Monday, 24 December 2012

A Runner's Work


A Runner's Work.

It's Christmas Eve.  The sun is going down.  I haven't run for nearly two months.  I have felt elementally tired, missing out on gifts of runs on St Andrews beach and elsewhere.  I have hated not running, but not enough to start again.
I have been here before.  I get tired of running. I stop. I get tired of stopping, so I run.  But this time it felt different.  I haven't stopped for so long before.
I'm packing to go away for Christmas.  As I descend through the drawers, I get to the 'running' one.  I fingertip the handle and move on to the next.  With electrical reflex speed I think without thinking that I won't need any of my running things. I'm not running for the rest of the year.  Something happens, though, when I go to pack my shoes.  I'm listening to the radio and before I realise what I'm doing I find myself removing a broken pair of laces on my favourite running shoes.  And, like I'm working hard with a coarse tapestry I am forcing the bright new laces through the eyelets and relacing them.  
What the hell!
Blackheath, at sunset.

In minutes I am out on the road.  I am imagining that this is going to hurt.  I am so out of practice I don't expect to go further than a mile without stopping.  
It is a lovely time of day to be running.  The air is unseasonably warm for Christmas Eve.  Everyone is busy in their front rooms.  Everyone seems to have their Christmas lights on.  Christmas is happening for everyone, so what the fuck am I doing?  Parents and children walk hand in hand in the street, coming or going.  And within a few minutes, the presentness of running reminds me of its essence and I realise, it is an experience and not a memory.  It is a mental state that can only happen and not be recalled with any reliability.  Then it strikes me…
Running is an aesthetic experience.  
No really.  I know this sounds like over-dignifying nonsense.  But it is the only way in which I can think that a runner's mental state can make sense to the non-running.  I always misremember great art.  It seems to have a space into which I move and do the aesthetic work 'with' it.  I have a much more reliable memory for art that doesn't interest me.  
Running, like art, is long.  It doesn't happen on any particular run, it's made up of multiple chapters.  When I was out on the road, I remembered a lovely bit from one of Van Gogh's letters "I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may.  But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the rough draught turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a painting through the serious work done on it, through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought. (Van Gogh to Theo - July 1880).
Shit!  It's 5.30 on Christmas Eve, and like everyone else, I'm supposed to be somewhere else, but am thrilled that once again I want to keep going; keep going come what may.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

"I dance on this embodied earth" (2006)


Devil's Dyke, with the last of some low-lying cloud

    
      In 2006, the summer continues. The air is warm without the thunderous punctuation of rainstorms that we’ve had in more recent years. As the days, and eventually, the weeks go by a sky that had felt like lead, was beginning to feel something like air. Nothing was fixed or settled. I had no plans. I didn’t know what I was doing, or indeed what I was going to do. I had jumped over the side of the boat because the water looked inviting, but I had no idea of its depth or what lay beneath its glimmering surface. For now, the water was warm and I could swim. Almost everyday I would head out running, return, grab the dogs and take them out walking. This would earth the static that could build up over a matter of hours. On every run, my sillage was pollinated with these electrically charged particles that only a run could shake off.
     It is a couple of weeks later and I am becoming increasingly anxious about my new job due to begin in a few days. I have new courses to write, with new lectures, new students, new friends to make, and I couldn’t feel less ready than I do today.
     The air has turned. There are one or two bronze leaves in the street when I step out the door, but I don’t start running. I am going to drive up to the Downs. I want to do eight miles along the peaks into West Sussex.
    I am running something like twenty miles a week. This is the base from which I can start to think about marathon training. I could hold at this mileage for the next few months, up my training in January and do a marathon in the spring. What for, I don’t know - I just want to. It is five years since I have dared to think this. Practically the moment I applied in 2001 I was taken down by illiotibial band syndrome, more commonly known as runner's knee.
    On the drive, I worry if I have underdressed for the run; the air is always cooler on the peaks.
    The car wheels scrape at the chalk and flint of the car park as it skids to a halt. I don't have to park tidily, it feels like the world is locked in offices and classrooms. I wonder at how the earth can be so obtrusive in its presence, yet so few seemed to want to notice it. But then, neither am I sure that I am noticing much, so consumed am I by my internal ecology.

A knot of wild clematis stems.

   The colours in the trees seem a shade darker than a week ago. The leaves are showing the first signs of rust. The view, a little greyer. Summer, it seems, has departed for another continent, one ready, no doubt, to welcome it.
     The seasons trouble our idea of time's linearity. We take sharpened chisels to time: we chop and chip it for our own convenience. We find in it, days, months, weeks, years, all neatly manageable.
      At the beginning of the twentieth century, the geologist Eduard Suess was struggling to make sense of the model of deep-time that had emerged around the Victorian period. In a massive four-volume study The Face of the Earth, he argued that our problem in trying to understand the earth’s past was that we tried to conceive of it in human terms. It is a beautiful notion.

"The year is a measure of time furnished by the planetary system; but when we speak of a thousand years, we introduce the decimal system, and this is based on the structure of our extremities. We often measure mountains in feet, and we distinguish long and short periods of time according to the average length of human life, that is, according to the frailty of our bodies; [… W]e are prone to forget that the planet may be measured by man, but not according to man."

      Our inability to conceptualize what we currently think to be about 4.6 billion years derives from our frailly-human temporal and spatial perspective. The poets of the nineteenth century, though, had already got there. Though published later, Hardy's 'Proud Songsters' is a poignant reminder of the substance of life, of living being a temporary loan of fluid- and borrowed-matter, always in motion, stopping here before moving on to there. Always exercising itself between the senses.
      The poem expresses the same kinds of super-interconnectivity where the speaker of the poem fleetingly reflects on the web of the natural world. One April dusk, the poet listens to a round of birdsong and reflects on the workings of the world and of time,

"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."


