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Feeling Is Knowledge; or De Quincey

Report of a lecture by Eli Siegel

Thomas De Quincey, by Sir John Watson-GordonOn February 14, 1969, Eli Siegel gave a lecture titled Feeling Is Knowledge; or De Quincey, in which he spoke about those two things people have seen as in very different worlds—feeling and knowledge—and showed how they are together in an important writer of the Romantic period, Thomas De Quincey.

De Quincey, who lived from 1785 to 1859, is known for his ornate prose style in essays he wrote for Blackwood's magazine. As the lecture began Mr. Siegel said:

The presence in literature of persons who have seemed to stand both for rigid logic, and imagination hardly restricted, is ever so noticeable…. De Quincey is a person whose worlds more instantaneously were of both feeling and logic….
      Our emotion is always connected with reason. These two, as matter and motion, are in the electron, or wave and particle; are in everyone, but in every person differently.

He mentioned Coleridge, Wordsworth, Thomas Moore, Byron, Shelley, and Keatsbut the way De Quincey shows the question, he observed, “is as steep as any. He’s the only person who wrote works with both the titles Confessions of an English Opium Eater and The Logic of Political Economy. In certain minds of importance, it can be seen that logic and feeling, or knowledge and feeling exist in the same person in the same hour of the same day. 

“The first work I’m going to discuss,” said Mr. Siegel, The Logic of Political Economy of 1844, is not so well known but it does combine the two worlds.” In the preface, De Quincey asks: What would happen to geometry if its basic axioms and definitions were as controversial and constantly changing as some of the terms in economics—including rent, wages, and profit?  The science of political economy he says, would then:

become as treacherous as Shakespeare’s “stairs of sand;” or like the fantastic architecture which the winds are everlastingly pursuing in the Arabian desert, would exhibit phantom arrays of fleeting columns and fluctuating edifices, which, under the very breath that had created them, would be for ever collapsing into dust.

“The prose here has been underestimated,” Mr. Siegel commented, “It is tremendously powerful, it has some of the most important emotion in English [literature].”

And of the essay as a whole, Mr. Siegel said it is, “a specific work of exactitude and feeling.”  It is concerned with a word that will be all over the financial pages: value.  “In life,” he explained, “the word value means ‘emphasized rightly’.” De Quincey writes about two kinds of valueuse value and exchange value. Illustrating the difference between these, Mr. Siegel gave the example of a baby’s first teething ring:  Its use value is largea mother wouldn’t part with it, but it’s “not worth anything on the market.”  And use value and exchange value, he said “correspond somewhat to feeling and knowledge.”

Mr. Siegel then read a sentence from this work which he said was both strange and beautiful, about how the flow of capital in London affects “commerce in all parts of the kingdom.” In the discussion following the lecture, Ellen Reiss noted that Mr. Siegel was passionately against that form of economics described—capitalism, or the profit systemyet as literary critic, he saw and valued the true and deep style of De Quincey’s prose:
Somewhat in the same silent arches of continual transition, ebbing and flowing like tides, do the re-agencies of the capital accumulated in London modify, without sound or echo, much commerce in all parts of the kingdom.

“De Quincey knew poverty more than any of the other Romantics,” Mr. Siegel commented, yet he is the only one of them who wrote with this “sense of money working in London.” 

Three Ladies of Sorrow

Then surprisingly he related this work on economics to an essay by De Quincey published the following year in Blackwood's Magazine titled “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” in which De Quincey describes a dream vision of three Ladies of SorrowMater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum—the Mother of Tears, the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Shadows. The prose is very ornate, but Mr. Siegel said it was authentic—in fact, “some of the greatest prose in English.”  There is tremendous feeling here. There are these sentences:

Three sisters they are, of one mysterious household; and their paths are wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end. 
Them I saw often conversing with Levana, and sometimes about myself. Do they talk, then? O no! Mighty phantoms like these disdain the infirmities of language. They may utter voices through the organs of man when they dwell in human hearts, but amongst themselves is no voice or sound; eternal silence reigns in their kingdoms….Like God, whose servants they are, they utter their pleasure not by sounds that perish, or by words that go astray, but by signs in heaven, by changes on earth, by pulses in secret rivers, heraldries painted on darkness, and hieroglyphics written on the tablets of the brain.


