“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau exulted as he championed the spirit of sauntering in an era when the activity was largely a male privilege — for a woman, these everyday crusades meant the dragging of long skirts across inhospitable terrains, before unwelcome gazes. It would take a century and a half of bold women conquering the mountains and reimagining the streets before Rebecca Solnit could compose her exquisite manifesto for wanderlust, reclaiming walking as an activity that vitalizes the mind — the mind that, in the landmark assertion of the seventeenth-century French philosopher François Poullain de la Barre, “has no sex.”
Lauren Elkin brings some of these women and their emancipatory, culture-shifting legacy to life in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (public library) — a celebration of the peripatetic foot as an instrument of the mind, an insurgency, a liberation, drawing on the novels and diaries of titanic writers like Virginia Woolf and George Sand, who wove walking into their lives and works as a central theme of empowerment and active curiosity, and on her own diaries and memories as an expatriate in Paris and Tokyo, a traveler in Venice and London, a student in New York.
The title itself is a rebellion against and a recouping of the French word flâneur, masculine for “one who wanders aimlessly,” popularized in the first half of the twentieth century. Elkin writes:
A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
Every right begins as a privilege and Elkin sets out to reclaim this once-male privilege as a basic human right of the modern urban dweller — one that requires the resexing of flâneur into flâneuse:
Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.
That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don’t even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for ‘flâneur, -euse’. Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.
Is that some kind of joke? The only kind of curious idling a woman does is lying down? This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today: search for ‘flâneuse’ on Google Images and the word brings up a drawing of George Sand, a picture of a young woman sitting on a Parisian bench and a few images of outdoor furniture.
Walking for Elkin, as for her marching army of women, is a wholly different matter. She offers her own tessellated definition of its raison d’être:
Why do I walk? I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement. I like being able to stop when I like, to lean against a building and make a note in my journal, or read an email, or send a text message, and for the world to stop while I do it. Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness.
Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. There’s a small pleasure in seeing how well I’ve come to know the city through my wanderings on foot, crossing through different neighbourhoods of the city, some I used to know quite well, others I may not have seen in a while, like getting reacquainted with someone I once met at a party.
Sometimes I walk because I have things on my mind, and walking helps me sort them out. Solvitur ambulando, as they say.
More than half a century before the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd asserted that “place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Elkin adds:
I walk because it confers — or restores — a feeling of placeness. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says a space becomes a place when through movement we invest it with meaning, when we see it as something to be perceived, apprehended, experienced.
I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.
And yet this inevitable commingling with humanity, for all of its rewards, also exposes one of the most disquieting questions of modern life — what does it mean to be in motion, in public? Elkin writes:
[This is] the key problem at the heart of the urban experience: are we individuals or are we part of the crowd? Do we want to stand out or blend in? Is that even possible? How do we — no matter what our gender — want to be seen in public? Do we want to attract or escape the gaze? Be independent and invisible? Remarkable or unremarked-upon?
With an eye to her childhood and young adulthood in suburban America, Elkin reflects on how she awakened to the relationship between walking and agency, to the sense that self-propelled motion is a vital form of participation in the world on one’s own terms:
I became suspicious of an entirely vehicle-based culture; a culture that does not walk is bad for women. It makes a kind of authoritarian sense; a woman who doesn’t wonder — what it all adds up to, what her needs are, if they’re being met — won’t wander off from the family. The layout of the suburbs reinforces her boundaries: the neat grid, the nearby shopping centre, the endless loops of parkways, where the American adventure of the open road is tamed by the American dream.
But alongside this self-empowerment, this triumph of individualistic agency, walking confers upon the walker a perpendicular gift — a connection, embodied in the sinews rather than reasoned by the mind, to the constellation of other selves speckling the world. Elkin reflects on a semester abroad in Paris — the city in which she first fell in love with “the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other” — during her time as a Barnard College student:
In those six months, the streets were transformed from places in between home and wherever I was going into a great passion. I drifted wherever they looked interesting, lured by the sight of a decaying wall, or colourful window boxes, or something intriguing down at the other end, which might be as pedestrian as a perpendicular street. Anything, any detail that suddenly loosened itself, would draw me towards it. Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn’t have to be anywhere I didn’t want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting.
I remember when I’d take the métro two stops because I didn’t realise how close together everything was, how walkable Paris was. I had to walk around to understand where I was in space, how places related to each other. Some days I’d cover five miles or more, returning home with sore feet and a story or two for my room-mates. I saw things I’d never seen in New York. Beggars (Roma, I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs; homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.
Complement Flâneuse, a captivating read in its entirety, with Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame on walking as creative fuel and Robert Walser on the art of walking, then revisit the crowning curio of the peripatetic canon — Solnit’s Wanderlust — and the story of how the bicycle emancipated women.