Book review., Books, Edgar Allan Poe, Enlightenment, Flaneur, History, Liberty, Literary criticism, London, Matthew Beaumont, Night Walker, Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, One Thousand and One Nights, Walking, Walter Benjamin, William Blake
My life is filled with the constant swish of walking. I live in Edinburgh, a capital city without a Tube system which you can still, in the twenty-first century, circumambulate in a day. I am also a relentless consumer of English literature. So on the average day, I am one minute pottering about Edinburgh, over bridges and up wynds, and the next ducking into the city’s bars to read my beloved classics. And upon opening their pages, I have soon crossed paths with more fellow walkers. There is Harun al-Rashid setting off into Baghdad for another Arabian night, Blake’s London wandering thro’ each charter’d street, Wordsworth as lonely as a cloud, and Poe’s Man of the Crowd lonely within the metropolis.
By now, you may have identified me as the most tiresome of all phenomena from literary criticism, that clockwork bogeyman from innumerable studies of Baudelaire and Benjamin, the flâneur. As he bobs and weaves, detached and analytical, in front of the passing shop windows, he looks suspiciously like the prototype of the Shoreditch hipster. Yes, he is these days an automatic source of irritation, but literary criticism also seems never to have got totally on top of him. When I was a student of English literature, the flâneur was always popping up everywhere, in assessments of particular works by particular authors, or in considerations of theoretical reconsiderations of his ideological status. But nobody had ever written the book of all books about this supremely ideological figure. No single book had gone out and come back with an account of all of the different flâneurs and flâneurial mindsets to be found upon our literary highways.
Recent histories of walking by Rebecca Solnit (2001), Geoff Nicholson (2011) and Merlin Coverley (2012) are all in the right area, though none of these interesting, somewhat journalistic exercises resembles the sort of book that I am thinking of. The history of the flâneur should be exhilarating and polemical. It should come with all the grandeur of the academy and first-year undergraduates should carry around second-hand copies. Maybe Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, which was published earlier in the year, is the book that I have in mind. It certainly has some of the depth and breadth that I have in mind.
Even so, Beaumont has compiled an itinerary of the flâneur’s ideological riches without the flâneur. Instead, we now have a good English word along with an adjective which puts the lights out on the flâneur. Whereas the flâneur had never been a flâneuse, they are now degendered.
Beaumont has identified an important but rather ill-defined element in the creation of the modern mind, something vaguely to do with freedom or Romantic individualism, and whatever this involves is best signified by the nightwalker. It had been previously, inadequately, signified by the flâneur.
The flâneur or saunterer could be spotted on the streets of Paris in the late nineteenth century. He was a post-revolutionary figure, even before 1871, and his response to the modern world was characteristically passive or undisruptive. He floated in front of shop windows and never bought anything. Whilst crowds rushed past him on the way to work or to the shops, he remained stiffly idle. The flâneur was an urban explorer, with the sensibility of a detective but without the detective’s social usefulness. He resembled the ghost of an aristocrat who is bemused to find himself accidentally trespassing within a modern setting. He was theatrical in his uniqueness, occasionally doing things such as walking a lobster on a leash, and in these moments, he was probably more on the side of the existing system. He stood apart from the rush of the crowd, but only to expose its dreariness and political defeat, whereupon he quickly blended back into anonymity.
For Beaumont, the flâneur has only a small place within an unrolling historical panorama. Beaumont herds the vagrant, the prostitute, the prostitute’s client, the medieval bandit, the Tudor lout, and the Romantic poet all under the flâneur’s parasol. Moreover, this motley rabble ends up bundling the flâneur out into the rain. He is not, as we shall see, completely expelled into oblivion. The oppressive fragrance of his perfume remains lingering on the scene.
Once upon a time, the story begins, there was a state which derived a lot of its authority from sending everybody to bed. It was literally a nanny state. The state imposed curfews and it prosecuted those who were apprehended in the streets after dark without any good reason for being there. Beaumont cites the finding of the French medievalist Jean Verdon that “criminals… received heavier sentences for crimes committed after sunset.” Burgling houses by day was a sign of god-fearing criminality; nocturnal crime, on the other hand, showed an allegiance with the forces of spiritual darkness. Nightwalkers, Beaumont notes, have “historically speaking… been little more than suspected persons” and they have featured prominently in the conceptual development of preventative justice.
