Monday, October 8, 2007

"Flaneur" - A word to Cherish

One of the joys of working with students is that they often return the favour, and teach me something valuable. It's been years since I finished university and students are now my only link to structured learning. New words and phrases fascinate me and I find that a few hours with a style conscious student or with a trendy newspaper, like say The Village Voice, will yield a bumper harvest. Last year's favorite vocabulary acquisition was a useful term encountered during some work I did for an Architecture student. The word was "Subtopia," and I had a lot of fun with it because it puts a neat label on a cultivated interest of mine and one of long standing. I was startled to discover the wealth of fresh discovery available to me once I acquired the term.

I had a similar experience on Saturday when Michael, a very bright U.B.C. student, shared a fascinating article from one of his fourth-year Film Studies courses. It describes a thought provoking Italian film on unique cityscapes. More interesting was its explanation of the French concept of the flaneur and its importance in our understanding of the modern (post 1848) city. Michael was enthused because we had recently studied City of Glass, in Paul Auster's novel The New York Trilogy. Michael had recognized a character in the novel as a flaneur and believed that the Auster must have studied the theories of Baudelaire, Roland Barthes and others. It was a good catch because a little Googling did verify that many scholars had drawn the same conclusions about the character and Auster's influences.

I was instantly possessive of the term Flaneur because at long last it gave a name to about about forty years of fond experience and habit - and it finds me at the stage in my life when I'm sorting through my past. I am originally from the ancient Canadian city of Saint John, New Brunswick and I retain a mass of vivid memories of boyhood scrambling all over my hometown, restless eyes absorbing every detail. Between the ages of ten and twenty I criss-crossed the city, often alone, hunting for novel experience among Victorian streetscapes, along the river shore, atop rock faces scourged by glacial flow, and in the bush beyond the suburbs. Frequently I took risks, as boys must do, but the point is that for me the city was a living thing, a constantly interesting companion.

By the age of fifteen I was already trying to photograph and research some of the abandoned industrial architecture and old tenements, convinced that only I had an eye for the beauty in cockeyed, unpainted wooden homes, rotting brickwork, overgrown lots and leaking hulks moored on the St. John River. I relished every opportunity to speak with elderly residents who were always amused by my insistence on recording their threadbare anecdotes. I kept walking, afraid to miss any detail before it was snatched away by the wreckers ball and his bulldozers.
"During his city wanderings, he took in visual fragments, turning his stroll into a prolonged, intense visual experience. A true protagonist and witness of modern city living, “a kaleidoscope with a conscience”, the flaneur incarnated a photographic mode of operating, perceiving the whole city as a visual universe, moving like a water diviner to go straight to the images in the midst of urban reality."

I started my urban scrambling in 1968, at the age of ten. There were still whole neighborhoods filled with this type of rude architecture, lightly anchored to the living rock. In some locations geologic history competed with the architecture - deep striations in the rock face evidenced the direction of glacial flow during the last Ice Age.
In Paul Auster's NEW YORK TRILOGY, Quinn, a writer of detective stories, accepts the assignment of tailing Dr. Stillman, a deranged historian whose daily wanderings through the city seem random. Yet when carefully mapped they reveal clues to Stillman's agitated thought processes. Scholars of literature debate whether the character is a true flaneur.

I have not had as much travel as I would like, but the cities I have enjoyed most were those I could explore at my leisure -the flaneur instinct runs deep. I explored Hong Kong with tremendous interest, several times. In the 1980s I walked every street on H.K. island savoring in the sheer taste of the place. Amidst and beyond the towers and concrete flats I found everything from overgrown gun positions to oddities of Chinese - Colonial architecture. I know I found foliage concealed relics which even locals were unaware of. In Taiwan I explored the city of Taipei on foot for almost two years, and learned its corners, its edges and its stinks, almost as well as my Canadian hometown. One of my fondest memories is of climbing over a high wall, which was topped with barbed wire, located very near a naval base. There I photographed the graves of Legion Etrangere officers killed in the 1884 Sino-French War. I was only in Tokyo a few times but I spent most of those visits on my feet and because I did I found small hidden wonders that will stay with me till death.

What, I wonder, did those Taiwanese and Japanese make of me? Would my wandering across, over, around and under their city structures have seemed as illogical as Stillmans pattern in Auster's novel? Did they find it insulting that I loved their homegrown monstrosities and their debris more than than marvelous new architecture financed with profits generated by the "Asian Miracle".

Now that Michael has introduced me to this wonderful concept - I understand that I too am a Flaneur. I believe I am going to have fun exploring the philosophy behind it. More, it is already helping me to understand myself just a bit more and is certain to contribute to some of my future projects.

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