The Flâneur

May 11, 2014

I confess to actually enjoying nice little essays on aspects of daily life. The New York Times has one this weekend by Henry Alford who writes about a farm-stay vacation he took in Italy a couple of years back. Alford chucks in lots of ironic self-mockery about his attempts to shirk the farm chores and his lack of enthusiasm for digging postholes. It’s a literary form that Nathaniel Hawthorne utilized in The Blythedale Romance, a roman à clef about his time at Brook Farm in Massachusetts. But now there I go again (as Ronald Reagan would have said, were he—against all expectations—a reader of the Thornapple blog). Using an expression like ‘roman à clef’ as if it were as common as dirty laundry. I’m reasonably confident that both of my regular readers know what a roman à clef is, but it’s utterly irrelevant to this week’s blog. Anyone with the least bit of sensitivity toward the screen-intensive generation would balk at throwing something so likely to confuse and alienate into an otherwise informative sentence.

And especially so given that what I wanted to get around to this morning was the flâneur—an English word if Mirriam-Webster is to be believed (though they leave off the circumflex). The robot who monitors my spelling is less supportive of this judgment, but we’ve said plenty about robots of late. I must confess that I had remained mostly innocent of this particular bit of language until I read an essay by Walter Benjamin celebrating the liberated and aesthetically appreciative consciousness of the flâneur in the late 19th-early 20th century. All of which was mainly just how great it was to stroll up and down the majestic boulevards of European cities, enjoying the blue skies, the breeze in the trees and the onlookers in the sidewalk cafes. It was Benjamin’s essay that got me off on that tangent about Hawthorne and Henry Alford.

I was chatting with my friend Larry Busch about the flâneurs passing by as we enjoyed a late afternoon coffee. Noting that the word derives from the French verb ‘Flânerie,’ we were asking ourselves whether there is any more common English word that captures the same thing. The dictionary would give you the verb ‘stroll’, but that would make the noun form into a word that we most commonly use in reference to a small carriage that parents use to carry infants. And though new parents treasure those moments when baby is napping, there’s only the most tenuous connection between such a conveyance and the peaceful receptiveness and conviviality that Benjamin was associating with the flâneur.

And so I came up with the word, “cruising”. Of course unlike Benjamin’s flâneurs, we typically cruise in our cars up and down Woodward Ave. or Colorado Blvd., as the case may be. In smaller towns, the cruise would typically be anchored by a hamburger or ice-cream drive in, whose parking lot would become clogged with vehicles making the u-turn to begin another circuit. At least once in the evening you would make a stop for a cheeseburger or a milkshake—a practice that links cruising forever to food and is the source of the venerable phrase ‘cruising for burgers’. Those of us who cruised for burgers in the 60s and 70s were unaware of the pollutants that we were releasing into the atmosphere, but I do think that we had the experience Benjamin was describing when he wrote about the flâneurs of a half century or more before us.

In recognition of a) how motor vehicles were polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases (not to mention lead and other toxins); and b) nonetheless how great it was to be footloose and on the move with—quoting Chuck Berry—no particular place to go, there has been a global push to promote “Cool Cities” of late. When Jennifer Granholm latched onto the idea here in Michigan it was largely misunderstood as meaning only cool in the sense of hip (as opposed to also cool in the sense of “not hot in reference to climate change”). By which she intended to say, “Turn off that motor and start walking when you cruise for burgers.” And what self-respecting post adolescent from Generation Any would take advice on hipness from a late-forties mom who also happened to be the Governor? Too bad. We could have learned a thing or two there.

But no, we should not give up those wonderful afternoons when we alternate between being part of the parade and watching it whilst enjoying a bit of nourishment. Especially with summer now coming on full bore.

Strolling for burgers, anyone?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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