You’ll Never Walk Alone
If walking is the most philosophical way of getting around, solitary strolls in nature won’t cut it.
Ways of getting around come with their own outlooks on the world. Cars, Americans are told again and again, mean freedom and comfort. Yet they can just as well be a burden, from the social costs of car-dependent communities to the way cars turn drivers into isolated individuals raging at the world outside their little metal box. Public transit can feel frustrating, involving lots of waiting and plodding routes. But there’s a solidarity that emerges on the subway or bus, the feeling that we’re all in it together, that makes it seem democratic. Whereas walking, trusting your own two feet, can mark one out as an interloper. It’s the mode of the solitary thinker, the flâneur, the backpacker. Yet it can be just as much a communal activity — from the solidarity of through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail to the crowd at a demonstration, people are on their own two feet together. The ambivalence of walking, which makes room for solo saunters and mass marches alike, has made it attractive to quite a few artists and thinkers.
A Philosophy of Walking
2014For Frédéric Gros, a Parisian professor and Foucault specialist, walking is also the most philosophical way of getting around. In A Philosophy of Walking (originally published as Marcher: une philosophie in 2009), Gros expounds a view of the world in which walking is the cure for all modernity’s indignities. Setting off on a walk is self-liberation, discarding drab duties or even rejecting a “rotten, polluted, alienating, shabby civilization” for an ascetic freedom. Given his interest in Foucault, one might expect Gros to see the aimless, rambling walk as an evasive countermeasure against surveillance and discipline. But his emphasis is more on the philosophical, timeless value of wandering. He brings home the extent to which walking, practically the simplest activity there is, has been made almost peculiar in most societies. Yet his fundamentally Romantic sensibility leads him to an odd vision of the practice — so caught up in the sublime and lofty that it misses what’s at its own feet.
Gros alternates brief meditations on themes such as “solitudes” and “eternities” with discussions of the role of walking in the lives of several philosophers. Admirers of aphoristic continental writing will find many lovely fragments. We learn that Nietzsche wished to be a hermit and walk for 10 hours a day, though Gros’s claim that the concept of eternal recurrence flows from Nietzsche’s habits is tenuous. Rousseau re-emerges as a peripatetic thinker, with hints of sympathy for his project of finding natural man through walking. There are erudite chapters on the Cynics and medieval pilgrimage. Even Kant’s famously regular walks, by which the citizens of Königsberg could set their watches, are saved from seeming boring, becoming in Gros’s hands demonstrations of the “obstinate repetition of the possible.”
In a series of epigrammatic and occasionally gnomic lines, Gros finds meaning in meandering. Through silence and solitude, the walker can attain a serenity that the artificiality of civilization chases out. “Walking makes time reversible,” he writes. Gros repeatedly invokes “slowness” as an ideal. “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” In an ever-accelerating culture, the slow is the real. Such statements suggest a connection to “slow Food” and other similar ideas: one can imagine Gros touting a Slow Movement Movement. By taking a step back, seeking the eternal instead of instant gratification, one finds the truly human amidst an alienating civilization.
Walking, for Gros, is a way to advocate slowness over haste. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the ideal of contemplation as opposed to an overwhelming flow of information. Yet this easily slips into a blanket rejection of society, requiring long and refreshing breaks from it, as opposed to thinking through its contradictions and finding its interstices. As walking shows us eternities, Gros says, we should stop reading newspapers, which are only temporary and ephemeral. But such statements, like calls for a day without Internet, partake in the fantasy of a lost wholeness. And just as with approaches to food that seek antediluvian authenticity, claims of timelessness mask the recent vintage of their invention — as well as the fact that they are accessible only to those with the means to take the time to slow down.
Gros sees walking as resistance. Walking can be a way to not be homo economicus. Where’s the rationality? “Walking is not a sport,” he proclaims in the first chapter. It eliminates performance, standardization, all the commercial and quantitative accoutrements of society, he argues — though advocates of the quantified self have been encroaching on this refuge.
But it turns out that Gros’s subject is not “walking,” per se, but a very specific sort of walk. His scenes are pastoral, in the solitude of nature. His descriptions of thought awoken by solitary strolls through the countryside recall 19th century Romantics like Wordsworth. Walking returns the walker to childhood joy, purely being in the world.
During long cross-country wanders, you do glimpse that freedom of pure renunciation… And you feel free, because whenever you remember the former signs of your commitments in hell – name, age, profession, CV – it all seems absolutely derisory, miniscule, insubstantial.
Gros sees the outdoors as liberation from the city. “Walking in town is torture to the lover of long rambles in nature,” he argues, “because it imposes … an interrupted, uneven rhythm.” Activities in cities are purposive, calculated, subject to all sorts of restrictions, but long hikes in the countryside, he claims, bring out the best in human thought. The walker finds the body and soul in dialogue, and reencounters one’s own naturalness. He celebrates notions of the wild and the westward urge, which he associates with American thinkers like Thoreau.
But Gros’s view of wilderness is uncritical, a pristine place untouched by human civilization that historian William Cronon among others has shown to be a cultural myth. This leads him to neglects the ways in which walking around the city can be a vital form of engagement with the politics of urban space.
