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The Street Philosopher
Daydreaming In Prague
Seán Moran rambles purposefully about the streets of the Czech city.
We can only guess at the lurid thoughts pulsating through her mind; and the dog’s owner is just as mysterious. My photograph taken on a Prague street gives no reliable access to the thoughts of the two walkers. In fact, we don’t always know what we ourselves think, let alone another human being. As Sigmund Freud puts it, a person “is not even master in his own house, but… must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind” (A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 1920). Incidentally, Freud is honoured by a strange statue in Prague, it being the sort of city where you just don’t know what lies around the next corner (or in Freud’s case, hangs by one hand from a long pole over the street). But if we are not even transparent to ourselves, what hope have we of understanding another person?
With non-human animals, such as the dog in the photograph, our difficulties are even greater. In his book Mortal Questions (1979), American thinker Thomas Nagel asks, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’. We can just about visualize being a human trapped in a bat’s body, but that’s not an authentic bat in all its battiness. It’s less easy to imagine hanging upside down from a church belfry, eating a moth that you tracked down by echolocation, then urinating on the archdeacon, unless it’s a hazy memory of a drunken initiation ceremony for the Society of Sonar Engineers. But even if you can imagine this, the experience is that of an intoxicated Homo sapiens in a bat costume, not the genuine schtick. Along similar lines, Ludwig Wittgenstein claims that “if a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” (In my daydream, the lion says: “I don’t understand Wittgenstein either.”) The point is that the world-views, concerns and experiences of bats and lions are so far removed from our own that we would struggle to find common ground with them, and having some shared assumptions is a prerequisite for meaningful communication.
However, many dog owners claim to experience a rapport with their pets that bridges the species gap, so that they do know what Lassie is feeling. And Lassie, in turn, knows what mood they are in, they say. Furthermore, we can sometimes figure out what’s on the minds of our fellow human beings. But occasionally our thoughts and feelings are so fugitive that nobody could keep up, not even ourselves. We flit from one topic to the next in an unpredictable way, like a moth dodging a bat.
One time our minds drift freely over random thoughts and feelings is when we daydream. To help us to rove mentally, we can also roam physically. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) invented the term ‘flâneur’ to describe those who habitually take unhurried, purposeless strolls through the city streets.
Becoming a flâneur or flâneuse is a way of encouraging our minds to wander. Bringing a dog along would probably only limit our movements (as well as intruding upon our thoughts when she encounters another dog with an alluring scent). However, it was apparently once fashionable in the Nineteenth Century to amble through the boulevards and arcades of Paris with a tortoise on a leash. That seems to be more the action of a poseur than of a flâneur, though. Philosophical flâneurs don’t have to be such dandies: our purpose is not to be seen, but rather to observe, and to think, as we saunter around town.
‘Saunter’: now there’s a word with an interesting etymology. If we are to believe American writer Henry David Thoreau (and not many do) it refers to “idle people who roved about the country… under pretence of going à la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land” (On Walking, 1863). Later saunterers like me typically have a camera to hand. According to Susan Sontag, photography is “an extension of the eye of the… flâneur… 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” (On Photography, 1973). Armed? Voluptuous? Cruising? Paging Dr Freud.
Where was I? Ah yes, daydreaming.
In common with the nocturnal version, daydreaming lets us lose awareness of our immediate physical surroundings and enter an internal world of past events and future possibilities. Some other practices, such as mindfulness, encourage us to do the opposite: to be fully present and in the moment. But ‘zoning out’ in a daydream can free up cognitive resources to tackle a problem that’s bothering us, or help us to see things in a new light. We can casually and safely entertain a few imaginative scenarios to decide what appeals to us as we indulge in some flânerie. James Joyce gave the world an insight into our streams of consciousness in his 1922 masterpiece Ulysses. The book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, roams around Dublin over the course of a single day, and we read about both his outward experiences and the inner thoughts triggered by his perambulations.
