Occasionally, a book will crook its finger at me and invite me to go slower, to wrap my mind around the contours of its meaning, to seduce me by painting a picture of the idyllic world my heart yearns for with impeccable words and a kick-ass vocabulary. Do you like walking and thinking about the meaning of life? This book is a must read.
Several philosophers have a deep connection to walking, dealt with chapter by chapter (Kant, Thoreau, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Gandhi). The Nietzsche section is one of my favorites, scrambling ever-higher, “there are thoughts that can only occur at 6,000 feet above the plains and mournful shores… for thinking one needs a detached outlook, to be at a distance, to have clear air. One needs to be unconstrained to think far.” After he resigns his teaching position due to migraines, he spends the next 10 years walking and working, walking 8 hours a day and jotting down his thoughts. During these years he wrote “his greatest books, from The Dawn to On the Genealogy of Morality, from The Gay Science to Beyond Good and Evil, Zarathustra. He became the hermit (‘find myself once again a hermit, and do ten hours a day of hermit’s walking’, July 1880); the solitary, the wanderer.” Think while walking, walk while thinking. Cruelly, his life ends in madness and paralysis, wheeled around by his mother, the grand wanderer reduced to a shred of former self.
Rousseau, the inveterate walker, “incapable of thinking properly, of composing, creating or finding inspiration except when walking” (p 65). Writing comes easily after walking, “during long, easy walks on well-traced routes, when all you have to do is follow an interminable set of hairpins, you hatch a thousand plans, invent a thousand tales. The body slowly advances, with measured steps, and that same tranquility gives the mind a day off.”
“With its great shocks, Nature thus awakens us from the human nightmare.” (p 85) “Walking is an invitation to die standing up.” (p 187)
On the freedom brought to you during long wandering, “you feel free, because whenever you remember the former signs of your commitments in hell – name, age, profession, CV – it all seems absolutely derisory, minuscule, insubstantial.” (p 9)
On slowness (p 37):
Haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day. Every minute is torn apart by being segmented, stuffed to bursting… 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.
On silence (p 62):
Above all, silence is the dissipation of our language. Everything, in this world of work, leisure, activity, reproduction and consumption of things, everything has its function, its place, its utility, and a specific word that corresponds to it… Language is an instruction slip, a price list. In the silence of a walk, when you end up losing the use of words because by then you are doing nothing but walk, in that silence you hear better, because you are finally hearing what has no vocation to be retranslated, recoded, reformatted.
Pilgrimages to Mount Kailash, the sacred space in Tibet, or to Santiago de Compostela, about the journey stripping away your self, your sins.
Nerval’s chapter, p 150:
The anxious exaltation of the mad walker in towns. The streets are an excellent environment for maintaining, nourishing, and deepening the illness. Everywhere sly glances, strange jerky movements, contradictory noises: engine sounds, bells, snatches of speech, the drumming of thousands of feet on the pavements. And as a route has to be found somehow, everything becomes a struggle and delirium is completed.
On gravity p 185:
I think of those abstracted sedentary individuals who spend their lives in an office rattling their fingers on a keyboard: ‘connected’, as they say, but to what? To information mutating between one second and the next, floods of images and numbers, pictures and graphs. After work it’s the subway, the train, always speed, the gaze now glued to the telephone screen, more touches and strokes and messages scrolling past, images… and night falls, when they still haven’t seen anything of the day… Those lives, disconnected from roads and routes, make them forget our condition, as if erosion by changing weather over time didn’t exist.
Minor complaint about the editing: GÃ©rard de Nerval is name dropped on p 22 as if we’ve already been speaking of him and his connection to walking. He shows up much later (p 147), so I assume the Nietzsche chapter was originally intended to follow Nerval’s chapter.