Loren Eiseley Essay - Critical Essays

Eiseley, Loren

Eiseley, Loren 1907–

Eiseley, a distinguished anthropologist and an authority on the theories of Darwin, has won awards for both his scientific and his literary writing. He is a poet, but it is the eloquence of his prose as he seeks meaning beyond scientific discovery that is remarkable. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Some of the quotations in ["The Unexpected Universe"] … surprised me. I would not have expected someone who is an American and a scientist to have read such little-known literary works as the "Völuspá," James Thomson's "The City of Dreadful Night," and Charles Williams' play "Cranmer."

I have one slight criticism of [Dr. Eiseley's] literary style, which I will get over with at once. Like Ruskin, he can at times write sentences which I would call "woozy"; that is to say, too dependent upon some private symbolism of his own to be altogether comprehensible to others…. To this objection he has, I know, a crushing reply:

One of Thoreau's wisest remarks is upon the demand scientific intellectuals sometimes make, that one must speak so as to be always understood. "Neither men," he says, "nor toadstools grow so."                 (p. 118)

The main theme of "The Unexpected Universe" is Man as the Quest Hero, the wanderer, the voyager, the seeker after adventure, knowledge, power, meaning, and righteousness. The Quest is dangerous (he may suffer shipwreck or ambush) and unpredictable (he never knows what will happen to him next). The Quest is not of his own choosing—often, in weariness, he wishes he had never set out on it—but is enjoined upon him by his nature as a human being…. (p. 121)

Dr. Eiseley's autobiographical passages are, most of them, descriptions of numinous encounters—some joyful, some terrifying. After reading them, I get the impression of a wanderer who is often in danger of being shipwrecked on the shores of Dejection—it can hardly be an accident that three of his encounters take place in cemeteries—and a solitary who feels more easily at home with animals than with his fellow human beings…. It is also clear that he is a deeply compassionate man who, in his own words, "loves the lost ones, the failures of the world." It is typical of him that, on recovering consciousness after a bad fall, to find himself bleeding profusely, he should, quite unself-consciously, apologize to his now doomed blood cells—phagocytes and platelets—"Oh, don't go. I'm sorry, I've done for you." More importantly, he reveals himself as a man unusually well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening. The petitionary aspect of prayer is its most trivial because it is involuntary. We cannot help asking that our wishes may be granted, though all too many of them are like wishing that two and two may make five, and cannot and should not be granted. But the serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit, though if others prefer to say the Voice of Oz or the Dreamer or Conscience, I shan't quarrel, so long as they don't call it the Voice of the Super-Ego, for that "entity" can only tell us what we know already, whereas the Voice I am talking about always says something new and unpredictable—an unexpected demand, obedience to which involves a change of self, however painful. (pp. 122-23)

But to return to Dr. Eiseley. As a rule, the Voice speaks to him not directly but through messengers who are unaware of the message they bear. (p. 123)

I suspect Dr. Eiseley of being a melancholic. He recognizes that man is the only creature who speaks personally, works, and prays, but nowhere does he overtly say that man is the only creature who laughs. (p. 124)

W. H. Auden, in The New Yorker (© 1970 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 21, 1970.

[It] is not enough to decry pollution as many have been doing in the last year or two. Nor is it sufficient to suggest new laws or tinkering with the structures and procedures of governmental agencies and business organizations. Books and articles that do this are not in short supply. What we lack are thorough analyses of our attitudes about the environment and its economic exploitation, of our commitments to competition and cooperation, of our understanding of the "good life." What we need are the anthropological, psychological and historical perspectives that we have only begun to develop. With these our view of the world and of ourselves will be as profoundly changed as they were by the theories of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. The need for such perspectives makes Loren Eiseley's The Invisible Pyramid especially disappointing.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask more of Eiseley than that which he usually gives the large audiences who have enjoyed his previous six books—a vivid blend of anthropology, archaeology, natural history and the history of science written in dramatic and at times sentimental, somewhat mystical prose. He is a stimulating teacher for the layman, and that is by no means a small accomplishment. Yet one hopes for more from a man with Eiseley's background as a professional anthropologist and student of the history of science. The serious reader expects the penetrating anthropological and historical insights which our era needs. Instead, Eiseley gives but a superficial sketch of man in nature and society, some clever metaphors, and the warning that something must be done to save the natural world. (pp. 312-13)

