The Chronicle Review

Bright Stroll, Big City

Keith Negley for The Chronicle Review

June 02, 2014

Walking in a city is the greatest unpriced pleasure there is. I have walked bustling short blocks in New York; absurdly crowded pavements in Shanghai; the bucolic reaches of the Philosophenweg, near Heidelberg; mazey souk lanes in Doha; the tangled streets of East London; Edinburgh’s Escheresque stone stairways and eerie closes; the winter-dark hills of Reykjavik and the rain-showered ones of San Francisco; the slope of sunny Sydney running down to the Pacific; the concrete canyons of Chicago’s downtown Loop; the Cambridge Backs when Fen-born frost rimed the mown grass; the lovely sward of the Boston Common passing into the Public Garden. I have walked not only along the Mall in Washington but all the way out to the airport, cruising down the Potomac in the heat, thinking fond thoughts of the Sam Adams lager I would have when I got to the departures lounge.

Urban walking with no aim but sensation—the solitary pleasures of the flâneur—is of course a recent phenomenon, a legacy of modernity. As Frédéric Gros says in his book-length ramble through the topic, A Philosophy of Walking (Verso), the "urban stroller is subversive. He subverts the crowd, the merchandise and the town, along with their values. The walker of wide-open spaces, the trekker with his rucksack opposes civilization with the burst of the clean break, the cutting-edge of a rejection." Well, maybe; sometimes a stroll is just a stroll. And Gros misses other ambivalences of flânerie, for instance its too-easy association with the male gaze: the cruising glance of appraisal that sizes up a shop window and a pretty boy or girl in just the same proprietary manner.

A Philosophy of Walking, already a best seller in France and newly translated into English—alas, with a number of ungrammatical sentences along for the walk—is not quite what its title promises. It is less a philosophy than an easy stroll through anecdotes about various big-brained walkers. We meet the usual suspects: Aristotle in the streets of Athens, Kant on his watch-setting daily round in Königsberg, Nietzsche striding the hills of Europe seeking relief for his syphilitic headaches. Proust’s wistful narrative of the Guermantes Way is briefly visited, as is Walter Benjamin’s conflicted return to the flânerie of Paris, capital of the 19th century, in The Arcades Project. Guy Debord’s attempts at subversion via the Situationist dérive, or drift, through the city, rewriting its geography with movement itself, are mentioned, if not explored.

Short chapters, a smooth, loping style, and a mixture of earnestness and charm all mark Gros’s book. Various topics and names are lit upon with a feathery touch. This is an easygoing volume of micro- reflections that raises, though never resolves, some difficult questions. If it lacks the heft of, say, Rebecca Solnit’s exceptional Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking, 2000), it nevertheless forces the issues in a useful way.

Some of the assertions (there are no arguments) sound grand but are simply muddled. "By walking you are not going to meet yourself," Gros says in an early chapter on the "freedoms" of perambulation. "By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. … 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 immemorial life." This is a little too dreamy for my big-city taste. It may be true that we seek anonymity in the crowded urban street, solitude among the multitude, but not so much, I think, to renounce or transcend self as to put it into question in new ways.

Walking is at best a mild form of bracketing the burden of identity.

Compared with reading a novel or watching a film, walking is at best a mild form of bracketing the burden of identity. I unglue myself temporarily from name and history, yes, but not to flow in the eternal current of life, whatever that is, rather to ask myself what I think I am up to, what I want from being here. The country walker who breaks with civilization, perhaps seeking thereby the sublime experience of being overawed by nature, still knows that the self can never be left entirely behind—for that self’s desires are what brought you out of routine actions and into the special reflective clearing of the walk. Wherever you go, there you are. (Disputes rage over the origin of that bit of wisdom; Buckaroo Banzai is my preferred source here.)

