Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A history of walking. Granta, 2014. First published 2001

This is a scholarly, well-researched and readable account of walking – its history, and how and why humans go for walks, often with no particular goal in mind.

Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust cover She explores the archaeology and anthropology of bipedalism, and the consequences of our ancient ancestors’ rising from all fours to an upright position that enabled perambulation, and the evolutionary and cultural developments that followed.

Then she has a section on that particularly focused kind of walking: pilgrimages, from those in the Americas, to Compostela and the medieval and later European pilgrim destinations (but I don’t recall a mention of Chaucer and Canterbury, and there’s no such entry in the index; maybe I missed it). She’s astute in summing up the essence of why people feel the impulse to set off on such gruelling trips: often, unlike sturdy hikers, these are walkers who are infirm or frail. Many go on pilgrimage in quest of healing or solace.

Labyrinths are the subject of the next section. She sees these as a means of undertaking pilgrimage in a confined space, a sort of symbolic pilgrimage. I don’t recall any mention of Borges here.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the one that deals with the rise of landscape gardening. In medieval and early modern times, nature was seen by civilised people (ie wealthy urbanites) as chaotic, savage and hostile. Solnit doesn’t mention that our word ‘savage’ derives from the Latin ‘silva’, meaning wood, forest, or by extension any wild, uncultivated (and therefore potentially dangerous) place. It’s the opposite of civilised (a word derived from the Latin for ‘relating to a citizen’, ie a dweller in a city).

Gardens, and then country estates of the gentry, were developed as oases of ordered tranquillity; ‘nature needs to be dressed and adorned, at least in the garden.’ By the 18C this had become a pre-Romantic fashion for more natural-looking (less geometrically sculpted) gardens, and the era of the famous landscape gardeners like Capability Brown arrived.

I’d have liked a bit more on Jane Austen’s contribution to the literature of this period. When her heroines ‘take a turn’ round the park of their own estate, or more often that of the wealthier young man on whom they’d set their sights, they set out on what was to be an opportunity to flirt and escape the watchful eyes of chaperones. The gentlemen could show off the ostentation of their wealth; the ladies could legitimately display how well they looked when flushed by exertion and the country air. Solnit astutely quotes Mr Darcy saying (playfully but also meanly) to the young ladies vying for his attention and suggesting a walk: ‘Your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking’.

Although she writes interestingly about the importance and frequency of walks in Austen’s fiction, especially in Pride and Prejudice, she could have made far more of the symbolic, literary and cultural significance of her characters’ ventures out into the natural (and cultivated to look natural) world of gardens, country estates and beauty spots like Lyme Regis.

Behind all this was a concept of nature as being in need of human intervention to remove its imperfections, to enhance and improve it. The garden should look like a landscape painting, something to be aesthetically appreciated by the tourist or visitor.

Then we come to Wordsworth and the rest of the serious walkers of the Romantic era. They went beyond the cosy confines of the country estate: all of nature was their garden, and they thought nothing of walking hundreds of miles on a tour. WW clocked up thousands of miles of pedestrianism in his lifetime.

He broadened the educated person’s appreciation of walking to include pleasure as well as suffering, ‘politics and scenery’:

He had taken the walk out of the garden, with its refined and restricted possibilities, but most of his successors wanted the world in which they walked to nothing but a larger garden.

The concept of urban walking forms another of the most interesting sections of this book. I’d read studies by Solnit and others of the rise of the Parisian (and other cities’) flâneur (and flâneuses – women walking alone in the city were sadly usually associated with street walkers, aka prostitutes, lorettes, and so on). I’ve posted on this topic before, on Walter Benjamin, psychogeography, Breton, and so on; links HERE). I must read Lauren Elkin’s full-length study of this subject.

Unlike Rousseau, who avoided crowds, Baudelaire and other gentlemanly urban strollers were ‘men of the crowd’; they sought out crowded places, even while indulging in their dérives, or drifting, aimless wanderings through the thronged city. Dickens is another famous literary figure who was a prodigious walker, and Solnit perceptively assesses his motives for and accounts of walking.

