Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thoreau's Sounding Earth

In response to a request that I give them a title and brief description of my lecture for the sustainability unbound event at the University of New Hampshire in late March, I settled on the following:

Thoreau's Sounding Earth

    Henry David Thoreau’s ear vibrated in resonance with the sounds of crickets, frogs, birds, air, water, and especially to his beloved aeolian telegraph-harp, convincing him that humans were part and parcel of the natural world, not set above it to master its resources for the progress of civilization. Thoreau’s experiences with music and sound, which he called a “language without metaphor,” enabled him both to enjoy ecstatic experiences of the natural sublime, and to look for relations within the natural world rather than to regard natural facts primarily as metaphorical vehicles for transcendence into the realm of spiritual truths. As both humanist and naturalist, his sound combination of ecstasy and ecology led him not only to a peculiarly modern understanding of nature but convinced him that 'in wildness is the preservation of the world.' Contemporary scientific research in acoustic ecology bears him out.

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This is just a surface view of the topic. I'm grateful for the push that this event has given me to re-read Thoreau on music and sound and to connect his thought to a humanities tradition. There has been a great deal of stimulating writing about Thoreau in the last couple of decades, and even before then he was well served by literary critics such as Sherman Paul and Sharon Cameron. With the rise of ecocriticism, his writing has become even more important to contemporary culture. A few of the critics have commented on his references to sound and music--those references are hard to ignore--but they have followed Sherman Paul's lead in assuming that sound, for Thoreau, confirmed his belief in a correspondence theory of truth that was articulated by Emerson (in his book Nature) and was characteristic of transcendental thought, although correspondence theory certainly did not originate with the Emerson or the American transcendentalists. I'm not so sure that this reading has got the all of it. Thoreau did think at times of sound as metaphor; but constructing sound as metaphor and symbol removes its temporal aspect, its passage in time--it instantiates time. He could (and did) also think of sound as immanent rather than transcendent; and increasingly it led him to search for pattern through the passage of calendrical time, as he worked on his last project, his "Kalendar" of the natural world of Concord. His writings contain the evidence.

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