John Howe (Trans.)
A Philosophy of Walking
April 8, 2014
A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros is an insightful stroll through meadow lanes and Alpine forests; a compilation of miniature glimpses into the lives and habits of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Thoreau, Rousseau, the Cynics, Nerval, Kant, Baudelaire, and Gandhi, and more. The focus of Gros’ explorations remains on-the-go, not unlike many of the figures that we are asked to follow, and such escapades into the walking habits of these long-gone men, whether across mountain ranges or through the city streets of Paris, illuminate the importance of the walk to such figureheads of Western thought.
Insightfully crafted prose nourishes us as readers: “… a walk doesn’t signify a quick rest, a simple pause, as if it were simply a matter of stopping. It is rather a matter of a change in rhythm: it unshackles the body’s limbs along with the mind’s faculties” (163). As per Gros' topic-at-hand, we are gently rolled through the hills of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau and Thoreau to the city streets of the Cynics, Nerval, Kant, and Benjamin. The form of the book emerges as 25 quarter-note chapters, the Viertelnote lending itself to a vital slowness, occasional reflective pause, but undergirded by a predictable regularity; one foot after the other. The pace remains steady throughout and unobtrusively leads us to the last chapter, entitled "Repetition"—a nod to Nietzsche's eternal return; we will do it all again.
While the book is quite enjoyable, my mind wandered at times, entertaining what the effect(s) might have been had the walking writings of non-white or non-male voices been included (e.g., Fanon, Morrison, Baldwin, Walker, Wright). And while it need not be focused on too intently, as the worst sort of review is one that faults an author for something they have not written, what occurs when a walk turns to a run, when the forest presents itself not as a place of solitary contemplation but one of violence, when the flaneur's walk folds in on itself and the observer becomes the observed or perhaps the recipient of aggressive retribution? One wonders if situating the walk within the annals of these long-gone figures of philosophical lore leaves the applicability of the discussion at hand. However, Gros rebounds with self-reflexive anecdotes and timeless offerings that ring as true in today's world as they would have in the 19th century: "The walker's immobility facing that of the landscape ... it is the very intensity of that co-presence that gives birth to an indefinite circularity of exchanges: I have always been here, tomorrow, contemplating this landscape" (25); and "During a promenade or stroll, the act of walking lacks the density of long excursions, but other dimensions can be felt, more humble, less suited to grand mystical poses, metaphysical frauds and pretentious declarations. ... the promenade as an absolute ritual, the creation of a childish soul; the promenade as free relaxation, mental recreation; the promenade as rediscovery" (159).
A Philosophy of Walking is a pleasing romp to be read with the likes of Alain de Botton (see How Proust Can Change Your Life) as a manageable, playful entry into the philosophical realm. In this age, composed by the hand of haste, Gros’ discussions regarding “good slowness” are very much welcome: “…it’s the extreme regularity of paces, a uniformity. … It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. … presence is slowly established in the body” (36–38). With a recognition of the work of Karl Gottlob Schelle in Die Promenade als Kuntswerk (The Art of Walking, 1802), in exploring the relaxing effects of walking on the body, Gros dips into an observation on sedentary work worth thinking about in the Global North's increasingly service-based and seated economies: "while working, you have to remain the captive of your subject, stay shackled to your task, think of only one thing at a time. The seated body can't move about much, and when engaged in effort must keep its movement exact, the workings of its muscles coordinated. In this way work always results in a state of nervous irritation, due to forced and prolonged concentration" (163). While walking, however, we are reminded of the importance of the ebb and flow—the give and take—of the walk: “Walking ... Is very like a continuous breathing in of energy. … walking is movement, the heart beats more strongly, with a more ample beat, the blood circulates faster and more powerfully than when the body is at rest. And the earth’s rhythms draw that along, they echo and respond to each other" (105).
For a steady read that settles the soul, opens the imagination to unbound forests that provide much-needed balance to the crazed lives that we now lead, and presents information that perhaps you may already know but from a slightly skewed, and often beautiful, point of view, A Philosophy of Walking does not disappoint: “… the truth is that as soon as you start walking, all that noise, all those rumors, fade out. What’s new? Nothing: the calm eternity of things, endlessly renewed” (101).
J. K. Fowler
Fowler lives in Oakland, California. He is the founding editor of Nomadic Press, adjunct professor at Rutgers University, Newark, and has studied at the University of California, Davis, the University of Cape Town, The New School, and the European Graduate School.