Reclaiming space

‘Space is not neutral … The space we occupy—here, in the city, we city dwellers—is
constantly remade and unmade, constructed and wondered at’
                      —Lauren Elkin

There’s a type of person who never has to think about the space he occupies when he’s in public, walking. This person has a few character traits we can identify quite easily, one of which I hinted at in the previous sentence. In the same way the ‘he’ pronoun slips by unnoticed when the gender of the person being spoken about is either unimportant or unknown, so too are men privileged in this way—the way of the relatively unseen—when they walk. It is why Luc Sante writes that ‘It is crucial for the flâneur to remain functionally invisible’, and why a flâneuse named Lauren Elkin calls this comment ‘unfair and cruelly accurate’ (Elkin 13).

But gender is not in itself enough to identify this certain sort of person about whom I speak, privileged with this degree of public invisibility and the insouciance that invisibility manufactures. Maleness is merely the necessary ingredient for flânerie, the act of walking as a flâneur. It is our point of departure.

School toilets at recess reveal and bring to attention one’s ethnicity. But this time it seems safe. The toilets are empty, quiet, and the only sound scratching at the air is that of urinals leaking. You’re engulfed by the smell of piss and the graffiti on the walls written in black Texta sends shudders down your spine, a reminder. You need only to piss but still you opt for a cubicle rather than the urinal so you can shut the door and pull the lock. But the lock isn’t there. You usually check before you commit to a cubicle but this time you don’t and you pick wrong. You try to piss and hold the door closed at the same time, but that doesn’t work because your arms aren’t long enough, so you let go of the door. For a moment the door stays shut, but a blend of laughing voices spills in from the entrance. They’re familiar voices and they’re drawing closer, standing taller. The toilet door flings open. The boot that kicked it rises again and lands square in your back. You tumble forward but hold your footing firmly, and you narrowly avoid landing in the bowl. Fingers point. Australian accents dive further into themselves, making sure to stand in distinct opposition to yours. Their accents puncture you with invectives because they know you won’t retaliate. What’s the chubby little ethnic kid gonna do?

The flâneur is, as one might guess, a French term. Etymologically, its roots may trace back to 1600s Scandinavia. It wasn’t until the 1900s, however, that the term became a trope engendered with masculinity, in France (Elkin 10). The French flâneur is one that emerged from the imagination of Charles Baudelaire (Livingston and Gyarke NPN). He, our flâneur, was ‘a man of leisure’, someone who ‘demanded his elbow room’ (Shaya 10). A man who has memorised his city with his feet. A passionate spectator attuned to the city’s beat through his own movement. In 1900s France, the flâneur was an invisible ‘figure of the modern artist-poet, a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and investigator of the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism’ (Shaya 47). The flâneur, in short, was a French man who, because of his status in society, was permitted to bask in the ineffable beauty of the present, while walking. He is a tourist even at home and so forever feels a degree of alienation from that which is most familiar. And he always feels partly homeless.
red pen rides across the lower case a on the assigned homework. the gentle teacher explains to a six-year-old you that because australia is a country it is to have a capital a. that’s just one of the rules you have to follow when you’re writing. but you, the fat kid with the accent, won’t put a capital a in front of australia. why should australia have a capital a when australia hates you? a capital a is something that should be earned. it’s a sign of respect. that capital a can take a hike, miss teacher. capital letters at the front of proper nouns can take a hike, too. you need rules to be justified before you accept them, and not all proper nouns deserve capital letters. you, the little fat kid with the riddled accent, do your best to conceal a smirk as you feign acquiescence: ‘oh, oops.’

Whether this concept of a flâneur bears any significance in the modern world, outside of not just France but also a context of literary or historical analysis, is an open question. That’s not to say that there are no longer enthusiastic, almost professional ‘idlers’ still among us, those who set off without aim, sauntering with keen eyes through busy streets, cataloguing mementos of the day’s transient happenings and building mental maps of public spaces with their feet. It’s to suggest that because the world in its current landscape is so vastly different to what it would have been over a hundred years ago, the concept of walking through this world, especially in a cosmopolitan setting, requires transformation, rethinking. For one thing, public walkers are no longer exclusively male. In contemplating the notion of a flâneuse, an orphan word (without any solid etymological home) meaning female flâneur, Lauren Elkin writes: ‘Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself’ (11). But I would go a step further to say that the concept of a flâneur in its original form must in 2021 transcend distinctions of gender—it must also distend its borders to allow room for a person made in and by a world augmented by mass immigration, technological advancement, post-structuralism, the re-imagining of the real. If the modern flâneur/flâneuse is to hold its ground in this new public domain, it must also hold its own against the distracted gaze of the modern walker.

