August 5, 2011

Subjectivity of Nature in Tinkers by Paul Harding [review time]

Paul Harding’s Tinkers is concerned with the separation between man and nature, an important theme of literature since Romantic Poetry. Humanity is incapable of experiencing nature objectively; it can only be experienced subjectively in that it is always coloured by human interpretation. Tinkers has many of what I will call Borealis pieces, where one of George's grandsons reads to him from an old journal in his handwriting. The natural experience is filtered through a human perspective in these pieces, and human actions disrupt the natural scenes. Human, man-made objects also intrude on these passages. Personification assimilates nature to humanity rather than understanding what nature really is. The Borealis pieces in Tinkers draw attention to the subjectivity of nature in its impenetrability from human understanding.

A human presence appears in the Borealis pieces, so that the experiences of nature are presented through a human interpreter. In Tempest Borealis, the objective description of the sky turning “from silver to green” is followed by human action: “We went to the dock where our wooden rowboats were tied by their noses to aluminum cleats.” These human actions disturb the attempt at objective interpretation, making it impossible to see the scenes described without the human interference.

Cosmos Borealis focuses on describing nature, but the human presence is undeniable. The passage opens with what seems to have the potential for objective description: “Light skin of sky and cloud and mountain on the still pond." This opening, which is a sentence fragment, even succeeds in overcoming the very human convention of grammar usage. The omission of a predicate action verb complements the stillness of the pond. However, people are soon introduced to the passage and disrupt the natural surroundings. The narrator becomes a human character when he says, “our words scrieved the slick surface... so that we had only to whisper across the wide plate.” There is a “we” subject in the passage that catches trout and whispers twice.

Humanity intrudes on the natural descriptions in the novel, drawing attention to the subjectivity of natural experiences. Some of the “borealis” pieces place the descriptions of the natural scenes in numbered lists. The passage entitled Crepescule Borealis begins with: “1. The bark of birches glows silver and white at dusk." Numbering the sentences is an incredibly human way of breaking up and organising the elements in a scene of nature. The narrator’s choice of notation draws attention to itself and to its human construction.

The intrusion of people into nature is also clear in Homo Borealis, when divers enter the sea and disrupt the ocean waters: “When we dived for shells, it parted for us without resistance, and sealed itself behind our up-pointed toes. We felt around, blind, in its slick graphite body." The “we” character infiltrates the natural body of the sea and affects everything around it. The experience of nature is not possible without the human experiencing and changing it.

Howard is conflicted by this problem when he sinks into the river, hoping to watch nature without affecting the natural things around him. As he sits submerged, “he imagines that he will now be able to see the animals and the light and the water the way they are when he is not present." He shares the desire of the Romantic poet – to see nature without his own presence interfering. However, no matter how still he sits in the water, what he sees will still be coloured by his own experiences. He goes to the forest in hopes that it “might tell him something about his father.” His interpretation of nature is affected by this desire.

Material objects, particularly those that are strictly man-made, also intrude on the Borealis pieces as they attempt to portray nature objectively. In Crepuscule Borealis, there are similes that compare natural objects to man-made ones: “The bark of birches peels like parchment... The spaces between the trees look like glowing coals." Domestica Borealis similarly uses a metaphor to describe a natural phenomenon by comparing it to a man-made object. The narrator watches the windows “knit frost into lace." An attempt is made to understand through figurative language and material objects that are well known, but this only leads to an understanding of nature as compared to human things, not as it really is.

The birds in Domestica Borealis use tinsel to make their nests. Tinsel is a distinctly human, rather than natural, material for the birds to use. There is a parallel here between the human and nature when they then go on to make a house of cards, emulating the birds’ nest building. Later, an entire town is built of distinctly human materials in Homo Borealis. While ordinary homes are made of wood, metals, or brick, their Town Hall “was constructed of drinking straws (some with elbows, most not), and hubcaps and the foil from cigarette packages.” The nests from Domestica Borealis are referred to here again: “in nests of wrappers and tinsel and string.” The use of material objects that are man-made and distinctly human within the passages describing nature draws attention to the human perspective tainting it.