Gros likewise makes a fairly big deal about the fact that "walking is not a sport. … Sport gives rise to immediate mediatic ceremonies, crowded with consumers of brands and images. Money invades it to empty souls, medical science to construct artificial bodies." No doubt this is true of the Tour de France and Major League Baseball, but not all sport is like this, and of course there is a sport of walking. At the World Championships in Rome in 1987, a friend of mine covered 10 kilometers in 45 minutes and 27 seconds: Try telling her that there was no sport happening. Race-walking may be a somewhat marginal sport now, but as Matthew Algeo reminds us in his lively new book, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport (Chicago Review Press), well into the 1870s and 80s, and despite the emergence of professional baseball, thousands of people, all over the country, regularly gathered to watch six-day walking contests.

Even if one were inclined to agree with Gros’s vision of aimless walking—he is also against special shoes, clothing, and those pointed staffs that "are on sale to give walkers the appearance of improbable skiers"—he is awfully normative about the whole business. His demand for aimless, noncompetitive walking is just as judgmental and insistent as any other, and may sail closer to self-contradiction than most. You’re not doing aimlessness right! Walk this way!

Consider the spiritual pilgrimage, anyone’s model of a walk meant to bring about transformation; it is subject to all these same tangles of self and its loss. Along the ancient road to Santiago de Compostela, for example, one may still find the range of human preoccupation driving the various pilgrims on from day to day. David Lodge, in his novel Therapy (1995), has the character Laurence Passmore, afflicted by midlife crisis, attempt the walk while reading Kierkegaard. The philosopher’s ideas seem to be enacted by the walkers themselves: the ethical seekers after achievement of duty (so many kilometers a day), the aesthetic indulgers (look at the view!), and the religious knights of faith who pass through these stages and walk as an act of simple acceptance of the world. But Kierkegaard, the arch anti-Hegelian, would have known that such a resolution is too simple. We can never escape the conflicts of duty and pleasure, even in faith; nor can we escape ourselves in even the most purposeless journey. To be going nowhere in particular is still to be going.

More to the point, sometimes walking is the burden, not the release. Few characters in literature walk more than Thomas Hardy’s Tess, but she must do so from disadvantage, not in the interests of leisure or spiritualism. The suburban exiles who lack cars and live in districts poorly served by public transit, doggedly covering ground to fetch groceries from the nearest strip mall, are her modern descendants. They do not appear in Gros’s appreciation of bipedal motion.

Walking may be a kind of confession, a slowly moving portrait of failure, at least in terms of the modern city’s dominant movement-values. It is not really part of Gros’s purview—he lives in walkable Paris, after all—but we North Americans should always remember that the encroachment on walking opportunities by the postwar expansion of car-centric urban design is one of the signal failures of human vision in the 20th century.

The book ends with a meandering chapter, longer than most, that links the repetitious, even monotonous, action of the human stride to religious ecstatics in the Himalayas known as lung-gom-pa, the endlessly repeated breath-centered "Jesus prayer" that will be familiar to readers of J.D. Salinger, and resulting feats of "walking very fast over enormous distances without fatigue." Indeed, the truly ecstatic walker seems to be able to go beyond walking into the fantastic realms of near flight: "He covers great spans as if bounding over the ground." For myself, I’ll stick with my sneakers hitting the sidewalk, dodging the heads-down texters and the charity workers.

I don’t mean to take anything away from Gros’s basic enthusiasm for walking, which I share without reservation. Gros is on the side of the angels when he notes that walking is "the best way to go more slowly." We can move faster, for centuries by horse and more lately by every conceivable conveyance pushed by internal combustion; but we cannot experience ourselves and the world as fully in any other manner.

The jumbled record of sensations and ideas unique to the pace of walking is a distinctly human pleasure. "You need to start with two legs," Gros asserts without any irony; but he is correct. The upright posture is at once the highest achievement of Homo sapiens, our main sensory array lifted (as Freud notes) away from the smelly ground and into the clear air, and a constant invitation to fall forward in the two-legged gait that we alone, among the primates, have mastered. Walking is our thing, and because most of the human senses are lofted high atop the five or six feet most of us enjoy, the range of stimulus is wide. Our minds open, and we begin to ponder. We reflect or gather wool or argue inwardly; our minds are moving just as our feet do. But, to invoke Nicholson Baker’s much-neglected question, what size are the thoughts of walking?

