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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.


Walking the City with Jane: An Illustrated Celebration of Jane Jacobs and Her Legacy of Livable Cities

How a woman of great courage and great humanity changed the way we build cities, taught communities to stand up for themselves, and inspired generations to look up.

Walking the City with Jane: An Illustrated Celebration of Jane Jacobs and Her Legacy of Livable Cities

“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Henry David Thoreau proclaimed in his manifesto for the spiritual rewards of sauntering. But it was a crusade easy to carry out in the woods of Walden, in an era before cars and highways and metropolises. A century later, it took manyfold more courage to defend walking and its broader democratic, humanistic, and spiritual implications against the forces of urbanization, capitalism, and merciless development. The task fell on another humanist of a high order — Jane Jacobs (May 4, 1916–April 25, 2006).

Jacobs saw urban communities as vibrant ecosystems and fought fiercely against power-hungry developers like Robert Moses, who tried to turn them into commodities for economic growth. Governed by her conviction that “people ought to pay more attention to their instincts” — a countercultural idea in a mechanical age, amid the mid-century boom of blind consumerism and industrialism — she revolutionized our ideas about what makes a livable, human-centric city. Her legacy inspired the wonderful Jane’s Walk — an annual festival of free, citizen-led peripatetic conversations in cities around the world, in which people get to hear and share the stories of their neighborhoods and communities.

Joining the loveliest picture-book biographies of cultural heroes is Walking in the City with Jane: A Story of Jane Jacobs (public library) by the prolific Canadian children’s book author Susan Hughes and French-Canadian illustrator Valérie Boivin.

The story begins with young Jane organizing her first citizen protest — when the teacher introduces the class to a toothbrush and demands that the kids promise to use it daily for the rest of their lives, Jane sees the demand as tyrannical and refuses to make the promise, rallying her classmates to do the same. Irate, the teacher sends her home.

Uncompelled by school, Jane finds herself learning best in the real world, exploring the curiosities all around her.

After high school, she moves to New York City and falls in love with its blooming, buzzing chaos of humanity.

She takes the subway to random stops, explores the neighborhoods around them, and marvels at the details of the city, finding patterns and connections between things like the letters on manhole covers and the complex grid of electricity, gas, and water undergirding the city.

Out of this arises the awareness that a city, like a niche in nature, is an ecosystem. The synergy of its various human and nonhuman components — neighborhoods, parks, stores, streets, sidewalks — is what makes it thrive.

It was a radical notion at a time when urban planners were labeling certain neighborhoods “slums” and mercilessly tearing down homes to replace them with grey, soulless high-rise office buildings.

After Jane marries the architect Bob Jacobs, she continues working as a journalist and championing humane cities in articles criticizing the dehumanizing forces of commerce-minded urban planning, all the while raising her three children.

One day, she receives the shocking news that Robert Moses has labeled her very own neighborhood a “slum” and is pushing a plan to bulldoze parts of it to expedite downtown traffic. A four-lane highway would slice through the local park.

After Jacobs leads a protest at the meeting where Moses is presenting his plan, he reports to city officials that nobody objects to the development — “NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of… a bunch of MOTHERS!” (One is reminded of Roosevelt’s timeless admonition that of all ruthless politicians, citizens should most mistrust “the man who appeals to them to support him on the ground that he is hostile to other citizens of the republic, that he will secure for those who elect him… profit at the expense of other citizens of the republic.”)

But Jacobs refuses to back down and persuades the city government to temporarily close the park to traffic. She comes up with the inspired idea of a “ribbon-tying ceremony” — a counterpoint to the ribbon-cutting ceremonies that mark openings, this celebration of the closure to traffic is led by her three-year-old daughter, Burgin, and a friend. The girls tie the ribbon on the iconic arch of Washington Square Park as neighbors rejoice in the triumph of Jacobs’s vision of a city made not for cars but for humans and bicycles and dogs and songbirds.

Moved by this unprecedented upswell of citizen resistance, the city eventually rejects Moses’s plan to sunder the park with a highway. Jacobs continues to protest Moses’s various plans prioritizing the city as a product over the city as a haven for people. She organizes protests that successfully prevent a colossal expressway aimed at the spine of Manhattan. Eventually, she is arrested, only to be celebrated as a local hero.

