The Immense Journey Critical Essays

Loren Eiseley


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the first essay, Eiseley asserts that he has no pretensions to exact scientific observation; instead, he records a portion of his “personal universe, the universe traversed in a long and uncompleted journey.” Eiseley’s personal journey represents the journey of life; it is the voyage not only of physical evolution but also of human knowledge and understanding. Although the voyager may often feel confused, in Eiseley’s view the human mind, like all life, is continually reaching to be more than it has been.

An almost mystical sense of wonder infuses the essays and defies logic. What Eiseley calls “organization” is a mysterious force that the scientist cannot explain; it is essential to life but not produced by life or by evolution. Eiseley’s perspective is that of scientist as humanist, and although his essays have a foundation in scientific knowledge his stress is on the role of the human being in the evolutionary world. The values his essays embrace are humanistic values, particularly those concerned with human growth into knowledge and into transcendence of self. “The lonely, magnificent power of humanity,” he writes, is an “extension of vision,” a “reaching out” to become more than it presently is. Thus, Eiseley becomes an interpreter of science who incorporates the personal elements of wonder and emotional response. He records his response to an ill-tempered catfish that survives the winter in a basement tank only to become, leaping from the tank, a victim of the impulse that allowed its evolutionary ancestors to escape from the shallows into deeper pools. He records an eye-to-eye confrontation with an imprisoned eagle, which he releases, after seeing its mate circling above, to soar with its mate in a symbolic expression of freedom. Eiseley strives to keep scientific facts accurate while expressing the sense of wonder that he finds essential to understanding the “immense journey” of life.

Beginning with essays that detail specific experiences, such as floating in a river while imagining the destination of the molecules all about him, Eiseley balances physical experience with observation, commentary, and interpretation. As a member of the scientific establishment, he explores the limitations of twentieth century reductionist science, which seeks answers by reducing the whole to its parts, and rejects the scientism that would find explanations only in scientific experiment. Arguing that science often reduces humankind to matter and neglects the thinking, creative human mind, he wonders “whether the desire to link life to matter may not have blinded us to the more remarkable characteristics of both.” For Eiseley, nature is mysterious and unexpected, continuously creative and always a source of wonder. The whole, for him, is more complex than a summary of its parts.

Four dominant themes emerge in The Immense Journey: the vastness of time, evolution as an ongoing process, the mystery or “unnaturalness” of nature, and the responsibility of the individual in an evolving world. Evolutionary thinking requires conceiving of time in terms of millions of years, and Eiseley stresses the short span of human history as compared with...

(The entire section is 1312 words.)