Saturday, February 10, 2007
Geology and Literature
Randall Jarrell's description of the long poem 'Paterson' as a 'geological event' (see previous post) suggests that Paterson:
(1) was a major happening
(2) occured quite suddenly (in geological terms, 'event' almost implies catastrophe)
(3) was something that didn't happen too often
(4) was something that changed the landscape of literature
(5) would enter into the 'geological record'
If we accept Jarrell's statement on behalf of Paterson, we must also accept that there is a close metaphorical relationship between literature and language on the one hand and geology and earth processes on the other. Otherwise the statement would be inappropriate.
The fact that this relationship exists is clear from the lack of explanation that Jarrell's comment requires.
So what are the comparable aspects of these two domains:
Separation of process from product: Literature is not language. Language is a process for dealing with ideas and the product it creates is literature. Literature is an accumulation of manufactured story or poem objects in the same way that geology is an accumulation of manufactured rocks. The language process is comparable to the depositional process. Different languages equate to different depositional processes.
Historical development: both literature and geology have long histories. While we can pick up a copy of Homer from the bookshelf today, we are in fact taking the work from close to the base of a huge pile of literature that has accumulated since. Although deeply buried, Homer can continue to influence literature today. The same happens in geology. What was once buried becomes uplifted as mountains. The mountains are eroded and provide material for ongoing sedimentary processes.
Interpretation: Both literature and geology require that the observer undergo some sort of prior educational process before they are able to comprehend. In the case of literature, it is necessary to learn to read. In geology, rocks must be identified. A book held upside down will not be understood. No more will a pile of rocks that have been overturned. A trained reader will know when the book is upside down. A traned geologist will know when the rocks are upside down.
Hierarchy of events: The processes of geology and literature are going on all around us, all the time. We have become so familar with both that we are hardly aware of them. However, we learn to separate both subjects into a hierarchy of events. The literature of the newspapers, for example, can be compared to the everyday deposition of a river or of dunes in the desert. Books are perhaps the occasional landslide on an unstable hillside. Some books are decidedly geological events comparable to major inundations or volcanic eruptions.
The process chain: Every writer is familiar with the process chain of literature. It would seem, at first glance, that any writer could create anything that they wished. Another Finnegan's Wake for example. But the reality is that every writer is constrained by their experiences, their knowledge of literature, their ability to grasp for the building blocks of literature (words, sentences) and their will to subvert and tangle with language). This is why every writer produces something different, and why different kinds of sediments lie at the bottom of every sea.
Evolution of Process: Ferdinand de Saussure, the renowned Swiss Linguist wrote: "speech always implies both an established system and an evolution; at every moment it is an existing institution and a product of the past. To distinguish between the system and its history, between what it is and what it was, seems very simple at first glance; actually the two things are so closely related that we can hardly keep them apart." In the same way, depositional processes which we see occuring today are similar to those of the past, but not exactly the same, since they evolve to correspond to current conditions. Many processes have been adapted in relation to organic evolution, for example, the creation of coralline limestone made out of corals that have evolved through time. The instrument of speech, the voice box, has also undoubtedly adapted to better perform its process of communication through man's evolution.
Making the invisible visible: So much of geology is about creating something from nothing. Eroding grains of sand from a mountain, blowing them across the desert and piling them up in a dune, the beds of which will actually conform to the invisible processes which transported them there. Language similarly makes use of what is invisible: perceptions, ideas. These invisible things attach word objects to themselves and become utterances and finally literature. The language patterns of that literature tell us under what conditions it was created.