previous chapter
3 The Flâneur: The City and Its Discontents
next chapter

The Flâneur: The City and Its Discontents

Les arts, les sciences, la littérature doivent plus ou moins leurs progrès au flâneur.
Auguste de Lacroix, Les Francais peints par eux-mêmes

Art, science, and literature owe their progress more or less to the flâneur.

More than any other urban type, the flâneur suggests the contradictions of the modern city, caught between the insistent mobility of the present and the visible weight of the past. Flânerie, in conventional usage, conjures up visions of an urban far niente, of ambles through city streets that offer the fortunate individual the delights of the cityscape and the perhaps even greater pleasures of suspended social obligation. It is a social state that offers the inestimable, and paradoxical, privilege of moving about the city without losing one's individuality. At once on the street and above the fray, immersed in yet not absorbed by the city, the flâneur resolves conflict in a seductive image of independence justified by experience, of a knowledge rendered credible by the self-sufficiency of the knower.

As a practice of the city, and more precisely of the concentrated urbanization of the nineteenth century, flânerie dramatizes the conflicting pressures that beset the individual in a postrevolutionary society. If, as most contemporary observers agree, the flâneur is indelibly Parisian, it is because of the special claims that Paris makes on our attention and the way that the flâneur resolves those claims. As the capital of the nineteenth century, in Walter Benjamin's telling epithet, Paris constituted a veritable laboratory of social change, and in that laboratory the flâneur served as both an emblem of the city and a surrogate for the writer in that city. Literally propelled by curiosity to investigate the city whose continual metamorphoses chal-


lenged the very possibility of knowledge, the writer moved through urban society. Could the city be known? By whom? How? Flânerie provided the writer with answers, with material, and with a persona.

The flâneur had to change with the times and with the city that flânerie purported to represent. The debacle of 1848 and the radical disruption of urban renewal in the Second Empire turned the genial ambulatory philosopher of the July Monarchy into a key figure of loss within a larger "discourse of displacement." Baudelaire's ambivalent flâneur already illustrates a significant move from the triumphant Balzacian figure, but it is Flaubert who represents flânerie as a form of dispossession. The displacement of the flâneur within the city translated the writer's own sense of dislocation within bourgeois society. Flânerie ceased to signify freedom and autonomy; it implied instead estrangement and alienation. An urban spectacle that dazed more than it dazzled, a revolution that seemed never to end, converted the flâneur into a figure of exile. The stroller able to quit the city streets at will turned into a drifter. No longer the celebrant of urban enchantments, the flâneur at midcentury confronted not only the alienation and anomie attendant upon life in the modern city but more especially, given the writer's investment in flânerie, the failure that haunts the creative enterprise in contemporary bourgeois society.

Clearly, the flâneur was more than just an especially picturesque subject for the caricatures and the physiologies that flourished during the July Monarchy. As Baudelaire and Benjamin understood so well, flânerie posed the fundamental problem of the ways of knowing and being that are possible, even necessary, in the modern city, and only in the modern city.[1] The practice of flânerie turned the artist's unique, and uniquely modern, relationship to that city into a spectacle, a projection of the imperative need to make sense of the city. Ultimately, flânerie was a strategy of representation. The reconfiguration of the flâneur at midcentury exposed the failure of this strategy. Straightforward movement through the city proved inadequate for the city that in slightly over a half a century doubled its population and its territory and repeated its revolution two and three times. Not that the flâneur disappeared. Quite to the contrary, flânerie was everywhere, an urban practice no longer confined to an elite (much less to artists) but open to anyone in the city with a minute or two to spare. Flânerie epitomized "time off" from the real business of life, whatever that might be. Accordingly, the flâneur lost the pretention


of comprehending the city as a whole. More than any other factor, this "banalization" of flânerie forced the writer to other strategies and persona to deal with the city and its revolutions.


Le flâneur peut naître partout; il ne sait vivre qu'à  Paris.
Un Flâneur, Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un

The flâneur can be born anywhere; he can live only in Paris.

The flâneur first appeared in nineteenth-century Paris, an emblem of the changing city and the changing society, a product of urbanization and revolution. The figure takes shape over the first half of the nineteenth century, appearing under the empire, rising to exceptional prominence in the physiologies and character sketches that abounded under the July Monarchy, and suffering a radical dislocation at midcentury at the hands of Flaubert and Baudelaire. But the flâneur as we think of the figure today, the flâneur of everyday life, conveys none of the urgency with which writers in early nineteenthcentury Paris encountered the city and the society increasingly defined by that city. To recover the flâneur as the urban personage par excellence is to recapture a sense of the powerful tensions that govern the evolving urban context and to mark the writer's changing, ambiguous relationship to that context.

What is so remarkable about this figure is its progressive reevaluation. At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, when the flâneur first surfaces in urban discourse, the connotations are almost entirely negative. The inactivity that the July Monarchy will associate with a superior relationship to society is in the original usage a sign of intolerable laziness. A dictionary of "popular" (i.e., lower class) usage in 1808 defines "un grand flaneur" as "a lazybones, a loafer, man of insufferable idleness, who doesn't know where to take his trouble and his boredom."[2]

This flâneur is clearly Other and manifestly bourgeois, a distant cousin of René, whose insufferable idleness offends and importunes the lower-class speaker. But the term soon climbs the lexicographical and social ladder. The circumflex accent that the word usually acquires signals a redefinition through a change of perspective. Instead


of prompting a negative moral judgment, the flâneur's conspicuous inaction comes to be taken as positive evidence of both social status and superior thought. The flâneur grows into the rentier, in whose familiar, comfortable, and unthreatening contours the bourgeoisie can recognize one of its own. Thus solidly ensconced in the bourgeois world, and identified with the city, the flâneur is ready to be taken up and redefined yet again, this time by the writer for whom the flâneur's apparent inoccupation belies his intense intellectual activity.

The bourgeois flâneur does not make his first public appearance where he is usually placed, in Balzac's Physiologie du manage (1826) under the Restoration. In fact, Balzac is already working with a well-established urban personage and practice. The anonymous pamphlet of 1806 that introduces the flâneur seems to have escaped the notice of literary historians and lexicographers alike. The thirty-two-page Le Flâneur au salon ou Mr Bon-Homme: Examen joyeux des tableaux, mélé de Vaudevilles presents Monsieur Bonhomme, better known "in all Paris" as the "Flâneur."[3] The "Historical Preface" detailing M. Bonhomme's daily rounds in Paris is followed by a series of "Petites Réflexions" that pass in review a number of the paintings exhibited in the current Salon held at the Louvre. Nothing hints at the quite extraordinary literary fortune the flâneur was to enjoy thirty years later, and nothing alerts the reader to the emblematic nature that the flâneur would acquire as the urban personage par excellence of the middle third of the nineteenth century.

It is true that M. Bonhomme does not much resemble his successors. He is a dull creature, easily recognizable by his wig, his "Jansenist" style hat (broad-brimmed, plain), and his dark brown suit. A man of the ancien régime (he refers to the Place de la Concorde by the name it carried prior to 1792, Place Louis-XV), M. Bonhomme exhibits none of the intensity that will distinguish the relationship of later flâneurs to the city. In contrast to these "modern" flâneurs, who celebrate the joys of coming upon the unexpected and the untoward, M. Bonhomme makes the same rounds every day and checks in at the same places. Instead of the mysteries of the urban spectacle in which the latter flâneur will revel and the cultivation of the unexpected, M. Bonhomme reassures through the regularity of his routine.

Tedium must have done him in. Despite protestations that "the race of flâneurs shall not perish!" and promises of second, third, and "even 100" sequels, LeFlâneur au salon did not meet with the requisite


success. The promised sequels apparently did not materialize. A close analogue turned up a few years later with Jouy's immensely popular journalistic Hermit series that inaugurated the vogue of what I have called literary guidebooks. It would not be surprising if Jouy, a well established and widely published author at the time, was trying out a new formula in the 1806 pamphlet. Certainly, the lineage is there. The article entitled "Le Flâneur" in Les Francais peints par eux-mêmes does not hesitate to count the Hermit (along with Mercier) among the flâneur's long line of distinguished ancestors.

