The Dissident Act of Taking a
Walk at Night
Matthew Beaumont on Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian"
“The Pedestrian” (1951) is a science-fiction short story by Ray Bradbury, only three or four pages long, about a man who, after nightfall, roams aimlessly and compulsively about the silent streets of a nameless metropolis.
It is set in a totalitarian society at the midpoint of the 21st century, roughly a hundred years after it was written. In Bradbury’s dystopian parable—it is a satirical portrait of Los Angeles that, because of its bleak attack on urban alienation, continues to resonate—the supremacy of the automobile has made it impossible in practice to be a pedestrian. Indeed, the police state has in effect proscribed pedestrianism. So, in this far from distant future, no one travels by foot. Except, of course, the Pedestrian.
“To enter out into that silence that was the city at eight o’clock of a misty evening in November,” the story begins, “to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to step over grassy seams and make your way, hands in pockets, through the silences, that was what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do.”
Mead, whose name gently reinforces the pastoral associations of those “grassy seams” that furrow the pavement, generally begins his nightwalks at an intersection, because from there he can “peer down long moonlit avenues of sidewalk in four directions, deciding which way to go.” But the point is that, “alone in this world of A.D. 2053, or as good as alone,” it doesn’t matter which direction he takes. So he relishes selecting a route at random, thinking of it as a “path” rather than an avenue or road.
He is half-consciously creating what Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, in their celebration of the edgelands that characterize the uncertain border between cities and the surrounding countryside, have classified as “desire paths.” These are “lines of footfall worn into the ground” that transform the ordered, centralized spaces of the city into secret pockets; and that, in so doing, offer a “subtle resistance to the dead hand of the planner.”
Once he has decided on a direction, Mead strides off along his desire path, then, at once purposeful and purposeless. “Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house.” Mead has never encountered another living creature on these nighttime walks. Nor has he so much as glimpsed another pedestrian in the daytime, because people travel exclusively by car. “In ten years of walking by night or day, for thousands of miles, he had never met another person walking, not once in all that time” (569).
The proximate reason for the eerie solitude of the city at night is that everyone else has carefully secluded themselves in their living rooms in order to stare blankly and obediently at television screens. The silence of the city is an effect of what Theodor Adorno once called “the unpeaceful spiritual silence of integral administration.” If there is no political curfew in place in Bradbury’s dystopian society, this is because a kind of cultural or moral curfew renders it superfluous.
Crossing and re-crossing the city at night on foot, aimlessly reclaiming the freedom of its streets from automobiles, Bradbury’s Pedestrian is identifiable as the scion of a distinct tradition of urban rebellion or resistance, the dissident tradition of the nightwalker.
The distant origins of the so-called “common night-walker” lie in late 13th-century England, when Edward I introduced the Statute of Winchester as a means of enforcing the curfew that prevailed at that time throughout the nation’s towns and cities. This “nightwalker statute,” as it was known, then became central to the colonial law instituted in North America in the late 17th century.
In 1660, colonial law stipulated that the state’s night watchmen should “examine all Night Walkers, after ten of the clock at Night (unless they be known peaceable inhabitants) to enquire whither they are going, and what their business is.” If the individual accosted could not “give Reasonable Satisfaction to the Watchman or constable” making this enquiry, they were liable to be arrested and taken before the magistrate, who would ask them “to give satisfaction, for being abroad at that time of night.” In urban settlements throughout North America there was in the early modern period no right to the night, particularly for plebeians. Almost by definition, the poor could not “give satisfaction for being abroad” after dark. In the streets at night the itinerant were an inherent threat to society. Today, as in the 1950s, residues of this situation persist. Indeed, in some places in the United States, the term “common nightwalker” remains on the statute books, where it indicates a vagrant as well as a streetwalker or sex worker.
“An idle or dissolute person who roams about at late or unusual hours and is unable to account for his presence” is the definition of a nightwalker offered by two legal commentators who summarized a number of relevant statutes in the 1960s. The ordinance against vagrants in Jacksonville, Florida, for instance, includes a reference to nightwalkers. The state, in its infinite leniency, doesn’t construe a single night’s wandering as necessarily criminal. “Only ‘habitual’ wanderers, or ‘common night walkers,'” the authors of a legal textbook explain, “are criminalized.” “We know, however, from experience,” they rather drily add, “that sleepless people often walk at night.” The sleepless, the homeless and the hopeless, then, are all susceptible to this archaic charge.
