FEBRUARY 12, 2021
AS THE PANDEMIC raged in 2020, my boyfriend and I were confined within the closed quarters of my two-bedroom flat in Delhi. When the claustrophobia got too heavy, I would step out to rediscover the pleasure of walking with a sense of calm. I would try — and regularly fail — to meet my pre-pandemic mark of eight kilometers every day. It was not a means to an end. I did not have a grand plan. It was just a way to be a part of the city.
“Aimlessness — in art, in life, in writing, in thought, in being — is always more than the lack it names.” So begins Tom Lutz’s most recent collection of essays, Aimlessness. He takes the reader on a journey, knocking on several doors and discovering that all are answered by the same protagonist: the aimless way of life. Stops on the journey include his travels in Mongolia, the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, the Los Angeles émigré Theodor Adorno, and Friedrich Nietzsche. But his real subject is the unspooling of discursive thought, particularly that seen in writing.
Wandering through the streetscapes of the three most prominent forms of literature — the essay, the poem, and the novel — Lutz finds they all follow a sly, if not obvious, routine of aimlessness. The essay, he writes, “is a form that embraces weirdness and randomness and multiplicity, a form that enacts aimlessness, and in fact elevates it to a method. Aimlessness is the essayist’s method.”
Lutz writes in detail about Bashō, the 17th-century Japanese poet, who used “a combination of prose and haiku” to elevate the ordinary into higher form. And he was a classic wanderer. “He feels recklessly so we can listen recklessly, and in that rambling recklessness, too, lies method.”
But Lutz himself isn’t so much of a rambler that he doesn’t state a purpose early on: “This is catalogue as rigor, catalogue as indictment, catalogue as concatenation, catalogue as argument.” And this holds enjoyably true throughout this book of essays. A breeze to read, the book is a treat for anyone who has ever taken a mindless or mindful walk. The limiting walls of the pandemic have been a boon for those ambling in the limited or unlimited expanse of their milieu. Cyclists, habitual walkers, joggers, runners, and people who walk for work — they have all drunk from this cup in better times.
A shame, then, that this necessary respiration of the soul is poorly understood by more directed personalities. “Idleness, aimlessness’s cousin, is almost always employed for comedy, especially when idleness is represented as the opposite of work,” says Lutz, citing a list of movies with the scourge of laziness at their heart: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Clerks, The Big Lebowski, and Office Space. But a lack of linear discipline is also a cinematic method, notably in Errol Morris’s documentary about odd professions, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. “As it cycles through the four obsessed protagonists — Morris, like Werner Herzog, loves obsessives — connections start to emerge.” These parallels with ambling become profound with the turn of the page.
By meandering down the roads of numerous art forms, Lutz displays a kind of openness often felt by a walker. He feels his way through concepts that don’t initially dazzle him. Sometimes, he actively resists. Writing about the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, Lutz says, “I dabbled, I was wowed, I was influenced, but I never could give myself over to the mystique. Was there some anxiety of influence involved?” His capacity to constantly question, doubt, and challenge his private notions is a city walker’s dictum. Why wander through new neighborhoods if you aren’t willing to see what’s there?
Lutz is sensitive to the many ways in which aimlessness colors life, and this is palpable throughout the book. In one section, as he writes about aimlessness and its acute similarity to resistance, it feels like he is writing into and about the present moment — the United States of 2021 and the world on the precipice of cataclysmic change. He writes:
To ‘aim’ is to be a tool of this deep and wide State, while to be aimless is to be resistant. We all want to be resistant, don’t we? We don’t want to be tools of the State, we want to be voices for freedom and the kind of justice that is theorized, not the acutely imperfect kind meted out by the State. How could any of us resist such flattery?
Questioning his way further, the author confesses: “I loved, back in my theory days, that cloud of unknowing.” I know what he’s talking about; I’ve felt it on Delhi’s streets. Devoid of any walking companions, I floated alone, adrift on the roads as police vehicles patrolled the lanes of my neighborhood into the late, thick hours of a January night. I experienced a magical inversion of the idea of the city and forgot about whatever was on the news. While walking, I felt pulled into my immediate surroundings, seeing the colorful, if extremely disarranged, lanes as a way out of the cacophony of politics. I was away from home and any kind of an arrangement that could control how I spent my hours. As a habitually quiet and observant person, I found walking to be an unassuming companion.
In a section about definitions and disclaimers, Lutz writes:
Aimlessness, unlike listlessness, does not imply stasis or homeostasis. Aimlessness encourages ‘many small spontaneous sorties into the unknown,’ which is why we might call a couch potato hopeless, or useless or gormless, but rarely aimless. The word is never used as an insult.
This made me consider our casual use of the word. We use it to point at a waif, an artist, a wayfarer, but seldom do we use it to identify someone who is a hard-and-fast achiever. When speaking about aimlessness as a concept, there is always a cadence of discovery, a layer of romance, a patina of proverbial nostalgia.
Aimlessness in a strictly Indian perspective is viewed with suspicion. As a society, we do not easily tolerate ambling in any sense. In August 2018, on a sultry Nagpur afternoon, I was walking alone enjoying the sound of my feet on the mossy road when a man riding on a bike raced toward me from the opposite direction, swung his arm out, and tried to grope me. I fled, distractedly running toward the nonexistent pavement. That moment further underlined what I already knew — that I, as a woman, was not welcome to amble aimlessly; instead, I was inviting punishment for wanting to do so.
Reading Lutz’s book on a chilly night in Delhi, steeped in the scent of languor and warm rum, I saw this collection of essays crystalize itself before me as an estuary. It became a point of confluence for the myriad forms to which aimlessness lends itself, a meta-analysis of reading into a broad range of subjects.
I suspect that Lutz’s formal designation as the founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books seems to have something to do with it. Throughout the book, his voice is not that of someone who is sure. He is constantly asking, looking, meandering, and it feels like aspects of his job as an editor feed into the writing: he loves to be in dialogue, and that comes through ever so presciently when he writes about fiction as the secret weapon of the essayist, conceding that it is a part of his work as well.
He was prepared for this project, having been an “autodidact carpenter” and then a college kid and writing both nonfiction and fiction, peripatetically wandering through various roads to reach the final destination of aimlessness. Even so, he had help. The book opens with a dedication to “my enablers,” and it instantly made me wish for more such companions, more Shamses for each Rumi among us, forceful facilitators behind dreamers.