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Thoreau and Metonymy: Small Waldens

September 17, 2021
English: The Thoreau family gravesite in Sleep...

Thoreau’s grave in Concord: the ultimate metonymy? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following is part meditation on, part introduction to, another literary concept in Thoreau’s writing that (I want to argue) is also ecological: the rhetorical idea of metonymy–a figure of speech and thinking somewhat like metaphor, but different in crucial ways. It is also my example  for the kind of deliberate reading of  passages in Walden that you are working on for the first writing project.

In “The Pond in Winter” Thoreau observes a “parlor of the fishes” and watches a man fishing for pickerel early in the morning. The language and imagery of the passage (p. 190-91) focuses on metonymy: Thoreau observes the contiguous, material, even digestive but no less symbolic relations between the man, the activity of fishing, and the fish itself.  In fact, he argues that the fisherman is better than the naturalist because his very life (and body) has “Nature carried out in him”:

The perch swallows the grub-worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisherman swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled.

He goes on to refer to the fish as “Walden all over and all through: are themselves small Waldens.”  To understand why this metonymy, or this verbal and literary figuring of relation and scale and association (food chain), is important to Thoreau, we need to remember that he is interested in a Nature that is expressed “without metaphor” (the opening of “Sounds”) and is concerned about the ways that we have come to live at a distance from our symbols. That is to say, Thoreau understands that Nature is symbolic (“transcendent beauty” he sees in the fishes) but that we have lost our connection to the symbols. To see this, we can go back to an earlier chapter where Thoreau mediates on another parlor.

In “House-Warming” Thoreau gets into one of his intense riffs on language–provoking us to think about the words we use, the houses we live in, how we commonly view things. It is another version of Thoreau kicking off the dust of our ways of seeing, thinking, talking. The passage I am thinking of is where he criticizes the “parlors” in houses and how remote they have become from real talk–places of “parlaver.” This is a passage where I would argue it helps to think about some distinctions between metaphor and metonymy–since Thoreau is talking in part about symbols. So, here goes.

The case I am making for Thoreau and how he might influence our understanding of American environmental writing–both looking back on the tradition and looking ahead to what may come–goes something like this.

  • That we encounter the tension he encounters, and sometimes despairs but also celebrates in his writing: a tension between poetry and science, between the poetic and the practical, as he puts it in one of his journal entries (with the philosophic being the neutral, middle-ground); the tension between being a writer and being a scientist/naturalist.
  • That we need to recognize this encounter not simply as contradiction, but more significantly as a dynamic or (to use a favorite and relevant image from Thoreau) magnetic relation: opposites that attract. In literary terms, this would be paradox; it might also be viewed in  terms of irony. I have argued that we need to understand Thoreau in these literary terms because he engages these issues as a writer and literary artist; his approach to nature is self-consciously through the medium of language.
  • Another set of literary terms we can add to this idea of dynamic tension (of opposition that paradoxically relates, strange things that are also familiar and attractive) is metaphor/metonymy. I would suggest that Thoreau is thinking about this poetic understanding of language in the ‘parlaver’ passage in Walden (165). There, we see him not only play with language, turn meanings and roots of words over and under, as we have seen him do from the beginning–like a good poetic-naturalist would. The passage, beyond this, opens up to a recognition of how our language  has come to influence our living, an influence that lives at too great a distance and remoteness from the natural connections between nature (the world, our lives in the world) and the symbols we necessarily use to move about that world, to live in it, to keep house, as it were. And the problem, as I read Thoreau in this passage (this is my example of a close reading passage I am working on for my essay) can be associated with the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

The metonymic pole emphasizes continguity and context, relations through some sort of material association (think of the very material association of digestion that Thoreau has in view moving from worm to fish to man). This is when we represent through substitution (as all writing and language does, and one could, all thinking), but do so with a figure (word, image) that represents something else by being somehow related or connected with it. A part that represents the whole it relates to; or the reverse, the whole used to represent one of its parts. A classic metonymy for house would be: hearth–one part of the house, but used to represent the idea of a house (its center, its warmth).  I think Thoreau is getting at this with his reference to kitchen and workshop. Metonymy is often associated with these art forms: film–and specifically, the close-up in film; Cubism, prose, epic, realism. A key figure of metonymy for writing would be ‘hand’–the connection between the writing and the hand holding the pencil, touching the paper. This sense of metonymy as something that comes from the hand strikes me as particularly relevant to Thoreau, to a writer so interested in the labor of his hands.

