and Mme de Sevigne
Eli Siegel's lecture of December 11, 1964, "Instinct and Mme de Sevigne,"
was one in a series he gave on instinct. "I talk on one of the classic
writers of French literature," he began. "There was a tendency on
her part to see her daughter as almost God. This daughter stood for
something that was amazing and hard to understand." He said that
the "instinct to change a person into the whole world is in all love and
is much more ordinary than is often supposed; it can be done in a false
way or true way. It is possible," he said, "to see the meaning of
the world in an object"; this happens in art, but it is so seldom a daughter
is used and so seldom with such effect." Mme de Sevigne is known
for her letters, most of which are to her daughter. Mr. Siegel noted,
"This is the only instance where letters from a mother to a daughter have
been sumptuously and lengthily literature."
Report of an Aesthetic Realism class
by Lynette Abel
In Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World, Eli
Siegel defines instinct as "desire not known or seen as an object" [TRO
291]. He said of Mme de Sevigne and the instinct that was in her,
"Literature is a result of one of the best instincts: to make the world
look good honestly, through words."
Mme de Sevigne lived from 1626 to 1696. Every collection of seventeenth-century
French literature, Mr. Siegel commented, has a few names; among them are
always Corneille, Racine, Moliere, Descartes, Pascal, and Mme de Sevigne.
He spoke of two instincts--the instinct for energy and the instinct for
order. "Mme de Sevigne' would not be a classic" he said, "if under
cover of her serenity there weren't enthusiasm."
We heard the noted letter from Mme de Sevigne to her cousin, M. de Coulanges,
about a marriage that was to take place between the cousin of Louis XIV
and someone of lower rank. She writes:
"I am going
to tell you the thing that is the most astonishing, the most surprising,
the most marvellous, the most miraculous, the most triumphant, the most
stupefying, the most unheard of, the most singular, the most extraordinary,
the most incredible, the most unforeseen,t he largest, the smallest, the
rarest, the most common, the most glaring, the most secret until today,
the most brilliant, the most worthy of envy.... I cannot bring myself to
say it; guess it: I give you three guesses.... M. de Lausun marries Sunday
at the Louvre, guess who: I give you four guesses, I give you ten, I give
you a hundred...."
"Offhand," said Mr. Siegel,
"this seems artificial, It is not artificial." Then he explained
why Mme de Sevigne wrote this way: "there is a desire on the part of Mme
de Sevigne to be surprised by something. She wants to extract all
the wonder from the world she possibly can. And she is sensible;
because the wonder hasn't been seen. This is part of the religious
drive. It is what made Cezanne look fixedly at certain growing things.
The style is poetic. Mme de Sevigne, there in the seventeenth century,
is trying to whip herself up to a fury of existence. She had to see
with a certain intensity."
Part 2 of "Instinct and Mme de Sevigne"