Take a walk on the wild side: Escaping ourselves and the tyranny of the internet

Aug 29, 2021 | 0 comments

In the essay “Street Haunting,” published in 1927, Virginia Woolf describes nighttime walks through London as a kind of escape from the self. A city dweller, drawn to the “irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow,” takes to the street to join the “vast republican army of anonymous trampers.” Woolf goes on, “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.” For Woolf, this is a matter not merely of voyeurism but of empathy: the street-haunter cherishes the “illusion,” nourished by rambling, “that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.”

The rambler Woolf describes is estranged enough to observe from a distance and compassionate enough to imaginatively experience other people’s histories, if only for a while. The idea of the urban rambler — the flâneur — as a half-belonging creature took hold in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and adopted a variety of forms in the twentieth. “The flâneur is still on the threshold of the city as of the bourgeois class,” Walter Benjamin wrote, a few years after Woolf’s essay appeared. “Neither has yet engulfed him; in neither is he at home. He seeks refuge in the crowd.” Not being at home, not being penned in, is the essential thing: the writers who turned flânerie into a literary tradition traverse the borders of genre as well as of neighborhoods, from Charles Baudelaire, with his essay-poems, to W. G. Sebald, with his novel-essays. In “The Practice of Everyday Life,” published in 1980, the French historian Michel de Certeau makes the analogy explicit. “The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path,” he writes. Rambling is akin to the “drifting of ‘figurative’ language.”

In the past few decades, the British audio producer Duncan Minshull has collected examples of this drifting, indefinite genre in a series of anthologies. The two most recent, “Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking” and its companion volume, “Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe” (Notting Hill), include excerpts and fragments from works by eighty authors, presenting a beguiling panorama of wanderers from different eras and geographies. The oldest entry in either book is by Petrarch, and dates to 1336; the newest comes from Robert Macfarlane’s “Underlands,” which was published in 2019. “Beneath My Feet” includes a portion of Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” though the collection otherwise revolves mostly around the pastoral ramble; it has a sort of patron saint in Henry David Thoreau, who is quoted by multiple contributors and is the author of one of the book’s longest entries, a reverie on the muted exhilaration of walking through snowy fields. “Sauntering” is a more general assemblage, with no principal setting or guiding figure. Like his subjects, Minshull wanders, lifting contributions from people all over the literary map: philosophers, novelists, essayists, critics, children’s authors — even a composer, Beethoven, who appears in “Sauntering” with a series of short letters and notes from the woods of Vienna.

The books’ contributors tend toward the illustrious: Michel de Montaigne and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mark Twain and Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton and Richard Wright. But the grandeur of these bylines is offset by a curatorial playfulness — the selections are often radically concise, at times almost to the point of absurdity. (Benjamin and Baudelaire get about a sentence each.) Minshull, who also edited “The Burning Leg: Walking Scenes from Classic Fiction” and “While Wandering: A Walking Companion,” appears to have become more confident in his selective whims over time. “Sauntering” includes a passage from D. H. Lawrence’s travel book “Sea and Sardinia,” in which Lawrence, largely standing still at a window, observes the Venetian carnival; the implication seems to be that a perceptive eye is more fundamental to rambling than putting one foot in front of the other. Minshull’s goal, one gathers, is less to trace a historiography of the rambler than to expand the genre of flânerie, with an open-endedness true to its spirit.

Amid such variety, what holds the two volumes together is a remarkable consistency of mood. The odd mixture of detachment and warmth that Woolf identifies in “Street Haunting” seems to kindle, in writer after writer, a penchant for speculation and description rather than for the more settled elements of character and narrative. “I want to see my vague notions float like the down of the thistle before the breeze,” William Hazlitt writes in the essay “On Going a Journey,” reprinted in full in “Beneath My Feet.” This relationship between physical and mental wandering is resilient across epochs, appearing amid wars and during general peace, in periods of boom and of bust. From Petrarch to Macfarlane, minds roam as much as feet do.

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The joys of Minshull’s anthologies have been particularly keen during the past months’ intermittent periods of confinement. The temporary disappearance of crowds caused by the coronavirus pandemic sharpened my desire to be among them, and it was impossible not to envy the carefree mood of these wanderers as they made their way through faraway villages and cities, jostling with strangers. I was filled with longing but also with a sense of remoteness: even the more recent entries, from just a few years ago, seemed to belong to a different era, when smartphones didn’t short-circuit every meandering thought and the news cycle didn’t feel so relentless.

