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a philosophy of walking

...there is the promise of meeting a freedom head-on as an outer limit of the self and of the human, an internal overflowing of a rebellious Nature that goes beyond you. Walking can provoke these excesses: surfeits of fatigue that make the mind wander, abundances of beauty that turn the soul over, excesses of drunkenness on the peaks, the high passes (where the body explodes). Walking ends by awakening this rebellious, archaic part of us: our appetites become rough and uncompromising, our impulses inspired. Because walking puts us on the vertical axis of life: swept along by the torrent that rushes just beneath us.

In treating walking as a philosophical and spiritual activity, French philospher Frédéric Gros follows in the thoughtful footsteps of H.D. Thoreau and Ton Lemaire (whose work, alas, remains untranslated). But 'A philosophy of walking' ('Marcher, une philosophie', 2009) also evokes the riotous ramblings of the Beat poets.

Indeed, in his most inspired moments, Gros writes of walking as a kind of secular mystical experience, drawing on Western and Eastern religious traditions alike. And capturing the universal, perennial appeal of walking.

The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemmorial life.

Walking, as Gros stresses at the outset, is not a sport but one of the most basic human ways of experiencing the world, by simply, slowly, without the help of much technology, moving from one place to another - preferably a full day's march away. Besides imposing simplicity and slowness, walking invites sensorial experience of the natural landscape, which he prescribes as an antidote to today's familiar experience of abstraction and screen-life.

"The network has no horizon," Gros said in a Le Monde interview, succinctly summing up both the numbing quality of cyberspace and the attraction of going out the door, into the open.

'A philosophy of walking' follows two meandering paths, one tracing the role of walking in the life and works of classic philosophers and writers, the other reflecting on the nature of walking. The latter really proves the most interesting, as the stories of these classic walkers have been told before elsewhere, often in their own words.

There is Nietzsche's mountain walking, "6,000 feet beyond man and time", only to come down to tell the world that God was dead. Or Kant's daily stroll, like clockwork, through the park in the town he seldom left. Or again Rousseau's hikes in nature, away from civilization and discovering his natural self.

Then there's the nervous walking of French poets, from Rimbaud's perpetual flight, on foot, until even his death registry said he was "passing through", to Nerval's melancholic wanderings through Paris, ending with his demise in an obscure alley. The romantic wandering of English poets like Wordsworth. And the American tradition of self-sufficient wilderness hiking, starting with Thoreau - who wrote extensively about walking in 'Walden', 'Walking' and other essays - and continued by Snyder and others.

And ultimately there is Ghandi's walking, which is of yet another kind, an act of political subversion as well as spiritual expression - both summed up in his concept of satyagraha.

One absentee in this walking canon is Petrarch, whose ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336 has been considered the start of recreational walking - his sole motive "the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer". In 'Filosofie van het landschap' ('A philosophy of landscape', 1970) Ton Lemaire wrote of this moment as a first European discovery of the world as both an aesthetic and spiritual landscape. Here's a short excerpt (in my translation):

Here, on the peak of Mont Ventoux, (...) a dramatic encounter takes place between Augustine and Petrarch, between the spirit of the Middle Ages and the modern age, between introspection and expansion. Petrarch's journey articulates these two world views: that of traditional christianity which considers human self-realization to lie in contemplation, in introspection, and which fears to lose itself in the great expanse of the world; and that of the burgeoning modern spirit which seeks salvation in 'extraspection', in expansion and exploration of the other, and for whom the world expanse is the range in which it enthusiastically finds itself.

It is this sense of extraspection which Gros explores in his more phenomenological chapters, devoted to such aspects of walking as slowness, solitudes, silences and eternities. And just as the extreme introspection of the Medieval mystics produced visions of transcendence, the extreme extraspection of long, arduous hikes may lead to a kind of immanent mysticism.

...walking causes absorption. Walking interminably, taking in through your pores the height of the mountains when you are confronting them at length, breathing in the shape of the hills for hours at a time during a slow descent. The body becomes steeped in the earth it treads. And thus, gradually, it stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape. That doesn't have to mean dissolution, as if the walker were fading away to become a mere inflection, a footnote. It's more a flashing moment: sudden flame, time catching fire. And here, the feeling of eternity is all at once that vibration between presence. Eternity, here, in a spark.

(For absorption, the French has 'imprégnation', which has more of the connotation of something worked upon, like wood, until it reaches saturation.)

Over the course of the book, the emphasis shifts from walking's sublime moments to the more ascetic aspects of its practice. Walking - which only needs "a mouthful of bread, a draught of cool water, and the open country" - eliminates superfluous bagage of many kinds. Useless stuff accumulated from mindless consumption, weighty intellectual ideas that become absurd next to the sheer thereness of a wildflower or a rock, and most of all "the dissipation of our language" in the silence of walking.

In one chapter, Gros asks the quintessential walker's question, "the same question, over and over again: do I really need this?" Because walking always means you have to carry what you (think you) need... And so Gros proceeds to peel off layers from the useful to the necessary and finally to the bedrock of the elemental, "whose consistency can hardly be felt, for it yields itself in pure form only to one who has, at some time, got rid of the necessary."

If this sounds like heavy going, the practice of mendicant monks perhaps, Gros makes the same point more playfully in a chapter on strolls. It is similar to what John Fowles described in his essay 'The Tree', that words and ideas tend to prevent immediate experience. And walking, adds Gros, by eroding the accumulated ideas from our minds, is a way to bring back the capacity for naive experience - for elemental seeing.

...we oughtn't to be contrasting the imaginative, dreamy outlook of children with the realism and objectivity of adults. It is children who are the true realists: they never proceed from generalities. The adult recognizes the general form in a particular example, a representative of the species, dismisses everything else and states: that's lilac, there's an ash tree, an apple tree. The child perceives individuals, personalities. He sees the unique form, and doesn't mask it with a common name or function. When you walk with children, they enable you to see the fabulous beasts in tree foliage, to smell the sweetness of blossoms. It isn't a triumph of the imagination, but an unprejudiced, total realism. And Nature becomes instantly poetic.

(Quotes from the translation by John Howe. The English edition also contains some great illustrations by Clifford Harper.)


study of mountains

The dozen or so versions of 'Study of Mountains' represent Russian painter Nicholas Roerich 's mystical visions of the Himalaya peaks at their starkest, barest essence: planes and textures of dizzying color and ligh… Read the full post »

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