What is to be found in the eyes of a stranger

Comparing the Cruiser and the Flâneur

 

When one tries to study the subject of cruising, it is almost inevitable to come across the comparison of cruising with flânerie. Edmund White, for example, writes in his book “The Flâneur, a Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris:

 

“To be gay and cruise is perhaps an extension of the flâneur’s very essence, or at least it’s most successful application.” (White 2001, p. 145)

 

While reading these kind of statements questions arise like what exactly is  flânerie and what is the history of the flâneur? Does it indeed have something in common with cruising for sex, or nothing at all? In trying to answer these questions one is sure to read the works of Charles Baudelaire, who made the world take note of the idea of the flâneur. His poem “À une Passante” was the starting point for the research done for this essay.

 

This poem, written from the flâneur’s point of view, perfectly describes what cruising is about; fleeting moments of contact that mean all and nothing at once in a world that rushes by. Having read this poem it isn’t hard to imagine that the comparison between cruising and flânerie is an interesting subject to delve into and won’t be a study without result.

 

The main question this essay tries to answer is: How do cruising for sex and flânerie relate to each other? However in order to answer this question it is necessary to answer a series of secondary questions first; what exactly is cruising and what is flânerie? What are the origins of these phenomena? What do cruisers and flâneurs look like and how do they behave? The answers to these questions make it possible to understand these phenomena and allow us to compare the two subjects. The first part of this essay will describe the phenomenon of cruising by answering the previously stated secondary questions, and will mainly be based on the research done for “Cruising a coded phenomenon in public space” (Van den Berg, Garri, Najman, Van der Sman, Stolwijk, 2010). However there will be some expansion on that research. The second part will answer the same questions about the phenomenon of flânerie. The final part consist of a comparison between cruising and flânerie based on the answers given in the previous sections of this essay.

 

Cruising

Van den Berg et al. (2010, p. 7) give a definition of cruising based in recurring characteristics found in literature on the subject and other sources. This definition is as follows:

 

“Cruising is the activity of looking for and contacting possible sexual partners in public space by following codes of conduct that hide the true intentions of the cruiser from non-cruisers, that happen to be in vicinity.”

 

Cruising in practice is mainly done by homosexual men, although in principle anyone can cruise. According to Gert Hekma (2004) the origins of cruising lie in the 17th century, a time when gay sex, or sodomy as it was called then, was considered a sin and a crime. If sodomites were caught in the act, most of the time they would have to pay for their ‘crimes’ with their lives. Since sodomites often had families at home or no private space at all and no gay spaces existed in society, they had to tend to the streets to find other men like themselves. As it turned out, and as some would say naturally, they couldn’t suppress their feelings even when they were running the risk of being killed when discovered. Therefore to protect themselves from the rest of society, they developed a complex system of signs and actions that allowed them to contact each other in public space; the codes of conduct.  Through the codes sodomites could recognize and contact each other, and let each other know that they were interested in having sex. All the while doing this without other people noticing anything out of the ordinary. In the cities of Europe gay communities and cruising hotspots slowly came into being. At these spots gay men would meet each other and have sex. These cruising grounds often were located in churches, near city walls, in public toilets, in parks or other quiet places. It might be considered remarkable that cruising took place in churches, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Churches were places where people came together, and therefore the perfect place to make contact with other men. However no sources have been found that state that cruisers also had sex in churches.  With the coming of the industrial revolution and modernity in the 19th century, gay subculture and cruising thrived in the streets of Europe. Even nowadays, when gay sex is more or less accepted by society, cruising still exists and cruising grounds are abundant and well used. This is made clear when one opens up the yearly updated Spartacus International Gay Guide, which contains long lists of active cruising locations in all the major cities around the world. This is remarkable, because if cruising was born out of the need for protection from society, why does cruising still take place when society has accepted homosexuality and gay sex? To answer this question we have to look at what cruising means or has come to mean for cruisers.

