Today’s theme song for ENGL 203-04 is “Autumn Leaves,” composed by Joseph Kosma, with French lyrics by Jacques Prévert and English lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It’s performed here on the theremin by Pamela Kurstin.
As the autumn leaves begin to turn here in western New York, our thoughts in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts” turn to leaves of a different kind: the leaves of manuscripts.
What are you doing when you “turn over a new leaf”?
Thoreau puns on these connections in paragraph 9 of “Spring” in Walden:
Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last? … There is nothing inorganic. These foliaceous heaps lie along the bank like the slag of a furnace, showing that Nature is “in full blast” within. The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. [Emphasis added.]
We might suppose that we call the pages of a book “leaves” because they’re similar in some way to the leaves that fall from trees. But Thoreau reverses this relationship, suggesting that Nature’s leaves are themselves “hieroglyphics” that need to be “deciphered” — in other words, they’re already things to be read. In doing this, he’s picking up an old theme (see, for example, here and here) that his Transcendentalist contemporaries also played variations on: the idea that Nature is a “book” in which we can read divine messages. The real, “living” poetry is to be found in Nature, Thoreau suggests, not in the leaves of the books humans write.
It’s interesting to consider how identifying Nature as a “book” or as “poetry” shapes Thoreau’s understanding of it. But looking in the other direction, we might also ask how our understanding of literature is framed by the most basic terminology we use for talking about the world of books. How does it affect our understanding of a poem to identify it with a word whose literal meaning is “made thing”? How does it shape our understanding of a text to identify it with a name that literally means “woven thing”?
Leaves — poems — texts: these are all material realities. What is their relation to thought, which seems immaterial, simply living on the air, like the notes that Pamela Kurstin appears to shape out of thin air with her fingers?
How does it affect our understanding of a writer’s thought to encounter it in the material form of a manuscript leaf full of deletions, interlineations, and other scribbles, not to mention water stains, ink blots, and torn edges? Is the “real” work that which can be extracted from this material thing, or is it the thing itself?