Can we be alone without being lonely?
This is a question that has been on my mind for quite some time now – actually all my life that I have lived in Houston. Do we always have to have company on a weekend? Do we really have to always bring a date to an event? Do we always need to hang out with “Friends”? Do we always need to stay connected on Facebook? Do we always need to be seen texting? If nothing else, do we always need to have the TV blaring loudly to make up for the absence of company? Isn’t it important to be simply alone and silent sometimes? Isn’t it important that we give ourselves space for our own thoughts, so that we are able to bring our full awareness to what is always with us – our own self?
I am reminded of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s strangest stories, “The Man of The Crowd,” which Charles Baudelaire felt to be one of Poe’s most horrifying. This story played a large part in the development of Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur in his The Painter of Modern Life, even in its title, “The Man of The Crowd” rather than “The Man In The Crowd”. This Edgar Allen Poe tale posits a man who is incapable of resting contently within himself possibly because of such guilt of a terrible crime and flings himself wildly from crowded urban spectacle or throng of people to the next without stop until the early hours of day break, terrified lest he be forced to be alone; without an opportunity to lose himself among a crowd. When he is finally confronted and the narrator of the story is forced to look in the eyes of this “man of the Crowd”, he is terrified because he finds them “like a book that refuses it-self to be read”.
Indeed I generally have found those whose eyes are books that refuse themselves to be read are often those who insist on continuous company rather than being alone without qualms.
So, can we be alone without being lonely?
I feel that learning and relearning to be alone without distraction is crucial, not as an end, but as a beginning. To learn to be alone without being bored or lonely or depressed is indispensable. In fact, I would recommend that being alone enables one to enjoy public events, artistic events, urban activities or landscapes by oneself without noticeable diminishment of appreciation.
Certainly it is indispensable for being a flâneur or a flaneuse.
Flâneur in French means a “stroller”, a “saunterer”; in short, a “walker;” and “Flânerie” is the act of strolling with all of its accompanying associations. Honoré de Balzac described flânerie as the gastronomy of the eye. Victor Fournel described it as a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape almost like a moving photograph (“un daguerréotype mobile et passioné”) of urban experience. But it was left to Charles Baudelaire to create the most vivid portrait of the flâneur as the artist-poet of the modern metropolis in “The Painter of Modern Life”:
“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, –it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite… to be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world… the lover of life makes the whole world his family.”
The flâneur is peripatetic and circumambulating, and uses walking as a means of observation. There may be reasons that the flâneur flourished in the eighteenth century. There was a fashion in those times of taking a daily “constitution” which meant walking daily to improve one’s digestion and overall health, producing all sorts of faddish walking sticks. Even today the public health movement globally is once again in favour of walking but in most cities of the world – nowhere is to be found the spaces for walking; every little nook and corner has been taken over by cars. The early nineteenth century phenomenon of the dandy is also connected to the origins of the flâneur, and like it, both poses were very much public phenomenon rather than private, with the dandy more as an object of perception as opposed to the flâneur who was primarily as the subject, yet still sharing the dandy’s unique display of conspicuous costume and as a unique classless urban anomalous figure with the flâneur being essentially more detached. As in the Spanda Karikas, “Siva cannot be reduced to a mere object, but abides always as the subject”.
Walking provides a unique kaleidoscopic perspective for perceptual observation. It is a moving posture, and it is one that also allows for unique balancing of pranic energies in the polarities of the bodily channels. The flâneur is primarily interested in observing social urban spectacle, yet several were known to behave in ways that made spectacles of themselves in public, Gerard de Nerval once walked a pet lobster on a leash in the Palais Royal gardens in Paris and another walked a turtle on a leash in protest of the then speed of the social public bustle.
Walking is certainly an important element of flâneurie, but it is not done merely for exercise or a descendent of the eighteenth century habit of the “daily constitution”. Yet there were many notable writers that made vigorous and rambling walks an inextricable part of their composition process: Gertrude Stein, Charles Dickens and recently Steven King, although his combination of reading and walking had nearly fatal consequences. The flâneur has a more externalized social gaze, although detached very much like a photographer, taking more notice of the social manifestations of the modern urban spectacle than of objects or of works of art themselves, or his of his own inner thoughts and contemplations.
You can see how much easier it would be to adopt this stance in a European walking culture or in those few American cities with denser urban populations and effective public transportation. Although there may still be an effective application with mall-walking, after all the 19th century Paris arcades were not that much different. But it still would be recommended for more urban malls, parks and public spaces.
This reminds me of the artist and professor Johannes Berringer who created a performance piece called Invisible Cities at the then Lawndale Annex that was inspired by his experience of arriving in Houston from Europe and requesting to be dropped off downtown to his chagrin when he found nearly deserted street, little accommodations for pedestrians and even some streets without sidewalks at the time, or was it that his request for a downtown walking tour that met with quizzical stares?
However, what is more important in the act of flânerie is not only to bring the exterior into the interior (through observation or taking photographs in the mind) but also to bring the interior to the exterior. The tantric texts of the Spanda Karikas and the Vijnana Bhairava advocate for the yogi to be keenly aware of opportunities for experience that exhibits a gap or interstice in the continuity of ordinary experience and that allows the yogi to experience unsupported consciousness and the potential for the engulfing surge of the deeper underlying greater all-encompassing consciousness, empirically and personally rather than theoretically.
