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When Can a Walk be Considered a Narrative?

Sam Christie


This article considers to what extent a long distance walk, and indeed the memory of that walk, may generate a narrative, as investigated by theorists such as Roland Barthes, by virtue of the very things central to the experience of walking in this way. These things include sudden deviations created by unseen contingencies, encounters and subsequent responsive improvisations or simply dynamic shifts in landscape, resulting in pace change or some other alteration of focus. When we speak of, for example, signposting or the cardinal in relation to narrative, to what extent should we take seriously the relationship between terms used in this way and the way in which they are used to provide geographical structure?


Cet article analyse la manière dont une longue marche, puis le souvenir de cette marche, peuvent générer un récit, au sens que donnent à ce terme des théoriciens comme Roland ce à l’aide des caractéristiques propres à l’expérience même d’une marche faite dans cette perspective. Ces caractéristiques incluent par exemple des déviations soudaines crées par des aléas imprévus, des rencontres et toutes sortes d’improvisations auxquelles elles donnent lieu ou tout simplement les changements continuels du paysage qui se traduisent par des changements de rythme ou de focus. Lorsque nous parlons par exemple de signes indicateurs ou de point cardinal en rapport avec le récit, dans quelle mesure devons-nous prendre au sérieux le lien entre de tels mots et la manière dont ils tendent à structurer la géographie ?

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On 1st May 2012 I began a walk along a section of the Welsh coastline. The purpose seemed clear enough at the time, indeed it was so clear it felt automatic; there was no other choice.

I was making a film about Cantre’r Gwaelod, the Welsh Atlantis, which can’t be found anymore between the Islands of Ramsey and Bardsey.1 Cantre’r Gwaelod is a dark-age flood myth and my film

was to focus on that and how flood myths might seem interesting allegories for a future living with the effects of climate change and sea level rise. The focus then, was a place that didn’t exist anymore and may never have existed in the way it is described in the small number of poems and accounts that can be found. It is only the edge that remains, and as such that edge had to be the whole focus of a documentary in some way.

This edge described by the myth of Cantre’r Gwaelod is the distance between two places, in this case Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island, but it is also the distance between land and sea, the space described as the sub-littoral zone. One is a large, ranging distance, the other a specific point or an infinite number of specific points. The first moves towards an end, a motion is implied, the other stands still and looks out to sea. So in capturing this space on film, I was drawn to record the ranging distance rather than the isolated sections of tide line, and my focus, at least in part, was a record of the whole of this edge almost in its entirety; my idea was to filmically map the journey.

Exactly why I chose to do this was, at the time, unclear, it may have been due to the ‘quest’, described by Stella Bruzzi as ‘that dangerously unstructured instinct’ (Bruzzi 2000: 101) of the documentary filmmaker to encounter the story, but equally it might have been a desire to contextualise those isolated sub-littoral spaces and to place them together. In essence this approach is neater, it allows for, ‘(t)he twin impulse…to push random events into a narrative, a structure, a logical form’ (Bruzzi 2000: 101). This structure is neat, the structure of a walk from one place to another, it is a classic narrative spine; it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

In this essay I wish to discuss the ways in which my walk can be seen as a narrative and in what ways this narrative can be used as a device to elicit an ‘affect’ or more specifically an affective film about climate change. I would like to interrogate the notion that my walk in May constitutes a narrative precisely by isolating events according to factors beyond, ‘(a) sense of process, the activity of tracing possible futures from a given past’ (Morson 2003: 61). I will isolate the event from the structured journey to relate to the aspects of the walk that can be recalled as grid squares, and in doing this investigate whether, in this geographically specific recollection separated from the notion of a journey, it is possible to remap topologically the memory of the walk in order to consider its affect both in and outside the construction of narrative, and consider how narrative itself is therefore constructed.


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‘The beginning, then, is the first step in the intentional production of meaning’ (Said 1975: 5) While I’d like to resist, it seems simply mischievous to not start a narratological analysis of my walk, my topological response to this essay question, without considering the beginning. It’s hard to accept the start of a long distance walk, in the same way it’s hard to begin a lifetime’s work, without temptation to dither with the sure knowledge that once it begins it will continue until its conclusion, whether satisfactory or not.

It is interesting that Said concentrates on the term intention in his above summary of a beginning, because it seems that if we see intention, etymologically from intentio – or a reaching out towards – as integral to the construction of a beginning, then the production of meaning is somehow linked to a process resembling a journey, reaching out towards the conclusion. We lay tracks from one of the infinite stations on our journey to the others, bonding them through the straightforward decision to begin.

On May 1st in St Davids Cathedral while the organist went about the secular business of practising,

I clocked in, pressed record and began to intend towards not only the end of my walk, but the conclusion of my film.

