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Authors: Frederic Gros

A Philosophy of Walking

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This book has been selected to receive financial assistance from English PEN's ‘PEN Translates!' programme, supported by Arts Council England. English PEN exists to promote literature and our understanding of it, to uphold writers' freedoms around the world, to campaign against the persecution and imprisonment of writers for stating their views, and to promote the friendly co-operation of writers and the free exchange of ideas.
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This English-language edition published by Verso 2014
Translation © John Howe 2014
First published as
Marcher, une philosophie
© Carnets Nord, 2009

All rights reserved

The moral rights of the author have been asserted

Verso
UK: 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG
US: 20 Jay Street, Suite 1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201
www.versobooks.com

Verso is the imprint of New Left Books

ISBN-13: 978-1-78168-270-8 (HBK)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78168-629-4 (EXPORT)
eISBN-13: 978-1-78168-271-5 (US)
eISBN-13: 978-1-78168-644-7 (UK)

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gros, Frédéric.
[Marcher, une philosophie. English]
A philosophy of walking : / Frédéric Gros; translated by John Howe.
   pages cm
ISBN 978-1-78168-270-8 (alk. paper)
1. Walking–Philosophy. I. Title.
B105.W25G7613 2014
128′.4–dc23

2013045065

v3.1

To Daniel Deffert,
who has trusted me.

We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful
.

Friedrich Nietzsche,
The Gay Science

1
Walking Is Not a Sport
 

W
alking is not a sport.
Sport is a matter of techniques and rules, scores and competition, necessitating lengthy training: knowing the postures, learning the right movements. Then, a long time later, come improvisation and talent.

Sport is keeping score: what's your ranking? Your time? Your place in the results? Always the same division between victor and vanquished that there is in war – there is a kinship between war and sport, one that honours war and dishonours sport: respect for the adversary; hatred of the enemy.

Sport also obviously means cultivation of endurance, of a taste for effort, for discipline. An ethic. A labour.

But then again it is material: reviews, spectacles, a market.
It is performance. Sport gives rise to immense mediatic ceremonies, crowded with consumers of brands and images. Money invades it to empty souls, medical science to construct artificial bodies.

Walking is not a sport. Putting one foot in front of the other is child's play. When walkers meet, there is no result, no time: the walker may say which way he has come, mention the best path for viewing the landscape, what can be seen from this or that promontory.

Efforts have nevertheless been made to create a new market in accessories: revolutionary shoes, incredible socks, high-performance trousers … the sporting spirit is being surreptitiously introduced, you no longer walk but do a ‘trek'. Pointed staffs are on sale to give walkers the appearance of improbable skiers. But none of that goes very far. It can't go far.

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found. To walk, you need to start with two legs. The rest is optional. If you want to go faster, then don't walk, do something else: drive, slide or fly. Don't walk. And when you are walking, there is only one sort of performance that counts: the brilliance of the sky, the splendour of the landscape. Walking is not a sport.

Once on his feet, though, man does not stay where he is.

2
Freedoms
 

F
irst of all, there is the
suspensive
freedom that comes by walking, even a simple short stroll: throwing off the burden of cares, forgetting business for a time. You choose to leave the office behind, go out, stroll around, think about other things. With a longer excursion of several days, the process of self-liberation is accentuated: you escape the constraints of work, throw off the yoke of routine. But how could walking make you feel this freedom more than a long journey?

Because, after all, other equally tiresome constraints make themselves felt: the weight of the rucksack, the length of the stages, the uncertain weather (threat of rain, of storms, of murderous heat), the primitive accommodation,
things like that … Yet only walking manages to free us from our illusions about the essential.

As such, it is still ruled by powerful necessities. To complete a given stage you have to walk so many hours, meaning so many paces; scope for improvisation is limited, you aren't wandering down garden paths and you have to turn the right way at junctions, or you'll regret it. When fog shrouds the mountains or rain starts to fall in sheets you have to continue, to keep going. Food and water are subject to detailed advance planning, depending on routes and sources. And I am not talking about discomfort, although the real miracle is that one is happy not despite that, but because of it. What I mean is that not having an infinite choice of food or drink, being subject to the inevitability of weather in all its moods, and relying only on one's steady pace – all this quickly makes the profusion of what is available (merchandise, transport, networking), the easy access to facilities (to communicate, to buy, to move about), seem like dependencies. These micro-liberations all constitute accelerations of the system, which imprisons you all the more strongly. But whatever liberates you from time and space
alienates you from speed
.

To someone who has never had the experience, a simple description of the walker's condition quickly appears an absurdity, an aberration, a form of voluntary servitude. Because the city-dweller tends spontaneously to interpret such activity in terms of deprivation, whereas the walker considers it a liberation to be disentangled from the web of exchanges, no longer reduced to a junction in the network
redistributing information, images and goods; to see that these things have only the reality and importance you give them. Not only does your world not collapse within these disconnected moments, but those connections suddenly appear to be burdensome, stifling, over-restrictive entanglements.

Freedom then is a mouthful of bread, a draught of cool water, and the open country. That said, rejoicing in that suspensive freedom, happy to set off, one is also happy to return. It's a blessing in parentheses, freedom in an escapade lasting a couple of days or less. Nothing has really changed when you return. And the old inertias are back at once: speed, neglect of the self, of others, excitement and fatigue. The appeal of simplicity has lasted for the time of a hike. ‘The fresh air's done you good.' A blink of liberation, and straight back to the grindstone.

The second freedom is more aggressive and rebellious. Walking only permits a temporary ‘disconnection' from our daily lives: escape from the web for a few days, a brief out-of-system experience wandering untrodden paths. But one can also decide on a complete break.

The appeal of transgression, the call of the great outdoors are easily found in the writings of Kerouac or Snyder: throwing off moronic conventions, the soporific security of four walls, the boredom of the Same, the wear of repetition, the chilliness of the well-heeled and their hatred of change. The need to provoke departures, transgressions, to give substance at last to folly and dreams. The decision to walk (to head somewhere far off, anywhere, to try
something else) can be understood this time as the Call of the Wild.

BOOK: A Philosophy of Walking
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