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Peripateticism in Robert Walser

By Shawn Huelle.

To walk, we have to lean forward, lose our balance, and begin to fall. We let go constantly of the previous stability, falling all the time, trusting that we will find a succession of new stabilities with each step.

— Robyn Skynner


Robert Walser’s work is defined by the action of walking. A walk is an attempt to remain upright while continually moving forward. So is an essay. This essay proposes to take two large steps (made up of many smaller steps). It will attempt to define the concepts behind walking in Walser’s work, and then show the where and how of those concepts in several examples of Walser’s writing. It will attempt to remain upright. It will attempt to move forward. It may stride. It may tiptoe. It may circle back or zig-zag. It may even lose its balance. It will attempt to catch itself.



Walking in Robert Walser’s work can be defined through the following, four, larger concepts.



First, and most important (in that it affects nearly every other concept we will discuss), is the idea of duality or dialectics. This back and forth operation also contains within it the ideas of negative capability and equivocation. Walking itself is a constant equivocation of binaries: left, right; falling, catching. Without this equivocation or balance—it seems like a cliché, but it’s true—Walser’s prose would invariably fall.  In his essay “Walser’s Silence,” Winifried Kudszus describes how “Walser’s prose probes uncertain spaces restlessly, not coming to a halt, moving along and beyond and back again across borderlines which, in the process, shift and change along with their explorer.” This shifting or changing is the very balance or equivocation with which we’re concerned.

Somewhat more narrowly (“narrowly” because the operation occurs over the whole of Walser’s oeuvre, through novels and stories, and not just on the sentence level as described here), in his essay “A Parenthesis to the Discussion of Robert Walser’s Schizophrenia,” Christopher Middleton writes about “the kind of sentence that begins with an assertion, then qualifies it, then modifies the qualification, then soon is unraveling itself through (typically) interstitial details, and eventually it cancels itself out in a labyrinth of negative/positive qualifications.”

This binarism also contains a certain element of the quixotic/sanchoic: quixotic in that, using Middleton’s words again, the “short prose . . . is an extension of the picaresque tradition . . . into a province where lyrical subjectivity, mysterious as ever, not narrative mass, is the measure of things”; and sanchoic in both the “servile” sense (to which we will return), as well as the equivocal or synthetic sense so finely captured by Franz Kafka in his two-sentence short story “The Truth about Sancho Panza”:

Without making any boast of it Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by feeding him a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from himself his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that this demon thereupon set out, uninhibited, on the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days.



The second concept which defines walking in Walser’s work is that of freedom. On a very concrete level, the man who can walk can go nearly anywhere. But Walser is concerned with the idea of freedom on a more abstract level as well. The peripatetic subject governs much of Walser’s work. That subject, like the walking man, is free to go wherever it chooses. Middleton’s description above of a Walserian equivocating sentence is also a description of a Walserian peripatetic sentence. But that freedom is also complicated and dialectic, as Kudszus notes:

Beyond the narrative configurations visible in the text lies a territory of fear and freedom. Freedom in every sense and countersense of the word explored in the text. The grandiose freedom of an untouchable, yet to be admired figure; the “unfreedoms” of the same figure wanting to be seen and touched and cherished; the freedom of Narcissus who sees himself only and yet desires to be seen; the freedom of the mirror and the mirrored and the shattered mirror.



Smallness plays a large role in Walser’s textual perambulations. In fact, W. G. Sebald refers to Walser as a “clairvoyant of the small.” This smallness can be made even smaller.

Walking, among other things, is also an act of self-effacement: while out on a walk, one begins to lose oneself in one’s surroundings. Walter Benjamin notices this in Walser’s writing: “Everything seems lost; a surge of words gushes forth in which each sentence only has the task of obliterating the previous one” (emphasis added).

This self-effacement is related to Walser’s ideas of servility and becoming zero. Instead of losing oneself in one’s surroundings on that walk, one realizes one’s smallness in comparison. In his essay “Unrelenting Style,” Martin Walser (no relation) not only describes how this realization works, but also that it becomes part of Robert Walser’s writing practice: “Instead of letting go, a person has oppressed himself a little. And lo and behold, he has a much clearer sense of himself as his own oppressor. . . . this becomes method.” Elias Canetti understands this servility (for what is servility if not self-oppression?) in terms of the fear evinced above by Kudszus: “His work is an unflagging attempt at hushing his fear. He escapes everywhere before too much fear gathers in him (his wandering life), and, to save himself, he often changes into something subservient and small.”

