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The Library Unbound: Milne Library News

Walking and Reading

by Jean-Paul Orgeron on 2020-11-03T15:37:25-05:00 in World Literature, Philosophy | Comments

“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.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Walking was a form of composition for Nietzsche. From 1879 to 1889, in the village of Sils-Maria, Switzerland, he would complete The Dawn, On the Genealogy of Morals, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and Thus Spake Zarathustra. Walking up to eight hours per day on the mountain paths, the bulk of these texts were thought through en route and later set to paper. As a precondition for writing, the ideas that came to him in the open air caused a dizzying array of emotions: weeping, singing, and staggering bouts of sheer joy from someone in the grip of the elements. While our hands do the work, it is “only with our feet” that we write well, according to Nietzsche, because the effort of walking, especially uphill, is similar to pushing one’s thinking further, higher, until what remains is something unheard of, something new. A Philosophy of Walking, by Frederic Gros, opens with these scenes of Nietzsche in the Upper Engadine wandering, stepping, dancing high above the landscape.

There are many examples in literature and philosophy of walking, where the act itself denotes autonomy, endurance, and simplification. Emile Bronte logged innumerable miles in the moors below her Yorkshire hilltop home, where the grip of the elements were no doubt similar to the “atmospheric tumult” pervading Wuthering Heights. Frodo and Sam, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, experience the kind of clarity that comes with an epic journey – had it been undertaken otherwise, then something would be missing from the end result. Hobbits appear to grasp that walking is for spectating, for taking in what would rather be lost by other means of travel. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the Japanese poet and diarist Matsuo Basho recalls:

All night long

I listened to the autumn wind

Howling on the hill

At the back of the temple

Atmospheric tumult to be sure. Departing Edo (now Tokyo) in the spring of 1689, Basho lingered for two and a half years on the journey to the deep north, which was largely considered unexplored territory. Prior to departure for an earlier journey, in 1684, Basho left his house “caring naught for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy.”

Ideas born in the open air condense and shower upon us as books. Our good fortune is in our collecting them, categorizing them, and reading them. Adventures are hatched when walking, even a short stroll will do it. Books are like that too…

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