Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

Instinct and Mme de Sevigne, (conclusion) 
Report of an Aesthetic Realism class
by Lynette Abel

The Centuries and a Daughter

Eli Siegel related the instincts of Mme de Sevigne to four centuries, which he described in terms of their predominant instincts. "The sixteenth century was a century of discovery and surprise. The seventeenth century had a certain kind of order--it was annoyed with the disorderliness of the sixteenth century. The seventeenth century was interested in the individual man, what his questions were.  The eighteenth century went back to the sixteenth with [its feeling for] the surprise quality of the external world, but [the eighteenth century saw the world as something to be explained.  With nineteenth-century romanticism, man himself was gotten back to, with more wonder and surprise.  Mme de Sevigne should be seen as of the sixteenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, along with being of the seventeenth."

     Mr. Siegel read a letter of Mme de Sevigne to her daughter, Mme de Grignan, who was on her way with her husband to live in southern France:

"You make me feel for you all that it is possible to feel of tenderness....Be assured that I think of you continually: it is what devout persons call a habitual thought; it is what one ought to have for God, if one were to do one's duty.  Nothing distracts me; I am always with you; I see your coach, which always advances and which will never come toward me....I am afraid that it will overturn...."
"While [Mme de Sevigne] was interested in everything in France," commented Mr. Siegel, "the one person she seemed to have emotion for was her daughter."  He translated another letter that showed Mme de Sevigne's "varying interests and her power of thought."  It has this classic sentence about God: "He wants our hearts, and we will not give them to him; there is all the mystery."  And Mr. Siegel observed, "We feel two instincts present in Mme de Sevigne: something abiding, all is well; and [the feeling that] everything is tottering, teetering, changing into unseen debris."

     He described her as "exceedingly cultivated" and "a contemporary admirer of Pascal."  And we heard a letter he translated in which Mme de Sevigne chides her daughter for not caring for Pascal. Said Mr. Siegel, "At a time when her daughter was not seen as a Daughter, with all that means," Mme de Sevigne could be critical of her--not see her as a "torturing Divinity." Mme de Sevigne says of her daughter's reading, "You flutter about.  You do not love history. A person doesn't have pleasure when he is not deeply liking of what he reads."

     At the conclusion of this class, Mr. Siegel said, "The uncertainty of Mme de Sevigne and worry about her daughter is one of the most tremendous domestic things ever. And it [is] inseparable from a hightpoint in the literary epistolary art.  The anguish was there; the classicism ensued."

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