Another aspect of this smallness is Walser’s use of bricolage. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the word bricolage as being rooted in the French word bricoler, which means “to do small chores” (emphasis added). Bricoler, in turn, has a Middle French sense of “to go to and fro.” The word bricolage itself means “construction or . . . creation from a diverse range of materials or sources,” and carries the connotation of “use of what is at hand.” Peripatetic literature is by necessity bricolage in that it is always appropriating what the eye sees next. Peter Bichsel has the following to say about Walser as bricoleur and walker: “He takes whatever he happens to need at the moment”; “[h]e doesn’t invent walking, it’s quite simply what’s nearest at hand—when he wants to describe himself he has to describe a walker.” And in a much quoted, but never fully translated prose piece, “Eine Art Erzählung,” Walser has this to say about himself: “If I am well-disposed, that’s to say, feeling good, I tailor, cobble, weld, plane, knock, hammer, or nail together lines.”



The final concept we will use to define walking in Walser (before looking at Walser’s writing itself) is the idea of time(lessness), which is intimately related to the first concept of duality in that it can be found in all of the concepts discussed here: the cyclical equivocation of binaries implies a certain endlessness; freedom in its rawest sense has no boundaries and is therefore infinite; and smallness, too, for Walser, contains the sense of becoming, in the words of Jakob von Gunten, “a charming, utterly spherical zero.” In her forward to Walser’s Selected Stories, Susan Sontag likens this time(lessness) to interminability, and notes that Walser “had the depressive’s fascination with stasis, and with the way time distends, is consumed; and spent much of his life obsessively turning time into space: his walks.”

Time(lessness) can also be interpreted as an eternal present: no past, no future, just now. Zen Buddhists practice both sitting and walking meditation, one of the goals of which (at least as understood by this writer) is to be here, now. This same idea is contained in the continuation of the Robin Skynner quotation  which begins this essay:

To walk we have to lean forward, lose our balance, and begin to fall. We let go, constantly, of the previous stability, falling, all the time, trusting that we will find a succession of new stabilities with each step. The fullest living is a constant dying of the past, enjoying the present fully, but holding it lightly; letting go without clinging and moving freely into new experiences. Our experience of the past and of those dear to us is not lost at all, but remains richly within us (emphasis added).





Walser’s stories “A Little Ramble” (1914) and “Prose Piece” (c. 1929) are simply, or simply seem to be, short paragraphs about walks. “A Little Ramble” begins: “I walked through the mountains today,” and goes on to describe what the narrator encountered on his walk: the weather, the path, the mountains, a ravine with a river in it, clouds, some travelers, a village, cliffs, “a few carts, otherwise nothing.” “Prose Piece” is slightly more abstract, and has left out the prosaic armature of the walk itself; instead, it focuses on the narrator’s associative thoughts regarding his surroundings.

In both pieces, the reader encounters the peripatetic subject, which moves—which is free to move however it desires, and free to take only that which it needs. Both pieces also move toward the inconspicuous. This movement can be seen throughout Walser’s oeuvre.

In its final sentence, “A Little Ramble” shows us not only how very small we are, but also how seemingly unimportant, everyday things are poetic and worthy of our attention: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.”

After walking the reader through a number of outdoor metaphors (which are themselves a kind of dialectical equivocation), “Prose Piece” ends with a self-effacement and time(lessness) available only to the walker: “The shapes of waves and branches are snaky, and times do come when one knows that one is no more and no less than waves and snowflakes, or, as it certainly longs now and then for release from its uncommonly graceful confines, the leaf.”

A third short piece, “A Small Town” (1930), gives the reader, in its final sentence, a perfect example of a peripatetic sentence which falls and catches itself with every clause:

From the railroad station rattled the luxury train in whose interior sat the two who comprised a single cast or smelted whole, for they seemed not to know whether they were still there or not, as they were incapable of breaking free from the illusion that they had eaten each other up for sheer love, and were hereafter nothing more than a notion of happiness, a breath.



