JUNE 12, 2016
THERE IS A MOMENT in Henry David Thoreau’s Journal that has always bothered me. It’s the middle of August 1851, and Thoreau begins a desultory afternoon entry with regrets about the finitude of human perspectives. Long hikes require so much gear, we cannot migrate so easily as birds, we are not everywhere at home like bugs. So he concedes it’s often easier, and perhaps no less profitable, to just stay in and record events of the mind:
As travellers go round the world and report natural objects & phenomena—so faithfully let another stay at home and report the phenomena of his own life. Catalogue stars—those thoughts whose orbits are as rarely calculated as comets. It matters not whether they visit my mind or yours—whether the meteor falls in my field or in yours—only that it came from heaven.
If the mind is like the sky, then astronomy legitimates introspection. Mental landscapes compel attention as natural landscapes. But what authorizes this analogy also effaces the idea that one’s thoughts could be one’s own. Maybe some thoughts are as luminous as stars, but are they also as remote? Can Thoreau really mean that the exteriority of a thought, or even its celestial origin, so utterly trivializes the idea that thoughts belong to anyone in particular? In the very moment we’re granted permission to indulge the life of the mind, we’re also dispossessed of it. If you would presume to have your own thoughts, he seems to argue, then you should search the night sky in hopes of tracing their ancient patterns.
Few studies have illuminated both the challenges and the exhilarations of this dispossession as powerfully as Branka Arsić’s new book, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau, which reorients our understanding of Thoreau’s materialist vitalism. Arsić’s reading of both canonical texts and understudied fragments uncover a radical philosophy of life — a vibrant ontology in which writing about what generates our experience also means blurring conventional distinctions between the realistic and the fantastic, animate bodies and inanimate ones, what it means to live and what it means to die.
Readers compelled by turns to materialism, ecology, and ontology in recent criticism could hardly hope for a better introduction to lesser-known features of Thoreau’s idiosyncratic body of work. In this vitalism, birds transgress taxonomic boundaries, fossils come alive, swamps and galls blossom in decay. But Arsić’s readings are also distinguished by their refusal of the idea that a vitalist thesis implies a naïve enthusiasm for animating plenitudes or cosmic harmonies. Rather, Bird Relics begins by unfolding a stunning, if also heartrending, theory of perpetual mourning that becomes the centerpiece of her approach to Thoreau’s philosophy of life.
In January 1842, Thoreau’s brother John succumbed to tetanus. Six years later, Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which converts a trip taken with John in 1839 into a vehicle for its several philosophical experiments. The impact of John’s death is felt throughout that book and indeed in Thoreau’s writing throughout the 1840s, which includes his two years spent at Walden Pond. In the famous “Wednesday” chapter of A Week, he declares that “Even the death of Friends will inspire us as much as their lives.”
For Arsić, such moments do index Thoreau’s anguished response to the loss of his brother. But they also disclose his larger theory of mourning, in which only unflinching devotion to one’s grief preserves an attachment to what has been lost. While discussing a letter to Emerson composed in the months following John’s death, Arsić notices a consequential distinction Thoreau makes between the self-absorption of normative grief, from which we recover, and the devastations of pure grief, in which “we sigh as the wind sighs over the fields.” This is the difference between the sort of mourning we think of as a healing process and, in the argument that animates Bird Relics, a radically impersonal mourning that preserves our connection to lost objects by echoing objectivity itself. To mourn with such intensity means to recall the dead by relinquishing the hope that mourning stops. It means adhering to one’s loss with a wild fidelity, until grief itself becomes the chorus of what Arsić calls an “ontological force” that courses through everything — a principle of change no less material than the bodies it animates, and no less discernible as death than as life.
If we follow Thoreau, then we never get over our losses. We rather attend to them endlessly, and that attention becomes, in the broadest possible sense, life. Arsić grounds this reading (which an appendix helpfully distinguishes from Freudian melancholia) in Thoreau’s responses to classical poetics — Aeschylus, Pindar, Homer, and Thales, among others. But what sort of science, she also asks, could tolerate the idea that only neverending mourning offers a clearer picture of the world in its becoming? In what laboratory does one test Thoreau’s idea that our material foundations are discernible most of all in the depths of our grief?
In the book’s second part, Arsić traces the influence of a group of Harvard vitalists whose scientific writings corroborate Thoreau’s emerging theory of life. Like Laura Dassow Walls’s recent work on Humboldt, Arsić’s treatment of competing 1840s vitalisms recovers an intellectual climate in which modern science seemed destined to coincide with the sort of speculative practice Thoreau continued to develop until his death in 1862. Bird Relics thus posits a fascinating set of connections among Arsić’s roster of progressive naturalists. In her discussion of Jacob Bigelow’s revision to commonplace assumptions that all decay must be pathological, for instance, she turns to Xavier Bichat’s theory of the autopoietic properties of vegetal life and Thoreau’s enthusiastic reading Edward Tuckerman’s study of lichens. In the resulting view of what links the botanical and the human, Thoreau develops a thesis about perpetual growth and decay that, like his claims about radical mourning, refuses the idea of a norm heterogeneous to the pathological.
