In Praise of 'In Praise of the Lindy Walk'
I’m very late to the party in learning about Paul Skallas aka LindyMan, twitter mogul and champion of the ‘lindy walk’. I find his self-anointed status as Lindy Arbiter very charming. I like his unflinching earnestness and altruistic motivations.
With the lindy walk, Skallas has repackaged the age-old peripatetic ideal of pensively walking without a destination in mind. He exhorts his followers to take lindy walks with endearing zeal, insisting on the edification of perambulating with the sole end of drinking in one’s environment. He rightly points out that the Romans heralded such ambling as a luxury and status symbol; he fluently traces the historical link between walking and thinking.
Interestingly, he doesn’t refer to flânerie, an important variant of the ‘amble’ which Baudelaire helped to popularise with his 1863 essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. Baudelaire paints the idling flâneur as a spectator of metropolitan life:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.
Skallas ‘clumsily defines’ the sensation of being simultaneously within and without the metropolitan throng during his own walks through the city. He has an unmistakeable kinship with Baudelaire’s painter of modern life:
In New York I would walk around Queens, sometimes I’ll go to Astoria and see the different architecture, different eras being represented. I would see the numerous phenotypes of people, the shops, the restaurants, although during those months they were mostly closed. I would see people of all ages going about their day. The long lines at the supermarket, fear in the air, people stocking up food. Who knows what was coming? I was completely aimless. Ducking into a few residential streets, making a left, or a right if I felt like it. Then finding myself back by a large road. I felt very human.
Ultimately, the ‘lindy walk’ is about being human; that is, being a cognisant creature. Walking in the city is particularly conducive to social spectatorship and the examination of one’s relationship to the crowd, though any kind of walking aids thinking and thus humanness. Skallas (probably unwittingly) channels Walter Benjamin when he says ‘If you do not walk you are a barbarian, only slightly above the level of a dumb animal’.
In The Arcades Project, which Benjamin composed from 1927 until his death in 1940, he argues that the decline of the Parisian Arcades since the 19th century accompanied that of the flâneur. For Benjamin, the Arcades represented the flâneur’s home in the city: a place of interiority, they contained all the cultural hallmarks of urban life without the ‘hazards’ of the exterior in which the flaneur risks being ‘deafened by car horns, [and] stupefied by loud talkers’. Benjamin composed the work with a sociological aim: to critically interpret the modern experience of metropolitan culture and ‘commodity fetichism’. Throughout the Project, Benjamin presents the flâneur in various forms: at times as the archetypal idler, walking without direction and enjoying his anonymity in the crowds of the Arcades; at times as an opium-eater, moving in a trance; elsewhere, as a kind of detective whose task is to decipher the ‘texts’ of urban life. In his discussion of motifs in Baudelaire, he argues that the flâneur must possess a ‘screen of consciousness’ against the dangerous allure and ‘phantasmagoria’ of the city: ‘The greater the share of the shock factor in particular impressions, the more constantly consciousness has to be alert as a screen against stimuli’.
Skallas shares the conviction that walking is a pensive and interpretative act in which one resists the threat of dreamlike ‘phantasmagoria’, a sensation which can accompany automatic walking (I experience this as a kind of buoyancy). Skallas stresses the importance of people-watching and noticing things which one might overlook on a normal destination-driven walk, such as people’s gait. In this sense, his walker resembles Benjamine’s flâneur-detective or ‘rag-picker’, a veiled investigator of the urban masses who observes and records the activity of his surroundings. Skallas even echoes Benjamin’s capitalist critique when he hails the lindy walker’s disregard for economic productivity: ‘The leisurely walk shows the same disregard for the economic potential of his legs as his alleged pose does for his hands’.
Skallas says that ‘walking is as necessary as sleep’. As it happens, the history of the flâneur is bound up the somnambulant. I would love to know what Skallas thinks about taking a walk at night. For Benjamin, the night-walker more closely resembles the form of the ‘opium-eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic’ which he positions against the more ‘profanely’ illuminated form of the flaneur, the ‘reader’ and ‘thinker’.
My favourite depiction of the night-walk is Dickens’s essay, ‘Night Walks’ (1860). Dickens describes his experiences wandering the streets of London after midnight, stricken with insomnia, in the early 1850s. For the sleepless Dickens, the metropolis at night becomes a literal ‘dreamworld’, and the illusory optical experience of the city in darkness literally ‘phantasmagorical’. At night, the metropolis, designed to be dynamic and occupied, is deserted and thus rendered a doubly unnatural landscape. Dickens describes walking into a theatre on one occasion, calling it a ‘great dry Well[s]’. The sensorium at night being so transformed, Dickens’ imagination fills in the gaps. He describes it as an almost hallucinatory experience:
The ground at my feet where, when last there, I had seen the peasantry of Naples dancing among the vines, reckless of the burning mountain which threatened to overwhelm them, was now in possession of a strong serpent of engine-hose, watchfully lying in wait for the serpent Fire, and ready to fly at it if it showed its forked tongue.
Dickens depicts the vivid images of the serpent produced by his imagination, or his ‘mind’s eye’, as interchangeable with and equally as real as the actual object. The prose is highly phantasmagorical. He summarises the effects of his hampered vision thus: ‘my sight lost itself in a gloomy vault, showing faint indications in it of a shipwreck of canvas and cordage. Methought I felt much as a diver might, at the bottom of the sea’. In its state of eerie incompletion and barrenness, like a dry well, the theatre becomes an emblem for the empty city itself.
Skallas’s deserted pandemic city is reminiscent of Dickens’ empty theatre-city:
New York was mostly dead and people were worried about their personal survival. The city changed into something else. Something that it was not. Almost like the volume was turned down completely. Gone were the crowds or buzzing commercial activity. I remember seeing mostly men on the streets during the first month, gender roles usually appear during extreme circumstances. People stopped picking up their dog shit on the street. Society changed a little bit.
There’s a case to be made for the similarity of night-walking and walking during lockdown. There is a kind of sensory disorientation. Nevertheless, given how the imaginative vision can displace the real vision at night and render one more of a de Quincey-esque opium-eater than a detective, I imagine Skallas might exclude night walks from lindiness.
Finally, I want to draw attention to Max Beerbohm’s brilliant humorous essay, ‘Going Out for a Walk’. He argues that walking actually ‘stops the brain’, observing how conversation between friends on a walk so often diminishes in quality and becomes repetitive. The observances are incisive and witty, though of course tongue-in-cheek.
I fully endorse the lindy walk for all of Skallas’s reasons. As Virginia Woolf says in her 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting’, when you take a walk for its own sake, you become a ‘central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye’.
‘I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God’ - Emerson, Nature (1836).