One day in 1886 a man named Jean-Albert Dadas was admitted to hospital in Bordeaux with acute fatigue. Having suddenly left his job as a gas factory worker he proceeded to walk across the South of France, before ending up in the Hôpital Saint-André. A young medical intern named Philippe Tissié was doing his rounds in the hospital when he encountered a distraught and weeping Dadas. Tissié gave the following account of his condition:
He had just come from a long journey on foot and was exhausted, but that was not the cause of his tears. He wept because he could not prevent himself from departing on a trip when the need took him; he deserted family, work and daily life to walk as fast as he could, straight ahead, sometimes doing 70 kilometres a day on foot, until in the end he would be arrested for vagrancy and thrown in prison.
The destination itself was unimportant to him—just hearing a place name was enough to send him on his way, like a wind-up clockwork toy. Strangest of all, Dadas would often have no recollection of how he reached his location, as if he had been lost in a fugue for the entire journey. Curiously, his case was not unique at the time, with many instances of similar fugues being recorded throughout France. By the end of the nineteenth century the condition was so common it had given rise to its own term: dromomania, meaning a compulsive need to walk aimlessly or take flight.
Several years ago I found myself unemployed and living at home with my parents in the west of Ireland. The bright future that was promised to my generation evaporated like a mirage as we graduated into a recession. There was little chance of finding a job, so I played video games to pass the time and only left the house at dusk. I hoped that I wouldn’t meet anyone I knew. Most evenings I went for a stroll along a quiet stretch of country road and if it was a clear enough I’d walk with only the moon to light the way. On one occasion I stopped to look at a hill on the edge of town, a gnarled knuckle of rock with a bone-white glow in the moonlight. The only sounds to be heard were the cattle cropping grass in the anaemic fields beyond. I knew that life must be happening elsewhere, so I decided that it was time to move.
Dromomania emerged at a time when anxiety was growing about vagabonds in France. Borders between European states were extremely porous and communities were nervous about strangers in their midst. As a result, convictions for vagabondage increased steadily as the nineteenth century progressed and aimless wanderers became enemies of public order. One proposed solution to this problem involved sending vagrants overseas in service of the state. As the historian Kristin Ross wrote:
Later in the [nineteenth] century the French government would learn to apply to vagabondage—‘that nervous mania of locomotion and laziness that appears to be one of the ways in which the free life of the savage is preserved’—a more effective, if homeopathic, treatment. From vagabondage would come organized wandering in the form of geographic exploration and colonial expedition.
A distinction would thus emerge between merely useless wandering and a more economically productive form of exploration, sanctioned by the government.
Less than a week after arriving in London my plan of sleeping on a friend’s sofa indefinitely was quickly dispatched, along with any self-serving bohemian aspirations. It quickly became clear that I was outstaying my welcome so I repacked my suitcase and took the Tube across the city to a hostel in Swiss Cottage. With my funds running low I couldn’t stay for long, so I anxiously cast around for somewhere cheap to live. Not yet having a job meant that most enquiries lead nowhere and any offers I did receive seemed a little suspicious. One response from a landlord took an entirely metaphysical turn:
Note that i have several properties around the world & am well-to-do and that is why i am offering cheap rent to those in need of cheap & affordable rent especially students as i am not really after the money because i am aware that what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul
So I was surprised to eventually find a nice place in a upmarket postcode. I knew that a few prospective tenants had been to see the room but I couldn’t understand why no one had snapped it up. The apartment was located on the second floor of a converted Victorian building and the interior was newly refurbished. The owners, a weathered-looking couple, would be the only other occupants. In any case, they seemed happy to believe me when I said that I wasn’t unemployed but in fact writing a PhD (which was an outright lie).
The boyfriend was unnecessarily tall with long hair and he wore the same purple paisley shirt every single day. His accent was a dry drawl from the north of England and he only ever said what he meant. He would tell stories of how successful he was in ‘the cupcake business’ and never seemed interested in anything other than drinking White Russians. Even my appearance in the house didn’t seem worth noticing, as if his own presence there was provisional too. When I got up in the morning, he would already be sitting in the living room, watching Antiques Roadshow with a drink in hand. I began to doubt that he ever slept.
The emergence of dromomania is concomitant with the appearance of the flâneur in France, although they represented different approaches to walking. Whereas dromomania involved detachment and walking as sheer mechanical compulsion, flânerie signified a more active, attentive engagement with your surroundings and is irrevocably linked with the spectacle of modernity. As Charles Baudelaire, who gave the term its first and fullest expression, wrote in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, the flâneur is someone who ‘gazes upon the landscapes of the great city—landscapes of stone, caressed by the mist or buffeted by the sun’.
