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Aural Flânerie

Aimée Boutin

To cite this article: Aimée Boutin (2012) Aural Flânerie, Dix-Neuf, 16:2, 149-161, DOI:

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dix-neuf, Vol. 16 No. 2, July, 2012, 149–61

Aural Flânerie
Aimée Boutin
Florida State University, USA

The diverse body of primary literature on flânerie supports a multisensory

interpretation of urban spectatorship, one in which hearing is especially
keen. Walter Benjamin’s influential approach to the flâneur has tuned out
or toned down the aural dimensions of flânerie following Georg Simmel’s
sociology of the senses which privileges the eye over the ear in the modern
metropolis. Resituating the figure of the flâneur within the framework of
‘sound studies’ enables us to investigate alternative tropes for some of the
prevalent visual constructs in flâneur theory: the city as readable book,
‘capital of signs’, and as kaleidoscopic spectacle. Writings on the flâneur,
Honoré de Balzac’s Physiologie du mariage and especially Victor Fournel’s Ce
qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris represent the city in aural terms as musical
score, and as harmonious or cacophonous concert. They describe walking
in the city as a multisensory embodied experience rather than a disengaged
spectatorship, making the artist’s contact with the sounds of the city a form-
ative creative experience. A theory of the flâneur conceived as bathed in a
multitude of sounds and sights rather than as untouchable mobile gaze can,
I hope, enrich our definitions of modernity.

keywords flâneur, sound, hearing, street life, street musicians, Victor Fournel,
Walter Benjamin

Studies on the flâneur for the most part embody the visual bias of our discipline, yet
the diverse body of primary literature supports a multisensory interpretation of urban
spectatorship. Walter Benjamin’s approach to the flâneur, which has been so influen-
tial on the contemporary currency of the type, has tuned out or toned down the aural
dimensions of flânerie following Georg Simmel’s ‘Sociology of the Senses’ (1908)
which privileges the eye over the ear in the modern metropolis. As a result, the
Benjaminian framework, with its devaluation of the textual complexity of the physi-
ologies and its overvaluation of a twentieth-century notion of visuality, has restricted
how we make sense of the flâneur. Resituating the figure of the flâneur within the
framework of ‘sound studies’ enables us to investigate alternative tropes for some
of the prevalent visual constructs in flâneur theory: the city as readable book and
‘capital of signs’, and as kaleidoscopic spectacle. Writings on the flâneur, especially

© W. S. Maney & Son Ltd 2012 DOI 10.1179/12Z.00000000014


Honoré de Balzac’s Physiologie du mariage and Victor Fournel’s Ce qu’on voit dans
les rues de Paris, represent the city as a musical score, and as harmonious or
cacophonous concert. As we listen to the flâneur’s encounters with street musicians
we can better account for the range of reactions to street life and urban sounds.
Fournel’s melomania proves an exceptionally rich appreciation of the aesthetic expe-
rience that can move the flâneur who can listen to the city streets. Aural flânerie1
describes walking in the city as a multisensory embodied experience rather than a
disengaged spectatorship, making the artist’s contact with the sounds of the city a
formative creative experience. An understanding of the flâneur conceived as bathed
in a multitude of sounds and sights rather than as untouchable mobile gaze can,
I hope, enrich our definitions of modernity.

Walter Benjamin gives half an ear to flânerie

Though the flâneur is a nineteenth-century character type firmly anchored in his age,
many students and scholars of flânerie today first run across this ever-popular
icon of modernity in the writings of Walter Benjamin. As revisionist critics Martina
Lauster (2007a; 2007b) and Margaret A. Rose (2007) have shown, however, Benjamin
underplays the significance of the pre-1850 social caricatures and physiologies that
originated the type by reading the flâneur in a distinctly twentieth-century analytical
framework. Benjamin’s metaphysical concern with the flâneur’s disembodied, alien-
ated gaze is absent from the earlier material, more clearly intent on describing how
the flâneur senses the city.
Critics are divided as to Benjamin’s sensitivity to sound. As others have pointed
out, Benjamin’s autobiographical and travel writings suggest a man ‘finely tuned to
sound’ (Tonkiss, 2003: 303) but also one for whom city sounds disrupt the free flow
of the imagination. Berlin Chronicle frequently evokes childhood memories about the
unsettling quality of the city’s constant noises — voices, cries, doors slammed shut,
rattling coaches, and military bands, but, as Gerhard Richter argues, noises also
function as enabling mnemonic triggers in autobiographical writing (2000: 170). Fran
Tonkiss remarks on how Benjamin ‘souvenired sounds from different places, [and]
composed urban vignettes as if they were aural postcards’ (2003: 306) of Seville’s
Alcazar, Marseilles, and Freiburg Minster in ‘One-way street’. Given his aptitude at
evoking a sense of place through sound in these texts, it comes as a surprise, then,
that, as Lutz Koepnick maintains in Sound Matters: Essays on the Acoustics of
Modern German Culture, Benjamin ‘takes little notice of the fact that nineteenth-
century urbanization and industrialization also resulted in an equally diverting and
disruptive cacophony of sounds’ (2005: 19). There are inconsistencies as well between
the number of references to city sounds in his notes in The Arcades Project, the
lack of recognition of the disruptive potential of noise in his essays on the flâneur
(Koepnick, 2005), and the tactile ability and aural acuity he attributes to the flâneur
(Frisby, 1994). There seems to be a tension in Benjamin between presenting flânerie
as ‘intoxicated’ embodied experience and shutting out sensory data to better focus on
theory formation.
Benjamin’s approach to the sensorium was influenced by Georg Simmel, whom he
cites twice in the notes on the flâneur in The Arcades Project. Simmel’s ‘Sociology of