The South Downs, looking north west.
   The earth, air, grain and rain in only a year or two becomes the 'proud' birdsong. Nothing conveys ephemerality for Hardy quite like birdsong (it was an image that he repeatedly returned to in his poems on time). For Hardy it is matter that is constant, not God, and certainly not us. But the wonder of life for Hardy is its uncanny ability to turn matter to energy, what was once soil and earth is now a fleeting song. Like the nightingale, the poet departs, leaving us on a floating moment: that what was finch, nightingale and thrush will in 'twelve months' be 'particles of grain, and earth, and air, and rain.' All is separate, but connected; different, but the same. Life is not finely individuated into species, plants, minerals, and elements, but all is part of a larger and contiguous structure. And, like Matthew Arnold’s waves that make the ‘grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, […] Begin, and cease, and then again begin’ for ever more, in ‘Dover Beach’, the cyclical process in Hardy’s poem continues far beyond the boundaries of our anthropocentric imagination.
     The flight of time's arrow is unthinkably long. And there is no archer's bow, nor a target on which for it land. Neither it seems does it travel at an uninterrupted speed.
      The seasons introduce to us a kind of punctuated equilibrium. They remind us that time travels in phases, for months it is summer and then, overnight, autumn begins apace. I feel like I have had my summer of equilibrium, and this is its punctuation. Leaves must die and fall from the tree. There will be winter. Then the hope of new growth will begin.
       In the distance, to the west, is a thicket of telephone and TV masts that I am going to negotiate my way to, up, down, and along the winding chalk paths that look like exposed bone.
      A troubled knat, for miles I dance on the skin of this embodied earth. I would get down onto my knees and suck on its lifeblood if I knew how to break my way through its leathery skin.
       I can see for hundreds of square miles around. How can so much of this world be present, here, and yet it is so quiet? But there are depths of incompleteness to this withering silence.
      I can hear the wind whispering by my ears. A little more brittle, the leaves rustle with a drier sibilant edge they lacked only a few days ago. The air is part of a landscape in ways that we cannot always see, but it strums upon our perceptions of what is around us, thrumming chords that chime across our senses, deep into our hearts and memories.
      I can hear, too, the patter of the rabbits as they dart to their burrows. I always used to think they ran from my dog, Ben. He is always present up here. With the chill in the air I am reminded, too, of the misty December morning a couple of years ago when we sat down, here, the two of us in the long moist grass. Pulling gently at his ears, stroking him across an eye, scratching his ruff as we looked at the view together for one last time. Only five years old, I drove him from here to the vet who discovered, as suspected, many of his organs fused together by a massive lymphoma.
      A run seems to draw these memories up, but it also gives them air so that they can return once again to the deep waters.

The South Downs, facing north east.
    I pass the communication masts and the huts that I have never discovered the function of. I start my journey back to the dyke, wading through all of the past and the present with not a thought for the future. As I curl and climb the chalk path, the hills' sheep stare at this intruder like they cannot decide if I am predator or idiot - I cannot give them an answer.
      Climb. Fall. Climb. Fall.
      Then a long slow climb back to the peak.
       I begin to feel a stiffness across my knee. Wearily, I recognise it; but perhaps I'm mistaken and it is just tiredness. But it is on the lateral side of my left knee - the slightly longer leg that bows as my heel slams into the ground. I slow. I alter my gait to give my body a rest, but the stiffness increases. If I can make it to the top of the... but the stiffness closes around my joint like the handle is spinning on a vice, restricting its movement so much that I am practically limping to keep running. I stop and walk for a few steps; relief. Again, I make for the brow of the hill but the handle has spun to a stop; the vice has closed. The knee will not move anymore.
Every stage of this process I know well. I have been here before, maybe ten or fifteen times. This is the end. I cannot run for weeks. My fear and fury will keep me from it for months. The knowledge that this is how it always ends may keep me from it for years.
       All this time, it is like I have been trying to outrun a tidal swell, but the wave breaks, engulfing me, and my body says, 'No, that is enough. No more.'


Devil's Dyke at sunset 


Friday, 7 September 2012

Sillages - (a podograph from 2006)

Sillage - noun (from the French)  (a) A surge raised in the sea or other piece of water by the passage of a vessel. (b) The air current caused by the passage of an aircraft. (c) The sound of the surge of water. (d) in perfumery - a veil of scent that a person leaves behind when walking.



No traveller has rest more blest
Than this moment brief between
Two lives, when the Night's first lights
And shades hide what has never been,
Things goodlier, lovelier, dearer, than will be or have been.
(Edward Thomas - The Bridge)



THE DOOR SLAMS behind me with the tremulous percussive accompaniment of letterbox flaps, door knockers and dogs' paws.  The ‘naughty girls’ (my friend’s dogs) are furious that for the first time in months I am leaving the house without them.  The seagulls caw in complaint because I have disrupted their street party.  They have been jabbing and tearing at the bin bags that were left out overnight.
I kid myself that there is something coercive in the air today, something drawing me out of my temporary home.  There isn't.  I am running away from last night, from the phone calls, the shouts, from the indecision.  Running, too, from a Rilke sonnet that I read the day that I left and came to stay, here, in my friend’s house - to walk her dogs while she lies comatose from chemotherapy.


[…] Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for there’s no part of it
that does not see you. You must change your life.

(Rilke - ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’)


Since I read that poem there has been nothing but chaos, anger and mess.  The spewing rubbish bags with their stinking bones and carcasses and yoghurt cups mask the stench of today's sillage, the pollinated, charged, and multicoloured emotional scent trail that every runner leaves in their wake. To say it, is like a kiss.  You pronounce it 'see-arge', but not with the hard English 'g' like in 'large' or 'age', but with a slow French 'g', like the soft 's' in the middle of 'pleasure'.  
All runners have sillages, complex trails of emotional scent that are shaken off and left behind on their runs, and everyone’s is unique. But they are not like fingerprints.  While every runners' sillage may be different, unlike the microscopic curls, peaks and valleys on their fingertips, their sillages do change.  Slightly from day to day, but over decades they change their identity altogether.  Just as everything changes: what we are running away from, or what we are trying to leave behind, like a dog as it violently swirls and curls the water from its waxen fur.

