The philosophy of walking

Update: Phil Smith on GrosWhy we walk and Why walking helps us think (The New Yorker, 2014)

Frédéric Gros’ A philosophy of walking (Amazon), published in March 2014 and translated by John Howe, is a primer for the Gallic Romantic strain in walking. Gå!, a Danish translation published by Kristeligt Dagblads Forlag, appeared in July 2015, inspiring a vandringsessay by Kim Skotte in Politiken. 

Gros is a “prodigious walker”. While the book charts the many different ways we get from A to B (the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble…) it is more concerned with exploring the power of walking as a “necessary weapon in the era of speed, efficiency and consumption” – and what it tells us about our experience of time, pleasure and solitude.

Back in 2014 I Storified @VersoBooks’ #philosophyofwalking stream, starting with a playlist in January, livetweeting the book launch and finishing up with Gros in conversation with sculptor Richard Wentworth at Tate Modern on 15 May. See the foot of the post for a trio of bon mots.

I made some inroads via a library copy in autumn 2014, getting about halfway, or as far as  Thoreau. Then I read On going for a walk, which made the unassailable point that the book’s focus is fairly narrow, favouring walking silently and solitarily in pristine rural landscapes with scant attention given to walking in urban settings. At this point I moved into scan mode, never a good sign. to be sure to finish it off before it was due back to the library. (Another factor was Carol Cadwallader on the portraits: “they’re all men; it’s unclear if women don’t walk or don’t think”). Maybe it depends which walking primer you start with – for me, it was Nicholson (who also appreciated Cadwallader’s take).

I have now invested in a copy for the bookshelf via Verso’s Xmas 2016 offer – below is a summary of my key points. (See also Laurence Coupe’s 10 insights). While very French, tending to the abstract with many a rhetorical turn (or just French rendered in English?), the opening salvo already makes the whole thing worthwhile. Other sections to come back to are Schelle’s Promenade als Kunstwerk (19:164-7) and indeed the section on urban walking (21:178-180).

The book consists of 25 shortish chapters each headed by a woodcut. Seven of the chapters are about individual thinkers who saw walking as integral to the creative life: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, Nerval, Kant and Gandhi.