In accompaniment of the human objects that intrude on the scene, the Borealis pieces include the human body as it is “be-thinged” – turned into material objects as opposed to organic, natural beings. At the end of Homo Borealis, the human corpse is returned, not to nature, but to the material world:
When it came time to die, we knew and went to deep yards where our bones turned to brass. We were picked over. We were used to fix broken clocks, music boxes; our pelvises were fitted onto pinions, our spines soldered into vast works. Our ribs were fitted as gear teeth and tapped and clicked like tusks.
The body turns into material, man-made objects, rather than soil. The natural process of decomposition becomes a human process of becoming “be-thinged.” In Homo Borealis, humanity is incapable of fusing with nature, but is instead restricted to itself. Humanity becomes the material objects it produces.

The distance between man and nature is exemplified by George and Howard turning into man-made things, distanced further from nature. Early in the novel, George loses the use of his legs, which become woodlike and his wife can’t help but think, “My husband, the table." George thinks of his father as a coming apart clock:
when a new spring he was coaxing into its barrel came loose from its arbor and exploded, cutting his hands, sometimes damaging the rest of the works, he had a vision of his father on the floor, his feet kicking chairs, bunching up rugs, lamps falling off of their tables, his head banging on floorboards, his teeth clamped onto a stick or George's own fingers.
The destructive violence of the clock reminds George of his father’s seizures, and Howard is here “be-thinged” in that he is thought of as a man-made object. Howard’s seizures are compared to the natural in the book: “What would it be like to be split open from the inside by lightning? Howard used to imagine it was like the rapture of a fit." While Howard has a seizure he is compared to a material object, and the seizures are compared to the natural phenomena of lightning. This comparison, however, does not yield objective understanding of lightning, but rather assimilates nature to something within human experience.

Understanding comes from transmuting the unknown into the known, but this understanding cannot be said to be objective. The Borealis pieces use personification in an attempt to come closer to comprehending nature. In Tempest Borealis, the wind comes in “like a rumor, like the murmur of old men muttering about the storm behind the mountain." The natural is compared to the distinctly human concepts of rumours and murmuring, but to say that wind is like a murmur is not to understand wind for what it is, but for the human action it is compared to. Similarly, “Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues.” This does not bring proximity to nature as it really is, but an understanding filtered through human eyes. Personification assimilates the natural to the human and draws attention to the humanness of this understanding.

A comet is personified in Cometa Borealis in an attempt to understand this natural phenomenon. The “we” character used throughout these pieces becomes a comet breaking through the atmosphere and narrating its own journey: “We entered the atmosphere at dusk. We trailed a wake of fire." The comet becomes a conscious and thinking being, which facilitates some form of understanding. The comet suggests that it is being watched by caribou and that “Perhaps, far away, there was a revolution.” However, there is resistance to the idea of the comet having the capability for thought as the passage goes on to say, “We never saw the caribou or the revolution.” This seems to conflict with the idea of the comet narrating and describing the world around it. The personification of the comet is an instance of projecting human characteristics and capabilities onto a natural, inanimate object. The comet is unable to see, think or feel, but it is described by the human narrator as doing so. The metaphor attempts to bring understanding of the natural phenomenon, but that understanding is through similarities to the human, not through any new knowledge about nature itself.

The Borealis pieces introduce the distance between man and an objective understanding of nature through personification, the use of material, man-made things, and the intrusion of human concepts. While personification is a useful way of describing the natural, it does not yield an objective understanding, but rather projects the human onto something beyond humanity. Consciousness is projected onto the comet to describe its journey, but this does not say anything about the objective experience of the comet. Similarly, natural objects are compared to man-made ones using similes and metaphors in the “borealis” pieces. More man-made objects intrude on the natural processes of nest-building and decomposition. Human concepts such as words, messages, revelations and revolutions are found throughout the pieces, intruding on the natural scene.


  1. Replies
    1. No problem! This is an abridged version of an essay I wrote for an American Literature class. Hope it is helpful in decoding those challenging sections of Tinkers!