“Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?”
Almost everything I write, I “write” in the notebook of the mind, with the foot in motion — what happens at the keyboard upon returning from the long daily walks that sustain me is mostly the work of transcription.
I am far from alone in the reliance on ambulatory solitude as an anchor of creative practice — there is Rebecca Solnit’s lovely definition of walking as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” and Thomas Bernhard’s insight that “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,” and Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame’s insistence that solitary walks “set the mind jogging… make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive,” and of course Thoreau, always Thoreau, who believed that “every walk is a sort of crusade” for returning to our senses.
However, walking stronger than this has not helped any other thinker to be shaped or saved. Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900).
Nietzsche became intellectually distant from an academic world that was not ripe to his ideas in his early thirties. After a few too many unsuitable marriage proposals, Nietzsche found himself bedridden in darkened rooms for days. His eyes became daggers of pain and he couldn’t even read or write. He found only one remedy — long solitary walks.
After he had been exiled to several temporary accommodations across Europe in the third year of his trenty-third, he began writing from the Black Forest’s pines.
I walk a lot in the forest and have great conversations with my self.
Nietzsche was a looper himself. Half-blind, Nietzsche used to walk the same paths every morning for an hour and then three in the afternoon.
My walking time was six to eight hours per day. This allowed me to think and then later write them down.
In the summer of that year, he wrote The Wanderer, and His Shadow — the third and final installment in his aphoristic roadmap to becoming oneself — almost entirely on foot, filling six small notebooks with penciled-in peripatetic thoughts. In it, he considered “the wanderings of the reason and the imagination” by which one becomes a truly free spirit — wanderings that, for him, took place with the mind afoot across mountains and meadows. Nietzsche was a wanderer long before science could shed any light on how landscapes influence us.
Nietzsche didn’t lose sight of the provisional nature of Nietzsche’s privilege and of the fact that he was so fortunate to have such a lifeline, even during his exile.
On long walks, I wept too often, not because of sentimental feelings, but out of joy, singing, staggering, and a new look that marked my superiority over men today.
By his mid-thirties, he was doing “ten hours a day of hermit’s walking.” This was his personal Golden Age, his decade of walking and writing the books that would leave his immortal trail: Zarathustra, The Dawn, Beyond Good and Evil, Joyous Science, Genealogy of Morality. He wrote in one of the letters:
We aren’t like those who only have thoughts from books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.
He adds, “A virtuoso in metaphor,”
The first question about the worth of a book or of a person is: Are they able to walk? Can they even dance?
Good books, Nietzsche believed, are spacious books — books that breathe the same open air in which the ideas set down in them forged; bad books exude the cramped smallness in which they were written — works of “closet air, closet ceilings, closet narrowness.” We write, he believed, “only with our feet.” Having declaimed that “without music life would be a mistake,” he held his most cherished art to the same standard:
Music is not what my feet want first, it’s music that I need. My feet prefer good walking.
And so it comes as no surprise that he made walking a centerpiece of his philosophy, manifested in his most fertile thought experiment — the Eternal Return, or Eternal Recurrence. In A Philosophy of Walking (public library), where Nietzsche’s relationship with the mind in motion figures prominently, Frédéric Gros writes:
There is always an aura of nature when someone has traveled a distance to see a turning on the trail that leads to a viewpoint. It is repeated in the walker’s body. Like two strings in harmony, they each feed off the vibrations of the others. It’s like an infinite relaunch. Eternal Recurrence refers to the continuous repetition of these affirmations and the transformation of vibrations of both the presents. The walker’s immobility facing that of the landscape… it is the very intensity of that co-presence that gives birth to an indefinite circularity of exchanges: I have always been here, tomorrow, contemplating this landscape.
Nietzsche left his most valuable advice about the lives of the mind, and the spirits in his last book.
Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement — in which the muscles do not also revel… Sitting still… is the real sin against the Holy Ghost.
Complement with the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd on the moving body as an instrument of the mind and Lauren Elkin’s splendid contemporary manifesto for walking as creative empowerment, then revisit Nietzsche on love and perseverance, how to find yourself, why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, depression and the rehabilitation of hope, and the power of music, the power of language.
Giving = Being Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your own life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
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