Eiseley’s “The Secret of Life”



Background on Eiseley:



  1. 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 nature of the secret that the author discusses?


  1. Be sure that you can identify the “only two possible explanations of life upon earth.”  See page 180.


  1. 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?  You may want to look at the end of the penultimate (i.e., next-to-last) paragraph for an interesting connection.


  1. What is the point of the creatures that Eiseley mentions?  Here are parts of the relevant passages:


    1. “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" (179).
    2. “Once even on a memorable autumn afternoon I discovered a sunning blacksnake brooding among the leaves like the very simulacrum of old night" (181).


  1. Discuss this interesting statement about myth (to which you may want to make connections later on to Ishmael in Quinn’s selection):  “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" (179-80).


  1. 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—in the epic of evolution”?


    1. “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’” (179).
    2. “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’” (183).


  1. How does this text enact a point about human consciousness?  Hints:  Consider, in particular, Eiseley’s use of imagination, metaphor, memory, and litotes.  Consider as well the repetition of the word "dissection" throughout the piece.


The word "dust"  on 183 echoes the following phrases from Genesis: