‘A Philosophy of Walking,’ by Frédéric Gros
The act the French philosopher Frédéric Gros describes in his athletic new book, “A Philosophy of Walking,” has more in common with what Americans call hiking and the French call la randonnée than with what they are likely to think of as simply “walking.” But for Gros this is the only kind that matters: City dwellers can only ever be “strollers,” stretching their legs in fragmented moments between street-crossings. Gros’s true walker leaves the pavement far behind.
Less organized than a sport and more profound than a voyage, a long walk, Gros suggests, allows us to commune with the sublime. Through sheer force of continuous effort, the views we contemplate become more beautiful than if we had simply pulled over by the side of the road to admire them. By physically covering the terrain, we make it ours: The beauty of the world is inscribed in us, and we in it.
We shed our identities in the course of the long, rhythmic move on two legs across the landscape, Gros says; all other ambitions fall away as we give ourselves over to the transformative powers of physical exertion, which pulls us more strongly to earth yet enables us to slip the bounds of our bodies, so that we become “almost” as unconscious as a “tumbling dead leaf.”
If this is starting to sound like a hybrid Hindu-Buddhist philosophy of walking, that’s exactly where it’s headed. Invoking the pilgrimage diaries of Swami Ramdas, Gros explains that “it is when we renounce everything that everything is given to us, in abundance.” The book’s final description is of speed-walking Tibetan monks called lung-gom-pa.
But the path to enlightenment also leads through the West. In chapters on Nietzsche, Rousseau, Rimbaud, Thoreau and others, Gros considers the inspiration they each found in walking. Nietzsche even advised, aphoristically, “Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement.” Gros takes this to mean that books bear in their very DNA the circumstances of their conception; we can tell when they have been composed entirely at a desk, their authors hunched and squinting over a stack of books.
Gros is in search of higher truths than those found in libraries: “There are thoughts that can only occur at 6,000 feet above the plains and mournful shores,” he rightly points out, and if his prose gets a bit purple from time to time, maybe it’s because it was composed on one of those peaks where the oxygen’s a bit thin.
Unlike Gros’s, my own philosophy of walking is about the pleasure and stimulation of the city. Far from being an encounter with capitalist systems of “information, images and goods,” as Gros insists, urban walking in fact offers a million invitations to become anyone we want, totally for free. Personally, a long stretch of country leaves me as bored as a blank wall, which means I can’t quite regard what Gros is up to with anything other than awe mixed with skepticism, the way I think of people who make their own bacon. Impressive, but not for me.
The joy of walking transcends setting; it engages the mind as well as the spirit. Some great walkers don’t like there to be buildings in their way, and that’s fine for them. Others of us just can’t do without the buildings.
A PHILOSOPHY OF WALKING
By Frédéric Gros
Translated by John Howe
Illustrated. 227 pp. Verso. $24.95.