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‘Here then are factors contributing to narrativeness: presentness, contingency, eventness, messiness, unpredictability, the need for alertness, possibilities in excess of actualities.’ (Morson 2003: 69)

Hell’s Mouth is a long beach within 20 miles of the end of the walk. The weather was, as always, changeable and it was as likely I’d reach Aberdaron wet as dry. Naturally by now I was also tired, so as I descended the steep path to the beach for the final push, I was in no mood for messing about.

This film had always been an attempt to be ‘(an) enactment of the documentary.’ (Bruzzi 2000: 155) and as such the act of walking had become a performance predicated on notions of encounter and reaction. I wore a head camera and it recorded my field of view along the way, as I intended towards the end of my walk – Aberdaron and the vision of Bardsey Island - my camera recorded. My camera made


record of my ‘burst toward’ the end (Sartre 1939: 2), but also the temporal process of my movement towards, in other words my intentionality described by Husserl in his theory of phenomenological perception.2 I may well intend towards the end, but I also intend all moments in between. There was also

a record to consider, little SD cards containing the camera’s version of my memories thus far, which might be considered my digital apperception or the baggage included in the noetic process (the flow towards the noema, or object to be perceived, as described by Husserl) that I carry forward towards the end.

I was present there, at the beginning of the 5km beach and as I walked out onto the coastal path, discovered the sea had removed large chunks of it, leaving gaping cliff edges and creating a topographical contingency. As I picked my way along the tortuous route, conscious of the danger of falling, being aware of the need to move with care, I witnessed the precariousness of my intended ending.

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‘narrative is universal’ (Barthes 1975: 238)

As I walked through the QinetiQ site near Aberporth, a bleak and sinister place that seemed to arrive unwanted from the ethereal stretch from Mwnt, I might have been forgiven for seeing the journey from the comfort of my own narrative. Here people are thin on the ground and my mind turned to secret observations, the surveillance from far removed rooms. Here, in a place that tests drones (UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles), geography and proximity might defy a conventional narrative; here there’s no need to touch. Here life’s contingencies occur through high-speed cables, screens and cameras. An encounter with a keyboard or ‘joystick’ in Texas might change the story in the wadi.

When Barthes talks of narrative being, ‘…present at all times, in all places, in all societies’ (Barthes 1975: 237) he challenges the notion of the confinement of it purely to the structure of a work, suggesting that it, ‘starts with the very history of mankind’. Narrative to Barthes is the human condition and narrative is stratified, interlaced and infinitely multi-variant. In this sense my own narrative is only the most intended narrative and the strata I’m most aware of. All around me a meta-narrative was unfolding, Aberporth is a hive of narratives, both geographically present but also buzzing in the air.

2. Husserl, Edmund. (1931) Ideas, General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Translated by W.R. Boyce Gibson. London: Routledge.


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‘The shifting of plates and other pressures caused the hardened strata of rock to twist, bend and crack (fault).’ (Morgan 2008: 220)

The most striking thing about the coast of Wales is how quickly things change. The Ordovician or Silurian layers, the sandy to rocky beach, all these physical changes occur within a few mere miles of walking. But sometimes the landscape changed so dramatically that it forced me from the preconscious ‘body ballet’ of walking, towards a focussed intention.3 Reaching out towards the boulder-strewn shore

on the approach to Harlech, I’m glad of the legs that allow me to negotiate this precarious dance. The ‘world is not paved’ (Morson 2003: 65), so in this process of walking my carefully chosen boots walk a road that is simultaneously tarmac, mud, sand, rock or even sea. Those boots and the strength in my legs are as important as the camera that records the journey. Ground, boots to legs, that is the first point of contact and the first essential point of encounter.

While this stretch, or bit of coast, so different from the last, stands alone as a place, it is only part of the place I occupy as a walker. I move from a preconscious state, existing in the mind, letting my body do the thinking and suddenly switch tack. I am now wide-awake, feeling the terrain and intending out towards my feet and legs, but also the conclusion of the day or the conclusion of the walk itself. ‘All these actions of scanning the world also bespeak our design for facing contingency.’ (Morson 2003: 65) and it is this contingency that creates a new place for me on this journey, I move forward walking through a place I have created when I began in St Davids, I do not stop and look out towards the sea declaring that I have finished. If this is one of the infinite points along this journey, they subsequently become joined by the decisions made in the face of contingency as I move towards the end. The narrativeness of this walk redefines the liminal space this journey is created within. This journey is a place, only in so far as it is my intended place.

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‘(…) indices refer to a signified, not to an “operation.” The sanction of indices is “higher-up,” sometimes it is even virtual, outside the explicit syntagm (the personality traits of a character may never be verbalised and yet repeatedly indexed), it is a paradigmatic sanction.’ (Barthes 1975:247)

3. David Seamon describes activities that can occur without focussed consciousness (automatically), activities like driving, as body ballets.