There is a brief section on the literature of walking, but Solnit sees this as mostly in essay and other non-fiction forms. The likes of Hazlitt and RL Stevenson see walking as a sort of circumscribed activity: ‘the walking essay and the kind of walking described in it have much in common: however much they meander, they must come home at the end essentially unchanged.’ Walking offers an uplifting opportunity to reflect, collect one’s thoughts. ‘And then moralizing sneaks in…Few of the canonical essayists can resist telling us that we should walk because it is good for us, nor from providing directions on how to walk.’

(She’s less stringent and dismissive of Rousseau, in an earlier part of the book. His take on (usually solitary) walking represents what she calls the philosophical kind. Her assessment sums it up as a cross between meditation and escape from the rigours and stresses of urban life, a flight into simplicity, away from crowds.)

Then this intriguing history started, for me, to fizzle out, apart from the section on mountaineering. I found most of the final sections a drag. There was too much digression into Solnit’s experience of demos and street events. Here she veered dangerously close to a kind of right-on Californian pretentiousness. She touches on other modes of transport in the modern age – but not, strangely, sailing; I read most of this book while on a sailing holiday with family on the Croatian-Dalmatian coast. Sailing seems to go beyond the confines of her area of study. There’s also far too much for my taste on the lurid phenomenon of Las Vegas.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Solnit’s writing is mostly elegantly and intelligently done (apart from an annoying habit of starting sentences with ‘Too’). I may have been a bit unfair for wanting to see more of the aspects of this subject that interest me than she was prepared to provide.

Walter Benjamin, flâneurs, the historical shudder, lorettes and Paul Gavarni

Flânerie again: I turned again today to the opening section of Benjamin’s Convolute M in The Arcades Project, ‘The Flâneur’, a concept which has featured several times here on the blog (dérives in Paris and elsewhere, for example). That’s it in my picture below.

From p. 416 of The Arcades Project

From p. 416 of The Arcades Project

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a helpful introduction to the notion of the flâneur as Benjamin sees it. He’s scornful of that usage which is found too often nowadays, too: the ‘idler’ or ‘tourist’, wandering ‘capriciously’ as Henry James put it, through the urban streets. His is a more charged sense, a key term in his kaleidoscopic presentation of the significance of the city of Paris and its inhabitants in the 19C.

Notre Dame de Lorette, Paris

Bizet and Monet were baptised in this church: 1840 and 1841 respectively. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

I was unfamiliar with the church of ND de Lorette, mentioned there. After a bit of digging online, this is what I came up with:

It’s a church (building started in 1823) on the edge of the 9th arrondissement of Paris, near Pigalle and just south of Montmartre. That is, the red light district. Ah ha.

So I looked up ‘lorette‘ in the OED online (that superb free resource, thanks to Cornwall Library Service):

 A courtesan of a class which at one time had its headquarters in the vicinity of the Church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris.

Google took me to this website: France in the Age of Les Misérables. Here I found the following quotations:

“The middle ground between street prostitute and grand dame of commercial sex, the courtesan, lorette became an umbrella term for the kept women set up discreetly in a private apartment by a businessman, professional, or wealthy student… Always elegantly dressed, the lorette peeps out coyly from a theatre box, engages in double entendre with male admirers at a masked ball, displays herself while enjoying the view from her apartment window… the lorette slid imperceptibly across the boundaries of acceptability and social stigma.”

The lorette was bound in many ways by the codes of polite society and yet, was not embraced as a part of that same society. “On the boulevards, she was virtually indistinguishable in costume and appearance from the more fashionable among her lover’s female relations. And in a sense, for men she was quintessentially public property – to be discussed, admired, acquired… In other words there was a radical mismatch between the social and moral codes marking out the lorette within ‘respectable’ society and the way she gained public representation in the spectacle of the metropolis.” (The lorette was essentially a decoration for her lovers, something to be admired and used as needed, but not something for everyday inclusion into society.)

(Nicholas Green, The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and bourgeois culture in 19th century France by Nicholas Green, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1990.

