Sunday, May 30, 2010

`A Kind of Gradual Accumulation of Information'

One hundred fifty-eighty years ago today, a Sunday, Thoreau writes in his journal:

“Now is the summer come. A breezy, washing day. A day for shadows, even of moving clouds, over fields in which the grass is beginning to wave. Senecio in bloom. A bird’s nest in grass, with coffee-colored eggs. Cinquefoil and houstonia cover the ground, mixed with grass and contrasting with each other. Strong lights and shades now.”

Senecio – you’ve seen them, part of the daisy family, ragworts and groundsels, with ragged yellow flowers. So drably beautiful we walk past them and register, if anything, “yellow,” as though they were dandelions. Paul Klee painted “Senecio” in 1922, annus mirabilis.

Cinquefoil – “five-leaf,” a flower in the genus Potentilla, of the rose family. Buttery yellow blossoms. I see them everywhere, even in our front lawn – a pleasing contrast against the richly green moss, of which we have more than grass.

Houstonia – bluets, probably Houstonia caerulea, known as Quaker ladies (note the shape and color of the petals).

“Coffee-colored eggs” – lovely, though we know Thoreau disapproved of the life-enhancing beverage. “I believe that water,” he writes in Walden, “is the only drink for a wise man. Wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” A sublime writer but a misguided man.

Thoreau’s passage amounts to an Imagist poem. One wonders if he wrote it in a hurry, prose shorthand, or if the effect of discrete snapshots is intentional, the product of craft. The parts become a whole. The sentences impress because we have seen such scenes and ignored them; also, because Thoreau suggests we can never see or know or understand enough. In a July 1962 interview in the wake of Pale Fire, Nabokov says:

“Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects -- that machine, there, for instance. It's a complete ghost to me--I don't understand a thing about it and, well, it's a mystery to me, as much of a mystery as it would be to Lord Byron.”

Nabokov doesn't say reality is nonexistent. Rather, it is “a kind of gradual accumulation of information.” It will always outpace our knowledge and imagination. The more we know, the more there is, the more there is to know.


Anonymous said...

A very good post.Thanks.

mic_comte said...

Paul Klee deserves a great thank you from all the painters he inspired (including myself).