the Senses’ follows the traditional hierarchy of the senses by privileging the eye over
the ear, and these senses above the lower senses (smell, taste, touch). His sociological
approach is innovative in that it accounts for the role of bodies in social interaction:
‘That we get involved in interactions at all depends on the fact that we have a sen-
sory effect upon one another’, writes Simmel. ‘[. . . E]very sense delivers contributions
characteristic of its individual nature to the construction of sociated existence; [. . .]
the prevalence of one or the other sense in the contact of individuals often provides
this contact with a sociological nuance that could otherwise not be produced’ (1997:
110). Simmel’s essays, however, present the changes to the modern urban sensorium
in a largely negative light. The segmentation of the senses causes disorientation as
‘one who sees without hearing is generally much more confused, helpless and dis-
turbed than one who hears without being able to see’ (114). He shares this aversion
for modern noise with Theodor Lessing, who wrote a full chapter on the exceptional
vulnerability of the ear as compared with the eye and who campaigned against noise
pollution in his manifesto ‘Noise — a War Cry Against the Loud Clatter of Our
Lives’ (1908).2 The often-quoted claim that the modern city impairs hearing is crucial
to the thesis of Simmel’s most renowned essay, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’.
The ear is figured there as a passive, defenceless organ as opposed to the eye con-
ceived of as a shield.3 Urban overstimulation — in the form of noise, discontinuous
and unexpected impressions, or ‘shocks’ — accompanied by the hypersensitivity of
the city dweller results in neurasthenia (119). Desensitization acts as a coping mecha-
nism, contends Simmel, and leads to a loss of sensory acuity among metropolitan
inhabitants that he refers to as a blasé attitude (178). Benjamin’s ambivalence toward
city noise can be directly linked to Simmel’s influence, though it also resonates with
a general trend among early twentieth-century intellectuals who campaigned against
In The Arcades Project, Benjamin adopts the theory of shock experience, but his
more positive approach differs from Simmel’s negative view (1999: M8a, 1; M16a, 2).
Shock experience can reawaken the senses of the blaséd, anaesthetized city-dweller.
Benjamin’s flâneur seeks out the ‘intoxication’ of the senses by actively drowning the
senses in sensory overload. Citing Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin famously evokes the
motif of the kaleidoscope to capture the rapidly changing sensations experienced by
the modern stroller as a unified scene controlled by the viewer:
Moving through this traffic involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At
dangerous intersections, nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the
energy from a battery. Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a
reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man
‘a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness’. (2006: 191)

Benjamin remembers Baudelaire’s use of the kaleidoscope in his discussion of Edgar

Allan Poe’s flâneur in ‘The Man of the Crowd’; Poe had himself referred to the
flâneur’s state of ‘electrified’ intellect at the beginning of his story.4 The kaleidoscope,
an instrument invented by Scottish physicist David Brewster in 1817, which became
an object of curiosity and entertainment in Europe in the 1820s, quickly acquired
cultural currency and assimilated metaphorical meanings as when, among others,
Balzac refers to a ‘moral kaleidoscope’ in Physiologie du mariage. It appears in
writings on the flâneur before Baudelaire, for example when the author of ‘Le Flâneur

