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Thomas Bernhard on Walking, Thinking, and the Paradox of Self-Reflection

“There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking… Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust.”

Thomas Bernhard on Walking, Thinking, and the Paradox of Self-Reflection

“I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession,” the adolescent Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary as she contemplated free will and what makes us who we are. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” proclaimed Leo Tolstoy in the diaries of his own youth a century earlier. These are abiding questions we all ask ourselves and answer with our selves, but also impossible ones. To hold up a mirror to oneself is to become both the looking-glass and the eye doing the looking — a sort of infinite Borgesian mirror of self-reflection reflecting itself. (Borges himself, in his own youth, danced with the paradox of self-awareness.)

No one has paced this labyrinthine paradox more elegantly, nor reached its center with richer insight, than the Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet Thomas Bernhard (February 9, 1931–February 12, 1989) in his novella Walking (public library) — his unusual 1971 masterpiece exploring the nature of thinking and the impossibility of accurate self-reflection.

Painting of Thomas Bernhard, with photographer’s reflection. Thomas Bernhard House. Photograph by Mayer Bruno.

Half a century after The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame asserted that to walk is “to set the mind jogging” and a generation before Rebecca Solnit defined walking as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” Bernhard writes:

If we observe very carefully someone who is walking, we also know how he thinks. If we observe very carefully someone who is thinking, we know how he walks. If we observe most minutely someone walking over a fairly long period of time, we gradually come to know his way of thinking, the structure of his thought, just as we, if we observe someone over a fairly long period of time as to the way he thinks, we will gradually come to know how he walks… There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking… Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

In a brilliant conceptual twist, which turns the mirror of self-reflection into a Möbius strip, Bernhard adds:

However, we may not ask ourselves how we walk, for then we walk differently from the way we really walk and our walking simply cannot be judged, just as we may not ask ourselves how we think, for then we cannot judge how we think because it is no longer our thinking. Whereas, of course, we can observe someone else without his knowledge (or his being aware of it) and observe how he walks or thinks, that is, his walking and his thinking, we can never observe ourselves without our knowledge (or our being aware of it). If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, or when we talk about the fact that we observe ourselves we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else. The concept of self-observation and so, also, of self-description is thus false.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

Bernhard extends this logic to the vastest questions about how the native limitations of our consciousness shape our perception and interpretation of reality:

Looked at in this light, all concepts (ideas)… like self-observation, self-pity, self-accusation and so on, are false. We ourselves do not see ourselves, it is never possible for us to see ourselves. But we also cannot explain to someone else (a different object) what he is like, because we can only tell him how we see him, which probably coincides with what he is but which we cannot explain in such a way as to say this is how he is. Thus everything is something quite different from what it is for us… And always something quite different from what it is for everything else.

Walking, translated into English by Kenneth J. Northcott, is a stunning read in its unparagraphed totality, fusing philosophy’s depth of thought with poetry’s contemplative spaciousness. Complement this fragment with Hannah Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, Lauren Elkin’s manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, and Solnit’s indispensable Wanderlust, then revisit former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith on the persistence of the self and the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas on how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most original, science-governed, yet deeply poetic perspective on the subject I’ve ever encountered.

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Why We Walk: A Manifesto for Peripatetic Empowerment

“I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.”

Why We Walk: A Manifesto for Peripatetic Empowerment

“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau exulted as he championed the spirit of sauntering in an era when the activity was largely a male privilege — for a woman, these everyday crusades meant the dragging of long skirts across inhospitable terrains, before unwelcome gazes. It would take a century and a half of bold women conquering the mountains and reimagining the streets before Rebecca Solnit could compose her exquisite manifesto for wanderlust, reclaiming walking as an activity that vitalizes the mind — the mind that, in the landmark assertion of the seventeenth-century French philosopher François Poullain de la Barre, “has no sex.”

Lauren Elkin brings some of these women and their emancipatory, culture-shifting legacy to life in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (public library) — a celebration of the peripatetic foot as an instrument of the mind, an insurgency, a liberation, drawing on the novels and diaries of titanic writers like Virginia Woolf and George Sand, who wove walking into their lives and works as a central theme of empowerment and active curiosity, and on her own diaries and memories as an expatriate in Paris and Tokyo, a traveler in Venice and London, a student in New York.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

The title itself is a rebellion against and a recouping of the French word flâneur, masculine for “one who wanders aimlessly,” popularized in the first half of the twentieth century. Elkin writes:

A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.

Every right begins as a privilege and Elkin sets out to reclaim this once-male privilege as a basic human right of the modern urban dweller — one that requires the resexing of flâneur into flâneuse:

Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.

That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don’t even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for ‘flâneur, -euse’. Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.

Is that some kind of joke? The only kind of curious idling a woman does is lying down? This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today: search for ‘flâneuse’ on Google Images and the word brings up a drawing of George Sand, a picture of a young woman sitting on a Parisian bench and a few images of outdoor furniture.

