Walter Benjamin has been on my mind since starting work in London. He was an essayist, that is to say proto-blogger, before WWII, and his ideas have gently permeated Western Thought ™. Amongst his many topics was the “Flaneur”, loosely, the city-wanderer (Baudelaire is also associated with this idea, but I read Benjamin). The idea is that there is a special kind of existential satisfaction from meandering through and around cities observing the ebb and flow of life. As a general concept, it is useful for exploring and explaining works of urban fiction. I tend to think of Oscar Wilde in the framework of Benjamin’s Flaneur. Tied up in this concept, of the Flaneur, is the notion that someone in that position has a wider and deeper understanding of the city and its people than those who travel through the city with purpose. If your object is to merely get from A to B, you choose the shortest route. If your object is to journey from A to B, you choose the most interesting.
Finding myself in a new city after decades of living in the same city, has put me back into the role of city-wanderer in a way that may have at least partially elapsed in Wellington. I rather enjoy walking through the crowds, looking at the people, looking at the places they penetrate and the commercial orifices from whence they emerge. I am, as yet, a stranger in London, even in my little corner of it. Slowly, gradually, I find little out-of-the-way places, and I suppose that over decades I would obtain a perfect knowledge. This chain of knowledge led me to think about the people who know the city best, and the person in fiction who knows his city best is the perfect detective. The world’s greatest detective is the one who knows his city best, and so I am thinking here of Batman, and thinking about how his perfect detection differs from the other great city-dweller, Sherlock Holmes.
Batman is a hero who patrols his city at night. In his cape and cowl, he leaps from rooftop to rooftop, passively surveilling the criminal hot-spots. We must imagine that many hundreds of his patrols are without significant incident, but simply add to his knowledge of the darker corners of the city. In this, he is the Dark Flaneur, as he mimics the wandering and observing of the Flaneur, but instead of seeking idle pleasures, he seeks trouble. When he doffs his cowl it is to emerge in the skin-tight mask of Bruce Wayne, where he engages in the raucous pleasures of the play-boy. As one of the leading figures in civil society, his time as Bruce Wayne is constrained by social engagements and parties. Bruce Wayne is in fact, more constrained than Batman in many ways. In some senses while his knowledge of the city is necessarily intimate, it is not the innocent and aimless pleasure of the Flaneur.
In fact, the world which Batman knows intimately is the obverse of the world encountered by the Flaneur, though that knowledge is achieved by similar means. Batman is constrained to night, he is constrained to places without crowds, he experiences a tension in crime-fighting that is counter to the Flaneur’s simple pleasures. We could think of Batman’s experience of Gotham as one half of a complete experience of the city, a half defined by its opposition to that of the city-rambler.
The greatness of Batman as a detective, when connected to his knowledge of the city, becomes measured by his exclusion from that city.
I remain a tremendous fan of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and amongst my favourite scenes in the film is the first meeting between Holmes and the Masonic order. Holmes recounts his exact route through London, before throwing down the gauntlet: that the only mystery involved in his location is why they bothered to blindfold him. Holmes has not just seen London, he has observed it. Watson is at pains to describe in several stories how this mastery is achieved – Holmes will often disappear for days at a time to assume the guise of the working man. His local knowledge is acquired from total immersion.
Sherlock Holmes’ greatness as a detective, when connected to his knowledge of the city, becomes measured by his exclusion from himself.
We are not used to thinking about our detectives when “off the case”, but it’s fairly clear that they must spend a good deal of their spare time simply observing and absorbing the city. Only for them, the point is not to experience the innocent wonder of Chesterton’s “Defence of Detective Stories” or Benjamin’s Flaneur, but storing knowledge to deploy in the pursuit of murderers – the dark side of the city wanderer.