The Downs aren't really accessible from here, not on foot, so I am heading for wide open parkland, and it's miles away.  Miles of ugly miles away.  The road is straight and very long.  For half an hour I have to crawl by four lanes of growling traffic.  This is life in greyscale.  The buildings all look like they have been drawn in pencil and sap the colour from the few trees that surround them. The cars are all gunmetal, lead, or dried blood.  My back arches as I run like I am flinching under the weight of all this.  The noise forces into retreat anything that may want to float up to the surface to be let go of and released into the air.
I reach the beginning of the park and can turn off from the pulmonary rush of the main road.  
If Brighton had a Royal Park this would be it.  There is a tiny village at the other end of it called Stanmer.  It has an old manor house and a church, bits of which date back to the fourteenth century.  The park is the last remaining soft green cushion between Brighton’s borders on one side and the ever-growing universities on the other, one of which is just over the brow of the hill.  Humphry Repton scalped and shaped this land in the early nineteenth century, succouring the Romantic sensibilities of the Earl of Chichester and his friends.  Now, the long and deep vale filters out the noise and architecture of other centuries and presents only itself to the visitor.
Why do I come here?  Why do I want this?  It’s like a kitsch version of the past; one fabricated and artificially protected by laws and fences.  A theme park done with dignity.  Welcome to Freedom Incarcerated.
Leonardo Da Vinci had a deeply engrained fear of imprisonment.  Some of his earlier designed machines from the 1480s were for ripping bars from windows, another could effect escape from within a cell. But in one of his notebooks he suggests a guiding desire behind such designs: freedom, he wrote, is 'the chiefest gift of Nature'; not beauty, a landscape, nor the scent of a rose, but 'freedom'.  From what?  
I would guess feeling enclosed, trapped, ‘time-torn’ (as Hardy put it in one of his poems), demanded of, desired and desiring.
The exercising of different kinds of freedom has been its own reward for many.
Walking was for the poet and philosopher of nature, Edward Thomas, a means of escape from crippling depression.  It all-but ruined his relatively short life (born 1878, he enlisted in 1915, and was killed in action two years later at the Battle of Arras).  He had a terrible temper and his illness did not hide itself from those around him.  His widow, Helen Thomas, remarked that ‘his greatest pleasure, and certainly his greatest need, was to walk and be alone.’ 
Modern life is like a centrifuge that spins us away from the earth.  Time passes, it gathers momentum, and we are left to struggle ever harder against a force that we cannot see.  
This kitschy place, with its perimeter fences that keep out the modern world is the promise and the reminder that things might be different.  It may be cordoned off from the world, but life bursts into the frame from every angle.  Ancient oak trees reach to the skies, there are orchids, fungi, grasses, cows and sheep, foxes, cabbage whites, adders, kestrels, badgers, deer, ducks, red admirals, wild clematis, bees, robins, wrens, sparrows, and bright red poppies like the landscape is wearing a clown suit. Life goes on, today, tomorrow and the next. 
The inorganic is not at home here; cars look strange and out of place, but we don’t. I don’t.  I share more in common with this wildworld and wildlife than I do with my overdraft or my Facebook status. 
When I run in it, I don’t feel that I am taking possession of this landscape, but I do become a part of it in ways that I can’t yet work out.
I am half way through the run; my diaphragm has loosened so much that it feels like my lungs fill all the way down to my hips.  My breathing is tantricly slow.  I feel like I could do this for the rest of the day - like I could stay out here until sunset, and may never have to go home.  I turn towards the hill and the tall meadow whose flowing waves, winnowing in the breeze, look like the sea.
Slowly, I climb towards the brow.  I flatten my hands to caress the tips of the long indigo grass as I glide by.  Between my fingers, the fronds are neatly combed, collected, and are gone.  Gently, like I am feeling the pelt of some sleeping animal that I fear to wake. Like someone has billowed a sheet of silk, the grasses shiver.  It seems to come from beneath the surface.


Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Smell of Rain (Petrichor and a Runner's Memory)


Rain seeps down into the concrete to release its complex scent.

  The air's heavy with a glitter of damp scents. Petrichor: the smell of rain rises from the ground. The concrete seems impermeable.  The tarmac, the grey and pink flagstones, the pebbles, even, have all been brought to life by something in the air.  Their smell is swirling and diving, like the sun-bright scent of flowers competing for the attention of bees.  But this is wrong.  Rain doesn't smell; it's something else.  Petra: of stone; Ichor, the golden fluid that runs in the veins of the gods and immortals. Is it the blood of stones that we can smell? Life is to be found in the strangest of places. 
   Certain runs are imbued with melancholy.  For twenty years I have walked, run, and cycled this track of seafront between western Hove and Brighton. The place bursts with innumerable memories of football, skateboarding, sex, sun, high-winds and storms.  This stretch would be so quiet some mornings, years ago, that I would sit up on my bike to catch as much of the chasing wind as I could.  I would take my rucksack from my back, still pedalling hard, rummage inside it and take out that morning's post, open and read it as I cycled none-handed.  But it's years since I've been here. And like I was on those hundreds of trips in and out of town, I am here again, alone. This time I'm folding a quick run into a crease of time between seeing two friends.  I have got no shoes with me, but it doesn't matter, I can go barefoot. The sky is grey, the sun on the horizon is the memory of a gold coin, a grubby smudge of yellow light dipping into the sea.  And the overwhelmingly dominant memory is of being happy while I lived here, before it all went wrong. A run through this landscape is like running on pebbles. Tender layers of memory give way beneath the weight of each footstep.
   Years ago, twenty maybe, as an eager young reader I came across Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.  It was about 1992 and I hated my dismal job so much that even if I was going to be 10 minutes early for work, I would pull into a lay-by and read a bit more Brideshead. I was glad of the experience at the time.  Pleased that I had got it under my belt, (where it joined the five other books I had read in my life) but the effect was oddly disengaging.  I assumed I had missed something in it.  And now I know what it was.   
   Take for example this scene.  It is the one where Charles is finally ejected from Brideshead by Lady Marchmain, so disgusted is she that Charles has helped her alcoholic son find some drink, she asks him to leave this besmirched Garden of Eden. At the time, he is unaware that he is doing so for the last time. He remarks,

MY theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life - for we possess nothing certainly except the past - were always with me. Like the pigeons of St Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning of war-time.
For nearly ten dead years after that evening [...] I was borne along a road outwardly full of change and incident, but never during that time [...] did I come alive as I had been during the time of my friendship with Sebastian. I took it to be youth, not life, that I was losing. [...] I had come to the surface, into the light of common day and the fresh sea-air, after long captivity in  the sunless coral palaces and waving forests of the ocean bed.'

   I was too young to make sense of this, the palimpsest of my memory was not a darkened one. This is how De Quincey saw it in his brilliant essay.  Memory is a palimpsest, a text scrubbed or scraped from the leathery surface but never absolutely removed. 