Nevertheless, M. Bonhomme displays the primary traits of the flâneur, namely, his detachment from the ordinary social world and his association with Paris. The essential egoism of the flâneur requires the first; the variety of his observations dictates the second. Like Jouy's Hermit, the flâneur is solitary by choice, a bachelor or widower (or else, as the flâneur-author for Paris, ou le Livre des cent-et-un puts it, he thinks and acts as if he were one or the other). He walks through the city alone and at random. Companionship of any sort is undesirable, and female companionship is especially so. Women, it seems, cannot maintain the detachment that distinguishes the true flâneur.

Later, under the Restoration and the July Monarchy, when commercial arcades (les passages ) were transforming the practices of the city street, the perils of shopping loomed large, and these arcades were, then as now, inevitably associated with women (Physiologie du flaneur, chap. 15). The shopper's (and the seller's) intense engagement in the urban scene, the integration into the commodity exchange, and the consequent inability to maintain the proper distance from the urban scene preclude the neutrality and objectivity cultivated so assiduously by the flâneur. The flâneur desires the city as a whole, not any part of it. No woman can disconnect herself from the city and its seductive spectacle. For she must either desire the objects spread before her or herself be the object of desire, associated with and agent  of the infinite seductive capacity of the city. The flâneur's movement within the city, like his solitude, points to a privileged status. But because a woman is defined by the (male) company she keeps, to be alone is to be without station. Mobility renders her suspect. Balzac makes the case eloquently if hyperbolically in Ferragus, where the sight of the elegant Mme Jules unattended, and on foot, in a notoriously infamous street immediately compromises her reputation (5:796). Women figure the observed, they cannot possibly


reverse roles to join the observers. Women are indispensable to the urban drama that the flâneur observes, to the conjectures he makes, and to the tales that he tells, not the least of these ventures. There are, and can be, no flâneuses.[4] The flâneur's constitutive disengagement from the city ties this urban personage to the larger urban discourse, as practiced notably by the literary guidebook. For, like the authors of literary guidebooks, the flâneur strives to describe the city and also to understand how it works. The familiarity with the city that we can see the flâneur acquiring is assumed by the literary guidebook. We should then not be surprised to find a guidebook that appropriates the authority of flâneur. The flâneur's very text inscribes his relationship to the city. The author's random walks in Le Flaneur (in two editions, 1825 and 1826) provide the model for the book, composed in the spirit of flânerie "without plan, without order, without method." As it was with Mercier and would be with Vallès in their tableaux of Paris, the writer's own observations—"everything [he has] observed, as objects presented themselves to [his] eyes"—guarantee the authenticity of the text. For this "moral and philosophical exposé," the author of Le Flaneur "consulted no work," asked for no advice.

At the same time the flâneur as urban personage becomes one of the arresting phenomena that the literary guidebooks take it upon themselves to discuss. Both Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un (1831) and Les Francais peints par eux-mêmes (1842) devote chapters to the flâneur, and the craze for physiologies produced the inevitable Physiologie du flaneur in 1841. Yet none of these fixes the flâneur. Consider the difference between the flâneur and the devil who serves as titular figure of the literary guidebook. As the model taken from Lesage requires and the numerous frontispiece engravings make clear, the devil looks at the urban world from on high. Symptomatically, "Un Flâneur," author of the article "Le Flâneur à Paris" for Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un makes a point of distinguishing himself from Asmodée. He does not practice the "dangerous art" of taking rooftops off houses to reveal the secrets of private life. Rather the flâneur operates in public, outside. For he cannot exist indoors. Like a plant that would be killed in the greenhouse, the flâneur flourishes only in the open air. At the theater, he keeps to the relatively open space of the foyer, preferring not to shut himself up in the "prison" of the theater itself.


 Plates 8, 9.
 Flâneurs from   Les Francais peints par eux-mêmes  (1842). These 
sketches by Henry Monnier (Plate 8) and Gavarni (Plate 9) give two 
representations of the flâneur, a well-dressed bourgeois, cane in hand 
ready to set forth in the city. In both renditions, one senses the 
leisure, the satisfaction, and the spirit of reverie of an individual very 
much in control of self and setting. (Photographs courtesy of Rare Book 
and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.)



Thus does the flâneur urbanize the observer, bringing him down to earth and plunging him into the urban spectacle. The devil looks down upon the city, the flâneur looks up and around and walks endlessly. (Good legs, as the Physiologie du flaneur reminds us, are essential equipment.) His field of predilection is the Paris of the arcades, the Paris of restaurants and boulevards and gardens, the Paris of crowds in public places. The reciprocity between the city and the flâneur is complete. "Without the arcades," Louis Huart admits in the Physiologie du flaneur, "the flâneur would be unhappy." But the balance tips in the other direction. For "without the flâneur the arcades would not exist" (chap. 13).

Unlike Jouy's Hermits, who themselves become personae in the city they observe—with dates of birth, specified places of habitation, definite habits and tastes—and unlike the dandy whose flamboyant dress sets him apart, the flâneur remains anonymous, devoid of personality, unremarkable in the crowd. It is in fact this undistinctive appearance that allows the necessary social distance. In short, the flâneur sounds very much like an author in search of characters and intrigue. Nights had always been mysterious; the flâneur's stories make days equally intriguing. As Huart reminds us in the Physiologie du flaneur (chap. 8), thinking perhaps of Balzac's Ferragus, a whole novel can spring from a single encounter observed in the street. There the chance meeting of the young, elegant, and virtuous Mme Jules and her secret admirer in a foul neighborhood leads to "a drama full of blood and love, a drama of the modern school" (5:796).

This bounding of the imagination and the intellect within a street setting both justifies the flâneur's literary claims and sets him apart from the vulgar idlers and gapers (badauds, musards ) with which the uninitiated might confuse him. Where M. Bonhomme accepted his relationship as "a very distant cousin" of "M. Muzard," the July Monarchy flaneur insists upon the difference. ("The idler apes the flaneur, he caricatures the flaneur and seems made to inspire disgust for flanerie," in the words of the Physiologie du flaneur, chap. 15.) He does not look, he observes, he studies, he analyzes. He is in sum a philosophe sans le savoir. "Flânerie," emphatically affirms Lacroix in Les Francais peints par eux-mêmes, "is the distinctive characteristic of the true man of letters."

Nowhere does the flâneur triumph more spectacularly than with Balzac. Although the flâneur's appearance in the very same year,


 Plate 10. 
Title page, Louis Huart,  Physiologie du flaneur  (1841). 
This incarnation of the flâneur by Daumier emphasizes 
the importance of the flâneur's gaze—a gaze that begins 
in the activity of following women. (Photograph courtesy of 
Special Collections, Butler Library, Columbia University.)


1826, in works as different as Le Flaneur, galerie pittoresque, philosophique et morale and the Physiologie du mariage testifies to the general familiarity of the figure during the Restoration, the honor of transforming the flâneur into a complete urban personage rightfully goes to Balzac. There will be more elaborate treatments of the flâneur but none more forceful than this first full portrait. Balzac's fervent celebration of the "flâneur artiste" set a model that would control for the next twenty years, not only for Balzac himself but also for the many other writers (and artists) who fixed upon the flâneur as a distinctive feature of modern Paris.

Whereas Le Flaneur, as a guidebook, more or less assumes the connections between the flâneur, Paris, and literature, Balzac forcefully articulates the dynamic involved. "To stroll is to vegetate, to flâner is to live." 'To wander about Paris—adorable and delicious existence!" The artist-flâneur cultivates a "science" of the sensual, a "visual gastronomy" (11:930). The superiority of the flâneur, which will become an article of faith in a very few years, already separates the true from the false flâneur, the true artist from the would-be creator. For like every other type in the Comédie humaine, the flâneur admits of more than one exemplar, each of which occupies a particular place within a hierarchy. The artist-flâneur of Balzac's Physiologie du mariage belongs :o a privileged elite, expression and manifestation of the higher, because intellectual, flânerie.

