|Yours truly, above Lake Wanaka, last week.
A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros (Verso 2014)
Discovered this wonderful little book over the summer and finally finished reading it: apt, as it turned out. I’ve not done enough tramping over the past few years, mostly for boring middle aged reasons. It’s high time I got back into it.
Must confess I thought, when I saw the title in good ol’ Unity Books, that only a French bloke would find the need to come up with a philosophy of walking.
Shades of Sartre in the scroggin; Pascal in the polypropylene; Derrida in the long-drop.
In fact it’s not like that at all: it is uncommonly direct and clear, if a bit disconcerting at times.
‘We must really manage one day to do without “news”,’ Gros begins one chapter – one which seems to me to be the core of the book, headed ‘Eternities’.
This may sound strange for a journalist, but I know what he means. One of my favourite political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, was dismayed to be told, by a star pupil, of an intention to go into journalism, telling the lad, after a long silence, that ‘I think the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder’.
I doubt Gros has read any Oakeshott: too English, too empiricist, to sceptical for yer average continental philosopher.
But they might have quite a bit in common: Gros writes that
‘…walking makes the rumours and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompense, interpret. Walking shuts down the sporadic soliloquy to whose surface our rancour, imbecile satisfactions and imaginary vengeances rise sluggishly in turn….You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of the long grass and the freshness of the wind….’
‘Chatter’ is the big no-no for Gros. For those of us who need a bit of solitude in our lives, it is more of a problem than ever: the ubiquitous smartphone, the addictive aspects of social media, are forever bleeping at us, trying to tug annoyingly at the metaphorical elbows of our consciousness.
Longer walks, of several days, bring perspective: away from the ‘chatter’, both interior and exterior. A walk, a hike – in New Zealand parlance, a tramp – allows one to do what Gros calls rejoice:
“rejoicing in that suspensive freedom, happy to set off, one is also happy to return. It’s a blessing in parentheses, freedom in an escapade., lasting a couple of days or less.’
‘Suspensive freedom’. I love that.
The freedom in walking lies, he says, ‘in not being anyone, for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.’
He is very good on what it’s like: he slows down and notices the process of walking.
There is the ‘strange impression’ made by the first steps each day: you’ve made all the preparations, navigation, food, gear, timings, weather etc, and then
‘you head off, pick up the rhythm. You lift your head, you’re on your way, but really just to be walking, to be out of doors That’s it, that’s all, and you’re there.’
There is a need to walk slowly – well, some of us don’t really have the option – and to not be overcome by goals, by turning the walk/tramp into another thing to tick off your list.
‘Knocking the bastard off’, to borrow Sir Edmund’s famous phrase about Everest, certainly has its place.
But for most of us, walking should be the goal itself.
‘…the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness….a sort of slowness that isn’t exactly the opposite of speed’
‘Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints…When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer.
‘Slowness means living perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone.
‘This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them clearer, like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.’
This is all gorgeous stuff.
There is, if you want it, a bit of Yer Ack-Shul Phillosophee: there are chapters on those famous, and not so famous, philosophers who have liked walking, and the book starts with a quote from Nietzsche
‘We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.’
Which certainly knocks some of the the more grandiose or gloomy prognostications of Nietzsche into the proverbial over-brimmed millinery.
It is also something I’ve noticed about myself: the better ideas often come while out walking. This is not to denigrate being, in Nietzsche words, ‘stimulated by books’.
The old mental appetite is certainly stimulated – and fed – by books, as well as by conversations, chats over coffee, and shouting matches over the Shiraz, gesticulating over the Glenmorangie.
But it is digested by walking. This is about balance, and the interaction between walking, thinking and feeling.
‘The climbing body demands effort; it is under continuous tension…It’s important not to weaken, but to mobilise energy to advance, to place the foot firmly and hoist body slowly, then restore balance.
So with thought: an idea to rise to something even more astonishing, unheard of, new.
and then again: it is a matter of gaining altitude,
There are thoughts that can only occur at 6000 feet above the plains and mournful shores.’
Every page has a lovely little line like this. If you like walking, thinking, and just slowing down and noticing, you won’t regret getting ahold of this work.