Not long after moving in I discovered that the couple regularly fought with each other, great big stormy screaming matches.
Late one night the boyfriend came home in a rage having being kicked out of The Wolseley. ‘I was just sitting down to dinner when these three twats in business suits sat behind me and wouldn’t stop talking. City arseholes, you know the type. I turned round and politely asked them to shut the fuck up and you know what happened? The restaurant told me to leave! Me! So I asked for my pheasant to go and then really gave those prats a piece of my mind.’
Lying in bed listening to this, I remembered that the boyfriend had had his driving licence taken away after he was found passed out behind the wheel of a parked car while the engine was still running. Without his licence, he must have had to carry the pheasant home on the Underground, I thought. The girlfriend managed to calm him down by promising a walk together to a nearby petrol station to buy more drink. Pacified, he went with her and the apartment fell silent. A couple of days later I discovered the uneaten pheasant had been left forgotten in a kitchen cupboard, its mummified carcass a grim totem of that night.
In the end I only stayed in the apartment for a month, leaving after another of their late-night rows became so intense that I considered calling the police.
In 1876 the poet Arthur Rimbaud was enlisted by the Dutch Colonial Army and despatched to Java. After less than two weeks he disappeared into the jungle. Eventually, he turned up on a vessel called The Wandering Chief, bound for Ireland. Landing in Queenstown, Rimbaud took the train to Cork before making his way home to Charleville-Mézières.
What must he have thought about while travelling through the Irish landscape? Perhaps he reflected on his time in the jungle, daydreaming about mangroves and tigers.
The first thing I noticed when I went to see the studio apartment in south-west London was its high ceilings. Or I should say, the first positive thing I noticed—as I tried to ignore the sizeable gap underneath the door, or the fact that the communal toilet was behind a flimsy partition in the hallway, or that the entire building had a murky, unctuous quality, as if it had been salvaged from the depths of the sea. I was too desperate to ask why the landlady needed a photocopy of my passport but I got the feeling that tenants had a habit of suddenly disappearing on her. An old sign above the entrance declared that the building had once housed a publisher but I had no idea what kind of books could have been produced here. I imagined that it was probably just a front for clandestine meetings or the printing of illicit materials. But I had no other options and the rent was cheap, so I moved in straight away.
Without anywhere in particular to be and with no money to spend, London felt cold and hermetically sealed, like a mausoleum or a bank vault. As winter started to consolidate its hold, the freezing weather brought with it a significant increase in rodent life. I had recently noticed a mouse darting out of the disused fireplace beside my bed, which I ended up chasing around the room with one of my cheap boots before it escaped again. From under the door and the cupboards, mice would run into the room, freeze stock-still as if suddenly remembering something, then take off again at high speed. On the advice of my landlady I covered the old fireplace grate with broken glass before sealing it with orange bin liner bags and cardboard, all of which was held in place with bright yellow masking tape. Although the mice still kept me up at night, with their flurries of scuttling in the skirting boards and ceiling overhead, at least they were no longer in my room.
Each day, I would submit to a crushing round of job applications, filling out endless forms detailing my skills, qualifications and ambitions. I found it difficult to believe that I had ever had a job. My old life seemed unimaginably remote and I couldn’t envisage a way out. It would just be me and the mice and the covered-up fireplace from now on.
Looking to escape these thoughts, I took to the city streets to try and cover as much ground as possible. There was no particular aim to all this activity, except to keep me occupied and tire myself out. I allowed my walks to carry me like an impulse through the nervous system of the city, delivering me to its extremities. As the weeks passed the skin around my feet hardened and my boots fell apart in the rain, their soles slapping comically with each step. I had the ingenious idea of repairing them with the remaining yellow masking tape.
Rimbaud, whose own travels were almost contemporaneous with those of Dadas, would often use the term ‘fugue’ in his writing. In his youth he travelled vast distances on foot and in 1873 he fled to London with his lover Paul Verlaine, where they spent their time walking ceaselessly around the city and its surrounding areas. Verlaine wrote in a letter to a friend:
Every day we take enormous walks in the suburbs and in the country round London… We’ve seen Kew, Woolwich, and many other places… Drury Lane, Whitechapel, Pimlico, the City, Hyde Park: all these have no longer any mystery for us.
