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On Going for a Walk

Daveen Koh

Frédéric Gros
A Philosophy of Walking
Verso Books, 2014
288 pages
ISBN 978-1781682708

“That’s why I don’t walk anymore”, Alberto Giacometti mused in an interview [1] with the critic David Sylvester, “because the first tree on a sidewalk in Paris is already enough…to see two [trees] would make me afraid”. Giacometti, famed for his serrated sculptures of wiry Walking Men, was so mesmerised by the quotidian objects around him that he saw no need to travel to see other “marvels of marvels”. The illustrious walking men who populate Frederic Gros’s spirited new book, A Philosophy of Walking, might beg to differ; walking enthralls precisely because it buries you in nature, where “everything talks to you, greets you, demands your attention”. Gros, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, Paris, intersperses his own lucidly written reflections on walking with lyrical biographical sketches of thinkers who saw walking as integral to creation. However, his focus is fairly narrow: while the urban fl√¢neur and practitioners of Eastern religions appear in the final chapters, most of Gros’s protagonists are Western philosophers who favour walking silently and solitarily in pristine rural landscapes. Nevertheless, Gros makes a compelling case for walking as not only a way of knowing, but also a way of being—in particular, of being free.

Freedom begins as “a mouthful of bread, a draught of cool water, and the open country”. We need only put one foot in front of another; there is no need to keep score or master rules and techniques. This is why walking is not a sport. As we walk, we rejoice in our disentanglement from the web of exchanges to which we are bound. As we realise that we are bodies in motion, we flee from the temptation to be someone; we do not have to remain faithful to a possibly “stupid and burdensome” self-portrait. Our voluntary disconnection can last for days (“suspensive” freedom) or go on indefinitely (“transgressive” and “renunciative” freedom). It is in the latter mode that we get star-struck—dazzled by the vigour of celestial night skies and elemental energies. We cannot feel alone because “looking means possessing” the many things that meet our gaze, and walking splits us in two because we are always observing and motivating ourselves to go on. It is from here, Gros proposes, that we can glimpse eternity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau walked until every step he took became “an inspiration born to die immediately” and he became a “vibration among the trees and stones”. Friedrich Nietzsche, plagued by diminishing sight and intensifying madness, repeated his lengthy walks until his body resonated with the “vibration of the landscape” in an “endless relaunch” that he termed Eternal Recurrence. A passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature encapsulates the tone and content of Gros’s meanderings, at once earthbound and ethereal:

But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars… If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how men would believe and adore… The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence.

Gros writes how an artist might paint. His portraits of philosophically minded walkers, interspersed with his own meditations on “slowness” and other themes, meld the impressionistic and the existential. These prismatic vignettes, each crafted in about 20 pages, are the triumph of Gros’s deeply felt book. We drift with Rousseau in his waking dreams, and take flight with Arthur Rimbaud wherever his fancy leads. We conquer the fleetingly new as we wander in the wilderness with Henry David Thoreau. We are unwaveringly present at five in the evening when Immanuel Kant, whose life pivots regularity, takes his daily walk—”an immutable ritual, as regular and fundamental as the sunrise”. To read this book is to walk and think alongside these famous men, and also to look at an impressionist (or post-impressionist) painting.

Gros, disagreeing with Kant that walking is a distraction from work, takes Nietzsche’s view that we must walk in order to write words that breathe. Drawing on Thoreau, Gros contends that books should be witnesses to a living experience; they should “make us want to live”:

Our first question about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition is: can they walk?

When we walk, we seek a different light. Gros sees libraries, and the books written in them, as grey. In contrast, books that are written while walking reflect “above, all, colours”. Gros’s sketch of Rousseau recalls Paul Cezanne’s late watercolors, in which swathes of yellows, pinks and blues mingle to form fugacious forests and shadowy houses. The young Rousseau walked alone to be filled with the “quiet murmurs” of the forest and the warmth of the winter sun. His walk was a surrender to “a well-being as slow as a forest path” so that he could unearth in himself homo viator (“walking man”)—the natural man unmarred by art, education or culture. In contrast, Rousseau’s last walks, documented in Reveries, were “a letting go” because he no longer felt a need to be anyone. On “crepuscular” walks, forgotten memories would “come floating up” to the elderly Rousseau “like aquatic flowers, differing only in their shifting colors and shapes”. Gros’s lyricism shines through, even when he writes rather disdainfully about “Parisiennes in all their glory”, strolling in the Tuileries Gardens on summer nights. The militantly manicured hedges, rectilinear walks, and the strollers’ artificial gait are oppressive to Gros, who yearns for the “natural” and despises the “artificial”. Yet, Gros stirringly captures the gentle melancholy of a fading evening, much like that which pervades Georges Seurat’s masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte (1884):

… the orange light and violet reflections, the sweetness of the evening advancing on tiptoe, and the dust thrown up by thousands of footsteps. The trees are still scarred with women’s names, carved by sad lovers.