A palimpsest
Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious hand-writings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and, like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests, or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness.

   It was a rich metaphor. One of the handful of texts around this period that began to formulate the idea of the unconscious (before Freud went on to name a century later).  The palimpsest model of memory suggests that the mind is a stranger to itself, and also that nothing is ever really forgotten.  (The idea of one's life flashing before one's eyes at the moment of death is also introduced here).  But it works as a metaphor for other things, too.  De Quincey's own writings weave together reportage, biography, autobiography, essay, philosophy, journalism, memoir, (he was even an aficionado of murder) all thick with classical allusion and contemporary literary reference. The palimpsest is what his writing is. It's a metaphor for literature, too. Think of T.S. Eliot's 1919 essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', it is De Quincey's idea from a century before given an Eliotesque twist.  The poet must combine their unique creative talent with the literary tradition that came before it in order to achieve greatness.  'The Wasteland' is a polyphonic palimpsest in which the tradition can neither be fully erased, nor ignored on the page.  It is resolutely 'there', speaking in tongues.  The past never really goes away.  

   Flying at the circumference of my vision are plumes of sun-blackened seaweed.  High in the air, it is the most ragged and 'blast-beruffled' crow I have ever seen.  It tries to climb, but the wind is too strong and it gives up. I never successfully 'see' it.  Its feathers too dark; its movement too chaotic in the high wind.  I'm reminded of a bit of Daniel C. Dennett that I also read (at the same time as Brideshead) many years ago.  Its the only bit of the book that I persistently remember, 'If the resolution of our vision were as poor as the resolution of our olfaction, when a bird flew overhead the sky would go all birdish for us for a while.' (Consciousness Explained). In memory, just like olfaction, the sky 'goes all birdish for us for a while' and we thirst for particular sense impressions to jog our memory into being.  Perhaps this is why olfaction is so kinaesthetically linked with memory.  Our sense of smell is undeniably poor, especially directional acuity, but particularity reaches fingerprint levels of specificity.  We can recognise with tremendous accuracy.  Think of what we can achieve by combining the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in variable combinations. Smell works a little like this.  Odour molecules, as they are bound, combine to create a sense impression, and we have about 350 active olfactory receptor genes. Each of these genes produces a receptor protein that binds odour molecules. That's an olfactory alphabet of 350 letters, and the words can be anything between 1 to 350 letters long.  The combinational possibilities are in the billions.  So Dennett is right, the sky does 'go all birdish' when we use our sense of smell, but we would be able to tell exactly what bird it is, and easily distinguish from another of the same species and genus.  We would know it's there, but we would not be able to point to it.


 Built for purpose, a soaring herring gull sits comfortably on the breeze like it has been pinned in place.  In the distance, I can see the tiniest cloud of starlings cloud-dancing around the charred remains of the West Pier.  The ground is wet and cold beneath my feet.  In twenty minutes, they may go numb.  Everything I see is so distinctly Brighton in a way that only someone that does not live there can notice.  There is a woman with tangerine hair.  But not the kind that you'd put in the fruit bowl, more like one that has rolled under a market stall, and then kicked about on the ground for a couple of days.  She's wearing a verdant green t-shirt, purple trousers, and Birkenstocks. If she wasn't seventy, she would look like Scooby-Doo's Shaggy. Bounding about are the dogs who are all happy and well behaved; there are even different breeds (all three factors are not so common in the London Borough of Lewisham).  And all of it is still here: playing football with David on our way into town to celebrate our degree results, walking in to watch a £2 mid-afternoon film when I was unemployed in 1990, cycling past a man who pulled down his pants and with a hopeful expression on his face waved his cock at me, chasing after my young  nephew who had in the freezing cold stripped and bolted because 'it's the seaside!', sitting in the moonlight listening to This Mortal Coil after my father died, reading Middlemarch on the beach, walking my dog, watching the '98 lunar eclipse. And all of it is somehow present in this smell of rain. 

   De Quincey thought memory was a palimpsest, I think it is the dried blood of a stone that thirsts for rain.  Oil, sodium, pollen, magnesium, bacteria, lichen, potassium, soot, skin, calcium, soil, dust, diesel, lead, wood, ash, mould, and sand.  They all sink and burrow into the magmatic caverns, atomic in size, made many millions of years ago in every inch of pebble and stone at our feet. Memory is petrichor, these arid scents, tucked tightly away, waiting for a breath of rain to release them into the air as a unique signature of place, never to be forgotten.  

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Running the Stones of Venice



'Was the carver happy while he was about it?'







My first run in Venice was an 'improvised' one.  I sat on the southern coastline of the city overlooking the wide canal of the Guidecca.  The sun was setting, I had eaten a fine meal, had a glass of cool, shimmering vino bianco and was watching the sun set.  The aches and pains in my legs from the marathon a few days before were fading.  I would be ready to run again in a day or two.  I folded up my book (Barry Unsworth's Stone Virgin) and reached for my wallet.  A few seconds later, I realised that it was on the other side of the city, still in my hotel room.  
How Venice does hospitals.
The second run was a more planned affair.  I wanted to run the Lido (where Aschenbach dies, having stayed too long in the city in Death in Venice).  I change and pack what I can (phone, hotel keys, travel card) into my running shorts and head out into a crowded noonday sun for the Vaporetto (river bus). The air isn't empty, there is an elemental weight to it. The Frari bells are chiming.  It is now that I remember this is a bank holiday.  There is no rhythm to find in such a crowd.  It is one of the stonemason's skills, the use of rhythm.  It represents the mastery of efficient working practice; but not efficiency in production, instead it is in the use of the worker's energy.  The skiffle rhythm of stop-start is not a comfortable one. Having read Daphne Du Maurier's 'Don't Look Now' last night, I'm amused that one of the people I have to dodge in a tight alleyway is a short old woman wearing a blood-red knee-length woollen coat.  Some of the other pathways are quieter, and even in the short time I've been here I know a few routes that are deserted.  I don't mind the crowds though, because I will have to stop for half an hour when I get on to the Vaporetto for the island.