Other portraits—the vast majority—will at best be ordinary flâneurs, members of a "happy and soft species" (La Fille aux yeux d'or, 5:1053) given to random speculations and "silly conjectures" (Une double famille, 2:79). These onlookers in the city "savor at every hour its moving poetry" (5:1053) but will invariably be dazzled and bewildered and confused by the "monstrous marvel," "the head of the world." Although these ordinary flâneurs read the text of this "city of a hundred thousand novels" (Ferragus, 5:794-95), they are passive readers, taken up and taken in by the surface agitation and turbulence.

The overall distinction between the ordinary flâneur and the artist flâneur also bespeaks an underlying rationale for the whole category. The highest flâneur understands the city; the ordinary merely experiences it. Here, in other words, is one more indication of the great importance and the even greater difficulty attached to the process of actually comprehending the nature and meaning of modern Paris.


Aesthetically, the movement of the ordinary flâneur duplicates the same quality in nineteenth-century city life. Movement in the artist-flâneur is much more. It is a mode of comprehension, a moving perspective that tallies with the complexity of a situation that defies stasis.

To be sure, ordinary flâneurs are "the only really happy people in Paris" (La Fille aux yeux d'or, 5:1053). (The Physioloqie du flaneur proclaims the flâneur "the only happy man on earth," since no flâneur has ever been reported to have committed suicide!) Of course, as for the artist-flâneur, that happiness is contingent upon a more intellectual grasp of the incessant movement of the city and its seductions. This flâneur is the great exception to the rules that govern every circle of the Parisian hell that sets the stage for La Fille aux yeux d'or. For other figures or types, surrendering to the desires aroused by the city necessarily implicates them in the urban text, which they will not know how to interpret or turn to their advantage. Instead, the expert readers in the Comédie humaine— Vautrin Rastignac, d'Arthez, Mme de Beauséant—owe their skill precisely to their ability and willingness to remain both in and above the inferno. None succeeds entirely.

The walks about Paris that supply the artist-flâneur with material for study may well prove disastrous for the ordinary flâneur unable to maintain distance from the city and hence unable to resist its seductions. The original pejorative connotations of flânerie resurface to characterize the individual at the mercy of the city. Where the ostensible idleness of the artist-flâneur masks the vital intellectual activity of the true artist, the false artist is necessarily a false flâneur, whose inactivity derives from the inability to channel—that is, to use and comprehend—the desires roused by the city. In other words, the false artist lacks the detachment required for creativity. The Physiologie du flaneur rails against these loafers who proclaim themselves flâneurs. A policeman on the beat is more deserving of the name than the "incomplete artists" who never finish a painting! (chap. 15).

In Balzac's Paris, seeing is not necessarily believing, and superficial readers do not make good writers. Lucien de Rubempré in Illusions perdues quickly surrenders to Parisian brilliance and easy journalistic success. Once Wenceslas Steinbock quits the garret where Cousine Bette keeps him hard at work on his sculpture, he succumbs to the Paris that his success opens to him. Soon, Balzac notes, he joins the lowest order of flâneurs, who let themselves be determined by the city instead of mastering it. His is "the ultimate motto of the flâneur: I'll


get right to work!" Flânerie triumphs over every good intention: "Wenceslas . . . idled [flânait]" and before long becomes "an artist in partibus . ." (7:243, 449), thus fulfilling the prediction at the beginning of the novel. Bette knows full well that she must keep her sculptor on a leash, or else he will turn into a flâneur. "And if you only knew what artists call flâner!" her advisor tells her in a telling assimilation of the unproductive artist to the female spendthrift: "Real horrors! A thousand francs in a single day" (7:116). The true artists of t he Comédie humaine—the writer Daniel d'Arthez, the painter Joseph Bridau—are anything but indolent. Moreover, Balzac stresses their capacity to withdraw from Paris, their ascetic life, and their absolute commmitment to their work. Lucien founders because he is utterly unprepared for the hard work and the many difficult choices that creative work entails.

The artist-flâneur, on the contrary, tempers desire with knowledge. He masters movement after having engaged in it. Whether scholar, thinker, or poet, he is a connoisseur of the "pleasures (jouissances ) of Paris, one of a "small number of amateurs" who always have their wits about them on their walks, who know how to stroll as they know how to dine and to take their pleasures. In this fusion of science and sensuality lies the key to urban control. Unlike the ordinary flâneur, who is overwhelmed by the appropriately masculine monster (le monstre ) these "lovers of Paris" conceive of desire in terms of domination. Cette courtisane—or, only somewhat less obviously, a creature (une créature) and queen ("this moving queen of cities")—is logically ("naturally") subjugated by the (male) artist-flâneur. The conception of Paris as female is hardly new, but Balzac pushes the connection to its extreme by associating flânerie with carnal knowledge. Jouir ("tc enjoy," often with specifically sexual connotations) defines the flâneur's relationship to Paris in terms of desire as he "plunges his gaze into a thousand lives" (1:930). A manuscript of 1830 makes still more of the sexual resonance of the artist-flâneur's relationship to Paris. The city is "a daughter, a woman friend, a spouse" whose face always delights because it is always new.[5]

That creativity should be a function of control is evident in the power ascribed to the Balzacian narrator. An observer and also a participant in the city, a reader and also a writer of the urban text, the Balzacian artist-flâneur adroitly maneuvers distance and assimilation. Like the detective whom he resembles in so many respects, Balzac's


artist-flâneur situates individuals within the city. More significantly still, individual destinies lead to the city itself. "Every man, every fraction of a house" is a "lobe of the cellular tissue" of this "creature" whom the artist-flâneur alone knows so well (5:795). Here as in the birds'-eye views of Paris so popular in the 1840s, an "aesthetic of integration" bespeaks the strong narrative control for which synecdoche supplies the characteristic trope. The impossibility for any individual to take account of the multiplication of urban space is refuted by the artist-flâneur, the surrogate author who takes that unknowability and makes it a condition of creativity.[6] Nowhere is Balzac's fundamentally romantic conception of the genius more evident than in the flâneur turned narrator, a voice imposing his will on the city and its texts.


Flâner—Se promener en musant, perdre son temps â des bagatelles.
Dictionnaire de l'Académie française (1879)

Flâner—to dawdle about, to waste one's time on trifles.

The urban discourse secured in the texts of Balzac and his contemporaries is a discourse of placement, of exploration and explanation. Narrative control is a function of urban possession. This discourse of placement acknowledges the diversity, the mystery, and even the danger of the city, but it also assumes control of risk by unraveling each mystery before the reader's very eyes. By midcentury flânerie becomes altogether more problematic, the flâneur a suspicious character. The Revolution of 1848—the hopes raised and then dashed—divides more than the century; among other things, as Roland Barthes would later point out in Le Degré zéro de l'écriture, it is the crucial factor separating Balzac from Flaubert. The Second Empire that arose out of the coup d'état of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851 staged both a new politics and a new urban text, and the Paris that we know today is largely the city torn down and rebuilt in the 1850s and 1860s under the aegis of the prefect Haussmann. A program of drastic urban renewal propelled Paris into the present. Necessarily, the flâneur performs very differently in the assertively modernizing city of broad


boulevards and expansive parks, of fashionable promenades and racetracks, of new apartment buildings, a city made over for and in the image of the grande bourgeoisie.

In the radically different urban setting made by haussmannization, the flâneur embodied a new, and disquieting, relation to the city, one that held special meaning for the artist. Despite Balzac's early classification of the artist-flâneur, Baudelaire's recasting set the archetype of the flâneur as modern artist and the artist of modernity. Baudelairean flânerie offers the key to Baudelaire's conception of the artist and his tortured relationship to society. And, however different from his predecessor, Baudelaire's flâneur in search of modernity claims as his ancestor the paradigmatic artist-flâneur of the July Monarchy investigating the city.[7]

Like Balzac's artist-flâneur, Baudelaire's painter of modern life aims "higher" than the "pure flâneur." But those heights are defined differently. The city is no longer reflected in the puzzles resolved by the detective but by the mysteries confronted and savored and, for that matter, created by the artist. The flâneur has become "L'Étranger" (1862), the opening poem in Le Spleen de Paris that transforms the observer into  the  "enigmatic  man,"  the  "extraordinary" foreigner-stranger who loves "the clouds that pass . . ., the marvelous clouds," the painter of modern life who proposes to "extract the eternal from the transitory." Balzac's controlling narrator gives way to Baudelaire's anguished poet, for whom exploration of the city is a pretext for the exploration of self. He seeks not society, and not the city, but modernity. The locus of personal misery, the city is also the site of creativity, the place of "Idéal" as well as of "spleen." The realm of pure art, this Paris is also the empire of prostitution, but it is, as Baudelaire has it for his poet-man of the crowd in "Les Foules," "the sacred prostitution of the soul." The flâneur's ambivalent, and ambiguous, relationship to the city now enters and defines the very condition of creativity.