Daydreaming In Particular
Contemporary German philosopher Fabian Dorsch distinguishes between mind-wandering and ‘focused daydreaming’ (Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2015). The difference between the two is whether or not we consciously control the topics of our thoughts. Mind-wandering happens during a boring lecture, he says: we surrender ourselves freely to a random stream of consciousness. But focused daydreaming is a lot more structured, and can involve conscious planning for the future. For example, before I give a conference talk, I mentally visualise how it will unfold over time (as well as hope that it’s engaging enough to stop the audience from indulging in mind-wandering). In this case, the focused daydreaming is not only voluntary but purposeful too. And it has a narrative arc – a property of all focused daydreaming. We might liken it to playing an internal video. Such mental rehearsal is an important part of readying ourselves for something that has a narrative structure: a job interview, a complicated set of travel arrangements – or a romantic tryst in Prague.
Dorsch sees daydreaming as a withdrawal from the sensory world. But a mind-wandering flâneur becomes a more focused daydreamer when stimulated by an image such as the poster in the photo. Dorsch concedes that episodes of concentrated daydreaming can punctuate free-association mind-wandering. Likewise, a random stroll around Prague acquires a more purposeful flavour when something piques our interest. We might chance upon a side-street bar, from which the sounds of a jazz trio drifts. So we go in. Our attention can flit between the inner and outer worlds. As flâneurs, we inhabit a liminal zone: “that space between the physical and the imaginary” (Bobby Seal, Psychogeographic Review, 2013).
To some people, such physical and mental ramblings are merely self-indulgent unproductive loafing. Aimless wandering, dreaming of romance and consorting with jazz musicians, seem to be decadent, useless activities. The word ‘loitering’ is nowadays always used in a disapproving fashion: an offence against the imperative of busy productivity. Going absent without leave to indulge in reverie reduces our ‘time on task’ – our attending to the business of the day. But we should dismiss these pernicious notions. We are, after all, human beings, not human doings. (We might also question the description of players of the smartphone game Pokémon Go as ‘modern-day flâneurs’: their explorations are too goal-directed to deserve that label.)
Notwithstanding, aimless meandering can be productive. Aristotle and the Classical thinkers who followed him, as well as the Islamic philosophers al-Kindi and Ibn Rushd, are described as ‘Peripatetic’ philosophers. This name comes from the Greek word ‘peripateo’, to walk around. Admittedly, Aristotle and his companions kept to familiar paths and avoided the sunny side of the street. They stayed on the peripatos – the covered walkway of the Lyceum – that shielded the students and their strolling teacher from the Athenian sun. But more random peregrinations can be rewarding too. Charles Dickens walked miles nightly around the Victorian London streets, dreaming up the plots and characters of his books. And Wittgenstein also ambled about, talking to himself (but not to lions) in an effort to solve philosophical problems. He said that he could “only think clearly in the dark” and had “found the last pool of darkness in Europe” in Connemara, Ireland. An Irish company now offers a ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein Walk’ for those who want to follow in his footsteps.
The city flâneur has a very different experience from Wittgenstein on his rural hikes, though. Urban environments can assault the senses in ways that would threaten some, but which others might find stimulating. When discussing city flânerie, Walter Benjamin (pronounced ‘Benyameen’), the Frankfurt School philosopher, contrasts Erlebnis with Erfahrung (Illuminations, 1968). Both words mean ‘experience’, but the first signifies a fleeting feeling of alienating subjectivity in response to the city’s sensory overload, while the second indicates the more lasting enrichment that the flâneur can experience with concentrated effort. I have oversimplified Benjamin’s nuanced thoughts, but the concept remains that the physical and mental roving of humans around the city is sometimes edifying and restoring for them. We don’t need to be going anywhere in particular to arrive somewhere interesting. As J.R.R. Tolkien puts it in The Lord of the Rings: “not all those who wander are lost.”
So wandering, both mentally and physically, can be A Good Thing. The daydreamer may experience new insights, which can be coaxed into our minds during episodes of flânerie. Who knows where they can take us? According to Edmund White in The Flâneur(2008), one who is “a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets… is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.” Lucky Lassie.
© Dr Seán Moran 2017
Seán Moran is a philosopher in Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland, and a founder of pandisciplinary.net, a global network of people, ideas and events.