To walk, to meditate, to observe, to explore: these are simple but precious joys. The French have a certain type of man: the flâneur. This is translated as “stroller,” “saunterer,” or “lounger.” The flâneur is a man who walks—not, like the boulevardier, to make an exhibition of himself—but aimlessly, with cultivated leisure and openness to his surroundings. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets” and “botanist of the sidewalk.”
Writers are often flâneurs because flânerie—the act of strolling—is such a useful stimulant to the creative mind. The great writers of the nineteenth century were all heroic pedestrians. Dickens walked fifteen miles per day. His nightly perambulations around London provided him with characters, scenes, and bits of dialogue for his books. He once set out at two o’clock in the morning and walked the thirty miles from London to his country home in Gad’s Hill, Kent. Thomas De Quincey walked fifteen to twenty miles per day, in part to alleviate the effects of withdrawal from laudanum. Coleridge on occasion walked forty miles. Thomas Carlyle might have held the record at fifty four miles in a single day.
Many of these writers addressed flânerie in their works. Sketches by Boz consists in part of a long, lounging stroll across the length and breadth of London, as seen by Dickens. Arthur Machen wrote directly and thoughtfully on the subject. For Machen, flânerie was an almost religious experience: the attentive flâneur could see through the landscape to the genius loci, and to the various intersections of life and history and imagination and place. “For if you think of it,” Machen wrote, in The London Adventure, “there is a London cognita and a London incognita.”
Machen spent his formative years walking the fairy-haunted landscape of rural Wales. When he arrived in London he at first despaired of the change. But he found that he found by walking and exploring that he could move beyond the imposing and claustrophobic limits of the urban environment. In one of his earliest essays, “Rus in Urbe,” published in 1890, he writes of the imagination piercing “through the unlovely streets, the dark fogs, the grimey mists.” In the novella, A Fragment of Life, he gives a description of the city transfigured in the second sight of the flâneur:
London seemed a city of the Arabian Nights, and its labyrinths of streets an enchanted maze; its long avenues of lighted lamps were as starry systems, and its immensity became for him an image of the endless universe. He could well imagine how pleasant it might be to linger in such a world as this, to sit apart and dream, beholding the strange pageant played before him; but the Sacred Well was not for common use, it was for the cleansing of the soul, and the healing of the grievous wounds of the spirit. There must be yet another transformation: London had become Bagdad; it must at last be transmuted to Syon, or in the phrase of one of his old documents, the City of the Cup.
In his 1923 memoir, Things Near and Far, Machen insists, “it is utterly true that he who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find these secrets elsewhere.”
I love to walk. I walk everywhere. There are exceptions for practicality, of course. In the country I often bicycle. Over long distances I travel by train, plane, or boat. But I spend as little time as possible in automobiles. I think everyone would be happier if they walked more. The upheaval of our infrastructure, economy, and way of life to accommodate the automobile in the twentieth century was a tragic mistake.
Baudelaire, Charles, (1972) Selected Writings on Art and Literature. New York: Viking.
Machen, Arthur. (1923) The Works of Arthur Machen (Caerleon Edition). London: Martin Secker.
Machen, Arthur. (1924) The London Adventure, or The Art of Wandering. London: Martin Secker.
Machen, Arthur. (1992) Ritual & Other Stories. Carlton-in-Coverdale: Tartarus Press.