It’s often said that Leviathan has the excellence of great literature, that it is one of the finest prose works in the language, and the opinion is not just that of philosophers. To the many good reasons for appreciating what Hobbes effects in and to language, one might speculate that Leviathan is distinctly literary in its excellence, and that it’s being so, while being at a remove from those genres and forms typically thought of as literary, such as novels, poems, dramas, and even essays, allows for a special insight into what sort of excellence is meant by that word “literature.” To suggest that the words “literature” or “literary” refer to any essential characteristic of literature is almost certainly foolish; but it is not, I think, entirely foolish to think that the impulse to categorize a work as literature rests on the hunch that a certain tact and discrimination of judgment sets a body of works apart, and that this tact or determination might be elaborated on, and elaborated on in a direction that suggests not what a work of literature is, but something essential that its tact or determination must work upon. And that, I’ll say, is the human body, of which neither too much nor too little is made by the greatest of literature, all while leaving much scope for great works of literature to make much of the body.
It is not so much that literature does anything in particular with the body or for the body, but that a full description of what it does well, and its limitations, must treat of its tactful imagining of the basic human experiences of the body, as variously imagined and contingently significant as those experiences might be. For instance: Wordsworth excludes only the heat of passion from his poetry, which otherwise towers in the full sensitivity of the body’s joys, exhaustions, deformations, and commonalities; Milton’s uneasiness with the bodies of angels is a source of continued unease for readers; Dante’s bodies are magnificently varied, punished, pained, rent by lust, hunger, self-loathing, dignified, enduring, at rest, and finally, nearly diffused into corporal luminosity in the realms of Paradise; like Dante, Shakespeare can imagine, persuasively, vividly, with novel familiarity, all that a body might undergo, and, more than Dante, imagine also what it would mean for the death of the body to be the death of the self. And so on, all through to Faulkner and Conrad whose methods of narration fail and fall for reasons having to do with the body.
Describe a writer’s tact in imagining the body, and you describe that writer. Simone Weil’s essay on the Iliad is a case in point. One reason that Timon’s vituperative speeches towards mankind are less persuasive than Lear’s, setting aside the architectural differences of the plays in which the speeches appear, is the diminished sense, in Timon’s words, of Timon’s own body. It is not the case that all should be reduced to the bodily, or the body take precedence over all else; but an author’s tact with the body will consist in keeping it in mind, knowing when it must impress upon all the aspects of experience that, however dependent on the inescapable reality of bodily existence, are not describable chiefly or solely or readily in corporeal terms. Austen’s art is distinguished for knowing just when the body must impinge upon polite society, be it by fainting, blushing, or coughing; quite differently, Gaddis’s by knowing when it must be felt in, interrupt and define, the spoken words that emanate from it. The tact does not lie in dwelling on the body, but in judging when to imagine more or less fully what bodily dwelling (dwelling within a body and among the bodies of others) is like.
Hobbes may have a keener sense of the body on account of his staunch materialism; but it may be also that his materialism is born from a corporeal awareness, and that even the despondency towards the brutalities of the Civil War owed to an imagination keenly attuned to the body’s pains and pleasures. The first section of Leviathan is as much a testament to the varied, competing, at times unfathomable urges and palliatives of flesh and muscle as it is a mechanistic description of mankind. In other words, Hobbes’ sense of the body owes more to prudence than science, more to experience than rigorous and interlocking definitions.
Perhaps in Hobbes, as perhaps in other writers we call “literary,” that the tact for bodily experience precedes even the tact for verbal experience, as nature precedes second nature, as environment precedes world, so that words in their works come to possess a bodily suppleness and solidity, an animation and instinct on the page.
Drawing on but transcending the empiricism of the natural science flourishing around him, Hobbes writes:
Continuall success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desireth, that is to say, continuall prospering, is that men call FELICITY; I mean the Felicity of this life. For there is no such thing as perpetuall Tranquillity of mind, while we live here; because Life it self is but Motion, and can never be without Desire, nor without Feare, no more than without Sense.
And so it is appropriate that in the experience of language, he figures mankind as a bird, struggling amidst shapes, structures, and immobilizing matter:
Seeing then that truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeketh precise truth, had need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly; or else he will find himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twiggs; the more he struggles, the more belimed.
Then soon after:
From whence it happens, that they which trust to books, do as they that cast up many little sums into a greater, without considering whether those little summes were rightly cast up or not; and at last finding the errour visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to cleere themselves; but spend time in fluttering over their books; as birds that entring by the chimney, and finding themselves inclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glasse window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.
Though Hobbes would profess to turn to similes only to break open a light of thought (“sometime the understanding have need to be opened by some apt similitude”), they almost always direct our attention to the possibilities of bodily confinement, exposure, and compromise, which no political settlement can entirely guard against, however much it secure each person in their liberties. But it is for Hobbes a matter of tact not to write too openly or too frequently of the body, in similes or otherwise, and his warning against figurative language and wariness of writing too much of the body, however much it condition and inflect his work, are at one:
The secret thoughts of man run over all things, holy, prophane, clean, obscene, grave, and light, without shame, or blame; which verball discourse cannot do, farther than the Judgment shall approve of the Time, Place, and Persons. An Anatomist, or a Physitian may speak, or write his judgment of unclean things; because it is not to please, but profit: but for another man to write his extravagant, and pleasant fancies of the same, is as if a man, from being tumbled into the dirt, should come and present himself before good company.
It is not chiefly in the obvious analogies of commonwealth to corporeal existence that Hobbes’ tact is discernible.