Is the digital age costing us our ability to roam?



In the essay “Street Haunting”, published in 1927, Virginia Woolf describes the nocturnal walks through London as a kind of self-escape. A city dweller, attracted by “the irresponsibility conferred by the darkness and the light of the lamps”, takes to the streets to join the “vast republican army of anonymous vagabonds”. Woolf continues, “The shell-like blanket that our souls have excreted for lodging, to make themselves a distinct shape from the rest, is broken, and of all those wrinkles and roughness remains a central oyster of insight, a huge eye. “For Woolf, it is not only voyeurism but empathy: the street-haunter nourishes the” illusion “, nourished by ramblings,” that one is not attached to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the body and mind of others.

The hiker described by Woolf is distant enough to be observed from a distance and compassionate enough to imaginatively experience the history of others, if only for a while. The idea of ​​the urban hiker – the flâneur – as a half-belonging creature emerged in the second half of the 19th century and took on a variety of forms in the 20th century. “The flâneur is still on the threshold, of the city as of the middle class,” wrote Walter Benjamin, a few years after the publication of Woolf’s essay. “Neither has swallowed it up yet; he is not at home either. He seeks refuge in the crowd. Not to be at home, not to be parked, that is the essential: the writers who have made strolling a literary tradition cross the borders of genres like neighborhoods, from Charles Baudelaire, with his essay-poems, to WG Sebald, with his essay novels. In “The practice of daily life”, published in 1980, the French historian Michel de Certeau explains the analogy. “The art of ‘turning’ sentences finds an equivalent in the art of composing a path,” he writes. The rambling is akin to the “drift of ‘figurative’ language”.

Over the past decades, British audio producer Duncan Minshull has collected examples of this drifting and undefined genre in a series of anthologies. The two most recent, “Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking” and its accompanying volume, “Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe” (Notting Hill), include excerpts and fragments of works by eighty authors, presenting a seductive panorama of vagabonds from different eras. and geographies. The earliest entry in either book is by Petrarch and dates from 1336; the most recent is from Robert Macfarlane’s “Underlands,” which was released in 2019. “Beneath My Feet” includes part of Woolf’s “Street Haunting”, although the collection otherwise revolves primarily around pastoral hiking; he has a sort of patron saint in Henry David Thoreau, who is quoted by several contributors and is the author of one of the book’s longest entries, a reverie about the dull euphoria of walking through snow-covered fields. “Strolling” is a more general assemblage, without a main frame or a guiding figure. Like his subjects, Minshull roams, raising contributions from people all over the literary map: philosophers, novelists, essayists, critics, children’s authors – even a composer, Beethoven, who appears in “Stroll” with a series of short letters and lyrics. notes of Vienna wood.

The contributors of the books tend towards the illustrious: Michel de Montaigne and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mark Twain and Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton and Richard Wright. But the grandeur of these signatures is offset by a playful aspect of the curatorial – the selections are often drastically concise, sometimes 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,” seems to have grown more confident in his selective whims over the years. time. “Wandering” includes a passage from DH Lawrence’s travel book “The Sea and Sardinia”, in which Lawrence, largely motionless 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, it is believed, is less to trace a historiography of the hiker than to broaden the genre of strolling, with an openness faithful to his mind.

In the midst of such variety, what keeps the two volumes together is a remarkable consistency of mood. The strange mix of detachment and warmth that Woolf identifies in “Street Haunting” seems to arouse, writer after writer, a penchant for speculation and description rather than for the more established elements of character and storytelling. “I want to see my vague notions float like thistle down before the breeze,” writes William Hazlitt in the essay “On Going a Journey”, reprinted in full in “Beneath My Feet”. This relationship between physical and mental wandering is resilient through the ages, appearing in the midst of wars and during general peace, in times of boom and bust. From Petrarch to Macfarlane, spirits wander as much as the feet.

The joys of Minshull’s anthologies have been particularly keen during the intermittent periods of lockdown in recent months. 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 recklessness of these vagrants as they made their way through villages and towns. distant, jostling with strangers. I was filled with nostalgia but also a feeling of estrangement: even the most recent entries, from just a few years ago, seemed to belong to another era, when smartphones weren’t bypassing all of them. meandering thoughts and the news cycle doesn’t feel so relentless.

Our own time is what the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina captures in his latest novel, “To Walk Alone in the Crowd” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), now published in a skillful translation by Guillermo Bleichmar. Presented as a sort of homage to strolling, the book reads more like a warning about the endangering art of idling. Feeling anxious and spending too much time on his phone, the unnamed protagonist of the novel, very much like Muñoz Molina, sets out for a walk and is struck by the torrent of language all around him. “How could I have walked this street so many times without noticing the river of spoken and printed words that I passed through, the din, the crowd, the clothes in the window of a filthy store,” he wonders. . He decides to go into rambling, in the hope of becoming “all eyes and all ears”. He roams the big cities: Madrid, New York, Paris, Lisbon. Seeking a “music for words” which belongs “to both poetry and everyday speech”, the narrator accepts each sheet given to him and records each announcement he sees. Stopping in cafes to take notes, he records surrounding voices and ambient sounds with his iPhone. All this activity he cryptically calls “the task”.

Muñoz Molina, who lived in Madrid and New York, is very famous in his native country. His previous novel, “Like a Fading Shadow”, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. This book mixed fiction, history and autobiography in a tale that lingers on the ten days that James Earl Ray spent in Lisbon in 1968., after having assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. “To Walk Alone in the Crowd” draws on history in a very different way: between two walks, its narrator returns to the life of former literary vagabonds, focusing mainly on Baudelaire, Benjamin, Thomas De Quincey, and Edgar Allan Poe. He ruminates on the links between the group: Baudelaire learned to see his city by translating De Quincey on London, and Poe on “an imagined Paris”; Benjamin translated Baudelaire.

These forays into literary history give the story a certain gravity, but they also highlight the relative monotony of the narrator’s own wanderings: the world he discovers in the street bears a discouraging resemblance to that of his telephone. Advertisements are no longer limited to billboards and storefronts, but take up an ever-increasing portion of what was once public space. They sparkle on the screens that dominate the streets and squares of the city; their cuddly imperatives evoke the dull urgency of click-bait and employ a pristine universalism. “Seniors in commercials smile with a certain optimism,” notes the narrator. “The young people laugh and laugh, opening their mouths wide and showing their gums and tongue. The real people he observes disappoint and disgust him frequently. They eat Popeyes Chicken, ignoring a man lying on a sidewalk, his chest heaving; they avoid as much as a tick of recognition when sharing an elevator with a stranger. New York, says the narrator, is “a city of zombies glued to cell phone screens.” In this age of Google Maps, it’s hard to follow Benjamin’s exhortation to get lost.

“The city is an organism which thrives and persists in difficult conditions and which suddenly can collapse without anyone realizing the impending disaster or the speed of degradation,” Muñoz Molina wrote in an editorial for the Spanish newspaper. El Pais, in 2014. The coronavirus pandemic has caused the closure of many small cafes and shops and emptied the apartments of laid-off workers, who can no longer afford them. It has intensified the withdrawal into digital life. The form of Muñoz Molina’s novel reflects the transformation of the city into a monotonous set of disconnected spaces. It is made up of single paragraph fragments, each of which begins with a bold sentence that appears to be taken from the verbal snippets the narrator collects: commercials, headlines, public service announcements. (“Take some of our taste with you.” “Scary clowns are terrorizing Britain.” “If you see something, say something.”) The protagonist walks and thinks in a seemingly improvised way, sometimes passing by from first person to third person. He does not capture the landscape so much as he details it. Other than him, the closest thing in the book to a recurring character is a mysterious figure, possibly a double, whom he sees on the streets and in cafes.


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