1352 I walk, therefore I am
by Bruce Baugh
London and New York: Routledge, 2021
$35.96 (U.S.) / 9780367333133
Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski
Growing up in North Vancouver, Bruce Baugh found himself drawn to taking “long, solitary walks” amongst its “ravines and forests.” During his later extensive studies, he was fascinated to discover that some of the philosophical and literary giants of Europe likewise found that walking stimulated their ideas and, in some cases, their very lives.
Baugh, professor emeritus of philosophy of Thomson Rivers University, takes these two threads, walking and philosophical reflection, and, in Philosophers’ Walks, dynamically interweaves them. The result is a stimulating complex of scholarship and imaginative travelogue. It is based on the insight that walking – not just the physical experience but the intense associations arising from moving through potently charged places—can cast a new light onto many of our most important thinkers. Although Baugh mentions his own boyhood experience only in passing and well into the book, upon reading the passage his readers can’t help but have a small “eureka” moment: here, we feel, lies the key to this book’s energy and warmth.
Beginning with an insightful walk around Kamloops, his current home, Baugh later pulls the reader into his experiences in the alleys and boulevards of Paris, Copenhagen and London, and, probably more important, the moors and fields of Somerset and Sussex, and, dramatically, the mountains and forests of Switzerland.
This personal approach might seem all the more surprising in what is, at base, an “academic” book. As an academic book, Philosophers’ Walks reveals an impressively broad knowledge of important cultural figures. The number of references, quotations and detailed notes is huge; the index extensive.
However, three distinctive qualities of Baugh’s approach to the thoughts and works of others give his book an unusual flavour. First, nearly all of his references and quotations are woven smoothly into the current of his own thoughts: Baugh is not one of those academics who present the views of others in order to do combat—a sometimes illuminating method, but not one Baugh finds sympathetic here. Second, he clearly has so much enthusiasm for his subject that his thoughts seem to spill over into yet another connection or parallel. At one point, for example, he parallels Virginia Woolf’s occasional horror of London’s crowds with Thomas de Quincey’s similar reaction, in part because he guesses she knew his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but mostly because the parallel is so….interesting.
And that is exactly the point. Everything Baugh links he seems to do because he finds it so interesting. It is characteristic that at one point he writes, “Ah, yes. ….I hope you will allow me to go off track along the pathways of my own memory associations to recount the extraordinary story of Jary at Mallarmé’s funeral.” Spoiler alert: the story is, indeed, “extraordinary”!
Third, as the author of an “academic” book, Baugh employs an approach even more engaging for the degree to which it is open and expansive, as if the very breezes that blow through some of his nature walks blow through his writing. If readers find one idea to be a little gnarly at a first read, they need fear not. After introducing an idea, Baugh picks it up, walks with it, then brings it back under a different light, with a different colour. A dour editor could chop away chunks of the text and still leave the important points intact—but such an editor would be doing a disservice to the readers.
While this is thus, in many ways, an academic book, it is not, nor does it pretend to be, an encyclopaedia of all the important writers relevant to the issue of walking. Nor, on the other hand, is it an account of the whole range of philosophical thoughts that each writer developed.
But for whom is the book written, then? There is enough in the breadth of topics and ideas that the book could be read with pleasure by just about anyone with an active and curious mind. Even so, those most intrigued will be those who have at least a passing acquaintance with the main figures in the book, whether that knowledge comes primarily through philosophy (Descartes, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Rousseau and Nietzsche), or art, literature, and culture (Breton, de Beauvoir, Coleridge, and Woolf).
Knowing something of these writers’ main ideas, readers can’t help but be fascinated by what they learn of their lives and personalities — even when, sometimes, what they learn might seem barely relevant to the book’s main topic. Sartre’s “horror of shellfish”, Rousseau’s physical beating for missing a curfew, Nietzche’s habitual evening meal, in his mountain retreat, of “biscuits, peasant bread, honey, sausage, ham and fruit, ” or Woolf’s kitchen improvements in her country cottage are all strangely interesting: “When a solid-fuel oven was installed in 1920, Woolf enjoyed baking cakes, bread and buns.” Indeed! Not only are such details clear manifestations of Baugh’s relish for his subject but, more important, they make the writers come to life.
More germane, perhaps, but still not absolutely central to the book’s theme, is what Baugh illuminates about many of his writers’ romantic lives, and, poignantly, their often tragic deaths. Most highly charged of the romances, perhaps, are Breton’s strange relationship with a woman he calls “Nadja” and Kierkegaard’s distressed loss of Regine. However, his accounts of Coleridge’s increasing opium addiction and death, Rousseau’s stroke, possibly the result of an accident, Nietzche’s descent into insanity and death, and, most famously, perhaps, Woolf’s developing depression and suicide by drowning, give haunting depth to the humanity of Baugh’s key figures. Poignantly, all of the nature walkers, in the end, found their suffering to be beyond the power of the nature to which they turned so passionately, to save them.