I developed a feeling of antipathy towards London and became frustrated with its inscrutability. Londoners were always impassive, helpful when asked for directions, but would start to panic if it seemed the conversation was entering casual environs. Maybe it was obvious that I was hungry for conversation. As a remedy, I started to use terms like ‘mate’, as a sort of bloke-y affectation, but these words always felt cold and unpleasant to me, like a mouthful of crushed ice.
The city began to grow monstrous in my imagination, like some sort of primordial beast that could crush you underfoot without knowing that you’d ever existed. Its sheer sprawl was unnerving: here was a place with no centre and an incomprehensible circumference. I missed the rambling vistas of the countryside, as everywhere you looked in the city your sightline was enclosed by a tessellation of concrete and glass.
The only means of escape was through walking. When you travel London on foot, you are no longer confined by the commercially defined transportation networks. You’re free to disappear down the slipstream of an alley and be discharged onto streets too narrow for buses or suburbs, too obscure for tube stations: Atalanta Street, Pilgrim’s Lane, St. Julian’s Road.
Saint Julian, patron saint of travellers, is the subject of a short story by Gustave Flaubert entitled ‘La légende de Saint-Julien l’hospitalier’. Featured in a collection called Trois Contes (Three Tales), it was published in 1877, just a few years before the dromomania phenomenon came to prominence. This tale recounts the story of Julian the Hospitaller who, in Flaubert’s version, is predicted to achieve greatness but, in doing so, will also end up murdering his parents. In order to avoid his fate the noble Julian joins a group of wandering vagrants and becomes accustomed to a life of illness and hunger. In the end, he fulfils his destiny by accidentally murdering his parents, who were in disguise, but is redeemed by a final act of kindness: he embraces a dying leper who turns out to be Jesus Christ himself.
Walking is a form of communion with the city, where you’re guided like a divining rod. In our infancy we have to practice how to walk effectively until it eventually becomes an unconscious act, like breathing or blinking. Every day we stand up, orientate ourselves and put one foot in front of the other, propelling ourselves through time and space until the end of our lives.
*Alússein: *The repetitive motion of walking means that it can be a hypnotic act; one that invites daydreams and visions. The word hallucinate came to English from the Classical Greek alússein, meaning ill at ease or restless, via the Latin term ālūcinārī which means to wander in thought. Not only do we speak of minds wandering; they can also be lost.
Solvitur ambulando: ‘It is solved by walking’. This Latin phrase was apparently coined by the itinerant philosopher Diogenes the Cynic and was quoted approvingly by the travel writer and Hellenophile Patrick Leigh Fermor, who had walked across Europe in the early 1930s. It was eagerly adopted as a personal motto by another inveterate traveller, Bruce Chatwin, after he heard Fermor recite it.
But what is the link between walking and thinking? Walking can help you to think; however, like Jean-Albert Dadas, you can also walk to obliterate thought through sheer locomotion.
One of my preferred walking routes took me through a small, Victorian cemetery. Its boundaries and paths were lined with trees sprouting various fruits and flowers: cherry blossoms, limes and, most intriguingly, medlars. The fruit of medlar trees are known for looking like they’ve rotted before they’ve ripened, and hang in fleshy auburn clumps. Looking at the tree, I imagined the course its roots had taken underground, as it felt its way through the dark earth. I thought of the roots disturbing graves, tendrilising their way around bones and drawing nourishment all the time. It was disturbing to think what its fruit might taste like.
In the winter of 1974, upon hearing that his friend, the German film critic Lotte Eisner, was seriously ill, the film director Werner Herzog set out to walk from Munich to Paris.
German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death. I took a jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities… I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.
During the journey he slept in barns, tool sheds and even a model mobile home that was on display for prospective buyers. A few weeks later Herzog arrived in Paris, filthy and exhausted. But his pilgrimage had worked its white magic: Eisner’s illness passed and she lived for another nine years.
One day, I crossed the bridge to Putney in search of fresh sights. I spent the morning in a small gallery, which was pleasantly heated, before moving on to a secondhand bookshop. I picked up a book and read for a while before placing it back on the shelf. Gradually, I became conscious that the clerk had been following me around the shop. Had my boots been leaking again?
Flaubert’s Three Tales was a great favourite of Chatwin’s, who admitted on his deathbed that he had planned to write a similar triptych of stories. They never materialised, but he did help create an opera based on the life of Rimbaud towards the end of his life.
