What are the politics of walking in the city? What are its poetics?
In Nadja (1928), André Breton’s great surrealist novel, his autobiographical narrator at one point describes bringing a pile of books to a bar where he has made an arrangement to meet Nadja herself, who is fast becoming the object of his strange, not to say obsessive libidinal and spiritual investments. This pile of books includes a copy of Les pas perdus (1924), The Lost Steps, Breton’s first collection of essays, which he no doubt brings, along with the first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), in an attempt both to educate her and aggrandize himself. “Lost steps?” Nadja exclaims on seeing its title. “But there’s no such thing!”
There’s no such thing as lost steps! If one were to search for the principle that epitomizes what, in an echo of the title of a book by the late Marshall Berman, might be called “modernism in the streets,” one could probably find it in this exclamation. It informs the writings of all those authors who consistently sought to make the cities with which they were familiar seem new or strange by traversing them aimlessly, sometimes desperately, on foot, in a state of heightened susceptibility to the relentless stimuli of the streets. But it is also a doctrine that, almost a century later, still resonates in the cities of today.
Certainly, it is the article of faith according to which, as a committed, even devout pedestrian, I like to live. No walk, as far as I am concerned, is ever wasted. In contrast, for example, to a car journey. In a city—especially one dominated by cars, by individualistic rather than collective, private rather than public modes of transport—it is walking that habitually makes me feel alive. It makes me feel both vitally connected to the city’s ceaseless circuits of energy and, at the same time, delicately detached from them. Stimulant, then, and narcotic.
In the twenty-first century, in cities that are the site of acutely disorienting cycles of creative destruction, where pedestrians are increasingly inured to the environment they more and more mechanically inhabit, not least because of their dependence on the technology of smartphones and other handheld devices, we need another modernism of the streets. And we need to celebrate some of those embattled individuals for whom, in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, at the high tide of industrial modernity, this activity was a sort of spiritual imperative; a vocation.
There’s no such thing as lost steps … Nadja does a lot of loitering on the streets of Paris, so her reaction to the title of Breton’s essay collection, which I take to be spontaneously triumphant rather than merely defensive, is understandable. If you wander around the city, or hang about at street corners, things happen.
Of course, people might think as a result that you’re a pimp or a prostitute or some other undesirable, and if you’re a woman you’ll be especially exposed to demeaning assumptions of this sort; but things still happen. With any luck, in fact, you might encounter a surrealist, as Nadja does. Or, thirty or forty years later, a situationist. These avant-gardists are committed to the idea that it is the street, above all other venues, that provides what Breton, in the essay that opens Les pas perdus, calls the “surprising detours” that shape a life in the conditions of capitalist modernity.
“The street, with its cares and its glances, was my true element,” Breton declares: “there I could test like nowhere else the winds of possibility.” The street, site of the most routine practicalities, such as shopping, is also a social laboratory in which all sorts of utopian potentialities can be tested. The street is the domain of the trivial; but—as the etymological origin of this word suggests, derived from the Latin for a place at which three roads meet, typically at the volatile margins of the city where immigrants of all kinds congregate and circulate—it is also a site of dynamic social experiment. It is a point of intersection, criss-crossed with restless feet, bristling with creative possibilities for collective life.
Breton, it can safely be assumed, agrees with Nadja that there are no lost steps. For her, as he formulates it in a sentence that Walter Benjamin later cited as the epigraph to his essay on “Marseilles” (1929), the streets are “the only region of valid experience” (“la rue, pour elle seul champ d’expérience valable”). And walking, implicitly, is the only valid means of traversing this region or, better, “field” of experience (it is surely important, paradoxically, not to erase the ancient pastoral associations of this phrase). More specifically, that errant, meandering form of walking that is often classified as wandering is the only valid means of traversing this field of experience.
Like other surrealists, and indeed like other modernists of every stripe, Breton believed that the footstep, as Michael Sheringham puts it, is the “emblem of the free everyday.” The footstep is an opportunity to escape the logic of abstraction, the logic of exchange-value constitutive of those modes of transport with which, in the industrial metropolis, the walker must compete, from automobiles to buses to trains. Every footfall, then, in contrast to the revolution of a set of wheels that travels along roads or tracks, is an adventure. A flight. It is open to “surprising detours.” And it is, at the same time, a faint imprint, on the pavements and other surfaces of the city, of these necessarily individual escapades.
It is in this sense that the lost steps shaping the essays in Breton’s Les pas perdus are not in fact lost steps at all. They are affirmations of the surrealist’s freedom simply to drift through the streets and through the corridors of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French literature, opening himself up to the everyday excitements of chance experience. The polemics, reviews, and sketches of comrades associated with Dadaism and surrealism that comprise Les pas perdus don’t go anywhere immediately obvious. They are diversions, meaning both deviations from the predictable or prescribed route and distractions. Recreational distractions that, as deviations from normative expectations, are in some fundamental sense re-creational …
In so far as Breton’s collection, both its title and its surrealist spirit, was subsequently “modified in the guts of the living,” to echo Auden’s poem about Yeats, it certainly proved creative and regenerative: the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier’s Los pasos perdidos (1953), The Lost Steps, in some respects a postcolonial critique of surrealism, brilliantly explores not only what it means to get lost in the jungle but also just how difficult it is both to move on foot in the streets of a city and to live according to the “laws of collective motion” that prevail in them. As individual pedestrians, isn’t this what we are all trying to do in our everyday lives? Aren’t we fighting, in effect, to coordinate the city’s “laws of collective motion”? Like a conductor who arrives at their podium halfway through the fourth movement of the symphony?