For the most part, Gros disparages urban walking. Strolling around one’s neighborhood, Gros says punningly, is recreation but also re-creation, seeing the familiar in a new way: “One can plunder the streets delicately like that for ages.” He also has some grudging praise for the figure of the flâneur – the detached observer of urban life, Baudelaire out on a stroll. But, Gros writes, urban walking remains ambivalent, failing to make a “clean break” with civilization. Put another way, “the urban stroller doesn’t put in an appearance at the fullness of Essence, he just lays himself open to scattered visual impacts.” In Gros’s view, such wandering is only “subversive.” Gros’s ideal sort of walking is oppositional, while the flâneur can only evade.
Not long before picking up A Philosophy of Walking, I semi-peripatetically read sections of Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (2000) while wandering around Philadelphia. Both books, admirably, seem to have been written to be read in such a way – in short stretches while ambulatory and ambling; they are books that work best when their readers are also experiencing their subject. But whereas Solnit’s work makes room for long pilgrimages and short strolls, urban exploration and natural beauty, alone or with companions, Gros is curmudgeonly and exclusionary. Walking can be solitary, yet it can also be about conviviality.
Gros has succumbed to the illusion that if only we removed the distractions, we would be able to recover the attentiveness of bygone times. And while going for a stroll to think things through instead of immediately tweeting is all well and good; one can only stay on the mountaintop for so long. Gros’ descriptions of long, meaningful hikes come to seem less like opposition to the social order and more like vacations from it. And people, philosophers no less than others, don’t usually come back from vacation full of revolutionary energy.
A Philosophy of Walking aspires to expand the fields of life that are part of “philosophy.” Yet by dictating the ways in which walks can qualify as philosophical, Gros disparages and depoliticizes walking in everyday life. By defining walking as meaningful only in relatively unusual circumstances, accessible only to a few, Gros inadvertently rebuilds the walls separating philosophy from life.
For a book ostensibly about walking, much of it turns out to be about writing. Gros decries books that “exude the stuffy odour of libraries.” Let in some air, he suggests. He means we should seek out vital, authentic activity, from which real writing must flow, though this experience itself is beyond language: “Writing ought to be this: testimony to a wordless, living experience.” Gros contrasts stuffy, academic writing with books written with the freedom of the walker, whose “thought is not the slave of other volumes.”
But this too is a highly Romantic notion of originality, of the bold individual unconstrained by convention. Not all books can or should be inspired by solitary confrontations with nature, any more than all walks ought to be to the summits of the Himalayas. Sometimes you just need to run out to the grocery store. And that might turn out to have just as much to say, be just as “real” or “authentic” an experience as any of the reveries Gros applauds.
Walking can lead to the pleasure of being lost in thought. Yet walking can also turn one’s attention to the little details of the built world. Walking through places that are not often walked draws attention to how places are made — and for whom.
Gros claims that in walking, one rejects the pressure of self-performance. “By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history.” But it is worth asking who is offered this lure and who gets to glory in renouncing it. It turns out the freedom of renunciation is not distributed equally.
The only nonwhite people who appear in A Philosophy of Walking, besides a chapter on Gandhi, are Native Americans, to whom some mystical wisdom is attributed, a Taoist sage who is briefly cited, and, in the final pages of the book, a Tibetan spiritual pilgrim. All of these get described in the admiring tones of a yoga enthusiast. The book’s canon of thinkers are all men too. It’s hard not to wonder if Gros’s walking “philosophy” is for white men only.
The absence of women and people of color from Gros’s book speaks to the set of blinders he’s wearing. Gros seems oblivious to ways in which power shapes the experience of walking. Not only does anti-pedestrian public policy hamper every walking enthusiast, but people who aren’t white men often don’t have the privilege of such contemplative strolls, as they tend to attract the unwanted gaze and interruption of men and police. Solnit writes insightfully about balancing the allure of exploration with the reality of walking while female, while Gros seems unaware that this might even be a dilemma. The ideal of the flâneur – the ghost of the metropolis, who sees without being seen back – might seem universal, but only a few have the luxury of such invisibility. Try seeing if walking around Brownsville in Brooklyn or a Parisian banlieu makes you feel liberated from identity.
Gros writes that “walking shuts down the sporadic soliloquy to whose surface sour rancors, imbecile satisfactions and easy imaginary vengeances rise sluggishly in turn.” Yet the emptied, contemplative state of mind is far from the only way to enrich a walk. I may have an abstract, intellectual idea of how, say, Robert Moses’s highways destroyed New York neighborhoods. But if I’m walking north in the Bronx and hit the Cross Bronx Expressway, to take just one of many examples, things start to look different. I myself have a stretch of unpleasantness to walk through, and then I might connect it to, for instance, Marshall Berman’s writing on how the expressway devastated his childhood home, as well as to the experience of the people who live there today.
Gros’s pensive, contemplative tone makes him a thoughtful companion for a solitary walk. But when I walk around a city, I get angry. I get angry at the history of redlining and blockbusting, the legacy of white flight and suburbanization. I get angry at the destruction of neighborhoods to build hideous highways, the underfunding and decay of public transportation, the anti-pedestrian car culture and the casualties it causes. Walking around some neighborhoods makes me think about segregation and police brutality; around others, the influx of capital, its advertisements and homogenizing effects. At a certain point, the solitary stroll has to make way for choosing whom to march alongside.