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The Flâneuse: Seeing and Remembering the Shock of Modernity

  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher

Abstract

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

Keywords

Gender Role Influenza Pandemic Female Character Heterosexual Marriage Excellent Starting Point 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 76–7, 14, 24.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” in Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated by P. E. Charvet (New York: Penguin Classics, 1993), 397.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    I agree here with Deborah Parsons in “Flâneur or Flâneuse?: Mythologies of Modernity?” New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 38 (1999): 91–100, where she expands the term flâneur to consider class and gender ambiguity, arguing this key figure stands at the intersection of the masses, the city, and the experience of modernity (91). She argues against critics such as Janet Woolf, who would deny the possible existence of a female flâneuse figure (91–2), and she takes a more inclusive position than critics such as Rachel Bowlby, who identify women in public spaces mainly with commodity culture (93–4). For another discussion of tensions between suffragettes and other women of the streets emphasizing the role of the crowd, see Barbara Green, “From Visible Flâneuse to Spectacular Suffragette? The Prison, the Street, and the Sites of Suffrage,” Discourse: Berkeley Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 17.2 (1994): 67–97.Google Scholar
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    Helene Cooper and Susan Merrill Squier, Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Stallworthy notes how in this poem Owen was influenced by Henri Barbusse’s 1917 novel Under Fire, often cited for its surrealistic visual representation of the war. See Jon Stallworthy, ed., Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1983). Jennifer Wingate chronicles the large number of World War I memorials taking the form of statues of armed soldiers engaged in combat, presumably in danger. See “Over the Top: The Doughboy in World War I Memorials and Visual Culture,” American Art 19.2 (2005): 26–47. Steven Trout chronicles the complex, contradictory nature of World War I memorials in On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919–1941 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    For estimates of influenza deaths, see Howard Phillips and David Killingray, “Introduction,” in The Spanish Influenza of 1918–19: New Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2003).Google Scholar
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    Carol Byerly, Fever of War: The Influenza Pandemic in the U.S. Military during World War I (New York and London: New York University Press, 2010), 131–2.Google Scholar
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    This rock memorial was constructed at Engineers Canyon, Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas, memorializing the 10th Sanitary Train soldiers who died during the 1918 influenza pandemic. The soldier standing guard is identified as Brubaker. Harry A. Hardy designed the monument. In its construction and design, it resembles other World War I soldier-built memorials pictured in Lisa Budreau’s Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919–1933 (New York and London: New York University Press, 2010), 135–40. For other photographs of the memorial, see Kansas Memory, the Kansas Historical Society website, items 218276 and 218279: www.kansasmemory.org.Google Scholar
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    For a more detailed discussion of Kansas war memorials, see Steven Trout, “Forgotten Reminders: Kansas World War I Reminders” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 29 (Autumn 2006): 200–15.Google Scholar
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    Willa Cather, “The Novel Démeublé,” in Not Under Forty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), 50.Google Scholar
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    Katherine Anne Porter, “Reflections on Willa Cather,” in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 33–4.Google Scholar
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    Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1950), 96.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    May Wedderburn Cannan, The Splendid Days (New York and Oxford: Longmans and Oxford, 1919), 79.Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    For discussions of shell-shock, see Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and British Culture, 1830–1980 (New York: Virago Press, 1987); Kimberly Jensen Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Carbondale, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008); and Ben Sheppard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
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    For a discussion of how “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” intersects with Woolf’s “On Being I11” and The Voyage Out, see Catherine Belling, “Overwhelming the Medium: Fiction and the Trauma of Pandemic Influenza in 1918,” Literature and Medicine 28.1 (Spring 2009): 65–8.Google Scholar
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    See Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “No Man’s Land,” in The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Vol. I: The War of the Words (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987); Ariel Freedman, Death, Men, and Modernism: Trauma and Narrative in British Fiction from Hardy to Woolf (New York and London: Routledge, 2003); and Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva.Google Scholar
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    See Gilbert and Gubar, “No Man’s Land”; Pearl James, “‘The Enid Problem’: Dangerous Modernity in One of Ours,” Cather Studies 6 (2006): 92–128; and Sharon O’Brien, “Combat Envy and Survivor Guilt: Willa Cather’s ‘Manly War Yarn,’” in Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation, ed. Helene Cooper and Susan Merrill Squier (Chapel Hill and London: The University of Chapel Hill Press, 1989).Google Scholar

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© Jane Elizabeth Fisher 2012

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  • Jane Elizabeth Fisher

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