and
the puddles and the windshields
and, yes, your own eyes
when you catch glimpses
of yourself in the shop windows.
This poem like so many of mine attempts to capture the act of roaming the city, looking closely at small things that many people would disregard or not notice and describing them in hope that the reader will look at her world through fresh eyes. A sort of re-enchantment as it were, not unlike what I sometimes try to effect in my nature poetry.
“The fl芒neur plays the role of scout in the marketplace. As such, he is also the explorer of the crowd.” (qv)
People-watching is one of the great pleasures of contemporary fl芒nerie. Scanning faces, bodies, ways of walking, observing the variety of sizes, shapes, colors and then perhaps lighting on one for deeper scrutiny:
A Face on the Metro
Black hair, dark eyes,
lips pursed delicately
around the straw
through which you draw
your frozen coffee:
If I could cup your face
in my hands you might
touch my cheek with a fingertip
and brush a few hairs off my forehead,
and that one moment could be
framed and held, brought out
and regarded, contemplated
on a long, dark winter afternoon.
Modern urban transit systems extend the opportunities for fl芒nerie beyond the distance one can easily walk. I have written numerous poems on buses and Metro trains (and a few on airplanes, but that goes beyond the scope of these reflections). Besides the greater distance afforded, the succession of people and scenes, the very rhythms of these conveyances seem to add a touch of music to one’s writing:
This poem was originally published in a UK-based online journal called Stepaway, whose motto is “Fl芒nerie for the twenty-first century,” further evidence that this practice is still relevant and valid in our time.
The great American poet Frank Bidart has beautifully articulated the joys and terrors of fl芒nerie in two lines from his poem “You Cannot Rest”: “Still you court the world by enacting yet once more / the ecstatic rituals of enthrallment.” I have tried to illuminate my own experience in enacting the rituals of enthrallment in my poem “Thrall.” It’s too long to reproduce here, but interested readers can find it at Innisfree Poetry Journal. (qv)
Benjamin’sThe Arcade Project is a massive, sprawling compendium of quotations, observations, and speculations about the nearly vanished past of Paris, tied together by the wanderings of the fl芒neur. One hopes that the reader will be inspired to engage in his own fl芒nerie, whether or not he cares to share his experiences with the world. Start with Benjamin, then walk out into your world and prepare to be enthralled.
1. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, tr. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 347
2. Ibid, p. 21