A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros

Get the book.

This is another entry in what I’ve come to think of as “Craig Mod books,” reflections on walking and what that activity does to thought through the body. I initially read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust on his recommendation from that essay and loved it. It treated walking as something with a history, with many purposes in time and in different cultures, and treated those purposes with respect and a genuine criticality that reflected the impossibility of covering as broad a concept as “walking” in a book only a couple hundred pages long.

A Philosophy of Walking is something ostensibly in this vein, but it’s more poetic and abstract, more distant. It opens with language like, “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method than has ever been found” and “what liberates you from time and space alienates you from speed.” I feel these things in walking. But I wonder how useful any of this is to people who have never walked in the woods a ways.

What I mean is that by walking you are not going to meet yourself. 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.

That’s lovely. And vague. I feel what he’s saying. I can easily lose myself in these reveries, and the book feels like that’s the point of reading it. But I don’t understand it, because the path up to that point is surely part of the history of the body that led the sensing mind there. In a chapter called “Silences,” he says, “Walking: it hits you at first like an immense breathing in the ears. You feel the silence as if it were a great fresh wind blowing away clouds.”

The book’s real meat comes in reflections on history’s beloved walkers: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, Nerval, Gandhi. All (troubled) men. The histories are fractured in a way that I think the reader is supposed to know about these men and what they’ve done, or at least their stature in the skyline of western thought. These histories are also tightly coupled with walking and the liberation walking provides to the (hurt) mind. He leaves out details about the way some of the people treated the people around them that don’t fit the mold of romantic reveries about philosophy, literature, and the mind and body.

And then come passages like these:

Among the sources of morning, we find the West. The East is where our memory resides: the East is culture and books, history and old defeats. There is nothing to be learned from the past, because learning from that means repeating former errors.

This claim flops about the page, undiscussed. I hate it.

Nerval has this quality of dreamy melancholy: slow rambles awakening ghosts from earlier times, kindly women’s faces. And the certainty, when walking, of a childhood spent only and always in this light. Not nostalgia for lost years, nor nostalgia for childhood, but childhood itself as nostalgia (only children know the miracle of nostalgia without a past).

What the hell does that mean? But in the same vein, this description of pleasure felt correct:

Pleasure is a matter of encountering. It is a possibility of feeling that finds completion in an encounter with a body, element or substance. That is all there is to pleasure: agreeable sensations, sweet, unprecedented, deliciously unexpected, wild … It is always some sensation, and always triggered by an encounter, by something that confirms, from outside, the possibilities inscribed in our bodies. Pleasure is the encounter with the good object: the one that causes a possibility of feeling to blossom.

He goes on to describe habituation, and the clarity of reflection that becoming accustomed to some pleasure can provide. He does this in fittingly pleasurable prose.

The book is a pleasurable read. It’s better to think of this as a kind of reverie of walking, poems reflecting a walking body, just set in text and contextualized in history. As an exhaustive reference, it’s poor; it’s uncritical both of its subjects and the whole subject of walking, which only recently became accessible and safe to women, and even then only in limited contexts. It doesn’t attempt to describe the history of walking itself, a history of the difference between the societal views of the kind of walking a medieval pilgrim was doing (the subject of one of its chapters) and what Rousseau was doing (also a chapter). I’m glad I read Wanderlust before this otherwise I would be pregnant with questions throughout. This lack of criticality shows in the sense that the author wrote a book in 2011 using “he” everywhere, and the translator chose to maintain that. He uses phrases like “Oriental” poorly and without the specificity that a nine-year-old with five minutes and an iPhone could provide. Never mind the constant ableism and lack of discussion of disability and how that relates to the reverential headspace he seems intent on maintaining.

If you like walking and have read Wanderlust, this might be nice. Don’t read it if you haven’t read Wanderlust: it’s important to know the vast chasms this book leaves out to maintain its sense of reverie and abstraction.

A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros - January 11, 2019 - Jordan T. Thevenow-Harrison