It seems De Quincey saw humanity as educated by the world mysteriously through tears, sighs, darknesses—through feeling.  “The important thing,” Mr. Siegel said, “is: what knowledge is here, and how style is knowledge.” 

Ellen Reiss later commented on the meaning of this, explaining that “when anything is seen, there is how it is seen, and the how is the style”; and she said the feelings of an artist are known through his style. Mr. Siegel illustrates this idea in Self and World: if Shelley’s great line, “Oh lift me as a wave, a leaf a cloud!” were changed to, “Pray elevate me as if I were a wave, or a leaf or a cloud,” as Mr. Siegel writes,“The music is gone. Style has left; and with it, the great good sense the line had.”

Mr. Siegel read from what he called one of the “show pieces”—the essay “Literature of Knowledge and Literature of Power.” De Quincey, we learned, saw the antithesis of knowledge as being not feeling, but power. Mr. Siegel disagreed. Power, he said, brings together both feeling and knowledge. For example, he asked:
Can you have mental power without knowledge and can you have knowledge without more power?  [The scientist] Leewenhoek and [the composer] Bach both have mental power.  Power is in two ways: your feelings get stronger, more honest and you know more. To have emotion is to grow. To have information is to grow.

In his essay De Quincey describes the power of art, and how it can affect people in ways that ordinary knowledge may not:
What do you learn from Paradise Lost? Nothing at all. What do you learn from a cookery book? Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph. But, would you therefore put the wretched cookery book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem? What you owe to Milton is not any knowledge, of which a million separate items are still but a million advancing steps of latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite.

The phrase “sympathy with the infinite,” said Mr. Siegel, is a way of saying “liking the world.”  De Quincey is saying that Milton’s Paradise Lost has the power to make us like the world more than a cooking book.

Meeting Samuel Taylor Coleridge

And then we heard sentences from an essay in which De Quincey writes with great feeling of meeting Samuel Taylor Coleridge: 

It was, I think, in the month of August, but certainly in the summer season, and certainly in the year 1807, that I first saw this illustrious man, the largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and the most comprehensive, in my judgement, that has yet existed amongst men. My knowledge of him as a man of most original genius began about the year 1799. A little before that time Mr. Wordsworth had published the first edition (in a single volume) of the Lyrical Ballads, at the end or the beginning of which was placed Mr. Coleridge’s poem of the Ancient Mariner, as the contribution of an anonymous friend. It would be directing the reader's attention too much to myself, if I were to linger upon this, the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind. Let me say in one word, that, at a period when neither the one nor the other writer was valued by the public,both having a long warfare to accomplish of contumely and ridicule before they could rise into their present estimation,I found in these poems “the ray of a new morning,” and an absolute revelation of untrodden worlds, teeming with power and beauty, as yet unsuspected amongst men.

To find a new world, asked Mr. Siegel, “does that have knowledge?” It does! Hearing De Quincey write about his great respect and large feeling for Coleridge, I was moved with gratitude that in my life I’ve had the great good fortune to meet and study the magnificent education of Aesthetic Realism, the result of Eli Siegel’s unending desire to feel and know the world so truly and richly.

About the English Romantic writers, of whom De Quincey and Coleridge were two, Mr. Siegel asked: How did Romanticism make the world better known?” and what he said next is important in literary criticism and for the integrity and happiness of our own lives:

Feeling more deeply and knowing more are the same thing. The Romantics said, You can’t know this world until your feeling has been just to it. The Romantics should be seen as exemplifying logic and emotion.

I close my report with the beautiful example that Mr. Siegel gave as he concluded, which illustrates so richly what is stated in the title: that feeling is knowledge.  He said:

The emotion that has been got from clouds exists; and the question that one can close with is this: if we look at clouds in the sky about sunset, that are gold and gentle in their richness as they occupy the sky, uncertainly but with love, do we know something as we look at these clouds in their rotund bravery? Do we know something and feel something? If we look at a board with a nail in it, do we know and feel something? Romanticism deeply says yes. Art and science also say yes. And in future talks I’ll try to say more about the logic of it.

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(c) by Donita Ellison. For permission to reprint please contact me by email:  DonitaEllison@msn.com.