Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why We Walk

Listening to the mellifluous Stephen Metcalf on this week's Culture Gabfest (1/18), I was struck by his final "endorsement" of poems/passages. All three had to do with walking and looking; specifically, with the imaginative/empathic act of seeing something/someone and "inhabiting" them via a sort of brief non-Vulcan mind-meld. Metcalf asked for a genre tag to describe this grouping - a question that seemed interesting to me, since only a few minutes earlier he'd mentioned an article by one of the great literary walkers/lookers, Walter Benjamin (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction - SM's off the cuff paraphrase is, I should mention, concise and elegant, meaning it made sense of an article that I've read and baffled over multiple times).

Benjamin's stock seems to be particularly high right now. Nearly all the year's best of fiction lists were topped by either Teju Cole's Open City or Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station: two books that I haven't read, but which seem to be, among other things, walk novels. The second of these is frequently compared to Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge, the first to the German pan-fictionist W.G. Sebald, who himself rivals Bolano in his secret-saucitude among my friends who like writing and reading. In the same way, I don't know a person in grad school who doesn't worship the very dog-poop on Benjamin's shoes (actually, to be fair I don't know a person in grad school, period. Unless you count nurses. Which I do. Even though they don't usually read a lot of Benjamin). 

But to return to SM's genre-begging: I'd say that the mini-genre all these works belong to is, simply, the walk. Pioneers would include the American transcendentalists, English romantic poets, intra-war Germans (and Swiss - can't forget Walser here, not just for his name but for his long short story "The Walk"), Russians at all times (my favorite Russian saying: "When late for work, walk slower"), the French when they're feeling piqued (Baudelaire: a great theorist of flaneurie and the grain of sand hidden in most of Benjamin's best pearls) and of course Guy Davenport. After Dav, walking as an actual pursuit withers, at an inverse rate to the blossoming of its literature, until finally we get to the internet, which, if you're feeling generous, could be seen as an epic, breezy, and occasionally frustrating-walk that everyone with a computer is taking together. Hence, I believe, this discovery of walking. 

Do I like to walk, I mean me, personally, as a person with a body? Yes I do. At the same time, I am terrified of walking. Something is always at stake - time, for example. The wager is that sharp attention is enough and that the world is so suffused with meaning (or available to our meaning-makingness) that even the most out of the way detour will end up redeeming what we've spent on it (and if you don't like the mixture of spiritual and economic language here, please take it up with Emerson, also a great walker). Another way to say this is that the walker has faith, which is one of the reason why timid, conservative people like writers are so drawn to walking: not because we're naturally good at it, but because we recognize in it a set of skills that we are somehow deficient in.

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