pathologies of walking (1)

ah, such an ominous title! And yet, this post was prompted by an utterly pleasant Sunday-walk, firmly within the bounds of social propriety.
It was a Brussels- Brontë walk – tracing the literary steps of Lucy Snowe , the not-so-heroic heroine of Villette (Charlotte Brontës great novel about an English girl at a Brussels boarding school (2)).

I’m rather a late convert to group- literary- walks, having always “dearly liked to think my own thoughts” , to imagine my own scenes from books and, obviously, to take my own steps. But now I find these literary walks utterly endearing and uplifting: a group of people of different nationalities and coming from diverse walks of life, having in common only their love of a novel written more than 150 years earlier, taking together a real life walk in the pouring rain around the few surviving landmarks mentioned in said novel.

Thus, for the love of a novel, our little group undauntedly opened its umbrellas, and walked up & down a stretch of wet cobbled street where Lucy/Charlotte may have walked. We piously pored over a map pointing out the “then and now” location of streets. We stood shivering, but alert to the guide’s words, on the windy forecourt of a church where Lucy Snowe/ Charlotte Brontë may have confessed. And we gathered ceremoniously under very green trees dripping with spring rain, close to a kiosk in the park where Lucy/ Charlotte went to an open air concert.

And yet, there ‘s this crucial walk which the little group of Brontë- devotees did not take – the walk which is perhaps most evocative of poor lonely Lucy Snowe’s state of mind. But it’s of course the kind of walk one cannot reconstruct – the aimless walking of one who has no purpose, no companion …. The feverish walking of one who can no longer bear to stay amongst his four walls … who needs to go out, to escape from his inner ruminations. The walk of one who kicks himself out of the door, into the city, to hurl himself amongst strange people & sights, to walk himself into oblivion…

Villette may well be one of the first novels to describe this pathology of walking – pathology...? well, no doubt this kind of obsessive walking is part therapy too: the immersion in movement, the company of streets to drown out the inner buzzing.

So imagine now a long hot summer vacation .... and a shy girl remaining all alone in a boarding school in a foreign city, when everyone else has returned home for the holidays ...:

“At first I lacked courage to venture very far from the Rue Fossette, but by degrees I sought the city-gates, and passed them, and then went wandering away far along chaussées, through fields, beyond cemeteries, Catholic and Protestant, beyond farmsteads, to lanes and little woods, and I know not where. A goad thrust me on, a fever forbade me to rest; a want of companionship maintained in my soul the cravings of a most deadly famine. I often walked all day, through the burning noon and the arid afternoon, and the dusk evening, and came back with moonrise. “

Another more recent expert in both the pathology and the therapy of city-walking (and also the deft chronicler of its hallucinations), is Paul Auster (3) – who even manages to write sentences with the feel of a meandering walk:

“Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within. The world was outside him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any one thing for very long. Motion was of the essence, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing himself to follow the drift of his own body. By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel he was nowhere. [….]

There remained the problem of how to occupy his thoughts […] Quinn was used to wandering. […]. Using aimless motion as a technique of reversal, on his best days he could bring the outside in and thus usurp the sovereignty of inwardness. By flooding himself with externals, by drowning himself out of himself, he had managed to exert some small degree of control over his fits of despair. Wandering therefore, was a kind of mindlessness. “

Compulsion or seduction of walking? Difficult to say…. But for those who are anxious to determine where the frontier between healthy and pathological walking lies, do take WG Sebald’s advise : watch your shoes….. (4)

