[Written by Meg Gray (she/her)]
“We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.”
Virginia Woolf’s lyrical essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure (1930), follows a pilgrimage through London in the hunt for a lead pencil. In this excerpt, the narrator explains that this errand, or rather this excuse, facilitates her experience of one of the greatest pleasures a city can offer—wandering. Woolf’s Street Haunting perfectly articulates the solace of leaving one’s room. Alone in our room, perceptions become distorted. Woolf recognizes how the objects that surround us in our homes eventually become a part of our being, grotesquely extending the boundaries of self to encapsulate our belongings. You become the turned chair, or the china bowl, or the brown ring on the carpet. These objects are stationary and unchanging—which is how one may begin to feel after remaining inside for six months. The objects we identify with so deeply act as reminders of the irregularity of our experience, of lockdown. Breaking away from this constant reminder of the pandemic becomes imperative. Society—in our case, any glimpses of society we can find—becomes radically valuable. In desire for a change of scenery and some notion of normality, the masses—including Woolf—turn to the activity of walking and observing for consolation.
This idea of walking, with the principle intention being introspection rather than a physical destination, is represented throughout literature, most notably in the figure of the flâneur. The term flânerie—the act of strolling and idling—dates back to the sixteenth-century. However, it was the nineteenth-century French poet Baudelaire who utilized the term flâneur to identify a man who lives to drift through the metropolis and spectate the modern urban experience that surrounds him. Baudelaire presents this character in his essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863) through a portrait of an artist-poet who revels in the crowd, passionately observing, whilst maintaining anonymity and distance. Of course, at the present, there is no mass or crowd to engage with due to social distancing. However, the opportunity to watch fragments of society as it passes you in the street or park is nonetheless valuable and exemplifying of the crowd. The contemporary term for flânerie could quite easily be the act of people watching.
Sociologist Keith Tester explains the allure of flânerie: ‘But behind the face of the poet lurks a great secret of nobility. Baudelaire’s poet claims to possess a nobility in relation to all the other members of the metropolitan crowd because, even if the crowd should crush him either physically or existentially, he knows that the crowd might do this’. Observing the crowd allows one to become privy to the way it responds, the way it interacts with itself; it prepares the spectator for the possibility of vulnerability. For Woolf, observations act as creative outbursts, allowing her to digress and meditate on presumed stories of the people the narrator happens upon—picking up on idiosyncrasies, or lack thereof, and running with them. The spontaneous and random nature of her encounters make it a completely harmless exercise. However, the prospect of furthering engagement with our current society—which is so fractured and, at times, deeply depressing—seems foolish. Perhaps this danger is what incites our need to observe and understand; maybe we are optimistic about what we will find.
There is an inherent privilege bound to the figure of the flâneur; it is impossible to discuss Woolf’s Street Haunting without recognizing this idea. As the journey through London progresses, the unnamed narrator encounters people who cannot cruise the street as she does. The passage that illustrates this idea most vividly is the encounter with the ‘dwarf girl’. Woolf forms a clear distinction between this girl and the narrator. The narrator gets to pick her out of the crowd, speculate and elaborate on her dissimilarity in an almost voyeuristic or parasitic nature, and finally desert her before moving on to the next character of intrigue. The ‘dwarf girl’ cannot physically move like the narrator—she must be escorted by two women who hurry her along. She cannot traverse the street alone, taking time to contemplate the different things that catch her eye; she cannot seek the solace of the street and indulge her curiosity in the same manner that the narrator can—Woolf purposely draws the reader’s attention to this disparity.
At its outset, the term flâneur excluded large groups of people. It was singularly associated with figures of urban affluence and conventionally depicted as white, male, and able-bodied. For some, wandering the city in solitude was not even a possibility. Even now there is not equal access to an activity that seems so fundamental. There is a limited number of hours each day a woman can walk the streets unaccompanied, without a very real threat of intrusion or violation. Last winter, the University of Glasgow urged all female students to walk home from campus in groups or pairs after dark due to a series of attacks. But women and disabled people are not the only groups that can be prevented from moving without restriction. Police Scotland recorded 6,736 reported hate crimes in the Interim Vulnerable Persons Database (IVPD) in 2017-2018. The inequality of our society breaches every part of our existence—this pandemic has only highlighted and intensified this fact. There are socially imposed limitations to the concept of flânerie. However, recognizing this—as Woolf does—can act as a valuable process of observation and understanding in itself.
Restricted from doing just about everything else, breaking away from the constrictive familiarity of our bedroom and taking a walk is a much-needed outlet for some of the tension and uncertainty lockdown imposes. We can reclaim a little bit of control over our lives through wandering—moving at our own accord whilst observing, from a safe distance, the insanity of our times.