It might seem stupid to you that nine months after having arrived – and five months after having started to write this series – I am still in the process of writing about what happened in the first month. Well, that is just the way it is. I can’t turn back time any more than you can.
But reading back what I’ve saved from oblivion, it appears I left something out. Something too important to leave out. I need to be as circumspect as possible in my way of telling it. Let’s start like this.
Le flâneur is a flamboyant figure on the streets of Paris. He might even the most essential ingredient in the unique mix of the city of light – unmissable on pictures or paintings of that era. He is the man of leisure and deep conversations – conversations that have as much direction as his endless walks, which is to say, none. He is the urban explorer, the idler and the connoisseur of the street. Occasionally he goes by the name “boulevardier”.
The flâneur was first described in 1872 in the French dictionary Larousse. And the Larousse article on the subject convincingly demonstrates the social ambivalence that surrounded the flâneur’s lifestyle. The idler was said to be both lazy and curious, there were mindless ones to steer clear of and intelligent ones that could enlighten you. Larousse also says flâneurs have to be categorized into the flâneurs of the boulevards, those of the parks, those of the cafés and most importantly, those of the arcades.
It was the German philosopher Walter Benjamin who highlighted the cultural significance of the flâneur. For Benjamin, it was an emblematic archetype of the modern urban experience, the amateur detective or city investigator. Benjamin describes the flânuers of the arcades – and whether this is true or not, I don’t know – with a turtle on a leash. He concisely comments: “If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace.” The flâneur enjoys wasting his time and accordingly – says Benjamin – the figure comes to demise with the triumph of consumer capitalism.
A group of surrealist artists has found the perfect way to resist the dictates of consumer capitalism: strolling without purpose. The stroll is elevated to a form of art. And as any form of art in that period, there’s rules to be followed.
Walks on average take one day. Walks are to be done in groups of two or three people. Larger groups won’t stay together. Wandering in open nature is depressing, as was convincingly demonstrated by the failed excursion by four surrealists in 1923 – in open nature, interventions of chance encounters are minimal. The walk is preferably carried out in industrially transformed cities that are rich centers of possibilities and meanings. In one walk, you will encounter the psychogeography of the city. Places speak. They speak loud and clear. Cities live and die. Who are we to think anything with a body cannot have a mind?
Last but not least, the article in the journal Internationale Situationiste (Paris, 1958) points out that “the influence of weather on strolls, although real, is a significant factor only in the case of prolonged rains, which make them virtually impossible. Storms, on the other hand, are rather favorable for walks.”
I would like to add one thing. Internationale Situationiste doesn’t tell anything about the talk you talk while you walk the walk. If the discovery of the post-industrial city is to be done by two idlers together, of course there will be conversation – a conversation that, walking through meanings and possibilities, can unfold quite a story. This might be what the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte had in mind in 1963 while painting “the art of conversation”, where two idlers stroll high above the ground, heavily immersed in conversation.
New York, 2015.
“Someone once told me that those skyscrapers are so high that the movement of the earth makes their peaks sway back and forth one meter.”
“Isn’t that just the wind?”
“Might be. But the person who told me this also explained that it was partly because once you build high enough, anything that stands actually pends at the same time.”
“I have difficulty understanding that.”
Marianne and I are on the Brooklyn bridge, dodging cursing bikers and unwitting tourists. We are heading toward the Financial District, this is the third hour of our walk. The conversation so far has been more than enlightening.
“You see that antenna?”, I point towards the Empire State sticking out of cube jungle.
“It’s an anchorage for zeppelins.”
“Just imagine. People in beautiful clothes, smoking cigarettes, all neat and fine, boarding a wooden boat docked on the East River – a boat with embellished seats, portholes with silver mouldings – it’s the keel afloat with the inflated envelope on top.” I don’t know if this ever happened, but somehow, years ago this image ignited my imagination and I’ve never wanted to let it go. “Then the boat starts sailing. It first sails on the East River and soon sets off into the sky to land on top of the city.”
“I would have liked to see that happening. It suits those times.”
“It never happened. Only when the anchorage was finished, the architects and engineers judged the vertical winds too strong for safe docking.”
“Now here’s the thing: I can’t think of any other place where can you so easily walk in and out of social strata, meet people with enthusiasm and money, billionaires even, eager for new challenges. So I think if I’d make it a project, in one year there will be a zeppelin right there.” I underline with a protruding index finger – as true entrepreneurs do.
“Then you’d have a real job, right?”
I take a picture of the river’s reflection of the sun, through the metal grid. This is the fourth day of spring and cold as ever.