Almost everything I write, I “write” in the mind’s notebook, feet in motion – what happens on the keyboard when I return from my long daily walk that supports me is mostly copying.
I’m not alone in relying on mobile solitude as an anchor for creative practice – there’s Rebecca Solnette’s beautiful definition of walking as “a state in which mind, body, and the world go together”, and Thomas Bernhard’s view that “there is nothing more revealing than seeing a thinking person walk, just as there is nothing More revealing than seeing a person walking thinking, ‘And The wind in the willow Author Kenneth Graham’s insistence that solitary walks “run on the mind…makes him talkative, chubby, and a little crazy—certainly imaginative and supra-sensitive”, and of course Thoreau, always Thoreau, who thought “every walk is a kind of crusade” to come back to our senses.
But seldom has any thinker been formed and saved by walking more forcefully than him Friedrich Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900).
In his early thirties, intellectually isolated from an academic realm immature for his ideas, and emotionally drained after turning down too many hasty marriage proposals, Nietzsche was plagued by bouts of nausea and increasingly debilitating migraines, leaving him bedridden in a darkened room for several days in a dark room. Time, unable to read or write, his eyes were two daggers of pain. He found only one cure – a long, solitary walk.
In the summer of his thirty-third year, having exiled himself to a series of temporary dwellings across Europe, he wrote from the midst of the pines of the Black Forest:
I walk a lot, through the woods, and have tremendous conversations with myself.
Nietzsche, his fellow loper, walked the same roads one hour every morning and three afternoons, half-blind, dreaming of having his own little house in a secluded and walkable place:
I walked for six or eight hours a day, making up ideas that I would later write down on paper.
That summer, he composed The wanderer and his shadow – The third and final installment in his aphorisms map of becoming your self – almost on foot, filling six little notebooks with rambling ideas in pencil. In it, he considered the “fugue of the mind and imagination” through which one becomes a truly free spirit – a wandering, for him, occurred with the mind through mountains and meadows. Long before modern science sheds light on the role of the hippocampus in how our landscapes shape us, Nietzsche himself became a wanderer.
Even in his exile, even in the agony of his social ostracism and torment among his temples, Nietzsche never lost sight of the extent of temporary and relative privilege, and how fortunate he was to possess this lifeline:
During my long walks I wept a lot, and were not tears of passion, but tears of happiness, singing, and amazement, taken over by a new look that marked my privilege over the men of today.
By his mid-30s, he was walking “ten hours a day of hermit walking”. This was his personal golden age, his decade of walking and writing books that would leave his immortal trace: ZoroasterAnd DaybreakAnd Beyond good and evilAnd joyful flagAnd In the genealogy of morals. One of them wrote:
We do not belong to him who has ideas only among books, when books stimulate him. It is our habit to think of the outdoors – walking, jumping, climbing, dancing, preferably on secluded mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.
And he adds talentedly in metaphor:
Our first questions about the value of a book, a person, or a piece of music are: Can they walk? More than that, can they dance?
Nietzsche believed that good books are spacious books – books that breathe the same fresh air in which he forged ideas; Poor books exude the distress in which they were written – the business of “air closet, closet ceilings, wardrobe tightness.” He thought we write “with our feet only”. Having declared that “without music life would be a mistake,” he performed his most cherished arts on the same level:
What my feet demand primarily of music is that ecstasy that lies in a good walk.
And so it is no surprise that he made walking the centerpiece of his philosophy, which manifested itself in his most fertile thought experience—eternal return, or eternal repetition. in a walking philosophy (a public library), where Nietzsche’s relationship to the moving mind is prominently featured, Friedrich Gross wrote:
When one goes a long way to reach the bend in the path that reveals a projected viewpoint, and that view emerges, there is always a landscape shake. It is repeated in the body of the treadmill. The harmony between the two beings, like two harmonious threads, feeding each other’s vibration, is like endless re-release. Eternal repetition is the exposure in a continuous cycle of repetition of these two affirmations, the circular transformation of the vibration of existence. The immobility of the pedestrians facing the landscape … It is the intensity of that common presence that generates an indefinite circularity of exchanges: I have always been here, tomorrow, thinking of this spectacle.
In his last book, Nietzsche left his life-tested advice on the life of the mind and the life of the soul:
sit as little as possible; Don’t believe any idea not born in the open air and free movement – where muscles don’t explode either… Sitting motionless… is the real sin against the Holy Spirit.
Supplement with the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd on the moving body as an instrument of the mind and Lorraine Elkin’s brilliant contemporary statement on walking as creative empowerment, then revisit Nietzsche on love and perseverance, How to Find Yourself, Why a Satisfying Life Requires an Embrace rather than an Escape from Difficulty and Depression and a Rehabilitation of Hope The power of music and the power of language.