The recasting of flânerie is not Baudelaire's alone, and his is not the only flâneur in Paris at midcentury. The malaise of the artist to which his work bore witness was social, not individual. The other great universe of flânerie in nineteenth-century literature, an urban universe contemporaneous with that of Le Spleen de Paris, is that created by Gustave Flaubert. In 1869, the same year that Le Spleen de Paris was published, L Éducation sentimentale ushered in another world in which the flâneur plays an exemplary role. Flaubert's flâneur is nei-


ther Balzac's triumphant artist nor again the detached onlooker of the July Monarchy. He does not even attain the intermittent creativity of Baudelaire's tortured artist. He is, rather, a figure of failure, of the impossibility of placing oneself in the city so emphatically producing the space of modernity. Balzac's ordinary flâneur from the July Monarchy turns into the hapless soul of the Second Empire, overwhelmed by the city that refuses security. Far from empowering the walker in the street, the altered urban context disables the individual and devastates the collectivity. Distance and inactivity no longer connote superiority but rather estrangement, alienation, anomie. Moreover, it is not the creative estrangement that sets the condition of Baudelaire's poetry but an alienation that paralyzes the will.

There are, to be sure, earlier hints of the darker side of flânerie. Startling images of failure develop in Balzac's later work—Lucien de Rubempré's disastrous first sojourn in Paris in Un Grand Homme de province à Paris of 1839, the feckless Wenceslas Steinbock's decline in La Cousine Bette of 1846. In César Birotteau (1844) Balzac warns us that the Parisian flâneur is just as often a desperate man as an idler (6:63). Yet Balzac's own work affirms that the artist-flâneur remains a possibility. Balzac's romanticized, essentially aristocratic producer of the urban text has no station in the relentlessly bourgeois city depicted by Flaubert. The new Paris of squandered opportunities utterly lacks the dramatic derelictions and successes depicted by Balzac, Hugo, and other urban novelist-adventurers like Eugène Sue or by their successors like Zola and Maupassant. The flânerie that undermines the resolve of Wenceslas Steinbock and Lucien de Rubempré governs Flaubert's entire universe. The artist-flâneur has become extinct. Productivity of any sort is not even a remote possibility in Flaubert's world because the artist-flâneur at midcentury stands for anomie and alienation.

Unlike Balzac or Baudelaire or others, Flaubert says relatively little about the flâneur or flânerie. Nowhere does he call Frédéric Moreau a flâneur.[8] Nevertheless, Frédéric is a flâneur, and even though the novel takes place during the July Monarchy, Frédéric is a flâneur for the Second Empire during which Flaubert wrote the novel. Frédéric is a flâneur who does not possess the city so much as he is possessed by it. Flânerie defines his world and his being. Most obviously, Frédéric and his friends (including his beloved Mme Arnoux) spend an impressive amount of time moving about the streets of Paris, back and forth across the Seine, up to Montmartre, over to Saint-Augustin, down to the Quartier Latin, and back again. The chance meetings on


those streets that play so conspicuous a role in the novel bear further witness to the role flânerie plays in defining the novel, and surely it is fitting that Frédéric and Mme Arnoux mark their final encounter with a walk through the streets of the city that has both favored and frustrated their liaison. Paris has provided space for their meetings, but the city affords no place for their love.

The aimlessness of Frédéric's meanderings, in particular, contrasts sharply with the energy that dispatches the characters of Balzac and Hugo from one place to another. Place still signifies for the older generation of romantics. For Balzac, who writes in the July Monarchy about the Restoration, Eugene de Rastignac's route from  the Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève to the faubourg Saint-Germain in Le Pre Goriot and Lucien de Rubempré's movements from one quartier to another in Illusions perdues are charged with symbolic significance. Streets exist as places, each endowed with a particular character—as in the meditation on la rue Soly that opens Ferragus or the entire section, "L'Idylle rue Plumet et l Épopée rue Saint-Denis," that Hugo places in Les Misérables. Because Balzac and Hugo equate Paris with history, the monuments, streets, and neighborhoods speak eloquently about the past and portentously about the present. For Flaubert, writing about the July Monarchy and the Revolution of 1848 from the vantage point of the Second Empire, the demonstration at the Panthéon, like the destruction of the Louvre during the February days of 1848, mirrors the degradation, the confusion, and the loss of meaning in Paris as a whole.[9]

Notwithstanding the evident difference of these many urban landscapes of L 'Éducation sentimentale, flânerie constitutes an exceptionally appropriate image for a man distanced from his surroundings. Walking alone at night after quitting Mme Arnoux, Frédéric "was no longer conscious of the milieu, of space, of anything" (99). Walking heightens this insensibility because it is associated with intoxication (ivresse ) The night that he walks the streets "the movement of his walking kept up the intoxication" (129). Incapable of concentrating on any task in the absence of Mme Arnoux, he spends hours on his balcony contemplating the Seine (116); on the first day of the Revolution of 1848, he and Rosanette spend the afternoon on the balcony looking at the crowd in the street (352, cf. 429). When he comes into closer contact with the insurrection, events scarcely touch him. The wounded "did not seem like real wounded men, the dead did


not seem like real dead men. It seemed to him that he was watching a performance [un spectacle ] (357). Some time later on "his promenade" (389) on the boulevards in search of something to do, Frédéric finds the agitated crowd of workers, policemen, and bourgeois bystanders "a very amusing sight [un spectacle ] (390). The detailed presentation of events of 1848 only makes more obvious the essential absence of the revolution.

Frédéric's inability to direct his steps—his existential flânerie—signals his inability to conduct either his career or his emotions. He has little attachment to society despite his many ineffectual attempts to participate fully therein. Frédéric has no effective ties to the numerous and diverse milieux that he frequents. His many undertakings are so incompatible that he executes none of them. His abortive candidacy at the Club de l 'Intelligence, like his consideration of M. Dambreuse's proposition to be general secretary of a new corporation and his scheme for a wealthy marriage, not to mention the great works he thinks about painting or writing, all come to naught. Frédéric is suspended in the city and in society at large, but this suspension is the consequence less of choice than of a marked aversion to the responsibilities that choice demands. Not surprisingly, his most important resolutions appear negative—not to accept M. Dambreuse's offer, not to run for office, not to seduce Mme Arnoux, not to marry Mme Dambreuse, and so on.

Paris cannot be conquered because it is a utopia, an elsewhere forever beyond reach, another creation of Frédéric's imagination. However much time he spends contemplating the city, Frédéric never perceives it clearly. Thus, in the first scene he is leaving Paris. Its buildings recede in the distance, obscured by the smoke and the cloud of steam emitted by the boat, and by the fog (47). Returning to the capital a richer man a few years later, he watches factories "smoking" and the sun shining "through the haze" (156-7). The pervasive rain, fog, and mist all blur the line between reality and reverie. All in all, it is no wonder that the city remains unfocused, particularly given the frequent association of Frédéric with one or another variant of intoxication, dizziness, or bedazzlement (ivresse, étourdissement, éblouissement ).

For all of Flaubert's sociological and historical acuity, the Paris of L'Éducation sentimentale is filtered through the stereotypical exoticism of his protagonist's febrile imagination. As Frédéric quits the city in


the opening scene, he daydreams about what he will do when he takes up residence there two months hence. Yet once in Paris Frédéric almost immediately sees himself elsewhere. Settling into his rooms on the quai Napoléon conjures up visions of furnishing a Moorish palace (104). His career plans resemble grandiose fictions of a place in Parisian society—in the courtroom and the Assemblée Nationale (139), in the diplomatic corps (152), in the Conseil d'État (152, 214, 220). Deslauriers urges Frédéric to turn to fiction for his models: "Remember Rastignac in the Comédie humaine!" (65). But unlike those of his Balzacian model, Frédéric's innumerable trips about Paris prove as meaningless as his imaginary dislocations in time and space. In a suitable irony, Frédéric finds his space in Paris only when away from the city. At his mother's in Nogent-sur-Seine, he "plays the Parisian," creating a fictive capital for the locals in compensation for his disappointments in the real Paris. Once again Frédéric fails to rise above mediocrity. His knowledge turns out to be gossip about the theater and high society that he has culled from magazine accounts (308).

