Who would have thought that Virginia Woolf would be the inspiration behind my most recent attempt to reclaim childhood? As college graduation looms ever closer, I can’t help but feel a growing pressure to choose an identity, decide a path—to decide who I am and commit to it. Woolf articulates a similar sentiment in “Street Haunting,” an essay that explores the allure of life as a flâneur—an itinerant observer who wanders a city without haste or destination in mind. Reflecting on the endless hustle of daily life, Woolf says, “One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself.” Woolf uses street haunting to temporarily suspend this expectation, and perhaps even time itself, for the length of her exploration. I wondered how this hobby might be applied to Shamelessly Childish.
“Street Haunting” begins with a pretext. A pencil is a convenient enough excuse to flee the confines of home for the expansive possibilities of the outside world. Woolf seizes on it with alacrity. Though Woolf’s tone is characteristically lively and mischievous as she describes her quest, we glean almost immediately that there is much more at stake here than a pencil. The narrator of “Street Haunting” has escaped the suffocating memories of the domestic sphere, for a moment at least, and perhaps the pencil she haphazardly pursues will be the very instrument that pens her essay. And despite the whimsy and curiosity that saturates each page, a certain degree of anxiety or dissatisfaction is also evident. Woolf describes the memories stimulated by the various objects which surround her at home as restrictive, almost suffocating. They tie her to a single identity, a single life that, comfortable and stimulating though it may be, can never contain the multitudes that surround her on a London street. The anxiety that compels our narrator from her home is one that creeps up on all of us sometimes—the fear that, as we grow older, more and more doors begin to close on experiences and entire worlds that we will never experience in this life.
This theme made me wonder about the construction of the child flâneur and how this figure might fit into Woolf’s conception of street haunting. If street haunting is the ultimate method of exploring and briefly inhabiting lives you might have lived, then the child could be perceived as the ultimate flâneur. In many ways, the child embodies possibility for the adult onlooker. Who hasn’t encountered a precocious child and experienced some brief flare of jealousy as you envision the miles of possibilities stretched out before them? The paths they might take, the people they might encounter, what they might yet see or accomplish, always inspires in me a nonsensical, nostalgic envy. So perhaps, as the child traverses the streets of the city, they see not opportunities missed and roles they will never play, but a dazzling array of possibilities for the future.
Louise Fitzhugh considered the exploratory potential of the child flâneur in her classic children’s book Harriet The Spy. In the novel, Harriet M. Welsch makes a job out of people-watching or what she calls “spying.” Harriet’s fascination with human nature and her compulsion to record her observations makes her an ideal flâneur. Her status as a child flâneur is an instrumental factor in the formation of Harriet’s identity as well. Throughout the novel, Harriet briefly intersects the lives of all sorts of characters that orbit her New York neighborhood, from the batty Miss Berry to the dreamy Mrs. Plumber to the pretentious Robinsons to her housekeeper and companion Ole Golly. Each of these tertiary characters provides a glimpse of the myriad directions her life could turn and the varying degrees of fulfillment she might derive from these turns. While the adult flâneur might coast through the city streets in a cloud of removed fantasy, resigned to the fact their lives are following an inalterable trajectory, their childish counterpart wonders how their observations might change the course of their young lives.
Why should we not, as adults, approach the world in this same way? Are our lives not our own to live and change if we wish to? As we wander the streets of whichever city we find ourselves in, can we intersect the lives of those we encounter not with wistful resignation but with curiosity and hope for the future? As I prepare for graduation, I resolve not to look towards the future fearful of choices that will define and limit me, but approach each day as an opportunity to explore my passions and discover new ones. Just as the adults in Harriet’s life ultimately surprise her with their capacity to change and learn from the past, we too must acknowledge that our identities are changeable. In fact, they change each time we step out of our front doors.