“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.”
A Philosophy of Walking
I love to walk. The majority of my best thinking is done on the hoof and, equally though contradictorily, I walk to forget and to free my mind. I walk to find that rhythm beyond the physical where you could easily continue at a steady pace and in silence, forever. I love to stroll aimlessly in strange, new places; I love to feel the wind whip my hair across my face, my nose streaming and ears aching from the wind, along the coastal trails in the county where I grew up; I love setting off with a head full of noise, in cities at the dead of night, when sleep evades me and returning to my door hours later with tired legs and a mind at peace; I have walked with friends in Serbian forests fearing for bears, alone in the nirvana of Nepal’s Himalayas and newly in love through the territories of Myanmar’s remote Eastern hill tribes. I love even those hungover Sunday morning park walks, when putting one foot in front of the other is ordeal enough to send you gagging for the nearest Bloody Mary.
Walking – the definition of pedestrian! I have never been able to elucidate quite why I love such an utterly unremarkable and commonplace activity so much, but always felt certain that there was something vaguely transcendental in a good stomp. Imagine then my glee on discovering that someone – namely frenchman, Frederic Gros – had written down everything I think but cannot express about walking and so much more. A Philosophy of Walking is a ramblers’ credo, a pensive and astute meditation and, most strikingly, a blissed-out love song to the simple act of moving forwards on two feet.
A dull subject I hear you say? Think again… I donate this book to the world, in the knowledge that it will delight those already converted to the church of the humble hike, but also in the hope that it will enlist some new believers..! May it wander the globe from owner to owner – carried in rucksacks down muddy country paths and up steep inclines. This book is as romantic and wistful, as it is considered and smart. I’ve read Dickens, Thoreau (who Gros’ references) and Rebecca Solnit try to conjure the magic of walking, but they are left plodding and monotonous in the face of Gros’ sprightly prose.
A Philosophy of Walking is irregularly structured around historical examples of great walkers, drawn predominantly from literature and philosophy, building a case for walking as an aid to thought. Most of the most erudite ideas in the book are actually to be found in Gros’ own musings, which are interspersed between the historical anecdotes. As the book unfolds and Gros’ argument grows, a fraternity of those on foot builds, until it is easy to imagine Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rosseau, Gandhi, Thoreau and Kant marching side by side through the pages. Glorious company!
Of these engaging tales and testaments an early section on Nietzsche is particularly gratifying. His intriguing biography is well-documented enough: the opium dabbles, associations with early fascism and final breakdown in Turin at the neck of a flogged horse. However Gros shines light on another side to the madman philosopher, and it is truly delicious to discover. Nietzsche never sat at a desk. All his ideas were born on long, strenuous walks through wild terrain – he composed all his work this way, scribbling notes on small notebooks, whilst perched on rocks. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”: Yummmmm! Equally as engrossing is the discussion of the original ancient Greek Cynics, who roamed the world like hermits and laughingly renounced all material possession and the trappings of society.
Gros is an academic – one of the world’s leading Foucault scholars no less – but A Philosophy of Walking is wholly readable. Rambling through his various different ideas and stories, the pace of the book almost feels like a country stroll. He talks about the difference between contemplating the landscape when walking, as opposed to the faster pace of being in a vehicle and how features of the scene slowly distinguish and reveal themselves, coming into view and gradually fading. This could be seen to mirror the development of his own ode to walking. His central ideas and arguments come on slow and steady, built up through successive and sometimes repetitive observations. Some readers may find this momentum, or lack of it frustrating, but I suggest saving this book for a long trek, away from the city, when you feel you have all the time in the world.
Gros sees walking as an exploration of presence and a way of better understanding your relationship with the world and, more importantly your relationship with yourself. The idea of the walker losing himself, his history and future, is at base a call for purifying contemporary life, through a deliberate simplification. There is a great passage where he tells of trying to reduce the weight of what you carry on your back, by repeatedly asking yourself “what is necessary?” The satisfaction of slewing off un-needed kilos, like superfluous veneers or frivolous life decisions, could just as easy be a rally cry for the disaffected and unfulfilled kids of urban capitalism.
This is just one string in a complex arrangement. The book covers pilgrimage, promenading, and Gandhi’s protest march to the salt planes of Dandi and on route takes in a plethora of different and sometimes contradictory ideas on the subject. What emerges is a staggering and singing case for closing your laptop, turning your phone off and getting outside into as wild a place as possible. Do it – and take this book along for the journey!