A few weeks after I submitted my PhD thesis, the world went into lockdown. I had written my thesis on wandering, defined in a Kantian sense as ‘purposive without purpose’ (and as opposed to merely walking from A to B). Being told to stop leaving my flat unless I had a specific reason, while working from home and anticipating my online viva, thus felt somewhat ironic. As everything shut, life began to only exist in confinement. The ‘new normal’ meant that I was no longer even able to set out to buy flowers like Mrs. Dalloway (unless perhaps I intended to buy them at the supermarket and had planned to do my weekly grocery shopping there anyway). Nine weeks after the initial lockdown this still hasn’t changed.
And yet, while shops, libraries, museums, theatres, schools, universities, and pubs closed, one aspect of British culture did remain unchallenged: the right to roam open access land and to access public footpaths. In contrast to some of our European neighbours, the UK government never went so far as to prevent people from exercising outside. On my own rambles I continued to take detours and to go off the beaten track. Whenever I found that ‘Two roads diverged in a wood […] / I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference’. The last line of Frost’s poem nowadays makes me stumble. In the context of Covid-19, it invites a re-reading that seems gruesome, not least given that green spaces have been put under increased pressure in some parts of the country, thus leaving seemingly little room to ‘wander lonely as a cloud’.
Access to the open countryside has become a luxury. The first time that something similar occurred was during the Industrial Revolution. Rousseau, who found the physical act of walking in nature important for his mental wellbeing, had set the impetus for this development. Building on his promenades, both the literary wanderer and the cultural practice of wandering gradually developed into a symbol of resistance against the increasing speed of modern life. Environmentalism became a concern of the nineteenth century. The early history of countryside rambling seems very relatable today: even in the earliest stages of the pandemic the UK government frequently stressed the psychological need for access to green spaces; and many people will no doubt have felt their moods lifting when we were finally allowed to travel to beauty spots again, able to go on solitary rambles further afield. Going forward I wonder though how many people will actually recognise that their countryside rambles (and memory thereof) can become a tool that enables them to cope with the stresses of the changed working world. How many people are able not only to make sense of our new world but also to increase the pleasure of something seemingly mundane like countryside rambling by relating their experience to that of some of the world’s finest writers? Here is the crux of the matter: engagement with culture not only generates meaning, but it enables us to build cultural capital, which allows us among other things to build resilience.
Ben’s adaptation of Hölderlin’s question ‘What good are critics in destitute times?’ will remain relevant for some time to come. The destitute times we live in will continue, after all, beyond the moment of the immediate crisis caused by the outbreak of the virus. Cultural criticism was arguably not the first thing that was called for in a global emergency. Many of us thus initially responded by turning inwards; taking the role of the observer or tending to cultural production. There is great value in that, though, and perhaps now is the time to reflect upon this. Between all of us we could no doubt come up with a very long list of general observations, and a separate one for ways in which culture has helped us to come to terms with the pandemic. We ultimately know that there is inherent value in what we do and that our work enables us to navigate culturally through the ‘new normal’. The crisis has added a new layer to our work and to our understanding of the world. As we gradually see restrictions lifted over the summer (and get to know the full impact of the pandemic), we may want to take a moment to take stock of these reflections. After all, it will be our task to think of ways in which our knowledge and understanding of the world can support community building, recovery and resilience. In the destitute times that ensue from this crisis, we will need the cultural critic more than ever.