By Erin Handley.
First published by in Brief Issue #2.
“Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter what pains you take with your investigations and recognizances, no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature.”
This is Paris in 1819, in the novel Old Goriot by the French writer Balzac, known for his detailed representations of society and for his contribution to realism. The protagonist, Eugene de Rastignac, has moved to the city from the Southern provinces of France. For him, Paris represents hope and opportunity – he can make a fortune here.
Such nineteenth-century individuals had been released from the historical bonds of the feudal system and were free to move – Rastignac’s move is to the city, and the city itself is characterised by movement and flow. The metropolis is enticing in its promise of upward social mobility.
Rastignac’s arrival in Paris opens him up to the world of the flâneur. The term ‘flâneur’ comes from the French verb ‘to stroll’, and refers to someone who leisurely walks or wanders through the city. The two vital characteristics – ‘strolling’ and ‘leisurely’ – mean that in nineteenth-century literature, flâneurs were always upper-middle class men. Men and women of the lower classes were able to traverse the city, but not at their leisure. Women of high social status were generally not permitted to walk in the city streets unaccompanied, lest they should faint.
Despite the flâneur’s capacity to forge his own path in the sprawling, intricate twists and turns within the cityscape, he is nonetheless restricted to the city. Men who stroll leisurely in the countryside are not called flâneurs. Indeed, they’re often not called men. It’s usually women such as Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre who tend to stroll through fields and across the moors – their male counterparts are often on horseback.
The city is a text to be deciphered. A flâneur saunters through the city just as the reader navigates through a text. Another literary Eugene – Eugene Wrayburn from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend – is a wry and languid lawyer who has mastered his city. Aloof, he verbally destroys his rival in love, Bradley Headstone, and proceeds to mentally torment him by twisting and winding his way through London, knowing that Headstone is trailing him. ‘I seek those No Thoroughfares at night, glide into them by means of dark courts, tempt the schoolmaster to follow, turn suddenly, and catch him before he can retreat. Then we face one another, and I pass him as unaware of his existence, and he undergoes grinding torments’.
The city is also the site of reason. Wrayburn might dominate the city sphere, but when he is removed from it, he is at danger of attack from his lower-classed rival, who is driven by emotion and madness. The metropolitan man, who has to deal with constantly changing stimuli, removes himself from emotion and deals with the rapidity of change on a purely intellectual level. Sherlock Holmes, who represents the pinnacle of reasoned thought, initially seems to face the same problem as Wrayburn. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, set in the English countryside, Holmes faces the challenge of irrationality, nature, and a ‘curse’.
But rationality, articulated through Holmes, always triumphs in the end. The figure of the flâneur in nineteenth-century literature, as a reader of the city, is also often a detective – he understands the labyrinth and can render clues intelligible. Holmes is not a professional policeman; rather, he can afford to be an amateur detective. He has the status and means to investigate cases at his leisure, to observe and read the city as he wanders through its many passageways and signs.
However, the metropolis destabilises and divides the individual, and flâneurs become ‘doubled’. They can either find a double in another who is similar to themselves, or in one opposite to themselves. Wrayburn’s likeness is in his law-partner Mortimer Lightwood, and he meets his opposite in Headstone. Holmes’ likeness and opposite is encapsulated in Professor Moriarty. But the flâneur is again doubled within himself – two parts of the self coexist within the one. When Holmes isn’t engaged in a stimulating case, he’s nurturing his cocaine addiction, verging on the ‘other’ side of the law.
The idea of the double culminates with Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson renders physical the split between the two parts of the self. The city’s ideals of reason and rationality are represented in Professor Jekyll, and the notorious Hyde seeks his pleasures by wandering through London at night. Hyde exerts full freedom in his actions precisely because Jekyll exercises social constraint. Jekyll’s freedom for flânerie is in accordance with his social class, but he is also constrained by the social customs demanded of his position.
At the heart of the metropolis lies paradox. The dense crowding of a city allows for a sense of anonymity; individuals can slip through cracks and create their own identities. At the same time this perceived freedom is permeated by a sense of constant surveillance – like the Panopticon, in the city, anyone could be observing your movements at any time. The concept of the metropolis is dual in nature, and the flâneurs who amble through it likewise become duplicitous.