Exploring the Fourth Dimension

For a total amount of time that adds to maybe three weeks a year, Chicago’s weather is fit for human life. When I’m not working on a job, or combating another endemic bout of seasonal depression, I use these brief hours to walk. Usually without a destination in mind. Mostly just to explore, and hopefully, to discover. This is how I’ve found the city’s best foods (Depression-style dogs with fries from Jimmy’s Red Hots, pan pizza from Pequod’s), architectural landmarks (the Pullman District, Mies van der Rohe’s gravestone), and the wellsprings of various urban legends (cow carcasses at Bubbly Creek, Al Capone at the Green Mill). Other walks lead nowhere, but those walks still have value, because they help me map borderlands of my particular somewhere.

I wish it were the case that for the other 49 weeks out of the year, I wouldn’t have the urge to explore. But it’s there, and the longer it sits dormant, the more it gnaws. Like many, I try to mask it with the narcotics of work, friends, Internet, and Netflix, but in my dreams I still glimpse myself as it should be: moving along a path set by Movement itself.

On one hand, this impulse towards movement is framed by a Nietzschean ethic, that one should “give no credence to any thought that was not born outdoors while one moved about freely—in which the muscles are not celebrating a feast, too.” But on the other, this urge to move, to walk, is primordial; a vestigial instinct of our hunter-gatherer days since diminished by millennia of acculturation, civilization, and the armchair comforts of Google Street View. Today, in terms of obligation or interest, the perambulatory urge is placed somewhere between swim lessons and renewing your driver’s license. Plus the fact that exploration in any ‘formal’ sense—you know, air travel, car rentals, North Face jacket liners, and so forth—is really fucking expensive.

But the walk itself, stripped of all such manufactured desires and commercialized augmentations, is the purest expression of human autonomy. This idea, I think, is captured most famously in Of Walking in Ice (2015) by rogue film director Werner Herzog. It’s a diary written by Herzog between November 23 and December 14, 1974, detailing his three-week, 600-mile walk from Munich to Paris in the depths of winter as a spiritual pilgrimage dedicated to German film critic and personal friend Lotte Eisner, who was dying in a Paris hospital. A grand, romantic gesture. I’d like to do something similar someday. But the banal obligations of everyday life—rent payments and student loans and paid time off and tendonitis—relegate this gesture to the pipedream realm, where desire rots.

Elsewhere, Herzog offers something of a solution. In Werner Herzog: Interviews, a recent collection of interviews (many translated into English for the first time) edited by Eric Ames, there is a conversation included with Geoffrey O’Brien from Parnassus, where discussion turns to walking. O’Brien and Herzog talk of the poets John Clare and Francois Villon, both who traveled heavily by foot. Herzog mentions, “Some of the very best poets have been people on foot,” and continues: “We aren’t made to sit at a computer or travel by airplane. Destiny intended something different for us. We’ve been estranged from the essential, which is traveling on foot. While it would be ridiculous to advocate traveling on foot in our time, I would rather do the existentially essential things in my life that way.”

While some “existentially essential” things should require a physical toll, as humans we live multiple essences, in multiple existences with multiple dimensions. A walk in one is a run in another, is swimming in another, and stagnancy in another. In this way it’s just as important to walk and explore in the physical realm as it is to journey through the dimensions of language and letters.

A foray into the writings of and on Herzog, for example, led me to English travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977)—a recounting of his own foot travels through Patagonia in the 1970s. Along this path I picked up this excellent little fragment: “I haven’t got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other God.” Later, Chatwin offers some choice anecdotes on the Spanish Brujeria, or witch-healers, and rumors of thorny crowns and blood sacrifices. Directing me, in Movement’s own way, to Cesar Calvo’s Three Halves of Ino Moxo: Teachings of the Wizard of the Upper Amazon (1995). And then whatever else is next. All things I wouldn’t have seen (and won’t see) riding coach in the 737 of my mind. This is walking in body and mind, where the body and psyche can feast on the fruits of free movement.

On one hand, this is another way to state the value of literary curiosity. For those who see themselves as participants in the greater conversations of creation, composition, and production, there’s immense value in taking paths less traveled—or discovering new ones altogether. Because I was dissatisfied with the rote and generally conservative world of independent publishing, for example, I co-founded my own publishing outfit in 2011 with the expressed interest of exploring new horizons. One of our most successful collections, Noospheria, was built entirely on a theme discovered through this exploratory process.

The ‘noosphere’ is an early 20th-century analog for understanding the sphere of human thought. It’s an outmoded idea first concocted by scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the 1920s, and then popularized by scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky in the 1930s. I found Vernadsky (a rarely traveled path) via writings related to philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (a somewhat traveled path), who I discovered via Fyodor Dostoyevsky (a superhighway). And now, in addition to discovering a ‘forgotten’ term, it has been reclaimed (in its own particular somewhere) in the name of creativity, or more simply, in the name of Movement.

Herzog is right, that in the modern world, it’s ridiculous to advocate for travel by foot—even for some of those “existentially essential” things. I think it’d be cool to walk from, say, Chicago to the town of Cairo at Illinois’ southernmost tip. But the amount of trespassing, jaywalking, and loitering risks and fines I’d be running, plus the loan payments that would inevitably fall into deferral, makes the risk not worth the reward. So for now (because I also don’t own a car), Chicago it is. And the silver lining to this 49-week long cloud leaves me that much time to map the particular somewhere of these literary and extradimensional borderlands. At its best, this method introduces you to new worlds, universes. At its worst, it makes you a good Jeopardy contestant. And it’s way more affordable than a North Face jacket liner. Plus, what else is there to do in Chicago in the winter?

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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