In the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Philipp Moritz — from the peace of Lake Biel to the rugged Peaks — Seán Williams considers the connection between walking and writing.
December 11, 2018
In late summer and early autumn of 1765, Rousseau was on the run. He was always fleeing some sort of persecution: at times very real, and legal; at others perhaps more perceived, and highly personal. A restless existence, certainly, yet Rousseau’s last and most retrospective work tells of a life not of flights, escapes, escapades — but of contemplative walks. Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire (The Reveries of the Solitary Walker) comprises nine-and-a-bit meandering recollections and reflections, written as walks, and found among the writer’s personal effects on his death in 1778. The central essay of the collection concerns his sanctuary for almost a month and a half during 1765 on St Peter’s Island in Lake Biel, in the canton of Bern, Switzerland. Walking was his primary activity here. He spent his time strolling by the edge of the water, stumbling on brooks, rambling across the island — unless he was messing about in boats. According to Rousseau’s earlier autobiographical Confessions — published, like the Reveries, by friends in 1782 — he had first come across his refuge while on a “pedestrian pilgrimage” the year before.1 St Peter’s Island became a place of happiness for him. And happiness, Rousseau concluded, was a state of contented stillness, the paradoxically permanent awareness of our momentary being.
When walking, Rousseau would stop and look at plants. He was annoyed whenever he was mistaken for an apothecary or barber-surgeon’s assistant, out searching for herbs to apply as cures for itches and swellings. For Rousseau, botany was about observation and reflection: leaving no leaf unturned to gain a sympathetic, intellectual, and artistic understanding of the world around us. “Pharmacology” should not spoil “pastoral” images.2 Throughout history, writers have always paced around, philosophising, and earlier in the eighteenth century, people perambulated through pleasure gardens as a pastime. But the Romantics broke out into the fields, peaks, and onto islands. And in Romanticism — from Rousseau through to the time of Schubert and his wonderful piano solo, the Wanderer Fantasy — wandering became a very writerly, intellectual, artistic activity. It went hand in hand with reflections on nature and its plant life, which were one and the same as conjectures on culture. Indeed, such was the shift of the word “culture” itself: originally a term for growth, as we might grow a culture in a petri dish today, culture came to denote a habit of mind, and from there the intellectual and artistic development of a society. Contemplative walking and botanical observation offered a route into culture.
Two hundred fifty years later, in 2015, I shared Rousseau’s sense of what it meant to walk by Lake Biel. I was not the first to trace his route, of course: many an aspiring writer has made the journey to the island, as W. G. Sebald — who himself walked, reflected, and wrote there — remarked in 1998.3 As a young lecturer at the University of Bern, an academic pilgrim of sorts, I would wander on a weekend with close colleagues along the shoreline — that is, until we had enough of high-brow hiking and set off for more epicurean pursuits instead. (A nearby wine-tasting festival in the hills was a good find.) But for me, Rousseau’s idea of happiness in Helvetia became both a welcome calm after stormy doctoral study at home, and a quintessential, exasperating Swiss cliché. It was an undeniably beautiful if oftentimes stultifying cultural landscape. In Bern I was comfortable, content, happy even. Yet a general societal self-satisfaction at the relative quiet and stability of contemporary Switzerland was also unnerving — and, like Rousseau’s depiction of his peace on the island, a skewed perspective. Walking is all well and good — I am a keen hiker — but it seemed to me to have taken over the Swiss way of seeing the world, their Weltanschauung. So I was on the move again, back to England. Ironically, I was to follow in Rousseau’s footsteps.
