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  • Max Schmermbeck

On the Virtues of Nightwalking


'Moreover, we share the world with other people and other perspectives; the world is an in-between, that which simultaneously connects and separates us'


Instead of the polemical ramblings I laid out in my first post for this platform, I would like to dedicate this text to something a bit more personal. It is less about persuasion, and more about perspective. In what follows, I will discuss the beauty of nightwalking, a highly underrated activity that, like many things, becomes a lot more interesting if we think about it carefully.


Nightwalking means nothing more and nothing less than walking alone at night, and it is an activity practiced by many people. Perhaps nightwalking is appealing because it can provide a certain form of silence which people deeply desire. Or because it allows them to roam, without a sense of direction or purpose, through a world which demands goals and reasons for everything. It could also be that people walk during the night simply because they lack the time to do so during the day. Every person who strolls the nocturnal world probably has their own, strange reasons for engaging in this fine sport.


My favourite time for nightwalking is probably around midnight, when the city is not fully deserted, but also no longer filled with overwhelming white noise. The streets are mostly empty and the stores are closed, but some bars are still open, filled with people who speak with that special intensity that comes after about five beers. In the midst of all this, I am nothing but a spectator: nobody notices me, no one engages me, all I do is watch and listen. I walk around aimlessly and slowly, without any sense of urgency or direction. There is no music, no phone, no talking, no input. All I do is walk and pay attention to what I see.


That sort of mindful observation is where the beauty of nightwalking resides for me. Things become clearer when you watch them carefully, which is something our society so seldom allows us to do. When I read some of the great philosophers of the 20th century, I am always struck by their presupposition that we ‘belong’ to the world in some primordial way, that there is a connection which ties us to the environments and spaces through which we move. For thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, experience, perception and action arise out of the intimate intertwinement we have with the world; the world can invite or repel us, but we belong to her in some deep sense. Human existence, as Heidegger argued, is ‘being-in-the-world’. We are in the world, and the world is in us. Moreover, we share the world with other people and other perspectives; the world is an in-between, that which simultaneously connects and separates us.


'The point of nightwalking, then, is not to pay more attention, but to pay attention differently'


Our sense of belonging is becoming increasingly fragile in a world which constantly resides elsewhere; rarely are we actually present in one space, at one time. Just think about how little we pay attention to the world around us, how detached we are from it. The things we find remarkable, interesting and important are always somewhere else, in distant lands filled with virtual desire. The immediate, tangible environments in which we actually live and through which we actually move, have become a passive background which must be traversed in order for us to reach a different place, living for a different time and at a different pace than the others around us. The world increasingly becomes an obstacle, and other people are only ever really in our way. We desire to move past them as fast as possible, to reach destinations always fleeing.


The point of nightwalking, then, is not to pay more attention, but to pay attention differently. Nightwalking shows us how difficult it is to pay any actual attention to things in a society which is absolutely saturated by things to pay attention to. Roaming the streets in total silence is a way to cultivate a sense of attention that is not focussed on stimulation, but on awareness; it aims to discover the hidden beauties of a world which we pass by at an ever-increasing speed. This is the stunning paradox lying at the heart of nightwalking: walking around, alone, and paying attention to the world, is perhaps the best way to feel a sense of belonging to that world, if only for a brief moment.

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