Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau

Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau

by Branka Arsic

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Birds were never far from Thoreau's mind. They wing their way through his writing just as they did through his cabin on Walden Pond, summoned or dismissed at whim by his whistles. Emblematic of life, death, and nature's endless capacity for renewal, birds offer passage into the loftiest currents of Thoreau's thought. What Branka Arsic finds there is a theory of vitalism that Thoreau developed in response to his brother's death. Through grieving, Thoreau came to see life as a generative force into which everything dissolves. Death is not an annulment of life but the means of its transformation and reemergence.

Bird Relics traces Thoreau's evolving thoughts through his investigation of Greek philosophy and the influence of a group of Harvard vitalists who resisted the ideas of the naturalist Louis Agassiz. It takes into account materials often overlooked by critics: his Indian Notebooks and unpublished bird notebooks; his calendars that rewrite how we tell time; his charts of falling leaves, through which he develops a complex theory of decay; and his obsession with vegetal pathology, which inspires a novel understanding of the relationship between disease and health.

Arsic's radical reinterpretation of Thoreau's life philosophy gives new meaning to some of his more idiosyncratic habits, such as writing obituaries for people he did not know and frequenting estate sales, and raises important questions about the ethics of Thoreau's practice of appropriating the losses of others as if they were his own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674088474
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 01/04/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Branka Arsić is Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Table of Contents

Abbreviations ix

Introduction: On Affirmative Reading, or The Lesson of the Chickadees 1

Part I Dyonisia, 467 BC: The Mythology of Mourning

Introduction: Perpetual Grief and the Example of the Fish Hawks 29

Literal Sounds 41

Homer's Music Box 49

Aeschylus's Paean 58

Cemeteries of the Brain 71

Pindar's Doubles 77

Odysseus, the Lyric, and the Call of the Dead 86

The Sound Dream 106

Coda: Melville's Seafowls 109

Part II Cambridge, Massachusetts, circa 1837: The Science of Life

Introduction: Harvard Vitalism and the Way of the Loon 117

Birds 143

Fossils 163

Stones 187

Photographs 213

Swamps, Leaves, Galls: A Treatise on Decay 223

Coda: Antigone's Birds 244

Part III Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, 1845: Epistemology of Change

Introduction: On Embodied Knowledge and the Deliberation of the Crow 251

Toward Things as They Are 258

Thinking with Geological Velocity 262

How to Greet a Tree? 266

Contemplating Matter 272

The Noontime of the Mind 277

Thinking with the Body 1: Walking 281

Thinking with the Body 2: Sitting 293

Personhood: Who or What? 311

Coda: Benjamin's Seagulls 318

Part IV Ossossane Village, Ontario, 1636: Acts of Recollecting

Introduction: The Ethics of Communal Mourning and the Flight of the Turtle Dove 325

Deathways of Things 330

Ragged Fragments and Vital Relics 338

The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead 357

Coda: Pythagoras's Birds 363

Appendix I Freud and Benjamin on Nature in Mourning 369

Appendix II On Thoreau's Grave 385

Notes 389

Acknowledgments 443

Index 447

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