About thirty pages into his novella The Walk (1917), Walser writes: “In such a manner was concluded the audacious adventure with the tailor.” The adventure with the tailor is but one of several episodes which make up The Walk; there is also the adventure in the bank, the tête-à-tête with Frau Aebi, the wait at the railroad crossing, and the passing, at the very end, of the parson’s class. That Walser refers to these episodes as adventures is telling; that he uses a certain highly mannered tone when doing so is even more telling. The Walk is Robert Walser’s version of Don Quixote. The narrator/hero is out and about in the Swiss countryside, apprehending whatever is at hand, fighting giants like Tomzack, holding forth on his ideas as to how life should be lived, finding a certain freedom from selfhood, and coming, finally, “after many a bravely endured adventure, and after more or less victoriously overwhelming many an arduous obstacle” to a reckoning and a kind of death.

Let’s look at some of these narrative moments a little more closely:

· The adventurer, of course, has no Sancho Panza to act as foil, or perhaps Sancho has been subsumed by the narrator, an idea which might explain The Walk’s tonal vacillation between relatively unadorned language and flights of high romanticism (see the strange, hallucinatory section wherein the narrator claims that “[h]ouses, gardens, and people were transfigured into musical sounds. . . .”). With or without a physical sidekick, The Walk’s abrupt changes in tone are indicative of a quixotic/sanchoic duality.

· The adventure with the giant Tomzack is also an exercise in dialectical equivocation. Within a paragraph detailing the gruesomeness of the giant Tomzack, the narrator suddenly imbues him with a sense of time(lessness) and a kind of smallness of meaning within his gigantic physical stature: “Past, present, and future were to him an insubstantial desert, and life was too small, too tiny, too narrow for him. For him there was nothing which had meaning, and he himself in turn meant something to nobody.” Dualities continue as the narrator goes on to say that Tomzack “was neither dead nor alive, neither old nor young.” But the greatest equivocation comes at the end (always at the end!), when the narrator murmurs to himself: “‘Goodbye, keep well nevertheless, friend Tomzack!’”

· The moments of direct address to the reader tell him or her not only how to live, but in many cases how to walk (which are one and the same to this narrator): “A walk is always filled with significant phenomena, which are valuable to see and to feel.” Notice here how the focus is on the phenomena, not the walker. This is a significant movement, and the focus will again move slightly away from the self (and toward the small) because, as articulated by Phillip Lopate, the narrator “[approaches] the walk not just as a perceptual but a spiritual exercise: a meditation in the Eastern religious sense, dissolving ego and promoting surrender and compassion.” Or, as Walser himself puts it:

[The walker] must bring with him no sort of sentimentally sensitive self-love or quickness to take offense. Unselfish and unegoistic, he must let his careful eye wander and stroll where it will; only he must be continuously able in the contemplation and observation of things to efface himself. . . . If he does not, then he walks only half attentive, with only half his spirit, and that is worth nothing. . . . He must be able to bow down and sink into the deepest and smallest everyday thing, and it is probable that he can.



Walser’s first novel, The Tanners (1907), is very much invested in the idea of walking. Of The Tanners, Peter Bichsel remarks: “If [it] has a structure, a construction at all, it is the principle of the walk. . . .” The novel begins with the sentence, “One morning a young, boyish man walked into a bookshop. . . .” and ends with the sentence, “‘Just come—’”

Between these two sentences, much as in The Walk, there occurs more walking and talking. The talking is, for the most part, a kind of quixotic holding forth on how to live by the main character Simon, a kind of do-nothing who says: “The path my life will follow is of no interest to me, let it meander as it likes. . .” This attitude would appear to be embracing a kind of freedom, but Simon refutes both the idea of do-nothingness and (a certain kind of) freedom when he proclaims to a prospective employer: “As far as I’m concerned I wish to do battle with life, fighting until I keel over: I wish to taste neither freedom nor comfort, I hate freedom if it’s hurled at my feet the way you throw a dog a bone.”

What Simon is arguing against is a passive apprehension of life. Living should be, just as walking is, an active, positive endeavor, something that happens in the here and now. Simon declaims on this idea of time(lessness) twice in the novel. Early on, he says: “I don’t want a future, I want a present. To me this appears of greater value. You have a future only when you have no present, and when you have a present, you forget to even think about the future.” Later, he qualifies this idea by relating it to his (and our) surroundings—which, themselves being the wandering subject and having made the walker small, are the only thing  he or she (or peripatetic literature) truly has : “No, I believe the present is the future. Doesn’t everything around us seem to radiate presentness?”

Of course he means everything, even the smallest, least noticeable thing. When Simon says “What means the most to some people means least to me,” the reader can expect that the opposite is also true, perhaps even more true, particularly because, according to Sebald, the “way in which Walser then breathes life into [small things], in an act of complete assimilation and empathy, reveals how in the end emotions are perhaps most deeply felt when applied to the most insignificant things.”



