“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin.”
My wife and I traveled recently to New York City with our six-year-old boy, and every so often he would point out a detail that, to him, was emblematic of the New York he’d seen in Spiderman comics, or on Night in the Museum, or in the beginning of the first Madagascar movie, or lord-knows-where. A detail of a mosaic while waiting for a subway, an advertisement for an Irish play starring two bowler-hatted English actors, the impossibly shiny spire of the Chrysler Building, the Easter Island sculpture at the Museum of Natural History, all of Times Square, the webwork of the Brooklyn Bridge . . . “that’s awfully New Yorkish,” he would say.
Technically, everything in New York is awfully New Yorkish, of course. But, for a moment, you might bicker. What about all the crappy tchotchke hawkers and their spangly wares of foreign provenance? What about all the Connecticut investment bankers who are just there on a day’s business? The oafish Minnesota tourists (us)? The hopeless Irish busker outside a falafel shop in Dumbo (you)? The gilded heiress fighting with me over the last puffy-vested FAO Schwartz commemorative teddy bear (I lost)? Little Italy? Chinatown? Hell. Vast swaths of Manhattan don’t even resemble themselves anymore. Chelsea? The Village? What Village, I ask. Most of the Village feels like a riff on a song co-written by Whole Foods, Lululemon, and Martha Stewart.
But still. Isn’t that perfectly New York? All of it? After all, it’s not meant to be a theme park of itself as though it were torn from a page of a George Saunders’ story (with the conspicuous exception of Times Square, which is not so much a place as an occasion for data, aspiring actors, tzatziki sauce, and a continuous flash mob eager to prove that everything happening all at once is the same as a void). But New York is New York when it isn’t Old York. There is no way for New York to remain itself without always redefining what’s so, well, New Yorkish about New York.
The way to find this out, of course, is to wander. All of Manhattan and its surly boroughs too, you just can’t take it all in at once. Which is true, of course, of everywhere, of everything, of everyone. Nabokov says we must read each work of narrative art at least twice because we don’t know its frame nor its limits until we’ve reached its end, therefore its perspective, its balance, its priorities are unknown. So we must read and we must reread. In that fashion, as somebody vaguely famous said, all writing too is rewriting. But our cities and our lives and, when we think about it, our texts too, evolve. Not usually while we’re looking at them—unless we’re on some heavy duty pharmaceutical influence and/or trapped under something heavy and thereby able/forced to stare at the same thing until robbed of our consciousness—but rather change, evolution, difference emerges like the dew—from both above and without and also from beneath and within.
So wander we must. Wander to discover the change. Wander to make the change possible. Wander to be the change, you beautiful, hopeless Irish busker, you. You fierce Quatarian princess with your unquenchable affection for plush things sporting jaunty sleeveless outerwear. You silly, six-year old from St. Paul skipping through Hell’s Kitchen. Change is the comet’s tail. Change is the Doppler effect echoing ahead of us. Change, too, is the vacuum left when we’re neither coming or going. When we’ve been there but aren’t any more. The pivot, unwobbling. The world wobbling all around it.
There are, too, many ways to wander, and, if we’re so inclined, we might crank up the stuffiness of this conversation and invite, say, Walter Benjamin and a few of his affected friends on this walking tour. For there is a word for this—a word for this literary wandering—this wavering—this wondering—and it is a word, too, with a bonus diacritical mark in the rough shape of a beret to make it not only French in etymology, but conspicuously, physically, concretely Super French. The Flânuer.
But the word comes not only with the regular baggage of its conspicuous Frenchiness—because there is no cognate, no English translation or equivalent—but it also comes with the fancy brass-cornered Louis Vuitton valise-style baggage of the 19th century aristocracy. To be Baudelaire or Benjamin’s flaneur, one was not only intentionally wandering the city streets, one was idly strolling. Loafing practically. Egad.
