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Eiseley’s “The Secret of Life”

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1 Eiseley’s “The Secret of Life”
HMXP 102 Dr. Fike

2 Extra Credit Who will volunteer a paper for our writing workshop next Wednesday, November 5th? You would need to send a full draft of your paper to the class on the listserv, by noon on Tuesday, November 4th. It is possible to volunteer a second time but only if no one new volunteers. In any case, we need two people to share their papers.

3 Loren Eiseley Anthropologist
Professor The Immense Journey is his most important book.

4 Vocabulary iridescent (5) desiccated (5) slough (7) microtomes (15)
simulacrum (18) midge (23) dualism (8 & 12) materialism (20 & 28) hobgoblin (20) pipette (21)

5 First Sentence “I am middle-aged now, but in the autumn I always seek for it again hopefully.” What points arise from this sentence? What is the setting of this text? Hint:  Setting involves both place and time.  Why are both of these elements important in a reading of Eiseley’s text?

6 First Sentence—Significance
Setting: Autumn in a field near the author’s home, after harvest time when nature is a wreck of its summer self. Autumn and the author’s age suggest the life cycle. He is 45 years old (23), the time when a man begins to sense his mortality and look beyond the physical world. Whereas all things move forward in time, one must move backward in time to discover the secret of life. The “it” in line 2 is that secret. He will wander around in this essay in much the same way he wanders around in the field. The author uses “hopefully” correctly here and in par. 7.

7 Definition The “it” in line two of the first sentence is “the secret of life.”  Find other places where he offers statements about this so-called secret.  What is the precise definition of the secret that the author discusses?

8 Definitions of the Secret of Life
Headnote in the older editions: “the exact chemical processes for making life.” 7: “the mysterious borderline that bounds the inanimate” 14: “the greatest missing link of all—the link between living and dead matter” The secret, in other words, is whatever caused the transition from inert matter to living matter.

9 Question What is the opposite of the secret? The answer appears in par. 27.

10 Answer: Death “At the instant of death, whether of man or microbe, that ordered, incredible spinning passes away in an almost furious haste of those same particles to get themselves back into the chaotic, unplanned earth” (27). The secret = life out of inert matter. Death = inert matter out of living matter.

11 Chart TIME  Inert Matter .………………….Secret………………*/*…..
Living Matter …………… Death

12 Next Question: The Origins of Life
What explanations does Eiseley imply when he mentions “supernatural explanations” and “dualism” (8, 12)?

13 Answers “supernatural explanations” (12): E rejects the Genesis story, along with explanations based on it (Creationism, Intelligent Design) “mind-matter dualism and a complete irrational break between life and the world of inorganic matter” (8)

14 Related Question Does Eiseley believe in evolution?

15 Answer: YES! 7: “Somewhere, somehow, sometime, in the mysterious chemistry of carbon, the long march toward the talking animal had begun.” “the long march” = a metaphor for evolution. 15: “I have come to suspect that this long descent down the ladder of life, beautiful and instructive though it may be, will not lead us to the final secret.” “ladder of life” = a metaphor for evolution 16: “Still, in your formless shiftings, the you remains: the sliding particles, the juices, the transformations are working in an exquisitely patterned rhythm which has no other purpose than your preservation—you, the entity, the ameboid being whose substance contains the unfathomable future. Even so does every man come upward from the waters of his birth.” In other words, the growth of each of us from conception to maturation provides an analogy for the evolution of living things from amoebas to more complex organisms. 17: “You cannot describe how the body you inhabit functions, or picture or control the flights and spinnings, the dance of the molecules that compose it … or … why up the long stairway of the eons they dance from one shape to another.” Movement/dance “up the long stairway of the eons” = a metaphor for evolution.

16 Evolution The immense journey in the book’s title = evolution.

17 But Here Is the Problem Note: Evolution is about change over time, not about ultimate origin. Saying that life evolved is not the same as explaining why it began in the first place. So Eiseley offers two theories.

18 Key Question What are the “only two [other] possible explanations of life upon earth”?  See par. 12.

19 Answers in pars. 12 & 13 12: “life did not arise on this planet, but was wafted here through the depths of space.” (This explanation shunts the secret of life onto another planet.) “In this view, once the seed [from another world] was ‘planted’ in soil congenial to its development, it then proceeded to elaborate, evolve, and adjust until the higher organisms had emerged.” “seed” = a metaphor for how life began on Earth Panspermia: “the theory that life exists and is distributed throughout the universe in the form of germs or spores that develop in the right environment” ( 13: “life has actually arisen on this planet.” POINT: One or the other must be the case.

20 Here Is the Next Question
Both views are scientific in nature. Here’s the question: How does Eiseley present science in his chapter? With a partner, find words and phrases that suggest things about science.