Some etymological origins and variations for the word hearth. Noticing that the word “focus” is associated, by way of Latin and fire, we can hear Thoreau saying in this passage (and the book overall) that we need to get back the center of our homes, the fire that sustains us, the heart of our houses. And what I am suggesting is that for Thoreau such a notion–the heart/hearth of our living–is no mere metaphor, or shouldn’t be. It is a symbol whose nearness and reality we have forgotten.

What does this mean? Briefly, metaphor and metonymy are not just two types of figurative language or rhetorical devices, but rather, larger polarities for how we can use language–and some would even argue, for how we can think (since we can’t separate our language from our thinking so easily).

With the metaphoric pole (I am echoing here one of the leading theorists on this issue, the linguist Roman Jakobson), we compare or figure one thing for another thing by way of substitution and similarity. To represent and emphasize the idea of the largeness of a house, for example, we might say/write: the house is a mountain. And notice that though metaphor is about some sort of similarity, it usually works best through difference, through a comparison that is not realistic; the house is a mansion/castle seems less interesting as a metaphor, though it technically is one. Examples of kinds of art/writing that align with the metaphoric: drama, montage, surrealism, poetry, lyric, symbolism. We could return to the “manurance” passage from “The Bean-Field” chapter. The word “manurance” is metonymy–it refers to the practice of cultivating land, and terms such as manure are related to it. So, whenever Thoreau is talking about forms of decomposition, in this case organic waste, it is also metonymy for agriculture. But the same passage begins with metaphor: Thoreau wants to plant the “seeds” of truth and sincerity, not just seeds for beans. That’s a familiar metaphor, biblical even: reaping what we sow. But Thoreau takes the metaphor and further cultivates it by turning it back into something material. The actual, material practices of cultivation.

Though Thoreau uses metaphor, my argument is that Thoreau ultimately wants to ground metaphor in the metonymy of language–in language that emphasizes its connection and contiguity with the world of its use–the connection between word and world. And moreover, what we see in his concern for life that is passing at such remoteness from its symbols, is a concern for life’s language (or nature’s language, which is also language’s nature) becoming too metaphoric. Another phrase for this would be ‘dead metaphor’–language that we use and forget its origins. This is a point Emerson makes in Nature–giving an entire section to ‘language’ and his theory of its origins.

So, from Thoreau’s perspective, we have forgotten the meaning and significance of hearth and house; forgotten what parlor means (etymologically, linked to speaking, parle). To use our language and the homes we build with language more deliberately–and the larger home, we remember, is earth’s home, ecos, from Greek–means to use it more metonymically.  To that extent, this could mean that we environmental writers (at least from where Thoreau is sitting in his parlor) need to let more of the scientific perspective (if science is traditionally resistant to metaphor, it would seem to be more focused on metonymy: finding parts that can suggest larger wholes; inductive analysis) into the poetry of our writing. But just as importantly, and just as Thoreau will turn from expressing concern with poetry to concern with science, metonymy is still figurative, symbolic, human-made perceptions of nature. Going “without metaphor” doesn’t mean going beyond language into some pure, objective realm of nature. If Thoreau has metonymy in mind, as I think he does, going beyond metaphor toward metonymy means that we digest Nature by recognizing the extent of our relations within it. This makes Walden both symbolic and material, real–all over and all through us. Walden is under our feet as well as over our heads–and in our intestines.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads” (190). I then take this line to be a key reminder in Thoreau’s project. Metaphor is above us (the potential for us to see and think abstractly) and metonymy is under our feet. And the project is to relate the two, or remember that our vision and imagination is based in what is near and next to us, even as it also soars to great distances.

For those interested in further exploration of Thoreau and metonymy, you can read my essay “Ecology and Imagination: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Nature of Metonymy” (Criticism 2013).

Further discussion on the poetics of metonymy and metaphor, see this post from my nonfiction course on The Essay.

Some “wild” metonymy scenes in film that have some relation to Thoreau and to environmental writing:

  • Grizzly Man: Wendy’s poop.
  • Tree of Life: perhaps the whole film, but certainly a lengthy sequence in which the present moment of the film is related back to the creation of the universe. 

