Feeling Is Knowledge; or De Quincey
Report of a lecture by Eli Siegel
On 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:
He mentioned Coleridge, Wordsworth, Thomas Moore, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—but 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:
“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 value—use 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 large—a 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 system—yet as literary critic, he saw and valued the true and deep style of De Quincey’s prose:
“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 Sorrow—Mater 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:
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:
In his essay De Quincey describes the power of art, and how it can affect people in ways that ordinary knowledge may not:
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:
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.
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:
(c) by Donita Ellison. For permission to reprint please contact me by email: DonitaEllison@msn.com.