Art by Maira Kalman from My Favorite Things.

Walking for Elkin, as for her marching army of women, is a wholly different matter. She offers her own tessellated definition of its raison d’être:

Why do I walk? I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement. I like being able to stop when I like, to lean against a building and make a note in my journal, or read an email, or send a text message, and for the world to stop while I do it. Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness.

Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. There’s a small pleasure in seeing how well I’ve come to know the city through my wanderings on foot, crossing through different neighbourhoods of the city, some I used to know quite well, others I may not have seen in a while, like getting reacquainted with someone I once met at a party.

Sometimes I walk because I have things on my mind, and walking helps me sort them out. Solvitur ambulando, as they say.

More than half a century before the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd asserted that “place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Elkin adds:

I walk because it confers — or restores — a feeling of placeness. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says a space becomes a place when through movement we invest it with meaning, when we see it as something to be perceived, apprehended, experienced.

I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.

Art by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

And yet this inevitable commingling with humanity, for all of its rewards, also exposes one of the most disquieting questions of modern life — what does it mean to be in motion, in public? Elkin writes:

[This is] the key problem at the heart of the urban experience: are we individuals or are we part of the crowd? Do we want to stand out or blend in? Is that even possible? How do we — no matter what our gender — want to be seen in public? Do we want to attract or escape the gaze? Be independent and invisible? Remarkable or unremarked-upon?

With an eye to her childhood and young adulthood in suburban America, Elkin reflects on how she awakened to the relationship between walking and agency, to the sense that self-propelled motion is a vital form of participation in the world on one’s own terms:

I became suspicious of an entirely vehicle-based culture; a culture that does not walk is bad for women. It makes a kind of authoritarian sense; a woman who doesn’t wonder — what it all adds up to, what her needs are, if they’re being met — won’t wander off from the family. The layout of the suburbs reinforces her boundaries: the neat grid, the nearby shopping centre, the endless loops of parkways, where the American adventure of the open road is tamed by the American dream.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland.

But alongside this self-empowerment, this triumph of individualistic agency, walking confers upon the walker a perpendicular gift — a connection, embodied in the sinews rather than reasoned by the mind, to the constellation of other selves speckling the world. Elkin reflects on a semester abroad in Paris — the city in which she first fell in love with “the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other” — during her time as a Barnard College student:

In those six months, the streets were transformed from places in between home and wherever I was going into a great passion. I drifted wherever they looked interesting, lured by the sight of a decaying wall, or colourful window boxes, or something intriguing down at the other end, which might be as pedestrian as a perpendicular street. Anything, any detail that suddenly loosened itself, would draw me towards it. Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn’t have to be anywhere I didn’t want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting.

I remember when I’d take the métro two stops because I didn’t realise how close together everything was, how walkable Paris was. I had to walk around to understand where I was in space, how places related to each other. Some days I’d cover five miles or more, returning home with sore feet and a story or two for my room-mates. I saw things I’d never seen in New York. Beggars (Roma, I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs; homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.

Complement Flâneuse, a captivating read in its entirety, with Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame on walking as creative fuel and Robert Walser on the art of walking, then revisit the crowning curio of the peripatetic canon — Solnit’s Wanderlust — and the story of how the bicycle emancipated women.

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Trailblazing Scottish Mountaineer and Poet Nan Shepherd on the Transcendent Rewards of Walking and What Makes for an Ideal Walking Companion

“The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.”

Trailblazing Scottish Mountaineer and Poet Nan Shepherd on the Transcendent Rewards of Walking and What Makes for an Ideal Walking Companion

To place one foot in front of the other in a steady rhythm is to allow self and world to cohere, to set the mind itself into motion. We walk for different reasons and to different ends — for Thoreau, every walk was “a sort of crusade”; for artist Maira Kalman, it is “the glory of life.” “Nature’s particular gift to the walker,” Kenneth Grahame wrote in his splendid 1913 manifesto for walking as creative fuel, “is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive.”

That suprasensitivity is what the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) explores with uncommonly lyrical insight throughout The Living Mountain (public library) — her exquisite forgotten inquiry into the interconnectedness of nature and our relationship to it.

Nan Shepherd

Reverencing the increasingly endangered silence of nature, Shepherd considers what makes for an ideal walking companion:

The presence of another person does not detract from, but enhances, the silence, if the other is the right sort of hill companion. The perfect hill companion is the one whose identity is for the time being merged in that of the mountains, as you feel your own to be. Then such speech as arises is part of a common life and cannot be alien. To “make conversation,” however, is ruinous, to speak may be superfluous. I have it from a gaunt elderly man, a “lang tangle o’ a chiel,” with high cheek bones and hollow cheeks, product of a hill farm though himself a civil servant, that when he goes on the hill with chatterers, he “could see them to an ill place.” I have walked myself with brilliant young people whose talk, entertaining, witty and incessant, yet left me weary and dispirited, because the hill did not speak. This does not imply that the only good talk on a hill is about the hill. All sorts of themes may be lit up from within by contact with it, as they are by contact with another mind, and so discussion may be salted. Yet to listen is better than to speak.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s conviction that “never to get lost is not to live” and echoes Kenneth Grahame’s assertion that “the best sort of walk is the one on which it doesn’t matter twopence whether you get anywhere at all,” Shepherd adds:

