There is without doubt much physics and math in tightrope walking. But at some point, it is an art. Even if art can be analyzed and demystified by science, given the way it is sensed and picked up as skill, art is different from how science handles itself. It is so almost to the point of saying – if science chooses to explain art, it is incumbent on art to stay ahead.
Art may have become minority in our age of technology (at times I feel, art was always meant to be minority). But art still begs being understood differently. Out in the middle, on the wire straddling the void between the erstwhile Twin Towers of New York, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Petit conducts himself like an artist and on completing the daring tightrope walk – including moments spent sitting and lying down on the wire – describes his feeling as one of the greatest peace. Notwithstanding cinema as digital medium, does the high wire-artist’s observation seem the product of technology and artificial intelligence or does it seem very human; a state of acute consciousness and mind stilled?
Mountaineering and climbing have always defied categorization as sport. Climbing has made it to the Olympics; sport climbing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Yet sport climbing is only a small part of the larger world of climbing, which is as much the stuff of achievement as it is of poetry, art, spirituality and philosophy. The latter aspect – what I would call, the aesthetic and spiritual side of these pursuits – is frequently referred to in the accounts of intense climbers but very rarely do you find these qualities becoming the subject of a book. That’s what made Robert Macfarlane’s 2003 book, Mountains of the Mind special. It dared to explore what mountains have meant to us in our history and why we came to like being there, why we like pitching ourselves against vertical terrain. Such angle of enquiry in writing, unafraid to call on references from art and literature as opposed to technology, was an exception in sport progressively lost to industrial athleticism. It is for similar reasons, that I now recommend Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s 2016 book: Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human. It is among the most interesting books on running I have read since Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run.
Author, Vybarr Cregan-Reid is a runner. He is also Reader in English and Environmental Humanities at the School of English, University of Kent. His knowledge of literature has played a role in sculpting the narrative of Footnotes. This is a book on running that mentions or quotes – unusually for the subject it is tackling – literary figures like William Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy and Henry David Thoreau. There is recourse to scientific studies and research reports to support observations on running. But they are not as memorable as the unconventional perspectives on running, the author offers. That’s what makes this book special. For, research papers as proof – of that, there is no shortage in age of science and technology. What you miss everywhere is, interesting perspective.
Among the great legacies of the twentieth century, would be the rise of the industrial state, existence within which has shaped our thinking in ways more than we assume. We run with purpose, we run to achieve, we set goals, we measure how long we take to cover distances, we compete – it is as if running is work. Around the middle of Footnotes, a chapter opens, titled: In Praise of Idleness: How to Run Away From Work. Below the chapter’s title is a quote from the German psychologist, Eric Fromm: There is no other period in history in which free men have given their energy so completely for the one purpose: work. As you dwell on it, Fromm’s observation would appear to have impacted how we look at running too. We like to run as a team, we like to keep our bio-mechanics trained and oiled for the task, we obsess with brands and gear to gift ourselves the best shot at opportunity, we eliminate failure and because we approach running as work, we adhere to schedules and ration the days we take leave from it. The other dimensions of existence that running can show us are very much there. Question is – do we wish to see it and if we did, will we pursue it for what it is without hoisting our compulsions on it?
For the most part, Footnotes revolves around exploring things we have felt while running but overlooked; very often, in favor of attributes our age of work wishes us to conform to. For instance, all runners talk of ` runner’s high.’ But what exactly is it that we feel? Why do we feel it? Particularly, why do we seek it and like it when the overwhelming narrative of world around us is that it exists for our happiness? By attempting to answer such questions, Footnotes takes the discourse around running away from predictable lines inspired by industry, technology and market, to one that embraces aesthetics. It addresses such issues as why we like running outdoors (as opposed to indoors on a treadmill), the effect of the colour green on our senses, running to explore etc. Among the most amazing set of pages in this book for me, were those spent tracing the origins of the treadmill to the prison system of Victorian England, where the predecessor of the modern treadmill was used on prisoners condemned to hard labour. One of those sentenced to hard labour during this period and spending time on the treadmill was writer and poet, Oscar Wilde. How many of us running on a modern treadmill are aware of its origin in such a bleak, restricted environment? Notwithstanding the convenience they offer, how many of us see treadmills and gyms as indicative of our own confinement by industrial society? Had we enough open space to run on, would we court the treadmill?
The book’s potential weakness is the very reason for its appeal. Too much of literature and thought may put off those who would rather get tips on how to improve their running and better their prospects. Plus – as with Mountains of the Mind – this book too, occasionally alienates the reader by basing itself too much in the geographical details of England, Europe and North America. But if you are capable of analogy and metaphor, this is an insightful book, anywhere. The credit for introducing me to this book goes to the manager of Thiruvananthapuram’s Modern Book Center. He saw me pick up a book on running and suggested I sample Footnotes too.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)