Frédéric can no more depict Mme Arnoux than he can define the city, and this is true despite the considerable detail given to each—on the one hand, Mme Arnoux's dress, her hair, her beauty mark, and especially her possessions, and on the other, the scrupulously delineated topography of Paris, its different quartiers, and its institutions. For the one as for the other, detail distracts. It diffuses attention instead of focusing desire. The "rapture of his whole being" propels Frédéric toward Mme Arnoux (441), but that rapture impedes action. As he tells her on their last meeting, she affected him like "moonlight on a summer's night, when everything is perfume, soft shadows, whiteness, infinity" (503). Her very dress appears "infinite" (261). Mme Arnoux fades into the pervasive unreality of Frédéric's life, scarcely more real than the revolution that he also observes through the prism of reverie.

The city and the woman, in loose equation, are as limitless and as elusive as the air that Frédéric breathes. They compose his milieu in the physiological sense of the term, for they supply the medium within which he evolves. The possibility of frequenting the Arnoux household holds the promise of "living in [Mme Arnoux's] atmosphere," the very thought of which sends Frédéric through the deserted streets "at random, lost, carried away," until he finds himself on the quais,


where the lights "vacillated in the depths of the water," a "luminous fog floated above the roof tops," and all the noises "melted into a single hum" (99-100).

Ultimately, Paris, like Mme Arnoux, is not so much unconquerable as evanescent. Flaubert takes such care to join the two because Frédéric views each in much the same light. Everything about Paris "related to her" (120), and Frédéric's conviction that "any attempt to make her his mistress would be in vain" (120) applies equally to his perception of Paris. The city too is the "sphinx" (261) whose enigma Frédéric never solves. His halfhearted attempts to conquer the one and the other, the woman and the city, succumb to the inertia induced by reverie. It is not by accident that here as elsewhere Flaubert takes the Balzacian model only to reverse it. Both writers associate Paris with a woman and the flâneur with male desire. But the correspondence of the trope only highlights the difference between these worlds. The metaphor that Balzac uses to imply possession is used by Flaubert to signify precisely the opposite. In L'Éducation sentimentale desire is dreamed, never realized.

Unlike Balzac or Hugo, Flaubert calls on no outsize, controlling metaphor to subsume the many parts of the city into a powerful, unitary definition. For Balzac's personification of Paris as créature, courtisane, queen, or monster, or Hugo's portrayal of a leviathan ("L'Intestin de Léviathan" in Les Misérables ) Flaubert substitutes the elusive Seine, which connects Frédéric to Paris and to Mme Arnoux, to his home in Nogent-sur-Seine and his mother. Paradoxically, the very mobility of the flâneur precludes effective—that is, directed—movement, and the river joins the omnipresent drizzle, showers, vapor, and human tears in a universal aqueous medium that dissipates Frédéric's ambition, dilutes his desires, and dissolves his will. In contrast to Balzac's conquering aristocratic flâneur who seduces the city-as-woman to engender the urban text, Flaubert's bourgeois flâneur idles to no effect. Frédéric does not seduce; he is seduced, by the city to which he remains almost literally enthralled. He slides through the social hierarchy as he roams about the streets. Aristocratic inclinations and artistic tastes notwithstanding, Frédéric is neither aristocrat nor artist. The text, like the city and the woman, remains out of reach. At every turn the city frustrates desire, baffles intelligence, and resists control.



L'errance que multiplie et rassemble la ville en fait une immense experience sociale de la privation de lieu.
Michel de Certeau, L'Invention du quotidien

The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place.

In this period of almost incalculable change for the country and for its capital, the novel came of age and sociology was born. More than coincidence connects the two. From Balzac, Auguste Comte, and Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s and 1840s through Flaubert and Marx from the 1850s through the 1870s to Émile Zola, Maurice Barrès, and Émile Durkheim in the 1880s and 1890s, to take only the most obvious candidates, the literary and the sociological imagination worked with shared perceptions and concerns as they confronted a society that resisted conventional modes of representation. If Flaubert strikes a discordant note within this sociological tradition, it is because he has, in a very decisive sense, been taken at his word. Obdurate aestheticism and adamantly apolitical politics have obscured the profound sense of a century out of joint that Flaubert shares with writers like Balzac and Zola, who made a point of articulating the sociological relevance of their work.

Like the sociologist, Flaubert consistently frames the individual in terms of the collective. Despite the singular connotations of the subtitle of L Education sentimentale—Story of a Young Man—Flaubert specified that the novel had greater ambitions. It was a "novel of modern mores." More specifically, his announced goal was to write the "moral history" of an entire generation—his own—and to analyze the historical conditions responsible for its lack of accomplishment. This novel, he noted, was to be a story of love and of passion, but "passion as it can exist today, that is, inactive" (letter to Mlle Leroyer de Chantepie, 6 October 1864). For Flaubert as for Balzac, as for any sociologist, the most intimate of emotions is also and at the same time the most social. Flaubert's first book shows a similar split between the individual focus of the title, Madame Bovary, and the social milieu of the subtitle, Moeurs de province.

What secures Flaubert's place on the sociological agenda of the nineteenth century is his evident preoccupation with the deteriora-


tion of contemporary society. Emma Bovary and Frédéric Moreau do not reflect the sorry state of nineteenth-century France, they are themselves agents of that decline. Flaubert's indictment in 1857 for "outrage to public morality" in Madame Bovary offers clear testimony to the relevance of a sociological reading of the novel. The author may have inhabited an ivory tower; his readers most assuredly did not. They saw and insisted upon precisely that which Flaubert shrouded in his aesthetic pronouncements, namely, the forceful social subtext of his work.

This subtext places Flaubert's novels, and L 'Éducation sentimentale in particular, not only between the works of Balzac and Zola, where they have long had a place, but also between those of Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim. Although Marx and Durkheim are more often set in opposition than in tandem, the Marxian category of alienation offers more than one parallel with Durkheimian anomie, and both are relevant to the Paris of L'Éducation sentimentale. Each theoretical construct points to an aspect of the modern city around which Flaubert constructs his novel.

Anomie is the term that Durkheim resurrected from the fifteenth century (from Greek) to characterize a society that fails to anchor the individual in significant social groups. In addition to its specific philosophical heritage through Hegel and Feuerbach, alienation resonates with the usage in both Roman law and contemporary psychiatric discourse to identify a society that dispossesses the individual of both work and worth. Durkheim uses suicide much as Marx uses fetishism, as a sign of futility and, hence, of social pathology. Intended as an affirmation of the individual choice, retreat into death, like escape into materialism, surrenders control to encompassing social forces.

In very different, possibly antagonistic theoretical systems, anomie and alienation designate a social structure marked by the radical disjuncture between the whole and its constituent parts. Both concepts belong within the larger discourse of displacement that becomes increasingly strident as the century progresses—precisely that discourse in which the flâneur figures so prominently as the urban personage par excellence. Differences between the analytic and narrative practice of social representation only accentuate the commonality of the problem. The claim here is not one of influence. Marx passionately admired Balzac's work, but he said nothing of Flaubert; and Durkheim never accorded literature and the arts more than cursory


notice. But Marx and Durkheim share with Flaubert a common culture of concern. The discourse of dislocation that Flaubert narrates and dramatizes, they articulate and theorize.