 

It is important to notice from the given definition of cruising that it is not the act of sex in public space. It is the act of looking for and contacting other cruisers in public space. Cruising can lead up to sex, but does not necessarily have to. According to Mark W. Turner (2003, p.59) the reason for men to cruise is “to find in the passing glances in the streets that person whose gaze returns and validates his own.” This would mean that cruising isn’t about the pursuit of ones feelings of lust, but what is it about then? Turner answers this question by referencing works of Henning Bech (1997) and Roland Barthes (1992, p.59), who both try to make clear that cruising can have its own rewards. According to Bech these rewards  are: pleasure, excitement and/or affirmation. Turner does put this explanation into perspective however by saying that for some cruising might just be about having sex. This is of significance, because otherwise he would be generalizing and even romanticizing cruising. He does however make an interesting point that can be considered valid. This is especially the case since Turner connects his ideas about cruising with the theory that Georg Simmel presents in his well known essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903). In it Simmel states that people are overwhelmed by all the stimuli that the modern city exposes people to, and because of that they become blasé. Turner analyzes however that Simmel does believe there is some sort of resistance possible to the alienating effect the modern city has on people, albeit only temporary resistance:

 

“Looking at each other, which Simmel calls ‘the most direct and the purest interaction that exists,’ offers us some relief because it ‘weaves people together’ and creates unity in the face of urban fracturing.” (Mark W. Turner 2003, p. 58)

 

Making eye contact with another person is an important part of cruising. By connecting cruising with Simmel’s “modern condition” Turner tries to prove that cruising is a phenomenon of modernity. This is backed up by history; only when modernity came about in the 19th century, cruising really took off and became a big phenomenon (Hekma, 2004). The points Turner makes about cruising not being solely about sex and that it is a modern phenomenon can be validated by going to online forums that have topics about cruising. Consider the following online conversation found in a topic called “Cruising how does it work?” on a gay forum:

 

Martijn10099 says:

“I’m a bisexual man of 53 years old and married. I would like to go to a cruising site, but I don’t know how that works.

....

Could somebody tell me what the habits and customs of cruising are, because I would like to experience it?

 

Martijn”

 

Luc says:

“Cruising = hunting.

 

It’s about a game, you look at each other and see when somebody is interested from his body language or from the look in his eyes. The inverse is also true. If somebody lets you know he isn’t interested you have to respect that. Unfortunately people forget this far too often...”

 

BlackDog says:

“ It’s great to play the game of hunter and prey. Much more interesting that to sit behind a screen chatting! And you get direct results.”

 

From Luc’s response it is clear that he gets more out of cruising than just the satisfaction of his lusts. He calls cruising a game, which suggests he enjoys it. This points directly back to what Bech stated in When Men Meet: Homosexuality and Modernity. The reward Luc gets solely from the game of cruising is pleasure. BlackDog says the same, but also adds that he likes the “direct result”, clearly indicating that cruising for him is also about sex. This seems to confirm that the putting into perspective of the claim that cruising is about finding a validating gaze by Turner was indeed correct. The final post in the topic is as follows:

 

Bink says:

“...Like I said, [cruising is] the greatest thing there is. The most sublime thing in a man is that he is prepared to wait for his fellow-man for ours.”

 

Bink calls it sublime that a man is prepared to wait for his fellow man for hours, which indicates that he finds it rewarding to know there is someone that wants to wait for him. He likes the idea that he is so special that somebody is prepared to wait for him for so long. Bink confirms another one of the rewards Bech mentions, namely affirmation.

 

From the origins of cruising as described by Hekma, it might be understood that cruisers can’t be recognized as cruisers from their appearance. If they would differentiate themselves from others  through appearance in the past, they would run the risk of being discovered as sodomites, so they would differentiate themselves through coded behaviour instead. Added to no distinguishable characteristics is the fact that anyone can cruise, and all sorts of people in fact do cruise. On a website about the cruising area “de Oeverlanden” near Amsterdam, a description is given of the kind of people that come there to cruise:

 

“Who go there???? Young and old from 16 to 66. Bisexual and gay men. Married and unmarried. Handsome and less handsome. Famous and unfamous. Watchers and doers. So really all kinds of people.”