To walk about at night was to rebel in a big way. The nightwalker was defying the law, a religion which referred to its God as “the light,” a bourgeois work ethic which wanted its workers to be at peak production the next morning, and aggressive communal suspicions about idleness. They were generally viewed as defying all of these things even if they had no homes to choose not to be sleeping in. Significantly, the first European police forces were the nightwatches. Within human history, the night therefore has a similar status to the anus in Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. It was the primal battleground upon which the naughty, undisciplined individual confronted unsmiling authority. Both the state and the individual defined and secured their competing freedoms on this field.
As the centuries passed, however, the night lost its grit and it underwent a process akin to gentrification. First came the scouts, writers who filed journalistic reports of the city’s night for those who were too timid to venture outside for themselves. Next came oil lanterns and their technological descendants, which lit up the city for strollers and shoppers. The word “enlighten” was first used with its modern meaning at the same time that the bourgeoisie began to flirt with the night. The city night, with all of its vagrancy and foulness, might have remained unchanged since ancient times, but bohemians and poets were now on the scene with their own new agendas. They voyaged through urban phantasmagorias and glimpsed premonitions of apocalypse on the midnight streets. These figures used the night as a setting for “thinking the limits of the Enlightenment itself.” For eighteenth-century writers, the night marked “a crisis for the logic of vigilant and insomniac rationality.”
But what crisis exactly? Was the rationality of the Enlightenment ever really jarred by these bumps in the night? It is one thing to argue that modern individualism was powerfully shaped by nightwalking, but next this relationship has been extended, with only an illusion of seamlessness, to encompass the apparent inadequacies of the Enlightenment.
Beaumont is never openly critical of the Enlightenment but he is always referring to it with an ominous crispness. The Enlightenment finds itself in embarrassing proximity to the Tyburn Tree and, through associations such as these, Beaumont offers more of a smear against the Enlightenment than any profound analysis of it. In lieu of a sensible definition of the Enlightenment, we have to make do with a heavily insinuated picture of unimaginative men in periwigs doing maths calculations in the daylight. To set up a company which operates by charter is, it appears, a straightforwardly Enlightened affair, whereas Poe’s midnight detectives are “misfits” and “mystics” (they are in fact intimates of officialdom) who “look to “the true Darkness” for enlightenment.” That charter capitalism might be completely irrational, or that the detectives’ ratiocination might confirm the triumph of human agency, is not licensed by Beaumont’s increasingly ineffective symbolism.
Despite venturing a simplistic folk picture of the Enlightenment, Beaumont’s description of De Quincey performing “the centuries-old role of a common nightwalker” strikes you suddenly with that distinct artificiality which comes from being not quite folk. His nightwalker seems happier on a plane of theory than in the world of realistic human behaviour. “The nightwalker’s ambition is,” we are told, “to lose and find himself in the labyrinth of the city at nighttime.” To travel on foot was “also, implicitly, to adopt a political, or proto-political stance. It was an expression of ressentiment.” This is all painfully open to charges of a “you what, mate?” impracticality. Beaumont sometimes appears to be dragooning innocuous urinaters from under lampposts into serving as a kind of stage army for his romanticised theoretical programme.
If somebody who skulks about in darkened alleyways is now seen as a revolutionary, then the concept has been surely devalued to the point of irrelevance. At times, Nightwalking grows more politically jumpy. Seventeenth-century bridewells suffered, in Beaumont’s anachronistic-sounding analysis, from “corruption and poor management abilities of the private contractors.” On the former site of Tyburn, Beaumont observes that, “Connaught Square, where the former prime minister Tony Blair lives, is a testament to civilization that, as Walter Benjamin might have put it, is at the same time a testament to barbarism.” This is probably the most inept attack on Tony Blair to be ever written.
This book is generally more comfortable with itself when it is not redolent of London in the way that it thinks. With allusions to Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” swirling in the air, Beaumont is back aboard Laputa, or luvvie-ing it up with the celebrity poseur Will Self (who writes this book’s foreword and afterword), whilst we, the readers, remain stuck out in the mental equivalent of Rotherham with Mondeo Man.