From Ruskin's Stones of Venice
Two things create a city, its people and its architecture.  For Ruskin, these were one and the same.  His love of gothic architecture is well documented in, amongst others, The Stones of Venice, a multi volume work from the 1850s (at nearly half a million words).  One of the many remarkable things about Ruskin was that he didn't love Venetian gothic architecture for itself, but what he saw in it and around it, temporally as well as spatially. Like Carlyle, Mill, and Dickens, he was wary of the Victorian love of the mechanical.  Manual labourers were reduced to 'hands' that could work in the factory.  Elizabeth Gaskell's women labourers express the point well.  In North and South they proclaim that they have no intention of going into domestic service to be someone else's skivvy.  Why would they? When they can sell their labour freely on the open market, in whichever town they choose to live. They are the masters of their own domain: their bodies.  The tragedy of this scene is that Gaskell's implied reader is well aware that these working women have exchanged one kind of servitude for another more terrible one.  
In the increasingly industrialised world, Ruskin saw that the worker was being turned into a 'tool', to be beaten and used, blunted, and eventually discarded.  He explains, in the Stones, 'You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions.' By freeing the worker from his enslavement to the machine, society will yield, with all its imperfections, a productive cell, but more importantly, a contented one.  
In his previous work, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in thinking about the rudely ornate aspects of gothic architecture, he had wondered 'Was the carver happy while he was about it?'  Medieval 'hand-work' was rustic, rugged, imperfect, unfinished; a signatory expression of the worker's identity, albeit expressed within a specified form. Victorian factory work created, with reliable rapidity, perfectly finished objects, where the mindless machine-operator was merely a  faceless conduit towards the means of profit. 
The signature had become a stamp. 
The other aspect to Ruskin's obsession with Venice was as a vibrant corrective to Victorian apathy and assumed supremacy.  It was a place and a people, both of fading glory.  A few years before Ruskin was born, Ludivico Manin, the last Doge of Venice had been forced to step down by Napoleon.  The Venetian republic, a thousand years flourishing, was over, and now the city was in decay, too. Like the great Victorian historians, Macaulay and Carlyle, Ruskin found a parallel for his own times in the past.  He  hurriedly sketched details from columns, orders, arches, in fear that they would fade and crumble to sand, just as he believed England would. He could already see it happening in the months and years between his frequent visits.  Such is the charm of Venice.  Its architecture lends itself to melancholy and to death.  But it's people smile.  In the Campos the children, play, run and scream with a joyful abandon that you don't see in the deserted streets of London.  For them, the fading buildings are a backdrop to something always beginning.
The boat ride to the Lido takes about half an hour.  I have no map, but I can hardly get lost on an island the shape of a needle.  One side faces Venice, the other, the Adriatic.  I a expecting to have to dodge crowds, just like my journey to the Accademia, but instead I am greeted by the overwhelming scent of yellow-flowering pansies. this is a roundabout.  Why?  The island is a couple of hundred metres wide and only a mile or two long, but there are a surprising number of cars, here.
Left? 
Right? 
Straight. The beach must be on the opposite side.  After the last few days if navigating a city by the sun, I catch myself spotting landmarks so I can find my way back.  After a few hundred yards I have left the bustle of shops behind.  I see the beach, and  a runner stretching, but no one else. I smile at him, but I'm a pane of glass. 'Ah, like London runners.'. The pathway is smooth, so for the first time in many months, the shoes come off.  I've been so preoccupied with marathon training that I haven't barefoot run since maybe October. It's bliss.  As soon as I take my shoes off I remember why I love running so much.  The pain of the marathon is long forgotten as my feet whisper along the walkway.  
Onto the sand.  I negotiate my way nearer the shore where the sand is firmer.  There is the soft crunch as shards of shell are ground finer, each step only accelerating the work of time and these flecks' journey to powder.  There is no one on the beach.  The sun is full in the sky.  I must be on the wrong part of the island.  I clamber over groynes making my way slowly along the coast.  I become convinced that life is elsewhere, that there is something else to see, so after a mile I make my way up the beach, to the road, and to the other side of the island.  Is this where everyone is hiding.  But no, as suspected it is the coast facing the Venice mainland.  
This is the yacht described in the text.
Taken while skinning the Lido.
A yacht whispers into view.  It has a few people sunbathing, still as corpses. The air, heavy with a glimmering silence.  Never have I seen the sea so undisturbed, made stranger somehow with the backdrop of Venice in the distance.  I turn to make my way back to the Vaporetto.  I have an idea of how I can continue this run.
I am sort of lost, but I know I'm headed in the right direction - I can see Venice, after all. I feel a sudden urge to record this quietness, made emptier somehow by my bare feet smooching the concrete.  I wrestle my phone from my pocket and turn on the video - but it only records slaps, scene-jerks and funny breathing.  After a mile or so of weaving between beachfront, roads and inlets, I am woken.  
My olfactory sense has been so attenuated by years of medication and London that I am surprised to find it penetrated once again by the same sweet floral scent.  I follow my nose left. I quickly snap the flowerbed and run for the Vaporetto which is ready to leave.  The first stop is St Elena, on the eastern extremity of the island.  On my way in I had spied a path that looked like it ran all the way from here to San Marco, the scene of the daily siege of Venice by the tourist hoard. Seen from the bell tower of San Giorgio across the Guidecca canal they look like ants attacking a corpse.
The Vaporetto pulls away and I am like a dog in the traps wanting to continue my run.  The ride back is quick.  The barrier is lifted and I'm out of the boat.  I turn and shout to the crowd of passengers, "I'm going to race you all to San Marco".  Being English, of course, I did no such thing.  But I did want to race it. As soon as I began to run, at a much faster pace, I was immediately reminded of the time when I was eight-or-so, when on the street I used to see my mother in the passenger seat of our car in her role as driving instructor.  The learners always drove cautiously on our empty streets and I would puff out my chest, straighten my hands to darts like the T-1000, and sprint in an all out race-to-the-death, leaping over unattended bikes, tightroping garden walls, until either I lost, or the car turned off route. It was later explained to me that this wasn't quite the thing that the learner driver should have to contend with.
In the first leg of the race I take a clear lead.  The Vaporetto has to load passengers, and is slow to shake of its inertia.  But then, I am suddenly taken off route via an inlet over a bridge, losing at least forty metres.  The Vaporetto has made good ground and is now out in front, but not by much.  Then another inlet, but this time with no diversion.  I reach the summit and see the boat pulling in at Giardini.  I keep a good pace and the boat is slow to start again.  My legs still don't remember their marathon last week.  We are away.  Another bridge to climb towards Arsenale and each one gets thicker and thicker with tourists whose attention waivers in all directions but this runner's. Another bridge and my legs feel the climb of this one, but there is a long flat ahead.  I let go pushing hard in the sunlight.  As the Vaporetto pulls into the stop I pass it again and head towards San Marco.  My legs have had enough of this game.  Like the crowds, they feel sluggish and inattentive.  I pass a thick-haired golden retriever looking very unhappy at being out on a lead in such weather. But I don't make it to San Marco.  In the crowd, I lose sight of the boat and it is difficult to maintain walking pace.  I come to a stop outside the the hotel where Henry James had finished The Portrait of a Lady  in 1880 (that he wrote about in the 1907 Preface).  The challenge is over. I wipe the grains of salt and sweat from my face and feel a burning thirst.  I remember that I haven't drunk anything for hours.  I turn around and retrace my steps to a quieter point at which to catch the boat back. A couple holding hands smile at me, only then do I realise that it is because I too am smiling.
The desire to play is easily forgotten in someone my age, and I'm glad to be reminded of it.  Creativity is not an ability, but merely a desire to romp and caper with ideas or the body. Sartre was so enamoured of play that he ascribed to it all-but the meaning of life.  In Being and Nothingness, he argues that our condition is such that we spend our lives cowering in the face of our freedom.  We engage in complex acts of deception to deny our biological inheritance of freedom. We structure entire lives and livelihoods around our self-deception. For Sartre, play was a way to touch that void once again.  
The desire to play is central to our happiness. And today, even trapped by the ant-hive crowds of Venice (of which I am one), I still find that moments of liberty are to be found in the creativity of the body.  The stonemason may have to carve a gargoyle, but it is one of their own design.  Even in the narrowest and most crowded of alleyways, squeezing between pot-bellied walls that look like they are waiting to belch, expression is still deliverance and release. 