You walk home from school, sticking to the edge of the elevated park where the old red swings creak in an autumnal breeze. You walk a couple metres ahead of Yia Yia. Not because you’re embarrassed to be seen with her, you’re still too young for that, but because you want to prove that you don’t need an usher. You want to prove that you’re an independent child person who is capable of walking home on your own. You start to hear voices of children from school trailing Yia Yia. You turn your head to assess the situation and find that there’s a small group of older kids, older girls from the year above you, metres behind. You recognise the voices, identify them as ones that have always seemed friendly. But only ever from afar. Now, though, you’re exposed outside school gates, and the voices draw closer. They overtake Yia Yia, close the distance between you and them. They will pass you. It’s inevitable. And as they pass you, one of the girls does the unthinkable. She speaks. Hello. How’s it going? You look up at her. Your face drops. Why, you wonder, is she talking to you? Maybe you were wrong about these voices. Maybe they too thrive on the twinkle of mean spirit. Maybe they too derive joy from seeing you squirm. But she isn’t being mean and during your silence, your irresponsiveness, her face drops, too. She turns to her friends. Do I look like a monster or something? None of the younger kids ever talk to me. She’s laughing, and you’re dying. You want to speak. You want to tell her that she is wonderful and that you are very very glad she said this word to you—hello—that you are very very glad she shared her smiling face with you. But you don’t. You can’t. And soon the only voice that’s left is Yia Yia’s, asking, between the large bites she takes from an unpeeled lemon, who those children were.

Because would we call it flânerie if, half-way through our walk, we stopped to pull out a mobile phone to check the time; or to send a text message telling someone we love her; or to locate ourselves—these pale blue dots—in Google’s digital maps? Would we call it flânerie if we overlaid the chirping of birds in high trees and the squealing of domestic dogs tied up outside cafes, with our favourite Spotify playlist, blaring through noise-cancelling headphones wrapped snugly around our heads? My inclination is to say no. Flânerie is a very specific type of walking, one that belongs to the age in which it was conceived. Its bones do not seem strong enough to bear the meat of the modern world. Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker writes: ‘The kind of city walking that we associate with the flâneur—the nineteenth-century city walking of Baudelaire and Manet, which Walter Benjamin later apotheosised—combines the contemplative walker’s escape from self-consciousness and inner noise with the Cynic’s attempted escape from social roles’ (2014). Today, however, it is our devices that allow us to escape from this self-consciousness and inner noise, our gadgets that distract us from our social roles. Walking today as the flâneur once walked would be considered eccentric. Voyeuristic, even. Look at that guy, walking, staring. With this new world is born a new style of walking, a new breed of flâneur, and so a new breed of flânerie.

Go back to your own fucking country ya stupid wog, he screams. ‘Ethnic kid’ turns into ‘wog’ after primary school. I was born in Preston, dickhead, you say, confounded. You were just on your way to the school canteen. All you wanted was some lunch. And you thought you were friends. But one thing you learned long ago is that friends whose backgrounds don’t match can dissolve into angry strangers quicker than you can say, ‘What did I do?’ Why don’t you go play soccer then, you fucking wog. Fine, you say, you will. And so you venture off to the soccer field by the smokers tree, because lunch can wait. You travel the back way, behind the basketball courts, past the gymnasium, down the mound leading to the front gates. There, shrouds of smoke rise in waves from mouths huffing hungrily at fags. These mouths are like yours. They’re not from here; they’re from there. And this is where you congregate, even though you don’t smoke.

But in this discussion of the modern flâneur, there’s a lingering question that remains unanswered: in this new world, of commercial flights available to almost all, of omnipresent and widely accessible transport, of infinite connectivity that branches in nooks no one can see or touch, why would we even bother resuscitating this tired, gendered French concept of the walker? What point, or use, could the concept of the flâneur serve in today’s alien world? Might we be better off simply casting this term flâneur, phonetically and melodically pleasing though it may be, to the shelves of old literature and French history?