Our own era is what the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina captures in his newest novel, “To Walk Alone in the Crowd” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), now published in a deft translation by Guillermo Bleichmar. Billed as a kind of homage to flânerie, the book reads more like a cautionary tale about the endangerment of the art of idle walking. Feeling anxious, and spending too much time on his phone, the novel’s unnamed, very Muñoz Molina-like protagonist sets out on a stroll and is struck by the torrent of language all around him. “How can I have walked down this street so many times without noticing the river of spoken and printed words I was traversing, the racket, the crowds, the clothes in the window of a dingy store,” he wonders. He decides to start rambling, in the hope of becoming “all eyes and ears.” He walks around major metropolises: Madrid, New York, Paris, Lisbon. Seeking a “music of words” that belongs “simultaneously to poetry and to everyday speech,” the narrator accepts each leaflet handed to him and registers every ad he sees. Stopping at cafés to take notes, he records surrounding voices and ambient sounds with his iPhone. All this activity he cryptically refers to as “the task.”

Muñoz Molina, who has lived in Madrid and New York, is greatly celebrated in his native country. His previous novel, “Like a Fading Shadow,” was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. That book mixed fiction, history, and autobiography in an account that lingers on the ten days James Earl Ray spent in Lisbon in 1968, after assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr. “To Walk Alone in the Crowd” draws on history in a very different mode: in between walks, its narrator considers the lives of past literary wanderers, focussing mainly on Baudelaire, Benjamin, Thomas De Quincey, and Edgar Allan Poe. He ruminates on the connections among the group: Baudelaire learned how to see his city by translating De Quincey on London, and Poe on “an imagined Paris”; Benjamin translated Baudelaire.

These excursions into literary history lend the proceedings a certain gravitas, but they also highlight the relative monotony of the narrator’s own wanderings — the world that he finds on the street is dishearteningly similar to the one on his phone. Advertisements no longer restrict themselves to billboards and storefronts but take up an ever-larger portion of what used to be public space. They flicker on screens that tower over city streets and plazas; their coaxing imperatives evoke the dull urgency of clickbait, and employ a blank universalism. “Old people in advertisements smile with a certain optimism,” the narrator notes. “Young people laugh and laugh, opening their mouths wide and showing their gums and tongues.” The actual people whom he observes frequently disappoint and disgust him. They eat chicken from Popeyes while ignoring a man who lies on a sidewalk, his chest heaving; they avoid so much as a twitch of acknowledgment when sharing an elevator with a stranger. New York, the narrator says, is “a city of zombies glued to cell phone screens.” In the age of Google Maps, it is difficult to follow Benjamin’s exhortation to get lost.

“The city is an organism that prospers and persists in harsh conditions and that all of a sudden may collapse without anyone having realized the approaching disaster or the speed of degradation,” Muñoz Molina wrote in an op-ed for the Spanish newspaper El País, in 2014. The coronavirus pandemic has caused many small cafés and shops to close, and has emptied apartments of laid-off workers, who can no longer afford them. It has intensified the retreat into digital life. The form of Muñoz Molina’s novel mirrors the transformation of the city into a monotonous set of disconnected spaces. It is composed of single-paragraph fragments, each of which begins with a bolded sentence that seems to be taken from the verbal scraps that the narrator collects: advertisements, headlines, public-service announcements. (“Take a bit of our taste with you.” “Creepy clowns terrorize Great Britain.” “If you see something, say something.”) The protagonist walks and reflects in a seemingly improvisational manner, occasionally flipping from the first person to the third person. He doesn’t take in the landscape so much as itemize it. Apart from him, the closest thing in the book to a recurring character is a mysterious figure, possibly a double, whom he glimpses on the street and in cafés.

The use of fragments is not uncommon among flâneurs, but Muñoz Molina’s set pieces read as mere compilations of visual and sonic data, with no thread looping through them, no enigma being circled. Bleichmar, the translator, is meticulous in his attention to the rhythms of the author’s Spanish. The voice of the narrator does not call to mind any of the book’s literary heroes, nor does it evoke more recent literary flâneurs, such as Amit Chaudhuri, Rebecca Solnit, and Teju Cole. Rather, he sounds like a character in a novel by Don DeLillo: “I hear the clicking of bats finding their way through the air by echolocation. Many more vibrations than my crude human ears can detect are rippling simultaneously through the air at this very moment, a thick web of radio signals spreading everywhere, carrying all the cell phone conversations taking place right now.” It is less the voice of urban wandering than of twenty-first-century paranoia; the anxiety that the narrator sought to conquer seems to linger, despite his claims to the contrary. The autumnal melancholy one expects in a solitary rambler is instead a wintry misanthropy, leading not to observational insight but to sneers.