21 Science Page 2: examination, diligence, “modern biology,” “dissection and analysis,” life as “a material manifestation,” “experimentation,” “theories” Page 3: “knowledge of nature,” “evidence,” “laboratories,” “microscope” Page 4: “the ultimate chemical,” “scientific effort,” “analysis,” “the great powers of the mind” Page 5: “materialism” Last page: scientists as “gods”

22 What Is His Point? What is the significance of the following terms?
“dissection and analysis” “materialism”

23 Answer From a scientific/biological/materialist point of view, finding the secret of life requires sufficient inquiry into the material world. Do you agree with this? Can we know all things about the physical world if we dissect it sufficiently? Are you a scientific materialist?

24 Next Question: Options?
What other point of view is there in Eiseley’s chapter? In other words, if you do not adopt a scientific point of view (the primeval soup theory), Creationism (you believe in a creator-God), or dualism (you duck the question altogether by claiming that God and nature are separate), what view do you adopt as regards the secret of life? What is Eiseley’s answer?

25 Answer: Imagination 4: “mystery”
5: nature “‘not as natural as it looks,’” “fantastic magic,” “myth and miracle” Pages 2 & 4: imagination 14: “wandering fruitlessly in pastures” 26: wonder, “marvel”

26 Thus… Left brain: Right brain Science Dissection Analysis
Physical world Nature Right brain Myth Imagination Memory Mind and spirit Supernature What is the point of this chart?

27 Eiseley’s Point His point is that the stuff in the left column is insufficient, at least at the present time, to identify the secret of life. Eiseley does not believe that science will uncover the secret of life in his lifetime, despite headlines that suggest that we are close to such a discovery. Given that insufficiency, he turns to the stuff in the right column as he muses on the secret of life. So the question for us is this: What can we say about it from the standpoint of right-brain resources? For example, see the next slide.

28 Myth: What about Animals in par. 6, left?
What is the point of the creatures that Eiseley mentions?  Here are parts of the relevant passages: “The notion that mice can be generated spontaneously from bundles of old clothes is so delightfully whimsical that it is easy to see why men were loath to abandon it.” “One could take life as a kind of fantastic magic.” Is E implying that the Genesis account is also delightful whimsy and “fantastic magic”?

29 Eiseley’s Concession: Myth
“After having chided the theologian for his reliance on myth and miracle, science found itself in the unenviable position of having to create a mythology of its own:  namely, the assumption that what, after long effort, could not be proved to take place today had, in truth, taken place in the primeval past” (9). Here is that scientific myth in par. 8: “The notion that he [‘the supposedly simple amoeba’] was a simple blob, the discovery of whose chemical composition would enable us instantly to set the life process in operation, turned out to be, at best, a monstrous caricature of the truth.” POINT: Science and mythology are not totally discrete categories.

30 Key Sentences in pars WHAT CAN A MYTHICAL/METAPHORICAL APPROACH DO FOR US? WHAT DO THE FOLLOWING SENTENCES SUGGEST? “The secret, if one may paraphrase a savage vocabulary, lies in the egg of night.” Cf. the next par.: “night,” “darkness,” and “egg” “Only along the edges of this field after the frost there are little whispers of it [the secret of life]. Once even on a memorable autumn afternoon I discovered a sunning blacksnake brooding among the leaves like the very simulacrum of old night.”

31 Interpretation First sentence: “The secret…lies in the egg of night” (paradox—night and egg are unrelated; a mixed metaphor? certainly an almost impossible combination): The secret, in other words, lies not in the thing that conceals (“night”) but in its origin, which is itself something that conceals (“egg”). We do not know the secret of life because it is at least two removes (night, egg) from our perception. Second sentence: We do, however, receive hints (“whispers”) of the secret of life, which are manifested in living things like the blacksnake. But here is the problem: we have only a living creature whose whispers (a mixed metaphor: snakes do not whisper) are like a simulacrum/imitation (a simile) of old night (a metaphor for something that conceals). The next slide puts the two patterns together.

32 Thus… The secret of life: inert matter becomes living matter.
 all of evolutionary history yields living creatures;  one of them, the blacksnake,  provides a metaphor: whispers  which evokes a simile: like a simulacrum or imitation  of another metaphor: old night (something that conceals)  within something else that conceals (the egg) And this torturous series of removes and figures of speech in Eiseley’s mind is his best attempt to describe the secret. And the fact that it is a “sunning blacksnake” (my emphasis) does nothing but highlight the darkness in which the secret is cloaked. POINT: Language enacts the secretness of the secret.

33 Par. 18 “The snake diverted me, however. It was the dissection of a field that was to occupy us—a dissection in search of secrets—a dissection such as a probing and inquisitive age demands.” He ends up “brooding among the leaves,” much like the blacksnake that has distracted him. Neither “dissection” (science) nor “brooding” (imagination, use of language) gets him any closer to the secret than he was before, though he has generated a provocative series of images that emphasizes its remoteness.

