Guest-Editorial: The importance of being a Flâneur today
By Maitreyee B Chowdhury
In the summer of 2017, I decided to venture into a walking trip through four European countries – eat food on the streets, listen for hours to furious music from forgotten Harps, raise my wined nose to Jazz history, and find stories of Catalonian independence on roads dotted with Spanish Civil war blood. With the waters of Seine and Thames still slicing the cities into chilly or not after-parts, walking with the half-sun on my back, writing poems lying on overgrown grassy off shoots across busy cities was a feline fantasy come true. To sit in the Grecian sun and smell of oranges, while walking across numerous tiny roads that make up the exaggerated feel of these extravagant cities, is to live the life of a flâneur and then some.
In his 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”, Charles Baudelaire introduced to the world the rather mythical creature, he termed as a flâneur. From Baudelaire’s description, it is pretty obvious that he was unquestioningly referring to a masculine presence here: “The crowd is his habitat, as air is for the bird or water for the fish…His passion and his profession is to wed the crowd.” On the contrary, nightwalkers and keepers of mystery as described in his ‘To a [Female] Passerby’, from Les Fleurs du Mal, was a woman of the night – “a pallid sky where storms are born/the sweetness that charms and the pleasure that kills…” `
Over the years much has changed in the way one perceives a flâneur. In fact, Baudlaire might even be happy in the knowledge that the tradition continues with slight deviations and gender aberrations in far many forms now than he might have ever imagined possible. But while being a flânerie can be liberating and enjoyable, it doesn’t always follow the set patterns the word seeks to limit the whimsical walker to. The stories that one hears are not always restricted to reaching a destination, or of strange learnings. One might say these avid walking enthusiasts act as important pieces of evidence, of questions that need asking. They remind us of thoughts that ponder on the co-existence within a city’s duality, of its hidden moments of brutality or calm intimacy of the poor, in a pace set by the rich. Last but not the least, we also question the inherent paradox and beauty of an evolving flâneur. How does someone so wedded to the streets ignore the rather charming possibilities of personal encounters, adventures, and delightful risks at the cost of being the detached observer?
While conceptualising this issue of Café Dissensus and underlying the necessity of a pause in otherwise busy lives, I was unsure about people’s understanding of the same. In today’s milieu, would people understand the aimless pleasures of walking? But the stories that came through from various corners of the globe not only did justice to what we had in mind but served as eye openers too. People wrote in with childlike delight in the exhilarated pleasure of describing their walks, the conversations they had struck with children or beggars on the roads, with a movie camera, with the forgotten Madonna, small talk with vegetable vendors, artisans and random tourists on the streets. The stories reeked of the strangeness of the pleasure of pause it had taught them, the appreciation of finding common ground with randomness on the road, finding snippets of the street’s history tucked away at odd angles, in spaces drawn with the brush of life.
And so Yamini Krishna writes about Flaneuse in an Indian city, where the reverberations of being a flaneuse in any city and especially an Indian city is echoed by juxtaposing theory, history, and practical stories from the road. While being sceptical, her tone isn’t devoid of hope.
With her Meandering Feet and Many Roads, Gargi Ray Chakrabarty takes the reader through the dusty roads of Delhi and Benaras, while also reclaiming memories of childhood walks through the underbelly of small town Durgapur.
Goirick Brahmachari traces the cinematic kino-eye through Dziga Vertov’s work in his film Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929), shot through three different Ukrainian cities, wandering in nonlinear space and time collecting montages of a city from a morning onto a night in the Soviet Union under a Communist regime.
Sophia Naz plays the flaneur by tracing sequences from Seville in her poem Seville Sequences, while Elita brings forth Stories on the Road from the cities of Patna, Mumbai, and Calcutta.
Ananya Dasgupta takes us along in her story conceived in picturesque Trieste, where she finds culmination in the life and inspiration of James Joyce, along with a retelling of her own childhood memories.
In his Visions, Uddalak Gupta straddles the Lapa steps in Rio de Janeiro and gently takes us on a trip through Brazil and its streets, history, and art.
Shreya Sen Hadley finds herself in Zurich where the calmness of the Fraumünster Church heals her pain, while she also discoverers the fun of associating cows of every size with the Swiss way of life.
In Comma For a Thought, Semicolon For a Memory, And A Pause For A Pocket Book Of Life, Anindita Chatterjee takes the readers on a hitchhiker’s glide through Göreme in Turkey and the old world charm of Portugal and a special meal without lights!
In her piece, Zurich to the Edge of the Black Forest: Wanderings of a Wayfaring Woman, Neela B Saxena takes us on her deeply spiritual and personal journey through the edge of the Black Forest and Medieval European churches in her accidental foray into finding and eventually writing about the Black Madonna in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.
Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a poet, writer, and columnist based out of Bangalore. She has two books to her credit: Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen: Bengali Cinema’s First Couple and Where Even The Present Is Ancient: Benaras. Maitreyee is fiction editor of Bangalore based literary magazine, The Bangalore Review. Her forthcoming book, The Hungryalists is scheduled for an August 2018 release from Penguin. She can be found at http://www.maitreyeechowdhury.com.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.