à Paris’ refers to the motif to describe the flâneur’s erratic, changeable thoughts: ‘les
jeux du kaléidoscope ne sont pas plus indéterminés, plus capricieux, plus multipliés
que ceux de son esprit’ in Paris, ou Le livre des cent-et-un (1831: 104). As Nesci
outlines (2007: 62–63), the term connotes the shared restlessness, fragmentation, and
variation of the modern metropolis and the flâneur who perceives it, and as such the
instrument is associated with other proto-cinematic gadgets-cum-metaphors such as
the magic lantern, the daguerreotype, the diorama, and the panorama, apparatuses
that are also used to connote the flâneur: Jules Janin compares him to a magic lantern
in the introduction to Les Français peints par eux-mêmes and Victor Fournel to a
mobile daguerreotype in Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris (1858: 261). Moreover,
he is frequently associated with spectators at diorama and panorama.5 In fact, many
scholars use the flâneur as a ‘shorthand for describing the new, mobilized gaze of the
pre-cinematic spectator’ (Schwartz, 1995; Gunning, 1997). The privileging of the
flâneur’s camera-like visual faculty enhances the myth of his intellectual detachment.
The flâneur — the ‘unseen seer’, like the detective to whom Benjamin compares him
— is ‘partout mais nulle part’, as Janin eloquently put it in Un Hiver à Paris (1843:
195).6 The visionary invisibility of the flâneur may be the result of predominantly
visual paradigms that privilege the distinctive features of sight, namely spatial dis-
tance, at the expense of the other more proximate senses (a paradigm shared by some
nineteenth-century writers and the critics who read them).7 Positioned at the incep-
tion of a proto-cinematic genealogy that emphasizes its central role in the society of
spectacle and spectatorship, the flâneur is seen as a capital player in the remapping
of the sensorium, which, as Crary (1990) examines, compartmentalized the senses
and, notably, dissociated sight from touch at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The separation of the senses is considered by many a defining trait of modernity. The
critical success of compelling metaphors such as that of the kaleidoscope accounts for
the visual focus of studies on the flâneur, but the privileging of the eye over the
other senses obscures even the references to other senses in these stock metaphors.
For example, the magic of the kaleidoscope results from the interaction between hand
and eye. Read in its Baudelairean context, the kaleidoscope has an added tactile
dimension because of its discursive association with electric energy and shocks.
Making sense of the flâneur as a man in the crowd amid a kaleidoscopic reservoir
of electric energy restores the type’s full sensory perception. Getting in touch with
the flâneur’s sensory experience can move us beyond the myth of the detached
disembodiment of the flâneur.

Physiology of the flâneur’s auditory acuity

Knowing Benjamin’s bias against noise, it makes good sense to return to the primary
materials that originated the nineteenth-century type: the physiology, social sketches,
guidebooks, and literary works in this vein, whose import Benjamin had dismissed en
bloc. In some of the early nineteenth-century descriptions of the flâneur, in Nouveaux
Tableaux de Paris and in Le Figaro, the flâneur seeks out the heightened sensations
offered by free urban entertainment, such as outdoor puppet shows, the morgue,
public lectures, university courses, museums, libraries, curiosity shops, altercations,
and riots, fires, and floods. Huart’s Physiologie du flâneur builds on the metaphor of

the city as book; the flâneur reads the city as if it were a sensuous book: using his
sense of taste and touch as well as sight, he reads all the ‘délicieuses affiches, rouges,
jaunes, blanches, vertes, coquelicots, qui tapissent toutes les murailles de Paris’ (Huart,
1841: 76). The flâneur may be a ‘perspicacious’ (Lacroix, 2004: 151) close reader, but
he is also an avid conversationalist, eavesdropper, and attentive listener. In Jouy’s
Nouveaux Tableaux de Paris and in Le Figaro, the flâneur is frequently said to engage
people in conversation (Jouy, 1828: 283). In Paris, ou Le livre des cent-et-un, the
author describes the flâneur as ‘[un] aimable conteur’ (1831: 105) whereas Auguste de
Lacroix shows him engaged in news and gossip by listening to ‘commères’ (2004: 154,
see also 155) in his portrait in Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Huart character-
izes him further when he adds that ‘Un des grands plaisirs du flâneur c’est d’apprendre
gratis une foule de nouvelles vraiment extraordinaires, et comme n’en donnent pas
les gazettes les plus célèbres par leurs canards. Il n’est pas de journaliste qui ne soit
éclipsé en ce genre par les crieurs et surtout les crieuses de nouvelles’ (1841: 79–80).
Eavesdropper as well as observer, the flâneur has his ear to the ground, collecting
news, stories, and gossip.
Frequently the flâneur’s acuity is described in both visual and auditory terms. As
Lacroix writes, citing zoological terms in a parodical gesture, ‘il promène incessam-
ment dans Paris ses oreilles de lièvre et ses yeux de lynx’ (2004: 155). ‘Bonnes jambes,
bonnes oreilles, et bons yeux’, adds Huart, ‘tels sont les principaux avantages
physiques dont doit jouir tout Français véritablement digne de faire partie du club
des flâneurs quand on en établira un’ (1841: 53). That the flâneur does not merely
passively hear sounds but actively listens to his sonic environment in a focused and
discriminating way distinguishes him from the badaud (idler). The badaud ‘a des yeux
et il n’apercevra pas, des oreilles et il n’entendra pas’ (Lacroix, 2004: 153).8
Balzac offers perhaps the most eloquent example of the flâneur’s auditory prowess
in Physiologie du mariage:
Quel est le fantassin de Paris dans l’oreille duquel il n’est pas tombé, comme des balles
en un jour de bataille, des milliers de mots prononcés par les passants, et qui n’ait pas
saisi une de ces innombrables paroles, gelées en l’air, dont parle Rabelais? Mais la plupart
des hommes se promènent à Paris comme ils mangent, comme ils vivent, sans y penser.
Il existe peu de musiciens habiles de physionomistes exercés qui sachent reconnaître de
quelle clef ces notes éparses sont signées, de quelle passion elles procèdent Oh ! errer dans
Paris! adorable et délicieuse existence? Flâner est une science c’est la gastronomie de l’œil.
Se promener c’est végéter; flâner, c’est vivre. La jeune et jolie femme, longtemps contem-
plée par des yeux ardents, serait encore bien plus recevable à prétendre un salaire que
le rôtisseur qui demandait vingt sous au Limousin dont le nez, enflé à toutes les voiles,
aspirait de nourrissants parfums. Flâner, c’est jouir [. . .] (1868: 28)