Of all the places I encountered, none seemed as varied as that small stretch past Harlech. Even the Castle, the bleak main drag and the Brutalist college buildings play with the setting, a small town by the sea, and suggest other possibilities. Is this a place of heritage, a deprived town or a dynamic, almost urban, seat of learning?

Beyond the Queens Hotel, a handwritten sign declaring two for one, I followed the coast path across open fields. Within two miles I was in another zone. This place was not coast, I walked concrete prefabricated slab roads, sitka spruce and lodgepole pine grew sparsely there. This place reminded me of the New Forest, or another vaguely military place. The feeling was of 1950s Britain, organised and up to something important, possibly secret.

If my mind was on cold war bilateral global politics and the hiss and crackle of numbers stations, the bearded walker I encountered was interested in birds.4

Again the methodology of encounter yielded a clash of narratives. We saw the same place but our ‘indices’ signified different things. In giving narrative structure, Barthes sees layers of units of meaning. Indicial units are givers of signs; they define the feeling of a place, the mood of a place, or perhaps, the character of a place. Indicial units constantly return to a narrative and paint the story.

The walker sees a zoo of Crossbills here, for him this is a theme park for revelling in the life of passerines. If we see his visit to this woodland as his total narrative, then his indicial signified is birdlife. For me, however, his visit is part of the journey. I can feel a temporal meaning in this place, but for my journey as a whole how might this encounter and my sense of this place signify the walk itself? For me there is an indicial unit for here, but another for the walk as a place.

When Barthes asks, ‘Is it possible to uncover, behind the temporal sequence of the narrative, an atemporal logic?’ (Barthes 1975: 251) we might think of memory and we might think of uncertain futures but the constant temporal business of perceiving, perhaps as Husserl describes, could suggest that this atemporal logic might actually be found within the temporal sequence. If we view the act of perception itself as a narrative, containing all the properties of the noetic process, then could it be argued that this atemporal logic is conciousness? Paul Ricoeur seems to suggest this, ‘If intentionality is that remarkable property of consciousness to be a consciousness of…, of moving out from itself towards something else, then the act of signifying contains the essence of intentionality.’ (Ricoeur 1967:6) SM 89 41 ‘Referring back to the class of functions, its units are not equally “important”: some constitute actual hinges of the narrative (of a fragment thereof); others do no more than “fill-in” the narrative space separating the hinge-type functions.’ (Barthes 1975: 248) 4. Number stations were/are radio broadcasting antenna, which were said to be part of the espionage infrastructure of the cold war, it is said they broadcast coded messages..


When walking the coast there is one constant, the sea. On this coastline the compass needs only three points, in degrees, 0, 90 and 180, North, East and South. The West is almost always to the left, a gentle roar from the breakers or the flicker of mast lights at night. At night from the hostel at Pwll Deri the Strumble Head light sweeps the land in pulses and reaches out to sea. On a good evening from various points on the coast it is possible to see Strumble Head light phase with the Bardsey light on the tip of the Llyn Peninsular, declaring a boundary of sorts.

Even if the fog descends over the path navigation is not even a thought, while periodic diversions frustrate, the business of direction comes down to my body, as body-subject ‘(manifesting) knowledge of space only through action.’ (Seamon 1979: 51). What periodically awakens me from this pre-cognitive wandering are contingencies, which may or may not be connected to my location. I might be equally snapped to full consciousness of my surroundings by hard rain, a sudden gust of wind or a willing interview subject. These triggers to becoming aware are surely, if seen as part of the narrative of the walk, one of the narrative units Barthes speaks about. This is an action unit, potentially pivotal; it is a unit that changes things. Barthes calls these units or functions ‘cardinal functions’, pivotal functions that, ‘(…) opens (or maintains or closes) an alternative directly affecting the continuation of the story’ (Barthes 1975: 248)

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‘It is not in some hiding-place that we will discover ourselves; it is on the road, in the town, in the midst of the crowd, a thing among things, a human among humans.’ (Sartre 1947: 3)

It’s easy enough to ask people to talk when you present yourself to them as they are. On this coast path, with a heavy bag, facing into the wind and moving North, we are united in our endeavours. The conversation opens with a comment on the weather, our most brutal and constant contingency. It’s May and the weather is bad, we all, without exception, expected better. This opening line leads on in any direction, these are not interviews they are conversations.