The same division of labor (Durkheim's first book, in 1893, is the Division du travail social ) the same rampant individualism, and the same consequent splintering of society that are the target of Durkheimian sociology also structure Flaubert's novels. Indeed, Flaubert's world of flânerie, so notable for the absence of stable social relations, could serve as a model for Durkheim's vision of modern society. Of Durkheim's major works, Le Suicide (1897) evidences the strongest connection to Flaubert's texts of displacement. In this pioneering work, notable for its synthesis of statistical and theoretical analysis, Durkheim argues that suicide should be considered a social rather than individual phenomenon. As such, it requires a sociological, not a psychological, model of explanation. Accordingly, Durkheim approaches suicide by classifying suicidal behavior in terms of varying relationships between the individual and society. The disjuncture between the two determines what Durkheim points to as the prevailing forms of suicide in contemporary society: "egoistic" suicide signifying insufficient attachment to society and "anomic" suicide resulting from inadequate regulation of desire.

In conjunction and separately, anomie and egoism detach the individual from society much as flânerie disconnects the flâneur from effective social activity. Each designates the erosion of social bonds and the loss of social integration. To complete the logical possibilities, Durkheim posits "altruistic suicide," which originates in excessive attachment to the collectivity, and "fatalistic suicide," which results from overregulation of the passions. But these last categories are of less moment. (Fatalistic suicide, which Durkheim ascribes to slaves in antiquity, gets no more than a footnote.) Like so many others in the nineteenth century (and here lies the connection to Balzac), Durkheim believed modern society should worry about weak rather than strong social bonds and concern itself with the excesses of passion rather than its repression.

Behavior that can be classified as suicidal may or may not actually end in death. In any case, what matters to Durkheim is not the individual act of suicide but what that act reveals about society. Similarly, as his determination to focus on his generation indicates, Flaubert is concerned less with Frédéric or the others as individuals than with


what their fates reveal about their generation and the absence of meaningful affective bonds and social ties. Durkheim, like Flaubert, considers individual acts—suicide, passion—so many private manifestations of a social state that comprehends but also transcends the individual.

Frédéric Moreau does not commit suicide. He is tempted, but on the evening that he contemplates throwing himself into the Seine, the parapet on the bridge seems a bit too wide and "lassitude" wins out (129). Nevertheless, Frédéric greatly resembles Emma Bovary, who does kill herself. Both exhibit the particular blend of egoism (weak social bonds) and anomie (unregulated passion) that Durkheim judges characteristic of certain cases. The close relationship of these two social states is borne out by the examples that Durkheim calls up to illustrate the psychological manifestations of a social state. Like Lamartine's egoistic Raphael lost in "the infinity of dream," Frédéric misdirects his ambitions; like Goethe's Werther and like Chateaubriand's René, lost in "the infinity of desire," he wallows in his love for Mme Arnoux.[10] Disillusionment is inevitable because the most boundless passion inevitably comes up short against the real world. "The boundaries encountered by the dissatisfied individual can lead him . . . to seek distraction from disappointed passions in an inner life. But since he finds nothing there . . . he can only flee once again." As Frédéric's successive enthusiasms repeatedly demonstrate, such flight only increases "disquietude and dissatisfaction." The cycle perpetuates frustration, with the result that "despondency alternates with agitation, dream with action, transports of desire with melancholy meditations."

Durkheim also recognizes that, despite apparent differences, egoism and altruism are really two aspects of the same social state, and, hence, may work together to produce a maladjustment on the part of the individual. Frédéric's allegiance to Mme Arnoux, like the fervent zeal with which Sénécal serves the republic, illustrates the distinctive fusion of selfishness and devotion that Durkheim finds in modern, "disaggregated society." When society itself cannot serve as a goal for individual activities, individuals or groups look for something else "to which they can attach themselves and which gives a sense to their life." Reality being of no use, these individuals elect an "ideal reality, . . . an imaginary being whom they serve all the more exclusively for being out of sorts with everything else, themselves in-


cluded." "Hence," Durkheim concludes, "they live a double and contradictory existence: individualists for everything in the real world, they turn into immoderate altruists for everything that touches the ideal object."

Thus Frédéric justifies every selfish action with the thought of his ideal love. In hopes of becoming closer to Mme Arnoux, he reneges on his promise of money to Deslauriers and gives the money instead to her husband; subsequently, for much the same reason he slanders his friend Dussardier in order to justify borrowing a substantial sum from his fiancée, Mme Dambreuse, to pay Mme Arnoux's debts. The most striking instance of the association of altruism and egoism occurs during the coup d'état of 1851 when the one-time republican militant Sénécal, for whom the ideal state apparently excuses every excess, turns policeman for Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and shoots Dussardier, once his republican comrade.

This social fragmentation, which L'Éducation sentimentale enacts and with which Durkheimian sociology contends, also links Flaubert to Marx .Marx and Flaubert were exact contemporaries, and Marx spent important years in Paris and wrote about the July Monarchy and the Second Republic. Here, once again, and for both writers, Paris is the essence of the modern condition. Where Durkheim renders the division of labor and excessive individualism responsible for the crisis in which modern society finds itself, Marx indicts the division of property and the class society. Where Durkheim takes his model from disease, talking of "pathology" and of society as an "organism," Marx thinks in terms of materialism. The cornerstone of Marxian theory is also basic to L'Éducation sentimentale, a setting dominated by the commodification of human relations, love, art, and politics. Frédéric's almost obsessive furnishing of his hôtel particulier implies the debasement of art into merchandise that is writ large not only in Arnoux's trajectory from editing the journal L'Art industriel to selling religious objects but also in the sordid negotiations over Rosanette's portrait (itself a hodgepodge of stylistic references that defy the very notion of authenticity). The engravings of Venice, Naples, and Constantinople that Frédéric rushes to hang in his first rooms, like the travel accounts and the atlas he purchases subsequently, substitute for the trips he does not take. When he finally quits France and travels to exotic lands, the voyage seems to be out of an album filled with visual clichés ("the melancholy of steamer ships, the awakenings on cold


mornings in a tent, the dizziness of landscapes and ruins, the bitterness of interrupted companionship" [500]).

The promiscuity dictated by the market begins, and ends, at home. The most arresting of the many objects that give so much material weight to the novel, and certainly the most evident both thematically and structurally, relate to the Arnoux household(s). A surprising number of items circulate between spouse and mistress in an apparently endless exchange. The silver casket that Arnoux gives his wife reappears throughout the novel, a "relic" of Frédéric's devotion, but the devotion is more than a little ambiguous because the relic is shared by both of Frédéric's mistresses. Rosanette (also Arnoux's mistress) has the casket for a time, and Mme Dambreuse later buys it at auction. By propelling the private into the public domain, the auction puts Mme Arnoux herself into circulation, like every other woman in the novel, like every other man. Mme Arnoux is effectively "sold off" at auction. The passing about of her personal effects, her furs, her dresses, her boots, her hats, her gloves, and especially her petticoats and shifts transforms the room into a bordello (the bedroom furniture is prominently on display) and confirms suspicions that no dream can resist circulation in the Paris market.

The drama of the auction arises from its public, that is, indiscriminant nature. It forces Mme Arnoux onto the open market, as opposed to the restricted, "local" market within which she had circulated until then. Mme Dambreuse's purchase of the iconical casket is the sentimental equivalent of Sénécal's shooting of Dussardier the next day during the coup d'état. The conversion of this last "treasure" into the debased common coin punctures Frédéric's dream as surely as the coup d'état liquidates the republican ideal embodied by Dussardier.

The auction stages the process of commodification that has directed the novel from the beginning. However much "the force of [Frédéric's] dreams" places Mme Arnoux "outside human conditions" from the first apparition to the last rendezvous, Flaubert persistently brings her back in (230). The association with objects is not limited to those she actually possesses. Frédéric sees Mme Arnoux in every shop window, imagines her in the displayed cashmere shawls, lace, earrings, and satin slippers. This propensity to see Mme Arnoux everywhere, and especially in objects that are for sale, subjects her to the implacable logic of substitutability that applies to people as well


as to things. "All women reminded him of her," prostitutes, middleclass women, working-class girls, as well as the women in the paintings at the Louvre for whom he "substituted" her image (119-20).

