Jim Perrin is thrilled by the intellectual light this little book shines on ‘pedestrianism’
“…those brief ecstatic instants when the body, while walking, advances without being aware of itself, almost like a tumbling dead leaf.”
The quotation above. Not an analogy that’s ever particularly struck you? Nor me either – not even when I was walking autumnal woodland paths this afternoon with it freshly in mind. But then, the author’s a French philosopher, a professor, an authority on the work of Michel Foucault. So you might expect a degree of the abstruse. You’ll be disappointed if you do, for this month’s title is both lyrically evocative of the walker’s physical and mental states of being and thrillingly insightful about what we might call the literature of pedestrianism.
It first appeared under the title Marcher, Une Philosophie in 2009, and only came out in John Howe’s excellent translation, which captures the lucidity, the unrestrained epigrammatic brilliance of the French original, last year. So, what we’re looking at is A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros – a little miracle of a book first reviewed in The Great Outdooors by Will Renwick earlier this year. To some extent this may be, in Edward Thomas’s terse phrase, one of those “books written about books written about other people’s books”. It may saunter or stray through the territory of “MacNature Writing”. But how much better Professor Gros does it than any of his innumerable English counterparts!
There are chapters here (interspersed with others under more general headings: “Slowness”, “Eternities”, “States of Well-Being”, “Elemental” etc.) devoted to analyses of the in influence of walking on the work of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, Gerard de Nerval, Immanuel Kant and Mahatma Gandhi. Each is handled with exceptional intelligence and aplomb, the essence of work, authorial character, and the interplay between the two bodied forth in a relaxed, accessible manner typical of how French culture generally treats intellectual matter and enquiry. As here, on Nietsche:
“…for thinking, one needs a detached outlook, to be at a distance, to have clear air. One needs to be unconstrained to think far. And what then do details, definitions, exactitudes mean? It is the armature of human destiny that one needs to see laid out. From very high up one sees the movements of landscapes, the design of hills. And thus with history: Antiquity, Christianity, modernity… what do they produce in the way of archetypes, characters, essences? The moment your nose is buried in dates, in facts, everything falls back on your own clenched peculiarity. Whereas the need is to construct actions, myths, general destinies.”
There’s a scintillating acuity and insight there, not just into the basis of Nietzsche’s thought in works like On the Genealogy of Morals, but more generally and for us as hill-goers rather more usefully into that intellectual remove and liberation that outdoor environments and activity among them can bring. Descending recently towards evening from the western end of the Malvern Hills this passage’s exact pattern and essence of thought absorbed my mind. To come to this book and and it so succinctly and resonantly expressed was an epiphanic moment of mental clarity. I suspect most readers will take from it similar gifts. It’s one of the most rewarding and invigorating texts I’ve encountered in years.
In this next quotation, we keep company with Gandhi, towards the end of his great life: after independence, after partition, just before his assassination:
“…an old man of nearly seventy-seven, walking all day leaning on the shoulder of his young niece, holding his pilgrim’s staff in the other hand, going on foot from village to village, from massacre to massacre, supported by his faith alone, dressed like the poorest of the poor, underlining everywhere the reality of love and the absurdity of hatreds, and opposing the world’s violence with the infinite peace of a slow, humble, unending walk.”
Part of this book’s extraordinary accomplishment is that it gives our community of outdoor interest over into such company, draws the parallels, makes us as if of one world, and that a kinder, more natural and better one. Who would have thought ever to read such a simply and marvellously accomplished metaphysics for the hillwalker?