Walden and the Pastoral

September 13, 2021

Walden, summer 2012, photo by author

One of Thoreau’s projects or experiments in Walden is one familiar to the tradition of nature writing, the mode or genre of the pastoral. In both writing and painting, the pastoral depicts a simpler life, usually figured in terms of a pasture, traditionally populated by a shepherd and his flock, and set in sharp contrast to a busier life figured by the city or town. In this sense, the pastoral is usually nostalgic as well as agricultural: things used to be simpler in earlier  ways of living, classical, pre-industrial or pre-technological times. That sounds like Walden, to some extent. At least, it sounds somewhat like the critique of society Thoreau initiates in “Economy” as well as his apparent thesis in response to the problem, delivered in the next chapter: simplify and live deliberately as nature. We could well imagine this scene at Walden, Thoreau idling on the banks of the pond, thinking his thoughts, reading his Homer, and writing his book, as something like Thomas Cole’s “Arcadian or Pastoral State” from his “The Course of Empire” series of 1836. Or, in literature that you might have encountered elsewhere, think Wordsworth (his Lyrical Ballads) or Milton’s famous pastoral elegy, “Lycidas.”

But as we are starting to see, Thoreau’s book about simplicity is more complicated than that. We see the complications with the pastoral head on in “Sounds.” We find there a “pastoral” vision, explicitly named. But it’s a vision attached to the train that runs alongside Walden pond. So, the train disrupts the pastoral landscape–the conflict between old and new, agricultural and technological, that we expect with the pastoral. Except, Thoreau doesn’t seem that bothered by the train. He is willing to see it, in fact, as a figure of the pastoral life whirling by. This is quite complicated. If Thoreau is not directly lamenting the loss of a simpler life here, the incursion of the “machine in the garden,” what exactly is he doing? A related complication here: Thoreau begins the chapter valorizing a nature that can be experienced “without metaphor,” then proceeds in this focus on the train as “iron horse” to metaphorize the hell out of his experience of the train at Walden.

Leo Marx provides an interesting and influential critical reading of this problem and the nature of Thoreau’s pastoral project in his classic book The Machine in the Garden [the relevant excerpt of the argument is in the critical section at the book of our Norton edition, “Walden’s Transcendental Pastoral Design”; American Studies majors take note, this is a classic of American Studies criticism]. The gist of his argument: This isn’t a traditional pastoral vision, focused only on the agricultural way of life that has passed; and it isn’t a full embrace of the technologically new. Thoreau crafts a middle ground in the craft of his writing: the pastoral as way of life is gone, lost to history, but it can be relived and relocated in literature. “In the end Thoreau restores the pastoral hope to its traditional location. He removes it from history, where it is manifestly unrealizable, and relocates it in literature, which is to say, in his own consciousness, in his craft, in Walden” (464).  To anticipate a phrasing to come later in Spring: Walden is dead but Walden is alive again.

This is something we will give more thought to as we explore the crafting of the book, do our own deliberate reading of this book in which the author argues that books should be read deliberately as they were written. I am hypothesizing that to read deliberately is in Thoreau’s complicated sense of the pastoral to read organically.

Further Reading: For a pastoral vision that could be compared and contrasted with Thoreau’s, we could turn back to Wendell Berry, known as a “new agrarian” writer. Here is “How to Be a Poet.” What’s in here that seems inspired by Thoreau?

Thoreau’s Manurance: digging into words

September 8, 2021

Some further thoughts on Thoreau’s interests in language and irony–language as inherently ironic, with the potential to mean more than one thing at any given time. 

Thoreau often observes–and more than observes, digs up and uncovers, turns over–complications, contradictions, and ironies found in the words we use. What makes them ironic is the gap between what the word (or more broadly, an idea) means in its root senses and what it has come to mean in our less deliberate, less careful social uses and conventions. Uncovering these ironies is part of Thoreau’s poetic project–one of the many projects of Walden.

And so, to extend the irony I discussed in my last post: Thoreau desires  to craft a book that will be understood by his audience but at the same time not completely understood; he wants an understanding that will remain partly mysterious and biodegradable, like the way he talks about “two views of the same” in his journal. Or the way he thinks about stars in the first chapter. Or reading. Or solitude.

There is a helpful tool we can use to dig further into the way Thoreau is often himself digging into words, digging as though he were cultivating his bean field: the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary (linked under resources on Earth’s Eye). Consider, as an example, the word “manurance” from the chapter “The Bean-Field.” It is an older word that refers to the occupation and cultivation of land. This is what Thoreau has in mind. But it also relates to, and certainly evokes, the word manure–by extension, a product from the land and/or used to cultivate the land. We will see in a later chapter that Thoreau is very interested in manure, as a literal, agricultural necessity but also a figurative, spiritual idea. It is both metaphor and metonymy–stay tuned for details on what those two poetic figures mean, particularly “metonymy” since it is likely less familiar to you.

This is a contradiction, an irony, of interest to Thoreau. The growth and composition of language and ideas, like beans and people, depend upon decomposition. As a hippie might say: that’s some heavy shit, man!

Keep your eye on the horse and its relation to decomposition. It will return before the end of the book.