I have a confession to make. I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia.
At the moment, this is mostly to look up everything I have forgotten. Ideas tucked away in the pages of the increasing number of books on my 'to reread' list. I hope this time I read them my brain might remember more.
As I aimlessly scroll from page to page, I recall ideas that clang about in my head as I go for walks along these Berlin streets that still live in that limbo place of familiarity and foreignness in which I have found myself trapped these last six months.
Today my virtual wandering led me to the Wikipedia page for the so-called ‘Flaneur’ (there’s a hat on that a), which, as the page reads, is an ‘ambivalent figure of urban riches representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of society.’
The original Flaneur was an archetype stemming out of 19th century Paris, but Germany’s Walter Benjamin- art criticism's darling- dusted him off and gave him a 20th century cultural spin. Benjamin’s Flaneur represented the ‘modern urban spectator,’ whose lifestyle - and, most importantly, his ability to remain a detached observer of life, came under threat thanks to consumer capitalism and the coercive mass culture it brought.
The female equivalent of the Flaneur, so I am told reading this page now, is ‘passante’, which means ‘walker’ and was coined by Marcel Proust to refer to elusive, female figures who’d wander and observe the streets. A separate Wikipedia page on the passante eludes us, there is just a note mentioning Proust's obsessiveness, and possessiveness, towards them.
Further Googling reveals a more complex story in the history of a word. A Guardian article attributes the term ‘passante’ to a poem about probably a prostitute in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal - a collection of poems I threw out because they made me too gloomy. There’s an essay out there that explores this relationship between a mysterious woman who walks on the street, and street walkers. I.e. prostitutes. I couldn’t find the abstract.
Then there’s the term ‘flaneuse’ cropping up here and there, alongside various essays and articles exploring what this archetype represents. One article recalls the first line in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway being ‘I love walking in London,’ noting that Woolf herself liked to use the streets as research. Again, more books for the re-read pile. How do computers get to retain so much, and minds so little? It’s not fair.
Susan Sontag’s take on Flaneuring was a salty one. In her essays on photography, she defines the flaneur as a middle class observer who chooses to see what he wants to see, presenting a rose-tinted vision of the urban experience that glosses over less appealing corners of city life not applicable to their charmed existence.
One article argues however that Flaneuring isn’t always as charming as it promises. Martha Gellhorn’s journalistic observations, that peeled the streets bare, presented all sorts of grim realities. Gellhorn herself described Flaneurie as ‘being as necessary as solitude, how the compost keeps growing in the mind.’
In any case, flaneurs or flaneuse walk the streets. They notice some things and not others. What it is their attention holds tells us a lot about what it is they care about. What they can’t or don’t notice might also be interesting.
I’m sat here listening to the evening wind, bird song interspersed by the hum of our washing machine, and there’s an occasional church chime and sometimes an ambulance siren ringing out. I’ve bought myself flowers for my desk but they’ve wilted, and there’s a photograph that came with a book I bought recently.
It’s propped up next to my pens, shows an empty beach that could be from anywhere, though in my head it’s of the North Sea. I have plans to cycle there, but am told that would take quite a long time. I probably need to invest in a tent.
It’s peaceful here. I might make fish fingers for dinner if I can remove myself from this seat, and this endless factoid trawling that seemingly goes nowhere, or go for an evening walk, nowhere to nowhere and back. I like how I can read all the street signs, and even recognise some of the names. Of course, a lot of them are of dead German men.
Today I was thinking of a Chinese painter called Qiu Deshu, an ink artist from Shanghai forced to paint Maoist propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.
His post-Mao work involved crafting traditional landscapes broken up by jagged voids, using a fissuring technique that subtly innovated a tradition that had been banned. He tore up bits of rice paper, layered on top of each other, a gesture both paying homage and rejecting his traditions, each fissure representing a culture forced to break ties with its own history.
The layering effect creates a lot of blank space. In ink art, with its deep Daoist roots, blank space is just as important as the busier parts of the work. Perhaps more so. Artists leave it there inviting their viewers to reflect and meditate.
