Walking Through Paul Auster’s "City of Glass": "Flânerie" in his Novel

Term Paper, 2006
27 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1 The concept of flânerie
2 Walking through Paul Auster’s City of Glass: flânerie in (post)modern New York City
2.1 New York as adequate space: the (post)modern city as place of despair
2.2 Paul Auster’s flaning protagonists
2.2.1 Quinn: flâneur -detective
2.2.2 Stillman Sr.: manic anti- flâneur




“To stroll is a science, it is the gastronomy of the eye.

To walk is to vegetate, to stroll is to live.”

Balzac, Physiologie du Mariage

City of Glass is Paul Auster’s first novel, published in 1985, after being rejected by several publishers. The first part of The New York Trilogy[1] has been translated into 17 languages so far, a fact that pleads for the novel’s commercial success nowadays. An indication for the literary importance of City of Glass is the continually growing number of essays, anthologies and monographs all over the world. It is undeniable that its selling success is related to the general fascination for the cosmopolitan city of New York and for detective stories, as—at first sight—Auster’s novel follows the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe[2]. However, he follows the tradition “as creator of ‘the lost ones’”[3], as—on closer inspection—the reader has to realize that the real mystery is one of confused character identities and realities.

Despite of all the conceptions the novel evoques, City of Glass does not meet the reader’s expectations about a typical New York ‘city novel’: Auster created an adequate text for a modified, postmodern cityscape where all objects of the city seem like linguistic codes that need to be deciphered. The risks of the city result from the confusion of language and perception. The fear of an identity collapse comes along with the apparent collapse of the cityscape. Auster picks out the loss of stability and security in the city as central theme. He describes a world begging for order and interpretation where “nothing is real except chance”. Anne M. Holzapfel stated:

The identity search undertaken in all three novels by their central characters, i.e. Quinn, Peter Stillman Sr., Blue, Black, Fanshawe and his narrating friend, fails. All of Auster’s characters show multiple identities. They are either split personalities from the very beginning, or they undergo the process of splitting during the search. They are doubled in their antagonist. The characters are decentralized and fictionalized through their names, pseudonyms or their literary work. During the identity search, all characters involved are writing texts. They create a fictitious reality for themselves in which they begin to live. For them, fiction is more real than reality.[4]

Holzapfel’s observation can also be transferred to the figure of the flâneur since Auster plays with it in the same way: Quinn is a deconstructed character of postmodernism, he acts like a flâneur, but does not feel comfortable while walking through the city, he seems lost. New York is the ‘nowhere’ Quinn has built around himself. Professor Stillman also seems to stroll like a flâneur, but he has to fulfill an operation (in contrast to the “classical” flâneur who has no aim). Auster deconstructs the postmodern figure of the flâneur as he deconstructs the classical detective novel. Ironically, these very deconstructions help to shape the novel. Quinn can be read as flâneur adapted to a postmodern world, I argue.

In the following, I will explore the relations between Auster’s City of Glass and concepts of flânerie, strolling urban observing. In order to discuss flânerie in Auster’s work, it is essential to take a closer look on the term first.


1 The concept of flânerie

The concept of flânerie usually emerges in academic discussions of the phenomenon of modernity and metropolises. It was the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) who identified and popularized the term flâneur around 1850 when describing an artist of modern life:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.[5]

Baudelaire regarded the flâneur as observer of modern life, an anonymous and idle figure that observed city life. Chris Jenks recently added that

[w]e detect, within the original depiction, an inquisitive boulevardier always at home with the urban and always urbane at home. However, the flâneur posseses a power, it walks at will, freely and seemingly without purpose, but simultaneously with an inquisitive wonder and an infinite capacity to absorb the activities of the collective – often formulated as ‘the crowd’. (…) The flâneur is essentially a product of modernity, it provides one image of how that state of being in time can be realised or, at least, understood. It is also an attempt to ‘see’ modernity; a metaphor for method.[6]

The word flâneur has no exact equivalent in English, but it is applied for someone who is wandering the streets, not with the intent of getting somewhere, but as an analytical urban observer and “philosopher”. The word derives from the French verb flâner, which means to stroll idly. A flâneur is “[o]ne who strolls about aimlessly; a lounger; a loafer”[7], “[a]n aimless idler; a loafer”[8] or—according to another definition—“a detached pedestrian observer of a metropolis, a 'gentleman stroller of city streets'”[9]. Although there exist numerous definitions of the term, most of them agree on the fact that a flâneur has no aim when strolling through the city, he wanders without any set purpose; flânerie (the stroll) itself is his vital interest. He moves within the crowd, but is not part of it. Keith Tester argues that

Baudelaire’s poet [the flâneur ] is a man of the crowd as opposed to the man in the crowd. The poet is the centre of an order of things of his own making even though, to others, he appears to be just one constituent part of the metropolitan flux.[10]

Furthermore, the flâneur is typically well aware of his slow, leisurely behavior:

Flaneure sind Menschen, die müßig umherschlendern. Keinesfalls schreiten sie fort, denn sie streben nach keinem Ziel und kennen also auch keine Eile, es zu erreichen. Sie sind sozusagen Gegner des Fort-Schritts[11].

