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Thoreau: parlaver, metonymy, metaphor

June 6, 2010

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 (or should) 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 practic, 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 the 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.

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.

The metonymic pole emphasizes continguity and context. This is when we represent through substitution (as all writing and language does), 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 metonym 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.

My argument is that Thoreau is more interested 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.

Should anyone be interested in reading further into this (which is another way of saying, helping me make more sense of this), I have an essay by the poet  Lyn Hejinian called “Strangeness” where she focuses on metonymy, associates it with something of a scientific perspective in its emphasis on particularity, and even cites Thoreau in the process.

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.

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