Balzac begins by comparing the flâneur on foot in the streets of Paris to an infantry-
man on a battlefield pummelled by a confused barrage of spoken words. Referring
to Rabelais in whose lineage he places Physiologie du mariage, Balzac evokes the
‘paroles gelées’ (frozen words) episode from Le Quart Livre (ch. 55) in which the
giant traveller Pantagruel hears sounds of a battle, frozen in the ice, emerge, as they
are released in spring. The passage is remarkable for the way it evokes sight, hearing,
taste, and smell and even touch (the infantryman’s walk, the sublimated possession

of the desired woman). The sensual perception is interconnected and multimodal.

Balzac sums up flânerie as empirical, sensual observation followed by recognition and
analysis, a science that relates manifestations back to their hidden causes (‘de quelle
passion elles procèdent’). As Catherine Nesci demonstrates in her exegesis of this
passage in Le Flâneur et les flâneuses, the art and science of the flâneur, a superior
physiognomist, gastronome, and musician, consists in the ability to decipher, analyse,
and transform this confusion into a unified musical composition and render the city
into a musical score (2007: 114). As such, the barrage of bullet-words is transformed
into reasoned science; shock experience is avoided, and sublimated into intellectual
reflection and literary remembrance (Rabelais’s Le Quart Livre, Brillat-Savarin’s
Physiologie du goût). A similar orchestration occurs in Le Père Goriot, when Vautrin
takes on the part of the concertmaster unifying the lodgers’ songs and imitations of
street noises at the Pension Vauquer. These songs and their variations on the suffix
‘-rama’ moreover pair the visual (panorama) and aural repetition (Boutin, 2005).
Victor Fournel pursues the Balzacian model of sensual flânerie under the Second
Empire. Writing a generation later than Balzac but fully cognizant of his debt to him,
erudite, amateur historian, journalist, and flâneur Victor Fournel is often cited as one
of the theorists of ‘the art of flânerie’. He defines flânerie in an often-quoted passage
from the second section of Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris, ‘L’Odyssée d’un
flâneur dans les rues de Paris’. Similarly to Balzac, Fournel moves from multisensory
empirical perception to intellectualization as he stresses the combination of naiveté
and lightness of heart as well as science and gravity required of the flâneur: ‘Il n’est
pas donné à tout le monde de pouvoir flâner naïvement, et pourtant savamment.
[. . .] Cette vie est, au contraire, pour qui sait la comprendre et la pratiquer, la plus
active et la plus féconde en résultats utiles’ (1858: 261). The passage continues by
performing at length, rather than theorizing, the art of flânerie:
Avez-vous jamais réfléchi à tout ce que renferme ce mot de flânerie, ce mot charmant,
adoré des poëtes et des humoristes? Faire d’interminables expéditions à travers les rues et
les promenades; errer, le nez au vent, les deux mains dans ses poches et le parapluie sous
le bras, comme il sied à toute âme candide; marcher devant soi, à la bonne aventure, sans
songer à aller quelque part et sans se presser, à la façon de Jean de la Fontaine quand il
partait pour l’Académie; s’arrêter à chaque boutique afin de regarder les images, à chaque
coin de rue pour lire les affiches, à chaque étalage pour palper les bouquins; voir un
cercle amassé autour d’un lapin savant, et s’y joindre sans respect humain, fasciné, ravi,
s’abandonnant tout entier au spectacle jusqu’au fond des sens et du cœur; écouter ici
l’homélie d’un marchand de savon, là les dithyrambes d’un marchand de montres à vingt
cinq centimes, plus loin les élégies des charlatans méconnus; suivre au besoin tout le long
des quais la musique d’un régiment qui passe, ou prêter avec bonne foi les deux oreilles
aux roucoulements des prime donne du café Morel; savourer les variations des orgues de
Barbarie; se ranger autour des escamoteurs, des équilibristes et des magnétiseurs en plein
vent; contempler les casseurs de pierre avec admiration; courir quand on voit courir,
s’arrêter quand on le veut, s’asseoir quand on en a envie, quelle volupté, bon Dieu ! Et
voilà l’existence d’un badaud! (1858: 262)