The connection can only occur if it’s welcome, my intention is always to connect, my reason for being here is to make a film and interviews are an important part of that. As I intend along the coast, I intend to the people I meet there and in allowing this contingency of connection – for another interview is surely a cardinal function – the narrative becomes a meta-narrative of all the intersecting narratives. While this might be firmly my narrative, if the phenomenological reduction that consciousness is always consciousness of something is held to be true, my narrative, which is a walk and a film, includes the narratives of others. Sartre explains, ‘I pity Peter, and I go to his assistance. For my consciousness


only one thing exists at that moment: Peter-having-to-be-helped.’ (Sartre 1960: 56) For Peter then, his consciousness is Sartre-as-helper and himself-in-distress.

For Sartre this temporal conscious state, the state of moving from consciousness of one thing to another, is ‘a totality which needs no completing at all’ (Sartre 1960: 58). In other words the existence of the personal pronoun I is superfluous in consciousness; it is a given. It is only when consciousness is reflected upon, where the mind frames the scene, that the I resurfaces. In reaching out to connect the encounter, affected by the unified contingency of weather for example, the narrative itself might be seen as the narrative of the coast, not the narrative of any particular individual.

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‘The “soul” of any function is, as it were, its seed-like quality, which enables the function to inseminate the narrative with an element that will later come to maturity, on the same level, or elsewhere on another level.’ (Barthes 1975: 244)

Naturally there are reasons why the myth of Cantre’r Gwaelod loses credibility as an event that actually happened on this coast. The sarnau of the Welsh coastline, unusual shallow sub-tidal reefs, are explicable as parts of the glacial melt around ten thousand years ago.5 This flood event is mythical, possibly a

narrative formed from collective memory and/or an anxiety. Whatever its genesis, the myth of Cantre’r Gwaelod exists alone, it is not even connected by historical fact; it is a dead narrative, untraceable. The petrified forest at Ynyslas, the eerie remains of an ancient land in the sub-littoral zone, reveals itself only under special conditions: after a storm and an unusually low tide. These conditions themselves take on mythical qualities. I have still never seen the full extent of this place, even though I walked over a hundred miles to be there.

In structurally analysing narrative, Barthes turns to Levi Strauss and myth. Levi Strauss suggests myths are comprised of mythemes, ‘constitutive units of mythical discourse’ (Barthes 1975: 242), which enable us to see connections across myth. In flood myth, a mytheme might be an unclosed floodgate, a storm or a ringing church bell. While these are all often present in flood myths, the narrative they paint is a narrative beyond the specificity of place – in discovering a myth’s narrative, might we discover the narrative of human anxieties or fantasies?

It is probably true to say ‘myth is always a language-robbery’ (Barthes 1957: 11) as, in this case, myths can only be broken down into narrative units that make sense on a stemma.6 The only contingency

in myth might be the way people respond to them. In a story so urgent and universal as climate change 5.

6. A tree like diagram like those used for a family tree. In this case used to show structural links between myths in relation to the ‘mythemes’ they contain.


‘show(ing) only stations in a sequence, points in a logic.’ resulting in ‘survivors regard(ing) the pictures that made us weep without weeping’ (Wieseltier 2007: 90) is clearly not enough. 7 Bibliography Barthes, R. (1957) Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. London: Cape Barthes, R. (1975) An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative. New Literary History 2 (6): 237 – 272 Bruzzi, S. (2000) New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Routledge Edwards, G. (1849) The Inundation of Cantre’r Gwaelod: Or The Lowland Hundred. London: Pickering Husserl, Edmund. (1931) Ideas, General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Translated by W.R.

Boyce Gibson. London: Routledge.

Morgan, G. (2008) Ceredigion Coast Path. Llandysul: Gomer

Morson, G. (2003) Narrativeness. New Literary History 1 (34): 59 - 73

Ricoeur, P. (1967) Husserl; an Analysis of his Phenomenology. Translated by Edward G. Ballard and Lester E. Embree. Illinois: Northwestern University Press

Said, E. W. (1975) Beginnings: Intention and Method. Michigan: Basic Books Sartre, Jean Paul. (1947) Une idée fondamentale de la phénoménologie de Husserl: l’intentionnalité in Situations I translation by Joseph P. Fell. Paris: Gallimard Sartre, Jean Paul. (1960) The Transcendence of the Ego, An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness. Translated by F. Williams and R. Kirkpatrick. New York: Hill and Wang Seamon, D. (1979) A Geography of the Lifeworld, Movement, Rest and Encounter. London: Croom Helm

Wieseltier, L. (2007) Shoah. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Key Essays. Ed. Stuart Liebman. Oxford: OUP Sam Christie is in the fourth year of his PhD at Aberystwyth University in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies. Sam is a filmmaker based in mid Wales, specialising in work around location, memory and myth. Specific areas of interest include rural landscape and society, auto ethnography, with journey and encounter as part of the filmmaking process. Email: 7. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is a seminal nine-hour documentary about the holocaust that was premiered in 1985.




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