Eiseley has spun an empty entertainment that cannot stand up against the difficult issues besetting us. He has avoided what may be one of the intellectual's primary functions—to place responsibility for the failures of our society on the people and the institutions that control the society. The danger of Eiseley's book is that it gives the reader a false sense of understanding a major problem and its solution. At the moment we do not need such illusions. (p. 314)

Harold Fruchtbaum, "Dissolving the Problem," in The Nation (copyright 1971 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 8, 1971, pp. 312-14.

I can't speak of Eiseley's other books because I haven't read them, but his writing in [The Invisible Pyramid] is terrifically overblown, sophomoric, full of purple patches. He is continually pressing too hard, and is led into committing such absurdities as the "arborescent tree" … and "the march of machines entered his blood."… There is padding and glibness everywhere. (p. 155)

Most of his book is given to showing how mankind's entire cultural achievement from the Bronze Age to our own, what he calls the "invisible pyramid" that rests on the natural world, has been a search for means of dominion and for escape from the condition of natural competition. The search has succeeded, yet in our moment of triumph the success turns sour, for we find that our dominion has led only to exploitation, destruction, and pollution…. And there is no escape. Eiseley spends many pages in ridiculing the idea that space exploration, even within the farthest imagined reaches of possibility, can ever furnish us a means to get away from the conditions of life on earth. I cannot assess his argument; I know that I have heard the same astral mathematics used to prove the improbability (Eiseley) and the probability (e.g. Professor George Wald of Harvard in lectures on radio station CBM, Montreal, December 1970) of bounteous life elsewhere in the universe; the experts themselves are confused. No matter, Eiseley's argument, taken altogether, is convincing. Then what is man's hope? Almost nothing at all, so slight is his chance. Eiseley suggests that only by removing the "invisible pyramid," the whole crushing edifice of man's invention, including his will to dominate, and then by returning to the primal natural community as one member coequal among many, may man restore the world and his own life to stability. Depending on how you look at it, it would be a total cultural revolution or a total cultural retrogression; in either case, it must be conscious, deliberate, and unconditional. Eiseley's own language is clumsy but explicit: "Today man's mounting numbers and his technological power to pollute his environment reveal a single demanding necessity: the necessity for him consciously to reenter and preserve, for his own safety, the old first world from which he originally emerged." The "old first world," the "green world," these are his terms. In effect, we can save ourselves only by returning to the Garden of Eden and putting the apple back on the tree. (p. 156)

Eiseley's book has something wild and attractive about it, yet it is as fantastic as the strangest science fiction. Is he really serious? Obviously he is, and one wonders if he has lost touch with himself. His book is an apocalyptic fantasy on Rousseauistic themes, the "return to nature" and the "noble savage"…. (p. 158)

Hayden Carruth, "On the Decline of Species," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1971, pp. 153-58.

Like Emerson, Dr. Eiseley is a philosopher whose epigrammatic sentences are clues leading to the unknown. His sentences tantalize the imagination; they lead me on, but his essays in form are elusive. There is no cumulative argument in The Night Country; rather, he walks around Jericho in his talkative way, looking at the ground, turning up an artifact here, another there until gradually the walls recede. With flashes of light he punctures the darkness. (p. 135)

Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1971 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), December, 1971.

I have admired [Loren Eiseley's] essays, and thought of him as the most belletristic of scientists, envying him his semipoetical pursuit of the Great Reality, the lost consciousness of the dead, and the tenuous unconsciousness of our human and subhuman pasts…. And I have been deeply touched by his aching nostalgia tinged with dread of the dust, which is almost everything we have and are, but for that string of glowing fire in our chromosomes, touched by his very personal handling and rehandling of his and our past, as though, like a psychic friend of mine, he were turning a significant object in his fingers and could overhear its faint vibrations. Yet now it appears that those highly wrought essays were the public pieces he prosed and polished out of these notes, which he now puts forth [in Notes of an Alchemist] as poems, as they were originally. Vanity? Naïveté? Desperation, in the form of a need to communicate to his fellow scientists that the professor is a strange, tortured, shaggy, indeed quite feral, person, lost in this and other times?