Despite his earlier comparison of the flâneur to the mobile daguerreotype (261), Four-
nel’s description of the art of flânerie appeals not just to vision, but to all five senses,

such that Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris might have more aptly been entitled
‘What One Senses in the Streets of Paris’. The flâneur must give himself over ‘jusqu’au
fond des sens’. He walks ‘le nez au vent’; he looks at shop windows and billboards;
he touches the books on display; hands in his pockets, he feels the swell of the crowd
around him. Taste is not as prominent, but he ‘savours’ many sounds. The mobile
subjective viewpoint so typical of flâneur literature is here channelled through the ear.
Fournel’s flâneur listens acutely to his surroundings: his roving ear records street
criers, street musicians, performers in cafés and restaurants, and military parades.
The aural flâneur pays close attention to sounds that other urban dwellers might
dismiss as mere distractions. As in Balzac, the flâneur not only hears the street criers,
but his ear transforms their sounds into musical forms such as the dithyramb, the
elegy, or the homily. Fournel uses the musical lexicon to construct the metaphor of
the city as concert and the flâneur as concert master, in his definition of flânerie.

The flâneur and street music

Encounters with street musicians provide compelling evidence of the flâneur’s sen-
sual acuity. The first section of Fournel’s Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris entitled
‘Les artistes nomades et l’art populaire’ in fact takes the reader on a tour of the haunts
of street musicians, orators, and street poets. The narrator begins his flânerie at the
Place des Écoles, observing, listening to all the city has to offer. On his odyssey
through the streets of Paris, he stops to dine at a restaurant where more performers
can be heard. We meet a boy whose youthful singing enchants his audience,
picturesque Bohemians with mandolins, a virtuoso with a wooden leg.
Je dine tous les jours, moi qui vous parle; privilège qui ne me rend pas orgueilleux, bien
qu’il y ait de quoi, comme vous le verrez tout à l’heure; car mes festins, comme ceux des
héros d’Homère, s’accomplissent aux sons d’harmonie enchanteresse, qui, en même temps
qu’elle enivre les sens, favorise doucement le laborieux travail de la digestion. Je ne fais
pas fi des restaurants à trente-deux sous, Édens où j’ai pénétré quelquefois et dont j’ai
gardé le souvenir le plus attendri et le plus respectueux. Mais je vous invite à vous asseoir
à la même table que moi, si vous aimez la musique et les études de mœurs. Quoi de plus
curieux que tous ces artistes nomades, chanteurs, joueurs de violon, pinceuses de harpe
et de guitare, roucouleuses de romances et de barcaroles, Rubini en paletot sac, Jenny
Lind en châle de tartan, qui viennent y montrer leurs faces affamées aux heures des repas,
peuple étrange, déguenillé, pittoresque, sortant on ne sait d’où, bizarre famille qu’on
dirait composée des personnages ressuscités du Roman comique! (1858: 16)

The passage appeals to sight, hearing, taste, smell, and even touch in order to connect
with the reader. Reminiscent of Balzac’s ‘gastronomie de l’oeil’ in its combination of
empiricism and intellectualization, the descriptions of the surrounding sounds trigger
personal memories and evoke literary recollections of Homer’s Odyssey and Paul
Scarron’s picaresque novel (Fournel wrote a preface to Scarron’s Virgile travesti in
1858). The street becomes an interior for the flâneur, as Benjamin describes, when
Fournel compares street performers to famous opera singers he remembers such as
Giovanni Battista Rubini and Jenny Lind. As in Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens,
the flâneur is intoxicated (‘enivre’) by the songs but transforms his desire into