The chiropractor is from the same village as Mum. He may or may not have come recommended through a family friend or relative. That’s how these things usually go: doctors, specialists, tennis coaches, chiropractors, clairvoyants—the ones in whom you have to place more-than-usual trust, are typically of the same cultural background—and they come through recommendations. He’s got a handsome head, thick black hair, a smiling face that looks familiar, and he’s wearing a black turtleneck sweater. He wants to build a connection, gain your trust, so he tells you a story to ease your nerves, the nerves that have started pulsing through your body because of what’s coming: prodding and snapping and bending, the chiropractor stuff. He sets the scene: I’m sitting around a table with some relatives in Greece, and we’re all playing checkers. Jimmy, one of my relatives, he strokes his moustache, grabs his small crystal glass of ouzo, and he stares at me. Then he shots the glass and slams it on the table. ‘Look at this kangaruda,’ he says. ‘What are you doing back over here? Go back to where you came from.’ He’s laughing now, your chiropractor. When I’m in Australia, he says, I’m Greek; when I’m in Greece, I’m Australian. Where am I meant to go? He sees that an eleven-year-old you understands the question and you share a smile before he drives his clicky thing into the small of your back. It doesn’t hurt.

‘The idea of flânerie as a desirable lifestyle has fallen out of favour,’ in the decades ensuing its conception, ‘due to some arcane combination of increasing productivity … and the modern horror at the thought of doing absolutely nothing’ (Stephen 2013). That’s not to mention that here, in 2021, one could theoretically live for years without leaving her house. Any manner of foods can be brought to her. She has an infinite stream of entertainment available at her fingertips—her only stress is choosing her virtual poison. She can connect with friends, talk with strangers. She can shop: buy books clothes music drugs people or whatever else she might desire. She could go on cyber walks with Google maps and upturn streets to expose their roots in far more depth than she could otherwise. And if she wanted to leave the house, she could do so without having to walk anywhere at all. She could order a car to take her to her destination, and then order one to take her home. The modern human does not need to walk to experience that which she could experience only by walking 100 years ago—or even 20 years ago, for that matter. Technology has spread its wings and blanketed us from the need to experience reality as it was formerly known. The new world is now so expansive in its digital form, interconnected beyond what the flâneur, in his original conception, could have ever imagined. All of this, coupled with a psyche polluted with the illusory need to simply keep producing, keep the cogs turning, means that modern walking looks nothing like flânerie. So let’s bin the question of resuscitating this tired and gendered French concept and broaden the question even further. Let’s be brave and ask Why do we even bother walking at all?

Are you gay or something? A group of kids gathers around you as you stand trying to make sense of the remark. Another voice enters, a girl’s this time. He’s European. They’re different in Europe. They kiss both cheeks and wear black turtleneck sweaters. The first voice seizes the opportunity. Looks like a poofter to me. You wonder whether you are ‘a poofter’. You wonder what it would be like to be attracted to men, and you even wish that you were. It would make more sense, you think; it would explain things a little clearer. But then you think of breasts, and the thought distracts you. The thought excites you. Breasts excite you and alas you’re not a poofter, just a foreigner who was born in Australia. You feel eyes on you, as if they’re waiting for a response. But you’ve fallen into one of your reveries. You’ve started daydreaming, again. You’ve got that absent look in your face, that impenetrable stare that’s not actually staring at anything in the physical world. You can’t see the stare because it’s yours but you know exactly what it looks like. They start snorting their laughter and it’s here where you become aware you’ve been doing that staring thing you do, so you reclaim your gaze and look down at your shoes. The tops of these shoes provide great comfort at lunchtime and recess. The silhouette of your shadow becomes a close friend.
From the perspective of the writer, or the artist, or the musician, or the insatiably curious, the compulsion that drives us to walk, down busy streets and quiet cul-de-sacs, to isolated park benches and along the green fringes of barren duck ponds, is obvious. What propels us to walk is that ineffable, visceral compulsion that each of us possesses, in varying degrees, at the bottom of our genome. It is, stated simply, to be social, and to be active. Even if on our journey we do not interact with a single soul but merely meander about in the shadows of public spaces, observing the leaves of trees dancing in the breeze, or how droplets of rain cling onto ivory cobwebs that net around brick letterboxes. Walking is an activity that puts our bodies, and so our minds, in a certain state. It jolts thought and sparks the imagination. Memories rise from long-lost depths. ‘When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain’ (Jabr 2014). And in this state, images we’ve never seen or have forgotten surface. Connections are made, loosed, lost, twisted. For eons, ‘Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing’ (Jabr 2014). Walking, thinking, and writing go together like cheese, dip and crackers.