It is tempting to see this book as too romantic; it is not a hankering for the pastoral but a search for truth because, as Gros suggests, “once on his feet… man does not stay where he is”. To walk is to make—a statement, a memory, a person, or a place. Gros’s book holds up as an affirmation of the importance of this link, which has often been made in art and literature. Paul Klee took lines for walks. The performance artist Han Bi [2]ng [2] takes cabbages for walks. Virginia Woolf’s heroine Mrs Dalloway, crossing Victoria Street to buy flowers, delighted in “life; London; this moment of June” and noted how strange it was that her memory of an old friend had become reduced to “a few sayings… about cabbages”. Morrissey, in Autobiography, describes his childhood in postwar industrial Manchester—where “birds abstain from song” and “the 1960s will not swing”—as one spent racing about “streets upon streets upon streets upon streets”. Through his similarly lyrical prose that pulsates with sights and insights, Gros beguilingly achieves his primary purpose: to show that walking can manifest thoughts about the everyday, which for Gros range from an awareness of our animal “presence” to “eternities”.

While Gros rarely explicitly chronicles his own experiences of walking—an exception being his account of abandoning his rucksack in the crotch of a tree while trekking in the Cevennes—he is unafraid to allow us to think alongside him, even though he is forming his thoughts as he writes (and walks). For instance, we read about Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Recurrence and Rousseau’s acquisition of a “pure, transparent, limitless compassion” before encountering Gros’s ruminations on “eternities”. Immediately thereafter, these thoughts are challenged by Thoreau’s contrasting proposition that there is no “communion” or “fusion” with nature when man walks for a man feels that he is “natural rather than in nature“. As such, Gros’s book demonstrates that it is both viable and productive to walk and register what comes to our minds as we walk.

While the book’s title makes it clear that Gros has no intention of giving the subject exhaustive treatment, it is rather disappointing that Gros disproportionately focuses on (often picturesque) rural walks. For example, he gives walking in urban areas rather cursory treatment. This is understandable given Gros’s strong aversion to strolling in “artificial” and crowded urban settings. However, it seems likely that Gros could have written a compelling exposition about the travails of urban walking, much of which tends to take the form of transport (getting from A to B as quickly as possible) rather than wayfaring (negotiating and improvising paths as one goes along), to draw on the anthropologist Tim Ingold’s terms. Gros’s limited focus is also unfortunate given the prominence of walkability in recent assessments of city livability as well as the prevalence of urban environments as the setting for many notable expositions on walking. The philosopher Michel de Certeau likens walking in the city to a “long poem” continuously written by pedestrians who cannot read it; the essayist E.B. White, also writing about Manhattan, sees the city as a “poem” that “compresses all life, all races and breeds”, whose “full meaning will always remain illusive”. These works would make interesting contrasts to Gros’s book, as would Ways of Walking, a volume of ethnographies about walking through diverse settings including forests and ruins. Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, the anthropologists who edited Ways of Walking, argue that “walking is not just what a body does; it is what a body is“. Unlike Gros, who sees solitary and silent walking as a “blessing in parenthesis” because it relieves us of the duty of self-preservation, Ingold and Lee Vergunst draw attention to how walking is “a profoundly social activity”. For:

…in their timings, rhythms and inflections, the feet respond… to the presence and activity of others. Social relations, we maintain, are not enacted in situ but are paced out along the ground.

Despite its limited focus, Gros’s book is a commendable achievement and a delightful read. Gros’s accessible writing and considerable skill in communicating his thought process emboldens the armchair philosopher to go “outside”—which is “no longer a transition, but the element in which stability exists”—in order to look inside.

Daveen Koh [3] is reading for an MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology at Wolfson College, Oxford