The Flaneur and the Badaud

The flaneur, as discussed last class, was a romantic figure of nearly mystical proportions in 19th century Parisian – and by extension European – urban life, a connoisseur of the pleasures of the city skilled in the art of looking. He was a gentleman of both time and money, who has the luxury of indulging himself in the multifaceted splendour of the bustling metropolis. As Charles Baudelaire described him, the flaneur is the “lover of universal life” who “enters the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy”. The most important quality of a flaneur however, is his dichotomous qualities of both anonymity and individuality. The flaneur is faceless, blending effortlessly into the crowd, never intruding but always observing but at the same time he is also at all times in total control – his understanding of the cityscape and of its inhabitants is encyclopedic and incomparable and while appreciative of what he sees, he is never so drawn in by what the city has to offer as to lose his own identity and sense of self.

The flaneur’s close counterpart, the badaud, fails precisely in this regard. Although they also employ their ample idle hours by looking at the sights of the city, they do so without understanding. Instead being gentlemen strollers like the flaneurs, they are instead simply gawkers. They gravitate towards anything of the remotest interest, such a street brawl or an upturned cart or just the general debauchery of the cabaret. Unlike the flaneur, who is a person of taste, the badaud exhibits no such discretion. He is not interested in observing human nature, only to entertained by any available spectacles. Unlike the aloof and indifferent flaneur, the badaud is a creature of passion, in the words of Baudelaire, he is “absorbed by the outside world, which ravishes him, which moves him to drunkenness and ecstasy. Under the influence the spectacle that presents itself, the badaud becomes an impersonal creature; he is no longer a man, he is the public, he is the crowd”.

The man in Die Straße sets out to become a flaneur but by failing to become an impartial and analytic observer, he becomes a badaud, just another faceless member of society with no control over his destiny. He allowed himself to become a member of the watched rather than a watcher, as exemplified to the poster of the eyes. The true flaneur does not allow himself to fall prey to the allure of the city and all the dangers it represents, instead he is always vigilant, always critical, and always standing in the fringes, always watching and always remaining himself.

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