In January 1766, Rousseau settled — for a while — on the southern, Staffordshire, side of the Peak District. Two and a half centuries later, I came to Sheffield to take up a post at the university. Weekends were for wandering. As a scholar of the eighteenth century, and especially of German lands, I wondered who had trodden these South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire paths before me. Any Germans? Indeed. In the summer of 1782, the German writer Karl Philipp Moritz spent around one and a half months travelling through England — mostly on foot, which secured him notoriety and international literary fame. Moritz was often taken for a beggar or vagabond when on the road because he walked rather than bought a ride in a post-chaise. The scenes of sentimental travel literature had been framed by the carriage window, whereas Moritz tells of the men he met and the landscape he saw when walking. He remarks on reactions to him by locals; he notes quirky differences in dialectal pronunciation; and he describes for his German readers the portraits that hung on the walls of inns — of the royal family, in the main, but also the King of Prussia. He wandered up through the Peaks as far as Castleton, where, even back then, you could pay to see the caves. Reisen eines Deutschen in England im Jahr 1782 was promptly published the next year, in 1783, and was translated into English just twelve years later as Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782. Both versions were a hit.
As Moritz walked beyond the village of Ashford-in-the-Water, he reached what must be Monsal Head. At this point in his account, his companions are two local craftsmen. One is rather grandly referred to as a “philosophical” and “poetic” saddler, who apparently knew his Homer, Horace, and Virgil, chapter and verse. Moritz is not being ironic: there was a contemporary fashion for discovering so-called “peasant poets” or rural, original geniuses. It was a means of rendering working-class literature acceptable. While I can find no sources to corroborate Moritz’s story of the saddler, Monsal Dale did become reputed for having a local bard. William Newton made machines for the Derbyshire cotton mills and was a head carpenter over at Buxton as well. Beyond his day jobs, he was known for his poetry. Perhaps Newton was a friend of Moritz’s companions. In any case, Moritz goes on to describe the view that I have stood and observed myself many a time, though it is nowadays obscured by a Victorian viaduct (a leftover from the nineteenth-century railway line, which brought tourists to the spot made famous by Moritz and subsequent literary-cum-travel writers). In the words of the English translator:
We came to a rising ground, where my philosophical saddler made me observe a prospect, which was perhaps the only one of the kind in England. Below us was a hollow, not unlike a huge kettle, hollowed out of the surrounding mass of earth; and at the bottom of it a little valley, where the green meadow was divided by a small rivulet, that ran in serpentine windings, its banks graced with the most inviting walks; behind a small winding, there is just seen a house where one of the most distinguished inhabitants of this happy vale, a great philosopher, lives retired, dedicating almost all his time to his favourite studies. He has transplanted a number of foreign plants into his grounds. My guide fell into almost a poetic rapture as he pointed out to me the beauties of this vale, while our third companion, who grew tired, became impatient at our tediousness.4
I have strained my eyes to work out which house Moritz meant, if indeed it still stands today. The historian in me has become obsessed with working out who this “great philosopher” might have been. But the translation is misleading. The German “groß” could have expressed “fine” or “dedicated” as much as “great”. The English “distinguished” is therefore an embellishment, though being of note the person surely must have had something of a reputation. Nevertheless, it was unlikely someone of Erasmus Darwin’s stature, say, who founded the Derby Philosophical Society (and was Charles Darwin’s grandfather). Besides, Darwin lived miles and miles away, outside the Peak District proper. Naturforscher in German did convey the idea of a natural philosopher in the eighteenth century — but it could also mean, more simply, a botanist with a curious, speculative bent. Perhaps one prone to more theoretical musings on plants. The German critical edition of Moritz’s travelogue offers up John Baker at the nearby Cressbrook Mill as a possibility. Although he fits the description as a known amateur botanist, he seems a disappointingly undistinguished choice to me. Gardening was hardly an unusual hobby: scanning the subscription lists for contemporary books and magazines on the botany, minerals, and agriculture of the area shows that almost every named household in the vicinity purchased copies.
Lost in the annals of Google Books, I came across one name I really wanted our philosophically-minded botanist to be: Thomas Knowlton. He published on plants and was a specialist on hot houses. He had a reputation for cultivating pineapples in eighteenth-century England: might these be the foreign plants referred to above? I suddenly imagined the quaint English scene scattered with ornamental pineapples — a classical equivalent to the plastic, kitschy pineapples that used to sit in my Derbyshire nan’s kitchen. A fanciful, if not implausible, thought. Chatsworth’s friendly archivist and two PhD students working on the history of servants at Chatsworth have assured me that, in his retirement, Knowlton advised the fifth Duke of Devonshire. There is a house belonging to the Chatsworth estate near to Monsal Dale, too, which plausibly might have put Knowlton up. But he died the year before Moritz was out walking in the peaks, which is reason enough to tame my enthusiasm. Yet Moritz’s information is second or perhaps third-hand, and from a rapturous saddler at that. He could well have guided our German through the vale with poetic licence. The historian in me might want to identify Monsal’s “great philosopher”, but it is only with a literary imagination that I can settle on an answer.