From Ruskin's Stones of Venice

The 'ant-hive' crowds of Venice.



Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Infinite Space of the Present (Wordsworth vs. Pater)



The moment.  The present: an infinite space, that once sensed, the mind flees from itself and dissolves to become the body.  'But don't you get bored?' I was asked yesterday.  A sensible question when you tell someone that you're running eight hours a week.  I get bored thinking about it, but never while I'm doing it.  Boredom is a fine balance between mental awareness and disengagement - the awareness is necessary in order to sense one's disengagement - and for me that is one of the last things likely to happen when I'm out running.  A state where perception is charged like static waiting to be earthed, and disengagement means the disappearance of self.



Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an Hungarian psychologist, coined a name for this in-the-body experience in his study Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience.  'Flow' is when 'the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.'  The activity is borne along by an unseen force, each movement, thought, idea, follows the next; as inevitable as the course of a meandering river.  The three tributaries of  attention, motivation, and skill all meet in this moment, and like the combination of the three primary colours, they find in their meeting their annihilation and become white light. 
But there is more to this experience than being colloquially 'in the moment'.  It isn't just about levels of concentration, one of the other effects of this free-wheeling biological imperative - the moment when the body becomes the essence of itself, the real 'I am' - is a perceptual gift.  It is lent from somewhere and later returned to that unknown place.  Call it passion, perception, a quickening, it is something.  Walter Pater called it a 'multiplied consciousness' for him it was a 'strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving' of self.  Everything is in flux, not just our biological lives, but everything all the way through our day-to-day existence to our aesthetic impressions.  If we are to suck upon the marrow of life we must develop skills of "sharp and eager observation": for "every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us, – for that moment only".  Pater's assessment of the ideal is 'to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. 
 Wordsworth, too, understood the value of the moment, its meaning, its reach, its longevity.  His 'Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798', from its title, the poem announces itself as a study of both memory and its necessity.

The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.  And so I dare to hope
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, 
when first I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all.

Turner - Tintern Abbey
The present, for Wordsworth, the paean of this extraordinary poem, is almost lost in a vortex of his childhood, his ideas of nature as they were when he was a boy, the future, and what this 1798 version of the present will mean to him then.  The present that the poem attempts to recount has disappeared into the mind of the poet.  It is extinguished in a flurry of thought and philosophy.  The distance between subject and object in the poem is significant.  The Abbey, the land, the sky, the world, all appear at a crane-arm's length.  The primary sense is the visual without the awkward personal proximities of touch or taste or smell.  The landscape runs in his veins, but he does not run through this landscape, only in his own memory of it.  Pater called it an 'impassioned contemplation' and felt Wordsworth a 'powerful and original poet, hidden away, in part, under those weaker elements' of his work.  How could he love Wordsworth when he argues elsewhere that perception is 'not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.' 
Pater wished us to pitch ourselves upon the world and the moment.  Invoking Novalis's dictum 'to philosophize is to throw off apathy, to become revived', Pater argued 'of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.'  Where Wordsworth saw the eternal possibilities of memory in the moment, Pater senses only the moment's immediacy.  For both, experience and perception are mental faculties.  One's philosophy seems to kill it, the other is 'revived' by it.  
The moment.  The present: an infinite space, that once sensed, the mind flees from itself and dissolves to become the body.  Even Csikszentmihalyi sees 'flow' as a mental state, where the ego disappears.  But it is the wrong word for the runner's experience.  Being 'in the zone' isn't right either.  The contiguity of 'flow' fits, but not what happens to consciousness and perception.  Instead, it is where corporeality meets hyper-reality; where the physical meets the metaphysical.  
In her writings about her life with her husband, Helen Thomas discussed how, as a late-Victorian woman, she discovered her body.

I loved being without clothes, and moving about naked, and I took pride in my health and strength.  Edward and I read Richard Jefferies, and with delight I found the joy in one's body spoken of there as if it was right and good.  For with my old distrust of myself I had wondered if the joy I felt in my body indicated some moral deficiency in me, as my mother's teaching had been in direct opposition to what I felt so instinctively. (Under Storm's Wing)

Richard Jefferies was floored by numerous illnesses.  He left London believing it to be bad for his health (as many did - among them, Hardy).  And, like a satellite, lived in various parts of Sussex and Surrey throughout his adult life.  He died aged 39 and left behind him a canon that included, fiction, fantasy, the 'Bevis' books, science fiction, poetry, nature writing, and an autobiography The Story of My Heart, where he revelled in the unwriteable ecstasies of his body.