It is probably no accident that the most striking of these biographical sections deal with the last three figures in the book, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Woolf. It is equally no accident that two of these, Rousseau and Nietzsche, share the penultimate chapter as Baugh toggles between the two and their intensely imagined immersions in the mountains and forests. Likewise, Woolf could hardly be a more fitting figure for the last chapter, as the writer who, more than any other in the book, fed deeply off the visionary power of both the countryside and the city. While all of the chapters, far from being chronologically sequenced, could thus be read in almost any order, Baugh has arranged them so that there is a sense of a tonal crescendo and, thus, a lingering resonance.
That crescendo begins tellingly with Descartes. And it is with him that it is appropriate—all too appropriate—to begin a consideration of what Baugh most illuminates about the hugely varied ways in which his writers had their thinking and emotional lives linked to one of the most fundamental human acts—walking. It is difficult not to feel there is a certain devilish joy Baugh experiences in what he does with this most famous of philosophers and what is probably the most famous of all philosophical assertions: “I think, therefore I am.” As far as Baugh is concerned—and, as it happens, the entire thrust of this book illustrates—Descartes is hopelessly…wrong. Using the less famous Pierre Gassendi as his ally, Baugh argues—and he does argue—that if Descartes had been less of a lie-about (not Baugh’s term), and betook himself vigorously outdoors, he wouldn’t have fallen into doubt about the reality of the connection between mind and body, or the unreliability of physical reality: “when walking out of doors…sensory testimony is so compelling and overwhelming that we cannot seriously doubt it….,” says Baugh, wielding the truncheon of good, old common sense. In Gassendi’s terms, “ambulo ergo sum—I walk therefore I am”.
With Descartes thus dispatched, Baugh begins his dynamic exploration of walking. In his second chapter on André Breton, the famous surrealist’s attitude towards walking in itself seems less important than the way he walked the streets of Paris, and the person with whom he walked—the odd and oddly mysterious “Nadja”.
For Jean Paul Sartre, as we learn in the next chapter, attitudes toward walking, even as a metaphor, do matter—a lot. A little like Descartes, Sartre can be seen to be bit of a whipping boy. As Baugh cheerfully points out, Sartre loathed being fatigued by walking outdoors, to the point, in fact he was a “douillet”, or, in Baugh’s terms, a thorough-going wimp! “Sartre was eager to get out of nature and into the human world of cities, action and culture as soon as he could.” What makes Sartre a perfect example for the third chapter is the fact that Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner, could hardly have been more different in her attitude to vigorous walking outdoors. For her it was, overwhelmingly, “a tonic and balm to the soul.” Whether or not she was dragging the grumbling Sartre with her, she walked assiduously, enthusiastically, often by herself, and sometimes in scarily difficult circumstances.
The Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, makes an equally striking—but complex—example of the iconic nature walker, not least of all because his immersion in the hills and moors of Somerset became the almost mythical stuff of the Romantic sensibility converting the experience of nature into poetry, and, more important for the purposes of this book, into seminal thoughts on the creative imagination. From Coleridge, the shift to Søren Kierkegaard and his almost equally obsessive walking could hardly seem, at first, more stark. A prime example of the “flaneur”—or largely anonymous city walker and observer—Kierkegaard becomes, in Baugh’s hands, a city walker like no other city walker, his many and colourful encounters making him strangely both famous and infamous amongst the citizens of Copenhagen.
It is with the last three figures in the book, though, that Baugh rises most sympathetically and compellingly to his topic. For both Rousseau and Nietzsche walking was an “absolute necessity”. While it was “indispensable to Rousseau’s happiness”, it was equally indispensable to Nietzsche’s physical and mental health. To the world Rousseau gave “The Romantic cult of the sublimity and beauty of mountains. ” Nietzsche, even more dramatically, claimed, “only ideas won by walking have any value.” And, as for Woolf, as Baugh claims, she stayed alive and marginally well only for as long as she did because of her endless walking through the Sussex countryside.
While thus considering these writers’ attitudes toward walking gives some insight into the flavour of the book, it also misses its most central quality.
The fact is, Baugh did not gain his knowledge just by sitting in his study. As he did when he was a boy in North Vancouver, he walked—and he walked in the footsteps of most (not all) of his subjects. The result is that the book has two distinctive qualities. The first, comparatively expectedly, is that the book often reads like an engaging travelogue, coloured by misadventures as well as adventures. His account of low points, like repeatedly losing his way on the so-called “Coleridge Way” in the Quontock Hills, is as engaging as his account of some its high points: “We arrived at our B&B muddy and grateful. After depositing our backpacks in our rooms, we were ushered into a very large parlour where we were served tea and the most delicious chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted.” Here, clearly, is a writer who knows how to grip his readers’ imaginations!
