Walking has done little for humanity outside of providing us with health, exercise, scenery, fresh air, perspective, and the greatest literature the world has ever imagined. Granted, not all novelists and poets were champion walkers. Just the best ones were. As for philosophy, there is no sitting. To discourse on the nature of the sitting philosopher would be the same as writing an essay on dry water. Jesus most certainly couldn’t have been as fat as the Buddha. He moved around too much. It is for this reason along with his instruction to his disciples ‘to go into all the world,’ that Christianity is a walking religion. In the history of Judaism, I think we can all agree that the art of walking is a pretty much inevitable association. Islam has a great amount of boasting to do about its use of horses but unfortunately, as far as walking goes, they are champions of the circle.
The writer Will Self wrote a book called Psychogeography, in which he recounts his experiences walking thousands of miles across the world. His initial inspiration was the French Situationist, Guy Debord, who first coined the phrase which served as the title of Self’s book. Debord described ‘Psychogeography’ as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ Their aim (so to speak) was to wander aimlessly through the streets of Paris at night, often drunk on lots of red wine, and write down what they saw in relation to their feelings about it. In doing so, they hoped to destroy the conventions of capitalist society—or something.
Self explained in his lectures when touring for the book that some of the streets in Paris are so wide because they were designed in anticipation of being able to control mobs. For him, walking from his home in South London all the way to the Heathrow airport, hopping on the plane and then walking from the JFK airport to his hotel, is all a way of subverting the psycho-political constraints on geography set by those who have most influenced history. His body remembers the walk as the pivotal part of the journey, where as the flight is simply a break between two landscapes joined by his mind. Self’s paranoia has always been a more cheerful one than Guy Debord’s. Self had this to say when interviewed by Russell Brand: ‘I’m trying to destroy the machine-man matrix that has gripped our heads and is destroying us … No it’s just I enjoy a walk.’
There does seem to be a fine line between those who do something for enjoyment and those who do something out of the firm conviction that it is nutritional for them in some way. The former, perhaps, would be categorized as sensualists, the latter, romantics. Rilke, like Rimbuad, spent the better part of his life walking across the world. Because Rilke was more of a romantic, he seems to have been more agreeable in the eyes of his peers. But if we can consider Rilke a romantic, Rimbaud was most certainly an unadulterated sensualist. In between his marathon strolls from country to country, he won his way into the hearts of men and women, fell out with them, almost died several times, and ‘seduced’ Verlaine. Most of this occurred after he retired from poetry at the age of 20, already having revolutionized every form of verse and prose imaginable. The dandified ideal of Baudelaire’s flaneur didn’t even begin to describe this highly irascible, insatiable little bastard, Rimbaud. One imagines him marching rather than strolling, turning his nose up to the robbed and beaten, marching around the criminals and continuing on his way. ‘Impatience’ hardly seems fitting to describe him when reading about his character. We see him completely annihilating everything that stands in his way, not a single thought or care for what bridge he will burn, what tie he will sever or what medical problems he’ll acquire. He doesn’t even give himself the opportunity to be impatient, and we sense this in his poetry. We get the feeling while reading him that wherever he wants to go, he has long ago set out that direction.
Henry Miller, who seems to be remembered for sex more than anything else, probably wrote about walking more than he wrote about sex. There was food too. He also needed a job. Sometimes he just wanted one cup of coffee or a cigarette. Sometimes he needed a vision. As he walks through Brooklyn, Paris, the forests and coastline of Big Sur, we’re told just as much about the landscape of his inner world as we are the physical landscape. He was one of the more conscious followers of Nietzsche’s certainty that the greatest thoughts are ‘moving thoughts.’ But what a fortunate position Miller was in compared to Nietzsche. Mr. Miller went most of his life well-loved with lots of friends and lots of women. Nietzsche, having very little of love, friends or women—by what seems like some cosmic joke—still managed to contract syphilis, while little Henry got by with a few manageable cases of the clap. Somehow, Nietzsche managed to walk as much as eight hours at a stretch, often high into the mountains, despite constant nausea, migraines, indigestion and a severe lack of sleep. One has to hand it to a man that miserable for trying to construct ‘the greatest affirmation of life’ in the philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence—a thought that ultimately came to him while walking-which allowed him to ponder on the possibility that life would just repeat itself over and over, exactly the same as he'd lived it.