With all the intensity of feeling which exalted me, all the intense communion I held with the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean - in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written - with these I prayed, as if they were the keys of an instrument, of an organ, with which I swelled forth the note of my soul […] Next to myself I came and recalled myself, my bodily existence. I held out my hand, the sunlight gleamed on the skin and the iridescent nails; I recalled the mystery and beauty of the flesh. I thought of the mind with which I could see the ocean sixty miles distant, and gather to myself its glory. I thought of my inner existence, that consciousness which is called the soul. These, that is, myself -  I threw into the balance to weight the prayer the heavier.  […] I hid my face in the grass, I was wholly prostrated, I lost myself in the wrestle, I was rapt and carried away.

Jefferies' 'fine balance' is where one might find oneself, in the mist between the mind and the body, 'rapt and carried away' on awareness and its disappearance. 
 Like Jefferies' experience of the world around him, the  running animal is aware of the body in a way that the sleeping and philosophising one is not. It is aware of its surroundings, like life suddenly lived in Technicolor.  The running animal feels its frailty, its limits, its pulse, its hunger, its exertion, its limbs, its pain.  The body becomes omnipresent, it is in its surroundings.  
It is its physicality.
It is itself.  
I am. 





Sunday, 4 March 2012

Howards End & the Giant Claw-Digger


A giant claw-digger gnaws at the structure like a stop-motion tyrannosaur as it devours this block of flats.  The geometry of its numerous parallel floors is disrupted by the torn open rooms and the cranial lumps of grey concrete which hang disordered from metal threads.  This magnificent broken tooth of a building is falling apart, the walls break as easily as ancient bones dug from the earth.  Someone chose that wallpaper, that carpet.  Surely they never imagined this day when the whole thing would be exposed to the air before it falls away into a pile of rubble, to be gathered, transported, and dumped, somewhere.  
The ghost of this notion is what makes a novel like Howards End so odd.  It really is a book about the meaning of house ownership.  What's so clever is that it maps onto this rather modish and shallow notion all manner of other anxieties.  How can we connect with the people around us if we are constantly in the bustle of flux?  How can we see our lives for what they really are if we only understand our values materially in pounds, shillings and pence? What is the relationship between our sense of ourselves and our sense of place?  Without roots in the earth, what hope is there of our growing?

And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity.

Eric Ravilious
The novel isn't hopeful for the triumph of England.  It ends with the cold comfort of a rural idyll, a broken family, and an observation: '"All the same, London's creeping."  She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust […].  And London is only part of something else, I'm afraid.  Life's going to be melted down, all over the world."'  The crisis of modernity is not new.  We know from the Romantics that at the very onset of the industrial transformation we have been rightly suspicious of the mechanisation of modern life.
Today is a beautiful day.  Winter has been holding on, but the sun was doing its best, even though the tilt of the Earth puts it a few thousand miles further away than mid-summer.  It is one of those days that is filled with the warming promise of the months to come, that says 'Days will lengthen. Winter will end.  The turning world will go green.' Perhaps it is over-cautiousness on my part, but it was too nice not to try a run outside. I made my way up to the Heath, and after my weeks inside pacing the cells, I felt my diaphragm pulling deeply at the sun-filled air. 

Here silence stands like heat.
Here leaves unnoticed thicken, 
Hidden weeds flower, waters quicken […]
Here is unfenced existence: 
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

I'd always thought, in Larkin's poem 'Here', that at its close he was talking about the sun, but perhaps the point of it is that he is talking about himself.  
 This general sense of well-being was only slightly punctured by the sight of a council block being torn down (I can think of at least five estates near me that are being ripped to the ground as I write).  I finished at the gym so I could machine my way to an appropriate level of exertion with a lesser risk of injury (marathons!).  
What I saw when I pulled up at the council's local gym on such a beautiful day was this.  Every treadmill was occupied.  They were arranged in a neat line facing outside towards the busy high street.  Except for the treadmill users, the gym was completely empty.  Perhaps they were like me?  They were training for marathons etc.  They were here to enhance some activity that would take place elsewhere.  But all of these machines were occupied by walkers.  The walkers on the machines in this awful, scruffy, dirty gym, were happy to pay to walk, using electricity, and watch the world pass before them like goldfish in a bowl.  All of them watched, transfixed by the sunny day that they weren't in.

My reflection in a puddle at the end of the street.

Experiences like this inculcate a kind of rootlessness, a forgetfulness, a negation of place.  The belt that they are walking on revolves as endlessly as poor 'Jaws' does in his bowl ever since he was brought home in a plastic bag from the fairground.  So it's not so so much the lack of impression, but the complete absence of one.  Unthinkingness, a willing renunciation of self to refocus and remind oneself of one's place in the world is not the same as the anaesthetised boredom brought about by looking at a timer, seeing how many calories you've burned in the last hour, checking your incline, wondering if you're going to get a static shock when you touch the machine. (This is a wonderful metaphor - you only build up static electricity precisely because you are not earthed).
Around the same time that Howards End was published, philosopher brother of the urban chameleon Henry James, William, worried over our fast-developing cultural myopia.

Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities. But we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys.
   William James - On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

But it seems to me to be saying something not dissimilar to Forster’s Maurice or Hardy’s Jude: structures of society are not natural ones. Both protagonists in those novels suffer when caught between the seemingly granite walls of their society's moral order.  So unnatural indeed, that the protagonists of both novels walk all the way out of the world to effect an escape. One, to that undiscovered country; the other finds happiness in the pagan greenwood with a man of the earth. Both novels say that society is not natural to us. It exists apart from us.  As Nietzsche reminds us: in the world 'there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of it.' Society and its morality are not designed to meet or satisfy our desires in any real ways. Instead, it creates a whole different set of structures with complex systems of exchange that are adept at reproducing themselves, rather than meeting the demands of its users. If you expect to find in society’s structures a framework that fits the mutabilities of our ontogeny, you probably won’t (is what James, Hardy and Forster all argue).
What use is a machine that encourages you not to go outside and be in the world?  'Nature' isn't a sick patient that we have to go out and visit.  It is what made our bodies.  It is that which makes it possible for you to read this.  So much of modernity seems to want us to not quite understand this simple observation.  We are like James's rarefied and urbane men, grown 'stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys.'  We conspire against ourselves in making potentially rewarding experiences into mundane and tedious ones. 
The real Howards End, called Rooksnest - the house near Stevenage where Forster grew up - just like the block of flats in Blackheath, was torn down.  'London' crept to its doors and consumed it.  But in the novel, the place is immortalised as a true spiritual home, all the more so for being a reminder of the mutability and ephemerality, not just of divinely endowed homesteads with roots that burrow deep into the past, but of us, too. 

