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  • Fossil Thoughts:Thoreau, Arrowheads, and Radical Paleontology
  • Ross Martin (bio)

"Strata jacent passim suo quæque sub"lapide—corpora, we might say[.]

—Henry David Thoreau

living relics

Whenever Henry David Thoreau encounters an arrowhead—struck by its singularity—the experience reshapes him. Altered continuously by those he unearths, Thoreau spends a lifetime considering the complex ways by which relics move between people across time. Grasping an arrowhead, he considers how an ancient thought reaches him by its embodiment in enduring stone. My essay explores the peculiar ways Thoreau describes this thinking process that migrates between human and inhuman forms. He imagines how human thinking, resting in the earth long enough to fossilize, transforms into arrowhead thinking. Thoreau's description of how the living Indian "mind-print" becomes "fossil thoughts" would, according to normative paleontology, render arrowheads as lifeless stones imitating life, appearing thus lifelike.1 Strangely, however, Thoreau's radical paleontology reverses the logic of verisimilitude. My essay thus argues that despite [End Page 424] the arrowhead's temporal remoteness from its crafter, it lives on, thinking the thought that has shaped it.

My argument develops from Branka Arsić's completely strange Thoreauvian paleontology in Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (2016), where she does not view arrowheads as metaphorically alive but as actual "'living relics.'"2 Since Arsić's Thoreau believes that arrowheads literally "embody" life, the materiality of "stones" accordingly encompasses everything that being "alive" entails (BR, 19).3 Arsić incorporates relics into an ontological archive that cancels the process by which death erodes material. Because "life overcomes death, thus inverting the laws of causality," causes refer back to causes in "a world affecting itself" (BR, 1).4 Nothing evaporates from the world's corporeality, suggesting, in Thoreau's words, that Indians make arrowheads ("stone upon stone") to "live an enduring life," mingling "vital energy" with "the constant flux of things" (PJ, 1:39).5

If we take Thoreau at his word, as Arsić invites us to do, we imperil fossils' lifelike status, granting arrowheads life in the fullest and most literal sense.6 Building on Stanley Cavell's remark that Thoreau's writing "means in every word it says" and that he "also means what his words say," Arsić further proclaims that "Thoreau means every word he says, in the exact way he says them" (BR, 15; original emphasis).7 By doing "affirmative reading," as she calls it, we register a "different ontology" that "is so radical as to be almost unthinkable" (BR, 17, 22).8 Since Arsić reads Thoreau literally enough to take him "radically or ontologically,"9 she affirms an upheaval in everyday discourse that renders ordinary words into strange relations, upsetting normative ("noncontradictory") thinking and threatening to push it to an extreme, even to "madness" (BR, 4).10 Thoreau's writing thus becomes "radical in the personal demands that Thoreau makes," so that readers risk a "threat of madness," in Cavell's phrasing, by exposing our thinking to Thoreau's strange formulations.11 "Affirmation" [End Page 425] thus embraces our openness to transformation, even so "we may be undone."12

Beyond considering Thoreau's physical arrowhead collection, my essay describes relics using the logic the author presents in his Journal. Writing about relics vitalistically, Thoreau indexes arrowheads as distinctive to such a degree that they warrant a second look at the boundaries between people and things. In American Impersonal (2014), Arsić discusses "a radically revisionist analysis of personal identity" in Sharon Cameron's Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau's Journal (1985). A seemingly inanimate object, like an arrowhead, for Cameron becomes "a life" as the "'form' of impersonality," which "defies the distinction between exteriority and self-conscious interiority." Because "Thoreau attempts to lead thought into what it thinks about," he sees arrowheads as "the human self's becoming a natural object" by which he erases taxonomical divisions between "organic and inorganic."13 Following Cameron's argument, I argue that we see Thoreau's confusion of human and inhuman thinking whenever arrowheads appear in his Journal: Thoreau confuses the human thinking that forms the arrowhead with the capacity for thought the arrowhead embodies. As his Journal transgresses the boundaries between people and arrowheads, thought...


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