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.


Joe Milutis said...

I guess we can also divide up things between those who believe in the primacy of magma, the essential generative core, or those who put more stock in the little grains of sand scattering across the plains to great cumulative effect!

George S said...

"Language is a process for dealing with ideas and the product it creates is literature. "

Hmm. By language do you mean langue or parole, or both, or neither? Because one is the product of the other, but that don't necessarily make it literature. It just makes it speech. Recall Moliere and the bourgeois gentleman who had been speaking prose all his life.

Otherwise the notion of language as a process for dealing with ideas as opposed to experience is interesting. Whose notion is that?

Jonathan Wonham said...

Joe - now we are all speaking fluently in geological metaphor!

There is a poetry magazine published out of London called Magma. Of it, the editors write: "when we decided on the title Magma, it was to suggest the molten core within the world, hidden as deep feelings are and showing itself as unpredicatable movements, tremors, lava flows and eruptions."

George - I was thinking of the langue/parole division but didn't mention it because I couldn't figure out what it corresponded to in geological terms. I guess langue is the raw materials of sedimentation: grains of sand, particles of clay, dissolved solutes. Langue would also include the physical and chemical rules by which these particles could combine and interact. Parole would then be the multifarious ways in which depositional systems generated rocks using their particular 'langue'.

Do depositional systems have ideas? I suppose not. It is all cause-and-effect (experience?) to them. Humans do have ideas from time to time though and for them I guess it is a mix of the two.

I would say that all experience must be converted to ideas in order to make it available to the language process. All experience is interpreted by the brain and in doing so we develop an idea about that experience which is then communicated. From the most basic point of view, the 'ideas' may simply be about which parts of experience we will/will not communicate.

Ms Baroque said...

Very, very interesting. Of course this all goes to show how great Jarrell was. He is the lodestone. (Another thing he said which I have always loved was that ee cummings was sitting outside the doorway of the Muse, cutting out paper snowflakes.)

I guess I have several responses to this, one of which is that literature, unlike geology I imagine, is subject to fashion and thus has a changeable landscape. That is, I don't know ery many people who talk all that much about WCW these days, whereas Bishop's star has risen. Maybe "Pateron" did make possible new things, but there seems to be a corresponding "absorption" thing in writing, where the news, the message, is absorbed and we turn to other things. Or is it "once a seismic cataclysm, always a seismic cataclysm"? Must get out my Jarrell.

Secondly, Jarrell himself was an event. That this remark can start such a train of thought and lead you to buy "Patersopn." write this big post and generally start thinking in nerw ways testifies to his originality and perspicuity - not WCW's, in fact.

Thirdly, it was interesting to note that geology and literature, in your parallel, are both decidedly manmade constructs, not natural phenomena. That is, language and minerals are both natural, but literature (and to be honest I think this little analogy applies more to lit crit) and geology are both models for observation, made by us to impose order through systems and labels and to understand how the processes (as well as the products) worked.

Ms Baroque said...

I've linked to this discussion at

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Ms Baroque for your thoughtful comment. I like Bishop's writing as well, but I think her star is in the ascendent in Britain mainly because she writes as British people think poets should write. WCW writes in a more risk-taking style which the British (sorry to generalise) apparently find increasingly difficult to cope with. Paterson seems to me on first cursory inspection to be especially experimental by comparison with the rest of his work. If you have a look in the index (top right of blog) you will find a lot of other posts on geology and poetry filed under that header.