Drifting and striding with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


In the current New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates quotes Adam Thirwell quoting Guillaume Apollinaire.  Apollinaire says, “When a man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg.  Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.”  That's Apollinaire above.

Alternate translations substitute “resolved” for “wanted to” but either way this notion strikes me as just plain silly.  The person who invented the wheel surely wasn’t trying to imitate walking.  He or she was trying to improve on walking, trying to invent something that could do various things that legs didn’t and couldn’t possibly do. 

Equally, it always has to be remembered that the wheel can’t do one very basic thing that a leg, or at least a pair of legs, very obviously can – the Dalek problem – how to conquer the universe if you can’t use stairs.

Still, what’s most interesting about Apollinaire’s remark is that it seems to prefigure Marshall McLuhan’s description of the ways in which technologies are extensions of man: the camera an extension of the eye, the computer an extension of the central nervous system, and so on.  But, says McLuhan, the technology isn’t neutral: it changes us.  We design new tools, and then the new tools redesign us.  McLuhan also talks about amputations as well as extensions.  Our eyes see with less precision when we have a camera to do our seeing for us: the culture of walking withers as the cultural of the wheel thrives. 

But you known I’m not absolutely sure that new technologies necessarily lead to complete amputation, of even necessarily to atrophy.

Take the example of synthetic materials: once they’d been invented there was never again any absolute need for natural materials.  We could all dress in nylon, drink from Styrofoam cups, sit on plastic furniture, and sometimes we do those things, but not all the time.

In the same way, you might say that after the invention of the bicycle there was no need for anybody to walk, and after the invention of the car there was no need for anybody to use a bicycle.  But the issue is that that human needs are peculiar, contradictory and not quite rational things.

Of course I’m not going to walk five miles to buy a new washing machine and carry it home on my back, but walking a mile or two to buy a magazine or a cup of coffee strikes me as completely reasonably, if obviously not always necessary.  I’m not imitating the wheel: I’m walking for the sheer hell and pleasure of it.

It seems that walking was often on Apollinaire’s mind, especially in relation to his lover Marie Laurencin.  One of his poems is “Le Pont Mirabeau,” written after they’d broken up, that being the bridge he had to walk across to get to Marie’s place.  Another is called simply “Marie,” and the last lines run

Je passais au bord de la Seine
Un livre ancien sous le bras
Le fleuve est pareil à ma peine
Il s'écoule et ne tarit pas
Quand donc finira la semaine.

Which translates, fairly freely, as

I walked on the banks of the Seine
An ancient book under my arm
The river resembles my pain
It runs but it never runs dry
When will it be the weekend again.

Here’s Rousseau’s portrait of Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin: