Swamp Things: Professor Branka Arsić Lectures on Disease and Decay in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau

On March 30th, 2015 Branka Arsić presented a captivating section from Bird Relics: Grief and treeVitalism in Thoreau (forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2015). The audience was noticeably engrossed in her meticulously researched findings in her talk titled, “Swamps, Leaves, Galls: Thoreau on Disease and Decay”: the latest installment of the URI Department of English Read/Write Series.

Branka Arsić is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Currently a Visiting Professor at Brown University, Arsić is an authority of American Literature with previous published books including On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson and Passive Constitutions or 7½ Times Bartleby. Arsić opened her discussion with an overview of her subject: Henry David Thoreau. Her specific interest is Thoreau’s view on life that first developed while he attended at Harvard — a philosopher in his own right with a keen interest in science.

Arsić advocates for a literal reading of Thoreau’s writings involving nature. She focuses on his elevation of swamps as generators of life; epicenters of where “cunning mixtures” of life are enacted that spark transformations of lifeforms. For Thoreau, swamps embody incessant continuity of mutation and, therefore, exist as sites of immortality. This view of swamps subverts popular conceptions of these environments as centers of repugnance.

Arsić elaborated on how Thoreau’s interest in swamps intensified after the death of his brother. Decaying fungi preoccupied Thoreau as much as budding flowers. These served as natural glimpses into the operation of life, revealing life’s temporality: one that is not linear as the Aristotelian model would suggest, but exists in overlap between growth and decay.

The discussion developed further with Thoreau’s fixation on leaves and galls, which are the equivalent of tumor-like growths that develop on the foliage. Arsić attests to Thoreau’s understanding that leaves remain alive despite falling, “like the breath of the tree.” In lieu of this notion, traditional views of the seasons as representative of living (spring) and dying (fall) are subverted. Vegetation exists in constant states of life and death. Observations that would typically be viewed as signifying death such as a leaf’s change in color actually serve as reminders to this fact that, according to Thoreau, “All the seasons are spring.”

Arsić’s argument culminates in the assertion that the Aristotelian, linear view of life established values of privileging “healthy” life. Ideals of perfection were normalized and irregularity was devalued and christened the “abnormal.” Arsić posits that Thoreau’s view of disease is not as a series of constant attacks on life, but as a natural aspect of it. There is nothing that does not rot as it buds, and all of nature can be likened to the imperfections of galls that form upon leaves.

Branka Arsić admitted that “Swamps, Leaves, Galls: Thoreau on Disease and Decay” was only a small aspect of a much more complex framework that develops in the chapters of her book. However, the presentation prompted a series of stimulating questions regarding the nature of Thoreau’s authorial perspective and academic tendencies to aestheticize literature to conform to the demands of the reader and drift away from its unadulterated value that can be gained from reading a text on its own terms.

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