In an embodiment of Thoreau’s assertion that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” her arrest itself becomes a turning point as outraged “nobodies” use their civic might to deter city officials from moving forward with Moses’s plan.

The story ends with Jacobs’s move from New York to Toronto, where she continues fighting against the dehumanizing forces of development, modeling the civic courage by which communities stand up for themselves, and inspiring generations to walk wakefully through their cities — “to listen, linger, and think about what they saw.”

Complement the altogether delightful Walking in the City with Jane with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on how to walk the city with new eyes, then revisit other wonderful picture-book biographies of great artists, writers, scientists, and revolutionaries: Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, John Lewis, Paul Erdős, Nellie Bly, and Muddy Waters.

Illustrations courtesy of Kids Can Press


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.


Bear and Wolf: A Tender Illustrated Fable of Walking Side by Side in Otherness

A watercolor serenade to kinship across difference in a shared world.

Otherness has always been how we define ourselves — by contrast and distinction from what is unlike us, we find out what we are like: As I have previously written, we are what remains after everything we are not. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection — in slicing through the surface unlikenesses, we can discover a deep wellspring of kinship, which in turn enlarges our understanding of ourselves and the other. “The world’s otherness is antidote to confusion,” Mary Oliver wrote in her moving account of what saved her life. “Standing within this otherness… can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

That is what Brooklyn-based author and illustrator Daniel Salmieri explores with great thoughtfulness and tenderness in Bear and Wolf (public library).

On a calm winter’s night, Bear ventures into the forest in consonance with Thoreau’s love of winter walks and his insistence that “we must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day.” As she savors the touch of the sparkling snowflakes falling on her fur, she spots “something poking from the glistening white.”

At the same time, Wolf was out walking, then he spotted something poking out form the glistening white.

As the two solitary walkers approach, they see each other up close — a young bear, a young wolf.

She could see the wolf’s pointy snout, smooth gray fur, golden eyes, and wet black nose… He could see the bear’s big round head, soft black fur, deep brown eyes, and wet black nose.

In a testament to Anaïs Nin’s observation that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Bear and Wolf meet each other not with frightened hostility but with openhearted, compassionate curiosity. Their encounter is a shared question mark regarded with mutual goodwill and concern for rather than fear of the other:

“Are you lost?” asked Bear.

“No, I’m not lost. Are you?” asked Wolf.

“No, I’m not lost. I’m out for a walk to feel the cold on my face, and to enjoy the quiet of the woods when it snows. What are you doing?”

“I’m out for a walk to feel the cold under my paws, and to listen to the crunching of the snow as I walk.”

“Do you want to walk with me?” asked Bear.

“Sure,” said Wolf.

And so they head into the woods furry side by furry side, wet nose near wet nose, aware that they are “both creatures made to be comfortable in the very cold.” They savor the splendor of this forest world they share, smelling “the wet bark on the trees,” listening to “the small sounds” of the snowflakes falling on their fur, looking closely at the multitude of shapes.

Meanwhile, above them, Bird spots two tiny figures “poking out from the glistening white.”

As Bear and Wolf walk forth, they come upon a great white clearing in the woods — a place faintly familiar, for they have both been there before, but in the summertime. What is now a vast oval of white was then a vast blue lake.

They venture onto the frozen lake, clean a window of ice, and peer down to see fish floating, asleep.

And then the time comes for them to part ways and return to their separate lives, lived in parallel in this shared world — Bear must return to her cave and hibernate with her family, and Wolf must return to his pack to run chasing the scent of caribou.

The seasons turn, winter warms into spring, and in this forest newly alive with bloom and birdsong, Bear and Wolf encounter each other again — different still, transformed a little, and ready to walk side by side again into the living world they share.

The wonderful Bear and Wolf comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, creators of intelligent and sensitive treasures like Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, The Paper-Flower Tree, and Bertolt. For other tender illustrated parables of friendship at the borderline of difference and kinship, revisit Friend or Foe, Winston and George, and the almost unbearably wonderful Big Wolf and Little Wolf.


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