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Being a Description of the World

By Eli Siegel


Literature is (a) words thought of as written and as having a purpose; (b) words having neatness, suggestion, and largeness.

     Literature can be seen as just being words brought together. There is purpose, as I have said, in all words. When they are brought together, there is purpose, too. So the publications a bank may issue, or a hospital, or a mathematical society, may be seen as literature. Literature, then, is everything written.

     There is such a thing as oral literature. However, when literature is oral or spoken, we think of it as possibly being written down. So a ballad sung in the 13th century by someone who could not write, is literature, for it has been seen as written.

     This meaning of literature is the non-qualitative, unheightened meaning. Money, for example, is money even if it is only fifteen cents. But when we say, "James has money," money means much money. So literature can mean just words, whatever kind, and also words that are much.

     The three words neatness, suggestion, and largeness, of course, could have other words to take their places. But these words would basically be saying the same thing.

     By neatness, I mean an absence of what does not belong. The world can be seen as neat; for everything can be seen as belonging to it. Neatness is the "miniature" aspect of exactness, or accuracy, or wholeness. Where neatness is attained by disabling omission, it is not true neatness. The word neat is allied to the word clean, which means shiningly whole; pure; brightly itself.

     Therefore in literature, superfluity, blowsiness, flaccidity, excess are injurious. Where they are, literature is that much not present. Neatness has in it the quality of compression, economy; the least means for the greatest effect.

    When I use the phrase "the least means for the greatest effect," I approach the idea of richness or opulence. This richness or opulence can be found in the word suggestion. Neatness is hard, definite, central: all literature has hardness and definiteness and centrality in some way. Suggestion is that hardness becoming mobile, soft, flexible—beyond. So in the ideas of neatness and suggestion, we have a feeling of inness and beyondness, nearness and thereness, rest and motion.

     Literature is like love: for love, too, has a definite thing seen and a meaning beyond the definiteness, at once.

    And in literature the presence of neatness and suggestion makes for largeness–reality seen as in motion, inclusive, free.

    For words to be neat, to have suggestion, and to be large, means that the person using them be clearly or neatly himself, and likewise be going out, including, daring. That is why literature could also be defined as words which show that while a person was himself, he also was widely, exactly other than himself; that he was an I and also a large that. The neatness, the suggestion, and the largeness can be found in an I keenly itself while daringly and strangely with otherness, more than itself.

© 1945 by Eli Siegel

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