Monday, May 02, 2011

The aimless walk has served me well in recent years. I’m not talking about a single aimless walk but of aimless walking as a regular practice. It serves so many wonderful purposes and the more I do it, the more purposes and wonderfulnessess I find. I have practiced it solely within the very urban surroundings of London as the public transport network affords the aimless walker an almost certain protection against getting truly lost. There is always a bus or tube or trains station to take you back at least towards your home, always someone to ask for directions.

As a social activity it provides a wonderful atmosphere in which to chat, gossip or get stuck into some intellectual discourse. The landscape is ever moving and so the conversation, if it threatens to dry up, has ever new fuel provided by new architecture, new people, new plants, animals, adverts, art, and things you didn’t expect to see at all: things I can’t anticipate here. Even the most boring parts of town can harbour endless oddities, hidden secrets, or even charming blanknesses.

As Pissarro said ‘Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.’ And it doesn’t take any special initiation to become one of these blessed folk. I feel it might be something like being a believer in a religion. Though I have no clerics, no holy text, and no church, still I feel like I’ve come to know a godlike personality. The personality happens to be place itself.

Any given place is an endlessly deep swarm of artifacts and curios, a palimpsest of whatever stories have occurred in and of the location. Not just human events and structures but those of nature, animals, plants, and the deadest of the dead: stones. Blank, empty spaces can hold even more intrigue then those that teem with convolution. Beheld in stark contrast to the usual business, a barren zone or landmark-less landscape is so alien it can elicit purer, simpler, deeper emotional or intellectual responses. And anyway, the emptiest place on earth is no longer empty when you, the observer, arrives to be in it, to experience it.

God in the Quad - by Ronald Knox

There was a young man who said, "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."

Dear Sir:
Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,

No place is without a genius loci (spirit of place). And you don’t need tools or jargon or specialised knowledge to decipher the spirit. Discovering anything at all (scientific and mathematic truths included) lies dormant in the observer more than in the outside world. We map our thoughts and expectations onto what we see. All is in the eye of the beholder. If some mysterious marks on a wall catch your attention and make you smile, make you think of something, make you stop and wonder, it’s not necessary to discover their true origin, their actual author. Though it may become your aim, art (or we might call it intrigue) can be found regardless of considerations of author, history, or understanding. We can look at the sky when it turns an unusual colour and say “I haven’t a clue how it’s gone that colour or what’s causing it but I find it beautiful.”

So the aimless wander needs only to be open to the possible intrigue of possibly anything. Having mentioned religion already here is another similarity: I find myself preaching openness. Urging that you be open to the ever-present possibility of appreciating the world around you. As I preach this openness I squirm inwardly with sensation that I am repeating something similar to what I’ve heard so often from preaching theists. “You just have to be open to God”. Nodding and smiling as I have done at this entreaty, I have always resolutely decided I would not be open to God since it didn’t mean anything at all. Standing in the atheist’s paradigm, as I do, the notion of becoming open to this almighty ghost strikes me as intellectually impossible and no more than a weird sadomasochistic mind-ritual in which I subscribe to a fallacy so forcefully as to begin to hallucinate His actuality.

I’m well aware that my religion of the aimless wanderers who worship the variety of existence due to the endless intrigues of their own minds stands, in a sense, on the same ground as conventional religion when looked at by the as-yet-uninitiated awanderer (atheist is to theist what awanderer is to wanderer). So although I feel no less devout about the wandering cause I can understand if those standing in a conflicting paradigm see nothing but nonsense in my position.

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