 

A cruiser called “Ben”, who speaks about cruising in a video on YouTube, says the same, although in a slightly different way:

 

“Gay people cruise, but your dad cruises, married guys cruise, your grandfather cruises, uhm.. very in the closet people cruise.”

 

The only visible distinguishable characteristic of a cruiser is his behaviour. And this behaviour is only visible when one is familiar with the codes of conduct. From research and fieldwork done by Van den Berg et al. (2010) it was made clear that cruising behaviour mainly consists of watching and being watched. Depending on the location and circumstances this watching can take place walking about a cruising spot, sitting on a bench or in a car, or while doing something else. Typical for walking about when cruising is the slow speed at which it happens. For cruising while sitting in a car it is the fact that the cruiser sits alone in his car. In all cases however it is the continuous looking around for a person of one’s liking that is the most remarkable behaviour. As described by Van den Berg et al., once a cruiser has found someone he likes, and the other one has given signs he also likes the cruiser by making eye contact a couple of times, the codes of conduct start to work to make sure they’re both there for the same thing.

 

Flânerie

The term flâneur comes from the french noun flâneur, which means, when literally translated into English, stroller, loiterer, loafer or dawdler. It does however have another meaning, namely that of “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”. This is the definition of the flâneur talked about in this essay. According to Keith Tester (1994) the flâneur has become a recurring topic in literature, sociology and art of urban, and especially metropolitan, existence, and states that originally the figure of the flâneur belonged to nineteenth century Paris as it was conjured by Walter Benjamin in his analysis of Charles Baudelaire, who wrote about the flâneur in the 1860’s. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (1994) however states that the flâneur predates Baudelaire, and came about at the beginning of the nineteenth century, basing herself on literature from that time. She does however confirm that the flâneur is undisputedly tied to Paris. Both Tester and Parkhurst Ferguson say that the flâneur and flânerie have detached themselves from Paris over time and that they have come to be a figure and an activity that is used by social and cultural commentators to explain the nature and implications of the conditions of modernity. Rob Shields (1994) confirms this and considers the flâneur as a ‘mythological ideal-type’ found more in art and the halls of academia than in the real world:

 

“The flâneur is a utopian presentation of a carefree (male) individual in the midst of the urban maelstrom in what were popular, serialized novels intended for mass audience” (Shields, 1994, p.67).

 

Traditionally the flâneur is described as “a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century” (The Arcades Project: the Rhetoric of Hypertext, n.d.). Characteristics ascribed to the flâneur are “wealth, education, and idleness”. He strolls the streets with no specific goal other than to make time pass, walking from sight to sight, seeing things other people do not have eyes for. It is said that a true flâneur could go to the extreme of letting a pet lobster on a leash set his pace, so he could take up the crowd and all the sights around him perfectly. The natural habitat for the flâneur is described in multiple sources as the arcades, that were constructed in Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century , and which are called “passages” in French. Walter Benjamin describes the arcades by quoting from the Illustrated Guide to Paris, a German publication of 1852:

 

“These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need”.

 

Christopher Rollason (n.d.) believes that flânerie couldn’t exist without these arcades:

 

“Idling, window-shopping and observing became an art, summed up in the French verb “flâner”, meaning to stroll, which, with its derivatives “flâneur” (stroller) and “flânerie” (the activity of strolling), became inextricably bound up with this special form of urban space.”

 

This statement of Rollason is backed up by Parkhurst Ferguson who believes that the original figure of the flâneur was modeled on and for the specific landscape of Paris of the arcades.

 

Rob Shields (1994, p.65) calls observation the “raison d’être” of the flâneur, but also sees flânerie as a “public and other-directed” activity. He explains that the flâneur is out to see and be seen, and therefore needs a crowd to watch others and absorb all the activities that happen in the street from within the security and anonimity of the “metropolitan throng”. And so flânerie can be considered a crowd practice. Beaudelaire writes about the special relation between the flâneur and the crowd in which he walks in The Painter of Modern Life:

 

“The crowd is his [the flâneur’s] domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd. For the perfect idler, for the passionate observer it becomes an immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world, such are some of the minor pleasures of those independent, intense and impartial spirits, who do not lend themselves easily to linguistic definitions.” (Baudelaire, 1863)

 

So the flâneur is someone who is at home in the crowd and one with it, but at the same time is standing apart from it, and observes it with the eyes of a stranger. Shields doesn’t exactly call the flâneur a stranger, but an “individual caught in the act of attempting to regain and keep his native mastery of his environment” (Shields, 1994, p.72). This statement makes perfect sense when looking at the French society in the nineteenth century as described by Parkhurst Ferguson.

