The other day as I was going through some of my notes from uni last year (yes, somewhat nostalgically – another thing all the cool kids do in their free time) I came across some notes for an English subject about Romanticism.
While I was taking this subject I remember more than one occasion on which people would ask me why I was bothering with a subject so dislocated from the real world – or to put it bluntly, so ‘useless’. How is studying the flowery pomp of people like Wordsworth and Shelley going to help you with practical things, like getting a job and progressing in life?
The conversation sometimes moved from there to questions about why someone would spend their time studying English at all, and how literary theories and different interpretations of the same thing could ever be a useful addition to one’s schedule. Often the conversation ended with “so are you going to be a teacher?”
This is nothing new. It is painfully familiar to any arts student. So in the hopes of addressing part of the question – why spend your time studying something so ‘removed from real life’? – I want with this post to point out the first of at least two romantic notions that have survived until the present, and to show how these can teach us insights about our present world and society.
The first is the figure of the Flâneur and his modern counterpart, the Hipster.
Defined variously as ‘a man who saunters around observing society’ or ‘an idler or a lounger’ the central characteristic of the flâneur is that of somebody both disengaged from but closely attentive to the world and people around him or her. The flâneur has one foot in the door, and one foot out, and it is this existence or individuality outside of society that allows the flâneur a unique view of the world.
This is, in a way, similar to the (caricatured) image of the professor in his ivory tower who watches the world but is not really involved in it. It’s an image many people dislike. Instead the flâneur has a bit more romance and familiarity to the everyday walker of city streets. The flâneur represents the perceptive but often exaggerated idea that in order to say something insightful about the world, one often has to remove oneself from some of it.
We see this in the hype around writers like J.D. Salinger and even as far back as writers like Nietzsche, Petrarch, and Socrates. All of these writers removed or isolated themselves from the world in some way in order to have a less clouded vision of it. The flâneur does this as he strolls around the city streets, appreciating the little moments and truths that might escape the more hurried and harassed figures who bustle down the street. In literature the flâneur is not a time-waster. He or she is the opposite of a time-waster. The flâneur is someone with a rich appreciation of even the smallest stitches of the city canvas, an authority on what it means to appreciate.
If you will allow me to wander a bit off-topic now (remember, the flâneur wouldn’t mind it), it is worth mentioning that this is also a recurring theme in the writing of Tom Hodgkinson, especially his magazine the Idler. In the Idler contributing writers repeat the need to slow down the pace and intensity of modern living, with issue titles such as War on Work and Lie Back and Protest speaking for themselves.
Hodgkinson’s writing is often criticised for being unrealistic, and impossible to implement on a large scale. The world as we know it would fall apart if everybody slowed down. Granted. But this I think, is misinterpreting his point. I do not believe Hodgkinson, with his cries of life is absurd, be merry, be free is attempting to reinvent society as a whole. He is trying rather to address an error in how we view the world when we do not allow ourselves any time to take a contemplative step back from it, but instead are convinced that our thinking must be directed towards productive rather than contemplative pursuits. He is trying to point out that the two are not so easily separated.
The flâneur helps us here, for he/she neatly represents both the productive and the contemplative. He/she points out this mistake in our thinking when we stop ourselves from ‘idle’ pastimes such as drawing, staring blankly out of windows to recollect our thoughts or strolling a little slower down the city streets are denounced as ‘useless’ or an interference with productivity.
Now to the modern counterpart of the flâneur, the Hipster.
The hipster can also teach us something about dominant views and values in modern society. In the same way that the flâneur only wanted to tell us to slow down, the hipster attempts a similar reappraisal of where our emphasis lies in assigning value.
The hipster is in on the secrets of the city. He/she knows all the hidden alleyways with the best artwork and cafes, and all the festivals and exhibitions that will soon be setting up, and which ones you’d better get to quickly, because they won’t be around for long. The hipster is in the middle of a project – perhaps a movie or a script that will be filmed locally and that will help us see familiar streets in a different light, perhaps in the way the flâneur would have seen the world on his solitary strolls, assisted by a notebook, or if especially brave, an unapologetic pair of binoculars.
The writer acknowledges that it is not always easy to tell a genuine hipster from an imposter. There is a whole other blog post there about why we copy the things we do, and how this can create a paradox about ideas about individuality and self-expression. For today it is enough to say that the genuine hipster is not always certifiable, and it is likely that there are tiers of hipster-authenticity one must navigate before being persuaded.
But when one manages to find a genuine hipster, if one is lucky one can discern a message similar to that of the flâneur; The hipster wants us to look at the creative and social side of life. Like the flâneur he/she reminds us of the difficulties of remaining an individual amidst a great crowd.
There is nothing wrong with being ordinary – far from it (see last blog post) – but the hipster and the flâneur both remind us to look carefully at things in our own way before making a decision about how to appreciate or value something. Both remind us to see always the creative and unique elements of life, those that are difficult to capture in a large collective or generalisation of values, modes of thought, or standards of behaviour.
The hipster is like the flâneur in how he comes to this realisation. He/she is likely good at making friends with strangers and has ‘awesome connections’ – but the hipster also makes time to explore the city and the world around them thoroughly before deciding to walk past anything.