Les pas perdus includes the account of an adventure Breton and Louis Aragon had on a Parisian street when, to absolutely no narrative consequence, they became intrigued by an enigmatic and oddly disorientated woman. This passante, the object of those “cares” and “glances” apparently legitimated, in a patriarchal society, by the sight lines and the sexual-political dynamics of the street, is a Baudelairean passerby who unlike Nadja resists with considerable insouciance the surrealists’ more or less predatory attempts to recruit her to their schemes. Refusing to audition for the part of Nadja the two men are effectively hoping to cast, this anonymous woman ignores or, still more gloriously, remains completely unconscious of them: “Louis Aragon and André Breton,” the piece concludes, “unable to give up the idea of finding the key to the riddle, searched through part of the sixth arrondissement—but in vain.”
But Breton’s article, titled “The New Spirit” and first published in 1922 in the surrealist periodical Littérature, is itself proof that their search was not in vain. For the surrealists, all experiences on the streets take the form of experiments, and no experiments are unsuccessful. Furthermore, if the point of this sketch is that it goes nowhere, Breton himself was clearly confident that he was going somewhere. The essays and fragments collected in Les pas perdus, which announce an arrival and a departure, function as important preparatory exercises. After all, the Manifesto of Surrealism, representing a signal departure for the avant-garde, appeared in the same year. There are no lost steps.
In French, the phrase pas perdus, “lost steps,” recalls the phrase salle des pas perdus—the common, peculiarly rich name for the waiting room of a railway station. At once drearily prosaic and poignantly poetic, it evokes the aimless, restless pacing of those who kill time before the departure of their train, tracing a circular, almost self-canceling movement that collapses walking into waiting, the active into the passive. But, read with a different inflection, the phrase les pas perdus can also mean “the not lost.” It connotes the unlost (the poet Paul Celan once referred to himself, in a beautiful if painful formulation, as “unlost amid the losses”).
Breton’s essay collection is, then, about an intellectual and spiritual elect: Apollinaire, Duchamp, Jarry, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Vaché, et cetera. This elect, moreover, which is comprised of the not-lost, or the sort-of-saved, is implicitly recruited from the ranks of those who aimlessly pace the streets in pursuit of adventure. Wanderers. Fugueurs. For Breton, and for friends such as Aragon and Philippe Soupault, themselves the authors of fine surrealist novels driven by the logic of what the situationists will subsequently call the dérive, or psychogeographic “drift,” people who loiter or pace or wander are precisely not lost. On the contrary, they are preoccupied, consciously or unconsciously, with finding themselves.
And they do find themselves—in contrast, for example, to the inhabitants of that infernal cylindrical salle des pas perdus at the center of Samuel Beckett’s The Lost Ones (1970), where the tortured relationship between waiting and walking acquires both mathematical and mythical overtones. Beckett’s vision is shaped in part by Dante’s account of the dead massed on the banks of the Acheron in the third canto of the Inferno. Perhaps it is also a recollection of the night he spent in the waiting room of Nuremberg station in 1931, an incident that informed a scene in his novel Watt (1953). Certainly, it is a vision of the damned: “Abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one.”
Breton’s more redemptive vision is of the not-damned. Those who, like him, inhabit the immense salle des pas perdus that is the metropolitan city might look like lost bodies, lost souls, but they are secretly the chosen ones. For they discover the marvelous in the everyday, reveal enchantment in the disenchanted spaces of urban life, find redemption in everyday forms of perdition. No doubt there are lost soles in the city, just as there are discarded gloves such as the one Breton’s autobiographical narrator fetishizes in Nadja; but there are no lost souls. The street redeems everyone. Indeed, its least bourgeois inhabitants, the bohemians, bums, and criminals, are for Breton and the other surrealists its saints and martyrs.
In the city, then, for the surrealists and other “modernists of the street,” every aimless step counts—precisely because it cannot be counted. The more aimless the better … The American novelist Henry Miller, who made the streets of Paris his home throughout the thirties, offers an almost programmatic statement about the opportunities that open up to those who drift through the city on foot when, on the opening page of his novel Black Spring (1936), he announces that “to be born on the street”—as he himself claims he was because of his origins in working-class Brooklyn—“means to wander all your life, to be free.” “It means accident and incident, drama, movement,” he elaborates. “It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude.”
Matthew Beaumont is a professor in the department of English at University College, London. He is the author of Utopia Ltd.: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870–1900(2005) and the coauthor, with Terry Eagleton, of The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue (2009). He has edited or coedited several collections of essays: As Radical as Reality Itself: Essays on Marxism and Art for the 21st Century; The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space, and the Machine Ensemble; Adventures in Realism; and Restless Cities.
From The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City, by Matthew Beaumont. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Matthew Beaumont.