July 08, 2006

What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us?

Yesterday, Lydia Joyce wrote to call my attention to Henry David Thoreau's transcendentalist phonology. The context is Thoreau's description of something that he calls "sand foliage" (Walden, Chapter XVII, "Spring"):

Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented. The material was sand of every degree of fineness and of various rich colors, commonly mixed with a little clay. When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopards' paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds.

I can't remember the last time I walked through an unstabilized rail cut or road cut in the right sort of ground. But that most of us have seen similar patterns in flows of sand and clay, if only in the smaller and more temporary forms that children and waves create together at the beach. Thoreau is impressed by how quickly such patterns form:

The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank,—for the sun acts on one side first,—and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,—had come to where he was still at work, sorting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it.

It's not obvious why quick emergence should be more evocative of transcentalist musings than slow emergence is, but my own reactions are similar to Thoreau's. I suppose it's because sudden structures emphasize the process as much as the result.

Now we get to the phonology. The law that the atoms have learned, it seems, is a sort of transcendentalist sound law:

Internally whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat, (λείβω , labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβός , globus, lobe, globe, also lap, flap, and many other words,) externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed,) with a liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of water plants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.

It tells us something about Thoreau and his time that he starts his word lists with Greek and Latin, before going on to English, and that he analyzes the lists in terms of pseudo-Semitic "radicals", though he gives no actual Hebrew or Arabic roots. (The various on-line versions of Thoreau's text variously transliterate the Greek, or omit it in favor of a series of underscores, or render it as "[letters of the Greek alphabet]". Hey, folks, this is the Age of Unicode -- you can put the Greek back in.)

One of the most interesting things about this associative rhapsody of sound and sense is what Thoreau leaves out of it. He takes off from the Greek words λείβω and λοβός (roughly "flow" and "lobe"), and other words sharing the "radicals" l and b. (In more detail, Liddell & Scott give λείβω the glosses pour, pour forth; make a libation of wine; let flow, shed;, melt and liquefy one's spirit; Pass., of the tears, to be shed, pour forth; in Pass., also, melt or pine away. And for λοβός we find lobe of the ear; lobe of the liver, lobe of the lung, capsule or pod of leguminous plants; in rose leaves, the white part.) Thoreau develops the /b/ into other labials /p/, /f/ and /v/, to get lapse, lap, leaf and leaves. Prefixing the guttural /g/ gives him "the capacity of the throat", the globe and the grub, whence he can rise from the flowing lobes of earth to the "thinner and drier leaves" of the "airy and fluttering butterfly". But given these phonemes and philosophies, there's a lexical dog that conspicuously doesn't bark in this passage: the l, the o, the g, logos, the neoplatoist origin of the universe, ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, Henry, hello?

Of course the omission is no accident, given Thoreau's beliefs -- but I wonder how consciously he was substituting λείβω and λοβός for λόγος here?

(And along his way to the winged globe, the delicate crystal leaves of ice, and the cities as insect eggs in the axils of rivers, it's a small thing that Thoreau conflates speech sounds and letters in comparing the "lobes" of the letters b and B with the lobes of the liver and lungs...)

Lydia comments that "this isn't quite onomatopoeia, but I don't know what to call it". I'm not sure that it has a name, but "transcendentalist phonology" will do for a start. (Or maybe "linguistic theology"? Walt Whitman continues the discussion here.)

Thoreau has more to say about his railway cut, in a similarly hallucinatory manner:

What is man but a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed. The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body. Who knows what the human body would expand and flow out to under a more genial heaven? Is not the hand a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins? The ear may be regarded, fancifully, as a lichen, umbilicaria, on the side of the head, with its lobe or drop. The lip (labium from labor (?)) laps or lapses from the sides of the cavernous mouth. The nose is a manifest congealed drop or stalactite. The chin is a still larger drop, the confluent drippings of the face. The cheeks are a slide from the brows into the valley of the face, opposed and diffused by the cheek bones. Each rounded lobe of the vegetable leaf, too, is a thick and now loitering drop, larger or smaller; the lobes are the fingers of the leaf; and as many lobes as it has, in so many directions it tends to flow, and more heat or other genial influences would have caused it to flow yet father.

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?

Walden was published in 1854. The Origin of Species was published in 1859. There are more than a few additional steps in the deciphering, of course -- D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form for a start, and complex systems theory, and homeobox genes, and a lot more, much of which believers in this theological tradition still need to take on faith.

This phenomenon is more exhilarating to me than the luxuriance and fertility of vineyards. True, it is somewhat excrementitious in its character, and there is no end to the heaps of liver lights and bowels, as if the globe were turned wrong side outward; but this suggests at least that Nature has some bowels, and there again is mother of humanity. This is the frost coming out of the ground; this is Spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 8, 2006 09:35 AM