As soon as you have mentioned the Enlightenment, of course, you are in a quandary. The majestic neoclassical model of the scientific history is obviously what Beaumont’s study requires, but he would be conceding too much to the Enlightenment with all of that objectivity. Self is alive to this paradox when mischievously describing Nightwalking as “nothing less than a grand unifying theory of the counter-Enlightenment.” Moreover, the city night is such a haunting aesthetic that you cannot really refer to it with a mouthful of flat terminology, as if you were Judith Butler.
Beaumont’s response is to produce something like an illuminated manuscript, a text which is richly adorned with beautiful and enjoyable quotations. He begins with Shelley’s vision of a night which makes “a weird sound of its own stillness,” and he continues with Rupert Brooke’s witticism that “cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night.” He has selected a particularly succulent passage for us from William Baldwin’s “bizarre proto-novel” Beware the Cat (1553), which “offers a hypnotic, if not oneiric, sense of London’s relentless restlessness at night.” Nightwalking is continuously depending on this sharp curatorial instinct for its power.
We are never sifting amongst literary dust or tracing the family tree of the flâneur through dry records. Beaumont divulges an opulent, if somewhat Cockney-flavoured, literary tradition of nightwalking. His analysis is like a wave which stretches surprisingly far, washing over an unexpectedly broad range of writers. He embraces such notable dead white men as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Dickens, as well as bunking off from the canon in the company of interesting second and third raters, including Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and the eighteenth-century poet William Pattison.
Occasionally the close reading is not a forte. One of Beaumont’s most distinguished nightwalkers, the narrator of Blake’s “London,” is increasingly in danger of being disqualified from the club. Beaumont takes the poem’s line about “midnight” literally, adding that the narrator “might be blind… but there is no positive evidence for this in the poem. There is a clear indication, though, in the allusion to “midnight streets,” that it is nighttime.” For poetry to resort to metaphor, rather than to explicitly spell everything out, is possibly commoner than Beaumont imagines. It grows tempting to joke about a blurred close reading being perfect for a poem about faulty vision. The easiest interpretation of this poem is that London is only so down in the dumps because his vision is defective. He walks only in a self-inflicted night.
Criticisms of such a fondly localised book as Nightwalking will inevitably amount to listing what lies beyond the city walls. Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter” provides all sorts of insights into changing eighteenth-century attitudes towards the night, but Tam is riding a horse and, even worse, he is riding it through Scotland, so he doesn’t get a visa. Keats is allowed in because he is situated in London and this overrides the fact that he is so stupefied that he cannot actually walk in his “Ode to a Nightingale.” C. Auguste Dupin is unfortunately based in Paris and so we will receive only a sparse, unsatisfactory postcard from literature’s first nightwalking detective. Henry Thomson’s 1823 Blackwood’s tale “The Night Walker,” which had influenced both Poe’s and Dickens’ accounts of nightwalking, remains unmentioned despite its London setting, presumably because it was published in Edinburgh.
The Cockney stranglehold tightens with the bizarre omission of any reference to popular translations of The One Thousand and One Nights. The largest city in history prior to nineteenth-century London was not Rome, whose influence Beaumont can see reflected in the prose of Gibbon and Goldsmith, but Baghdad. Western writers would associate Baghdad specifically with the night and the enthralling nocturnal labyrinths from Scheherazade’s dreamscapes. Yet Beaumont slinks around the Nights by not only refusing to mention them, but by cutting off his history just before the culmination of their influence. In 1882, Stevenson had categorised his own nightwalking adventures on the streets of London as New Arabian Nights.
To end midway into the nineteenth century, without any explanation from the top, becomes a source of some puzzlement. Passing over Paris and the late nineteenth century allows Beaumont to put Baudelaire and Benjamin out of the frame. A bold claim is being whispered somewhere in this, the implication that the flâneur had acquired all of his lurid intellectual polish before modernity had ever retrieved and recounted his story. Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), which Benjamin had taken as a starting point, is now consigned to this book’s conclusion. But the cost of this strategy is to part company with the nightwalker before they have set foot in popular culture. Nightwalking often seems like the lengthy introduction to a critique of more famous and dazzling phenomena, such as Spring-heeled Jack, Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps it is, but there is no commitment within this book to a sequel.