I am sorry to say that I am mortified for him: that in his essays Eiseley does better with sentiment, nostalgia, mystery, re-evocation of the geological past and the past of his lost boyhood Midwest, his self-conscious isolation, and his dreaming, stubborn, very different doubled self. But he doesn't really have any more sense of what a poem is than do most undergraduates—I mean, of course, when he is writing one. Indeed, it's his prose that's poetical, densely flowing with meditative and rich passions and rhythm, while his verse is notebook phrases, anecdotes and reflections…. [The poems work] as second-hand Thoreau or Krutch, or any literate naturalist. But poetry? A private lifetime of thinking and wondering, feeling and following the disciplined intuitions and work of the field scientist … and all the while secretly jotting down these anguishes? For such a man poetry is too trival a pursuit. But poetry is also too important a calling and event to be piddled about like this. If the contents of these pages involved another part of his person, I shouldn't mind, since it would be more of Eiseley. If the book weren't pretentious, it would be pathetic. Perhaps it is a compound of both. What is sumptuous feeling for a bone-hunter, and counts as belletristic prose, is, it seems, first-draft typewriter verse. The presence in this book is that of the right person, a man we know and respect, in the wrong place at the wrong time. (pp. 227-29)

Jascha Kessler, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1973.

In his new collection of poems [The Innocent Assassins] Loren Eiseley rarely raises his voice, but what he has to say is startling. At a time when many Americans, poets or otherwise, seem preoccupied with self-disclosure, with human potential and human importance, Eiseley places man in the humbling perspective of natural history, where the human mind becomes an inconsiderable speck, a tiny particle "intruding/sentience and will into the streaming curtain of the night" (Wounded Knee).

Human insignificance is only one of Eiseley's themes. Soft-spoken and sometimes rambling, his poems tell of encounters with natural phenomena as diverse as tigers and pre-historic skeletons, thistledown and snow. They ponder the poet's loss of youth and his sense of personal dislocation, and they express his affinities with American Indian culture, shamanism, and pre-historic life. Of all the pieces in this elegant and handsomely illustrated volume, however, the most affecting are those whose setting is the natural world but whose ultimate concern is human arrogance and moral blindness—and the minuteness of man in the perspective of evolution. In these pieces Eiseley strikes one as a gentle misanthrope. (p. 44)

Eiseley's strength lies not in his moralizing but in his magnificent evocation of prehistoric life. What distinguishes [The Innocent Assassins] is Eiseley's power to re-create the pre-historic world and to suggest its immanence in civilized life. It is a talent nurtured by a lifetime of meditation on the earth's relics; but it is grounded, one suspects, in a mystic's intuitive perceptions.

Eiseley's historical imagination is enough to sustain the best of his poems. When it is not in evidence, the poems often hold up anyway, by virtue of their authority. Few contemporary poets can speak so convincingly of waiting "an age or two" or of a box tortoise's genetic information being "several aeons out of date". When the poems fail, it is because they lapse into sentimentality; or, more frequently, because they rely upon a rhapsodic syntax which seems, on balance, rather rigid. It permits of little variation, regardless of content. First-rate insights will be buried in an avalanche of clauses; or, conversely, suggestive metaphors—the mind as a beaver pond—will be laboriously extended. Moreover, the poems betray a weakness for banal phrasing ("I was miles from nowhere"), for stilted locutions ("kingdoms matter not"), and for heroic postures ("I, I against the stars") which seem curiously at odds with Eiseley's calls for humility. At their best, however, the poems rise above their own discursiveness and didacticism, and Eiseley's lyric gift takes precedence…. (pp. 45-6)

Ben Howard, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1975.

