In the traditional flâneur, we have come to expect a certain objectivity. We think of him as the man of the crowd in the sense that he blends in completely, but manages to observe in a way that is pure-intentioned and all-consuming. This is not a man with an agenda; this is not a man with personal goals to accomplish or a personal perspective to express. In Nadja, Breton oscillates between philosophical, almost academic observations, and much more flowery prose. He is both adept at describing the city with flâneurial objectivity, and fettered by his personal agenda. He exemplifies a literary flâneur’s dilemma perfectly – Nadja questions whether it is possible to record one’s own flâneury.
One of the clearest examples of Breton’s flâneurial dilemma is in the contrast of his analytical voices. He begins his narrative with a warning – that the reader is not to “expect [him] to provide an exact account of what [he] has been permitted to experience” (Breton, Nadja, p.23). He continues with further explanation of the ways in which he plans to discuss his experiences (23). This method makes it abundantly clear that he is not claiming to discuss anything with a completely objective voice, but rather, he informs us that he will be editing his experience for the purposes of the narrative. However, Breton soon claims the opposite. Later in Nadja, he states that “the right to bear witness seems to [him] to be all that is granted” (Breton, Nadja, p.78). This makes Breton appear to be a true flâneur – or at least, it makes his attempt evident, and contradicts his self-analysis in other passages.
The very perspective of the narrative fuels this controversy. Breton writes Nadja in first person. The agency given to a first person protagonist immediately challenges the purity of the flâneur, as the very act of describing what he sees corrupts his pure experiencing of the city around him. The perspective from which one writes the flâneur becomes crucial – a first person perspective gives the flâneur too much introspective potential, where a third person narrative implies that the flâneur – the ultimate observer – is himself observed. Thus Breton’s choice in perspective further exemplifies the struggle in writing the flâneur.
It is important to remember that there are two distinct tones to this novel. Struggle aside, I found Breton’s prose beautiful, and moving, and far more interesting than his analytical and contradictory debates with himself. Whether Breton is a flâneur or not becomes almost irrelevant in the wake of his descriptions of “those tragedies which claim to girdle only a single day, scarcely less dynamic—that is, subject to that wild gallop which can only lead to another wild gallop—that is, more frenzied than a snowflake in a blizzard—that is, resolved, for fear of being fettered, never to be embraced at all; neither dynamic nor static…” (Breton, Nadja, 159). With prose this lively, this dynamic, this heartfelt, this multifaceted, it is impossible to care whether or not Breton is being objective; whether he is imposing his own perspective onto his observations.
Breton’s prose challenges whether the flâneur is even a good way of experiencing a city, as Nadja seems to exemplify every challenge a writer will come up against when writing the flâneur, whose mutative and ever-changing nature defies description and can therefore impede actual observation and experience. The moments where Breton lets himself articulate without quantifying or justifying seem the most poignant and the most important – they are both the moments when he best exemplifies the flâneur’s ability to take in the world around him, and the moments where he transcends flâneurial interest and begins simply to be a person with a gift for expressing his life.