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Andie Miller

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Walking with Ghosts

“A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch. A breath of fresh air, a relationship with the outside world,” wrote Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus. I was struck by this when watching A Beautiful Mind, the film about schizophrenic mathematician, John Nash, and how he continued to walk to work every day.

There has long been a connection between walking and mental health; particularly depression, or melancholy, as it used to be called. Most notable amongst the writer-walkers, apart from Virginia Woolf, were the three German-language writers: Robert Walser – Swiss, and contemporary of Franz Kafka; Walter Benjamin; and WG Sebald. Apart from their walking habits, and their melancholy, what they had in common was admiration for their work by literary scholar Susan Sontag. The title of Sontag’s essay on Benjamin, “Under the Sign of Saturn”, could equally have been applied to Walser and Sebald.

In Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s opus – which documents a walking tour through East Anglia in England, where he lived and later died in a car accident, and the accompanying stream of consciousness journey – the walk ends where the book begins, with the narrator unable to move, after being hospitalised for depression. “The wandering that the prose does, both syntactically and in terms of subjects,” says literary journalist Michael Silverblatt, puts him in mind of Thomas De Quincey: “the need in a sense to almost sleepwalk, somnambulate, from one centre of attention to another, and a feeling in the reader that one has hallucinated the connection between the parts”.

Robert Walser’s walks are smaller in scale. In his story “The Street (1)”, there are echoes of Baudelaire’s “To a Passerby”:

I wanted to speak with someone, but found no time…. In the midst of the unrelenting forward thrust I felt the wish to stand still. The muchness and the motion were too much and too fast. Everyone withdrew from everyone. There was a running, as of something liquefied, a constant going forth, as of evaporation.…

As I was passing by, a woman’s eyes spoke to me: ‘Come with me. Quit the whirlpool, leave that farrago behind, join the only person who will make you strong.…’ I wanted to follow her call, but was swept away in the stream. The street was just too irresistible.

There is a photograph of an old man, lying in the snow; a hat lies above him, with footsteps leading from the top of the frame into the middle of the image, “his last steps in the slush”. This is the picture taken by the police on Christmas day in 1956, when children stumbled upon the 78-year-old Walser’s frozen body. He had not written since 1932, when he was institutionalised by his family for schizophrenia (probably a wrongful diagnosis), and declared: “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad”. But he never stopped walking.

Walser remains something of a well-kept secret in the English-speaking world, and is said to have had a great influence on Kafka, who in his piece, “The spur-of-the-moment stroll”, examines the positive effects of stepping out into the cold night, and discovering that “one has, after all, more ability than one has need easily to effect and endure the most rapid change … then for that evening one has stepped completely outside of one’s family”. And he realises: “The whole experience is enhanced when at that late hour one looks up a friend to see how he is”.

Virginia Woolf reaches similar conclusions in “Street Haunting”, when she goes out to buy a pencil: “The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful.” Except her reasons for escape are her own company. “As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six,” she continues, “we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience”. And after all her encounters along the way, she realises: “to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self … sheltered and enclosed”.

This paradox of leaving and returning is a constant refrain of the compulsive-walker; particularly the writer-walker. In the late fifteenth century, the poet Ficino wrote a book warning scholars and studious people, that because of their sedentary occupations, they could easily become severely depressed. He cautioned that they should find ways of managing the effects of being “Saturn’s Child”.

In Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, he described Walser’s writing, with one of his customary aphorisms, as “quite aimless (and yet no less enchanting) linguistic savagery”, and declared his tales to be “the product not of the nervous tension of the decadent, but of the pure and vibrant mood of a convalescent”. And Sontag said of Walser, “for whom walking was the centre of his reclusive life”, that he “spent much of his life obsessively turning time into space”.

Like Woolf, Benjamin had been taught to “revere mountains and forests – a photograph of him as a child shows him holding an alpenstock before some painted Alps” – but he preferred the aloneness in the crowd of the city. “Multitude, solitude: identical terms …” wrote Baudelaire in Paris Spleen. Benjamin’s friend Gershom Scholem said of him: “I don’t think I ever saw him walk with his head erect. His gait had something unmistakable about it, something pensive and tentative, which was probably due to shortsightedness”. As Benjamin put it: “it was thirty years before the distinction between left and right had become visceral to me, and before I had acquired the art of reading a street map”. Rebecca Solnit imagines him walking the streets of Paris, “passing without noticing another exile with worse eyesight, James Joyce, who lived there from 1920 to 1940”, and Sontag describes his “soft, daydreamer’s gaze of the myopic”. But Benjamin himself called it stubbornness, developed when out walking with his mother as a child: “above all, a gaze that appears to see not a third of what it takes in”. Scholem said he seemed marked by “a profound sadness”. This state of melancholy had some benefits, though, and Benjamin declared that “nothing can overcome my patience”.