Opposite those who walked to conduct the lonely business of figuring out the entire universe were those who walked to enmesh themselves in the otherness of people outside their class, like Dickens. Nabokov walked ten miles a day in search of rare species of butterfly, writing an occasional out-of-sequence sentence on a note card, meant ultimately for a novel. Somehow, old Nabokov still managed to become roly-poly on hard candy, which is probably just as much of a feat in light of his walking volume as his actual walking volume. Whitman, in an act of bravery almost unheard of today, tried his hand at selling his own Leaves of Grass door to door. Another champion walker, our Walt wandered the neighborhoods, forests, boulevards and alleyways with immense curiosity and love of life, though we certainly don’t have a problem imagining him stopping every now and then to lay in the grass and sniff his own armpits.
One thing we can gather from The Gospels is that the Devil is impatient with walking. He gave up on Christ after only three temptations in the space of forty days. You’d think he’d be able to squeeze a few more in. Or perhaps our lesson is this: that the Devil has very limited resources when out in nature. The Devil is a city man—a pimp and an alleyway crap shooter, a leader of an underground drug cartel. Emerson and Theroux knew this, and Heidegger most certainly knew it for a time at least … On that note, is it really such a surprise that when Heidegger left nature he became a Nazi?
God has given the gift of wisdom to the bi-pedals. No mollusk, cephalopod or crustacean has yet created a work of any real merit, though it may be a bit premature to rule them out just yet. Just as Henry Miller assured us that some of Joyce’s Ulysses was meant to be read on the toilet, we can be certain that some thoughts can only be thought while walking. And you can tell the difference, can’t you? Doesn’t Camus’s The Stranger reek like a smoked-in, farted-in, sexed-up hotel room? It is not a novel of moving thoughts but festering thoughts. Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground may be written from a room, but one can feel it running, at least. One can feel it cursing as it moves all directions, picking up stones and throwing them out ahead of itself. Sophie’s Choice, however, is the perfect reflection of a mind preoccupied with masturbation until something else comes and preoccupies it—not to mention the fact that it is also one of the greatest examples of sadism toward the reader written in the past century. The Adventures of Augie March, however, not only walks, but runs, leaps, stops for breath and even soars into the sky with Augie’s eagle.
The Golden Bowl takes a few strolls, but only long enough to run back to stuffy rooms to share gossip. But those strolls seem sufficient enough in supplying us with moving, looping, curling, obsessive thoughts. A Death In Venice doesn’t make the cut. This is the narrative of a man on a rocky boat, unable to walk his obsessive thoughts into coherence. The Picture of Dorian Gray makes the cut. Not only does it reflect the thought of one who has walked much, but one who has walked and then stopped to rest for a while in forbidden places before moving into the light again--could we expect less from Wilde?
Ulysses is most certainly a walking novel, among many other things. But it must be listed among the great walking books for it contains everything that could happen while moving: errands, distraction, idleness, jealousy, anxiety, reflection, conversation, and even the occasional second or two one requires to wipe a glob of snot on a rock.
You can see the difference. It has to do with energy. It just may be that even the walk itself is a product of this energy and the walking thought with it. It hardly seems that all the great walkers were in extraordinary physical shape. Many of them were quite weak and sick. But they were people of great mental health. They assaulted their senses with new perceptions to appropriate, digest and dispense. They quelled the sitting anxieties of stuffy afternoon rooms by sweating a bit in the sunlight. They measured the architecture of their minds against the architecture of nature and found them forming a third nature—or is it the only real nature, the one identified by interdependence between the two?
And though there do exist many other great works that aren’t necessarily moving ones at all, it is the moving works in the end which remind us that satiation, adventure and perhaps peace of mind are only as far away from us as one’s foot is from the ground and one foot from the other.
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