 

“It is scarcely accidental that the flâneur turns up in Paris directly as the city emerges from the Revolution into the Empire; a new regime; a new century; a new city. As France moves through three revolutions in less than a century, through two republics, two empires, and two monarchies, and as Paris experiences the long-term disruptions of urbanization and the shorter-term but more violent dislocation of urban renewal at mid-century, writers recast the flâneur in the image of their own changing conceptions of the social order and their place in it.” (Parkhurst Ferguson, 1994, p.22)

 

French society was going through massive transformations at that time, which forced people to find their new place in it. Added to these changes were changes in the economy and a world that started to become bigger. This all came together in the flâneur’s natural habitat. In the arcades people were confronted with foreigners, goods and news from distant lands.

 

“The flâneur is a hero who excels under the stress of coming to terms with a changing ‘social spatialisation’ of everyday social and economic relations which in the nineteenth century increasingly extended the world of the average person further and further to include rival mass tourism destinations linked by railroad, news of other European powers and distant colonies. This expanding specialization took the form of economic realities such as changing labour markets and commodity prices and social encounters with strangers and foreigners which impinged on the life world of Europeans.” (Shields, 1994, p.67)

 

Therefore flânerie can be seen as a way for the people of the nineteenth century to deal with modernity. Shields connects the flâneur with Simmel’s “the Stranger”. He calls the flâneur the inverse of the Stranger. When seeing the flâneur as someone who tries to recapture his nativity by familiarizing himself with all the new elements in his surroundings through flânerie, this is a logical statement.

 

“The Stranger is thus a foreigner who becomes like a native, whereas the flâneur is the inverse, a native who becomes like a foreigner.” (Shields, 1994, p.68)

 

Comparing cruising and flânerie

The cruiser and the flâneur have quite some things in common, and at the same time they are very different creatures. In this final paragraph these two figures will be compared by looking at several aspects, namely their appearance, the spaces they inhabit, their behaviour, their role in the understanding of modernism, and finally their utopian or factual existence.

 

In his book ‘Backward Glances’ Mark Turner makes a comparison of the iconography of the flâneur and the cruiser. He does this by comparing a woodcut from “Physiologie du Flâneur” (Louis Huart, 1841) and several iconic photographs of cruising men from the 1960’s and 2003. Turner admits that it is a “wild historical leap” to do this, but calls it instructive nonetheless. On the image of the flâneur he writes:

 

“This woodcut captures his way of experiencing the city – he smokes leisurely, leans on one leg with no intention of going anywhere, and stares around him almost shiftily. He strikes a very particular pose.”

 

He then looks at the front cover of “the Beginner’s Guide to Cruising” (1964) and writes about the cruiser on it:

 

“He leans, rests his hand on his hip, holds a cigarette in one hand and stares out at the viewer.”

 

As we have already established before, cruisers can’t be recognized from a specific appearance, and thus they can’t be compared to flâneurs in that way. Turner also admits this. However what he wants to convey with the comparison of these images is that the cruiser and the flâneur  are depicted as inhabiting the space around them in a very similar way. This indeed seems the case when looking at their behaviour; both walk the streets of the city at a slow pace, looking around continuously at the people around them and both have leisure time and freedom of action. In this aspect the two are indeed very similar. If one believes that cruising is not (solely) about finding sex, then cruising and flânerie even have strikingly similar goals; namely that of finding pleasure in public space by observing other people. Of course it is important to note that the pleasure is experienced in a different way; for the cruiser it comes from sexual excitement, for the flâneur it is more a sort of intellectual pleasure. This difference comes from the fact that the flâneur distances himself from the crowd and looks at its people, but not at anyone specific, and isn’t looking for any type of interaction, whereas the cruiser is very much part of the crowd and looks at individuals in a very  specific way; he wants to find contact with people he likes or is excited by.

