The Flâneuse: Seeing and Remembering the Shock of Modernity

  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher


When Walter Benjamin elucidates Baudelaire’s flâneur based on his sonnet “À Une Passante,” Benjamin focuses on the shock the man in the crowd feels as he views the passing woman dressed in mourning. That jolt is the shock of modernity, the perceptual impact of immediate life making the flâneur both a hero and a convalescent, exhilarated and exhausted by the changes overwhelming him.1 In “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire had earlier framed his flâneur as “a convalescent” who has

only recently come back from the shades of death and breathes in with delight all the spores and odours [sic] of life; as he has been on the point of forgetting everything, he remembers and passionately wants to remember everything … Curiosity had become a compelling irresistible passion.2

Benjamin’s flâneur as a curious convalescent/hero defined by passion, perception, innovation, and urban relationships provides an excellent starting point for this study, with the proviso we transpose the gender identities of the flâneur’s encounter with the passante. In our readings, the viewer is most often a female figure fitted in (figurative) mourning; by experiencing the shocks of modernity, she becomes a hero(ine), if not permanently a convalescent. Instead, she demonstrates dynamism, an ability to move and adapt in response to the changing world around her. She turns, progresses, and perceives as well as being viewed in turn.3


Gender Role Influenza Pandemic Female Character Heterosexual Marriage Excellent Starting Point 
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© Jane Elizabeth Fisher 2012

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  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher

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