She would be, in Benjamin’s view, a perfect example of the exploitation of the urban poor. Here’s what he says at p. 446:

“We know,” says Marx, “that the value of each commodity is determined by the quantity of labor materialized in its use value, by the working-time socially necessary for its production.”

This would apply as much for the journalist as the courtesan or lorette.

Also mentioned in that opening section in my picture at the start is [Paul] Gavarni. This was the nom de plume of Sulpice Chevalier, a Parisian artist-illustrator (1804-66), noted for his magazine images of characters and scenes of Parisian life. He also illustrated the first collected edition in 1850 of Balzac’s works. So Benjamin’s words resonate at many levels.

Here’s Gavarni’s drawing of a dandy – another central figure in Benjamin, close relation to the flâneur:

[Attribution: By Pline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

In April last year I wrote more on The Arcades Project

This section of the book begins with a number of epigraphs, including this by Mallarmé:

‘A landscape haunts, intense as opium’

Below is my picture of the title page, which gives bibliographical details.

Arcades Project title page

 

 

 

Leopardi on life: Zibaldone revisited

In August 2015 I wrote about Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and his enormous collection of reflections and thoughts, the Zibaldone. A critical study published yesterday by Peter Lang, Oxford, A System that Excludes all Systems: Giacomo di Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri, by Emanuela Cervato, has this summary on the publisher’s website:

For many decades Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri has been seen as a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali). The conceptual consistency of the work was thereby denied, privileging Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker.

This book shows that such a perceived lack of coherence is merely illusory. The Zibaldone is drawn together by an intricate web of references centring around topics such as the ambivalent concept of nature; the Heraclitean «union of opposites» (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination); and the tension between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization. Largely unknown to the English-speaking world until its translation in 2013, the Zibaldone is Leopardi’s intellectual diary, the place where dialogue with the ancient classical traditions evolves into modern encyclopaedism and what has been described as «thought in movement». It establishes Leopardi as one of the most original and radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.

Zibaldone

My copy

My 2013 Penguin hardback copy, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco d’Intino, was translated by a principal team of seven scholars, with additional material by others.

That 2015 post of mine suggested that Leopardi had influenced writers including Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett. It’s not a book for reading in sequence from page 1; it lends itself better to dipping in. Here’s an example of the sort of material such a strategy brings out.

I found I had highlighted this passage, on p. 183, entry numbered by the editors as 273:

The majority of people live according to habit, without pleasure or real hopes, without sufficient reason for continuing to live or doing what is necessary to stay alive. If they thought about it, apart from religion they would find no reason for living and, though unnatural, it would be rational to conclude that their life was absurd, because although having begun life is, according to nature, justification for continuing it, according to reason it is not.

Now this also sounds to me a bit (if you strip out that reference to religion, from which Leopardi was struggling to detach himself, it seems) like Camus.

This took me to the entry ‘life’ in the topic index. The quotation above is the first citation; this is the second, which also has a Camus/Sartre element:

The question of whether suicide helps man or not (which is what knowing if it is reasonable or not, and can be chosen or not, comes down to), can be reduced to these simple terms. Which of the two is better, suffering or not suffering? …[he mulls these options over for several lines, then…] And we conclude that since not suffering is more helpful to man than suffering, and since he cannot live without suffering, it is mathematically true and certain that absolute not being is more beneficial and more fitting to man than being. And that being is, precisely, harmful to man. And therefore anyone who lives (if you take away religion) lives because of a pure formal error of calculation: I mean the calculation of utility (p. 1069, entry 2549)

Other entries in the index extend the term to ‘[Life] is not necessary’; ‘What is life?’; ‘Why are we born?’…’Life is an evil in itself’, and so on.

I’m not qualified to examine Leopardi’s philosophy with any rigour; I can only dabble like this and make facile connections and observations. The editors in their introduction explain that he lived at a time after the first generation of Romantics known in Italy as an age of ‘discontent, frustration, melancholy’; Leopardi was grappling with ‘the existential choice between life and death’ (p. xii).

He was born in the Papal States, in Recanati in the Marche. His provincial, ultra-conservative family gave him a strict Catholic education, and expected him to become a priest. His deep study of philology and  the classics and then of contemporary literature, however, lured him in a different direction.