aesthetic experience and intellectual reflection. At the Pont des Arts the flâneur joins
a crowd listening to a blind man play the accordion. Later, he enjoys the ‘concert
gigantesque, cyclopéen, titanique’ (1858: 33) of blind musicians at the Café des
Aveugles located underground at the Palais-Royal. He encounters ‘L’homme-orchestre’,
a one-man orchestra and a street celebrity chronicled in Charles Yriarte’s Paris
grotesque: Les Célébrités de la rue. Despite his cymbals, Fournel describes him as an
‘homme-harmonie’ (1858: 38). Organs of Barbarie are ubiquitous, one in particular
captivates his ear: ‘Un surtout! [. . .] Il m’est arrivé de rester vingt minutes tout rêveur
à la fenêtre pour l’écouter. Lorsqu’il quitta son poste, je descendis et le suivis de
station en station. Il y avait un refrain pimpant; brodé de clochettes, qui me jetait
dans des transports d’extase, et qui m’eût fait danser en pleine rue, comme le roi
David devant l’arche du Seigneur’ (1858: 45–46).
Such a haphazard journey among the streets and their noisy occupants is not
uncommon in flâneur literature, though it is tempting to identify what makes
Fournel’s writing distinctive. Works such as Voyage d’un flâneur dans les rues de
Paris, album biographique grotesque contenant les portraits en miniature de toutes
les célébrités en plein vent recueillis et saisis à la volée par le petit fils de M. Muzard
(1839) or Yriarte’s Paris grotesque: Les Célébrités de la rue (1864) portray street
musicians, criers, and vendors, too, but they lack the appeal to the senses that
characterizes the rich impressionistic writing of Fournel, who would later publish
Croquis et esquisses parisiennes under the pseudonym Bernadille.9 Voyage d’un
flâneur and the very similar Paris grotesque delve into the biographies of the charac-
ters habitually encountered on the streets, but leave it to the reader to imagine the
full range of the street musician’s effect on the flâneur. Yriarte discusses ‘l’homme à
la vielle’ and ‘l’homme-orchestre’, some of the same celebrities as Fournel, whom he
credits as an influence. Yet Muzard and Yriarte subordinate sensory description to
the dramatic or narrative impulse, whereas, for Fournel, plot remains a secondary
consideration. He even draws attention to the jerky movement of flânerie when
he begs the reader’s indulgence for the lack of smooth transitions (1858: 14–15).
Fournel’s individual sensibility as a flâneur and talent as a writer might explain his
rare ability to make sense fully of his experiences of city sounds, yet he denies any
musicological schooling and chalks up his aptitude to basic receptivity:
Je ne suis pas expert en fait d’harmonie compliquée; j’ignore profondément les arcanes
de la fugue et du contre-point, et j’admire en toute sécurité les hommes capables de
découvrir, au premier coup d’œil, combien il y a de dièses à la clef. J’aime et je comprends
la musique à la façon des rats qu’attirent les grandes mélodies de l’orgue et qu’on voit
sortir de leurs trous et s’avancer timidement, ravis, fascinés, plongés dans l’extase, sans
pouvoir deviner néanmoins en quel ton est le morceau qui les charme. (1858: 24)

Notwithstanding the subtle irony of self-identifying with a rat, Fournel’s ear is recep-
tive to popular music and traditional arts. A member of the educated elite with many
pseudonymous identities, Fournel was among other things a seventeenth-century
theatre scholar and Molière specialist. As such, his sensory delectation is informed by
knowledge of classical French popular humour, social satire, and the tradition of the
picturesque and the grotesque (also prized by the French Romantics). This taste for
and knowledge of popular traditions make Fournel, as compared with some of his
contemporaries, better able to perceive, digest, and compose the city-as-concert, as

well as experience the intoxication of and let himself be transported in ecstasy by the
music of the streets.10
Let us now follow Fournel and some of his contemporaries onto the Champs-
Élysées, a well-established destination for the flâneur mapped out in chapter 14 of
Huart’s Physiologie du flâneur. Usually thought of as the place to see and be seen,
here, the avenue is where strollers enjoy musical entertainment and musicians find
avid audiences.11 Street performers had historically congregated on the Pont Neuf,
making Paris’s oldest bridge the original center of their activities, as Fournel
discusses in Les Rues du vieux Paris. The Second Empire flâneur, however, strolls on
the boulevards. ‘Les Champs-Élysées surtout’, writes Fournel in Ce qu’on voit dans
les rues de Paris, ‘sont le centre de ce déluge d’harmonie qui, dans la belle saison,
déborde sur Paris. On n’y peut faire un pas, à partir du rondpoint jusqu’à la place de
la Concorde, sans recevoir en pleine poitrine, comme une décharge d’artillerie, ici
une romance, là une chansonnette, plus loin un grand air ou l’ouverture d’un opéra’
(1858: 27; my emphasis). Evoking Balzac’s military metaphor, Fournel describes an
unyielding experience of shock as the musical sounds in the street pummel him like
a ‘discharge of artillery’, but these produce a feeling of release and spring tide. Simi-
larly, a group performance at the Carré Marigny sounds like ‘un concert saisissant,
d’une harmonie saccadée, étrange, originale, qui tranche vivement sur la pâleur des
concerts d’apparat et force l’attention des plus indifférents’ (27–28, my emphasis).
Rather than annoy or deafen the listener, an unexpected harmony whose dissonance
enchants, jars the listener out of his blasé attitude. The metaphor of the city-as-
concert as a staccato and a ‘deluge of harmony’ evokes positive connotations, rather
than what we might find elsewhere, in Old Nick’s and Grandville’s comical vignette
‘Ne pas être sourd’, for example.
Neurasthenia is targeted in Paul Émile Daurand Forgues’s (aka Old Nick) and
J. J. Grandville’s tongue-in-cheek sketch about two friends who are besieged by a
‘frightful charivari’ while seated at the Brasserie Anglaise on the Champs-Élysées. The
narrator’s companion states up front the premise that it would be preferable to be
deaf: ‘Le monde est ainsi constitué, selon lui, que nos yeux, nos oreilles, notre palais,
etc., nous transmettent plus d’impressions désagréables en elles mêmes — et funestes
par leurs conséquences — que de sensations bénignes et profitables’ (1846: 329).
By way of illustration, we follow the narrator and his friend Maurice as they are
[. . .] aussitôt nous vîmes avec désespoir un de ces orchestres ambulants que le goût
toujours croissant de la mauvaise musique a multipliés chez nous d’une manière si déplor-
able. Les trois exécutants dont il se composait — deux femmes et un homme — portaient
empreinte sur leurs bonnasses [sic] physionomies la préméditation souriante du plaisir
qu’ils allaient infailliblement nous procurer. Nos regards effarés ne les détrompèrent
point, et ils commencèrent à l’instant même leur effrayant charivari. (1846: 330)

