Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Aesthetic Realism Looks at Feeling, a 1964 lecture by Eli Siegel. And in the section we have reached, Mr. Siegel does an amazing thing: he shows that every science has feeling with it, of it, in it. As one sees this, one can see that the rift people make—sometimes with great pain—between knowing and feeling is unnecessary and false.
What Mr. Siegel does in this section is also a magnificent combating of something immensely hurtful that people go after. That is, right now millions of men, women, and even children are trying to be cool, unfeeling, often without knowing they’re doing so. One reason people try to be unstirred is that they’re so confused by and ashamed of the feelings they have. However, this sought-for coldness is a form of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the most hurtful thing in the human self: contempt. “Indifference,” writes Mr. Siegel, “is the statuesque or static aspect of contempt. We are unmoved as we are disdainful. We are lofty sculpture as others are running from a fire” (TRO 155).
To go after having little feeling is to open the door to being brutal—and is brutal. If you hope to feel little about people, you won’t think about what another person feels, hopes for, endures. You won’t worry, for instance, about a person’s lack of money and how he or she is forced to live. You’ll give yourself the right to exploit a person (economically or otherwise) if that suits you.
The desire, so popular, to have the quietude and superiority of being unaffected, makes for another result too. It makes one feel flat, empty, bored, dull, and, underneath one’s “coolness,” terrifically agitated, nervous, ill-natured, unsure, and self-despising. This is because we were born into the world to have large, true feeling about it—not to be impervious to it and aloof. And the inescapable ethics of the human self won’t permit us to get away with spurning what we should value.
“Making Up for” Lack of Feeling
Since people go after indifference, aloofness, coldness, yet inevitably despise themselves for doing so, they can try to make up for their unfeelingness while still maintaining it. They do so in various ways. One popular way is through being fervently “devoted” to a particular person, or family group, or animal, to the exclusion of so many other things and people. There’s the feeling: I don’t need to be affected by the rest of the world; my husband—or child, or dog—means so much to me! One can have this intense, and intensely excluding, devotion to a sport, or one’s alma mater. The desire to convince oneself that one is “caring” even as one is cold can take the form, too, of having seemingly great feeling about the fate of embryos while one doesn’t care a bit that children already born, and their parents, aren’t getting what they need and deserve in this world.
A Beautiful Worry
Some of the best people in history and culture have seen that there was something in them going for coldness, for lack of feeling. One of those people is Matthew Arnold (1822-88). There was big emotion, grand (to use a word he cared for) emotion, in Arnold. Otherwise he would not be the poet and critic he is. Yet in a letter to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, he wrote (Feb. 12, 1853): “I am past thirty, and three parts iced over—and my pen, it seems to me is even stiffer and more cramped than my feeling.” It is to Arnold’s honor that he was a critic of the coldness in himself. The depth of his desire to be honest about it gives that sentence style—and feeling.
A poem of Arnold, “Growing Old,” is really about the fear of growing cold. It was published when he was 44, and in the last stanza he says that “the world”—by which he means the conventional people who seem to run the world—would prefer that he have little feeling. He describes the ultimate unfeelingness:
It is—last stage of all—
When we are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of ourselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
Which blamed the living man.
Arnold knew that to be against feeling in ourselves is to be against our very life. And he knew that, nevertheless, something in him, and in other people, preferred a “hollow” Matthew Arnold to “the living man.” He didn’t see that this desire in him and others to be cool was contempt: “There is a disposition in every person,” wrote Eli Siegel, defining contempt, “to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
The fight about coldness and feeling went on in Arnold all his life, as it does in everyone. But Arnold was beautifully worried, and often beautifully articulate, about it. These two great lines from “The Scholar- Gipsy” are on the subject: “Still nursing the unconquerable hope, / Still clutching the inviolable shade.” The “unconquerable hope” of Arnold was that he could love reality, with a oneness of clear knowledge and large feeling. The “inviolable shade” was the sketch, or hint, or living possibility that this could be.
He would have been very grateful to Aesthetic Realism for explaining the distinction between true feeling and false, between beautiful feeling and ugly. The solution to having feeling that’s ugly is not to try to be cool. It’s to see that the goodness or badness of a feeling depends essentially on this: is the purpose of my feeling to have respect for the world or contempt for it? It’s possible for feeling that’s critical of something, even angry or disgusted with something, to be for the purpose of respecting the world.
