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Name: Rajarshi Roy

Roll No: 55

Class: PG- II

Modernist Literature Core Course First Internal Paper

(Note: Since, this assignment is based on


a topic that deals mainly with typography,
poster and other forms of artwork,
certain sections of quotes have been
reproduced as screenshots from the main
text for analytic ease)
The Gaze, Typography and The Act of
Flanerie : A Study In Hope Mirrlees’ “Paris
:A Poem”

The Modernity and The Flanerie

If one reads the above letter, he is faced with numerous questions. How the writer asks the reader
at some secluded point at possibly one of the most improbable time of the night. How he needs to
extricate the reader from the crowd in order to make an “exchange”. It proves, how the crowd is
intrinsic to the urban life and how in order to make a rendezvous with an unknown individual. One
must also notice the character of the meeting point, it is not something that falls within the margins
of the city. It is thus a point which could only be known to a person who frequents the place or
someone who chanced upon it, aimlessly. This is how we come to the act of “flanerie”

The “flaneur” was considered to be one of the most important character models of the European
modernity for his act of “botanizing on the asphalt”, it was in his scribblings and notes which led us
to form the basic notion of the modernist cities.

The “flaneur”-the stroller was thus considered an emblem par excellence of the age, who would
stand apart from the crowd, to notice the eccentricities of the individuals by pixelating the entities of
the crowd. Pretty much like Poe’s protagonist in ‘The Man of the Crowd’, who would aimlessly stalk a
drunk through the London evening crowd, only to notice that they were visiting the same watering
hole. No wonder the story, starts with the following epigram :

“ Ce grand malheur,

De ne pouvoir etre seul”

It was the Walter Benjamin, who had for the first time used the Baudelairean term “flaneur” into
the popular academic currency, in order to dissect the changing essences of crowd, and thus make a
better sense of modernity. Benjamin had opined: “The flaneur was a figure of the modern artist-
poet, a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and an investigator of
the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism”. Not only does Benjamin
purport the “flaneur” to be the urban universal man, in whose writings all the changes would be
surmised about in rhymes and monographs; he is also likened to the “private eye” stereotype.
Benjamin thus brings us to another element of the sprawling city of the modernity; the element of
crime that went unreported and undetected; for this age also saw a proliferation in the number of
crime and detective novels. Inscribed within the locus of urban collectivist ethos on one side and the
alienating raptures of Capitalism, in some ways, the “flaneur” got the best of both worlds in his
attempt of “botanizing on the asphalt. The flâneur would leisurely stroll through its streets and
especially its arcades — those stylish, lively and bustling rows of shops covered by glass roofs — to
cultivate what Honoré de Balzac called “the gastronomy of the eye.” While not deliberately
concealing his identity, the flâneur preferred to stroll incognito. “The art that the flâneur masters is
that of seeing without being caught looking,” the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once remarked
(Quoted ‘From Pilgrim To Tourist’). The flâneur was not asocial — he needed the crowds to thrive —
but he did not blend in, preferring to savor his solitude.

The flâneur wandered in the shopping arcades, but he did not give in to the temptations of
consumerism; the arcade was primarily a pathway to a rich sensory experience — and only then a
temple of consumption. His goal was to observe, to bathe in the crowd, taking in its noises, its chaos,
its heterogeneity, its cosmopolitanism. Occasionally, he would narrate what he saw — surveying
both his private self and the world at large — in the form of short essays for daily newspapers."
However, amidst these eccentrics, there were shadier characters as well who would be out in the
darkness of the night to satisfy their own drives. One of the primary examples would be the
protagonist from Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s short story, “Chhuri” who always went out in the dead
of the night, for an easy prey to murder with his knife, in order to satisfy his long unfulfilled sexual
urges.

The Flaneuse and European Modernity

Even though the idea of the “flaneur” remained in vogue from the very start of the modernity, the
woman counterpart of the same character remained largely unwritten about in literature of time for
a largely long part of the time. It was not something centralised to Paris only, even though the act of
drifting aimlessly and noting down musings became something of a vogue in other cities central to
European modernity, the “flaneuse” remained a character role who was very under written about in
general. Lauren Elkin, the author of, “Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo,
Venice and London”, writes how even the very word was not something that was present in the
French dictionary of her time, leading herself to make a new linguistic coinage to denote such
characters:
“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 laying down?

This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today:
Google image search ‘flâneuse’ 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.

- Or rather — a good student of French, I converted the masculine noun to a feminine one — a
flâneuse.”