Their eyes announce the presence of the performers whom they recognize as
well-intentioned but simple-minded and persistent, but it is their ears that are
A similar aversion to street noise on the boulevards is palpable in Maria D’Anspach’s
portrayal of itinerant musicians in Le Prisme from the series of Les Français peints

par eux-mêmes. Flâneuse, she complains of not being able to walk down the street
without encountering ‘[des] lambeaux d’harmonie’ (1841: 184). The metaphor aptly
conflates misery, mendicancy, and street music. ‘Paris est en proie à une invasion
de musiciens ambulants’, she writes, ‘telle que, si l’on n’y prend garde, le bruit des
instruments dans les rues dominera bientôt celui des voitures, et les étrangers, si peu
convaincus déjà de la dignité de nos mœurs, pourront, à bon droit, nous prendre pour
un peuple de saltimbanques’ (185). The xenophobic D’Anspach laments that the
intrusion of unwelcome foreign voices — accents from Italy, Savoy, Alsace, and
Germany that are more audible than others — threatens her sense of place and
national pride. Not surprisingly, she does not express a strong concern for the social
ill of pauperism. As in Old Nick’s sketch, the urban stroller is subject to neurasthenia:
‘Les oreilles vous tintent, et vos nerfs agacés se crispent’ (186). The ear, which cannot
turn away or close like the eye, necessarily elicits physiological and emotional
responses, either painful ringing in the ears in D’Anspach or ‘ecstasy’ in Fournel’s
case. Unlike seeing, hearing forces social engagement and participation so that the
unwilling listener confronts the limits of their auditory freedom. Flâneurs cannot
remain disengaged, though their perception of street noise as intoxicating harmony
or neurasthenic charivari depends on their comfort level with the urban crowd and
their tolerance for class interaction. Either way, they are touched by the streets and
cannot remain unmoved by the sensations they experience strolling.
While he feels pathos for street musicians, Fournel aligns with the intolerance
expressed in D’Anspach and Old Nick when he disdains members of the lumpenpro-
letariat. Fournel clearly distinguishes street musicians from beggars:
J’appelle mendiants, non pas ces travailleurs des places publiques, ces artistes en plein
vent, qui vous demandent un sou en échange de leurs chansons, de leurs tours de force
ou de leurs tours d’adresse, — ah! pauvres gens, mes bons amis, Dieu me garde de vous
traiter si indignement, moi qui vous ai tant contemplés, tant écoutés, tant admirés parfois!
— mais ces parasites sans pudeur, ces superfétations hideuses et stériles qu’on heurte à
chaque pas [. . .] (344)

When describing the Paris Temple ‘pandemonium’, he cannot hide his revulsion at
the ‘Tower of Babel’ spoken there: ‘Ce bazar fétide, aux allures de repaire, plein de
je ne sais quel mystère ténébreux et repoussant, où se parle un argot sinistre et souter-
rain qui fait peur, où les marchands échangent entre eux des appellations étranges qui
n’appartiennent à aucune langue du monde, effraye le flâneur inoffensif’ (320). As
Dietmar Rieger has shown, Fournel manifests no social solidarity toward rag-pickers,
among the lowest members of the working-class. He sees no affinities with this
type that Baudelaire and Benjamin famously associated with the flâneur. Fournel
concludes his odyssey of a flâneur by evoking his ‘tranquil consciousness’ and by
imagining the sweet dreams he will have despite the misery he has seen while strolling
in the streets of Paris (Rieger, 1988: 19). Why, then, is his treatment of street musi-
cians so different? Perhaps his flâneuristic shifts from the sensory to the reflective and
literary plane avoid the confrontation with the realities of social marginalization and
pauperism. Though Fournel often exoticizes the street performers and captures their
‘bizarre’, ‘fantastic’, and ‘picturesque’ qualities, he nevertheless feels the poignancy of
the sounds they make: ‘Je n’ai jamais mieux senti qu’en écoutant ce vieillard ce qu’une