Similar continuities emerge from Arsić’s discussions of Arnold Guyot’s and Charles Lyell’s geologies, which posit that rocks too have lives, and from the eschewal of taxonomic boundaries found in Thomas Nuttall’s ornithology, which locates birds in the margins of our ontologies. Against the assumption that a concept of life could be immunized from its grief, the vitalists surveyed in Bird Relics envision a material foundation ceaselessly coming alive even in its disease — a world animated not less by its losses than by those meteors falling in your yard.
By any objective measure, unfolding the connection between these two readings of Thoreau — his theory of perpetual mourning and his attachment to vitalist ontologies — would amount to a compelling monograph. For Arsić, however, these moves comprise just the first half of a book that returns, in its second half, to ask what it means to think of the world if what animates its vegetal forms also generates the personal. She develops a rigorous account of Thoreau’s materialist epistemology (part III), in which contemplation suspends the priority of the self in order to see all matter as itself contemplative. And she explores the political consequences of that strangely impersonal view of the human (part IV), in which the mutuality of our losses enables a collective mourning that becomes the foundation for community.
In these readings, Arsić never lets go of the unusual difficulty that follows from Thoreau’s search for a practice for fusing experience with its environment, even at the cost of the self. Rather than relate such a desire to the vaguely construed eco-logic implicit in everyday claims to “love” nature — claims that still locate agency in the person and beloved objects out there in there world — Bird Relics returns again and again to the radical, often dangerous idea that fusing one’s experience to its volatile foundations cannot but unravel the loving subject. Somewhere in that irreducible distance between the mind and its materials, we always lose ourselves.
The payoff for tolerating so much vulnerability includes the breathtaking recognition that our contemplative practices might emerge from, rather than merely reflect, our attachments to the material world. In the book’s latter half, for instance, Arsić tracks Thoreau’s fascination with the idea that everything contemplates to yet another series of thrilling intertextual connections: Thoreau’s extension of Plotinus in his decision to imbue matter with thought; his departure from Western models of subjectivity via The Bhagavad-Gita and The Sānkhya Kárika; his peculiar habit of writing obituaries for strangers. In these and other examples, the mind that fuses with the world forsakes its claims to both the cleanliness of transcendence and the specificity of personal identity. This means grieving with a “crazed intensity,” as Arsić puts it, not simply because losing one’s mind hurts, but because only such intensity truly matches this fugitive reality in which every natural phenomenon departs from experience.
Early in Bird Relics, Arsić makes the striking suggestion that we take even Thoreau’s most unusual assertions literally, rather than parsing them for degrees of metaphorical abstraction. It’s difficult to overstate how enlivening this move turns out to be, especially where it makes familiar passages seem startlingly new again. Of course it’s not always easy. When Thoreau claims that we transform into birds because our thoughts also migrate; when he proposes that fish hatch and grow inside him; when he proposes that stones think and that human lives are reducible to vegetable lives, he both strains our credulity and threatens our sanity.
Conscious of the risks, Arsić’s decision to treat such assertions as literal and nontrivial also underwrites the exhilarating connections she makes between the experiments with radical vitalism she tracks throughout Thoreau’s writing life. In a chapter on “Stones,” to cite just one example, we begin with Thoreau reading Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1840. The latter’s emphasis on geological continuity, a counter to the catastrophist thesis popularized by Louis Agassiz, offered Thoreau a model of the Earth that united the processes governing animate bodies with those governing inanimate structures. Arsić then cites his response to Guyot’s 1849 thesis that the Earth’s geographies broadcast its living language. Lyell and Guyot thus contextualized Thoreau’s 1854 assertion that “There is nothing inorganic” in the world despite our assumptions about what divides living forms from inert substances. What happens, Bird Relics compels us to ask, if we take this assertion literally?
One answer, which animates Arsić’s discussion of Thoreau’s vitalized stones, links his critique of monumental geology to his critique of memorial architecture. Taking seriously the idea that stones think and feel means considering that even monuments to our losses transform something living into a fantasy of death. Arsić cites a series of passages in which Thoreau laments the practice of hewing granite into gravestones, which only pretends to exclude both the body of the dead and the stone itself, which is every bit as alive, from the vitality that generates their possibility and governs their ceaseless change. Like museums, which Thoreau also occasionally despised, burial monuments consign to oblivion what they claim to preserve.
In an immensely satisfying turn, Arsić then pivots to Thoreau’s research on Native American shell middens he encountered in Massachusetts. While geologists debated their origin into the late 1850s, Thoreau recognized as early 1837 that the layered formations of shells, ashes, tools, and human remains were crafted to tell a story in which several kinds of life are inextricably woven together. For Arsić, Thoreau’s interest in middens becomes the corollary to his critique of monumental architecture. Better still, these readings invite her to consider a Thoreauvian thesis on history, in which our understanding of time as a progressive narrative gives way to “a contemporaneity of embodied sites” that, even in their gradual dissolution, never finish living.
That she concludes this section on “Stones” with a discussion of Thoreau’s idiosyncratic calendars for recording “general phenomena” only further demonstrates the appeal of Arsić’s approach. She asks us to look closely at the peculiar empiricism found in Thoreau’s hand-drawn registers of natural occurrences and their duration. The calendric records, like the strata of the middens and so much of Thoreau’s writing, are imbalanced, weirdly detailed, and yet curiously elusive. As elsewhere in Bird Relics, this treatment of the archive demonstrates what truly vital scholarship accomplishes. It recovers a living body from beneath an artificial monument, and it offers us a text to read with the crazed intensity required of those willing to lose themselves.