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. "