It’s September and already articles start streaming in with feature images of people wearing ice-cream tubs as helmets. The people in these images are usually running, looking back over their shoulder. The magpie(s) are either sitting regal on high branches, observing, or in full flight, wings expanded, necks extended, swooping. The articles make their rounds through Australian newspapers and magazines, The Age, The Herald Sun, The Australian. But they also make guest appearances on international publications like BBC, The New York Times. An article in the Times reads ‘Fear descends over Australia as Magpie Swooping Season Begins’. For over a month, when you go outside, you always jog until you are a safe distance away from that tree. The bird that lives in it doesn’t always attack, but when it does you fear for your eyes. Today is an unlucky day. First you hear its squawk. Then you feel the wind from its wings flapping. You duck and jump and cover your head. Someone from across the street sees you flailing about and you laugh together. ‘It’s hard to be civilised when the atmosphere, landscape, and the climate are asking you to grow incredibly thick skin and be harsh in response to it,’ says writer and illustrator Bruce Mutard. You agree.
Let’s imagine it’s a Saturday evening, and our hypothetical modern walker is meandering through one of Melbourne’s bustling nightlife scenes. It’s still light outside but signs of the day being splintered by night break against the backdrop. A crescent moon develops between white clouds. The sky turns pink and orange, as surreal and abstract as colour itself. Streetlamps start humming. Artificial lights brighten. The temperature drops. The once-restless wind now stands still. Our modern walker—eyes wide, mouth shut, senses on high alert—notices a gradual shift in the procession. The people are changing over, like ball kids at the Australian Open tennis: the laughing families and photo-taking tourists and pram-pushing mothers and piggybacking fathers and Instagramming brunch-ers and bag-carrying shoppers and dog-walking lovers and picnicking park dwellers are giving way to another crowd. And here our modern walker’s heart rate rises, because he can see that taking their place are the wobbly processions of young adults, clad in their weekend outfits and loosened tongues. He is acutely aware of ‘the changing mood of the street’ (Elkin 18). He sees it, he smells it, he tastes it. People’s hair sprayed immovably into place. Colognes and perfumes clash against boozy breaths and puddles of vomit—some get too wobbly too early. All of this affects him, creates him. As he passes one group of young men, he realises that people’s eyes are less self-conscious now. They will, without thought, stare at our walker. If he’s wearing what he often wears, they might even point at him, not from afar but from up close. And they do.

A car that’s safely gone through an amber light crawls down the street. The car slows even further as it is about to pass you and you see the man in the driver’s seat looking directly at you while he keeps one eye on the road. He comes to a stop and you hear a rumbling voice coming from the car. And so you assume he’s on the phone and speaking loudly. But then there it is, another outstretched finger. Pointing in your direction. ‘Is that a man or a woman? What the fuck is that?’ His face is more bemused than amused, more repulsed than aggressed. He drives off before you can retaliate, though what would you have even said? You’re wearing an orange t-shirt that has a scoop neck and slightly shorter-than-normal sleeves, and your hair sits long, well past your shoulders. Your burgundy nail polish couldn’t have been visible from his spot in his car. Your goatee and ten o’clock shadow, on the other hand, would likely have been visible. You feel a wash of heat roll over you but that’s all. It doesn’t develop into anything larger, more consuming than that. The insults over the years have become as trite as the expression, Water off a duck’s back. They don’t stick any more, don’t linger. They’re not as frequent as they used to be either and they’re no longer about your ethnicity but about your sexuality, which is odd. Why is your sexuality of interest to people pointing fingers in cars when you’re walking along the street, just trying to get groceries?
For the writer, walking—even when he’s uncomfortable (perhaps especially when he’s uncomfortable)—provides the icky material that the mind needs in order to feed and live in words that resonate with others. So he’ll walk anyway, because walking is concomitant with writing. He will walk because, as Alfred Edward Housman writes, the act of walking can sometimes produce whole sentences, paragraphs, complete ideas for works. He will walk because when we walk we expose ourselves to the multifarious gazes of others and in doing so allow our minds to wander into territories that the act of walking produces: ‘to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre’ (Jabr 2014). He will walk because even when there is no-one around, there is some one around. Because in occupying public space he’ll open once-locked doors to private space in which the ghosts of former selves tell forgotten tales. He will transcend the borders that kept him captive and venture out into new territories with fresh eyes. He will walk because the act of walking will stir in him thoughts he’d otherwise never have thought. Or perhaps worse still, forgotten.

