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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 Arsić 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 It takes into account materials often overlooked by critics: his Indian Notebooks and unpublished bird notebooks; his calendars that rewrite how we tell time; his charts of falling leaves, through which he develops a complex theory of decay; and his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.
Arsić'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.
Introduction: On Affirmative Reading, or The Lesson of the Chickadees
Part I. Dyonisia, 467 BC: The Mythology of Mourning
Introduction: Perpetual Grief and the Example of the Fish Hawks
Homer’s Music Box
Cemeteries of the Brain
Odysseus, the Lyric, and the Call of the Dead
The Sound Dream
Coda: Melville’s Seafowls
Part II. Cambridge, Massachusetts, circa 1837: The Science of Life
Introduction: Harvard Vitalism and the Way of the Loon
Swamps, Leaves, Galls: A Treatise on Decay
Coda: Antigone’s Birds
Part III. Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, 1845: Epistemology of Change
Introduction: On Embodied Knowledge and the Deliberation of the Crow
Toward Things as They Are
Thinking with Geological Velocity
How to Greet a Tree?
The Noontime of the Mind
Thinking with the Body 1: Walking
Thinking with the Body 2: Sitting
Personhood: Who or What?
Coda: Benjamin’s Seagulls
Part IV. Ossossané Village, Ontario, 1636: Acts of Recollecting
Introduction: The Ethics of Communal Mourning and the Flight of the Turtle Dove
Deathways of Things
Ragged Fragments and Vital Relics
The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead
Coda: Pythagoras’s Birds
Appendix I. Freud and Benjamin on Nature in Mourning
Appendix II. On Thoreau’s Grave
Branka Arsić is Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
"Arsić constructs a subtle and exhilarating argument in which Thoreau's take on vegetable and animal life, as well as his theory of mourning, becomes a radically novel understanding of nineteenth-century thought in the Americas. Bird Relics will have profound consequences for how we think about personal identity, the distinction between animate and inanimate, human and non-human, sacred and profane. We will never read Thoreau in the same way again."
– Colin Dayan, author of Haiti, History, and the Gods
"This book will revolutionize the way serious scholars read Thoreau. Nothing like it exists or is likely to appear in the near future. The work is continuously and exceptionally original."
– Edward Mooney, Syracuse University
"Arsić discovers in Thoreau's corpus a man deeply affected by his brother's death, but also a man who turns his brother's death into the occasion for a renewed understanding of life's vitality – of life as vitality. Her readings are fresh and original; they are also layered through and through with a depth of learning uncommon in contemporary scholarship. To borrow a word she uses in her account of Thoreau, I think this is a 'stunning' book."
– Lloyd Pratt, University of Oxford