"Each thought has a size," Baker writes in his essay "The Size of Thoughts," "and most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product." Large thoughts, thoughts with lasting heft, are crepuscular, complex, and slow to arrive, like "the unhasty, liquid pace of human thinking" itself. But sometimes a thought that seems smallish and about to wrap up and stop may "happen upon that loose-limbed, reckless acceleration, wherein this very thought may shamble forward, plucking tart berries, purchasing newspapers, and retrieving stray refuse without once breaking stride—risking a smile, shaking the outstretched hands of young constituents, loosening its tie!" Then again, no: It was a false start, a spurt of speed without finishing class. Thoughts fizzle just like other human things.

The specific association of philosophy with walking, which features so prominently in Gros’s book, is itself a middle-sized thought worth looking at a little harder. We call Aristotle’s philosophical school Peripatetic because legend holds that he liked to walk about as he lectured, but the name may simply be a corruption of the school’s original nickname, derived from the peripatoi, or colonnades, of the Athenian Lyceum. Aristotle’s fondness for travel—born in Stagira, he was an outsider in Athens who ventured away on numerous occasions, most famously to tutor the truculent Alexander the Great—may also have been a factor. There is no internal evidence that his ideas are rooted in walking, except in the general sense that he believed in observation of the natural world as a prerequisite for science.

Even solitary philosophizing may prove less amenable to the stroll than we often imagine.

It is sometimes said that it is impossible to have a real fight with someone while walking—we need the valences of face-to-face interaction to execute the business of emotional violence. The same may be true of genuine philosophical argument. Of course, one can always walk away from an opponent or interlocutor, as several vexed Athenians do when they encounter Socrates in Plato’s dialogues, and as ordinary people do all the time; but turning one’s back, like bursting into tears, is not an argument.

Even solitary philosophizing may prove less amenable to the stroll than we often imagine. For many people, the walk or hike is less an occasion for thought than a respite from it, sometimes a necessary venting of pent-up energy that precisely (like much exercise) lacks the quality of thought: I walk to exhaust stress like a vapor trail. My friend Josh, whose father is a minister, said this when the issue was raised: "My dad raves about how much mental stimulation he gets out of walking and hiking—he writes sermons and essays and book chapters in his head while walking. But when I walk or hike—much as I enjoy it—nothing happens in my head at all." I wonder if that is entirely true—nothing at all?—but the essential point is important. Walking may stimulate thought, just as beauty may inspire goodness, but this connection is contingent, not necessary; there is a philosophical error lurking in any attempt to make the link stronger than happenstance.

Some years ago I wrote a book about fly fishing. which, among other things, repeated Izaak Walton’s praise for the reflection that this pastime encourages. I mentioned the argument to a Norwegian friend, who solemnly shook his head. "No," he said. "When I fish all I think about is fishing." Likewise, there are times when the act of walking itself fills the vessel of thought nearly to the brim.

Here is a small- to medium-sized thought about thoughts and walking. I considered this modest idea while making my way to work, along Bathurst Street, past the roti restaurant, some barbershops, and a hipster craft-beer cafe. There is a famous image of the mind sketched in Plato’s Theaetetus. Consciousness, Socrates says, might be like a giant aviary, with all species of birds flying in apparently random directions. The birds represent thoughts; they are all contained by the confines of the aviary, but it is not until one is captured that it reveals its dimensions, coloring, and habits. Only then can we say that we are truly thinking that thought: to have is not the same as to hold.

I stopped on the street and made a note on a scrap of paper in my pocket; it says "aviary, Bathurst" and I have it, as they say, before me as I write. I don’t usually stop to make actual notes; mostly, when things worth remembering occur to me while walking, I make up mnemonics to carry them far enough into the future that I can set them down. I match the rhythm of these mini-jingles to my pace, and recite them as I put one foot in front of the other. Perhaps this is my version of the Jesus Prayer? Anyway, the note is a last resort: Like any memo, it is a message from the present self to a future self, a captured thought and a time-traversing device, a container of consciousness. Real thought ultimately requires stationary presence, supplication almost, before the machines of thinking: tables and chairs. We must eventually cease walking if we are truly to think.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Unruly Voices: Essays on Democracy, Civility, and the Human Imagination (Biblioasis, 2012).