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Quotation

Cuvier, in his Animal Kingdom (trans. M’Murtrie):

Life then is a vortex, more or less rapid, more or less complicated, the direction of which is invariable, and which always carries along molecules of similar kinds, but into which individual molecules are continually entering, and from which they are continually departing; so that the form of a living body is more essential to it than its matter.

As long as this motion subsists, the body in which it takes place is living—it lives. When it finally ceases, it dies. After death, the elements which compose it, abandoned to the ordinary chemical affinities, soon separate, from which, more or less quickly, results the dissolution of the once living body. It was then by the vital motion that its dissolution was arrested, and its elements were held in a temporary union.

All living bodies die after a certain period, whose extreme limit is fixed for each species, and death appears to be a necessary consequence of life, which, by its own action, insensibly alters the structure of the body, so as to render its continuance impossible.

And Macleay, in his Horæ Entomologicæ:

Though for the sake of simplicity, and in order to avoid as much as possible what may be accounted as matter of opinion, death has in the foregoing paragraph been considered as merely the cessation of life ; yet it may be proper to observe, that those physiologists appear to have reason on their side, who make it generally an inevitable and necessary consequence of life. In the higher animals and plants, indeed, we are certain that if death should not be produced by accidental causes, it is sure in due time to result from the fibres which compose the cellular substance growing so thick and rigid, that the fluids cannot penetrate through their interstices. In this sense a body receiving nourishment may be said to imbibe death : so true it is, that by living we die.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Caged Skylark

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells —
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.
Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage
Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest —
Why, hear him, hear him babble & drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best,
But uncumberèd: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Farming” in Society and Solitude

Intellect is a fire: rash and pitiless it melts this wonderful bone-house which is called man.

My friend Henry, on July 14, 1852, wrote in his journal:

A writer who does not speak out of a full experience uses torpid words, wooden or lifeless words, such words as “humanitary,” which have a paralysis in their tails.

Here he expresses his belief in a falsehood, but a falsehood that is full of sustenance. The author’s hope is that the life of his words should give some evidence of the life that produced them, that a vigorous body will exude vigorous words, and a sluggish, sluggish. He expects that his words will carry a double load, not only their meaning but their history. They are to serve as a trace from which one can reconstruct their origin. The hope, in other words, is that communication will prove possible. Even if the contact is but glancing, tangential, still two minds may come in contact.

Henry writes (July 26, now):

Most poems, even epics, are like the wings come down to earth, while the poet whose adventurous flight they evidence has been snapped up by the ravenous vulture of this world.

He asks of a poem that it be not merely a window into that flight but the very agent of it, not life itself but the implement life used. The poem would then serve as a proof, maybe not conclusive, but as close as may be reasonably hoped, that such a flight occurred.

I said that Henry is expressing a falsehood, and I maintain it. Certainly I do not deny that from an author’s literary excretions we may reconstruct flights and other such journeys. But these are flights of fancy, our own fancy. The poem is not evidence. It is an arrangement of words, and many paths may lead to it. Honest transcript or clever fake—we can never access the information that would decide this. Thoreau—surprisingly, for him—underestimates our solitude.

But if the poem, or the literary work more generally, cannot serve as evidence in this way, then why these reconstructions? Why make such assessments of authenticity? The author, after all, does not stand to benefit: he flew, or faked, and must live with the fact, regardless of our verdict. He is immune to our judgments. But we are not. It is an operation we perform on ourselves, by means of the poem, this act of reconstruction. It is narcissistic as anything is. Not solipsistic—we leave our own deposits as material for the next generation—but self-centered. Of course, we must not delude ourselves that our authenticity, if we possess it, will be discovered.

From Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by John Woods:

No, this world with its fathomless silence did not receive a visitor hospitably. He was an invader who came at his own risk, whose presence was only tolerated in an eerie, foreboding way; and he could sense the menace of mute, elemental forces as they rose up around him – not hostile, but simply indifferent and deadly.

What Mann neglects to mention, is, that this solitude can equally be found in the city, for him who knows how to seek it.