Monday, 27 February 2012

Unthinkingness and the 'little death' (or, Lacan & the Long Run).

There is always the barely conscious desire to find empty space. Not a deserted Rose Garden in Greenwich Park, but the highest and broadest and deepest and emptiest place possible.  The greater the space, the greater the likelihood of your believing that you have been transported to this weird afterlife where the sun has long since set on humanity and you have been stranded.  The more deserted square mileage of land, the more bare earth that you can see, the more convinced you will become.  The best runs are a search for the possibility of not-thinking, where you might touch silence; they are a blissful sort of 'little death'. 'Mind chains do not clank, where one's next neighbour is the sky'.
Hardy spun a long line (an iambic septameter!) about a similar need in his 1896 poem, 'Wessex Heights'

There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls-Neck westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.

These are places of rapturous annihilation; they bring with them the briefest amber scent of the destruction of self.  The solitariness of the speaker in the poem is important because it removes the self from its stultifying confines.  Jacques Lacan, the structuralist psychoanalytic theorist, suggests that we are not the users of language, but its prisoners. The 'mirror stage', from his essay of the same name, is like the event horizon of a black hole, once crossed there is no return.  It is the point of our birth into language and the instant that we fully comprehend the word 'I'. Understanding that word alone implies the internalisation of all manner of grammatical and syntactical rules, and which is more, the firm belief that 'I' is by implication not 'you', 'we', 'she', etc.  Lacan's 'I' is wrenched from the world, interminably separate from it.  The child (or so it is in Lacan's essay) was once contiguous with the world, saw no division between itself, its body and the body of its mother.  But once the child takes up their position in language as first-person singular, they become only related to everything, whereas before, they were everything.  Identity doesn't exist for Lacan before the mirror stage, and after it, it is a purely relational state, just like in Great Expectations where, in the graveyard of the opening pages, young Pip regards the headstones of his parents and siblings and 'first began to understand the identity of things'.  His birth into this 'symbolic order'(as Lacan elsewhere referred to it) sets in train the terrible chain of events that will forge his identity, like pig iron beaten flat with a blacksmith's hammer.  Lacan's subjects are locked in language and the only release is death or madness (like poor Dr Mannette in A Tale of Two Cities, or Little Dorrit's father).  For Lacan, we are language's subjects,  Counts of Monte Cristo imprisoned for no crime except, perhaps, being.  


Low-lying cloud settles in Devil's Dyke

Running is a kind madness, a 'little death'.  A temporary suspension of ties that bind. A reminder that the body is nothing but biology, a soft machine.  The ecologist and philosopher Timothy Morton is not the first to point out that one of the problems with the way that we relate to nature is that we insist on calling it that.  The use of the word immediately situates our relationship to it as distant and disconnected.  Nature is something 'out there', our identity and our relationship to it dictates to some extent our ability to see through it, to it.  The Sussex labouring poet, Simeon Brough

‘Nature’  (1869).

The word is like a frame. 
There is the land, there is the sky, and a pane 
of rippled glass between all this and I.
A fine web, once it was, that wove 

An infinite thread between it and us.
Now it’s seen as from afar
A mutable gift was Indian-given, 
Till lightning lit and rent apart.

And so there is the pane that’s always there.
Not a stone can score or scratch it; 
No sun can scorch this armoured word 
This scarab of glass, this frozen field.

Yet to the web we all return. 
And in Time, like sense, the pane
Dissolves, leaving only a vapourous 
Mist and a trace of the memory of rain.

For Lacan, death and madness are the only means of returning to the state of nature where one is fully shorn of identity, removed from the diminishing and encroaching effects of language or knowing one's place in the world.  But part of what is so attractive about solitary running is the pure corporeal jouissance of it.  An ecstasy that breaks through Brough's 'armoured word' to the thing beyond.  To know.  To be.  A self without subject. 
The solitary runner is a fugitive from language.  The hypnotic spell of the endless rhythm of the long run, the hours of repetition, like the smooth steps at some holy shrine worn down by the footfalls of the passing thousands, pare away at you until you are gone and only your body is left.  Observations occasionally break in upon you. ' If the soil weren't so wet it would look scorched. It folds and rolls away, toward a leaden sky.  The cut wheat like greying stubble, slowly dying on the sagging jaw of a corpse.'  But soon they wash away.  And you have disappeared from life. Language is no use when there is no one to speak to, or signs to read.  No one knows where you are.  You are in this empty space, alone.  This is a 'little death' (a term used in French for the orgasm).  It is the jubilant renunciation of self. It is a place where you find absolute peace. Reclaiming dominion over yourself with the firmness and rectitude of the harshest of absolute monarchs.  It is the complete freedom, which is our right, not to exist. To drop out of the world, to live for a time with the sentience of an animal.  Feeling, seeing, smelling, but not savouring. Breath comes in, breath goes out; hundreds, thousands, they are all the same. The sun will shine.  The air will warm and chill.  Leaves will fall.  And still, breath comes in, and it goes out like it will never stop.  The sky, the scored canopy of the wood, the crows in the field, the mud under foot, breath comes in and it goes out, and everything is utterly indifferent to you. You are nothing. No past, no future, just a witness to the world. All that you are was a something, that saw it, once. 
In the conclusion to 'Wessex Heights', Hardy also knew this.  He saw these moments as fleeting forms of escape from his pallid 'ghosts' of civilisation.  All of his argument is there, in the last five words of the poem.

So I am found on Ingpen Beacon, or on Wylls-Neck to the west,
Or else on homely Bulbarrow, or little Pilsdon Crest,
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts then keep their distance; and I know some liberty.


Wolstonbury Hill - Sussex