Literature; a Run, with Some Philosophic Stops
By Eli Siegel
1. Homer, or somebody, saw what he as a person felt, and he used the Trojan War in a way that was fair to the universe; out of Homer's being fair to himself, and just to the universe, came the Homeric literature with its hexameters that remain.
2. Literature puts together the grand particularity of a single mind with the endless meaning of things as such; this makes for a state akin to music and form.
3. Aeschylus scolded the gods while maintaining the full dignity of himself; he also scolded man, while saying a good word for the gods; from all this came a tragedy like the Agamemnon.
4. Sophocles felt that from the world, or fate, through the gods, there came something to the blood vessels of a Greek girl; who was Antigone.
5. Sophocles' Oedipus tells us that we can never know entirely who our mother is; and shows the mystery of the maternal parent in severe, flexible Greek verse.
6. Euripides had men and women meet, and disagree, and give pain to each other; and showed that the gods had something to do with it, even while they commiserated; and in his work is to be found the relation of the troubles of family life to divinity as power: all this in Greek verse, softer, mistier than that of Aeschylus or Sophocles.
7. Virgil made the beginnings of formidable Rome seem sweet and mythological in Latin hexameters quieter than Homer's Greek ones.
8. The Bible shows how both God and men try to please themselves and how it isn't easy; Isaiah shows difficulty; Deuteronomy shows unclearness; Job is a sweet, profound controversy; the Psalms are musical beseeching; Proverbs shows that liking the Lord is good sense; and Ecclesiastes shows the uselessness of doing anything else.
9. Thomas Aquinas shows that you can beautifully argue about anything; that the syllogism is comely; that the world can generate an astounding and graceful forest of debate; that you can reason about God, and, doing so, be devout in the midst of lively, logical subdivisions.
10. Dante presented an idea of defeat, endurance, and hope in winding, firm terza rima, in triplets that were sinuous and monitory; and showed that every inward ugliness or weakness in man could take on a form that was pictorial, sculptural, and musical in its propriety.
11. Rabelais gave man a universe that was lushly and swiftly grotesque; there is tumbling in his universe; physiology takes on an intensity, an unmistakable quality, that makes physiology handsomely transparent; and the body of man is so bodily it becomes like mind, which can fall, sweat, bump, be outrageously, aesthetically biological.
12. Shakespeare was about adequately interested in everything, so we can never too much be interested in him.
13. Cervantes saw the sadness and the hilarity in the hopes that fail, and his Don Quixote will always stand for the hope that is more than ourselves, the seeing that is less than ourselves, and the confusion which is our chance.
14. Voltaire was the mightiest, conscious busybody that ever lived. His works are a sign of the omnipresence of the ridiculous, the encyclopaedic quality of the fallacious; his Candide shows that misfortune is a comic reflection on the abilities of both man and nature, and that values spend their time insulting each other.
15. Walter Scott put his mind deep into the world, and then his courageous mind came out with actions that insisted on going on; sometimes in verse and sometimes in determined, even if casual, prose; and with characters that insisted on doing things to each other, after some lively meditation on themselves.
16. Balzac also grabbed the variety of the world, and characters came to his mind who showed will in the pursuit of gold, women, men, fame, and the infinite: every character in Balzac has a touch of Napoleon or Cleopatra or Saint Francis, and sometimes all three.
17. Victor Hugo said that anything he thought of, anything he could see, might become poetry; and if French verse as it was didn't let him, he, Victor Hugo, would reform French verse; he helped to make French verse more yielding and the world kinder.
18. In Germany, Goethe tried to be the most composed person possible, while undergoing all the turbulences, insistings, puzzlements man could get to; his Faust plays between dark smoke and the white column.
19. Kant was interested in presenting the human mind as having the eternal abstractions in it: time, space, cause, effect, wholeness, manyness; in this way the mind became a likeness of the universe, a universe with individual hopes and mortifications.
20. Fichte wrote more intensely of the dance between ego and world than perhaps anyone: world banishes ego, ego banishes world, and sometimes they are one in an indissoluble ontological ecstasy.
21. Schelling's purpose was to show that nature's hope was the mind of man, and that with the mind of man, nature could say, Now I know who I am.
22. Hegel showed that the only way a thing could be was to be clearly different from something else, and therefore, since a thing is all that without which it could not be, a thing was what it was opposed to; Hegel was so excited in his modest way by all this, he is of literature.
23. Dickens has opposites and unrestrained contraries in the characters that appear inevitable and queerly in his books: Mr. Pickwick, Jingle, and Sam Weller, in their fashion, make up an Hegelian triad.
24. Dostoevsky is Hegelian and Dickensian: his Raskolnikov is David Copperfield trying to make the absolute and himself one, law and freedom one; and his Stavrogin is Uriah Heep aware of the categories in relation to himself.
25. Tolstoy broods on the mighty interest of original sin lost in Moscow drawing rooms or in Siberian prisons.
26. Dear, bulky James Fenimore Cooper showed the terrestrial and subtle drama in geography; he presented the strange relation of motion, land, water, and the heartbeat.
27. Whitman said when he sang about anything he was talking about himself; with him, to be was to be autobiographic.
28. Henry James is exquisitely reforming more men and women these days than anyone; he is the subtle, graceful Savonarola of America and England, and James's sentences are those of a sergeant-at-arms with style.
29. Literature is still showing the many, many ways a self, a mind, a body, a nervous system, an ego, a personality, a soul, a boy, a girl, a fellow, a person is the universe, no less, no less.
30. No, there is nothing that won't get into literature if there is somebody there to insist on it.
31. George Edward Bateman Saintsbury (1845-1933) is the person who has written about more things in literature than anyone else, and in the greatest number of ways; ways that are intense, exact, delighted, comprehensive, frisky, and serious; therefore he, like Homer, is of Literature.
© 1971 by Definition Press
"Literature: A Run, with Some Philosophic Stops," was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 728, March 18, 1987.