[1 April 2014]
More of a love letter than a philosophical tome, John Howe’s eloquent translation of Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking is a beautiful and poetic rumination on one of the most ordinary acts. Indeed, reading A Philosophy of Walking is a bit like taking a walk: one loses oneself along the way; here and there something new is noticed; a thought springs to consciousness; and the worries of the day are shed while you slowly, quietly share the road with a fellow traveler.
Why is walking worthy of a philosophical study? There are many reasons. For starters, Gros is not the first to contemplate walking from a philosophical perspective, as his bibliography makes clear, so there is already an established tradition. Moreover, many of the greatest thinkers have been walkers: Gros includes chapter-length treatments of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, Nerval, Kant, and Gandhi, and mentions still others in passing. Yet, what really makes walking a proper topic for philosophical consideration is that it is always-already a moral and political act.
A theme that is repeated throughout the book is that walking is liberating; it is both freedom from and freedom to. “By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history.” You are liberated from all of what Gros calls “your commitments in hell—name, age, profession, CV.” And in the era of late mature capitalism, walking provides a rare opportunity to free yourself from the weight of worldly possessions, as well.
“When setting out to walk for more than a few days, say more than a week, one question keeps arising as you pack your rucksack: is this thing really necessary? A matter of weight, of course. Because while we have been able to list the forms of well-being it brings, walking can be a nightmare if you are overloaded. So the same question, over and over: do I really need this”?
Almost always, the answer is no. The walker already owns the world: “Seeing, dominating, looking mean possessing. But without the inconveniences of ownership: one benefits from the world’s spectacle almost as a thief”.
Having jettisoned the burdens of identity and status, one is no longer tethered to the imperatives of daily living: “Do this, take a look at that, invite so-and-so: social constraints, cultural fashions, busy busy busy…”
At times, as in the passage above, one is reminded of some of Beatty’s monologues in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Indeed, one of the arch-villains in both works is speed. “In walking, the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness,” Gros believes. And while Western culture seems to reward speed in everything from sports to commerce and education, slowness is the true virtue, because “slowness is really the opposite of haste.”
Not surprisingly, walking is preferable to running. “The passage from running to rest is a violence. You hold your sides, you pour with sweat, your face is scarlet. You stop because the body’s giving way, you’re out of breath. When you walk, on the other hand, stopping is like a natural completion: you stop to welcome a new perspective, to breathe in the landscape.”
Of course, no two walks are ever really the same, no matter how many times we tread the same path. The walks we take in childhood differ from the walks we take in middle age or in our twilight years. In one especially eloquent passage, we are asked to imagine the “long crepuscular walks” of old age, when “forgotten memories, welcome as old friends, rise to the surface of the conscious mind. Memories for which one at last feels indulgence. They no longer wound by reawakening painful episodes, or fatigue the soul with yearning for a lost happiness. They come floating up like aquatic flowers differing only in their shifting colors and shapes. Indifferent, smiling, meaningful only in the vague, amusing, detached certainty of having once experienced them ... Was that really me, that dreamy child, that young man intoxicated by worldliness?”
It is clear that the imagined individual in the passage above is Gros himself, and it is worth emphasizing that the book is written from a male perspective. Yet, I am reluctant to speak of “gender bias” for several reasons: in part, because of the intimate nature of the book, which at times reads almost like a personal memoir; in part, because philosophy has historically been dominated by males, who become the exemplars here of philosopher-walkers.
In one of the only passages to make reference to gender, Gros points out that “for centuries in traditional societies, slow walking was the preserve of women: they would trek to distant wells to draw water, or set off down the paths to find plants and herbs. Men favored violent expenditures of strength, appropriate to hunting: sudden attacks, short but very fast chases.”
Because the topic would be of further interest, and because he is insightful, one wishes that Gros had developed the issue of gender further, perhaps in a separate chapter. That said, one might contend (albeit less justifiably) that not addressing gender is the argument, and that there should be no legitimate distinction.
The truth, however, is probably simpler: Gros has chosen to ponder figures and topics that are of interest to him. In this sense, writing mimics walking, where you choose “your route, your pace and your representations.”
Invariably, one will find points to quibble about. For example, an avid walker and arguably the most important philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger goes unmentioned. On the other hand, while Gros does discuss Walter Benjamin and the notion of the urban flaneur, he has little positive to say about walking in large cities. “The urban stroller,” he tells us, “doesn’t put in an appearance at the fullness of Essence, he just lays himself open to scattered visual impacts.” There may be truth in this, but surely there is more to it than just that.
At times, Gros can come off as dogmatic, as when he argues that “walking means being out of doors, outside, ‘in the fresh air’... when you have left the walls of rest behind you, and find yourself with the wind on your face, right in the middle of the world: this is really my home all day long, this is where I am going to dwell by walking.” People living in colder climates than Paris, say in Northern Europe or parts of North America, where “mall-walkers” may be found before stores have even opened, are likely to disagree that being outside is the only authentic or fulfilling way to experience walking.
Ultimately, however, a good book is not one that you agree with on all points; it is one that stimulates the imagination and encourages reflection and introspection. It may again be likened to a good walk, because it is an opportunity to “hold yourself to account: you correct yourself, challenge yourself, assess yoursel.”
In a good book, you find yourself walking in another’s shoes, seeing the world though another’s eyes, alone and yet accompanied, committed and yet free—to lose yourself. You may not find yourself in lockstep with Frédéric Gros, but you will be glad you made the journey with him.