In All the Strange Hours Eiseley explores a particular life in search of answers about life itself, yet he admits that he has no hope of finding those answers, at least not from within, because the questions he raises and goes about examining are too vast and too important to bear any answers. In the end, Eiseley is himself the question, and to the question of himself no man can have an answer, or rather he can have no answer that will lie outside the questioning. (p. 31)

Eiseley's time is not the layman's time, however, nor is it clock time, but geological time. Fifty thousand, 100,000, two million years—these are the temporal units in which his mind moves most easily. The consequences, when Eiseley comes to write autobiography, are of course manifold. It is his sense of time, perhaps more than anything else, that gives Eiseley's writing its peculiar flavor and that makes All the Strange Hours such an odd and fascinating document. To conceive of one's life in terms of two million years of evolution is not something that most of us do every day…. Eiseley as an autobiographer explores his memories and his own past life [in] much the same … way in which, as a paleontologist, he explores the earth's crust and all past life.

Though All the Strange Hours is a book about life, it is even more a book about death—death of every sort: the death of individuals, the death of a family, the death of species, the death of mankind. (pp. 31-2)

Eiseley's imagination, here at the end of his life, but also earlier, is committed more entirely to the past than the imagination of any other autobiographer I can think of. When Eiseley writes, "Ironically, I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage," he has in mind no pilgrimage in the present or the future but a journey backward into vast stretches of time, into a past of three million years or more where all animal life was one, as yet not divided by species differentiation. Eiseley's pilgrimage is a kind of mystic quest, a radical variation on the Orphic-Christian myth of the fall from grace, composed by a scientist not altogether satisfied with his science. Eiseley, too, like his religious counterpart, seeks to reattain a state of blissful union, but instead of seeking union hereafter he seeks it, as it were, herebefore. He retreats further and further into the past in the apparent hope—is it not, however, a futile hope?—of finding somewhere in the furthest reaches of time, somewhere before the Ice Age, a state that is timeless, a condition before and outside time. (p. 32)

"I have come to believe that in the world there is nothing to explain the world." When Eiseley says this he parts company with his scientific colleagues to consort with the other-wordly and extra-rational mysteries of art and religion. There is nothing in time to explain time, nor, as Eiseley goes on to point, is there anything in life to explain life. After a lifetime of study, "I could not account for myself." These, however, are the uses of autobiography…. Memory is a faculty that … transforms the past in the present in the hope of raising the eternal moment out of the conjunction of the two. In Eiseley as in Plato, memory connects us with eternity. (p. 33)

James Olney, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 1, 1975.

Without at first being fully conscious of creating his own literary form, [Eiseley] has found his way into what he now calls "the concealed essay." In it, personal experiences are "allowed gently to bring under observation thoughts of a more purely scientific nature."

"All the Strange Hours" is personal, is an autobiography; but it is also the Eiseley blend, a succession of "concealed essays."…

The reader of an Eiseley book is conducted into a world that is crowded with mystery. There are foreshadowings, flashbacks; there are characters who recur on a line of development that begins to be apparent—but never quite comes clear. Events happen in settings that contribute to the effect of those events. And all through the story the reader feels the presence of the narrator, a helpful presence, a knowing presence, but also a companion for the reader's questioning and puzzlement and fear….

Here is a scientist who is interested in the natural history of the soul….(p. 36)

William Stafford, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1975.

Loren Eiseley's writings, aggregates of science, naturalism, and anthropology, are among the most important works of contemporary American thought. Since his nine published books have provided but brief glimpses of a perceptive though somewhat personally reticent individual, the publication of his complete autobiography [All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life] is both a surprise and a noteworthy event. Recounted here are the highly unusual circumstances of his Midwestern childhood under the direction of an unbalanced mother and dispirited father, his years alone as a desert hermit and vagabond railrider, and his unorthodox entry into academe—a career by default. Few men have understood themselves, and their debt to chance, as well as Eiseley; fewer still have enjoyed the ability to write of such things in so original a manner. (p. 56)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1976).