Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

Instinct and Mme de Sevigne 
Report of an Aesthetic Realism class
by Lynette Abel

     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."

     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."

Classicism and Wonder

     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." 

To Part 2 of "Instinct and Mme de Sevigne"

  2005 by Lynette Abel
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