Hey guys, here is an interview I did a while back with James Yeary, as research for DIY Magic.
Talkingwith James Yeary a poet, and a friend of mine; James does a project called “My Day”, where he takes long walks around town for an entire day and creates poems based on the walk. James, care to introduce yourself and how you came to the role of flâneur?
Hi Anthony, I’m so happy to be here talking with you. That’s an interesting question. I’m pretty sure flâneurs are born, not made. I’m inclined to say that it’s a role any black sheep might be thrust into. I think for various reasons I’ve felt like an outsider in the community I grew up in, and still even where I live today. Like “on the outside looking in.” You suggest the peripatetic aspect of the flâneur, but I think the character you’re describing is much more complicated than someone who walks.
What exactly is a flâneur? Is there more to it than just going for a stroll?
My understanding is that the flâneur is someone engaged in the spectacle of modern life. And it is a two-way street. The prototypical flâneur, I think, is the impressionist painter. I am thinking especially of Degas and Manet. These painters (so very likely to use each other, the other Impressionist painters, as subjects), even their subjects are the city life, the shop windows, people of cafes, etc. They have a moving eye, and to some degree I think you can see that moving eye that is framing their portraits and scenes. And as that subject, the flâneur is also a bit of a dandy. A bit of a spectacle. The flâneur wants to exchange glances with you. It’s sort of optically sexual.
Put it another way: What is the essence of the flâneur?
Anthony, so I’m giving you very paraphrased answers, but I want to talk about Benjamin for a minute. Walter Benjamin was sort of the first person to look back at the emerging world of the early-to-mid nineteenth century, and declare that there was a new aspect to the visibility of the world. This was epitomized in the Arcades of Paris; great halls of commerce and spectacle, by and for the middle classes, importantly; places to be seen as well as to see. They weren’t much more than cafes and shops. Benjamin wrote thousands of pages about them, an encyclopedia of the auras of things like the shop window and the poodle and the hat, as well as the characters that were experiencing it at the time, people such as Baudelaire, the Symbolist poet of ennui.
This is sort of roundabout, but in a way, the hipster, as we’re sort of describing or failing to describe them “today” (because I think thirty and forty years ago the persons being called “the hipster” were something different), the hipster is a sort of grandson, or goddaughter of the flâneur. Not very different, though they’ve taken on this sort of wretched character. I mean the hipster is sort of universally despised (this may have been the case with the flâneur, too — look at Baudelaire, truly wretched…). I actually think it’s terrifically interesting, because they have the same sort of basic trait, except, and I’m not sure this is even an exception from the flâneur, it’s very clear that today’s hipster is completely obsessed with kitsch. I think that mutation on the flâneur is something interesting that’s maybe eschatological, because the flâneur is a profoundly middle class thing, historically speaking. And tomorrow there isn’t going to be a middle class. So the hipster sort of is wearing all this end of the world shit hanging from his bullet belt.
That’s obviously a tangent, but I think the essence is actually something that glows like that. I think the flâneur is someone obsessed with the feelings that radiate from objects, in a nostalgic sort of way, like Degas and his ballerinas, or hipsters with ninja turtles. I don’t think it’s actually that shallow; in the end, it’s, you know, all about death.
I’m interested in the idea of the flâneur as a sort of activity that pretty much anybody can just get up and go do; let’s say a reader asks you “How can I go try this out today?”
I think a flâneur is a sort of character that people end up becoming as per their interest in the world about them. It is particularly and peculiarly urban, in my mind, or I think that is what the term “flâneur” refers to, walking in and of the spectacle. But that’s not to say that being a flâneur is not a part of something wider. I’m not even sure that it is possible to be a flâneur. I’m not saying it isn’t, but today’s flâneur is not the flâneur of 19th century Paris. Perhaps the gesture is the same, but when I am out investigating the suburbs, I am investigating decay. Maybe it isn’t different. I’m sure the decay to me is just a lichen that will prove more generative for the later generations, and maybe I’m being totally hypocritical, because I’m generating pages of texts trying to take them all in. I’m sure I am. You can call it what you will, but to be aware of the world around you is a philosophy and a way of life, both absorptive and generative, and one that can begin and end in practice.
Most of my work, and I’m not talking about the “my day books”, is catching myself thinking something. Cocteau said the most important thing about being a poet is having an ear, as opposed to composing anything. I like to aspire to a Cagean ambience too, if I can go there; though I don’t really use true “chance” or aleatory, I like to write poems that represent the clouds of sound we actually move in.
Objects outlast their ages, and magic comes in to our world when we stumble upon an object that doesn’t make sense in our own time. A fossil is the most important thing in the world because it resists death. And when you hold a fossil you know it is the only resistance against death, in the irony that this world is the afterlife of objects.