There is talk of the flâneurs, around 1840, taking turtles for walks in the Paris arcades. “The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them,” Benjamin wrote. “If they had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace”.

Poet Gérard de Nerval was witnessed taking a lobster for a walk, but this was for reasons other than speed. “Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?” he demanded. “Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk?  I have a liking for lobsters.  They are peaceful, serious creatures.  They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn’t mad”.

For Sebald, the crowd in the city seemed to hold little fascination. For him it was tramping through the countryside, and the ghosts of those who had gone before, accompanied by the libraries of his mind, that drove him. Throughout his novel, Austerlitz, the concentration camp is the “invisible referent” (as Michael Silverblatt put it) “left out, but always gestured towards”. Sebald explained by quoting Benjamin: “There is no point in exaggerating that which is already horrific”.

“As you walk along, you find things, said Sebald. “I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian which is in a tiny little museum somewhere, and which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else … in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for.… So you then have a small amount of material and you accumulate things, and it grows, and one thing takes you to another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials. And, as they have been assembled in this random fashion, you have to strain your imagination in order to create a connection between the two things”.

“I like to listen to people who have been sidelined in one way or another,” he said, referring to the “conspiracy of silence” after World War II. There is “some sort of emptiness somewhere that needs to be filled by accounts from witnesses one can trust. I would never have encountered these witnesses if I hadn’t left my native country at the age of twenty, because the people who could tell you the truth, or something at least approximating the truth, did not exist in their country any longer, but one could find them in Manchester and in Leeds or in North London or in Paris, Belgium …” Places are as much characters in his books as people are; some more melancholy than others. “If there can be a moment like an epiphany,” he said, “it can be achieved only by actually going to certain places, and exposing oneself to these places”.

Silverblatt describes the tone of his writing as “pastoral philosophy … characterised by tenderness, bewilderment, horror, pity, self-mortification … [with] tenderness brought to bear on subjects that have usually compelled indignation, scorn, and huge and glittering contempt”. Sebald replied: “In order to get the full measure of the horrific, one needs to remind the reader of beatific moments in life; it requires that contrast. Old-fashionedness of the diction, or of the narrative tone, is therefore nothing to do with nostalgia for a better age that’s gone past, but it is simply something that, as it were, heightens the awareness of that which we have managed to engineer in this century”.

Paul Auster, too, speaks of the need to immerse oneself in a place, in order to acquaint oneself with its ghosts.

All during the three days he spent in Amsterdam, he was lost. The plan of the city is circular (a series of concentric circles, bisected by canals, a cross-hatch of hundreds of tiny bridges, each one connecting to another, as though endlessly), and you cannot simply “follow” a street as you can in other cities. To get somewhere you have to know in advance where you are going. A. did not, since he was a stranger, and moreover found himself curiously reluctant to consult a map. For three days it rained, and for three days he walked around in circles. He realised that in comparison to New York (or New Amsterdam, as he was fond of saying to himself after he returned), Amsterdam was a small place, a city whose streets could probably be memorised in ten days.… He wandered. He walked around in circles. He allowed himself to be lost. Sometimes, he later discovered, he would be only a few feet from his destination, but not knowing where to turn, would then go off in the wrong direction, thereby taking himself farther from where he thought he was going. Cut off from everything that was familiar to him, unable to discover even a single point of reference, he saw that his steps, by taking him nowhere, were taking him nowhere but into himself. He was wandering inside himself, and he was lost. Far from troubling him, this state of being lost became a source of happiness, of exhilaration. He breathed it into his very bones. As if on the brink of some previously hidden knowledge, he breathed it into his very bones and said to himself, almost triumphantly: “I am lost.”

But when he does finally reach his destination, he feels differently:

It was a Sunday morning, gray with rain, and the streets along the canal were deserted. He climbed the steep and narrow staircase inside the house and entered the secret annex. As he stood in Anne Frank’s room, the room in which the diary was written, now bare, with the faded pictures of Hollywood movie stars she had collected still pasted to the walls, he suddenly found himself crying. Not sobbing, as might happen in response to a deep inner pain, but crying without sound, the tears streaming down his cheeks, as if purely in response to the world.…

From the window of that room, facing out on the backyard, you can see the rear windows of a house in which Descartes once lived. There are children’s swings in the yard now, toys scattered in the grass, pretty little flowers. As he looked out the window that day, he wondered if the children those toys belonged to had any idea of what had happened thirty-five years earlier in the spot where he was standing. And if they did, what it would be like to grow up in the shadow of Anne Frank’s room.

The German writers were always in the shadow of the Nazis. Walser wrote: “I stopped writing in Herisau. Why should I continue to write? The Nazis have destroyed my world: The newspapers I used to write for have folded, their editors have been chased away or have died. I’m pretty close to being a fossil”. And Benjamin, fearing being interned in a concentration camp when he was about to be sent back to France during the invasion, while attempting to cross the Spanish border, took an overdose of morphine.