It smells like it’s raining outside. I’ve removed the fish fingers from the freezer.
Last week, as I got myself ready to leave the house, I made a real effort. I washed my face, plucked and sketched in my eyebrows, brushed my hair, opted for a shirt that didn’t have my breakfast halfway down it, chose the one pair of shoes I have that don’t have a hole in them, rubbed scented cold cream into my now lizard-like hands, and, to add that extra, little, je ne sais quoi, stuck treats in my pockets.
I walked out of the house with that sort of, giddy anticipation one gets ahead of a momentous meeting one has long awaited, and, despite myself, my nerves, and this horrible plague, found myself delighting in everything immediate to me:
The shade of green oak tree leaves turn when lit up by the springtime sun. The shadows they cast that form patterns that look like diagrams of the nervous system. A breeze so pleasant that if it were at all possible, you would quite like to step inside it, and live there forever. And these, really, extremely polite and graceful clouds that float about like friendly, cartoon elephants.
As I approached the park in which we had agreed to meet, where we could enjoy a walk in each other’s company with the now socially acceptable distance of 1.5 metre between us, I entered into a fantasy or two about how it is he might have spent these last few weeks.
Where is it his mind might have taken him? What is it that might have brought him delight during these trying times?
Perhaps he’d have been entertaining a pleasant memory or two of simpler - but no less troublesome times, loping through the streets of Sao Paulo with his brethren, his pack.
Or perhaps he’d be taking greater efforts to savour the sumptuous experience that is his evening snack, brought out on a platter with a regularity that comforts as well as frustrates, as the tedium of one day bleeding into the next has turned all our routines into a funny kind of torture.
Or perhaps he’d take delight in the sight of a bird appearing as a celestial apparition before his window, only for it to disappear from view in the moment in which he decides to lift himself from his spot and give chase.
Dear reader, I am assuming it has at this point become very clear that we are discussing my friend’s lovely Brazilian street dog, Ernesto, who, much to my disappointment, did not make an appearance during my park-time meeting with his human.
I miss him, and had wanted, very much, to see his furry little face and look into his grumpy-old-man-dog eyes that speak to so many stories he would share, if indeed he could speak.
Like the dashing Victorian hero that I am, I made inquiries into his well being. My understanding is that he has struggled during these strange times just as we humans have.
He is bored, listless, tired of how the endless repetitions of the lives we are all leading now have been whittled down to the routines that take us, geographically-speaking, nowhere at all, except, further and further into our own minds.
Someone once asked me why I like animals so much. My response was; “they’re like humans, without the bullshit.” By bullshit, I mean complexity.
If Ernesto could talk, or type, maybe he’d interject here, tap away at an angry comment at the bottom of this blog, reminding me of everything I read on the subject of consciousness and animal psychology while I was carving out an animal rights beat for myself in Hong Kong (an easy enough area to lay claim to in a newsroom as territorial as any).
This research demonstrates that animals of course possess their own, rich inner lives. And that any argument against this evidence is sheer narcissism.
I wonder a lot about what is going on between the ears of the animals I have developed attachments to. Of course, I am certainly not the only human in history to have done so.
In September 1903, after visiting a zoo in Paris, Rainer Marie Rilke wrote what is now one of the most famous poems written in the history of the German language, Der Panther.
The work describes the spectacle of a panther pacing listlessly behind the bars of his enclosure, his world so very limited as for life beyond these bars to appear to drop off into an abyss.
It was written during a creative turning point for the poet that had coincided with his working for Rodin, a sculptor who impressed on Rilke the importance of trying to approach artmaking from a perspective beyond his own (if this is at all possible).
I read the poem with my flatmate last week, and her takeaway was one that many of us have.
‘It’s not fun to be alive and to live in a cage. In fact, it can drive you a little bit mad’.
An antidote? Try, as much as you can, to look beyond those bars, and remember, there is life out there.
Also, this otter meme.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.