Flaneur, Traceur, Hero-eur?
The idea of the flaneur stretches all the way back to the 18th century when Baudelaire (1), along with other intellectuals and artists of the day, took to the streets of Paris with no agenda and no purpose other than to experience their urban landscape anew.
The term ‘flaneur', which may be translated as ‘stroller' or 'saunterer', is not to be confused with ‘loiterer' or ‘gawker'; wandering, unencumbered by obligation, involves a deliberate act, albeit an investment in aimlessness! In our hectic post-modern lives, this might seem an alien concept, but I would argue that the way of the flaneur still has much to offer the everyday hero-in-training.
Flaneurie is inherently playful, inviting us as it does to look with fresh eyes on an environment we might otherwise habituate to. The flaneur strays from the beaten path and explores his or her space, rather than follows familiar routes which are being negotiated merely to get from ‘A' to ‘B'. Flaneurs, rather, linger in the liminal space between ‘A’ and ‘B' and so they enrich their connection to place, and their internal landscape at the same time.
Flaneurie is aligned with the idea of psycho-geography (2) which proposes that our emotions and behaviours can be shaped by the spaces in which we operate. As part of the avant-garde movement (3), its proponents often bring a sense of randomness to their urban exploration and I can confirm, from personal experience, how effective this strategy can be.
In the early 90s during one leisurely summer, I rented a cheap apartment in the middle of Rome for a month. After a week, I had traversed most of the well-worn tourist routes and had ticked off many of the 'must see' features of the city. With three weeks remaining, I decided to become a flaneur for what remained of my stay. Each morning I would navigate to a predetermined location, and from there I journeyed without a map and according only to the role of a die! If an odd number came up, I'd take a left. If an even number was rolled, I would go right and continue in that direction until I came to the next junction. I quickly came to discover all kinds of nooks, crannies and hidden gems that I would never have stumbled upon otherwise. Each day became a new adventure and I developed a much more nuanced sense of the character of Rome along the way.
A decade later, I read a dystopic novel written by John Twelve Hawks entitled ‘The Traveller' (4). The text is set in a world in which a small but powerful elite, called the Tabula (read ‘Illuminati') have succeeded in establishing a self-policing society which is controlled in a way reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (5). In this world, a small group of gifted people, known as ‘Travellers', can astrally project into the unseen realms. Mentored by ‘Pathfinders' and protected by a group of warrior guardians known as the ‘Harlequins', the Travellers' capacity to soar free from the constraints of their society’s self-imposed prison presents a clear and present threat to the Tabula who resolve to hunt them down and destroy them.
Armed with a network of CCTV and other monitoring technologies, and using game theory and algorithms to predict the likely next move of their enemies, the Tabula succeed in exterminating many of the Travellers. In an effort to stay one step ahead, the remaining Harlequins adopt the use of random number generators to escape and evade their pursuers, and this unpredictability becomes key to their survival. Notably, the Harlequins are not just skilled fighters; they are also traceurs.
The traceur, like the flaneur, was born in the back streets of Paris. In modern parlance, a traceur is a practitioner of parkour or free-running, although the root of the word may also be read as 'one who moves quickly', 'one who traces a route' or 'one who tracks/investigates'. The traceur, in time, finds that their discipline leads them to embrace a creative and connected vision of the environment around them. A wall is no longer a barrier, a railing is no longer a means of channelling them like livestock. Dan Edwardes, of Parkour Generations, in his essay ‘Parkour Vision - What’s a City For?' (6) comments that instead, the urban space becomes a reappropriated and 'limitless playground'.
Parkour, like Flaneurie, is a practice which transforms our relationship with the world; it invites a vibrant and dynamic engagement, full of possibilities. The Flaneur navigates the city, unhurried, with no sense of where they might end up. The traceur, in contrast, moves at pace and knows precisely where they are positioned in space and time, but both are situationally aware and attuned to 'what is'.
So what has this to do with heroism? In the 2000 Midnight Shyamalan movie ‘Unbreakable' (7), David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis) is faced with the growing awareness that he is different from those around him. He wants to use his gifts in the service of others, but he doesn’t know how to begin. In a telephone conversation with the film’s antagonist, Mr Glass (Samuel L.Jackson), Dunn is told:
“Go where the people are. You won’t have to look very long. It’s alright to be afraid David, because this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it”.
In the next scene, we see Dunn walking through Grand Central Station amid a sea of commuters. He spreads his hands and allows the people to brush past him, receiving flashes of mental imagery which show him their transgressions or suffering. He does not wait for a bat signal or a self-destructing audio message to assign him an impossible mission. Instead, he steps into the world, and yet he is no longer of the world, for he has come to inhabit a space in which the flaneur, the traceur and the hero meet.
All three are attuned to their psychological and geographical space in a way that most of those passing through it are not. They hear the call to action, precisely because they are not swept along with the crowd. Just as a lifeguard station is both on the beach, and set apart from it, the hero must, to some degree, accept ‘otherness' in order to be of service. The gift in such estrangement is that we are more alive and more connected than those who have chosen a numbing drought of comfortable conformity instead.
The Flaneur, then, reminds us to slow down, to be curious and receptive. The traceur invites us to renegotiate our relationship with our inner and outer environment and to regain our sovereignty, and the hero, in turn, chooses to step out of the world, in order to be more fully engaged with it.
(1) Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
(4) Published by Doubleday (2005)