34 Next Question So what does Eiseley, great anthropologist, conclude about the secret of life? Where does E’s thinking come to rest in this text?

35 Nature and Supernature?
What do the following two statements (both including quotations) suggest about the “secret of life”?  How do they enact what the headnote calls “a sense of the sacred—a sense of transcendence, of divine agency—in the epic of evolution”? “I am sure now that life is not what it is purported to be and that nature, in the canny words of a Scotch theologue, ‘is not as natural as it looks’” (5). “Rather, I would say that if ‘dead’ matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering men, it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful powers, and may not impossibly be, as Hardy has suggested, ‘but one mask of many worn by the Great Face behind’” (28).

36 James McCosh This is the “Scotch theologue” whom Eiseley mentions by name earlier in The Immense Journey. He was a minister, a philosopher, a professor, and eventually president of Princeton University. Two of his books illuminate Eiseley’s reference: The Supernatural in Relation to the Natural (1862) The Religious Aspect of Evolution (1887) His point: Evolution and divine agency are compatible. Nature manifests the supernatural. God is the “Final Cause”: He created matter and is responsible for the transition from inert to living matter. McCosh also attributes evolution to God’s power—God “may be a continuous creator”—and it makes sense to speak of “the intelligent creation.”

37 Litotes Litotes = stating the negative of the opposite of what you want to say. Harmon and Holman, A Handbook to Literature: “A form of understatement in which a thing is affirmed by stating the negative of its opposite. To say ‘She was not unmindful’ when one means that ‘She gave careful attention’ is to employ litotes” (297). If you want to suggest that nature has a supernatural element, you say that it “‘is not as natural as it looks.’” If you want to say that nature may possibly be one of the masks of some Great Face behind it, you say that nature may “not impossibly be” such a mask. The effect in each case is to create a sense that this conclusion is tenuous, and it is made more tenuous still by the substitution of “Great Face” for God or Prime Mover or Creator or Deity. So here he is at the end of his journey, scientist to the core; but the inability to find the secret on his autumn walk has made him suspect that there is more afoot than science’s “pipettes” (21) and “blue-steel microtomes” (15) can “dissect.” He finally arrives at the possibility, despite his earlier denial of “supernatural explanations” (12), of God’s role in the creation of life. He just cannot bring himself to say so that directly. In other words, his attempt to inquire scientifically has led him out of biology/chemistry to the possibility of a recognition of scientific myth and finally to a realization that life may have had a divine catalyst. But his scientific paradigm makes it difficult for him to acknowledge this possibility with anything more than a literary flourish. Thus Eiseley’s language enacts his dilemma.

38 What Strengthens This Implication
Why do you think Eiseley uses the word “dust” in par. 26? What one word alludes to a theological context in which divine agency matters?

39 Genesis “God formed man of dust from the ground” (2:7)
“‘and dust you shall eat’” (3:14) “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (3:19). “‘I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth’” (13:16) “‘I who am but dust and ashes’” (18:27)

40 Ultimately, What Does the Text Do?
How does this text enact a point about human consciousness?  Hints:  Consider the two columns (left brain vs. right brain). In particular, Eiseley’s use of imagination, metaphor, memory, and litotes versus the repetition of the word "dissection" throughout the piece.

41 Thus… Left brain: Right brain Science Dissection Analysis
Physical world Nature Right brain Myth Imagination Memory Mind and spirit Supernature What is the point of this chart?

42 POINT The text celebrates the apex of creation: the human mind—inner space. The next slide explains Eiseley’s view on the mind of the artist.

43 The Artist “Loren Eiseley [in his autobiography, All the Strange Hours] likened the brain of a writer to ‘an unseen artist's loft’ in which ‘pictures from the past’ were stored and brought forth to be magnified or reduced in order to form a pattern. Many of the patterns he created in his work were associated with his experiences during his years growing up in his prairie state, Nebraska. The land, the people and the institutions left an ineradicable mark upon him and colored what he did.” Source:

44 More Strengthening of the Implication
Eiseley’s face parallels the creator’s “Great Face.” Eiseley (a representative human) is to a field in the natural world as some other creator is to life itself. Each gives life in one sense or another: As he has woven the inert and living things in the field into an elegant inquiry into the origin of life, so some kind of creator may have transformed inert matter into living matter. Eiseley is not certain about divine agency, but the implication is there for the reader to consider. Ultimately, then, the text’s futile search for the secret of life becomes a celebration of human beings’ place at the apex of evolution—what Peter Russell calls the “global brain.” (Note: Russell’s film, like Eiseley’s chapter, affirms evolution but does not have a clue about the secret of life, that original transition from inert matter to living matter.) But in both Russell and Eiseley, WE ARE THE EARTH’S WAY OF THINKING ABOUT ITSELF. END

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