Monday, April 5, 2010

The Virtue of the Flaneur

The American work ethic, the pride we take in our work, is one of the geniuses of our culture. And especially in a blue collar city like Milwaukee, we tend to place a high value on both working hard, and playing hard. Nevertheless, I believe this can be taken too far. If one is not hurrying through life, and focused robot-like on the task at hand, especially the tasks and paths others have declared for him, then he is often seen by our culture as lazy, and in theological terms, even as unfaithful to his calling, etc. I do believe that there is great wisdom in striving for a certain balance in this regard. And to this end Parisian culture can perhaps be a good counterbalance.

In a little book about Paris life, The Flaneur: A stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, through which I confess to having enjoyed strolling more than once, there is a passage of Baudelaire, quoted on page 36 and following, which I'd like to share here. Baulelaire's topic is the flaneur, the man who takes his time to stroll through a scene, and absorb all it has to offer. He writes:

The crowd is his domain, as the air is that of the bird or the sea of the fish. His passion and creed is to wed the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate observer, it's an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you're not at home, but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you're at the center of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody-these are just a few of the minor pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial minds whom language can only awkwardly define. The observer is a prince who, wearing a disguise, takes pleasure everywhere...The amateur of life enters into the crowd as into an immense reservoir of electricity.

Indeed, there is something also deeply American about the compulsion to wander, to go, search, explore, to seek for nothing in particular, just to know for certain that there is a frontier out there to which the human is drawn to discover. This is represented in American life and lore by the open road, and I would suggest that there is more than merely a literal open road. The open road is the poetry of the soul that knows that life is calling him to discover, and learn.

Milwaukee is not Paris. Nor, however, is it the caricature that most people get from the old situation comedies on TV. There is a lot to see and discover here, and it is at once amazing and somehow unsurprising that most people, perhaps even most Milwaukeans, fail to really get to know the city. How many people speak of Wolski's, yet wouldn't even know how to find it? (Okay, Wolski's might not be the height of culture, but my point in that example is how we often fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that we know something, while remaining content with but a superficial knowledge and experience of the thing in question.) How many people walk from point A to point B and never even notice the little art galleries hidden in plain sight? There is something almost Parisian about parts of the East Side. To some degree those in the suburbs would agree with this, though they would tend to see the whole of the East Side that way, and see it as a point of shame, rather than pride.

The weather is getting warmer, and we are approaching the summer festival season, when the city loves to party out in the open. And so I would simply like to urge the reader to take a portion of your hard earned time and just slowly explore the city. Spend time on the Lower East Side, East Town, West Town, and of course Third Ward. Walk through the antique shops in Fifth Ward. Put down your Miler Lite once in a while, and explore the rich taste of an East Side Dark. Sit down for a quality cup of coffee on Brady Street, and enjoy the scene. Walk into a church you've never been inside, and just look around. As you teach yourself to be the flaneur in the city, or to take the open road philosophy on the streets you always thought you knew, you will start to see things in yourself, and will discover new paths and hidden scenery in your own mind and spirit.


Rev. Shane R. Cota said...

I understand your appreciation of Milwaukee, which is why I have often missed it. I see it as the same multi-faceted jewel that you do, and I wish that it was my constant exploration.

Michael Larson said...

Thanks for the great post - I will look forward to being fellow flaneur this summer in Milwaukee - looking forward to some good times.

Baudelaire is fun. I read his reviews of Paris art exhibitions and made some notes and observations here.

Let me know if there is anything of his that I ought to have.