Friday, May 05, 2006

The Sacramental Aspect of Walking, Revisited

When I last dropped my wife at the airport, I stopped at the newsstand and, on a panicked whim, bought the May issue of The Walrus. I'd be curious to hear what some non-Canadians think, since I'm reflexively inclined to toe the line of nationalist self-denigration.

Of particular interest to me, though, was John Bentley Mays' essay, Walking off the Map: Hymns to the unknown city beneath our feet. It didn't catch my eye until today, when it finally took hold of my imagination with near totality:

In the cities of North America and Europe, a new way of understanding and enjoying urban reality has recently emerged among certain artists, architects, writers, and persons without portfolio. The people captivated by this cool passion can be recognized by their patient gaze at what most others ignore or find offensive - the sidewalk clutter of signage and graffiti, construction debris, untended laneways - and by their meditative preoccupation with odd rips in the urban fabric: vacant lots, condemned buildings, naked electrical transformer stations, other places where the skin of urban propriety has been torn or worn away. They are all walkers, and their tread through the city streets is intent and focused. We see them moving at the pace of dowsers looking for streams buried beneath the pavement; and dowsers they are, these seekers for the fugitive urban imaginary in the solid matter of the city...

Guy DeBord, leading intellectual of the poetical-anarcho-leftist Situationists ... promoted
la dérive, the drift, a mindfully disordered wander, as a way to subvert - if only for a revelatory moment - the numbing spectacle of the capitalist city. Greil Marcus on DeBord, quoted by Rebecca Solnit [and now me - ha!]: "The point was to encounter the unknown as a face of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, innocence in the face of experience. So you can walk up the street without thinking, letting your mind drift, letting your legs, with their internal memory, carry you up and down and around turns, attending to the map of your own thoughts, the physical town replaced by an imaginary city."

The essay is illustrated with some stunning bits of photography. And these are some of the books Bentley Mays makes reference to. The essay is not available on-line, alas. But it is well worth a look for those of us compelled to walk.

1 comment:

John Bentley Mays said...

Thanks for your kind comments on my article in Walrus.
John Bentley Mays