On Mirrlees

-Response by Susan Pelletier

The myth of the flâneur has been constructed, utilized, contemplated, and reassembled in the readings thus far by each of the writers we have studied. To each, the flâneur represents an idealized spectator, a bourgoise figure who watches those in the city, taking each interaction he observes for himself as a text to analyze and later express artistically. In each of these desc-riptions the interactions this figure has with women are particularly telling characterizitions of the writer’s idea of the flâneur.

For each of these writers, women existed only as objects of the male flâneur’s gaze. In “Paris Peasant”, Aragon dissects the flâneur through his differentiation of the sexes.  He discusses Hegel’s judgement and observation of women, stating that “so many female strollers of all kinds submit themselves to [it]… I am glad that you [women] are so much part of the scenery here” (Aragon 49). Baudelaire finds also that women can only exist in the world of the flâneur as objects to be observed, stating that “[woman] is a kind of idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching, who holds wills and destinies suspended on her glance” (Baudelaire 30). And finally, Benjamin’s reference to the female is as the antithesis of the flâneur who “pays a visit to the marketplace, ostensibly to look around, yet in reality to find a buyer” stating that “the department store is the flâneur’s last practical joke” (Benjamin 156). His female is instead, the buyer, unable to control herself, the ultimate consumer. She exists only in her consumption, and only as much as to be an object looked upon by the male flâneur.

The Surrealist movement in general regarded women as muses, not artists. Very few female artists were allowed to attend the meetings. Literary Surrealists constantly describe women’s purpose as that of fueling the desire that creates inspiration for their works. Nadja is a perfect example of this utilization, in which Nadja is only a representation (used for different women as the novel is continued) of the desire and intrigue that the feminine prescence creates within Breton, the narrator. The woman is never individual, and always acts merely as a symbol.

What then, of Hope Mirrlees in her 1920 poem, “Paris”? Is she not the absolute disengaged observer of Paris? Indeed, she starts her day at the beginning of the poem on Rue de Bac and continues on her ‘flânerie’ through the city until night, passing through and playing silent spectator to the goings on of centuries and at the same time, a single day in they city. In fact, she addresses Paris as a woman in the poem, whom she observes and considers while within, yet from the outside at once, according to her notes, from the view of her hotel room.

Is Mirrlees as a narrator then capable of being a female flâneur, or more specifically a “flâneuse”? Can this figure exist within the patriarchal Surrealist literary world, and is she realized in this poem? When Mirrlees analyzes and comments on the consumer society of the Grande Boulevards and the department stores, is she able to participate as an outside observer, or only as part of system, as women have been described by other writers? Can she be the author, the observer, the artist, or merely the muse?

In lines 147-148, she replicates a sign, “Aliments Diabetiques/ Deuil en 24 Heurs”, translating to “Your clothes died black in 24 hours”, or as Julia Briggs finds in her interpretation, a commentary on the duplicity of the words and the underlying meanings of the use of “catachresis– the application of a term to something it does not properly denote” (292), in which the meaning of this sign is about every woman wearing mourning.

Further in her discussion of the department stores, in lines 294-297, Mirrlees criticizes the department stores for using religion to increase business by placing first communion dresses in the windows. She writes “All this time the Virgin has not been idle;/ The windows of les Galeries Lafayette, le Bone Marche, la Samaritaine/ Hold holy bait,/ Waxen Pandoras in white veils and ties of her own decking;”. The critiques of both of these practices show an obvious detachment from the intended consumer response that a woman is meant to have, therefore placing her as a narrator, outside of the society, as an observer, as an individual, and I argue, as a flâneuse.

Further research into Mirrlees and her career create a stronger case for her identification as a flâneuse. A translater and writer of numerous genres, both poetry and fiction, she is considered to have been extremely influential on modern poetry, specifically through her authorship of “Paris”. The poem is thought to have influenced and been influenced by her friends T. S. Elliot, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. She observed Paris from her hotel room, a truly ‘flâneuristic’ living space, from which she interacted in literary circles both in France and abroad, and continued her explorations and observations as a very well-educated and traveled British writer.

Still in argument for the existence of the flâneuse is Mirrlees’ mention of the flâneur, in lines 67-70, of “Paris”. She observes him as he, “saunters the ancient rue Saint-Honore/ Shabby and indifferent, as a Grand Seigneur from Brittany/ An Auvergnat, all the mountains of Auvergne in every chestnut that he sells…” (Mirrlees 274).  Does the flâneuse then see the flâneur only as an object of her own gaze? Is he merely muse, as a symbol rather than an individual? She seems here to mock his perceived superiority and detachment, and yet attempts to create this notion in her own writing. In what ways does the existence of the flâneur challenge the idea or possibility of the flâneuse? In what way does the existence of the flâneuse challenge the existence of the flâneur?

Whether one finds Mirrlees to be a flâneuse, or whether such a figure is even able to exist, it is important to consider what the implications of a female observer are on the literary environment and on women’s place in that world. If the gaze is feminine, upon whom is it cast?

 

 

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