At the same time, he knows how to bring variety to his walking missions. In Copenhagen, instead of trying to follow a specific itinerary, he decides to be guided by the principles of “psychogeography”, a method that “allows the walker to follow her [sic] moods instead of the guidebook.” Again, though, he brings the scene to life: “From the Round Tower, it was a pleasant stroll down Skindergade…and on to Gammeltorve and Nytorv, open and elegant squares that were home to busy markets in Kierkegaard’s day and remain prosperous locales today.” Amongst all the accounts of walks, though, those in the mountains of Switzerland are most compelling. Baugh’s engagement is profound: “the waterfall itself was in full spate, a rushing torrent that washed away all my cares and soothed me as its roar hypnotized me and carried me off in reverie.”
Baugh’s own walks in Europe also have a second, and more strikingly distinctive quality, though: they become part of his own intellectual and emotional investigation.
And here it helps to take a step sideways, and consider for a moment what a book like this could be–and only at times is. Readers who are looking for authoritative explications of some famous philosophical positions will find them here. They will find, for example, a solid, defensible account of Coleridge’s famous notions of the “primary” and “secondary imagination.” They will also find equally solid accounts of such comparatively challenging ideas as Sartre’s famous notions of “vertigo”, “anxiety” and the “abyss”. The whole section on Sartre is probably the most philosophically substantial: it is in this section that readers, and those with only a passing acquaintance with Sartre’s famous/infamous “existentialism”, will find themselves both challenged and stimulated. “Sartre’s entire theory of freedom amounts to a theory of anti-physis. Freedom is consciousness’ “nihilations” of contingent being, or being-in-itself, consciousness’ secretion of a little film of nothingness between human consciousness and the unchosen, unmade givens of existence that Sartre calls ‘facticity’”.
Importantly, though, in both of these examples, Baugh explains them as he does because they arise from these two writers’ experience of walking. And this is where we come back to the second major distinguishing quality of the book. It is not a book of the conclusions to which Baugh has come, but, rather, the process by which he comes to his understanding.
On one of his walks, he reflects, “this process of going astray, doubling back, regaining the path, sometimes gaining the perspective I was seeking and sometimes not, was exactly what it means to be on a philosopher’s walk; a walk that is open-ended, exploratory, and follows thoughts where they lead, even if that is not to a conclusion.”
Probably the key word in this assertion is “exploratory.” On several of his walks, he emphasizes that his walking is based on a hypothesis, an idea, a hope. Of his explanation of Woolf’s views on “interconnectedness”, for example, he realizes that it is “my intuition, my hunch” and adds, “To test this hypothesis I would need to walk around both Rodmell [Woolf’s Sussex home] and London.” Repeatedly he uses phrases like “I came to realize” or “It took me some time to fully grasp”.
Even more strikingly, Baugh’s walks are sometimes mostly about himself: “Most of all these walks provided me with moments of both ecstasy and calm, of self-forgetfulness and oneness with nature—that I can will eternally.” Of Kierkegaard he writes, “what I first found was myself; the more I retraced the outward shape of Kierkegaard’s life, the more I was forced to delve into my own interiority.” In an only slightly different vein, he says of his exploration of Paris, “By walking through Paris, I revived the possibilities of experiencing Paris that Breton and Nadja first revealed and allowed them to take possession of me and speak through me…. “
The sense that Baugh is being utterly honest is reinforced by the fact that, at times, he suffers disappointment and doubt: “Did I succeed? Or did I merely deceive myself into thinking I had?” While, in this case, he is speaking of Kierkegaard, when he is writing of something as tangible as Nietzsche’s famous philosopher’s stone, he admits to finding it just an uninspiring “hunk of rock.” Probably the most striking of these setbacks is his inability to penetrate Woolf’s vision of the interconnectedness of all life by walking the streets of London: “I could think Woolf’s monism; I could not feel it.”
Yet the most moving and illuminating part of the book is that in which Baugh records what happened to him next and the way he concludes the book: “Then…it hit me.” As he realizes, “I just needed to know where to look, or rather, how to look.” And here Baugh shares Woolf’s vision– “a kind of ecstasy that took her out of her individual identity and allowed her to become one with the moment that includes everything…the whole moment, the living moment that contains a glimpse of eternity and makes time stand still.”
It says a lot about Baugh’s approach to the astounding minds he has sought to penetrate that he thus concludes his book with a moving assertion of a vision that is deeply intellectual, but also much more.
Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Visit his website here. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by Rahela Nayebzadah, Genki Ferguson, Keath Fraser, Matthew Soules, Karen Hofmann, Barry Kennedy, and Ann Shin. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay.
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