‘I went on my way with light step, freed from this burden; youthful desires, enchanting hopes, brilliant plans filled my soul.’ This is Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Confessions (1782), recalling his coming-of-age trip on foot across the Alps, from Geneva to Turin. Take another quote used by modern-day French philosopher Frédéric Gros in this first English translation of his 2011 manifesto on the joys of walking, this time from a work by the poet Charles Péguy.
‘We go straight forward, hands down in pockets
Without any kit, without any clobber or talk
With a pace always even, no haste or refuge.’
Both are used in the service of Gros’s central theme that walking – in particular the extended hike – is an act of radical escape from the responsibilities, pressures and economics of daily life.
While Gros does not ignore the romantic or spiritual connotations of the sojourn – references are made to William Wordsworth and his disdain for the light strolls of his fellow bourgeoisie and the poet’s belief that an extended journey on foot was, as Gros relays, ‘a poetic act, a communion with nature, fulfilment of the body’, together with due attention given to walking as an act of pilgrimage, such as the journeys those of Hindu faith might make to Pandharpur – the writer’s main preoccupation is walking as a politically expressive act. Gros’s book, which, rather like a ten-miler, can feel like a slog at times, describes how the act of walking cannot be monetised, it is not a sport; it can’t be branded or sold. To pack up your bag and pull on your boots, Gros nonetheless persuasively argues, is, if not anticapitalist, at least places one beyond the reach of capitalism. Which, in the twenty-first century, is a rare, possibly profound, state to be in.
This article was first published in the April 2014 issue.