To invoke Benjamin is to be pre-wearied for most but the supplementally-oxygenated. This notion of the flaneur as it steams across the Atlantic aboard the SS Condescension is staggeringly pretentious, studded like a tufted chaise lounger with pointless shiny buttons. I can barely even write the word Benjamin without trembling in anticipation of being slapped with a dough-white glove for yet again mispronouncing it—It’s not been-JAM-ing, you silly tart, it’s bin-ya-MEEEN!
But we need not be shamed to invoke a little French—think of how embarrassing it was when we tried out “Freedom Fries”?—after all, there is another very germane, very Frenchy word that goes right alongside flaneur—or rather right before it, alphabetically anyway: essay. Or rather: essai.
It is not as it was when we were in school: a tedious, strictly academic exercise in futilely trying to replicate in only thinly veiled original language the thoughts, prejudices, and other constipations of our teachers.
It is: a try, an attempt, an endeavor.
And, it is not only a noun (a paper).
It is a verb. Try. Attempt. Endeavor.
Whereas “flaneur” is the linguistic equivalent of spats, when coupled with “essay” and beat adequately enough with the disrespectful stick of Americanized English so that most of the Provencal mites are flung to their doom, we can take both back—from the 19th century Continental elitism, as well as from our very own slovenly selves. And we can both justify the seeming sloth of the wanderer, and praise and embrace the momentary ignoramus. We don’t have to wear cravats or great velvet capes or dot our walks with silver-tipped canes or anything. Words, after all, are defined not by dictionaries, but by usage.
Just last week, after all, the phrase “‘selfie’ trumps ‘twerk’” appeared as a headline in the New York Times.
We can flaneur if we want to. (We can leave our friends behind.)
In his acrobatic essay “Not Knowing,” Donald Barthelme writes that “art thinks ever of the world, cannot not think of the world, could not turn its back on the world even if it wished to.” However, he continues, “this does not mean that it’s going to be honest as a mailman; it’s more likely to appear as a drag queen.” Because, when it comes down to it, unless we’re only trying to learn cursive or its literary equivalent by simply tracing letters or words on the page, life, consciousness, and the literature that comes from it must be supple. “Art,” Barthelme writes, “cannot remain in one place.”
So then, neither should we. Not in terms of what we write about, nor where we sit, nor where we put our texts, nor in which genre our texts are situated.
Perhaps we can return then to Benjamin—howsoever the hell you pronounce it—who suggests that as the flaneur walks, “his steps create an astounding resonance on the asphalt. The gaslight shining down on the pavement casts an ambiguous light on this double floor. The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker: it conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history.” The writer, as he wanders, both discovers and remembers his past in his present, and his present, of course, inscribes a new story on the city. The city is a mnemonic for the walker, and the walker, too, is a mnemonic for the city.
We not only remember each other. We member each other too.
And in that fashion, all good writing is travel writing.
And all good travel is writing.
Text, after all, is no longer just a noun either, nor is it merely something our students do while we’re jabbering away about past-participles and the like. Text is what we do to one another, with one another, to and with and through and because of our writing. We text one another.
We inscribe the world with our footprints and our trash, with our exhaust and our expired breath, with the texts we create and the texts we read and the texts we alter and the texts we are, and in that way, the world inscribes itself upon us. Upon our flesh, beneath our skin, into our eyes, and then—after that most complicated of upside-downing-and-backwarding of translations through various rods and cones and all the other metaphors and mysteries of vision—upon our minds where foreverafter—regardless of whether it was a physical or an intellectual or an olfactoral or whatever experience—regardless of the vehicle, LIFE has been texted upon our minds, and not through a lifetime of analysis and psychopharmacutical curing and aging will we ever be able to tell what was fact and what was fiction because—ask the neuroscientist—ask the psychiatrist—ask the seminarian—ask the poet—there is no difference between fact and fiction in the world of our memory and imagination. All of it is just bombardment—all that gregarious and grotesque and freakish and beautiful pornographicopia of data—all of it raining down like a waterfall of electric light on a triptych of paralytics—a little whorl of Midwesterners around which, for a moment, the whole of Times Square spins like a top, when then, in return, the string now taut, we spin right back.