Are you a secret flâneur?
(Don’t worry, I’ll translate): a guest post by Richard C. McPherson
We all watch people, especially those of us who write. But a flâneur makes it an art. The French word translates literally as a stroller or saunterer, but one source defines it as “an acute observer of contemporary life,” another “a connoisseur of the street.” A synonym is boulevardier, which, even without translation, sparks visions of Parisian cafes and worldly observations.
A flâneur uses detachment to achieve a one-sided, imagined intimacy with strangers, using “acute observation” on passersby, always alert for a remarkable gesture, odd expression, or simply a grand or distinctive presence. If you do this, not as an occasional amateur, but in a deep and devoted way, you must consider yourself a flâneur. Even if you don’t speak French (I don’t), no better word applies. I am second to none in my love of the English language, but some words belong forever in French. I read a movie review today describing an actress appearing en deshabille. The reviewer could have simply said “naked,” but in French we see her as comfortably indifferent to the observer. We owe the French so much. Where were we? Ah, yes, are you a secret flâneur? Here are four rules to test yourself.
· It is important not to have a destination; this is no mere frivolous amusement on the way to grab take-out or meet someone at the theater.
· You must have no time constraints, otherwise you might cut short an observation which you may end up cherishing for life - or which may launch your next novel.
· Go alone. This is not a social excursion, but an experience you must savor in the quiet depths of your imagination. It’s fine to make notes or write in your diary, but only after you return home.
· Never reveal yourself or abandon your casual detachment. If you strike up a conversation or catch someone’s attention, you are perilously close to becoming a participant, not an observer. In the interest of civility, you may nod and smile to a “good morning,” but you should not speak.
A flâneur thrives in a foreign city. I have practiced in Madrid, Amsterdam, Mexico City, and Hong Kong, and I recommend daybreak, when locals see a familiar world in the fresh light and imagine a new day while dodging quotidian obstacles like street cleaners. Sauntering without understanding the words around you allows you to focus entirely on gestures, faces, unguarded moments. But I have found it just as fulfilling in Greenwich Village, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Any busy street will do.
If you test yourself and discover you are a secret flâneur, then a world of riches awaits you wherever you go, and you will never need artificial entertainment. If not, perhaps you just need practice. I think I’ll go for a walk, but first may I wish you much happy sauntering. Bonne chance!
About the author: Richard C. McPherson’s work has appeared in Living Springs Anthology Stories Through the Ages, the Black Fox Literary Journal, Conversations, The Write Launch, and Bright Flash Literary Review. His first novel, Man Wanted in Cheyenne, was released in March 2023. Visit him at richardcmcpherson.com.