more about shoes in footnote (4)
Main Entry: pa·thol·o·gy
Function: noun ; Inflected Form(s): plural pa·thol·o·gies ;Etymology: New Latin pathologia & Middle French pathologie, from Greek pathologia study of the emotions, from path- + -logia -logy
2: something abnormal: a: the structural and functional deviations from the normal that constitute disease or characterize a particular disease b: deviation from propriety or from an assumed normal state of something nonliving or nonmaterial c: deviation giving rise to social ills
(2) Lucy Snowe, an unlikely heroine … Compared to Jane Eyre, brazenly braving all adversities, Lucy Snowe may seem very passive indeed, with all her pondering & pining, her watching & observing. Both Brontë characters do traverse periods of loneliness and isolation, but whereas Jane Eyre bustles with passionate resolve to wrest her share of happiness from a hostile world, Lucy Snowe’s melancholy & sensitive nature rather suffers in resigned solitude. Ah how anguished and paralyzed poor Lucy Snowe is…, and yet how true to herself, how courageously honest and how sensitive … So which is my favorite novel? Well, Jane Eyre has of course the combative spirit of passion & adventure going for it, and the attraction of a proud self-reliant heroine. But it is Villette which I love best , even now still rereading some passages every once in a while. Because Villette is, as its sleeve-jacket rightly says, “
one of the greatest fictional studies in our literature, not of self and society, but of self without society.”
(3) The quote is from “City of Glass”, but it’s a recurring theme with Auster
(4) WG Sebald: Vertigo – All’estero “ Early every morning I would set out and walk without aim or purpose through the streets of the inner city […]Although at times, when obliged to lean against a wall or seek refuge in the doorway of a building, I feared that mental paralysis was beginning to take a hold of me, I could think of no way of resisting it but to walk until late into the night, till I was utterly worn out.[…] and I cannot say whether I would ever have come out of this decline if one night as I slowly undressed, sitting on the edge of the bed, I had not been shocked by the sight of my shoes, which were literally falling apart.

The combative melancholiac’s guide to Spring in general and to the Easter Weekend in particular.

Innocent, naïve sensuousness - that’s the best attitude to deal with April’s cruel mixing of memory and desire (1). So, nothing like going cycling on a balmy spring evening, along the park gates, dazzled by the brilliant green leaves poking through the rusty , mossy bars. And with the sky a deep luminous grey, promising spring rains to stir any remaining dull roots. (it’s a grey so soothing, so lenient…., offering such a calming complement to all those exciting shades of green (2))

Safe immersion in Spring’s relentless blessings can also be achieved during the day, on a sunny lawn, by taking off one’s socks and gently dipping two sets of pale winter toes into the luscious grass. The ensuing (sensuously wriggling) relief forms, together with the obvious sense of ridicule, a sure remedy against any Spring melancholia.

Thus inocculated against malicious Spring stirrings, one can then savor the summer-like release that lets the city unwind on the eve of a long Easter weekend. The streets much emptier than usual and flooded with Spring’s lazy evening sun, people nonchalantly loitering at traffic lights instead of impatiently waiting to cross, music coming from cars’ open windows. The local shop owner sitting at his till, basking in the last sun rays falling through the open door, humming along with a feverishly languorous Arab song on the radio while serving the few customers still having to stock up for the weekend.

Melancholics should however not push their luck during those early Spring days, which may awaken many an unfulfilled and (worse!) unfulfillable longing. For instance, trips to crowded, wired up Easter Holiday destinations (sunny sea-resorts, April in Paris, …. ) are to be advoided. On the other hand, staying at home listening to Bach’s Mattheus-passion may be a very honorable & rewarding occupation but should not be repeated each year (a bi- or even tri-annual frequency seems optimal)(3). Pleasant social intercourse, especially when combined with some healthy outdoorsy activity, is of course highly commendable but should definitely not take up the entire 4 days of a long Easter weekend. (4)

Some travelling however should be done, preferably by train (5). And preferably to a friendly city with a river, an unpretentious city not needing hordes of Easter-tourists to be alive. For combative melancholics living in the Lowlands & vicinity, Liège/Lütttich is an excellent choice.

(I tried it out myself last Saturday, and I can confirm that, even in slightly adverse personal circumstances (5) Liège proves to be forthcoming. It had been a few years since I last had been there, so the arrival came as quite a shock. The old station was simply gone and replaced by an ambitious new high-speed terminal under construction. Impressively soaring perspective lines & vanishing points galore, on the ground & up there in the roof – but the whole concrete & metallic construction did seem a tad megalomaniac. And not really concerned with offering travelers a cozy space.

But I enjoyed the shock of the new, and doted on the multiple endearing improvisations to accommodate travelers during the construction works: from temporary iron bridges, over wooden planks to provisional office-containers sporting incongruously old- fashioned wooden doors-with-handles.
Leaving the terminal-construction site I felt slightly dis-oriented at first, wandering along heaps of rubble of the old station buildings, before recognizing somewhat further off the re-assuring remnants of the old station neighborhood, with welcoming open air cafés.

