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sustainability and irony

January 30, 2009

After our good discussion and sauntering today (Friday) through the first three chapters of Walden, I wanted to add some notes and pursue some thinking I left the library with–perhaps another definition of what it means to be a deliberate reader, to continue the deliberation.

Samantha started us off thinking about Thoreau’s ‘economy’ in terms of sustainability. It is an insightful and useful connection: to use this more recent term from various environmentally focused discussions, and to see it exist in earlier forms. So, one version of sustainability that Thoreau I think does offer, particularly in “Economy,” is the idea of a household that can be managed by the people that live there and that will therefore sustain them. That much seems clear in the first chapter. 

But we also talked about, and have encountered this week, places where we suspect contradictions. So, to take one: a sustainable house in the first chapter sounds like a simple way of living. Where does the knowledge to learn and read Greek and Latin in the original, let alone the time to do that reading, come from? Or, to expand this view of literacy to Thoreau’s own writing: why such a complicated and crafted and challenging text for someone who champions simplicity? 

I mentioned that a more precise word for the various contradictions in Thoreau would be paradox: opposites that turn out to have a relation, and in fact are significant in that relation. A related term, usually focused more on literary matters, would be irony. 

Borrowing from wikipedia:

Irony (from the Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eironeía, meaning hypocrisy, deception, or feigned ignorance) is a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity or discordance between what one says or does and what one means or what is generally understood. Irony is a mode of expression that calls attention to the character’s knowledge and that of the audience.

There is some argument about what qualifies as ironic, but all senses of irony revolve around the perceived notion of an incongruity between what is said and what is meant; or between an understanding of reality, or an expectation of a reality, and what actually happens.

The Greek origins of the word associate irony with errand, with a wandering–a sauntering. I would suggest that there are two conditions of irony that we encounter in Thoreau and Walden. The first is when the discrepancy between statement and meaning, or saying and doing, is not recognized by the speaker/doer. That is, an irony of ignorance. An example from the film King Corn and the issue of the unsustainability of our food/farm policy. The irony that all the farmers in Iowa growing corn can’t eat the corn they grow. Another irony: that the chemicals/herbicides used to grow all that corn (the irony of gorwing by killing) are having unintended affects at the bottom of the Mississippi.

So, unsustainability could be viewed in terms of dramatic irony: we keep doing things that come back to haunt us, because we don’t think about or recognize their effects elsewhere in the system. We are Oedipus and we don’t realize that we’ve been sleeping with our mother–not a sustainable relationship, at least according to Greek tragedy.

But here is the catch. Sustainability is also irony. In order to be sustainable or to think in terms of sustainability, we need to be able to recognize a larger system that at any give point we can’t fully comprehend (the logic of system being that all the parts are related, but therefore no part can be completely isolated: a farm in Iowa is not just a farm in Iowa, it is also shrimp in the delta and soda in Brooklyn). That is, we need to be ironic in order to recognize better the inevitable discrepancies between what is in front of us and what is not. This kind of irony, though, is about challenging ignorance. I see this in Thoreau’s use of irony to combat the other kinds of ignorant irony he sees around him. So educated intelligence is inconsistent, perhaps, with simple living–but not unrelated. Maybe it can be viewed as a different kind of fertilizer–say, the one that fails to kill all the weeds and doesn’t sustain the huge corn yield. Something closer to the oxymoron we get in Walking (useful ignorance) or at the end of ‘Reading” (uncommon learning). Or Oedipus saying, not tonight, you remind me too much of someone?

I am interested in learning more about your views of sustainability and ways that our readings speak to the issue from literary points of view and others. I wonder, also, going forward in Walden, if it will help to deal with Thoreau’s tricky (sometimes biting) irony by shifting the focus to sustainability.

By the way, another thing you might experiment with in your blog is to find links with contemporary discussions out there–see if and how a writer like Thoreau is taken up; or to ask, what would Thoreau think about this: Alex mentioned something along these lines with t-shirts. There is actually a sustainability institute out there named for Thoreau; not sure if they view things in terms of irony, or what they make of Thoreau’s interest in irony.

p.s. That song from a few years ago, “Isn’t it Ironic” (think it was Alanis Morisette) were not examples of irony. It is ironic, however, to name a song for irony and fail to realize that the song isn’t about irony.

p.p.s Found this call for papers for an upcoming conference on Green Writing.

Participants in ‘Sense and Sustainability’ should address the themes of 
nature within the general theme of how the present environmental crisis 
informs and deforms literary theory and English language practice, written 
or performed. 

I think the notion of literary study (or English language practice) being deformed as well as informed by environmental issues (such as sustainability) is ironic. In the sense that we usually don’t think of deformation positively–especially in the field of arts or creativity. And yet, it is an irony of creation, is it not? Composition and decomposition–brings me back to my speculations on a biodegradable essay on Thoreau.

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