An exceptionally fine example of all of these concepts at work—where Walser’s work truly walks—is his novel Jakob von Gunten (1909), which not only ties all of the above-mentioned concepts together, but also integrates the short form into the long in much the same way that a walk of any length is made up of many smaller steps.

In German, Jakob von Gunten is subtitled Ein Tagebuch, which translates to A Diary. A diary, of course, is a (mental) walk through the period of time it covers, and each entry is both a step in that walk and a smaller walk through the period of time it covers. Because a diary entry only covers a short period of time (usually a single day), it is necessarily concerned with the small, the seemingly inconsequential, the everyday. Because a diary is a collection of, and apprehension of days, it is a kind of bricolage. Because a diary is a private thing, the writer can grant him or herself total freedom in writing.

Jakob von Gunten’s diary walks the reader through the period of time Jakob spends at the Institute Benjamenta, which initially appears to be a school where young men go to learn how to be servants. The fact that the sections in Jakob’s diary are undated and present the reader successive periods of time which seem to have just happened creates an eternally present, or timeless, narrative. This timelessness is underscored by the fact that Jakob frequently fantasizes and falls into reverie. At least one of these reveries, the episode wherein Fräulein Benjamenta leads Jakob through the institute’s inner chambers, is presented not as fantasy, but as real. In the episode, Jakob notes that “[t]he seconds were like whole lifetimes, and the minutes took on the size of anguished centuries.”

Such time(lessness) presented in small episodes is also a feature of the picaresque. In his introduction, Middleton notes that “[t]he picaresque form is interiorized in Jakob von Gunten. The old episodic series of actions, as in Don Quixote, becomes an episodic series of reflections and fantasies. Ghostly presence here of one of the oldest forms of European fiction.”

In Jakob’s final dream, he sees the principal of the Institute Benjamenta “mounted on a high horse and clad in a shimmering, black, noble, and serious suit of armor.” He then joins the principal, and they travel together from adventure to adventure for what seems like years: “I knew the experience of entire long decades of tribulation, signaling as they passed us by. How peculiar that was. The particular weeks eyed one another like small, glittering gems.” Finally, Jakob, who has spent his time(lessness) at the institute learning how to serve, to make himself small, signals that he has, in his dream, found his dialectical partner, the Quixote to his Sancho: “I was always the Squire and the Principal was the Knight.”

In learning to be a servant, or at least in learning to impress “patience and obedience” on himself, Jakob is also learning to be small, and, according to Susan Bernofsky and Tom Whalen, “[n]owhere does Walser’s smallness theme come more radically into play than in Jakob’s aspiration to become a ‘charming utterly spherical zero.’” Jakob von Gunten is suffused with references to smallness, subordination, insignificance, and nullity. But this smallness is always, as with everything in Walser, paired, binarized, walked forward: “As in small things, so in big ones. Nicely put, in everyday words, but in everyday things the true truths are found.” It is this möbius-like largeness in smallness that allows Jakob first to claim that God is “too sublime to help,” and then, at the end of the novel, to find his true calling as Herr Benjamenta’s Sancho and find transcendence in perfect smallness:

And if I am smashed to pieces and go to ruin, what is being smashed and ruined? A zero. The individual me is only a zero. But now I’ll throw away my pen! Away with the life of thought! I’m going with Herr Benjamenta into the desert. I just want to see if one can live and breathe and be in the wilderness too, willing good things and doing them, and sleeping and dreaming at night. What’s all this. I don’t want to think of anything more now. Not even of God? No! God will be with me. What should I need to think of Him? God goes with thoughtless people.


When attempting to think about the concept of walking in the work of Walser, one must ultimately admit that the two, thinking and walking, are themselves a dialectic equivocation—they cancel each other out as they support one another. It will be a long time before the writer is able to reach a satisfactory conclusion. “Till then, however,” Walser writes in The Walk, “he will have to cover a considerable stretch of his road, and write a fair quantity of lines. But one realizes to be sure to satiety that he loves to walk as well as he loves to write; the latter of course perhaps just a shade less than the former.”




Shawn Huelle‘s work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Denver Quarterly, Fact-Simile, and elsewhere. A chapbook, Do I Bounce it More Obviously, was recently published by Shirt Pocket Press. He lives and works in Tübingen, Germany, and runs a blog which consists entirely of photographs of his compost.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 12th, 2014.