Virginia Woolf, too, having lived through the first world war, was overwhelmed with dread during the second. On 8 June 1940, she wrote: “Shall I ever finish these notes – let alone make a book of them? The battle is at its crisis; every night the Germans fly over England; it comes closer to this house daily. If we are beaten then – however we solve that problem, and one solution is suicide (so it was decided three nights ago in London among us) – book writing becomes doubtful. But I wish to go on, not to settle down in that dismal puddle”.

On 28 March 1941, she filled her pockets with stones, and took her last walk, into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex.

While they may have been born “under the sign of Saturn”, there is no underestimating the effects that finding themselves on either side of the goose-stepping of war had on the psyches of these writers.


“A schizophrenic out for a walk”: Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix (1984). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem & Helen R. Lee. London: Athlone Press, p. 2.

Howard, Ron (dir.) (2001). A Beautiful Mind. Universal Studios.

Sebald, W.G. (1999). The Rings of Saturn. Hulse, Michael. New York: New Directions.

“The wandering that the prose does”: Silverblatt, Michael. (2001, December 6). Interview with WG Sebald. KCRW: Bookworm.

Baudelaire, Charles. (1857). “To a Passerby”, in Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). 1989, New York: New Directions, p. 118.

“I wanted to speak with someone”: Walser, Robert. (2002). Selected Stories. The New York Review of Books, p. 127.

“his last steps in the slush”: Bachmann, Dieter. (2002, October 30). “Walser’s Wake, 1956 – 1966″, Eurozine.

“I’m not here to write”: Coetzee, J.M. (2000, November 2). “The Genius of Robert Walser”, The New York Review of Books.

“one has, after all”: Kafka, Franz. (1981). “The spur-of-the-moment-stroll”, in Stories 1904 – 1924. 1995, London: Abacus, p. 22.

“The hour should be the evening”: Woolf, Virginia. (1930). “Street Haunting”, in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. 1942, London: Hogarth Press, p. 19.

“to escape is the greatest of pleasures”: Ibid, p. 29

Moore, Thomas. (1992). “Saturn’s Child”, in Chapter 7: “Gifts of Depression”, in Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. New York: HarperCollins, pp. 138–142.

“quite aimless (and yet no less enchanting)”: Bachmann, “Walser’s Wake, 1956 – 1966”.

“the product not of the nervous tension”: Benjamin, Walter. (1999). “Robert Walser”, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, part 2, 1927-1934, Jennings, Michael W., Eiland, Howard and Smith, Gary (eds.) 2001, Harvard University Press, p. 259.

“for whom walking was the centre”: Walser, Selected Stories, p. viii.

“revere mountains and forests”: Solnit, Rebecca. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Penguin USA, p. 197.

“Multitude, solitude”: Baudelaire, Charles. (1869). “Crowds”, in Paris Spleen, translated by Louis Varèse. 1970, New York: New Directions, p. 20.

“I don’t think I ever saw him walk”: Solnit, Wanderlust, p. 198.

“it was thirty years”: Benjamin, Walter. (1978). “A Berlin Chronicle”, in Reflections, translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken, p. 4.

“passing without noticing”: Solnit, Wanderlust, p. 198.

“soft, daydreamer’s gaze”: Sontag, Susan. “Under the Sign of Saturn”, in Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, p. 109.

“above all, a gaze that appears”: Ibid, p.114.

“a profound sadness”: Ibid, p. 110.

“nothing can overcome my patience”: Benjamin, Walter. (1999). Benjamin, Walter. (1999). “Agesilaus Santander” (Second Version), in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 1927-1934, Jennings, Michael W., Eiland, Howard and Smith, Gary (eds.) 2001, Harvard University Press, p. 714.

“The flâneurs liked”: Benjamin, Walter. (1938). “The Flâneur”, in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, translated by Harry Zohn. 1983, London: Verso, p. 54.

“Why should a lobster”: Holmes, Richard. (1986). Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. 1995, London: Flamingo, p. 213.

“invisible referent”: Silverblatt, Interview with WG Sebald.

“As you walk along”: Cuomo, Joe. (2001, August 27). “The Meaning of Coincidence – An interview with the writer WG Sebald”, The New Yorker.

“I like to listen to people”: Silverblatt, Interview with WG Sebald.

“All during the three days”: Auster, Paul. (1982). The Invention of Solitude. 1988, New York: Penguin, pp. 82–87.

“I stopped writing in Herisau”: Bachmann, “Walser’s Wake, 1956 – 1966”.

“Shall I ever finish”:  Woolf, Virginia. (1976). “A Sketch of the Past”, in Moments of Being: unpublished autobiographical writings. Sussex University Press, p. 100.


This essay first appeared in scrutiny2, Vol. 15 (2), September 2010.


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