  1. Walking is not a sport: no specialised equipment here: “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found…If you want to go faster, then don’t walk…Once on his feet, though, man does not stay where he is.”
  2. Freedoms: a process of self liberation, the suspensive freedom that comes from walking and rediscovering simple joys, throwing off the yoke of routine and illusions about the essential; “disentangled from the web of exchanges, no longer reduced to a junction in the network redistributing information, images and goods”; a liberation from time and space, alienating you from speed; this is usually only a temporary ‘disconnection’, but one can also follow the call of the wild on the ‘vertical axis of life’, escaping from the idea of identity and recovering our animal presence; the third stage is the freedom of renunciation and perfect detachment, leading to an intensity of presence. (Echoes here of Ludvig Feilberg, Denmark’s philosopher of walking.)
  3. Why I am such a good walker (Nietzsche): walking was Nietzsche’s element, the precondition to work; he hated to sit: “think of the book as an expression of physiology. In all too many books the reader can sense the seated body, doubled up, stooped, shrivelled in on itself. The walking body is unfolded and tensed like a bow: opened to wide spaces like a flower to the sun, exposed torso, tensed legs, lean arms”. Books by authors “grafted to their chairs” are like fattened geese, “on the level of recopying”. Writing with our feet means the potential for “reversals of perspective…exclamations where something else is observed”.
  4. Outside: “walking means being out of doors, outside, ‘in the fresh air’. When you go ‘outside’ it is always to pass from one ‘inside’ to another: from house to office, from your place to the nearest shops. You go out to do something, somewhere else. Outside is a transition: the thing that separates; almost an obstacle between here and there…Outside hardly exists: it is like a big separating corridor, a tunnel, an immense airlock..It is some space that takes some time.” Major walks invert this – ‘outside’ is no longer a transition, but the element in which stability exists. The big separation between outside and inside is turned upside down by walking, as  you live in the landscape.
  5. Slowness: a good slowness, not exactly the opposite of speed: an “extreme regularity of paces, a uniformity…a bad walker may sometimes go fast, accelerate, then slow down…large involuntary movements, a new decision every time the body is pushed or pulled…Hurrying means doing several things at once, and quickly…time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer in which you have stuffed different things without any attempt at order. Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one…this stretching of time deepens space…a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar.”
  6. The passion for escape (Rimbaud): never having studied French I have a big gap here; like Nietzsche this isn’t exactly a happy tale, but glad to have made his acquaintance; “I’m a pedestrian, nothing more” – a sense of walking as flight, leaving behind, departing.
  7. Solitudes: ought one really to walk alone? Nietzsche, Thoreau, Rousseau, the Dane, all thought so. “Being in company forces one to jostle, hamper, walk at the wrong speed for others…the right basic rhythm is the one which suits you.” So much for group walking, although up to three or four may allow moments of shared solitude, “like bread and daylight”. More than four and people “form groups which soon become clans. Everyone boasts about their equipment…it’s hell.” However, one is never entirely alone, not least because of the constant dialogue between the body and the soul.
  8. Silences: just as there are  several solitudes, so there are several silences; the silence of walking itself, of woodland, of tough summer afternoon walks, or.  early morning, through the snow, of night. Silence in walking is the abolishment of chatter, the dissipation of our language. “One should beware of those expedition guides who recode, detail, inform, punctuate the walk with names and explanations to give the impression that everything visible has a name, that there is a grammar for everything that can be felt.”
  9. The walker’s waking dreams (Rousseau): like Nietzsche, Rousseau claimed to be incapable of thinking properly, of composing, creating or finding inspiration except when walking. Another recurring image is the homo viator, walking or pilgrim man, the natural man not disfigured by culture, education, art – the absolute primitive.
  10. Eternities: “when you walk, news becomes unimportant”…more of the same, if perhaps a nod to the issue of unconnected facts.
  11. Conquest of the wilderness (Thoreau): opens with the factoid that Thoreau was the third child of a pencil manufacturer; otherwise, by now, familiar territory.
  12. Energy: sources of energy: the heart (self), the earth, landscapes.
  13. Pilgrimage: a codified form of walking with its own conduct, termination and purpose, however a pilgrim (from peregrinus, follower or exile) is essentially one who is not at home where he is walking, but is a stranger or foreigner; “every man is a pilgrim in this vale of tears…his true dwelling place can never be reached here below”; rather than peregrinatio perpetua a metaphor, perhaps a contemplative retreat or a visit to a sanctuary, can suffice.
  14. Regeneration and presence: the myth of regeneration, citing Mount Kailash, and the utopia of presence, transfiguring the day when you arrive at your destination.
  15. The cynic’s approach: as in the Greek Cynics.
  16. States of well-being: joy, pleasure, serenity, happiness…
  17. Melancholy wandering (Nerval): of pet lobster fame, one of Richard Holmes’ subjects; walking as part of an active melancholia: “the streets are an excellent environment for maintaining, nourishing and deepening the illness…the drumming of thousands of feet on the pavements”.
  18. A daily outing (Kant): aka the Königsberg clock, who emerged from his house for his brief constitutional every day at 8 as a distraction from work; he never left his native town, found change unbearable and “displayed no caprice or oddity…his life was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; his route became known as the philosopher’s walk; Kant’s walks highlight three important aspects of walking: its monotony, which liberates thought, the role of regularity and repeated effort in creating an output, built up stone by stone, and the inescapable nature of ritual, a mastered inevitability, a destiny of will.
  19. Strolls: or promenades, “less suited to grand mystical poses, metaphysical frauds and pretentious declarations”; of three types: as an absolute ritual, the creation of a childish soul; as free relaxation, mental recreation; as rediscovery. HT to Karl Gottlob Schelle’s Die Promenade als Kunstwerk (1802), which established that walking produces a relaxing effect on the body – it could stand up straight, but “it was really the mind which rejoiced most”. Walking means defying the constraints, choosing your route, place, representations (see pages 164-7).
  20. Public gardens: musing on the Tuileries.
  21. The urban flâneur: via Benjamin, a form of strolling which presupposes three elements: city, crowd and capitalism.. an experience far removed from Nietzsche or Thoreau; the urban stroller subverts the crowd, the merchandise the and town, along with their values; not a matter of opposing but of evading, deflecting, altering with exaggeration, accepting blandly and moving on; the flâneur subverts solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism (pages 178-180).
    • the city: imposes an interrupted, uneven rhythm; urban concentrations where you can walk for hours without seeing a piece of country, passing through districts like different worlds, separate, apart; cities with enough scale to become a landscape
    • the crowd: among and through the nameless masses, representatives of the new civilisation; everyone was in a hurry and everyone else was in their way, a competitor, with contradictory interests – anonymity is the norm
    • capitalism: as in the reign of merchandise, extending beyond industrial products to include art works and people; now: “spaces where strolling is compulsory are being made, but no one has to go there”
  22. Gravity: the experience of walking is always a perception of gravity, an invitation to die standing up.
  23. Elemental: the useful, the necessary, the elemental, revealed as fullness of presence; ” to walk without even the necessary is to abandon yourself to the elements”.
  24. Mystic and politician (Gandhi): and protest marcher
  25. Repetition: the need to distinguish between monotony and boredom

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