Benjamin Arcades coverHe paved the way in his writing, it would appear then, for Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, the existentialists and post-structuralists. His Zibaldone, like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, can be read as hypertext.

I need to look at the poetry, in which he also found release.

Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, colportage and flâneurs

A divagation away from book reviews today, inspired by my leafing through an old notebook and seeing an item from 6 years ago: notes on a review of Beatrice Hanssen’s study (published by Bloomsbury now) of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (my copy of the text in English, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass and London, 1999). This is the fascinating proto-postmodern montage of notes and essays started in 1927 and left unfinished at Benjamin’s mysterious death (suicide to escape Nazi arrest as he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain) in 1940, representing his musings on the 19C ‘passages’ or arcades of Haussmannised Paris, ranging from ‘physiognomy of a flâneur’ to peregrinations through the city’s streets, with Marxist aphorisms and quotations from a huge range of obscure texts interspersed.Benjamin Arcades cover

Some time ago I wrote a post about Leopardi’s similar project of collected texts, Zibaldone (link HERE), likening it to other florilegia such as that by Chamfort.

There are some striking phrases in the review, arising from the text of The Arcades: ‘The Historian as Chiffonier’; ‘Politics of Loitering’; ‘Peregrinations through Paris’; ‘anamnestic intoxication’. This adjective sent me to the online OED (thank you, Cornwall Library Service, for making it available to cardholders for free; it’s a magnificent resource): ‘the recalling of things past; recollection; reminiscence < Greek ἀνάμνησις remembrance, n. of action < ἀναμνα stem of ἀναμιμνήσκειν to remember, < ἀνά back + μνα call to mind, < μένος mind.

Then there’s ‘The Colportage Phenomenon of Space’; a ‘colporteur’, says OED, is

A hawker of books, newspapers, etc. esp. (in English use) one employed by a society to travel about and sell or distribute Bibles and religious writings.

 The etymology is curious: ‘French agent-noun < colporter, apparently < col neck + porter to carry’, referring to the practice of carrying a tray or box (of books) held by a strap round the neck.

When I first looked this up in a print dictionary, probably Chambers, I noted this entry nearby: colpopoiesis: surgical construction of an artificial vagina. There’s no entry for this word in OED, but a quick Google search took me to an online medical definition, derived from the Greek for vagina plus ‘poeisis’ – making (as in poet as ‘makar’ (Scots) or maker.

 Strange how one word leads to another.

Welcome to Tredynas Days!

This is my first entry after a few trial posts over the last few weeks.  If you follow me on Twitter – @TredynasDays – or view my Facebook page with the same name you’ll have an idea what kinds of things I’m interested in: books, literature, creative writing, mostly, but also football, dogs, cricket, Cornwall (where I live); sometimes all of these at the same time.  My first piece reflects the wonderful material the internet can throw up; I came across earlier today a wonderful site called Public Domain Review.  It’s a free online journal showcasing the most interesting out-of-copyright material available digitally.  There’s a wonderful article, for example, on Dog Stories from The Spectator by J St Loe Strachey (1895), which contains stories of dogs who could shop for cakes, distinguishing halfpennies from pennies (two cakes for a penny; he wouldn’t leave the shop until the second cake appeared after he’d eaten the first); a dog who would bury live frogs in his garden; hospital dogs, syllogistic and sermonising dogs…you get the picture.   There’s a link to the original text: highly recommended.  Check out the article on Mary Toft, a Surrey woman who in 1726 claimed she’d given birth to a litter of bunnies.  It’s an absolute treasure-trove of the kind Walter Benjamin would have loved; and yes, there’s an article about him and his posthumously published masterpiece, the fascicles (he called them ‘convolutes’) that make up The Arcades Project, a MS of which he had in his bag when he committed suicide at the border town of Port Bou in 1940, having been fleeing the Nazis. Here’s an image from the article by Anca Pusca of a ‘passage’ mentioned in the book; many of Benjamin’s writings have now entered the public domain, and there are links to them after her piece on him.

Arcades Project: Galerie Vivienne c. 1820

Galerie Vivienne Paris