Yes, the flâneur is a pose. But, instead of a poser as an imposter of inauthenticity, I am suggesting the flâneur as a pose or posture in which to practice certain types of awareness as an asana in yoga. To be a flâneur is to place oneself in the posture of the “inner experience” as recommended in the Spanda text. It is not another ego defining state; in fact it is to choose to assume an unenclosed ego state and to be classless.
The gaze of the flâneur while strolling, seeks very much like the medieval monastic practitioner of contemplative reading, lectio divina, to “seek for savour” in reading rather than meaning per se. This is also very much the same approach of classical Indian aesthetics which aims for the spectator to imbibe the rasa (translated very close to taste or savour) of a work rather than didactic content, and indeed it is openly admitted that the purpose of the arts is pleasure. Abhinavagupta adds his own unique approach to this aim in his work that makes the addition of another primary rasa that he argues the other recognized rasas all originate from, the shanta rasa. He states that while the main purpose of the arts is pleasure, that pleasure “must not be bound to the body”. Certainly an enigmatic statement, but maybe not in light of his insistence of the extra-ordinary or “alaukika” nature of the aesthetic experience rather than the art object itself.
It is ironic given that he was an authority, commentator and synthesist of most known tantric traditions that recognize the body as microcosm penetrated by the macrocosm of the cosmos, also that he recognized the primacy of seeking after the ideal of enlightenment while in the physical body or jivan mukhti. But more specifically, “pleasure not bound by the body” fits into the other tantric ideal of bhukti-mukti or of having enjoyment and enlightenment, of pleasure that does not bind one with attachment or karma, of using pleasure experienced by the body as a springboard and as a pose or posture for practice to meditate on and to identify oneself with the felt experience. Not to be greedy or attached, or addicted to the experience, but used as a doorway to spiritual imminent/transcendent experience that is a “compact mass of bliss”, of using the experience of pleasure as an opportunity for consciousness expansion and for realizing our own innate nature. This combined with the special nature of the aesthetic experience that Abhinavagupta felt essentially because of its virtuality which allowed for a unique depersonalization that enhanced the expansiveness of the experience over ordinary experience.
The naturally occurring opportunities for savour should not be viewed as separate from the Divine, but as opportunities to dive deep and seek for the source of that experience and to immerse oneself in it, especially when the sense of time disappears. Yes rapture, tears in the fabric of our ordinary construction of reality, which allows for the ecstatic blissful throb of the Divine that is to be seen “free of artificial effort” within “the subjective I-sense” since it “cannot be reduced to an object”.
This is countered by a warning in the tantric texts against addiction and attachment to material pleasures which activate the ambivalent powers of the Shaktis present in the pranic energies which as in the Spanda Karikas, “push down further and further into lower levels of material existence, those attached to material pleasures who deny any spiritual component to existence, while they elevate those in whom spiritual aspirations has dawned”.
I have wandered in my writing, but rightly so, as the flâneur is also a wanderer.
Gertrude Stein loved thinking about the large stretches of flat and abstractly bordered land of America for she felt that it was conducive to wandering and to the state of mind that she called the “Human Mind” as opposed to Human Nature, which knows and perceives directly free of identity or ego concerns and is the source of authentic creativity and “genius”.
The concept of the bodhisattva, which virtually obliterated previous models of spiritual progress and attainment, is defined literally as a being of great spiritual evolution who decides to give up his or her own enlightenment until all beings attain enlightenment before him. So first becomes last. Many scholars make the connection between the development of the bodhisattva with the development of the concept of zero in Indian mathematics; indeed the same zero or shunyata became the hallmark of the bodhisattva which obliterated all conventional models of linear spiritual progress, and realized the emptiness of narrow self-serving notions of spiritual attainment. If all things were essentially empty, then the whole distinction of enlightened and unenlightened were also empty which ironically led to a view of the struggle from an almost cosmic perspective of infinite means, infinite patience and time.
Bodhisattvas are typically depicted in bejewelled royal splendour of a most ethereal, rarified yet worldly nature that suggests a timeless profundity of compassion for all beings who are essentially equal wanderers through lives, time and existence.
I see the bodhisattva thus as the ultimate flâneur who sees the emptiness of ego and attainment, but who is always attuned to the sufferings of his fellow wanderers, yet whose compassion is tempered by his recognition of purposeless/ purpose in his dance-like peregrinations through the space/ time continuum where all dualistic distinctions of ugly and beautiful, humble or grandiose, sacred or profane disappear in the profundity of the surrounding infinity.
The world needs more of these angelic flâneur wanderers brave enough to renounce their own personal heavens and identities in the infinite service of their fellow beings.
They who live to serve others can be alone without being lonely.
© Paul Smith, 2013
Edgar Allen Poe: Man of the Crowd Illustration http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Poe_the_man_of_the_crowd_clarke.jpg
Le Flâneur; Paul Gavarni, 1842 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rosler-LeFlaneur.jpg
Also see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fl%C3%A2neur#cite_note-baudelaire-5
Open Highway http://www.jadetransport.com/
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