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73 An egret taking flight. Photograph by Deborah Mitchell. 4. THE TRAVELS OF SNAKES, MANGROVES, AND MEN Statues beckon you from gardens and public parks; you walk onwards with fleeting glances for everything, for everything in motion and at rest, for hackney cabs, which rumble along indolently, for the electric tram, which is now beginning to run and from out of which people’s eyes look down at you, for the idiotic helmet of a constable, for a person with ragged shoes and trousers, for a man undoubtedly of once comfortable circumstances who sweeps the street in a fur coat and top hat, for all things, just as you yourself are for all things a fleeting sight. —ROBERT WALSER, “Good Day, Giantess” There is no stillness in Robert Walser’s landscapes. Instead, his prose meanders along country lanes and through forest meadows, with hardly a pause for the bustle of a village’s town square. Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland , in 1878, and when not writing in sparsely furnished rented rooms, he spent much of his life out walking. His prose reflects a life, Susan Sontag has suggested, spent “obsessively turning time into space.”1 Though Walser enjoyed some literary success during his lifetime, with both Franz Kafka and Robert Musil among his admirers, he abandoned writing in 1933 after his forced relocation from the Waldau Mental Asylum, where he had committed himself in 1929, to another institution in the Swiss canton of Appenzell.2 Walser had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, though his biographers suggest that little evidence supports this diagnosis. Instead, Walser seems to have been a deeply solitary man who became increasingly overwhelmed with the complexities of the world around him. He spent the last decades of his life 74 Travels of Snakes, Mangroves, and Men institutionalized, dying during one of his long walks on a snowy Christmas Day in 1956. Walking apparently brought Walser both contentment and solace , perhaps accounting for his unrivaled ability to portray the mobility of landscape experience. Even when Walser’s characters are at rest, such as gazing out a bedroom window, the world around is cinematic in its motion. Much of Walser’s short prose pieces are meditations on the mundane activities that define daily life— fasteningabutton,drinkingacupofcoffee,takinganafternoonwalkthrough a park. Read as a whole, Walser’s work offers a phenomenology of domesticity and domesticated nature, capturing the gestures and movements that define our encounters with the world. Walter Benjamin described Walser’s prose as “running wild,” referring to Walser’s mostly unedited method, a stream-of-consciousness technique that apparently privileged the process of writing over standard literary conventions.3 At times, Walser’s prose does feel like wildness barely constrained, where “lines of flight,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase, are pursued along unanticipated changes of course.4 Although Walser was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, his prose exhibits a kind of schizoid logic appropriate to the mapping of movement through a rhizomic landscape. His insights inform this chapter in several ways. First, landscapes are experienced by bodies in motion. Barbara Bender has proposed that landscapes represent “time materializing,” noting, “Landscapes , like time, never stand still.”5 At first glance, glades hunters’ memories of the landscape seem frozen in time—a time before the establishment of the national park, before the transformation of much of the Everglades into housing developments and strip malls, or before alligator hunting became an untenable livelihood. These sepia-tinged events certainly transformed the material culture and subsistence strategies of locals living in the Everglades , consequently shaping their sense of place. Yet as a corollary to Bender ’s assertion, the hunter’s landscape materializes because they, the hunters, rather than just time, kept moving. Mobility critically shaped glades hunters’ production of place. Second, we neither move through abstract space nor practice abstract forms of movement. Tim Cresswell distinguishes “movement” from “mobility ,” defining the latter as the “dynamic equivalent of place.”6 For Cresswell, mobility is movement that is socially produced, saturated with cultural mean- Travels of Snakes, Mangroves, and Men 75 ing and the power dynamics of cultural difference. Far more complex than the complicated synaptic firing that directs bodies in motion, mobility is movement specific to a particular time and place. For instance, Walser’s investigations of town and country build upon the tradition of the flaneur, the “ur-form of the modern intellectual,” as Susan Buck-Morss has described the figure.7 In early-twentieth-century intellectual culture, epitomized most notably in Walter Benjamin...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780816677023
Related ISBN
9780816670277
MARC Record
OCLC
863157842
Pages
224
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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