His death in 1989 as a result of AIDS-related illness was incredibly brutal. After visiting with Chatwin shortly before he died, Herzog gave the following account: ‘He was lucid, but eventually became delirious and would exclaim, ‘I’ve got to be on the road again, I’ve got to be on the road again.’’ Finally, in a brief moment of clarity Chatwin admitted to Herzog: ‘I will never walk again’.
Herzog has talked and written at length about the virtues of walking which sound, at times, like a classic description of a fugue:
When you come on foot, you come with a different intensity. Travelling on foot has nothing to do with exercise… I do not dream at nights. Yet when I am walking I fall deep into dreams, I float through fantasies and find myself in unbelievable stories. I literally walk through whole novels and films and football matches. I do not even look at where I am stepping, but I never lose my direction… I find myself twenty-five or thirty kilometers further on. How I got there I do not know.
Gradually, my situation improved. I moved into a different house and found a place to work. At lunchtimes I would stroll through Soho, where most of the sleaze had long since been sluiced away, or around Chinatown, whose layout felt like it constantly transmuted so I could never quite get a handle on it. I had a handful of regular routes but I remember one particular walk more clearly than the others. One summer evening, I ducked out of the sweltering heat to watch a film at the BFI, which was running a Werner Herzog retrospective. Released the same year as his journey to meet Eisner, Herzog’s film Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (which literally translates as Every Man for Himself and God Against All but is better known as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) tells the true story of Kaspar Hauser, a mysterious 19th century figure who one day turned up in Nuremberg, unable to account for his origins. Hauser is played by Bruno S., a street musician who had no acting experience up to this point but still gives an otherworldly performance. When Hauser is recuperating in bed after being attacked by an unknown assailant, he begins a gnomic soliloquy, describing a strange vision he had. We see a misty, indistinct landscape with a series of figures making their way up a hillside. We hear Hauser’s voice: ‘I saw a mountain and many people. They were climbing the mountain as a procession. There was a lot of fog. I could not see clearly. But up there was death.’ In fact Herzog used footage of pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick to accompany this vision and, watching the film in a cinema on London’s South Bank, I wondered if I knew anyone who had climbed the mountain while that sequence was being filmed. I had relatives who made the journey annually so there was a good chance that someone from home had been there but it was impossible to recognise anyone through the fog. Away from its original context the pilgrimage looked strange and sinister. However, my family in Mayo never thought twice about performing this ritual each year. I liked to think that this was an atavistic journey, like the migrations made by birds, as the tradition of making a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick had most likely existed before the appearance of Christianity in Ireland. But walking was also significant for St Patrick, who was a self-described peregrinus: a wandering, stateless individual. His example, along with other saints such as Columbanus, gave rise to a whole group of Irish peregrini (or pilgrims) who criss-crossed the continent during the seventh and eighth centuries. They weren’t missionaries; rather, their aim was to go into voluntary exile, becoming strangers in an unfamiliar land. A desire by the church to create a more stable administration meant that these wandering Irishmen had to be restricted. By the ninth century the days of free and easy peregrinatio were effectively over and Irish pilgrims were restricted to journeys in their home country. A millennium later, Dadas travelled across Europe with relative ease, walking in defiance of the enclosure of the state. I thought about all this as I continued my stroll through Middle Temple at dusk. All the barristers who usually thronged its streets had fled to the pub for the evening and as the sun set, turning all the old stone buildings a pale glaucous, I had a vivid sensation, for a fraction of a second, of what it must have been like here during the medieval period. I decided to walk along the Thames towards home. The entire sky was darkening and the air was particularly clear. There were few fellow pedestrians around. Looking across the river I could see lights coming on in a mansion block opposite and as each yellow light came on, it revealed another life inside the building. They were reflected in the dark waters of the river below where the whole scene seemed to leap and glow like a film projected onto a screen.
Fugue: The term fugue comes from the Latin fugere, meaning flight or to flee. Fugere also gave rise to the words fugitive and refugee. One of the last notable fugueurs was a man named Henri C., a depressive who was prone to compulsive journeys. On one occasion, he escaped from a military hospital in Montpellier and wandered as far as Barcelona, before returning to a small town on the French border. As Ian Hacking wrote in Mad Travellers, a definitive account of the dromomania phenomenon:
That is great fugue country. There on a flowery slope or on a wind-blown outcrop you may still encounter a nervous man who was hoping not to be seen. Today he is more likely to be a confused Moroccan making his way gingerly through to Spain than a dazed French infantryman heading for the safety of Spain. Today he is just a mixed-up illegal immigrant. Ninety years ago he suffered from a distinct mental malady, ambulatory automatism.