The Pun Also Rises: Flaneur down the rabbit hole

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One of life's greatest joys (at least for me) is to be told about something you have never heard of before, to investigate it because it intrigues you, and to find a vast wealth of content waiting for you. It is a glorious thing to live in the age of the Internet, when a friend can ask you, "Have you ever heard of 'Tuvan throat singing?'" and you can reply in the negative ... but then half an hour later you have watched seven videos of Tuvan throat singing, in both traditional and heavy metal styles, and you have ordered a copy of the Genghis Blues documentary.

Sometimes we do this with styles of music, such as throat singing or nerdcore hip-hop. Most often we probably do this with specific performers — someone might suggest I would enjoy Tim Minchin, and after loving the first song I hear, I end up listening to everything I can find of his online, much of which is thoroughly enjoyable but just as thoroughly unprintable in a public newspaper.

There is something to be savored in those moments of heady exploration, where we open the wardrobe to find Narnia, a whole universe of magic waiting for us. Only of course it wasn't waiting for us, it has been there the whole time doing just fine without us, and we needed only to be shown the door. We are told just briefly about something interesting, and stumble into a land of wonder — no wonder, then, that this phenomenon is often referrered to as going down a "rabbit hole," as Alice did in Wonderland.

All of which brings me to yesterday, when I got to learn about a new thing which was neither a musical genre nor a performer, but rather a single word. I was at a party with my girlfriend, having a conversation about how much I used to enjoy taking a constitutional (and how much I like that walks can be called constitutionals) when she told me that I was like a "flaneur."

I had never heard of this word before, although I do enjoy eating flan. But she said it meant someone who walks around and thinks, which are two other things I enjoy doing (albeit not as much as eating flan). So when I got home, I checked Google for this presumably unused archaic term, hoping to get at least a better definition. My search returned no hits. And the reason for that was simple: I had spelled it wrong.

Once I had the correct spelling, searching "flaneur" showed me that this word I had never heard of has 500 years of history, was popularized by French writer Charles Baudelaire in the 1860s, and refers to a man of the crowd who strolls the city in order to experience it. Far from being an unused term, there are flaneur blogs, a flaneur magazine, and a raging debate across many non-flaneur-focused publications about the controversial role of the flaneur.

There are pro-flaneur articles, with titles like "In Praise of the Flaneur" and "A tribute to female flaneurs", lauding these strolling artist-poets reporting on the city. There are also anti-flaneur articles with titles like "Death to the Flaneur," dismissing the romantic fiction of the wandering everyman chronicler as a mask for a lack of empathy.

This morning I did not know the word existed, tonight I've spent 3 hours reading essays and arguments about it, and I think that's neat. And I can't yet tell you whether I'm pro-flaneur or anti-flaneur, but I do know one thing:

Tuvan throat singing is awesome.

Seth Brown is an award-winning humor columnist, the author of "From God To Verse", and is seeking employment as a professional flaneur. His website is RisingPun.com.

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