josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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27 Sep '12 03:21:42 AM

'A new free-thinker has published an exhaustive Treatise of Human Nature, 2 volumes, octavo. In it he attempts to introduce the correct method of philosophizing into moral matters, examining and explaining, first of all, the characteristics of the human understanding and then the effects. The author's evil intentions are sufficiently betrayed in the sub-title of the work, taken from Tacitus: Rara temporum felicitas, ubi sentire, quae velis, & quae sentias, dicere, licet.'

(Seldom are men blessed with times in which they may think what they like, and say what they think.)

25 Sep '12 07:48:30 PM

Strong wind can provoke fragments of animistic feeling: 'why is the world against me?'.

22 Sep '12 08:07:05 PM

Occupy occupied occupying.

22 Sep '12 08:37:55 AM

'Values' is not a helpful word.

20 Sep '12 11:51:08 PM

An early moment, on June 6, in Sierra that strikes an unmistakably transcendentalist note:

'We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun,—a part of all nature, neither young nor old, sick nor well, but immortal. Just now I can hardly conceive of any bodily condition dependent on food or breath any more than the ground or the sky. How glorious a conversion, so complete and wholesome it is, scarce memory enough of old bondage days left as a standpoint to view it from! In this newness of life we seem to have been so always.'

'We are now in the mountains and they are in us' is simple, sublime, but resistant to any literal elaboration without terms belonging to other registers. So we quickly get some belonging to the affective and religious ('enthusiasm'), physiological ('nerve', 'pore'), and most basic biological ('cell'). In the last the inner-outer relation of the opening sentence is recapitulated: the mountains fill our every cell. 'Kindling' treats the relation as still causal, though in a conventionally metaphorical way, aligned with the perception of beauty later referred to. The transparency of glass makes the relation more direct; rather than lighting a fire, to burn in some material, the beauty, like light, a more sublime kind of fire, passes right through the material—the flesh and bone that we are—and then is inside it. The 'seems', the 'as if', indicate Muir's sensitivity to the limits of his language, as do the appearance of food and breath in his thoughts, nourishing and sustaining substances which really do enter the body. Emphasis on being a 'part' of nature—for how are we not?—seems inadequate by itself to support his sense of immortality; he wants this to mean, part of the parts, and that somehow to mean, to take part in what makes nature nature, what makes 'all of nature' what it is, how it is. So the language has to picture a breach of the body that unites it with everything that is without.

20 Sep '12 11:09:48 PM

John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra is presented as a journal, or at least under the radical of presentation, 'journal', but going by its prose it's evidently more composed than that; William Cronon notes in the Library of America edition that Muir drew on his 1869 journal of his time in Yosemite while revising and adding later episodes. And there was plenty of time to; the book wasn't published until 1911.

Before the 'entries' start, Muir writes as an 'I' to establish the arrangement between himself and Mr. Delaney that led to the trip recounted in the journal. He meets Delaney's dog, Carlo, who will accompany him.

Then already in the first entry, Muir is accompanied by Carlo, Delaney, Billy the shepherd, a Chinaman, and an Indian. And the sheep. So he writes as an 'I' who is part of a 'we'.

19 Sep '12 08:34:54 AM

In the summer Thoreau calls 1852 'my year of observation'. When he makes an observation he is wont to mark the time, to whatever specificity suits the observation. 'Seasons' proliferate in the summer. 'This melting weather makes a stage in the year' in mid-June. A week earlier, 'the season of waving boughs; and the lighter under sides of the new leaves are exposed'. In early July, 'the progress of the season is indescribable':

'It is growing warm again, but the warmth is different from what we have had. We lie in the shade of locust trees. Haymakers go by in a hay-rigging. I am reminded of berrying. I scent the sweet-fern and the dead or dry pine leaves. Cherry-birds alight on a neighboring tree. The warmth is something more normal and steady, ripening fruits. Nature offers fruits now as well as flowers. We have become accustomed to the summer. It has acquired a certain eternity. The earth is dry. Perhaps the sound of the locust expresses the season as well as anything. The farmers say the abundance of the grass depends on wet in June. I might make a separate season of those days when the locust is heard.'

With only the close intensity of his observations to move you, Thoreau can start a paragraph like that, 'the progress of the season is indescribable', so that your first thought is not wordless sublimes or stand-still reveries, but simply: when?—and so you check the date, July 5.

Time and place and name—and 'I'—must play a crucial role in establishing the particular quality of realism Thoreau's journal has. They counterbalance the features of his style—of writing, of observing in writing—that have a schematic feel, like his love for simple colors or his way of blending one element of an observation with another via transfers of the words that belong with them. Here, the blue of the lupine and the blue of the air:

'June 5. The lupine is now in its glory. It is the more important because it occurs in such extensive patches, even an acre or more together, and of such a pleasing variety of colors,—purple, pink, or lilac, and white,—especially with the sun on it, when the transparency of the flower makes its color changeable. It paints a whole hillside with its blue, making such a field (if not meadow) as Proserpine might have wandered in. Its leaf was made to be covered with dewdrops. I am quite excited by this prospect of blue flowers in clumps with narrow intervals. Such a profusion of the heavenly, the elysian, color, as if these were the Elysian fields. They say the seeds look like babies' faces, and hence the flower is so named. No other flowers exhibit so much blue. That is the value of the lupine. The earth is blued with them. Yet a third of a mile distant I do not detect their color on the hillside. Perchance because it is the color of the air.'

You almost think the germ of this passage, besides obviously seeing a hillside covered with lupine in bloom, could be the thought of blue as a verb. I would like to think I have similar thoughts when I notice the leaves not having turned, but having fallen seemingly all at once, to tint sidewalks and yards alike for the one day before their removal begins; or the first time there is just enough snow to erase the first layer of familiarity from all surroundings.

Thoreau's writing is most beautiful in his journal but it's a beauty that is natural, simple. Any turn of thought or additional inflection of an observation merits being written and seems not to essentially unbalance the paragraph it belongs to. The form seems undramatic, but not uninteresting. Though the sentences obviously have a reader and are written to be read, they seem not written for effect. Other nature writers want their words to become luminous, incantatory; to induce reverent feelings in the reader. For Thoreau, it's enough to see something.

19 Sep '12 08:00:18 AM

'I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist. That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations.'

18 Sep '12 06:53:20 PM

Academics who think of the internet as a place to dump announcements and CFPs are the worst.