Books about walking are boring. Lovers of Wainwright’s pictorial works on the peaks and lakes may disagree but pinning a walk down to words is usually more field guide than philosophy, and rarely is it art. And when it is – Laurie Lee, Kerouac, Wordsworth – it’s the diversions from the walk that provide interest, something that the author Frédéric Gros admits. Yet this philosophy professor’s book on the subject has sold more than 40,000 copies in France; it is far from pedestrian.
A good walk is not only the best cure for boredom but is the key to genius. It is, Gros maintains, the secret behind the outpourings of the world’s greatest minds. We learn how everyone from Kant, to Nietzsche, Rousseau to Rimbaud has been utterly reliant on their ability to put one foot in front of the other as an act of creation.
Walking gets the mind moving. You can’t think, says Gros, “shackled” to a desk. Wordsworth’s office was his garden, where “he used rhythmic body movements to help find the right lines”. Kant was a dogmatic walker, taking a daily constitutional around town at the same time, rain or shine. This, he believed, helped him produce the requisite number of words each day. Nietzsche, meanwhile, was an indefatigable wanderer, taken to long, steep hikes fuelled by little food, the better to soothe his stomach.
Is this physiologically symbolic of their philosophies? Gros isn’t simplistic enough to suggest so but in walking through the day-to-day existence of poets and thinkers, he shows that mile and poetic meter, pace and philosophical formulas are inexorably intertwined. Baudelaire goes in for surrealist sauntering, a stop-start city walker who snatches at stolen images, whereas “Wordsworth’s well-tuned verse and Rousseau’s musical prose is precisely that deep unhurried breathing, that gentleness of rhythm” that matched their rural ramblings.
Nietzsche, we learn, was most productive after abandoning university for the open road, while Rousseau’s “natural man” was born from the solitude of walking. A walk can be an act of obsessive madness (Rimbaud as good as walked himself to amputation), or an epic act of protest, as with Gandhi’s salt-tax marches.
This quintessentially French book should seduce our island of walkers, hikers and right-of-way-vindicated ramblers, dismissing the idea of a walk as “an obstacle between here and there”, and celebrating it instead as a vital step towards really living.