voix déjà tremblante et flétrie pouvait parfois ajouter d’effet fantastique et de charme
pittoresque à une mélodie’ (21). Or: ‘Quelle langue chaude, franche, colorée, trem-
pant par ses racines dans cet idiome pittoresque et vigoureux que parle le peuple !’
(127). Street music resonates with an authentic French popular spirit, a waning
melody frozen in time and in space, traces of which Fournel’s ear can still decipher.
Like him, ‘le peuple est essentiellement mélomane’ (8).
While Fournel is certainly not the first flâneur to write about what he saw and
heard on the Parisian streets, the rich sensualist detail of his writing is worth recon-
sidering if we strive for a multisensory description of flânerie. The flâneur is attuned
to the sounds of his urban environment which he can experience as a musical com-
position. Sounds can give shape to the physiology of the city because they convey ‘le
mouvement de la cité, la physionomie multiple de l’esprit publique’ (Fournel, 1858:
261) and descriptions of the flâneur’s sensibilities in the physiologies emphasize his
aural acuity. Street music accounts for much of what the flâneur heard on the street.
The musical trope of the city as concert adds a multisensory dimension to the more
commonplace trope of the city as readable book and kaleidoscopic spectacle. Balzac’s
sensuous science of flânerie is key to making sense of the flâneur’s shock experience
as described by Simmel and Benjamin, but transposed onto the city soundscape.
Fournel’s distinctive sensibility suggests that not all flâneurs heard the city the
same way but that the ‘art of flânerie’ involves both conscious awareness of sensory
perception and introspection. As the contrast between Fournel, Forgues, and
D’Anspach makes clear, whether the flâneur experiences the city as harmonious
concert or as dissonant cacophony depends on his/her receptivity and sensitivity to
social interaction and shock encounters. Tuning in to their receptivity to city sounds,
however, enriches our conception of the flâneur, no longer a disengaged and disem-
bodied eye, untouched by what he sees. Rather, aural flânerie subjects the stroller by
the earful to the sensations of the streets and in turn the flâneur can synthesize the
sounds of the city into an aesthetic creation. As Jean-Pierre Bartoli eloquently states,
‘À nous de lire la ville comme on lit une partition et chacun de ses croisements
comme un accord’ (quoted in Leray, 2008).

Although I do not use the expression in this way, in diorama, panorama, and the like, casting doubt
Susan Buck-Morss uses this term in relation to on the uniquely visual experience of spectatorship in
Theodor Adorno: ‘It was Adorno who pointed to these spaces.
the station-switching behavior of the radio listener Burton (1988) outlines the myth of detachment, but
as a kind of aural flânerie’ (1989: 345). recently Lauster (2007a) and Margaret Rose (2007)
Anti-noise campaigns did not begin in earnest until have shown that the myth of detachment is not
the twentieth century; for more on the history of grounded in a meticulous reading of the text and
the perception of noise as nuisance, see Bijsterveld, images.
2008: 57; Corbin, 1995: 156. For more on Lessing, Jonas (1954) argues that spatial distance is a distinc-
see Baron, 1982. tive feature of sight.
3 8
On Simmel’s and Lessing’s conception of the bodily On the badaud, see Huart, 1841: ch. 13, especially
imaginary, see Cowan, 2006. p. 96. The sharp flâneur/badaud distinction in the
On Poe and the kaleidoscope, see Hayes, 2002. pre-1850s literature weakens in the second half of
It is worth remembering, however, that some the century. By the time Victor Fournel defines the
diorama spectacles had a sonic component. Walter badaud he has evolved into a more attentive and
Benjamin has many entries on the music performed thoughtful figure (261); while the flâneur remains in

full possession of his individuality, the badaud can 10

Fournel, however, did not show the same
lose himself in the crowd that intoxicates him (1858: appreciation for the café concert (Clark, 1999:
261, 263). 230–33).
9 11
It is worth remembering, however, that Bernadille In Balzac’s Gambara, the eponymous musician and
(aka Fournel) found Impressionists such as Édouard his wife end up performing on the Champs-Élysées
Manet and Edgar Degas crude (Clark, 1999: 97). to make ends meet.

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Notes on contributor
Aimée Boutin, an Associate Professor of French at Florida State University in
Tallahassee, is the author of a monograph entitled Maternal Echoes: The Poetry of
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and Alphonse de Lamartine (Delaware University
Press, 2001) and an edition of Desbordes-Valmore’s Les Veillées des Antilles
(L’Harmattan, 2006). She has published articles on Charles Baudelaire, Honoré de
Balzac, George Sand, and nineteenth-century women poets. She is currently working
on a book on soundscapes in nineteenth-century France.
Correspondence to: Aimée Boutin, Associate Professor of French and French
Division Coordinator, Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Florida
State University, Tallahassee FL 32306-1540, USA. Email:

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