Watching Writers Pace the Streets, and Seeing Symptoms of Social Ills

Here’s a time capsule from a foreign era.

In 2014, a BBC article bewailed “The Slow Death of” — wait. You fill in the gap. Where does your mind lead you, here in the depths of 2020? “The Slow Death of Democracy”? “The Climate”? “Your Savings”? “Communal Life”?

No; the headline lamented “The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking” (awe-struck italics mine). What a time, when the decline of dawdling could inspire such sincere regret.

And yet, in our plague year, a new book — Matthew Beaumont’s passionate, profoundly chaotic “The Walker” — again grouses about how we walk, where and why, this time connecting the changes in our gait to the transformation of our cities and social bonds. It’s the slow death of purposeless walking as symptom of the slow death of democracy, of the human.

Beaumont is the author of a previous book on the subject, “Nightwalking,” a “nocturnal history” of London. In it, he quoted Roberto Bolaño on the “two opposite types” of people you meet late at night: “those running out of time and those with time to burn.”

In contrast, Beaumont selects his new subjects (most of them authors) for their relationship to their particular time — for their allergy to their era. These writers are the “indicator species,” he says, taking a term from biology; from their suffering (and the suffering of their characters) we can extrapolate the sickness of their age — which is to say, Beaumont writes, the sickness of capitalism. He profiles some of literature’s most obsessive pedestrians and fluent malcontents, for whom walking was both “spiritual imperative” and psychological torment of a very productive kind — Poe, Ford Madox Ford, Dickens.

A breakthrough: The heroically cogitating, exquisitely sensitive, cruelly alienated solitary male consciousness is finally getting his due! Beaumont is at least a bit sheepish on this score. He nods at the stories that go missing in his narrative, acknowledging, for example, Lauren Elkin’s excellent “Flâneuse,” a study of women walkers of the city including Jean Rhys, Sophie Calle and Agnès Varda.

Beaumont does include a section on Virginia Woolf and her great London novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” only it’s not Clarissa Dalloway who concerns him but shellshocked Septimus Smith, whose bloody hallucinations reveal the violent underpinnings of imperial London. Beaumont argues that Smith, like Poe’s narrators, possesses the clarity of the convalescent, for whom everything is new, painfully vivid, exaggerated and yet somehow truthful. It’s a quality of attention held holy in this book. Beaumont deplores its degradation, whether by the capitalist injunction to hurry, scurry, produce and consume or by the smartphone, which hijacks our gaze and prevents us from noticing how “public space is covertly being colonized by corporate interests and reinvented as an archipelago of private spaces to which ordinary citizens have at best limited access.”

Borrowing from Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur as a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness,” Beaumont calls the distracted walker “a smartphone endowed with consciousness.”

Easy target, that. Beaumont is perfunctory on the more interesting and important questions about the takeover of public spaces — for whom have these spaces been “public”? Who are these “ordinary citizens”? He gestures to the experiences of those excluded from the city, asserting that his goal is to harness the particular gaze of the “privileged” writers to freshly regard the city, and to make it less exclusive. He may worry about “the marginalized,” but he rarely if ever cites or consults their work.

Even as Black artists have complicated, adopted, parodied the notion of flânerie, they are absent here — an omission that feels striking given Beaumont’s phosphorescent erudition (and his advanced case of quotomania). His book fairly buckles under its references to the great theorists of walking, the body, the city. All the usual suspects are present, although at times deployed strangely. Ray Bradbury is endowed with his own section while Walter Benjamin, as significant a figure imaginable where such subjects are concerned, hovers at the edges of scenes, solicitously holding up a tray of useful quotations.

Writing and walking have shared a long association. Dickens thought nothing of tramping 30 miles into the country for breakfast — and that after long nights traversing London, composing on the fly. He might have crossed paths with Thomas De Quincey, who floated over the city on opium fumes. The serious walkers of our era include Philip Roth, who would punctuate his morning work with a five-mile walk. In almost any weather, you’ll still see Vivian Gornick flying down Seventh Avenue for her afternoon constitutional.

When they’re not walking, writers are busy extolling walking, frothing on about creativity and movement. I wonder if it isn’t because they’re a little embarrassed about how much time they spend sitting. No treatises to that, you’ll notice, their real specialty.

Schopenhauer described walking as “a continuously checked falling.” Is writing any different? What distinguishes Beaumont’s book, for its doggedly narrow focus, is how it mimics — in form, excess, annoyance — the very experience it extols, of moving through the city. Here is the city at high summer, all volume and amplitude, polyphony, frantic pitch. Here is the pleasure of gawking, the pleasure of having one’s senses overwhelmed, the pleasure of critique. We never move through a city without feeling a little proprietary exasperation, a little utopian: How could our journey be improved, be made better, fairer, more beautiful?

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