Frédéric copies Arnoux in associating Mme Arnoux with Rosanette, but goes one better by adding Mme Dambreuse. Moreover, Arnoux's outspoken admiration of his wife's physical attributes, like Cisy's insult that provokes the duel with Frédéric, intimates that Mme Arnoux is not as different from other women as Frédéric would like to believe. Then too, Mme Arnoux herself visits Frédéric to solicit financial assistance, and although she speaks in her husband's name and is accompanied by her child and his maid, the situation, as Frédéric cannot help realizing, raises questions about her motives. Not the least ambiguous aspect of the final encounter between Frédéric and Mme Arnoux is the financial transaction that prompts a visit after more than fifteen years (repayment of a debt long outstanding). Frédéric suspects that Mme Arnoux has come to give herself to him, but she instead presents the sum in a small wallet that she has embroidered with golden palms. This wallet, along with the long lock of hair that she cuts for him, is all that Frédéric will ever possess of her. From beginning to end, from the shawl that Frédéric hands back to her at their first meeting to the purse that she returns to him more than a quarter century later, Flaubert ties Mme Arnoux to the material world.

That material world, the novel makes abundantly clear, is totally illusory. It is incapable of fixing Frédéric, who is condemned to wander through life as he roams about Paris. The city, love, politics—all in L'Éducation sentimentale are an experience of absence. The travels that Frédéric embarks upon following Mme Arnoux's departure and the coup d'état are as desultory as his walks about Paris. These travels to exotic places amplify the basic model of flânerie. In the city or in the world at large, the encounter with place produces an absence. In contrast to the flâneur-artist of Balzac or Baudelaire, who is very much tied to place, Flaubert's flâneur has no space. His is very much the world of anomie and alienation, of social fragmentation and the illusion of presence. Flaubertian flânerie transposes the social and political crises of the nineteenth century onto the city. Where Durkheim and Marx analyze modern society, Flaubert narrates the contemporary city, the revolutionary Paris where revolution too had become an absence.



Le regard que le génie allégorique plonge dans la ville trahit . . . le sentiment d'une profonde aliénation. C'est là le regard d'un flâneur.
Walter Benjamin, "Paris, Capitale du XIXe siècle"

The look that allegory plunges in the city . . . betrays a profound alienation. It's the look of a flâneur.

Reading Flaubert through Durkheim and Marx suggests a type of interpretation that might fuse the imaginative mode of literature and the analytical method of social science—precisely the kind of history it was Walter Benjamin's ambition to write. Benjamin's work on nineteenth-century Paris is a mine of information, of literary and historical analysis, and of meditations on just what it is that ties the nineteenth century to the present. Benjamin sought the congruence of the apparently incongruent, the immaterial embedded in the material. Behind "the facts fixed in the form of things" he looked to the illusions around which those facts and those things cohered.[11] Not accidentally, the subject demanding this integration was, once again, Paris. In "Paris, Capitale du XIXe siècle," the second of the two introductions that he wrote for his unfinished project on nineteenth-century civilization, he circles around the Marxist notion of fetishism. But Benjamin sees Paris as much through the lenses of Baudelaire's poetics as through the lenses supplied by Marxian theory. He parts company with orthodox Marxism when he singles out the illusions produced by a materialistic civilization. In this short summary of his intended great work on Paris, Benjamin points to a universe of illusions that brings us back to Flaubert's Paris and its flâneurs.

Benjamin seized upon the flâneur as an exemplary character type produced by the nineteenth-century city. Working largely from Baudelaire's conceptions of the modern artist and the flâneur, Benjamin elaborated a vision of a city of revolution, but a revolution that somewhere, somehow went wrong. So remarkable are the correlations with L'Éducation sentimentale that the novel seems almost a blueprint for the Benjaminian vision of history. For before Benjamin and contemporaneously with Baudelaire, Flaubert uses flânerie to represent the modern city and the illusions that it sustains. But the differences are instructive and suggest why Benjamin paid little attention to Flau-


bert's flâneurs and their world of dislocation. The flâneur that Baudelaire allegorizes, Flaubert represents. The archetypical modern urban landscape of Le Spleen de Paris contrasts with the scrupulously delineated topographical and historical Paris of L'Éducation sentimentale. The fascination with the allegories of modern life that drew Benjamin to Baudelaire suggests that his inattention to Flaubert may be explained by the very different, realistic mode in which the novelist necessarily operated. Flaubert's flâneurs are Parisian in ways that Baudelaire's, and Benjamin's, are not.

Yet despite the evident difference in mode, Flaubert very clearly renders the kind of spectacle for which Benjamin appropriated the term phantasmagoria. (The term, which originated in popular entertainments that used optical illusions to produce shadows or fantômes, was appropriated by Marx to designate the illusory, reified nature of personal relationships under capitalism.) Benjamin outlines the phantasmagoria in tantalizing brevity. Against the public illusions of the market place, which find their privileged expression first in the arcades and subsequently in the World's Fairs and the department store, he sets the private illusions of the collector who endeavors to abstract objects from the market by idealizing them. In the Paris reconstructed by Haussmann, Benjamin uncovers the mask that society has composed for itself. The new Paris is "phantasmagoria turned into stone." All of these elements together disguise the primary transformation of nineteenth-century society in the reduction of objects to their exchange value, that is, their commercialization. There remains only the illusion of freedom and security, which coexists in the anxiety of those living the illusion. Modernity, as Benjamin concludes citing Baudelaire, is the world dominated by its phantasmagoria.

Benjamin traces these phantasmagoria through their material manifestations—a logical enough approach given the weight that fetishism bears in the Marxist model and his own vision of a material history, a "thing-oriented representation of civilization." But Benjamin's notion of materialism is singular. It is not dialectical, and if it is passionately historical, the history in question remains a quirky one. Still, if we can talk about Flaubert's materialism, it is through just this sort of twist. Flaubertian materialism does not issue solely from the oppressive presence of objects in these novels or the innumerable lists of almost every sort. Were that the case, almost any realist novel would do (and the naturalist Zola would presumably provide an even


more telling model). Flaubert's "historical materialism," like Benjamin's, takes a specific turn. It resides in his insistence that desired objects are illusory, and it places its stress upon the fact and importance of illusion as such. Frédéric illustrates to perfection Benjamin's notion of the collector who accumulates possessions in order to make a place in a world in which, in truth, he has no place.

In this world of phantasmagoria, Frédéric and everyone else in the novel exchange roles, ideologies, politics, lovers, and governments as easily as objects change hands. The exchange-value of objects and people everywhere supersedes their use-value. L'Éducation sentimentale portrays a reified world, where Benjamin's arcades have been elaborated into a metonymy for the city and the society beyond, where the market solicits through the illusions it sustains. Frédéric meanders about Paris like the flâneur passing through an arcade, giving himself over to the illusions of the material. The bumbling protagonists in the unfinished, posthumously published Bouvard et Pécuchet (1880) similarly pass from one illusion to another as they meander through the facts and fads of the nineteenth century, unable to find a place or a text that fits. More radically than L'Éducation sentimentale, Bouvard et Pécuchet stages the drama of intellectual and social dispossession. Displacement has been redefined from a matter of individual disposition (and election) to a question of social (dis)organization. In sum, the flâneur's temporary suspension from society has become the urban condition. No longer one of many social roles that the urban dweller may adopt from time to time, the flâneur occupies a fullfledged social status that defines and confines existence itself—a negative construct of truly modernist proportions.

Between the vibrant city of Balzac and Hugo and the haunting, strangely empty metropolis of Flaubert and Baudelaire loom the Paris of Haussmann and the France of Napoléon III. This city and this society furnish the sociological intertext for L'Éducation sentimentale, one that intervenes between the action of the novel (1840-51) and the presumed narration (1867). The text of Paris (re)written by Haussmann, like the rules of government redrafted by Napoléon III, does not efface the past so much as it inexorably marks off the present. Frédéric's consternation at seeing Mme Arnoux's white hair renders the shock provoked by the confrontation with the new Paris and the consequent realization that the old is irretrievable. The "adorations" that Frédéric directs to "the woman she was no longer" (503)


echo the laments for le vieux Paris that grew louder and louder as le Paris nouveau took shape. Flaubert does not even specify where this last meeting takes place, surely a significant absence in a novel notable for topographical specificity. The rue Rumford where Frédéric has his hôtel particulier in the late July Monarchy disappeared into the new boulevard Malesherbes between 1855 and 1860, so it cannot be there that Mme Arnoux comes in 1869. Frédéric's last apartment exists in something of a non-place, just like his great love affair that does not so much end as dissolve into the city lights reflected on the shiny, wet streets of their last walk together. Once again the urban topography supplies a basic figure for the narrative at large. Haussmannized Paris is not merely the setting for Frédéric's nonexistence from 1852 to 1869, summarized in two paragraphs, it is the necessary figure for that nonexistence.