As you filter through the years your roots grow alien. You stop believing in God in your teenage years; you stop eating meat in your twenties; you almost drop out of law school to become a hairdresser, and then you do something even worse, more blasphemous than that; you start writing. You find a way to will by translating thoughts into words and words into sentences and sentences into stories. And in stories you find places you can go to see yourself a little bit clearer, see the world through eyes not yours, and in doing so see yourself a little bit nearer. In stories you can belong to something far bigger than you. And it’s lucky that you find this. Because the belonging you found as a child and young teen, the belonging in the consanguinity of your cultural home, sheds from your soul like a snake’s old skin. It’s a shedding rather than an eroding, happening gradually but, and unlike an eroding, finally. There is a tangible point at which your alienation from the milieu in which you were brought up is reached. It’s at this point where you find truth in the sentiment that home is where the now is.
In walking we are free to ruminate on how the ‘mind’s theatre’ isn’t a discrete sanctuary, untainted by the outside world; how it isn’t produced by itself, from itself, within itself. In walking we learn about the fickleness of our thought processes, and the interdependence of our will. In walking we learn about this self that follows us like a shadow that exists in a world where light is, always. In the act of walking the ghosts that haunt us develop skeletons we can trace with fingers that write in words others too understand. And these skeletons we trace into words that others too can understand let us understand too and better our own selves and how these selves have come to be. And so people who write will walk, in the face of pointing fingers, in the face of fearing idleness, because we’re human, and our humanness compels us to. And because ‘Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk’ (Jabr 2014). Because it is at the desk where the self that’s so heavily shaped by the space we occupy in public can see that
Home is where the now is.
Home is where the now is.
Two touloumbes slide around on an old and now gooey glass dessert plate. You can see Yia Yia’s dentures clicking in and out of place as she masticates on the honey-soaked Greek donut, carefully bringing small bits of it up to her mouth. The fork’s decorated end glimmers in the sunbeams twinkling through the window, and the phone starts pealing. Her plate is laid on the plastic-covered table; her fork clinks as it hits the glass; her chair is pushed back into position. Everything must be immaculately clean and perfectly positioned at all times. Hahllo? She waits. Sometimes the calls are from Greece and there’s a delay, but her face sags during the pause and suggests that this isn’t one of those calls. Hahllo! not a question this time. Her cheeks rise, her bottom lip lowers, her chin crumbles into her neck. Who you are? I no understand. The light returns to her eyes, content and without doubt. She’s silent for the better part of a minute. This is one of her superpowers. She can be an extremely patient woman, probably owing to her having not been raised on a Twitter diet but one of manual labour: black gumboots up to their ankles in mud, a pick axe hacking away at fertile ground, tomato stalks standing taller than she, sandals over socks into which pants are tucked. Shurrap! She slams the receiver into place and turns to find you laughing. Her gold tooth winks in the sunlight. You ask Who was that? knowing full well that it was a telemarketer. In Greek, chuckling in wheezes, she answers. I have no idea.
Works Cited
Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City of Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. London: Chatto & Windus, 2016. Reader.
Adam Gopnik, ‘Heaven’s Gaits: What we do when we walk’, The New Yorker, 2014. web 31 Oct 2017.
Ferris Jabr, ‘Why Walking Helps us Think’, The New Yorker, 2014. web.31 Oct 2017.
Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarke, ‘Death to the Flâneur’, New Republic, 2017. web 31 Oct 2017.
Gregory Shaya, ‘The Flâneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860–1910’, The American Historical Review, 109.1 (2004): 41–77. web 31 Oct 2017.
Bijan Stephen, ‘In Praise of the Flâneur’. The Paris Review, 2013. web 31 Oct 2017.
Keith Tester, The Flâneur (RLE Social Theory). Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2014. web 31 Oct 2017.
WK Wimsatt Jr and MC Beardsley, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, The Sewanee Review 54.3 (1946): 468–488. web 31 Oct 2017.



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Robert Poposki

Robert Poposki resides in Melbourne with his partner and her revolving door of houseplants. To live he writes copy on a freelance basis for big corporations; to live well he writes fiction, essays and regularly consumes his pleasures to excess. He’s been published in Gargouille and holds no records of note.

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