It is against this legal background—and in view of the persistent suspicion about solitary people who inhabit the streets at night that, historically, it has sponsored—that Bradbury’s portrait of a nocturnal pedestrian trapped in a dystopian cityscape demands to be interpreted. Despite the passage of more than 300 years since the origins of colonial law in North America, nightwalking remains a socially transgressive activity.
For Bradbury, writing in the 1950s, it potentially also has political implications. “The Pedestrian” is an affirmation of the heterodox politics of the night, which “has always been the time for daylight’s dispossessed,” as Bryan Palmer writes, “—the deviant, the dissident, the different.” The Pedestrian’s footsteps, echoing on empty, darkened pavements, interrupt the ominous silence of the totalitarian city, which insists that its inhabitants remain visible but inaudible at all times.
“The Pedestrian” was written at a time when domestic life in North America was being dramatically altered, not only by the rise of the automobile but also the rise of television. The number of TV sets in the US leapt from 7,000 in 1946 to 50 million in 1950. Bradbury was evidently deeply troubled by these developments; and his dystopian dream of an oppressive society that uses television to ensure a docile, depoliticized population is comparable to Adorno’s contemporaneous critique of the “culture industry.”
“The total effect of the culture industry is one of anti-enlightenment,” so the German philosopher argued, “in which enlightenment, that is the progressive technical domination of nature, becomes mass deception and is turned into a means for fettering consciousness.” Adorno, who had lived in Los Angeles throughout the 1940s, contended in “How to Look at Television”(1954) that this particular technology had already become a crucial medium of psychological control. “The repetitiveness, the selfsameness, and the ubiquity of modern mass culture,” he insisted, “tend to make for automatized reactions and to weaken the forces of individual resistance.”
More recently, in his powerful critique of “the 24/7 control society,” Jonathan Crary includes a diatribe—manifestly influenced by the Frankfurt School—against the sedative and immobilizing effects of the “mass diffusion of television in the 1950s.” Applied like a medicinal balm to a population made febrile by the traumatic experience of World War II, he claims, television “was the omnipresent antidote to shock.” It insinuated masses of people into “extended states of relative immobilization”: “Hundreds of millions of individuals precipitously began spending many hours of every day and night sitting, more or less stationary, in close proximity to flickering, light-emitting objects.”
Crary’s retrospect of the psychic and social impact of the new technology in this epoch itself reads like science fiction. But his insights are penetrating. “In spite of more uprooted and transient lifestyles following the war,” he notes, “television’s effects were anti-nomadic: individuals are fixed in place, partitioned from one another, and emptied of political effectiveness.” This is the immediate context for “The Pedestrian.” Strolling in the streets at night becomes a means of reclaiming, for a moment, a sense of autonomy in an administered world.
In Bradbury’s story, the city is a cemetery, its houses like tombstones that, as Mead ambles past them, are sometimes troubled by “sudden gray phantoms”—the cold, cathode images flickering in rooms that as yet have not been curtained off from the street. Despite the stupefied state of these citizens, Mead is careful not to make a noise outside their homes. Indeed, “long ago he had wisely changed to sneakers when strolling at night, because the dogs in intermittent squads would parallel his journey with barkings if he wore hard heels, and lights might click on and faces appear and an entire street be startled by the passing of a lone figure, himself, in the early November evening.” He has to be surreptitious, as those sneakers indicate. He is conscious that nightwalking is unacceptable because—semi-criminalized as it is in this society—it constitutes an act of what might be called “excarceration.”
If the television shows to which other citizens have become addicted are escapist, the Pedestrian’s nightwalking instead represents, simply, a form of escape. It is a flight; a fugue, at once psychogenic and sociogenic. But its affirmation of the nomadic is also, implicitly, a critique of the static, desiccated and depoliticized culture of the United States in the 1950s. It is a refusal of reification.
