Running for phenomenologists (no, really)

Merleau-Ponty (thinking, probably)
Maurice Merleau-Ponty the phenomenologist (now, come on, stay with me, it’ll be OK) suggested that one of the major misunderstandings of modern philosophy was its interpretation of the body as a stable space from which to perceive the world.  The body is what belongs to us, everything else in the world is external to it.  If you hold up your hand in front of your face, it looks, feels, smells, different to every other hand in the world because you have a unique relationship with it.  Of course you do. It is different from any other hand in the history of all species quite simply because it is yours and no one else’s.  And this is one of the mistakes that phenomenologists notice in our interpretation of the world.  Your body isn’t just there, holding you upright so your eyes can see.  Your body isn’t just something that passively experiences phenomena.  No, your body is what makes possible the experience of those phenomena.  ”Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught up in the fabric of the world and its cohesion is that of a thing. …the world is made of the same stuff as the body.’ (Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Primacy of Perception’).  There is a sombre Hardy poem (‘Proud Songsters’) that expresses the same kinds of interconnectivity where the speaker of the poem fleetingly reflects on the web of the natural world.  The poet listens to birdsong, then he reflects

  • These are brand-new birds of twelve-months’ growing,
  • Which a year ago, or less than twain,
  • No finches were, nor nightingales,
  • Nor thrushes,
  • But only particles of grain,
  • And earth, and air, and rain.

Our experience of the outside world, of other bodies, of eating a bad meal, of seeing a beautiful landscape, these are all made possible, or altered, by the kinds of bodies that we have.  If everything’s connected, everything’s perspective.  So if you change your body, does that change the landscape?

When I started running properly again, a year or so ago, my legs and lungs were weak.  I was heavy.  I had started walking, but I was still quite a weight. You stick with it, and you find that after a few weeks you can run (I say run, I mean ‘run’) 3 miles.  It’s a nice spot to get to because you are just starting to get your first whiffs of the runner’s high.  You are beginning to see the point of it.  It is starting to feel like you are not a) wasting your time, and b) making a complete show of yourself.  You are burning a few of hundred calories a pop.  You might not be much thinner, but you will feel it.  At this point, I don’t really feel that much has changed in your relationship with the world.  Reading this, now, try and think of something 3 miles away.  Now imagine covering that distance to get there.  It’s not such a stretch is it?  If you had to walk 3 miles you could almost certainly both picture it and manage it.  As long as you don’t wear those shoes that really pinch, or it’s not raining, most people could happily manage this distance.

Downe House, Kent – as it was when someone drew it

Over the next few months, though, your body changes.  Not to look at.  You might be slightly trimmer round the midriff, but otherwise you look the same.  You are not the same, though.  You are much stronger.  The landscape that you can see and feel and sense is much, much larger, too.  Do the experiment again.  Think of something 11 miles away.  You probably can’t, but if you can, try to imagine the route to get there on foot – the climbs and falls, the variety of camber, the changes of surface you’d need to cover.  Can you honestly do that?  I’m not bragging when I say that I can.  If you know any runners, they will tell you the same.  Without checking I can tell you that it is about 11 miles to Notting Hill from my house.  A quiet route through South London would get me there in about 2 hours.  I wouldn’t need any special shoes (any of the ones I run in would be fine).  The weather wouldn’t matter that much, either (I even ran in a blizzard on Blackheath last winter – somewhat predictably, it was lovely).  I’m pretty sure that if I headed in the opposite direction, 11 miles would take me to Darwin’s house in Kent… (freaky, I’ve just checked on Google maps and, wait for it, 10.9 miles).  It’s not just this spatial relationship that has changed.  I can’t look at pictures of a landscape, of almost any kind, without thinking about running through them, over them, to the side of them, beyond them.  Rural, industrial, urban, desert; I always think about running on them (more on this later).

I was reading a collection of essays by John Gray, a searingly intelligent pop philosopher (he’d clock me one for that, but it is supposed to be a compliment) that was bought for me for my birthday (thanks Adam).  In it is a piece about when the trains failed in London a few years ago.  He writes from the perspective that although the power outage it was reported as an aberration, he sees it as a warning about the sustainability of the way we live in the West.  How stupid, he believes, that we think that our super-consumption of resources (of all kinds) is one that the rest of the world ought to aspire to.  He thinks, instead, that the lights will continue to go off.  This is only the beginning.  The trains will come to a stand still.  Chip-and-pin card readers will fail. Ocado deliveries won’t show up. As E. M. Forster succintly put it in the title to one of his short stories, ‘The Machine Stops’.

Last Christmas, the trains did stop because of ‘snow’ (or maybe it was a few breadcrumbs from the stationmaster’s BLT). I was having a drink in town with a friend and we ‘stupidly’ stayed out till 7.30pm, by which time the stations had all closed.  People were losing their minds.  I shrugged, popped in my headphones, and spent the next few hours walking all the way home.  A few months before, my body would never have stood for that.


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