There could be two very important reasons for this to happen, namely the fact that the activity of
flanerie being highly skewed towards men:

Firstly, if we consider European Modernity to form a segue between the Industrial expansion era
Europe and the Modernist Europe then we will see that certain attitudes get carried over from the
previous age as a detritus on which the collective consciousness and the “Cultural Industry” of the
age forms itself. Let us, take the case of London as an example, there was a kind of cultural
determination, towards a concern for the safety of the woman on the street, it was a welcome
change from the authoritative control the women suffered from the administration. I personally
think, that this was perhaps one of the many successes of the New Woman movement that emerged
amidst the modernity. Its success soon reached the continent and the other side of the Atlantic as
well, where it was much written about the British-American writer, Henry James. While in the
continent, Henrik Ibsen remained began disseminating such ideas through his plays allowing for the
first time a woman’s banging of the door “to be heard throughout Europe” other than divorce cases,
abortion cases and Suffragette movement headlines. “The New Woman” was thus trying to undo the
metaphoric strings on her apron that the administration had forced on her, the appearance of
“flaneuse” towards the late modernity was just a symptom of that momentous rebellion that was
achieved by the likes of Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner.

Secondly, there was also this fear of prostitution. The Victorian archetypes of “female virtue and
respectability” became something very hard to protect in the post-Industrial Revolution promiscuity
of the urban centres. Such was the fear, that there was a great proliferation of Evangelical reformers
who wrote tracts in which they went on a spirited diatribe against “the profession. Elizabeth Wilson,
in her thesis titled, “The Invisible Flaneur”, noticed something very interesting as to how all such
different tracts had one thing similar in their rhetoric: linking of Prostitution to the ideals of the
French Revolution. In Wilson’s words, “Prostitition then was not only a real and ever-present threat,
it became a metaphor for disorder and the overturning of the natural hierarchies and institutions of
society. The problem lay in the fact that, the prostitute in all her endeavours, was also a “public
woman”, albeit one forced by the travails of her occupation. The very presence of “unowned
women” according to Wilson, engendered an anxiety in the minds of the masculine ruling class, as it
constituted an onslaught onto the “male frailty”, as a result women’s movement remained
something very controlled throughout.

However, revisions started appearing to this sentiment as well, when in his Arcades Project, Walter
Benjamin went away from the traditional explanation and linked “self-censorship of women to
perceptions of class difference”, he cites George Simmel’s I883 argument regarding the “tyranny” of
fashion and how some women submit to maintain social status, something we notice in some of
Shaw’s plays (‘Pygmalion’ is one such play par excellence). Benjamin tweaks Simmel’s argument by
stating “the nature of women’s commodification has changed in order to reflect changing conditions
of capitalism”. Thus, newer fashions came to be favoured with each age, masking individual
expressions in its wake. “Flanerie”, “Flaneur” or even the ‘Flaneuse” thus became linked in a single
chain for the first time, one could liken this condition to that of Thorstein Veblen’s conception of
“conspicuous consumption”, where in purchase of certain goods became a signifier of something
else: wealth, affluence or even intellect.

Coming back to the topic at hand, my beliefs on the matter somewhat echo Lauren Elkin’s own idea
that the “flaneuse” had existed throughout the time as did the flaneur, however, she remained
largely trapped to her occupations such as the shop girl, the teacher, the journalist or even
Benjamin’s favourite, “the ragpicker”.

However, when I think of the topic at hand; that of the Flaneuse, I am vaguely reminded of the Edgar
Degas painting titled “Mary Cassatt at Louvre”. She perhaps, belonged to the first generation of such
women who had crossed seas, lured by the artistic decadence of Paris. However, unlike numerous
others, Mary Cassatt herself was an artist of repute; she in fact became a key collaborator with
Degas for a long time. What remains interesting and a matter of analytic debate as to how in spite of
being one of first flaneuses, she concentrated mostly on paintings of images of the social and private
lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.

Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery,1879–1880, soft ground etching,
drypoint

The interesting fact about the above painting, becomes interesting when “read” in relation with the
following lines from Charles Baudelaire’s “A Passer By” (translated by William Aggeler, The Flowers
of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954):
“Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue's.

Tense as in a delirium, I drank

From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate,

The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.

A lightning flash... then night! Fleeting beauty

By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,

Will I see you no more before eternity?”