On the particular evening narrated by Bradbury in “The Pedestrian,” Mead heads in the direction of “the hidden sea” (569). It is a crisply cold autumnal night; and, as he passes their houses, he whispers his contempt for the people watching comedies and cowboy movies behind closed doors: “Time for a dozen assorted murders? A quiz? A revue? A comedian falling off the stage?”
Occasionally, Mead catches at a leaf, “examining its skeletal pattern in the infrequent lamplights” and “smelling its rusty smell.” He is acutely sensitive to the faint residues of a non-mechanized existence that can still be found amid the city’s alienated conditions. This is evidently one of the reasons the Pedestrian repairs to the streets at night. It reminds him he is alive. Nightwalking de-alienates Mead’s perception of the quotidian world, which in contradistinction to that of the other citizens has not been relentlessly deadened, either by the automated routines of the daytime or the anaesthetic effects of television.By night the city is immediate. It is no longer seen from afar—mediated by television, which literally means sight at a distance—but from close to.
In one sense, then, “The Pedestrian” is a celebration of—the pedestrian. It affirms the ordinary, insignificant details of existence that, like the leaf, have been discarded by this increasingly attenuated, if not skeletalized society, and left to rust. “The future,” André Breton once wrote in a mysterious but suggestive sentence, “is a beautiful striated leaf that takes on colorings and shows remarkable holes.”
In his minatory reflections on television, Adorno warned that “people may not only lose true insight into reality, but ultimately their very capacity for life experience may be dulled by the constant wearing of blue and pink spectacles.” Reality, according to Adorno, was in danger of becoming a kind of 3D illusion in California in the 1950s. In the solitude of the city at night, Mead’s experience of the physical life about him, no matter how debased and deformed, can momentarily be made to seem disalienated. His nightwalk transforms the metropolis into a sort of biosphere.
By night the city is immediate. It is no longer seen from afar—mediated by television, which literally means sight at a distance—but from close to. For the Pedestrian, nightwalking effectively participates in what the Russian Formalists called the poetic function. In a famous article from 1917, Viktor Shklovsky wrote that it is the point of art “to return sensation to our limbs”—”to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony.” Encountering the remnants of physical life alone at night, Mead experiences them as if for the first time. He grasps the leaf, suddenly alive to its skeletal pattern and its rustiness. The leaf feels leafy.
In the night, the metropolis itself appears magically estranged to the Pedestrian. It comes to seem so alien that it no longer feels alienated. Its dystopian landscape paradoxically adumbrates the faint promise of an apocalyptic future. At one point, he stops in a street that is “silent and long and empty” and fantasizes that the city too has been silenced and emptied. Indeed, that it is no longer a city at all: “If he closed his eyes and stood very still, frozen, he could imagine himself upon the center of a plain, a wintry, windless American desert with no house in a thousand miles, and only dry riverbeds, the streets, for company.”
This prophetic vision—not simply of a deserted city, but of a city that, perhaps after the collapse of civilization itself, has been reduced to no more than the desert that, at its foundation, it originally reclaimed—can be found as far back as the Hebrew Bible: “Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation” (Isaiah 64:10).
It is a cataclysmic dream that shapes a number of important precursors to the dystopian fiction of the 20th century, from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722), via Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), to Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885). It appears, for example, to unsettling effect in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1760–61), a collection of letters about contemporary England purportedly sent by “a Chinese philosopher” corresponding with “his friends in the East.” In one of these letters, the celebrated author of The Deserted Village (1770)—a poem about the brutal dispossession, in the late 18th-century English countryside, of the laboring class—describes walking about in the emptied streets of London at 2 a.m.
Here is The Deserted City. “There will come a time,” Goldsmith comments, when the “temporary solitude” of the metropolis at night “may be made continual, and the city itself, like its inhabitants, fade away, and leave a desert in its room.” For Mead, as for Goldsmith’s Chinese philosopher, the depopulated metropolis at night (the deserted city) anticipates a post-apocalyptic future in which civilization itself, hopelessly corrupt, has been almost completely effaced (the desert city).
From The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City by Matthew Beaumont. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Matthew Beaumont.
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