Eiseley’s “The Secret of Life”
Background on Eiseley:
- 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
- Be sure that you can identify the “only two possible
explanations of life upon earth.” See page 180.
- 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.
- 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" (179).
- “Once even on a memorable autumn afternoon I
discovered a sunning blacksnake brooding among the leaves like the very
simulacrum of old night" (181).
- 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).
- 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
- “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).
- “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).
- 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:
- "God formed man of dust from the ground" (2.7)
- "'and dust you shall eat'" (3.14)
- "you are dust, and to dust you shall 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)