Moritz was writing at a significant historical moment for walking. His working-class companions remind us that in England as elsewhere, writerly wandering is thought to have set off on a left-wing tradition around 1800. It is a common (but not universal) view that Wordsworth was a young radical before turning Tory only in his old age, and that his writing on walking was anti-capitalist. (What is beyond debate is that Wordsworth definitely walked, a lot. De Quincey claimed to have calculated that he covered over 175,000 miles.) In England, walking easily became a political act because enclosure laws made roaming the countryside more difficult. In the wandering age of Romanticism and its modern legacy, fields, forests, and hillsides were increasingly for the private use of the, well, landed classes. Kinder Scout in the Peak District had long been publicly accessible King’s Land until it was fenced off in 1836. In 1932, it became the site of an organised trespass as part of the English class struggle. In the meantime, the moneyed went off to Switzerland for their walking throughout the long nineteenth century, where they could amble around the Alpine trails without controversy.
Although writerly wandering is popularly associated with the left, and not just in England, it is not necessarily so. Irrespective of interpretations of Wordsworth’s poetry, German writing about walking since Romanticism has traversed the full political spectrum. Heidegger used a walk along a country path (Feldweg) to define thinking, Denken, as a meditative release from the functions of representation or intention.5 Although he is careful to say that his conception of thought is not a complacency that just goes with the flow (as it were), it is fair to characterise his philosophy as radically ontological. That is to say, Heidegger’s philosophy is about being in the world, and is less concerned with how we can change it than with understanding how we are within it. Indeed, Heidegger’s ideal of change in the world would concern our authentic, abstract relation of being in it, not specific societal structures. In this sense, Heidegger’s thinking could be considered conservative. Of course, Heidegger was much more extreme in his actual politics than any legitimate conservative: he was complicit in the Nazi regime, and antisemitic. We cannot pin his day-to-day political positions onto his abstract philosophy in any straightforward way, nor onto his walks in the German forest. But the point stands that writerly wandering is not a preserve of the left. Writerly wandering is not well-described as activism, then, as my critically-minded colleagues would have it, some of them immersed in French theories of the flâneur. But we can say that writing about walking is necessarily an observation on our own place in nature and culture — or nature as culture. On that, all our authors from Rousseau onwards would agree.
Leaving politics aside, what most writers on walking also share is sociability — although it is often hidden, or downright denied. Rousseau did not live in solitude on St Peter’s Island. Readers could be forgiven for thinking he did, but he was there as the guest of a Bernese tax collector. (As Sebald reminds us, there were also constant visitors and seasonal farm hands present.) Wordsworth may have written that he “wandered lonely as a cloud”, but his sister Dorothy accompanied him. Heidegger’s discourse on thinking while walking is written as a sort of Socratic-style conversation, between a scientist, teacher, and scholar. My own walks in the Peak District or in Switzerland have been with those closest to me: my sister, friends, parents, an erstwhile partner (with whom I would descend into Monsal Vale in particular, on a full stomach following yet another visit to a gastropub). These were wanderings in conversation and in shared silence — banal conversations, perhaps, which, in their cumulative familiarity against a beautiful backdrop, lead to the sort of routine happiness that Rousseau conceived as solitary.
Rousseau soon fled the Peak District for France. I intend to stick around here for summers to come. I have more walks to discover, conversation topics to hold forth on, and thinking to do. And in moments of academic contemplation, I might even take up gardening. Or simply buy some plastic pineapples.
Seán Williams is Lecturer in German and European Cultural History at the University of Sheffield, and writes and broadcasts on German and comparative cultural history. He is a BBC New Generation Thinker.