The most common portrait of Charles Baudelaire is a photograph, which shows him in his middle age, sporting a large, floppy cravat, balding, glowering seriously at the camera because photography was a serious affair in the 1860s and the Age of the Selfie was still far away. But the sitter’s gravity may also have been due to the accumulated burden of poverty, stress, opium dependency and syphilis – that post-coital debt paid by so many lovers – that would prevent him reaching old age. If syphilis remained the untreatable disease it was in the 19th century, every prostitute would now be wearing a government sticker with the message ‘Sex Kills’. When Baudelaire finally succumbed to the illness at the age of 46 he left us the gift of Les Fleurs du Mal, a volume of poems, which, in contrast to the popular themes of the day – nature and its eternal purity – addressed the city and its associated decadence. Using these poems, German philosopher Walter Benjamin, produced a scholarly study of a particular genus of early urban man, now popularly known as ‘Le Flaneur’.
The term has recently been adopted by the fashion house Hermes to describe their latest marketing campaign, launched in London’s Spitalfields, along with brochures containing a full explanation of all the sights. This, of course, is anathema to the real flaneur, who thrives on the unexpected, the fleeting, the serendipitous. He is not to be found on a guided tour or following an umbrella held aloft. Don’t expect the flaneur to be viewing the main event, perhaps a Wren Church; he will be admiring a dandelion behind a tombstone. The flaneur sets out with no particular objective or destination. He is not going to shop or to work, merely to stroll, to idle and to observe. To observe, the observer must remain incognito. “To be away from home yet feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet be unseen of the world.” For Baudelaire, with the crowd his domain, walking the streets was more exciting than any play or novel. Gaslit Paris was the mecca of flaneurs and even neon Paris remains so. The Grands Boulevards are the arteries, the streets the veins and the arcades the capillaries of the beating heart of that ‘seething city, city full of dreams’. There are few cities in the New World and the Southern Hemisphere suitable for flanerie. I have sometimes seen the word ‘Boulevardier’ substituted for flaneur, but Baudelaire himself was unimpressed by the way Baron Hausmann had remodeled much of his city.
Idleness, disengagement, a fixation on the transient, these are not favoured attitudes today in a world that applauds ambition, commitment and the setting of moral and material targets, that has a horror of doing nothing, of ‘measuring one’s life in coffee spoons’. Nor is surfing the net a pastime of the flaneur; how can it be when you need to key in an objective at the start? Nor can Facebook or Twitter provide you with social contact; you have to exit your front door for that. The flaneur is curious, for curiosity is compelling, ‘the starting point of genius’. But he is not a seeker, for seeking requires an objective, as Herman Hesse fully understood.
‘When someone is seeking, said Siddhartha, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means to have a goal; but finding means to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O Worthy One, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose“.
Because Baudelaire wrote about the dandy, dandyism has been associated with flanerie. And there is no doubt that the writer admired a dandy.
“Dandyism borders on the spiritual and stoical … the last spark of heroism and decadence…a sunset, like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy. But alas, the rising tide of democracy, which invades and levels everything, is daily overwhelming these last representatives of human pride.” Baudelaire’s dandy is the heir of Byron and Beau Brummell rather than Alcibiades and other followers of exaggerated fashion, for he believed that perfection in dress lay in ‘absolute simplicity’. “If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed’. It was the cut of fine but unostentatious fabric modeled on his uniform as an officer in the 10th Light Dragoons that created the pleasing silhouette that distinguished Brummell as a dandy.
Imagine the dandy, wandering the streets of Paris, He is blasé, or pretends to be, a man of the world ‘who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs’. He identifies in thought with all he encounters. A beautiful woman smiles at him and he is filled with longing and a sense of what might have been. ‘O toi que j’eusse aimee, O toi qui le savais’! (‘You, whom I might have loved, O you who knew it!’). He sleeps with a cruelly indifferent Jewess, imagining a single tear that might have quenched ‘the icy fuel of her blazing eyes’. Both high life and low life fuel his curiosity and provide material for his poems as they did for the weekly columns of Taki and Jeffrey Bernard in the Spectator, presumably the journal of the flaneur. We are invited into the decadent and erotic milieu of idle monks, drunken rag-pickers, gamblers and prostitutes – free women in Baudelaire’s opinion rather than respectable wives bound to their husbands. The Flowers of Anguish (or Evil or Pain, for mal may translate as any of these) are the host of demons in your brain, which, if liberated by boldness or misfortune, would make you, the hypocritical reader, brother or sister to the decadent cast of characters in the poems and even to Baudelaire himself.
Poems of Baudelaire, A Translation of Les Fleurs du Mal. Roy Campbell; The Harvill Press, 1952
The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire
Selected Writings on art and Literature
Penguin Books 2010