A Philosophy of Walking, by Frédéric Gros

Laurence Coupe admires scholarly insights of a kind the REF could never hope to measure

April 10, 2014

This short, simple and profound book was originally published in French under the title Marcher, une philosophie. While reading John Howe’s fine translation, I kept pausing to consider how such a work would have fared had it first appeared in English and been subject to the scrutiny of the research excellence framework. The initial feedback from the internal assessor might run as follows.

Not sure that this book is quite the thing. Remember, we’re looking for issues around innovation and impact.

Re innovation: most of your time is spent summarising the ideas of writers whom we all know already (eg, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Nietzsche) rather than coming up with a brand new, game-changing angle on your topic, going forward.

Re impact: while it is no doubt true that we should all walk to the university/railway station/shops whenever we can, and while it is undoubtedly good for us to get out into the countryside for a hike, it must be said that to simply celebrate the act of walking doesn’t suggest much in the way of relevance. Other contributors are offering work on drug addiction, racism, pornography, Islamophobia, etc.

In the best sense this is an old-fashioned book. It sets out its case slowly; it draws on a wealth of ideas; it reminds you of things you had forgotten and it makes you see the world anew

Perhaps the problem is the topic itself. You are obviously seeking to remind your readers how important it is to experience the natural world first-hand. This is always worth saying, but if nature is your topic then you ought to be thinking in more cutting-edge terms. In this area, the smart money is on “queer ecology”, “dark ecology” or even “end of ecology”.

The problem, of course, lies with the REF and not with the book. Just as Tony Blair’s government, in the words of adviser Alastair Campbell, didn’t “do” God, so the REF does not “do” wisdom. That’s an old-fashioned word, perhaps, and in the best sense this is an old-fashioned book. It sets out its case slowly; it draws on a wealth of ideas; it reminds you of things you had forgotten and it makes you see the world anew. It does not use jargon; it does not make a fuss about what it is saying; it does not address fashionable “issues”.

I’d like here to indicate just 10 of the many insights that I gained from Frédéric Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking, roughly in the order I came across them in the book. Of course, I anticipate the objection that some of these, particularly the general observations, are so obvious as to not need saying. Be that as it may, my point is that they are so important that they can’t be restated too often:

  1. Walking is “child’s play”: you just have to put one foot in front of another. Unlike sport, it should not involve technique, training or competition. People who make a palaver out of going for a walk are missing the point.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his best work after abandoning university teaching and dedicating himself not just to an itinerant life but specifically to a non-sedentary life. He realised that the kind of thinking that happens when we walk is superior to that which occurs when we shut ourselves off in our studies.
  3. Normally, we treat “outside” as simply an in-between state, as we move busily from A to B, from one inside to another. As such, it is merely “some space that takes some time”. The true walker, however, inhabits the landscape and dwells within it for the duration of his or her journey.
  4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would not have formulated his model of “the natural man”, untainted by useless education and stiflingly polite society, had he not experienced for himself what it was to be the solitary, walking man.
  5. Henry David Thoreau still has much to say to us about how walking helps us to understand “reality” and to engage in “resistance”. What is real is that which is eternally new, and that which holds good: it is what keeps the walker putting one foot in front of another. As such, it makes him understand the need to resist the false claims of the given society (in Thoreau’s case, this meant opposing the poll tax, slavery and all other unnecessary restrictions on freedom).
  6. Walking is an engagement with gravity: a perpetual rising and sinking down of the foot, testing itself against the earth. It offers a model of deep balance, by contrast with the shallow sense of “connection” available to the person hunched over his or her computer.
  7. The monotony of a walk is quite distinct from the boredom of sedentary existence. With the latter, we frantically seek distraction; with the former, we come to relish each moment. Here Thoreau is again relevant: “As if one could kill time without injuring eternity…”
  8. Walking can be a revolutionary act. When Mahatma Gandhi led marches against imperial oppression in India, he aligned the act of walking with slowness, simplicity, poverty and humility: an alignment that allowed the “truth-force” (satyagraha) of the march to emerge, thus making possible the emancipation of millions of people.
  9. Poetry may be all the better for being pedestrian. As Gros reminds us, William Wordsworth composed his lines while walking. His poetry is “infused with a walking rhythm, steady, monotonous, unshowy. It soothes without wearying, like the murmur of waves on a beach.”
  10. The basis of walking is repetition, which has sacred force. It underlies prayer and meditation, which serve to harmonise breath, body and earth. “The echoing chants, [like] the ebb and flow of waves, recall the alternating movement of walking legs: not to shatter but to make the world’s presence palpable and to keep time with it.” After all, psalms are “the scanned realization of faith in the body’s movement”.

Gros’ book obviously harks back to Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking”, but for me it also has affinities with Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012) in which the act of walking is informed by the act of reading and vice versa. One particular pleasure is to see the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder being given their due, as exemplars of the “rucksack revolution” advocated in the former’s fine novel The Dharma Bums. There, Kerouac has his Snyder-based character Japhy Ryder enthuse about reviving the wisdom of “the Zen lunacy bard of old desert paths” – there being a whole worldview implicit in that phrase.

There’s that word again: wisdom. Far be it from me to discount scholarly sophistication, but sometimes we have to acknowledge the gift to be simple. Despite his prolixity, John Ruskin had it: “There is no wealth but life.” Come to think of it, that great saying is not a bad way of distilling the wisdom of The Philosophy of Walking, a work that will be read and re-read long after the REF has been forgotten.

The author

“I live in Nogent-sur-Marne near the Bois de Vincennes, the green lung of Paris, where it’s possible to see the colours of the changing seasons,” says Frédéric Gros, walker, editor of Michel Foucault’s Collège de France lectures, and best-selling author (the much-translated A Philosophy of Walking has sold more than 40,000 copies in France alone).

Born in suburban Paris, he spent his holidays in Ardèche, “in an isolated house in the middle of the garrigue. It was there, aged five, that I developed the habit of long solitary walks in the limestone hills.” As a child he was “more dreamy than serious”, and spent his time ”living in imaginary landscapes. I was quite solitary and I found sweet and reassuring company in books.”

Gros studied at the École normale supérieure, the grande ecole whose graduates, or normaliens, fill the ranks of France’s public administrators, politicians and academics. Since 2005, he has been professor of philosophy at University Paris-Est Créteil.

“If I chose to become a scholar and philosopher,” Gros says, “it was because I did not want to enter the adult world. To be a professor is to stay at school; you simply move to the other side of the desk. To be a philosopher is to ask questions that do not have answers, and that seem as useless and as unproductive as the games of children.”

Although the French “certainly didn’t invent the promenade, they have persuaded themselves that they invented (specifically in Paris) the art of flânerie, or poetic walks through the city”, he observes. “In addition, ramblers’ associations have built a network of paths and hiking trails in the French countryside that enabled the development of this pursuit.”

His own preference is for long walks in a small group. “Walks that last several days allow you, in a sense, to make a real break with city life, and above all provide the most intense memories and allow you to really absorb the landscape.”

Pressed for his views on hiking gear – to fluoresce or not to fluoresce? – Gros notes that “while all other sports have given rise to very colourful clothes, the colours of the walker have remained quite sober: grey, brown, beige. I think it’s to avoid frightening the birds”.

Karen Shook

A Philosophy of Walking

By Frédéric Gros
Verso, 288pp, £16.99
ISBN 97817816808 and 815 (e-book)
Published 28 April 2014

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