The Kant Walks by Joachim Koester

"The life story of Immanuel Kant is hard to describe, for he had neither a life nor a story,” writes the poet Heinrich Heine. In some respects this observation bears out. Throughout his life Kant stayed in Königsberg, the city where he was born. Never straying more than a few miles from town, he devoted himself to the pursuit of philosophical truths in complex and extensive writings, a task so monumental that he had to organize his days rigorously to secure the necessary time. In contrast, Kant was largely silent about himself. He kept no journal; the details about his life are sparse and must be gleaned from what he accidentally let slip through. Most stories of Kant come only from people who knew him or observed him directly. Of the few daily activities Kant engaged in, his walks have been imbued with the most significance.

Kant found an unlikely biographer in Thomas De Quincey, “the grandfather of drug literature” and explorer of opiate hallucinations and saturated dreams. Not surprisingly, De Quincey dwells on the afflictions of the late Kant, who, towards the end of his life, was haunted by nightmares “so profound as to stretch far into his waking hours.” The increasingly mentally frail Kant developed idiosyncratic distractions. According to De Quincey, by this time, the elderly Kant “accounted for everything by electricity,” and theorized about a connection between a particular configuration of clouds and the “singular mortality among the cats of Vienna, Basel and Copenhagen.” Also suffering from insomnia, Kant was prone to “unseasonable dozings” which exposed him to danger, as he “fell repeatedly, whilst reading, with his head into the candles; a cotton nightcap which he wore was instantly in a blaze, and flaming about his head.” Thomas De Quincey's biography could be dismissed as inappropriate, a prying into the decay of an outstanding intellectual - if it wasn't for its prophetic vision. A city is a “state of mind” and Kant's plunge into darkness was later followed by the downfall of the city for which he was emblematic: Königsberg.

The history of the former German town of Königsberg began with bloodshed in 1255, when, in a matter of a few years, Teutonic knights completely annihilated the Prussian tribes that inhabited the area, built the Königsberg castle and established the city. More recently, in 1945, the Germans were in turn annihilated by RAF bombings and Soviet troops, who conquered Königsberg and renamed it Kaliningrad. But one could date the real fall of Königsberg several years prior. Königsberg's existence as a cosmopolitan, racially diverse city was abruptly halted on November 9, 1938, when Nazis unleashed a particularly brutal “Kristallnacht”. The citizens of the town that once housed Germany's biggest bookstore engaged in book burnings, beatings and killings, and the destruction of the city's main synagogue. Like Kant's dozing head, knowledge was engulfed in flames.

The historic accounts for Kant's daily walk are plentiful yet contradictory. Whether Kant had one, two or even more preferred routes is not clear. Furthermore one has to place two maps on top of each other, that of Königsberg and that of Kaliningrad, to find the locations today. Maybe this is why Kant's walk is often invoked but rarely specified. A walk is like a manual, a way to engage a space, a recipe to follow but also to improvise with, allowing for drifting, losing oneself. De Quincey writes that Kant preferred to walk alone for a very particular reason: “he wished to breathe exclusively through his nostrils; which he could not do if he were obliged continually to open his mouth in conversation,” and by doing this he was better able to pursue his meditations - De Quincey, like Kant, most certainly knew about the “subtle realms” revealed to the attentive wanderer.

My pursuit of Kant's walk led me to a battered high-rise on Leninsky Prospect. A late November afternoon I climbed the stairway to a flat on the 8th floor and Professor Kalinnikov, who had kindly agreed to meet me at short notice. Kalinnikov led me through the apartment to his study, a small room crowded with books and piles of handwritten manuscripts, all of them on Kant. Here, Kalinnikov added to my map of Kaliningrad two small crosses, one for each of Kant's two houses, and from there two circles. These were the Kant Walks. Kalinnikov explained that Kant liked circles. From the professor's window I could see all the way down to Kaliningrad's vacant center - flattened by British bombs and never rebuilt - and further away, an enormous construction, which curiously, in the fading light, resembled a stylized skull. The edifice was a cultural center, built on the ruins of Königsberg Castle in the early 1970s, but never used. The building's grounds had proved treacherous; the tunnels and subterranean chambers of the former castle made the new structure sink immediately after its completion. As a result, the center was left to deteriorate, slowly, as an anarchitectural monument to suspended indeterminacy.

My next days in Kaliningrad were spent on foot, following Kalinnikov's walks, or Kant's - I was never sure. Drifting through the “subtle realms,” the psychogeography of a city that officially, for more than forty years, had no past - in Soviet text and guidebooks Kant was born in Kaliningrad. Paradoxically, I found that the concealment of the city's history, made it appear even more distinct, exactly because the past was not compartmentalized as such, but seemed to turn up as 'blind spots'. Detours, dead ends, overgrown streets, a small castle lost in an industrial quarter, evoked history as a chaos, a dormant presence far more potential than tidy linear narratives used to explain past events. Nowhere in Europe are the traces of World War Two more visible than in Kaliningrad; hauntings from a war that shaped lives and destinies for generations to come. Including my own - like many, affected by the “third generation syndrome,” I have always felt as if I was pulled towards an empty space: “that which has not been said.”

Kaliningrad was named after Mikhail Kalinin, a close associate of Stalin and known as a “man of little vision but great staying power.” Hardly qualities to commend. Kantgrad has been suggested as a new name, a proposal that points to Kant's walks, with all their uncertainties, as an approach to history - walks for remembering and losing oneself, manuals to engage past and present spaces, a sort of recipe, something to follow, stray or produce from.


Joachim Koester, 2005