“I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession,” the adolescent Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary as she contemplated free will and what makes us who we are. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” proclaimed Leo Tolstoy in the diaries of his own youth a century earlier. These are abiding questions we all ask ourselves and answer with our selves, but also impossible ones. To hold up a mirror to oneself is to become both the looking-glass and the eye doing the looking — a sort of infinite Borgesian mirror of self-reflection reflecting itself. (Borges himself, in his own youth, danced with the paradox of self-awareness.)
No one has paced this labyrinthine paradox more elegantly, nor reached its center with richer insight, than the Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet Thomas Bernhard (February 9, 1931–February 12, 1989) in his novella Walking (public library) — his unusual 1971 masterpiece exploring the nature of thinking and the impossibility of accurate self-reflection.
Half a century after The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame asserted that to walk is “to set the mind jogging” and a generation before Rebecca Solnit defined walking as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” Bernhard writes:
If we observe very carefully someone who is walking, we also know how he thinks. If we observe very carefully someone who is thinking, we know how he walks. If we observe most minutely someone walking over a fairly long period of time, we gradually come to know his way of thinking, the structure of his thought, just as we, if we observe someone over a fairly long period of time as to the way he thinks, we will gradually come to know how he walks… There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking… Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust.
In a brilliant conceptual twist, which turns the mirror of self-reflection into a Möbius strip, Bernhard adds:
However, we may not ask ourselves how we walk, for then we walk differently from the way we really walk and our walking simply cannot be judged, just as we may not ask ourselves how we think, for then we cannot judge how we think because it is no longer our thinking. Whereas, of course, we can observe someone else without his knowledge (or his being aware of it) and observe how he walks or thinks, that is, his walking and his thinking, we can never observe ourselves without our knowledge (or our being aware of it). If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, or when we talk about the fact that we observe ourselves we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else. The concept of self-observation and so, also, of self-description is thus false.
Bernhard extends this logic to the vastest questions about how the native limitations of our consciousness shape our perception and interpretation of reality:
Looked at in this light, all concepts (ideas)… like self-observation, self-pity, self-accusation and so on, are false. We ourselves do not see ourselves, it is never possible for us to see ourselves. But we also cannot explain to someone else (a different object) what he is like, because we can only tell him how we see him, which probably coincides with what he is but which we cannot explain in such a way as to say this is how he is. Thus everything is something quite different from what it is for us… And always something quite different from what it is for everything else.
Walking, translated into English by Kenneth J. Northcott, is a stunning read in its unparagraphed totality, fusing philosophy’s depth of thought with poetry’s contemplative spaciousness. Complement this fragment with Hannah Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, Lauren Elkin’s manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, and Solnit’s indispensable Wanderlust, then revisit former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith on the persistence of the self and the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas on how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most original, science-governed, yet deeply poetic perspective on the subject I’ve ever encountered.