Nothing Inorganic


Mark Noble in The LA Review of Books:

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.

More here.