The 17th century notion of the wandering flâneur was a general and not very exciting type of man, a strolling poseur, wiling away his time wandering about French towns and cities. But as France evolved, particularly the through the turbulent 18th and 19th centuries, a different, more radical figure emerged.
This version was essentially invented by decadent poet and anarcho-hedonist-genius Charles Baudelaire. The subversive poet was increasingly concerned with the dominance of cities over peoples lifestyles; he coined the term modernité to describe the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and saw it as the artists responsibility to capture this new way of living. The Baudelairian flâneur was the at once the idle man of leisure, the urban explorer and the connoisseur of the street, something like a slowed-down, top-hatted version of a parkour enthusiast. But these wanderers were also poets of the streets, re-imagining the city and railing against the oppression of the grand-scale Haussmann-era development that changed Paris from a chaos of medieval warrens into a militarised megalopolis.
What Baudelaire started was later picked up by another French writer in the 1960's, Guy Debord. He was part of a group of Marxist cultural theorists who tried to make sense of the modern urban landscape in the context of capitalism and psychology, who tried to figure out what the modern city was doing to the mind of the individual. Debord founded the avant-garde revolutionary organisation the Situationist International and became well known for the theory of The Society of the Spectacle, which argues that authentic social life has been replaced by mere representations of social life, and that this the result of a confluence of capitalist, media and government forces which drags populations into degradation. The London Psychogeographical Society were affiliated with Situationist International, and formed a loose society around the idea of psychogeography:
PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY: the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.
Will Self continues their tradition with Psychogeography, his long-running column in the Independent, which is collected here under the subtitle 'Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place' and has illustrations by the inimitable Ralph Steadman.
Self sees himself as a 21st century flâneur and views psychogeography as a radical individual response to the isolating enormity of the modern megalopolis. If it all sounds very high-flown and intellectual, it really isn't, he basically just walks around, covering long distances on foot, through cities and countryside in different part of the world. Whilst he walks he thinks about whatever he finds. How has this city come to be this particular shape? What does has this path meant to different groups of people. His only rule is no cars.
It helps I suppose, if you are Will Self and thus armed with an Oxford education, a mind like an Edwardian Christmas hamper and a vocabulary that could bring down light aircraft. I had to read Psychogeography with a dictionary to hand and I swore at the frequency with my reading was interrupted to make use of it.
Self has often been accused of over-cleverness/pretentiousness/contrarianism, but his verbosity, wit and erudition are perfectly suited to the psychogeographic form. He can digress humorously and colour whatever he happens to be walking over with a host of cimmerian anecdotes from his past. The most significant chapters, and the longest, concern a walk he made from his house in Stockwell to central Manhattan, via Heathrow and JFK. It's a distance of some 40 miles, through areas mostly without pedestrian facilities, and it's thus the purest piece of psychogeographic experimentation in the book. Self has evidently lived in London so long that every step brings forth reminiscence and digression. His journey is less a flâneurs London than it is simply Self's London, though it is no less interesting for that. In Manhattan he has much cleaner slate, and it feels fresher as a result. He joins up with a photographer and another writer and mostly fails to get them to understand his mission.
Self is generally at his best when he goes off the map, which he doesn't do enough. He could surely have made much more of Rome or Barcelona by venturing away from the Colosseum and La Sagrada Familia into areas a bit more terra incognita than the worlds most famous landmarks. He also slips occasionally into pieces which feel more like travelogues than psychogeographical experiments.
The Ralph Steadman pictures, for their part, are consistently wonderful: psychotic, psychedelic and often more like witty ripostes to the text than mere illustrations. He renders Self's lanky, loping body as brilliantly as the cities he walks in, and the collaboration improves the book immeasurably.
This is probably best read, as it was intended, as a part-experiment, part-travelogue to snack on and to come back to. You may be inspired to do your own psychogeographic expeditions or you might just stick in the bathroom to read on the bog, but it's nevertheless an engaging read from a rarely less-than-interesting writer, one who is rapidly on his way to becoming a national treasure.
In a Word: Exploratory.
What Happens: Novelist Will Self undertakes long walks and postulates cleverly on them, while Ralph Steadman draws them.
Why Read: To vary your literary diet and expand your vocab.
Why Not: It's not as good as it could have been.