The Philosophy of Walking, by John Cowper Powys

(Have you heard of John Cowper Powys? Neither had I, until Michael Perkins treated me to A Philosophy of Solitude published by Powys in 1933. It scintillates with arguments against group thinking. Here’s a passage about walking, sex, and the rain.)

Nietzsche maintained the admirable opinion that all exciting and enlarging human thoughts come to their originator’s heads in the process of walking. Philosophy that is worthy of the name is a walking philosophy. Now there are many subtle reasons for this. In the first place the “humours” of the body, as Burton explains them in his “Anatomy of Melancholy,” are stirred up, shaken off, dissipated, dispersed by the movement of walking.

Then the delicate adjustment of foreground and background is the most perfect imaginable; for the foreground changes every second; while the background changes so slowly that we scarce can see it change. This is exactly what we desire in life; a ritual of human alternation in the foreground, and in the background the great planetary processions and cycles.

With a priest’s instinct, with an artist’s instinct, with a mystic’s instinct, Nietzsche condemns the sedentary position as an accompaniment of thrilling and inspiring thought.

The animal man, that skeleton clothed upon with flesh, realizes the essence of his life best, and reduces his life to focus most easily, when he is either horizontal or perpendicular, that is to say when he is either in bed or on foot.

A life spent between the seat of a chair and the seat of a car is a monkey’s life, not a man’s. When you think in a seated posture, you think with your rump, not with your soul. The reason why women are more profoundly life-conscious than men is because they are more often on their legs.

The magnetism of matter is a much greater aid to making human thoughts luminous and penetrating than has been realized; and it is when you are walking that the magnetism of the planet’s body seems to fall into unison with your own. But the real point about walking is that it isolates you in the midst of the Cosmos. It liberates you from the necessity of isolating yourself by a terrific effort of the mind.

Your whole nature can now be receptive and at peace. You can see things and people, life and death, in a large, free, easy, atmospheric perspective. You can, of course, escape from you home in your car; but your car itself is a mechanical contrivance imposed between you and Nature.

The mere physical process of walking; this putting of one leg in front of the other, this treading on the pavement, on the road, on the grass, is itself an engenderer of wise and gentle thoughts. A person cannot be too conscious of his body as he walks; of the actual sensation of movement as he stretches his legs.

By treading upon her with alternate feet you enter into a subtle and intimate relation with your mother, the earth. It is as if the earth in her deep planetary masochism got pleasure from being trodden upon, just as she does from being ploughed up.

You should feel, as you walk, something of the exultant pride with which our remote, anthropoid ancestors first stumbled across the astonished earth. You should revert to the old childish glory in being able to move at all in this upright manner. And in the mere process of walking a thousand mysterious understandings spring up between you and the earth which cannot reach you, though you steer your car ever so cleverly, while you are sitting above wheels.

In the process of actually touching the earth you realize what an escape from everything that hurts you worst in the world the Inanimate is. If you are the type of person for example, who has come heartily to loathe the sexual side of life—as you have a perfect right to do—you have no doubt been so miserably tormented in our sex-obsessed modern society as to have reached the point of feeling like a shameful Pariah. Your friends regard you as a fool, an ass, a nit-wit, an imbecile, a moron, a zany, a non-such; and, at the same time, as a Peckinsniff, as a Tartuffe, as a Duke Angelo, as an Archbishop of Carabas; and, at the same time, as a Bestialist, as a Necrophiliast, as a smouldering Vesuvius of appalling and not-to-be-described Suppressions.

To thoroughly dislike sex as a phenomenon in this world leads to your being regarded by every Paul Pry in your neighbourhood as a perambulating abyss of unspeakable perversions. “There he goes, the sex-hater; and, if he could, he would make a Bluebeard’s Bedroom of every room he enters and a Grove of Baal of every briar patch he crosses!”

Well, if you are the type of person who has come to the loathe the Phenomenon of Sex, in the practise of walking you can get back to the primordial world of rock and stone where even the wind-tossed pollen of plants and the fluttering wings of amorous insects can scarcely follow you. Cool, clear, deep—like a granite pool going down into the infinite—the Inanimate welcomes the victims of the Great Loathing. Here the very existence of this itching, biting, stinging, tormenting, maddening trick of the creative process can be forgotten.

The Inanimate partakes of every one of those qualities that we have so long attributed to God. In the Inanimate we can lose ourselves and find ourselves as nowhere else. It is a great mystery, this austere remoteness of primordial Matter; but the feelings that are stirred up by it have the power of carrying us into a level of Being where can satisfy our life-craving without the frenzy of Eros.

How impossible it seems for men and women to avoid one extreme or the other of the pendulum’s swing.

Fifty years ago the philosopher had to struggle all his life against the narrow fanaticism of puritans who sought to suppress every free gesture of the sex-instinct; but now, at least among that large portion of the crowd that has imbibed the new fashion of thinking, the whole situation is reversed and every reaction against sex that we feel is regarded as a hopeless intellectual limitation.

What nonsense this is! Cannot these impassioned advocates of indiscriminate amorousness see the enormous power that reticence, reserve, self-control, fastidiousness, modesty, and even hatred of the sex-feeling, store up in in people’s natures? Sex is such a terrific force, that, like fire, or like electricity, it can be used by the magnetism of personality to the most formidable creative ends, whether used directly, or indirectly by means of suppression.

For some natures sex-excess is an excellent thing; its path being, as Blake says, the path the wisdom. But other natures a reaction from sex is the road to enlightenment.

And the god-like reciprocity of the Inanimate answers to both these antipodal moods. One person may walk over hill and dale till contact with the elements has lifted him into a region where sex has no meaning at all. Another person may follow precisely the same path and his passion for Nature may grow and grow till what he may come to feel is actually a sexual ecstasy.

The great Mother is always kinder to any eccentric offspring than are his fellow-creatures. Nature is the eternal refuge of all misfits.

No twist of the human mind, no abnormal yearning of the human spirit, no bizarre craving of the human senses, but can find some sort of inarticulate response as we put one leg in front of the other in walking over the surface of the earth. Whatever your mind and conscience have led you to be in public affairs, a conservative, a communist, an old-fashioned liberal; whatever your mind and conscience have led you to be in regard to your relations with the opposite sex; these things are but the outer framework of your life. You can be an employer of labour in a Capitalistic State; you can be a devoted proletarian in a Communist State, and if your mind is not adjusted to the influences of Nature you will still find yourself profoundly unhappy.

Cool and sweet, as to the brow of a convalescent, stir the lovely airs of morning and evening; and “though inland far we be” there are few spots so gathered about by deserts or mountains that some great winds cannot voyage across them, bringing the wild, free breath of the salt sea. The visitations of the rain alone, that multitudinous descent of the transparent, slate-coloured water, those grey, thin heaven-high, super-Euclidian lines, that swerve and sweep and travel and yet forever must be falling as they drift, and drifting forward as they fall, the miraculous phenomenon of rain alone, so inhuman an element and yet so ancient, so historic a restorer of life, is a thing to worship.

From our scoriac ledge in the planet’s surface, from our hiding-place in the wounds we have made in our mother’s flesh, we look forth upon this phantom-falling sea of liquid spears, cold and transparent and grey, and we need no prophet to come between us and this water of life.

Shut this living skeleton of a man, of a woman, oh unrighteous, social order! Into your crushing four walls, into your prisons of kindless labour; as long as he can hear the rain streaming upon the window he has a living ladder of escape.

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