Feeling totally isolated and dépaysé in his tiny digs on West 96th Street, unable to find work, he roamed the city, taking in the spectacle of its modernity – the dizzying downtown skyscrapers, the aerial vectors of its subway system, the giant billboards, the vaudeville movie theatres, the electrified nights…

– Richard Sieburth describing Blaise Cendrars’ encounters with New York in a review of Cendrars’ Oeuvres Autobiographiques Complètes ‘Blaise Cendrars in the sky’ in Times Literary Supplement , n.d

 

 INTERVIEWER
All writers complain of the constraint under which they work and of the difficulty of writing.

BLAISE CENDRARS
To make themselves sound interesting, and they exaggerate. They should talk a little more about their privileges and how lucky they are to be able to earn some return from the practice of their art, a practice I personally detest, it’s true, but which is all the same a noble privilege compared with the lot of most people, who live like parts of a machine, who live only to keep the gears of society pointlessly turning. I pity them with all my heart. Since my return to Paris I have been saddened as never before by the anonymous crowd I see from my windows engulfing itself in the métro or pouring out of the métro at fixed hours. Truly, that isn’t a life. It isn’t human. It must come to a stop. It’s slavery … not only for the humble and poor, but the absurdity of life in general.

When a simple character like myself, who has faith in modern life, who admires all these pretty factories, all these ingenious machines, stops to think about where it’s all leading, he can’t help but condemn it because, really, it’s not exactly encouraging.

Blaise Cendrars, in The Art of Fiction No. 38, Interviewed by Michel Manoll in The Paris Review, Issue 37, Spring 1966.

“The chief means of travel will be walking,”  Gruen said, of his reimagined metropolis. “Nothing like walking for peace of mind.” 

– ­­Victor Gruen

 

I straighten my papers
I set up a schedule
My days will be busy
I don’t have a minute to lose
I write.

Blaise Cendrars in Complete Poems, 1992, tr. Ron Padgett

“There is no truth. There’s only action, action obeying a million different impulses, ephemeral action, action subjected to every possible imaginable contingency and contradiction. Life.”

– Blaise Cendrars

 

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 flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to self 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 – such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family…

– From, Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” trans. Jonathan Mayne, in The Painter of Modem Life and Other Essays (London; Phaidon, 1964).

The arcades are, certainly, a “primordial landscape of consumption”- temples of the commodity, with their seductively displayed, endlessly varied wares: “binoculars and flower seeds, screws and musical scores, makeup and stuffed vipers, fur coats and revolvers”.

Christopher Rollason in The Passageways of Paris: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Contemporary Cultural Debate in the West
, quoting from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project.

 

The cafes are full

With gourmets, with smokers;

The theaters are packed

With cheerful spectators.

The arcades are swarming

With gawkers, with enthusiasts,

And pickpockets wriggle

Behind the flaneurs.

– Ennorie and Lemoine, Paris la nuit. Cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 2002.

 

Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically teaches viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.

Alain de Botton

The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque.”

Susan SontagOn Photography