Wandering towards understanding

I sat down to write something about roads, and then wondered. Why do so many people – including people like me who don’t know much about Spanish poetry or politics– regurgitate fragments of a poem written by a Spanish poet in 1912, translated through the English voices of critical theorists who can’t decide whether the person in question is wandering or travelling?

‘Wanderer, there is no path – the path is made by walking.’

This is a sentence from a section of Antonio Machado’s piece, ‘Wanderer there is no path’, which reads:

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the path and nothing more;
Wanderer, there is no path,
the path is made by walking.
By walking one makes the path,
and upon glancing back
one sees the track
that must never be trod again.
Wanderer there is no path
only wakes upon the sea.

When I read the translations, they speak to me of exiled poets and those for whom hope is beyond hope: ‘when the goldfinch can’t sing, when the poet’s a wanderer, when nothing aids our prayer’, when all you have is the force to move ahead, ‘step by step, line by line’. Unforgiveable that it has become so seized upon by middle-class readers of Zapatista translations to make ourselves feel good.

It’s more interesting that people are inspired by the decontextualised image of a single, placeless person wandering hopefully without clear guidance or direction into uncharted territory on lonely paths that cannot be retraced, represented or perhaps even remembered. It resonates with the zeitgeist of a certain kind of critical theory: rhizomatic, eventful, pluriversal, heterotopic, ephemeral, nodal; refusing despair with the simple fact that, barring death, we move. It’s one kind of hope. But I think for some people, it might rather feel like a map in its own right, or as Adrienne Rich might say, a mural – of a place in time where ways forward and future possibilities really are not clear, and in which we are engaged in a multitude of strivings that we suspect will be, for a while at least, characterised more by misoriented fumbling than by competent navigation. A snapshot from the past which depicts learning through being lost and discovering new horizons, and defines it not as a problem but as a way of life. Whether it is a poetic excuse for not bothering to have an analysis or a poetic affirmation of the experience of radical becoming probably depends on the situation in which it is uttered.

I wanted to invoke it after today’s meeting to see if I couldn’t introduce a new element into the wanderer’s world: a possibility that the paths we walk and cannot retrace may nevertheless be rendered memorable and visible in memory, so that we might begin to map our own bearings in this work. There may be only wakes upon the sea, but these turn stones and wear them into particular shapes. There is a beauty in this, and a danger – the danger of what Sara Ahmed calls the ‘repetitive strain injuries’ of normalisation and subjectivation – micro-lashings of tiny waves of speaking, silence, giving, withholding, thinking, not thinking, being, not being, that imprint themselves upon us and give direction to who we become: individually, collectively, somewhere in between. To believe that we can and must create the paths we walk on does not imply that we can or should hurtle ourselves in any direction all at once. To embrace wandering, we need to distinguish it from strolling, as John Holloway suggests: ‘Dignity is always a walking-against. Against all that denies dignity.’ We may or may not grow during a journey, but this kind of journey is definitely not simply for personal development.

Living with this ethic demands more attention to orientation, not less, even when it is not-yet possible; where our political visibility is zero in the deep-ocean sense of the term: not misty, not hazy, not sort-of-shadows, but nothing. Most of us are accustomed to moving freely within the confines of the sunken paths of the institutional forms that we inherit and inhabit – succeeding, failing, bending rules, but rarely thinking to go over the top of the horizons of meaning themselves. It’s not therefore surprising that any terrain which is not socially gutted and historically marked and linguistically signposted with arrows and tribal symbols would feel either dangerous or like nothingness, even when it’s a fertile land of possibility (which is not to say that it always will be). We are also often accustomed to testing out new ways of being individually, in situations of private study or self-development where we can expose ourselves to critique and to the very new without having to simultaneously expose the flawed and contradictory ways we often encounter critique and the new. The exhilaration of even small transformative disclosures, and the way in which we have begun to tread cautiously around the question of what is not-yet being said and who is not-yet part of the conversation, are indicative of the significance of this point. I am not sure we always appreciate what it takes to try to transform one’s own institutionalisation and the normative power of society itself, not stupid-heroically but in the wildly patient company of others who aspire to an ethic of critical and therefore potentially uncomfortable inquiry. But if we want to gain a better understanding of the living texture, and ephemeral paths towards the production of revolutionary subjectivity, perhaps this would not be a bad place to start.

The next question is, for what. The image of a wanderer who desires, or at least expects a path is really an image of a seeker – if one is strolling without an aim, purpose or hoped-for destination, there would be no reason to long for a marked path or map. We cannot therefore presume that a theory of knowledge as undetermined and produced is somehow a theory of alternative futures as neutral or lacking structures of desire. The process is educational and political, but the process is not the learning or the politics. When Marcos invoked the wanderer, it was to replace her with the inquirer – the one who creates her own future not by thrashing through reeds to find one, but by asking critical, patient and informed questions in order to clear the space in which one might emerge. This inquirer–wanderer is revolutionary through research, inquiry, receptivity, curiosity, and intentionality; seeking to understand the other and to be understood. She is therefore patient – walking, not running, for as the Zapatista saying goes, ‘we walk, we do not run, because we are going very far’.

Occasionally, it’s therefore satisfying to realise that you have at least gone a distance – even if it has been only to remake paths that others have taken or come around haplessly full circle to where you were before. Learning, when it takes the form of intensification, is often like this: progressive but going nowhere, irreversible yet recursive, expansive and contracting. I am reminded of Vernon’s signature: ‘as above, so below’, and of the dialectic that makes futures in the spaces between.

All of this is to say that I am very happy that we  (re)turned today to making maps, asking questions and thinking about the meanings of the words we use to explain who we are, what we do, what we desire.

Among the many things that have happened during our season of ‘identity’, we have arrived here for a little while.

A poem written by Samuel Beckett to Herbert Marcuse on the occasion of his 80th birthday

step by step
not a single one
knows how
tiny steps

[Translated by E. Fourier in D. Kellner (ed.) (2007) Herbert Marcuse: Art and Liberation, Collected Works of Herbert Marcuse, Vol. 4, NY: Routledge, p. 200.]

2 thoughts on “Wandering towards understanding

  1. I wandered Lonely as a Cloud WW

    I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

    Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle on the milky way,
    They stretched in never-ending line
    Along the margin of a bay: 10
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

    The waves beside them danced; but they
    Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
    A poet could not but be gay,
    In such a jocund company:
    I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought:

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood, 20
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    Learned all that time ago.

    Perhaps a more romantic notion of wandering than the poets you use to illustrate your reflections above. Of course, William Wordsworth was the essential “food” for all those of us taking English Literature in the so called good old days……………….

    • Thanks, Vernon. This took me instantly back to a classroom in Delaware in the 1990s, with my then-poetry professor Gibbons Ruark reading this out loud.

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