 

Since the flâneur is tied to the arcades of 19th century Paris, and cruising actually happens anywhere in and outside cities around the world, it is hard to compare them. However both phenomena more or less originate in the same time in Europe; cruising started to become a large and general phenomenon as flânerie came about in the 19th century, and it isn’t hard to imagine a cruiser cruising in the arcades of Paris. In fact accounts of young men being confronted by confused cruisers in shopping streets have been recorded in the past (Turner, 2003, p.49-51). Therefore it wouldn’t be a stretch to state that the spaces the cruiser and the flâneur inhabit are partially overlapping or at least have common characteristics.

 

Both cruising and flânerie have been established as phenomena of modernity and a way for people to deal with “the modern condition”. Cruisers try to find a way to deal with this in the comfort of contact with other men not unlike themselves, while flâneurs do this not through human contact but by trying to familiarize themselves with all that is strange and noteworthy. However whereas cruising has been, and in fact still is, an activity that is exercised daily by many men, flânerie is a phenomenon that is only discussed in literature and discourse and it is unclear how many men, if any, have actually ever practiced it.

 

All in all cruising and flânerie share a lot of characteristics and at the same time do not, which is also dependent of the definitions chosen for these phenomena. That being said, if a cruiser and a flâneur would ever walk in the same street at the same time, it would probably be hard to recognize one from the other. What is certain however is that for both the cruiser as for the flâneur it is about looking and being looked at. And for both it is about what is to be found in the eyes of a stranger in order to deal with life in modern times.

À une passante

 

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.

Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,

 Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse

 Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

 

 Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.

 Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,

 Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,

 La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

 

 Un éclair... puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté

 Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,

 Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

 

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!

Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,

Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

 

— Charles Baudelaire

(Les Fleurs du Mal)

 

To A Passer-by

 

The deafening street roared on. Full, slim, and grand

 In mourning and majestic grief, passed down

 A woman, lifting with a stately hand

 And swaying the black borders of her gown;

 

Noble and swift, her leg with statues matching;

 I drank, convulsed, out of her pensive eye,

 A livid sky where hurricanes were hatching,

Sweetness that charms, and joy that makes one die.

 

A lighting-flash — then darkness! Fleeting chance

 Whose look was my rebirth — a single glance!

 Through endless time shall I not meet with you?

 

  Far off! too late! or never! — I not knowing

  Who you may be, nor you where I am going —

 You, whom I might have loved, who know it too!

 

— Roy Campbell

(Poems of Baudelaire)

 

Alke van den Berg

Bibliography

Barthes, R. (1992). Incidents. [Electronic version] Berkeley:  University of California Press. Retrieved: December 30, 2010, from http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft5v19n9z1/

 

Campbell, R. (1952) Poems of Baudelaire. New York: Pantheon Books.

 

Gmunder, B. (1970-2011) Spartacus International Gay Guide. Berlijn:  Bruno Gmünder Verlag GmbH.

 

Hekma, G. (2004). Homoseksualiteit  in Nederland  van 1730 tot de modern tijd. Amsterdam: J.M. Meulenhoff bv.

 

Huart, L. (1841) Physiologie du flâneur [Electronic version] Paris: Lavigne Aubert. Retrieved: November 16, 2010, from http://www.archive.org/details/physiologiedufla00huar

 

Parkhurst Ferguson, P. (1994) The flâneur on and off the streets of Paris. In K. Tester (Ed.), The Flâneur (pp. 22-42). New York, NY: Routledge.

 

Shields, R. (1994) Fancy Footwork: Walter Benjamin’s notes on flânerie. In K. Tester (Ed.), The Flâneur (pp. 61-80). New York, NY: Routledge.

 

Tester, K. (1994). The Flâneur (pp. 1-21). New York: Routledge.

 

Turner, M.W. (2003) Backward Glances. London: Reaction Books Ltd.

 

White, E. (2001) The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.