The talking tribe, I find, want sensation from the mountain — not in Keats’s sense. Beginners, not unnaturally, do the same — I did myself. They want the startling view, the horrid pinnacle — sips of beer and tea instead of milk. Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, a picture-book about Thoreau’s philosophy

With an eye to those transcendent moments in hiking when “the body may be said to think [and] each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness,” Shepherd writes:

These moments come… most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the “still centre” of being… Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.

Complement this particular fragment of Shepherd’s wholly magnificent The Living Mountain with Robert Walser on the art of walking, Thoreau on the spirit of sauntering, and Rebecca Solnit on how walking vitalizes the mind.

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Walking as Creative Fuel: A Splendid 1913 Celebration of How Solitary Walks Enliven “The Country of the Mind”

“Nature’s particular gift to the walker… is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive.”

Walking as Creative Fuel: A Splendid 1913 Celebration of How Solitary Walks Enliven “The Country of the Mind”

“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau wrote in his manifesto for the spirit of sauntering. And who hasn’t walked — in the silence of a winter forest, amid the orchestra of birds and insects in a summer field, across the urban jungle of a bustling city — to conquer some territory of their interior world? Artist Maira Kalman sees walking as indispensable inspiration: “I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.” For Rebecca Solnit, walking “wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.”

Perched midway in time between Thoreau and Solnit is a timeless celebration of the psychological, creative, and spiritual rewards of walking by the Scottish writer Kenneth Grahame (March 8, 1859–July 6, 1932), best known for the 1908 children’s novel The Wind in the Willows — a book beloved by pioneering conservationist and marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose own splendid prose about nature shares a kindred sensibility with Grahame’s.

Kenneth Grahame

Five years after publishing The Wind in the Willows, Grahame penned a beautiful short essay for a commemorative issue of his old boarding school magazine. Titled “The Fellow that Goes Alone” and only ever published in Peter Green’s 1959 biography Kenneth Grahame (public library), it serenades “the country of the mind” we visit whenever we take long solitary walks in nature.

With an eye to “all those who of set purpose choose to walk alone, who know the special grace attaching to it,” Grahame writes:

Nature’s particular gift to the walker, through the semi-mechanical act of walking — a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree — is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you whilst you are talking back to it. Then everything gradually seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season, whichever that may be, the friendly old earth that is pushing life firth of every sort under your feet or spell-bound in a death-like winter trance, till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human conversation. Time enough, later, for that…; here and now, the mind has shaken off its harness, is snorting and kicking up heels like a colt in a meadow.

In a sentiment which, today, radiates a gentle admonition against the self-defeating impulse to evacuate the moment in order to capture it — in a status update, in an Instagram photo — Grahame observes:

Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

Nearly a century before Wendell Berry’s poetic insistence that in true solitude “one’s inner voices become audible” and modern psychology’s finding that a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the seat of the imagination, Grahame writes:

This emancipation is only attained in solitude, the solitude which the unseen companions demand before they will come out and talk to you; for, be he who may, if there is another fellow present, your mind has to trot between shafts.

A certain amount of “shafts,” indeed, is helpful, as setting the mind more free; and so the high road, while it should always give way to the field path when choice offers, still has this particular virtue, that it takes charge of you — your body, that is to say. Its hedges hold you in friendly steering-reins, its milestones and finger-posts are always on hand, with information succinct and free from frills; and it always gets somewhere, sooner or later. So you are nursed along your way, and the mind may soar in cloudland and never need to be pulled earthwards by any string. But this is as much company as you ought to require, the comradeship of the road you walk on, the road which will look after you and attend to such facts as must not be overlooked. Of course the best sort of walk is the one on which it doesn’t matter twopence whether you get anywhere at all at any time or not; and the second best is the one on which the hard facts of routes, times, or trains give you nothing to worry about.

In consonance with artist Agnes Martin’s quiet conviction that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” Grahame writes:

As for adventures, if they are the game you hunt, everyone’s experience will remind him that the best adventures of his life were pursued and achieved, or came suddenly to him unsought, when he was alone. For company too often means compromise, discretion, the choice of the sweetly reasonable. It is difficult to be mad in company; yet but a touch of lunacy in action will open magic doors to rare and unforgettable experiences.

But all these are only the by-products, the casual gains, of walking alone. The high converse, the high adventures, will be in the country of the mind.

Complement with poet May Sarton’s sublime ode to solitude, Robert Walser on the art of walking, and Thoreau on the singular glory of winter walks, then revisit Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable cultural history of that art.

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