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Caroline Voet on Wanderlust: A History of Walking

3 May, 2021

In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit unravels walking throughout time as a bodily experience interwoven with culture, politics, and society. Whatever the story or background, walking is always put in relation to the space that is walked in or at. From the perspective of this physical dimension, Solnit lets people bodily enter a story. Walking within a landscape or the city is often an analogue process to philosophical thinking processes. Reading this book is like wandering through a garden of thoughts. As an architect, this triggers my imagination and feeds my ideas into my own field of designing. Rebecca Solnit writes like a poet, but her observations are sharp. She not only crosses interdisciplinary boundaries fluently, she makes me forget they are any. In all her observations, space is a protagonist as important as the walker. She for example states that sculpture gardens made the world into a book by situating events in real space, far enough to be ‘read’ by walking, even making Versailles or Stowe into books of political propaganda. I share some of her reflections on ‘the path’ and on ‘the mnemonic’:

On page 68, she writes:

‘A path is a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape, and to follow a route is to accept an interpretation, or to stalk your predecessors on it as scholars and trackers and pilgrims do. To walk the same way is to reiterate something deep, to move through the same space the same way is a means of becoming the same person, thinking the same thoughts. It’s a form of spatial theatre, but also spiritual theatre, since one is emulating saints and gods in the hope of coming closer to oneself, not just impersonating them for others. It’s this that makes pilgrimage, with its emphasis on repetition and imitation, distinct amid all the modes of walking. If in no other way one can resemble a god, one can at least walk like one’.

 

 

On page 76-77, Solnit connects the Greek memory palace and Frances Yates’ Art of Memory (1966) with her description of ‘the mnemonic’ to the act of walking as a memory trail:

‘There is a very practical sense in which to trace even an imaginary route is to trace the spirit or thought of what passed there before. At its most casual, this retracing allows unsought memories of events to return as one encounters the sites of those events. At its most formal it is a means of memorizing. This is the technique of the memory palace, another inheritance from classical Greece widely used until the Renaissance. It was a means of committing quantities of information to memory, an important skill before paper and printing made the written word replace the memory for such storage of rote information. Frances Yates, whose magnificent Art of Memory recovered the history of this strange technique for our time, describes the working of the system in detail’.

‘It is not difficult to get hold of the general principles of the mnemonic” she writes. “The first step was to imprint on the memory a series of loci or places. The commonest, though not the only, type of mnemonic place system used was the architectural type. The clearest description of the process is that given by Quintilian. In order to form a series of places in memory, he says, a building is to be remembered, as spacious and various a one as possible, the forecourt, the living room, the bedrooms, and parlours, not omitting statues and other ornaments with which the rooms are decorated; The images by which the speech is to be remembered… are then placed in imagination in the places which have been memorized in the building. This done, as soon as the memory of the facts requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits demanded of their custodians. We have to think of the ancient orator as moving in imagination through his memory building whilst he is making his speech, drawing from the memorized places the images that he has placed on them. The method ensures that the points are remembered in the right order, since the order is fixed by the sequence of places in the building’.

‘Memory, like the mind and time, is unimaginable without physical dimensions, to imagine it as a physical place is to make it into a landscape in which its contents are located, and what has location can be approached. That is to say, if memory is imagined as a real space – a place, theatre, library – then the act of remembering is imagined as a real act, that is, a physical act: as walking. The scholarly emphasis is always on the device of the imaginary palace, in which the information was placed room by room, object by object, but the means of retrieving the stored information was walking through the rooms like a visitor in a museum, restoring the objects to consciousness. To walk the same route again can mean to think the same thoughts again, as though thoughts and ideas were indeed fixed objects in a landscape one need only know how to travel through. In this way, walking is reading, even when both the walking and the reading are imaginary, and the landscape of the memory becomes a text as stable as that to be found in the garden, the labyrinth, or the stations’.

Caroline Voet on Wanderlust: A History of Walking