According to Baudelaire, traditional art was inadequate for the new complexity of mo-dernity; he demanded a more appropriate image for the social and economic changes of metropolises brought on by the industrialization. Dana Brand recently stated that “[t]here is a surplus of signifiers and a dearth of signification”[12] we find in modernity, and that

[i]t is possible to bathe in such a world, to collect images, or to enjoy the way in which they rapidly succeed each other. It is harder to be orientated, rooted, or convinced of the solidity or permanence of anything one believes or observes.[13]

Baudelaire’s description of the ideal “painter of modern life”, however, shows a rather passive image of the flâneur: someone who does not demand anything and, by doing so, adapts to the city and its changes. The city, seen as a labyrinth or jungle in which the flâneur moves, can be understood as text with signs in-between. For a flâneur, the city is an easy-to-read book, an architectonical structure filled with sociological and human content. He is able to discern the city’s transitoriness.

In literature, the figure of the flâneur is derived from the former image of the wanderer who roamed nature and articulated his thoughts and emotions after having observed his surroundings. According to the level of research, the first flâneur as literary figure came up in 1838 with Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Man of the Crowd. Since then, the observing human being found itself in an urban world which underwent constant changes and was influenced by rapid developments of the industry and by daily routine. Traditionally, a flâneur was described as a male character since women were not fully established in the artistic and literary fields of the nineteenth century. Or, to put it in the words of Chris Jenks, who summarizes the general view on female wanderers as follows:

Women do not look, they are looked at. (…) The flâneuse is surely invisible, as are her tales of the city. Women are not ‘at home in the city’, rather they mount campaigns and develop strategies to ‘claim back the night’, ‘refuse the gaze’ and ‘walk without fear’.[14]

A flâneur usually is member of the bourgeoisie or aristocracy, and this is mainly revealed by his clothing. Although the figure of the flâneur has been largely associated with nineteenth-century Paris—mainly through the writings of Baudelaire and Benjamin—why should flânerie be limited to one city only? It has been a recurring literary motif and theory for the modern metropolis. Franz Hessel (1880-1941), who is regarded as the founder of a German tradition of flânerie, adapts wanderings to the city of Berlin in his novel Spazieren in Berlin:

Flânerie is a kind of reading of the street, in which human faces, shop fronts, shop windows, café terraces, street cars, automobiles and trees become a wealth of equally valid letters of the alphabet that together result in words, sentences and pages of an ever-new book. In order to engage in flânerie, one must not have anything too definite in mind.[15]

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) wrote about the flâneur “der auf dem Asphalt botanisieren geht” (botanizing on the asphalt)[16]:

Die Straße wird zur Wohnung für den Flaneur, der zwischen Häuserfronten so wie der Bürger in seinen vier Wänden zuhause ist. Ihm sind die glänzenden emaillierten Firmenschilder so gut und besser ein Wandschmuck wie im Salon dem Bürger ein Ölgemälde; Mauern sind das Schreibpult, gegen das er seinen Notizblock stemmt; Zeitungskioske sind seine Bibliotheken und die Caféterrassen Erker, von denen aus er nach getaner Arbeit auf sein Hauswesen heruntersieht.

“Landscape—this is what the city becomes for the flâneur,”[17] wrote Benjamin. He regarded the flâneur, along with Baudelaire's interpretation of the figure, as a product of nineteenth-century commodity culture. From a Marxist point of view, Benjamin describes the flâneur as a product of modern life and of the industrial revolution. Benjamin refers to Baudelaire’s phrase “The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito”[18] and draws a parallel to an “unintentional” detective:

»Der Beobachter«, sagt Baudelaire, »ist ein Fürst, der überall im Besitze seines Inkognitos ist.« Wenn der Flaneur dergestalt zu einem Detektiv wider Willen wird, so kommt ihm das gesellschaftlich sehr zupaß. Es legitimiert seinen Müßiggang. Seine Indolenz ist nur eine scheinbare. Hinter ihr verbirgt sich die Wachsamkeit eines Beobachters, der den Missetäter nicht aus den Augen läßt. So sieht der Detektiv ziemlich weite Gefilde seinem Selbstgefühl aufgetan. Er bildet Formen des Reagierens aus, wie sie dem Tempo der Großstadt anstehen. Er erhascht die Dinge im Flug; er kann sich damit in die Nähe des Künstlers träumen. Den geschwinden Stift des Zeichners lobt jedermann.[19]

In his essay “From the Flaneur to the Detective: Interpreting the City of Poe”[20], Dana Brand examines the relation between the figure of the flâneur and that of the detective in Poe’s The Man of the Crowd[21]. He argues that “Poe offers a critique of the flaneur’s methods of representing modern cities”[22] assuming that Poe offered a new, updated urban spectator and “new models for reading and consuming the modern city”[23]. According to Brand, “the reader is shielded from all potential sources of [urban] anxiety”[24] in the literature of the flâneur. He continues:

Although the detective observes a city that is more threatening and mysterious than that of the flaneur, and although his process of reading is fundamentally different, he is therefore, like a flaneur, a reassuring figure. The detective suggests that what appears to be an increasingly opaque urban world can be grasped, even if only by a panoramic observer with superhuman powers. By resolving mysteries that are emblematic of the urban anxieties of his audience, the detective, like the flaneur, suggests that social order is a possibility. In fact, he offers a stronger assurance of this possibility than the flaneur because it seems as if the detective’s methods of interpretation could actually be used in a practical way to maintain that order[25].

Brand concludes that “[i]n spite of their differences, the detective is not a contradiction of the flaneur so much as a dialectical adaption of him.”[26]

Benjamin sees the flâneur in literature as successor of the physiologist in the city. Benjamin's final, unfinished work[27], known as the Passagenwerk (‘Arcades Project’), was to be an enormous collection of writings on Paris’ city life in the nineteenth century, dealing with the roofed outdoor arcades which created the city's street life and culture of flânerie. Benjamin called them “Tempel der Ware” (temples of commodity) as well as “Wohnung des Kollektivs” (domicile of the collective)[28] – werewith he names both poles that constitute the capitalistic system according to Marxist theory: the produced and purchasable goods on the one hand, and the masses consisting of producers and consumers on the other.


[1] Originally published sequentially as City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986) in the United States; the three novels are interrelated.

[2] The New York Trilogy has been described as “very soft-boiled” (cp. Chénetier), "meta-anti-detective story” (cp. Sorapure), “mysteries about mysteries”, etc.

[3] Marc Chénetier: “Paul Auster’s Pseudonymous World”, in: Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster, ed. by Dennis Barone (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995) 36.

[4] Anne M. Holzapfel: The New York Trilogy: Whodunit? – Tracking the Structure of Paul Auster’s Anti-Detective Novels. Studien zur Germanistik und Anglistik, Band 11 (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 1996) 109.

[5] Charles Baudelaire: “The Painter of Modern Life”, in: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Lietch (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2001) 795.

[6] Chris Jenks: “Watching your Step: The History and Practice of the Flaneur”, in Visual Culture, ed. by Chris Jenks (New York: Routledge, 1995) 146.

[7] http://dict.die.net/flaneur/ (Page view: 24.09.2006).

[8] http://www.answers.com/topic/fl-neur (Page view: 22.09.2006).

[9] http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/flaneur (Page view: 20.09.2006).

[10] Keith Tester: Introduction, in: The Flâneur, ed. by Keith Tester (London: Routledge, 1994) 3.

[11] Magnus Schlette: “Spazieren Gehen: Ob es heute noch Flaneure geben kann, ist eine umstrittene Frage”, http://www.freitag.de/2002/05/02051701.php (Page view: 21.09.2006).

[12] Dana Brand: “The Flaneur and Modernity”, in: The Spectation and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 2.

[13] Brand: “The Flaneur and Modernity”, 2.

[14] Jenks: “Watching your Step: The History and Practice of the Flaneur”, 150.

[15] Quoted from “The City Observed: The Flâneur in Social Theory” (editor unkonwn), http://www.polity.co.uk/content/BPL_Images/Content_store/Sample_chapter/9780745609676%5Cfrisby.pdf (Page view: 25.09.2006).

[16] Walter Benjamin: “Der Flaneur”, in: Charles Baudelaire: Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus, 1955, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1974) 34/35.

[17] Walter Benjamin: “The Return of the Flâneur”, in: Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934, ed. by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999).

[18] Charles Baudelaire: “The Painter of Modern Life”, 795.

[19] Walter Benjamin: “Der Flaneur”, 39.

[20] Dana Brand: “From the Flaneur to the Detective: Interpreting the City of Poe”, in: The Spectation and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[21] According to Brand, Poe invented the “ratiocinative detective, a figure capable of mastering the urban environment without inhibiting its capacity to produce anxiety or terror” (Brand: “From the Flaneur to the Detective”, 93).

[22] Brand: “From the Flaneur to the Detective”, 79.

[23] Ibid. 79.

[24] Ibid. 92.

[25] Ibid. 103.

[26] Ibid. 105.

[27] Benjamin’s work has been posthumously edited and published in its unfinished form.

[28] Brockhaus multimedial 2006 (DVD): “Walter Benjamin” (Mannheim: F. A. Brockhaus AG, 2006).

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Walking Through Paul Auster’s "City of Glass": "Flânerie" in his Novel
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Department of English and American Studies)
The Flaneur and the Visual Culture of the City
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Paul Auster, City of Glass, Flânerie, Flanerie, American Studies, Amerikanistik, flaneur, New York, novel, Baudelaire, Benjamin
Quote paper
Jeanette Gonsior (Author), 2006, Walking Through Paul Auster’s "City of Glass": "Flânerie" in his Novel, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/122120


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