Everything at once remains reduced to the level of the gaze; not the mythic sexualised gaze, but the
gaze of the “flaneur” or the flaneuse”. This painting at once becomes an interesting subject as the
painting-within-the-painting is observed by “flaneuse”, and the situation imagined by Degas himself
as a flaneur.

Hope Mirrlees’ ‘Paris: A Poem’ and Balzac’s “Gastronomy of the Eye”

It is exactly within this gaze of the “flanerie” that Hope Mirlees’ 1920 poem, “Paris” could be located.
What Mirrlees tries to do in course of her poem, is to create a “narrativized space”, within which the
Balzac phrase “Gastronomy of the Eye” holds true:

“"Oh! to wander in Paris! adorable and delightful existence! Strolling is a science, the gastronomy of
the eye. To wander is to do nothing, to stroll is to live." (‘Physiology of Marriage’, 1829). So when,
Mirlees writes:

The words written in capital fonts basically refer to advertisement posters (an image of the
document has been added to convey the feeling): so effectively, in her search for a single catch-all
word for Paris (“a holophrase”), she comes across posters of numerous commodities. If investigated
to a greater depth, one would find a strange relationship in the activity she undertakes and the kinds
of advertisements she notes. While “ZIG-ZAG” refers to a brand a cigarette rolling paper that
survives till date, “LION NOIR” is a brand of shoe-polish and “CACAO BLOOKER” was an immensely
popular drink of the time, one finds its mention it works of Anais Nin as well. The mention of
“DUBONNETS”, which was basically a kind of tonic also conveys a sense of malaise perhaps in the
bodily constitution of the looker. The fact that she sees all these posters while she’s on the Paris
metro, is understood by the mention of “CONCORDE” which is basically a station on the Paris Metro
route (falls nearest to Louvre).

One must notice the interesting use of spacings and the contrast between the two passages here.
This is something that can only be noticed by a person engaged in “flanerie”, while the “Tuileries”
whose spaciousness has been hinted at here by the overuse of spaces; in the very next paragraph,
one sees normal spacings which appears heavily reduced. This could mean something interesting:
the idea of exaggeration by the human gaze, it is something set of by use of contrasts here.

However, once she starts describing billboards and clothing advertisements, the previously
confusing descriptions of cigarette paper, shoe polish advertisements start bearing a meaning to us:

These lines are basically an advertisement of an apparel store, which has started selling “spring
collection” of garments. The mention of the “jeunesse doree”, is a gentle jab at the class of
consumers perhaps whose fashion statement changed with seasons. At once, we are reminded of
Veblen’s economic doctrine of “conspicuous consumption”, which basically defines as to how
fashion senses of individuals develop with economic and social class; we are reminded of the
Baudlairean “dandy” who would go around the city in prim and fancy clothes and engage in
“flanerie” something which Benjamin develops on as well, from Simmel’s “Tyranny” of fashion
argument, in his “Arcades Project”.
However, it is in the following section that I feel that Mirrlees’ gaze starts moving on the smooth
terrain of unconscious “free association”, this incidentally happens to be one of the most
controversial sections of the poem as well:

Within the course of a single page, after visually experiencing ‘The Pieta of Avignon” after five long
years of restoration work, she is quite moved; and she starts making mental peregrinations about
Catholicism and human life. Interestingly, an exemplary “flaneuse” that she is; she starts
remembering advertisements which she had perhaps seen during her time in Paris. All of these
passages could be understood in some way to be a metaphor of various stages of human life: birth,
childhood, adulthood malaise and death. Another interesting element worth noticing is the fact how
only the last advertisement, “DEUIL EN 24 HEURS”, which is related to funerals and hence death,
doesn’t have any connotation of “gastronomy” to it, unlike the others. Is then Mirrlees stating the
relevance of religion only to the state of death and subsequent non-being; this is something worth
speculating as Catholicism favoured the rhetoric of continence in its believers.

Hope Mirrlees’ “Paris” thus remains a true hallmark to the art of typesetting and printmaking during
the age of Modernism in Europe. It is however interesting to note that this is not something of a
singular example in the Modernist Literary canon. We can cite the chapter from James Joyce’s novel
Ulysses, where we find an entire chapter written in similar fashion when Bloom visits a newspaper
office. The protagonist’s action and gaze remains split on two different dimensions. However, such
topological experimentations remains only exposed to the most astute of the readers; something
which Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s “truth seeker” Byomlesh Bakshi speaks about :

Typography, together with its fonts ; and advertisements together with its quirks thus forms
somewhat of a relationship of an intrinsic nature with the gaze, making previously impossible
meanings thus possible.