It’s the same every time. I walk through the streets in the late evening or at night, passing lanterns that cast small, distorted bubbles of light into the darkness, and suddenly I flinch. A moment ago, I was carrying my own shadow behind me, now, all at once it multiplies, fans out and overtakes me by leaps and bounds. Each and every time, I am frightened of myself. It has always been like this. And I was convinced this moment, this very particular alienating experience would repeat itself endlessly. Yet now it is different. Everything is different. Only yesterday I was walking alone through the night again, my shadow jumped at my feet from behind and — nothing. No flinch, no reaction. Something has changed. Not because I explained to myself rationally that I didn’t need to be afraid of my own shadow. Nor anything because I trained myself by repetition and conditioning not to be. No, something is genuinely different.
My body has become plural. The fact that my shadow multiplies, no longer seems strange to me, on the contrary. If they overtake me cheekily from behind, I greet them inwardly. I don’t wonder, why they appear as they do. Rather, it makes total sense they exist and show themselves in a thousand versions, from all sides.
I and my shadows belong to each other, we can no longer be separated. That is what has changed.
Still, our relationship is fresh and young. We, my shadows and I, are just starting to really get to know each other. We meet regularly for a walk. Playfully we stroll through gardens, parks, through the snow or forest, sometimes along the sea. We are very close to each other, never let the other out of sight, and yet we intentionally lose each other, dissolve, only to reunite once again. Walking has become our state of existing. We have become a state of existing through walking.
Before the virus threw everything into chaos and standstill, we were casual acquaintances. Everyday life, its apparent necessities and its speed robbed me of all attention. Social obligations, events, the next meeting, the next career option – I was always behind, late, not yet arrived at the future I was just figuring out and planning. Pure existence was always and constantly postponed. Then, the virus hit. It slammed the world’s door. One lockdown after another made time and existence as we knew them before fade further. The idea of progress, that structured any expectation, decision and value of being was on pause. What remained of progress was the German „fortschreiten“, that is, to verb the noun, to walk away from progress (der Fortschritt, fortschreiten – the progress; to progress). And so, I did.
Walking means being out of doors, outside, ‘in the fresh air’, as they say. For town-dwellers like me, going outside used to mean passing from one ‘inside’ to another: from house to subway to office and to home. Outside used to be a transition. Now, walking out of doors means being myself without the necessity of being someone. It means walking away from the very idea of identity, the temptation to have a name, a history, a future or a destination. Walking is not a sport, it is purposeless, pointless even, one could say. And yet, it is of great effect.
“Sit as little as possible” Nietzsche once said; “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” (Nietzsche 2009: II, 1). Nietzsche walked up to eight hours a day. It was the natural element of his oeuvre. Rousseau, Kant, Thoreau and Montagne are only a few of his popular fellows.
They all walked alone, convinced any company disrupted their very own rhythm.
Taking up their advice, I start to walk on my own. Until I finally notice that one is never entirely alone. First, there was my shadow. It appeared unexpectedly on a gloomy winter day on my way to the woods and accompanied me throughout the whole walk. How come we’ve rarely known each other?
A shadow, I believed, was nothing more than the negative template of myself. And somehow that is true. Yet it is also so much more. The moment I left the asphalt and stepped onto the rich, earthy ground of the forest; it began to flicker. The trees raised their voice. Now my shadow was no longer the projection of myself. With each further step into nature, it became a transmitter, a mediating figure that was neither me, nor the forest, but something in between. Half an hour later, clouds gather and swallow the shallow sun. My shadow dissolved. But can it even do so? Isn’t it always there, just not visible? And if it really is always here, always living an in-between, linking me to nature, what else am I not aware of?
Once my body is in motion, my senses awaken to an unknown degree. A strange mode of concentration sets in, that makes me aware of the smallest, quietest, most inconspicuous phenomena. No, I never am alone, I realise. Even when my shadow is gone. I feel trees, plants and mushrooms accompanying me, observe birds hunting worms, and watch how the sea tide is rising and ebbing away. Everything talks to me, greets me, is with me, determines me. The silence I imagined enjoying transforms into a loud chatter, some cheeky flirting and grumpy comments. It no longer is the dissipation of our language. What was silence is becoming tumult. And moving within stops my body from being in the landscape, lets it become part of the landscape. Now I immerse myself in nature, dissolve into it as wafting ink does into water. I let myself go in order to find it.
I lose my capability to use words, realising the variety of languages that surround me. I lose my ability to think, replacing it with all the sensations that flood me. “The body in motion federates the senses and unifies them within itself”, Michel Serres wrote in his “Variations of the Body” (Serres 2011: 10). Thinking turns into being, a state denying any dichotomy between the body and the mind. I am grateful that he has remembered a few words, because I have forgotten them all. If any come to mind, I push them off. They seem distorted, contrived, far too far from what is real. Funny, we keep reading books, thinking that reproducing the same experiences and outcoming thoughts over and over again would lead to something new called future.
If silence turns to noise, thoughts to sensations, truth to realities, the origin of knowledge must reside in the body. The body. My body. Nature’s body. Many bodies, all these bodies, yet one body.
I do nothing but walk, sharing a short moment in these humbly insistent realities. Feeling the force of gravity, I put one foot in front of the other and settle at my own pace. Neither fast nor particularly slow, I wander between trees, water and parks. From day to day, repetitiously walking nearly the same route, I learn to understand the secret of every walker: it is his own monotony. It tricks the „rational mind“, that takes itself too seriously and importantly. Active movement prevents both boredom and hasty brooding. That is why it is the best way to slowly but surely introduce figures like me to a state of being, so as to disentangle from there. “To stimulate […] thought, to move reflection forward, to deepen inventiveness, the mind needs the help of an active body”(Gros 2014: 297) Frédéric Gros asserts correctly in his philosophy of walking.
And so, I walk. I walk repetitiously and monotonously to get myself moving, so that body and mind will start moving, moving towards each other, with each other, in another. Every step is another question and its own answer at the same time. Do my shadows join me I salute them, curious as to what game the sun, the trees, the wind, the clouds and I will play? They no longer belong to me and are under my guardianship. They merely show who is talking to whom today, which worlds want to interact. My shadows have become plural just as my body, nature and the world(s) have. I and my shadows belong to each other, we can no longer be separated. For the world(s) and I can no longer be separated, too.
Gros, Frédéric (2014): A Philosophy of Walking. Verso Publishing
Nietzsche, Friedrich (2009): Ecce Homo – How to become what you are. Oxford University Press; Reissue Edition Serres, Michel (2011): Variations of the Body. Univocal Publishing