Unlike Balzac and unlike Baudelaire, Flaubert offers no artist-flâneur to make sense of this universe, to retrieve the past by refashioning it Flaubert in the Second Empire can only come up with idlers whose constitutional dés-oeuvrement (idleness) must be understood as dés-oeuvrement, as "un-working." Of the eight instances of "désoeuvrement" and the five that concern Frédéric, four are explicitly related to the absence of work (69, 72, 116, 500), once in direct reference to the novel that Frédéric never finishes (72). Flaubert achieved the paradox cal construction of a work (oeuvre ) out of idleness (désoeuvrement ) in a latter-day equivalent of creation from the void. Accordingly, L 'Éducation sentimentale is an oxymoron. The very existence of the work refutes the conclusions reached by the text. As Georg Lukács noted in The Theory of the Novel, the achievement of L'Éducation sentimentale contests the default of the artist and the degradation of art that the novel performs so vividly.

Frédéric "sustained the idleness [désoeuvrement ] of his intellect" (500) during the decade and a half that followed Louis-Napoléon's coup d'état of 1851. But those were the years of the Second Empire during which Flaubert became a writer, the years of Madame Bovary, of Salammbô, of L'Éducation sentimentale itself. He took to heart the advice he gave Louise Colet in 1852. From the top of his ivory tower, Flaubert could see the Second Empire and the transformed Paris, but he rendered them by their absence. The "blank" space of the novel—from  1851, when the sentimental and political drama ends, to 1867, when the novel ends—was filled by Flaubert's hard work. His-


tory is dislodged but also filled by art. The discourse of displacement becomes, in a final paradox, the means of creation.

The infinite emptiness with which L'Éducation sentimentale has so often been taxed derives not from the loss of illusions but, quite the contrary, from their persistence. Like Bouvard and Pécuchet, Frédéric and Deslauriers end up exactly where they started out, older to be sure, sadder certainly, but scarcely wiser. The final scene reveals the illusion in which the novel originated—that is, the time before either came to Paris—which Frédéric and Deslauriers agree was "the best that we have had"(510). But the novel begins after this time, and it begins, as it ends, in Paris, though once again in a non-place. At the very heart of flânerie, as Benjamin understands, lies an "anguished phantasmagoria," the anguish of the citizen reduced to one of many in a crowd. Such is also the artist's anxiety as he faces the "crowd" of competitors in the expanding literary market of the nineteenth century and the resulting degradation of both art and society.

The social space of failure analyzed by Durkheim and Marx is imagined, peopled, and narrated by Flaubert. The Paris of L'Éducation sentimentale, then, is a dystopia. Only by removing himself from the city, at his home near Rouen, could Flaubert write about the flâneur and the phantasmagorical city. "Let the Empire go its own way," he exhorted his mistress Louise Colet (she was also a writer) in November 1852 barely two weeks before Louis-Bonaparte officially became Napoléon III, "let's close our door and climb to the top of our ivory tower."[12] For Flaubert, the flâneur's disengagement from society defines at once the dilemma of the artist and the solution that is art.


In its overwhelming complexity, the modern city defies description. The metaphors by which it is conveyed engage through simplification. Whether of a woman to be known or of a woman who cannot be known, whether of a panorama to be dominated or of a scene lost in the reflections of the viewer—these tropes all work through simplification. But they do work, and the consequence is that observers of the city hold onto them for explanations. The problem of knowledge becomes an insuperable one, and yet every urban dweller must create a city that can be known and with which it is possible to cope. Hence the flâneur epitomizes a general predicament, and the discourse of


disruption that surrounds the figure concerns every reader. For this reason, the links between Balzac, Flaubert, Durkheim, and Marx are neither fortuitous nor superfluous. Each observer constructs a narrative to control proliferating meaning, and each succeeds through personal creativity but also through the knowledge and authority of linkages perceived and accepted. The flâneur is one of those links, a vital mechanism in the course of understanding. No wonder understanding the understander is as much a matter of sociological analysis as of literary creativity.

It was not by chance that the flâneur appeared on the streets and in the narratives of early nineteenth-century Paris. The postrevolutionary city both invited and required new urban practices. The disarray engendered by continually shifting political and social bases, like the incertitude fostered by a constantly fluctuating population, undermined the sense of the city as a whole. The narratives of a ubiquitous flâneur joined otherwise separate parts.

The intrinsic surety of this relationship to the city, the authority confidently assumed by the flâneur-writer to define the city, is one manifestation of the myth of Paris as the paradigmatic modern city, Benjamin's capital of the nineteenth century. Like the namings of one and another part of the city itself and along with the directions to the altered social and cultural urban landscape offered by guidebooks, the urban narratives of the flâneur produced what I have called a "discourse of placement." These mappings of revolutionary Paris controlled, and thereby produced, the city. Yet, because the modern city in particular necessarily escapes any narrative, the discourse of placement turned into a discourse of displacement. The conspicuously unproductive flâneur at midcentury pointed to the plight of the individual now overwhelmed by those very processes of change that had once seemed so exhilarating. Revolution exemplified not opportunity but loss.

Flânerie lost its authorial connections. With flânerie disconnected from narration, the flâneur once again became the ordinary stroller, temporarily disengaged from urban woes, with no thoughts of turning flânerie to productive account. A democratized flânerie opened the city to anyone with a bit of leisure time at his (and now also her) disposal. Flânerie returned to its original sense of "insufferable idleness," inactivity unredeemed by creativity of any sort. The 1879 edition of the dictionary of the Académie française puts flânerie beyond


the pale of bourgeois society, in the realm of "dawdling," "wasting one's time on trifles." The final blow to the flâneur-writer received what must have been a final confirmation in the term flâneuse. The feminine substantive appeared in 1877—to designate a type of chaise lounge! Sturdy legs were no longer needed to take one about the city! For that matter, scarcely more than daydreaming, flânerie lost its connection with the city. In the twentieth century, anyone can be a flâneur almost anywhere and anytime that nothing is happening. Passive, solipsistic, the ordinary flâneur turned into the ultimate consumer. Not surprisingly, this paradigmatic urban personage moved inside, away from the now disquieting city toward the comforting interior, the enclosed structure of social control.

By the last third of the nineteenth century the semipublic, semiprivate space of the arcades had been taken over by the department store. Women entered the public sphere as consumers, in the selfsufficient social microcosm of the department store that kept the city outside, at safe remove. "Window shopping" was not random flânerie but directed toward consumption. Feminine flânerie became another mode of shopping, thus realizing the fears expressed by the artist-flâneur early in the century.[13] This final twist, the metamorphosis of the flâneur into the flâneuse and the consequent banalization of flânerie, effectively ended the flâneur's special relationship with the city. There will be flâneurs in the twentieth century, many of a literary inclination. Apollinaire will call one of his works Le Flâneur des deux rives. But the connection has become incidental to the conception of the city and to urban discourse.

In bringing about the urban revolution that would produce modern Paris, the failure of 1848 cuts across the philosophical and sociological value of the flâneur as definitive subject and controlling perceiver. The new landscape of power and the new practices of Paris at midcentury required another kind of character, another kind of perception, and, above all, another kind of movement within movement. For a vision of that complex revolution in the making, no work offers a clearer vision of the new ties between the sociological work of modernization and the aesthetic vision of modernity than Émile Zola's novel La Curée. No work is further from the universe of flânerie. Zola's characters are frenetically and absolutely engaged in the city. His Paris is no place for the idle or detached observer, and something


more murderous also has entered the urban dynamic. Whichever translation of La Curée one decides to use—The Hunt, The Kill, The Quarry —the world of Paris is now divided between the hunter and the hunted. Movement is much more than movement. Midcentury transmutes movement into direct conflict. The writer must devise a new strategy to deal with the city of revolution.


previous chapter
3 The Flâneur: The City and Its Discontents
next chapter