In this essay, I argue that the flâneur in exile addresses and offers an alternative to the endless oscillation between sameness and difference that bedevils contemporary approaches to comparative literature. I use the phrase flâneur in exile to refer to the encounter between a paradigmatic figure of European modernity, the flâneur, and contemporary Chinese poetry, in particular the poetic prose cycle “Guihua” (“Ghost Speech/Lies”) written by Chinese poet Yang Lian during his exile in Auckland, New Zealand, after June Fourth 1989.
Emerging out of the relationship between Europe and non-Europe and associated with Walter Benjamin's dialectical image, the figure of the flâneur furnishes a comparative approach based on collision, encounter, and touch, rather than the mimetic, vision-based models of comparison that claim equivalence or commensurability. I detect a similar comparative poetics in the mythologized encounter between Chinese poet Duoduo and Charles Baudelaire's “Le soleil” in the early 1970s. This encounter underscores the double movement of a text towards and beyond its engagement with the particularities of its own space and time and suggests the flâneur as a figure for this movement. I extend this implicit comparative poetics by superimposing Baudelaire and Benjamin onto contemporary Chinese poetry to explore the subsequent elaboration and negation of the figure in 1980s xungen, or “root seeking,” writing and especially in Yang's work in exile. Reading Yang's walker in the city in relation to the figure of the flâneur, I show how his exilic writing dramatizes the problem of spatial, temporal, and linguistic dislocation in exile, modernity, and comparison. Whether in Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire, Duoduo's encounter with Baudelaire, Yang's exilic writing, or my reading of each through the flâneur, touch stands as a figure for, and embodiment of, a comparative poetics that deploys a flâneur-like hypersensitivity to the duality of language to bring places and times into encounter, acknowledging their mutually constituting and irreconcilable, mutually eclipsing otherness. The flâneur in exile thus embodies a comparative poetics resistant to generalizing thinking but insistent on bringing places and times into contact and acknowledging the constitutive role that such moments of encounter play in modern and contemporary literature and in modernity at large.