Most people awake to a daily routine, in which they keep eyes dazed staring at the pavement they walk on yet so easily ignore. Usually, these same people go about their business with no more than a passing glance towards their fellow man. However, there is an enigmatic few that are more than mere pawns in the game of existence. They are passionate spectators who take in their surroundings with every sense. They rejoice in the vastness of the electric crowd and become one with it. By all means, these few can be called ‘idle city men’ or, according to Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life”, they are flâneurs. I believe a worthy example of a man such as this, is the persona in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. He is a flâneur in all ways but one.
In “The Painter of Modern Life”, Baudelaire gives a very extensive and profound description of what aspects one needs in order be considered or labeled a flâneur. For example, he explains how the flâneur is a lover of universal life and sets up house in the heart of multitude. ( Baudelaire 9) Surrounded by the unknown in an immense sea of people, he who is flâneur will bask in the crowd and make himself at home without being seen. Therefore, in layman’s terms he is an observer, a passionate spectator, a kind of ‘fly on the wall’. The persona in “Song of Myself” shows qualities of this in the opening lines of section twelve:
The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes, or sharpens his knife at
the stall in the market,
I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle and breakdown. (9)
Here Whitman’s persona is taking a great interest and pleasure in the mere routine and wit of this young man, who is most likely unaware of the fact he is being observed. Whitman is enthralled by people and the way they go about their day in the city, which is typical flâneur. In section twenty-six, Whitman goes on to describe in vivid detail his surroundings of the city, especially sound. He begins the section with “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen.” (24) Here the persona is invisible to the outside world, simply watching and waiting, responding to every single sound the city produces and relishes in its essence. This corresponds to Baudelaire’s flâneur not only as a passionate spectator but also as one who sees the world, who is at the center of the world, and yet remains hidden from it, rejoicing in his incognito.
Another very important aspect of the flâneur is his ability to comprehend and understand not only his surroundings but himself as well. He must be aware of his being or in Baudelaire’s words be like “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness”. In section forty-two he writes:
“I know perfectly well my own egotism,
And know my omnivorous words, and cannot say any less.
And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.” (44)
Here he is making it known that he is mindful of who he is and what he is saying. This is an aspect that most ordinary people lack, but...