Monday, June 18, 2012

In Praise of Walking

“Only thoughts reached by walking have value.”

                                                                Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Music to accompany article: Der Wanderer, D.493 (Schubert)

Walking and thinking are evolutionary companions. Erect statue and bipedality were necessary preconditions for thinking, and perhaps this is why those who think a lot also walk a lot. The tempo of thinking, and also of walking, moves forward with a speed of approximately three miles per hour. We think andante.

     Going for a walk has no other aim than the walk itself, and the thinking is only implied. One of my former secretaries rightly guessed the connection, and referred to my regular lunch-break walks as “going for a think”. Unlike Nietzsche, I go for a walk not to arrive at any new thoughts, but to leave the old ones behind. The physical act of getting away from what we know (or assume we know) opens new horizons and helps to look at things from fresh perspectives. As walks usually take place in a wood, a park, or some other natural surroundings, there is an additional aesthetic pleasure. Walking up and down the shopping- mall would not be conducive to contemplation or revelation. Sometimes walking has acquired a profound historical meaning, especially when done in a large group. Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful Salt March was more effective as an act of defiance than any revolutionary, violent uprising would have been. Pilgrimages, almost as old as humanity, are often done on foot.

     Solitary walks are of great significance to creative thinkers, and to paraphrase Joseph Conrad “we think, as we live, alone”. Associative thoughts that leap over the orthodox certainties are particularly inspired by walking, as each footstep offers a new, untrodden beginning. Thinking whilst walking alone is a meditative activity and a chance to become attuned to oneself. Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked in his Confessions: “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.” His last and unfinished book, Reveries of a Solitary Walker (suitably divided into ten chapters called “Walks”), is full of philosophical musings as well as various personal anecdotes and descriptions of the sights around Paris. Walks can offer an opportunity for a ‘field study’, as did night walks for Dickens. For Darwin, the famous ‘thinking path’ near his Down house in Kent, became a breeding ground for his ‘dangerous ideas’.

     Walks can be a mirror of one’s thoughts. The obsessiveness of Immanuel Kant’s Königsbergian walks seems to match the orderliness of his philosophy. Or perhaps he needed the repeated sameness of the external world to provide a background for his revolutionary ‘Copernican theory’? If walking contributed to the profundity of Kant’s thought, it did precious little for his literary style. Alas!

     Friedrich Nietzsche was a particularly passionate walker, and he walked, as he thought, dangerously. Having personally followed in his footsteps in Italy, France and Germany, I can testify that his walks were “justified as aesthetic phenomena”. The paths he chose were breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes haunting, always fascinating. One particular walk taken in Sils-Maria in the Swiss Alps during summer of 1881, when Nietzsche reached the age his father had died and often feared that he would die too, was of a particular significance to him. As he descended the wooded slope towards the lake Silvaplana, the idea of Eternal Return and the figure of Zarathustra came to his mind. In the manner of Dante, defying grief and despair, he entered his own Inferno.

     Nietzsche’s mentor and one-time idol, Arthur Schopenhauer, walked – rain or shine – for many hours each day. One can still discern the effect rain had on his philosophy! Søren Kierkegaard’s lone walks in Copenhagen, interrupted by chance conversations with fellow citizens, simultaneously satisfied his need for solitude and his carefully titrated desire for human contact. Ludwig Wittgenstein walked up and down Bertrand Russell’s room at night, threatening suicide if evicted by the host. The list of solitary ‘think-walkers’ is inexhaustible and includes philosophers (e.g. Kant, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer), poets (Dante, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Blake, T.S. Eliot, Yeats), writers (Dickens, Virginia Wolf, Havel), scientists (Darwin, Einstein), composers (Beethoven, Schumann, Mahler) and painters (van Gogh, Picasso).

     Walking can offer an opportunity for confessional conversation, as not having to face the interlocutor favours less censored communication. Direct eye-to-eye contact can be oppressive, even threatening. I am rather surprised that Freud (himself an avid walker) ‘sentenced’ his patients to couch-confessions, thus immobilising the expression of their thoughts and emotions. Little wonder that they remembered mostly what they didn’t tell him! Gustav Mahler, on the other hand, who went for a long stroll with Freud in the Dutch town of Leiden in the summer of 1910, probably confessed more than he had intended. Sadly his marital problems remained largely unresolved, perhaps because Walter Gropius (with whom Alma was having an affair at the time) didn’t come on that famous walk.

     Walks are ideal for debates. Not surprisingly, all those millennia ago, Plato and his colleagues established a peripatetic school of philosophy in Athens. Thus the love of wisdom merged with the love of walking. The ability to consider the matter from several perspectives, and to embrace the divergence, became a seed not only of Western Thought, but also of Western Democracy. The great Renaissance painter, Raphael, immortalised the image in a famous fresco The School of Athens, which can be seen in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

Greenwich Park, London: where the writer indulges in Meridian walks and thoughts