Sunday, February 5, 2012

Walking II

Walking around town this evening thinking about...walking around town, when suddenly I notice that the few other people on the street have stopped and are staring into the trees. Crows. Crows on branches and rooftops and the spires of our cold, humble, but sneakily-beautiful town. Which is both a miracle and not so strange since, as everyone who lives here knows, Portland belongs to two peacefully-co-existent tribes of highly intelligent birds. Down by the harbor, the gulls rule easily - but here in the heights it is Crow Central. Sometimes they get together to stare in our windows and delight our children. Apparently, Super Bowl Sunday is one of these times.

Point proven, to my mind - for without walking, how would I have ever seen this? How would I have ever known that there was a small army of creatures amassed outside my window? More importantly, how would I have seen the dude across the street standing there hooting at them, or the three little kids dive-bombing each other around his knees? In the NYT article, Mozgov pitches his flaneur's individual eye against Zuckerberg's "We want everything to be social"; but what spontaneous miracles such as this one demonstrate is that flaneurie - at least as I understand it - is interesting precisely insofar as it combines both the personal and the social. When we sit in a movie theater we watch movies simultaneously "with people" and "alone". The borderline creates a frisson, which is one of the reasons why some of my favorite moviegoing experiences have occurred after the movie itself is over, on the drive home, or over coffee, when the two moviegoers walk through the movie they just saw step by step and so realize how much, or how little their viewing experiences have in common. 

So, walking is in danger, says Mozgov. But I wonder if devoted walkers (of both the physical and electronic varieties) shouldn't ask themselves an important question here. That question is this: is walking a form, or an impulse? Is it a matter of using one's physical feet, or waiting for a page to download? Or is it an expression of an inherent human urge towards chance and generosity, which will outlast/overflow any of its particular manifestations? (inevitable question: is it, somehow, impossibly, both?)

May I quote some Russians on this? One of the great poetic walks was performed in early 20th century St. Petersburg, when Osip Mandelstam wrote his magesterial flaneurie, Conversations About Dante (queue my 1.5 regular readers' yawns of comes Mandelstam again). Born, allegedly, from an actual conversation between Man and Andrei Bely, the Conversation creates its own universe out of airplanes and beehives and sticks. Dipping into it for quotation is like drawing water from a well full of goldfish: you always get more than you wanted. For example when we hear that:

There is no syntax: there is a magnetized impulse, a longing for the stern of a ship, a longing for a forage of words, a longing for an unpromulgated law, a longing for Florence.

Fair enough; but then set beside this the transcendental materialist monk Pavel Florensky, a mathematician and philosopher murdered too young by another, more deadly form of transcendental materialism. His book Iconostasis is, among other things, a long meditation on aesthetic phenomenology, meaning on the role that materials play in the creation of art. What we write with (pen, pencil, keyboard) influences what we write. Here he is on painting:

The way the artist's hand moves, its characteristic motion in applying paint, doing it over and over: this motion is connected to inner life; and if this characteristic movement for some reason does not correspond to inner life, thereby conflicting with it, then it must inevitably be changed - and changed not merely in the practice of one artist but in the artistic practice of a whole people, nation, history. Is it even conceivable that thousands of artists for dozens of centuries somehow, during all their nearly countless artistic lives, moved their hands in ways and rhythms that had no inner connection with their souls?

On this point, I am reminded of the scene in Peter Weir's Witness, when the bedraggled Amish grandfather explains a gun to Lukas Haas. "What you take into your hand, you take into your heart," he says. So, according to Florensky, our materials create us. Walking down a cobblestone street in 19th century Paris means something different from walking along the shoulder of I-95. The internet when you had to wait for it is different from the internet now that you don't. Technologies does not (contrary to what I said in my previous post) exist outside of us - or at least, not wholly outside. Things look back at us. 

Where do we stand (Emerson: "Where do we find ourselves?")? Mozgov's article is persuasive and, I think, true. It also panders at least a little to the nostalgia for forms that besets any walker. Walking, when it works, is a risk, a dance with waste and therefore death. As soon as its practice no longer involves this risk, it is time to change, as Florensky says. What needs to be cultivated - and with maximum atavistic frenzy - is not a particular form of the internet, but our Mandelstamian impulse. And who knows, maybe we can't. But people have been saying that since the first walker stepped out of his living room.

(Image: Florensky and Sergie Bulghakov, by Mikhail Nesterov. Screen shot from Norstein's Tale of Tales. Also, many thanks to a great local flaneur for the Mozgov tip!)

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