Catherine Nesci. Le Flaneur et les flaneuses: Les femmes et la ville a l'epoque romantique.
Catherine Nesci's impeccably researched, rich and provocative exploration of flaneurs and flaneuses in nineteenth-century France is a reflection on the way in which flanerie might be seen to define modernity itself. Building on Benjamin's classic analysis, Nesci artfully demonstrates the extent to which the flaneur, as much as he was a painter of modern life, was also an inventor of modern life, who, through his meditations on and interactions with urban culture, carved out a new social cartography. Nesci's book considers the ways in which this new urban life was gendered, focusing on the one hand on how women were implicated in the flaneur's urban itinerary, and on the other on ways in which three romantic women writers engaged in their own flanerie through various forms of travestissement, sartorial and otherwise.
One of the most compelling aspects of this work is the way in which Nesci, through her detailed engagement with a range of literary and theoretical texts, brings continued freshness to her subject, refracting flanerie through changing lenses that bring into kaleidoscopic relief the multiple dimensions of the flaneur's relationship to the urban landscape. The first part of the book lays the theoretical groundwork by exploring the myth of the flaneur. While this section hinges upon Nesci's unpacking of Benjamin's writing, she explores a wealth of other sources, juxtaposing her reading of Benjamin with analysis of Gustave Caillebotte's 1876 painting "Jeune Homme a la fenetre" and feminist activist Madeleine Pelletier's 1914 L'Education feministe des filles. This latter example is particularly telling and points to the originality of this project, which links the analysis of the female objects of the flaneur's gaze with that of the women engaged in their own kinds of flanerie. Both were navigating the modern city, and the possibility of women engaging the city as a vehicle of expression depended upon them negotiating their designated place as a potentially transgressive object. Hence, Nesci asks: "Comment transfigurentelles une errance qui, conjuguee a leur non-citoyennete, fait d'elles des etres fondamentalement transgressifs dans la cite?" (34).
Turning in the next section of the book to Balzac, Nesci uses the contrasting heroines of Ferragus, Ida Gruget and Clemence Desmarets as a means of exploring Balzac's modern aesthetic, which she sees as linked to the depiction of a haunted and haunting Paris which is decidedly gendered. Nesci views Balzac's representation of women as intimately linked to his exploration of the city; his interrogation of public and private urban spheres are bound up in his exploration of sexual difference and gender roles. Balzac's woman is a contradictory "image dialectique," betraying the profound instability of gender roles and the fluidity of the modern urban landscape: she is the forbidden object, but also the incarnation of so much of what is at stake in flanerie, as a site of ambivalence, hybridity and passage.
The second half of the book is devoted to three women writers, Delphine de Girardin, George Sand and Flora Tristan. In analyzing the ways that these women became painters of modern life in their own right, Nesci provides her own response to the question of the female flaneuse and her visibility first posed by Janet Wolff more than two decades ago. The writers she examines used various sorts of camouflage as they sought to best observe the cities around them, in the process interrogating the relationship between femininity and visibility. In Girardin's short stories, the Balzacian cane and the eyepiece were symbols of privileged modes of access; as a feuilletoniste, she becomes the vicomte Charles de Launey in order to document Paris through the powerful consuming eye of a male flaneur. Nesci deftly dissects George Sand's famous cross-dressing, exploring it through her novels, her memoirs and her representation in the popular press, as well as in relationship to her negative views of the city. Sand's writing is read as a counter-discourse to Balzac, a de-eroticized and somewhat polemical gaze upon Paris which Nesci sees as "une strategic de contre identification ou mieux de des-identification" (310). Finally, Nesci considers the travels of Flora Tristan, "voyageuse consciencieuse," considering her Necessite de faire un bon accueil aux femmes etrangeres and Peregrinations d'une paria as dialectical texts that document the relationship between "la ville et la vie, entre le voyage et l'ecriture de soi, entre la conscience subjective de la femme et l'espace de son exploration" (325). Moving beyond the focus on Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, Nesci's analysis of Tristan, who traveled around France as well as to Peru and England, widens the scope of her interrogation. Ultimately, Nesci is less concerned with formulating a theory about what these women had in common, than with fleshing out the dimensions of their work and their lives that have been excluded from the discussion of flanerie so fundamental to our understanding of nineteenth-century France. Her insightful volume, with its integration of visual culture, literary analysis, sociology and history, is an important step towards a fuller understanding of the implications of urban modernity in French culture.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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