In “Beneath My Feet” and “Sauntering,” wanderers find, again and again, ways of venturing into the past. Edith Wharton, writing about a stroll through Italy, notes the exuberant growth of the foliage in certain ravines, and remarks that the same quarries once hosted torture and killing. “Time has perhaps never done a more poetic thing than in turning these bare unshaded pits of death, where the Greek captives of Salamis died under the lash of the Sicilian slave-driver and the arrows of the Sicilian sun, into deep cool wells of shade and verdure,” she writes. (The passage, excerpted in “Sauntering,” is from “Italian Backgrounds,” a little-read collection of Wharton’s travel writing.) Such backward glances are sometimes interwoven with more intimate memories. In a passage from “Poland Revisited,” included in “Sauntering,” Joseph Conrad shows his oldest son around Kraków, the city of his childhood, and marvels alternately at the “unchangeableness” and the “extreme mutability” of things. He follows his memories back to his father’s last days, recalling the nights he spent crying himself to sleep after tiptoeing into his father’s room and kissing him good night. Later, images come to him from his father’s funeral—“the clumsy swaying” of the hearse, “the flames of tapers passing under the low archway” of the cemetery gate. If a distinctive trait of the flâneur is the interest she takes in the lives of others, that interest includes not only lives glimpsed through shop windows or in doorways but also those partly hidden behind the veil of the past.

The most captivating moments in “To Walk Alone in the Crowd” come when the narrator lets memories seep through the barrage of pushy advertisements and pleading headlines. In the book’s affecting final pages, he remembers his transformation as a young writer, in the small city of Granada, after first reading De Quincey and Baudelaire. He experienced “a sudden awakening into the world’s immediate reality,” seeing the city for the first time, despite having lived there for seven years. But such personal passages are brief; they never last long enough to give a more textured sense of the narrator’s life. Similarly, there is a frustrating terseness to his historical musings, and a lot of tour-guide trivia: Brassaï went through that door to visit Picasso; Balzac lived around here; Oscar Wilde once checked into that hotel. This feels like a more cultured version of his constant data collection.

Rather than gaining the depth of perspective that the past provides, “To Walk Alone in the Crowd” seems to cave in to the present, mimicking its superficiality and self-importance, channelling its short attention span and its addiction to topicality. (Trump is a recurring fixation.) The book’s title comes to suggest not the half belonging that Woolf attributes to the street rambler but a more common, and more contemporary, form of limbo: staring at a phone pinging with news alerts, ads perpetually popping up, stuck between solitude and collectivity and never reaching a true sense of either. “The trivial and the apocalyptic appeared in such close proximity that they sometimes seemed to turn into each other,” the narrator observes. The novel replicates this condition rather than resisting it.

One morning in New York City, when the sun has come out and the snow has started to melt, the narrator scans the terrain:

A stark air of extinction clings especially to things that have only partially emerged: a woolen glove like a hand coming out of the earth, a Dunkin’ Donuts plastic coffee cup with a straw still sticking through the lid, the corner of a flip-top box of Marlboros, a ghastly toilet scrubber, the broken skeleton of an umbrella, a bird cage, fortunately empty, a bucket of KFC with a few leftover pieces nibbled by rats, a whole rat, still frozen, emerging from the snow, a pile of dog shit, a woolen cap, a plastic fork, a crushed pigeon, a baby diaper, a sponge covered in hair, a microwave, the black suction cup of a toilet plunger, thousands of cigarette butts.

Perhaps climate change is on the narrator’s mind; many of the headlines he records concern that all-consuming threat. Whatever the source of his malaise, the flâneur’s classic gesture of unearthing leads, here, not to imagined human stories or a contemplation of the city’s haunted past but to a catalogue of used-up products, a few marked by multinational brand names, none pointing to anything beyond itself. Throughout the book, it is difficult to tell which city the wandering narrator is in unless he explicitly names it. There may be a tacit critique in this approach: have big cities across the globe become products, too, soulless and interchangeable? Still, there is something self-defeating in an homage to flânerie that offers little sense of place.

What is really missing, though, is humanity — or specific, ordinary instances of it. Muñoz Molina’s narrator embodies the detachment of the flâneur but not his capacity for empathy. He tries to be “all eyes and ears.” This is a different goal than, as Woolf has it, briefly inhabiting “the bodies and minds of others.” Such imaginative habitation is why Woolf went walking, and how she escaped the self. It is also much of the reason for reading fiction. As Woolf writes, near the end of “Street Haunting,” after noting the many alternative lives one can envision in a city like London, “What greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”
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Credit: The New Yorker

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