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James Baldwin as Flâneur

Born in New York, James Arthur Baldwin (1924 – 1987) arrived in Paris, France in 1948 and lived there until 1957.

The non-fiction essays of James Baldwin are enjoying renewed interest against the backdrop of our contentious and polarized times.  Social movements of various stripes have found resonance and prescience in works such as The Fire Next Time (1963) and No Name in the Street (1972).

For our inaugural Spotlight History, we explore the idea of James Baldwin as a flâneur through the lens of his expatriate novel Giovanni’s Room (1957).

What is a Flâneur?

But the majority of men make their way through Paris in the same manner as they live and eat, that is, without thinking about it. […] Ah! to wander over Paris! What an adorable and delightful existence is that! Flânerie is a science; it is the gastronomy of the eye. To take a walk is to vegetate; flânerie is life.

Balzac, “The Physiology of Marriage”

The flâneur is an engaged urban wanderer, a character and literary device used to explore and comment upon an urban landscape, whose origins are attributed to the French poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).  Baudelaire wrote critically of Paris’s renovation at the hands of Napoleon III’s Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann.  In works such as his collected poetry Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), Baudelaire decried the sanitization of Paris, insisting that much of the transformation of the city removed the visceral and bohemian elements necessary for art and artists to flourish.

The flâneur is a device used to shape a reader’s perception of an urban environment.  He acts as a physical prism through which to refract the city’s ephemera and everyday life.  There are questions among contemporary literary scholars as to who the flâneur is and the parameters of his function in the urban society that he endeavors to chronicle.  Baudelaire identified the dispositional requirements of the flâneur and his essential qualities.  Baudelaire equated the flâneur’s ethos to that of a dandy, the salient characteristics which he defined as “a quintessence of character and a subtle understanding of the entire moral mechanism of his world,” adding that, “with another part of his nature, however, the dandy aspires to insensitivity.”

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to choose to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infinite. To be away from home and yet feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world to be at the center of [the] world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures […] Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

The Paris in Baldwin’s Fiction

Baldwin’s Paris in 1951 was largely a bohemian Paris, full of urban geographical particularities that were similar to Baudelaire’s.

Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room has been heralded as a seminal work of gay and American expatriate fiction.  The novel chronicles the life of an American man in Paris named David who, while his girlfriend Hella is on vacation in Spain, begins a love affair with an Italian man named Giovanni.  David also has a rather ambiguous relationship with a Belgian-born American businessman, Jacques who Baldwin uses as a kind of sounding board for David’s exploration of his identity as an American man in the postwar world.

Baldwin’s depictions of Paris were correspondingly informed by his familiarity with Paris’ sexual and American expatriate geographies.  Baldwin, often without specifying exact locales within the city, situated the reader within the socio-economic particularities of the setting.  In the novel’s earliest passages there are few indications of where the action is taking place.  Upon the reader’s introduction to Jacques, and his choice of bars, Baldwin provided a few hints:

“This bar was practically in my quartier and I had many times had breakfast in the nearby workingman’s café to which all the nightbirds of the neighborhood retired when the bars closed.  Sometimes I was with Hella; sometimes I was alone.  And I had been in this bar too, two or three times; once drunk, I had been accused of flirting with a soldier.”

From this passage, one can imagine that David lives, and the bar is located, in an area of Paris which Baldwin suggests there is both demographic diversity and porousness.  Through details provided later in the book, the reader learns that they are on the Left Bank in between the two epicenters of the American expatriate geography, Saint- Germain-des-Prés and Montparnasse.

In a pattern that Baldwin repeats throughout Giovanni’s Room, we are granted a clearer sense of both place and situation when the characters move.  At the beginning of the third chapter, David, Jacques, Guillaume, and Giovanni are in a taxi headed to the quartier of Les Halles.  Here Baldwin makes his first venture into flânerie through a quip by Giovanni in which he says, “This old whore, Paris, as she turns in bed, is moving.”  The reference to Paris as an “old whore” and the sentimentality it evokes on the part of Giovanni is Baudelairean in origin.  What ensues is a series of passages that make for a flâneur-worthy depiction of Les Halles:

Now the cabdriver asked us where we wanted to go, for we had arrived at the choked boulevards and impassable side streets of Les Halles.  Leeks, onions, cabbages, oranges, apples, potatoes, cauliflower, stood gleaming in mounds all over, on sidewalks, in the streets, before great metal sheds.  The sheds were blocks long and within the sheds were piled more fruit, more vegetables, in some sheds, fish, in some sheds, cheese, in some whole animals, lately slaughtered.  It scarcely seemed possible that all of this could ever be eaten.  But in a few hours, it would all be gone, and trucks would be arriving from all corners of France – and making their way, to great the great profit of a beehive of middlemen, across the city of Paris – to feed the roaring multitude [..]  The multitude of Paris seems to be dressed in blue every day but Sunday, when, for the most part, they put on an unbelievably festive black.  Here they were now, in blue, disputing, every inch, our passage, with their wagons, hand-trucks, camions, their bursting baskets carried at an angle steeply self-confident on the back [..]  The pavements were slick with leavings, mainly cast-off, rotten leaves, flowers, fruit and vegetables which had met with disaster natural and slow, or abrupt.  And the walls and corners were combed with pissiors, dull-burning, makeshift braziers, cafes, restaurants, and smoky yellow bistros – of these last, some so small that that they were little more than diamond-shaped, enclosed, corners holding bottles and a zinc-covered counter.  At all these points, men, young, old middle aged, powerful, powerful even in the various fashions in which they had met, or were meeting, their various ruin; and women, more than making up in shrewdness and patience, in an ability to count and weigh – and shout – whatever they might lack in muscle; though they did not, really, seem to lack much. Nothing here reminded me of home…”

The flânerie in this passage consists not exclusively in the density of detail or the keen (informed) eye that reports.  Baudelairean flânerie is also noted for its use of viscera to deepen a  reader’s sense of both time and space.  Baudelaire’s two most famous works, Flowers of Evil and The Spleen of Paris, were both severely criticized as “obscene” and “putrid.”  Les Halles was defined by its open-air market.  It was noted in Paris as one of the few areas where Haussmannization failed to alter its ancient claim to “the most noisy, uncomfortable, crowded, and diseased of bad places.”  Baldwin’s insertion of the pissoirs (urinals), freshly slaughtered animal carcasses and rotting vegetation sets quite the Baudelairean scene.  His choice of the visceral material with which to establish the setting ensures its “Parisian-ness” and Les Halle’s particular place within it.

The action in the remainder of Giovanni’s Room contains similar attention to the particularized detail of Paris’s urban landscape.  David moves along the Seine’s various quais (paved riverbanks) and through him the reader is treated to the Parisian signals of seasonal change:

Spring was approaching Paris.  Walking down this house tonight, I see again the river, the cobblestoned quais, the bridges [..]  Along the quais the bookstalls seemed to become almost festive, awaiting the weather which would allow the passerby to leaf idly[..]  Every day the bookstall keepers seemed to have taken off another garment. 

As David gives way to despair regarding the ambiguities of his perpetual aloneness, Baldwin takes a final Baudelairean turn.  This time in pondering Parisian urban “collective” interiors, he conveys the anxieties of the urban everyday life:

The city, Paris, which I loved so much, was absolutely silent.  There seemed to be almost no one on the streets, although it was still very early in the evening.  Nevertheless, beneath me – along the river bank, beneath the bridges, in the shadow of the walls, I could almost hear the collective, shivering sigh – were lovers and ruins, sleeping, embracing, coupling, drinking, staring out the descending night.  Behind the walls of houses I passed, the French nation was clearing away the dishes, putting little Jean Pierre and Marie to bed, scowling over the eternal problems of the sou, the shop, the church, the unsteady State.  Those walls, those shuttered windows held them in and protected them against the darkness and the long moan of this long night.

Baldwin later departs from the historically-based preoccupations of the flâneur and turns his gaze to the future, writing “[t]en years hence, little Jean Pierre or Marie, might find themselves out here beside the river and wonder, like me, how they had fallen out of the web of safety.”

Baldwin’s departure from Paris in 1957 prompted a shift in focus from literary fiction to the problems of race in the United States.  The depictions of Paris in Baldwin’s non-fiction consist primarily in his explorations of the American expatriate geography.  In Encounter on the Seine (1950), Baldwin chronicles the demographic schisms between black entertainers and non-entertainers.  Among the non-entertainers he spoke of a purposeful isolation from each other.

His Equal in Paris (1955) is largely an interior rumination and as such contains few mentions of Paris; save for his quip that, “The moment I began living in French hotels I understood the necessity of French cafes.”  In the New Lost Generation (1961), Baldwin came closest to capturing the evocativeness of his fictional depictions of Paris.

And with this, perhaps a farewell to the flâneur that lay within him:

Going, going, gone – were the days when we walked through Les Halles, singing, loving every inch of France, and loving each other; gone were the jam sessions in Pigalle, and our stories of the whores there; gone were the nights spent smoking hashish in Arab cafes; gone were the mornings which found us telling dirty stories, true stories, sad, and earnest stories in gray, workingmen’s café.