So there I indulged in this foremost sunny spring activity : sitting on a café terrace, sipping from a drink, pretending to read but meanwhile observing all the goings about. The travelers hurrying to the station loaded with suitcases, the locals sloshing to the convenience store to get their Saturday newspaper and their cigarettes, the quarreling couple, ..... And a few meters further, a man and woman, clad in black leather, speaking American, lazing about, looking very cool & relaxed, surrounded by air travel suitcases including musical instruments cases (one for a bass apparently): black jazz-musicians having played a gig at one of the excellent Liège jazz-joints I presumed. (Which was confirmed when a trendy goatee-beard sporting man crossed the street, shaking reverently the couple's hands and saying admiringly “hey, you were good last night! When are you going back to Chicago? ”) )

But ahum, I digress, back to my Easter travel tips for melancholiacs! When in a friendly city, do program a visit to a local friendly museum. (7) And assuming combative melancholiacs often have a large measure of humanist geekiness, I can warmly recommend an ancient art museum. One where you can eruditely revel in Spring, gazing lovingly at a small, elegant, dancing figure, sculpted in bronze in the 2nd Century AD or so. A swinging figure with liberally fluttering antique draperies, representing a "hora" (seasonal goddess). A figure probably not unlike one of the examples having inspired Botticelli when painting his Prima Vera. (8)

Also, dear combative melancholiacs on an Easter city-trip, do take a stroll around the fountain in one of the local parks! And for the humanist geeks, preferably one with a passable copy of an ancient statue. (The Liège park has a creditable go at the Laocoon, against the background of a lovely spraying fountain).

And my advice regarding brisk river walks in the city of your choice? Well, you being a melancholiac, you will end up near the river anyway …. Walking & walking, gazing at the apartment buildings on the other side of the river, wondering how it would be like to live there. And wistfully gazing along that glistering stream, to the far off hazy horizon, wondering how it would be to walk & walk & walk, all the way up there….

a mixture of motley notes
(1) Ok, so I have already quoted TS Eliot-on-April
back in January, so what? The Waste Land
(2) It’s my litmus test for landscape painters throughout the ages: how sensitive are they to greys & greens. Pity the painters indulging brilliantly blue skies only! They miss out on a whole palette of deliciously delicate color combinations. Some examples of painters that do pass the test: Claude Lorrain (he has the additional merit of having introduced luminous grayish haziness in landscape painting), Watteau (with silky greys & greens) , Daubigny, Boudin, Corot, Pisarro, Cézanne. (As to contemporary photographers, I’m of course keenly keeping track of the greys & greens in
Roxana’s work )
(3) So please refer to
last year’s Easter post for heartfelt ruminations about the Passion.
(4) In all their laudable zeal for well-adjusted sociable behavior, combative melancholiacs should be careful not to overdo the jolly sociability! They should not forget that they do need (and are entitled to) their dose of solitary wandering & contemplating (for which Easter weekends offer the precious free time). Hence, one day of social immersion should suffice.
(5) Train rides of course are replete with memories & desires (& their potential cruelties) ….. – so let me suggest some unfailing stratagems to avoid looking wistfully out of the window for the duration of the entire trip: in my experience one can confidently rely either on the naïve-sensuousness- method ( as evoked at the start of this post) by reveling in the train’s rhythms & smells & sounds & visions. Or on the companionship of an engrossing book (eg Oliver Sacks’ ‘Musicophilia’ ) or of some CD's (eg Magdalena Kozena singing Händel arias, or Fairuz .... yes, to assuage memory & desire's potential cruelties, Fairuz may be the best choice).
(6) Suffering from a mild gastric flu (undoubtedly picked up at work to spoil the weekend) I arrived at Liège station, feeling quite poorly & feeble. So blessed be the “Pharmacie de la Gare” with its highly competent pharmacist, who instantly alleviated my distress by dispensing not only effective anti-flu tablets, but also her genuine concern.
(7) And really, you could do much worse than going to the newly opened Liège museum ‘le Grand Curtius’, which matches the new high speed train terminal in ambition but far outdoes it in user-friendliness! It brings together (and to the light) the collections (which often were not even on display) of several old musty Liège museums (which had their charms though ...). In any case, their riches are now pleasantly presented & with all due art historical care. And the staff, newly hired, is on its best behavior, endearingly enthusiastic in its eagerness to please the visitors.

(8) yep, am reading Aby Warburg right now - so am having a keen eye out for any antique pathos formulae (& for vigorously fluttering drapes in particular!)