New Books: Peripatetic History

Sunday, February 24th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

André Breton worshiped aimlessness, wandering through the city and facilitating chance encounters. One was the encounter with Nadja, the subject of his 1928 novel by the same name. Such surreal narrations established a literary form of free association and an intellectual discipline of peripatetic urban research. The late-19th-century flâneur wandered the streets of Paris in disengaged poetic alienation, which for Charles Baudelaire (and later Walter Benjamin) became the archetype of modernity and aesthetic experience. The narrative meandering of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is another classic paradigm (Swann’s Way is literally a road). Yet again in the 1960s, a second generation of Surrealists, the Situationist International, refined the method of urban drift (dérive) into an arbitrary science; the Beats did the same in the US (plus Algeria, and even Greece). The Baudelaire-Surrealist-Situationist-Beat tradition was still palpable in the intellectual climate of the late-1980s and early-1990s; consider among a multitude of examples, Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 classic Stranger than Paradise, which has just been released on DVD (Criterion Series, 2007). I’m immensely grateful that Clemson’s library already has a copy. And to wrap a thread between this and the last posting on punk archaeology, let me highlight Joe Strummer’s strong relationship with Jarmusch (he even appeared in one of his movies, Mystery Train, 1989). The Situationists bled into the Clash (and punk) through their producer Bernie Rhodes, who was inspired by the Situationists. Rhodes was the intellectual directing the Clash into theoretical coherence (and away from silly love songs). It was Rhodes, for instance, that convinced Paul Simonon (bassist) to design the band’s clothes and fill them with texts, to emulate the Situationists’ famous psycho-maps (Chris Salewicz, Redemption Song, New York, 2006, p. 151).


I mention this intellectual tradition of urban wandering and psychogeography because I’ve noticed a resurgence of peripatetic literature in the last few months. By no means related to each other, or even claiming a common genealogy, a number of new authors explore wandering as a structure for history writing. For those of us who study and teach historical objects, monuments and landscapes, the model of the aimless memoir brings some excitement into our jobs. Most of the books that I will discuss below are not academic publications, but they manage to tell academic stories. In reviewing one of those books, Mark Mazower asked, “who would dissent from the desire to rescue history from the curators, the academics and the heritage industry experts and to inject it with the passion that will win its new devotees?” (The Nation, Feb. 11 2008, p. 43) As an academic, and hence a member of the heritage industry, my ears perk up. I fling my doors open to the flaneur and invite him up into my dull academic office hours — the student don’t come anyway.

Although a couple of years old, I should include Rebecca Solnit’s, A Field Guide to Getting Lost(New York, 2005) into the great recent works on wandering (the hardback is on remainder on Amazon for only $6.49). Many of you may have noticed that 2007 was the year of Jack Kerouac since On the Road celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Remember how 2005 was the year of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” another 50th Anniversary? A couple of weekends ago (while visiting my good friend Joe Alchermes for dinner in Manhattan), I chanced upon a wonderful exhibit displaying Kerouac’s original manuscript and other paraphernalia at the New York Public Library (the exhibit is on till March 16, 2008). I will say more about this NYC visit because I also chanced uponDamien Hirst’s installation at the Lever House. But this blog-posting is not about my derivee in New York; it is about some interesting new books that can be read while siting.

The new books are Will Self’s, Psychogeography, William Vollmann’s, Riding Toward Everywhere, Geert Mak’s, In Europe and Sarah Vowell’s, Assassination Vacation. I should note at the outset that I have not read these books yet. They’ve come to my attention through a variety of sources (the Nation, the Sunday New York Times, National Public Radio, or Public Radio International). As I write, they sit on my bookshelf (or my Amazon cart). So what will follow is less of a review and more of an invitation. This is what I’ll be reading in the next few months; want to join me?

Will Self and Ralph Steadman, Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum ofPsyche and Place (New York, 2007). Will Self is a British writer and journalist with a regular column on the Independent. I’ve glimpsed through a previous collection, Junk Mail (2006), but really learned about this book from Kurt Andersen’s radio show, Studio 360 ( #849, Dec. 7, 2007). The Studio 369 interview begins where the book begins. On a trip from London to New York, Self walks from his home to Heathrow and after the flight from JFK to Manhattan. This becomes an act of resilience, a political gesture against the intentional placelessness of modern topography (with slight 911 overtones). The book is illustrated by Ralph Steadman, the British cartoonist best known for his illustrations of Hunter S. Thompson. The illustrations are reason enough to buy the book; Steadman’s style revives the surreal visions of Max Ernst with a dosage of George Grosz and Francis Bacon.

William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere (New York, 2008). Vollmann is also a journalist/novelist. I haven’t read much of his work, I’ve only browsed through his recent historical novel Europe Central (2005), which won the National Book Award. His new book is about jumping on trains and traveling aimlessly. See review in NYT Book Review. Vollmann’s book has a different flavor as his interests fall on the world of the underclasses, the hobos who actually ride the trains. The journalistic research on poverty dominates his earlier Poor People(2007; just released in paperback). Riding Toward Everywhere is not sociological or preachy. It has two dominant motifs, a desire to reconnect with an earlier generation of blue collar American males immersed in industry, metal and machines (Vollmann’s father and grandfather) and a call for liberation. Vollmann wants to inspire his contemporaries to escape with him.

Geert Mak, In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century (New York, 2007).
This sounds like an amazing enterprise. Dutch journalist Geert Mak has been traveling through Europe’s modern monuments, the places where Europe’s tortured identity was written. There, he investigates the vestiges of cultural memory that remain in the 21st century. As the European identity drifts away from the burden of historical conscience (inescapable in the 20th century), its landmarks dissipate in memory and commemoration. This books wanders through those places looking for their past in their present. Mak’s earlier book is interesting, too;Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth Century Europe (London, 2001) documents rural depopulation and its effects on the European psyche. Jorwerd, Mak’s home village in the northwest Netherlands (Friesland), forms his case study. In Europe was beautifully reviewed by Mark Mazower, “Rambling Man,” The Nation (Feb. 11, 2008), pp. 38-43. Mazower, a historian at Columbia University, is prolific (The BalkansDark Continent;Salonica); his best work and a must for ANYONE working on Greece is Inside Hitler’s Greece(New Haven, 1993). More recently, he also edited a fascinating collection of essays dealing with the effects of the Greek Civil War in ordinary society, see After the War Was Over (Princeton, 1993). If Mazower endorses this ramble (see quote in first paragraph), then I cannot wait to read it.

Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation (New York, 2005; new in paperback).
Sarah Vowell is one of the amazing young journalists contributing to Ira Glass’s This American Life on Public Radio International. The premise of her book is visiting every place that an American president has been assassinated. This peculiar self-imposed tourism becomes a narrative of American history as well as a documentary project on the present reality of those historical landmarks. You can hear Vowell speak about the Lincoln Memorial in last week’sStudio 360, “American Icons: The Lincoln Memorial” on(#907, Feb. 15, 2008).

Happy reading. Tell me what you think. I’m personally very excited about these books.


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