What Our Lives Are For
In the part of the lecture we’ve reached, Mr. Siegel comments on feeling in relation to 14 sciences. His discussion of the first 7 is included here. Through that discussion (and its continuation in our next issue) we can see this vital fact: the outside world in its manyness and our own intimate self complete each other. They need each other. To know the world and be affected mightily and accurately by it is what our lives are for.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Feeling Is in Science
By Eli Siegel
The greatest thing about feeling is the tremendous way that, in it, pleasure and pain are at one with knowing and not knowing. Every science is a repository of feeling. And the sciences make for feelings in different ways. I have chosen some sciences, somewhat carefully and somewhat at random, and written sentences to show that whatever you know is accompanied by feeling.
There are stars, galaxies, meteors, comets, belts, and other such necessary things. There is such a thing as astronomy. In people’s sense of astronomy, the two big things, with all the competition, are still sun and moon—and also, if you want to include earth as an astronomical datum, earth. Then there are stars—which you can, on the one hand, talk about in ordinary terms, and, on the other, get very complicated about once you try to find out what they are. The sentence I came to for astronomy and feeling is: The stars are in a haze tonight.
Well, that is not very abstruse astronomy. But we have to see that the simplest things about a science are still part of it. Astronomically, you can ask why the stars seem hazy, and you can think of the mist that may be in space. However, as we say, The stars are in a haze, there is feeling. One feels there is something beautiful about this.
The word haze can make for pain too. Occasionally feelings are implicit in nouns—as in the sentence “There is a question about this.” The word question is not the same as pain, but if you just read that sentence, “There is a question about this,” the tendency would be to think that, along with the question, there was a feeling of pain had by somebody. The word haze is like that. So is the word chalk, by itself: it’s just chalk, but one is so ready to be displeased by it. The word chalk (maybe because of how the object would seem in our mouths) is uncomfortable. There are many words like that. However, as we have the word haze in the sentence The stars are in a haze tonight, there’s something beautiful about it. Any person who hears that sentence—which, if it belongs anywhere, belongs to astronomy—will get a feeling from it.
Let’s take a sentence in the field of biology: The lizard gave a little wriggle. What shall we do with the word wriggle? Occasionally it can be a very happy word, and I think generally the idea of lizards wriggling is on the side of happiness. Still, wriggle could have something painful about it. And it would be hard to say whether the feeling we get from this sentence is one of pain or pleasure. We may say we’re indifferent. But indifference, whenever we know something, results from the equal force of two contending feelings, not because there’s no feeling there. To have a feeling that is clear is often not what happens. Most of our feelings are tepid, unambitious, not worth having, forgotten. Our feelings are usually little hills washed away very soon by little brooks.
So: The lizard gave a little wriggle. Yet in looking at a lizard, one could get ever so many feelings. And in looking at the word wriggle one can get many feelings too. Since a word is a thing, and every thing gives us a feeling, every word does. When words are brought together in a poem, the purpose is to bring out a feeling from each word to make for a ruling feeling, which is the feeling equivalent to composition.
As we look at the biological sentence, the word the gives us a feeling. Lizard gives us a feeling, both as a word and as an object. To see that the word gave gives us a feeling, we can compare it to a word like slapped: they make for different feelings. A gives us a feeling. Little gives us a feeling. Compare little to function: function gives us a feeling that only the word function can give us; it is different from the feeling given by little. Then there’s wriggle. Wriggle gives one a feeling which is different from waggle and different from wag and definitely different from rig or wig. The lizard gave a little wriggle: my disposition is to say that’s good.
For botany there is this sentence: How proud that rose seems. Roses are the best-known flowers, and we do get a feeling from them. Most people have gotten a feeling that the rose is proud. If you work very hard, you can feel that a violet is proud, but you have to work very hard. You have to think, maybe, that it’s taller than all the insects near it, and that it had once been a rose but decided to be a violet. You can’t get that feeling right away. But a rose can seem proud right away.
Flowers have given rise to feeling, and we soon run out of adjectives. The lily is pure. The violet is modest. The rose is proud. The hydrangea is flaunting. The carnation is confused (which it may be or not). The chrysanthemum is ostentatious. The rhododendron is uppity. We haven’t given feelings to all the flowers, but the more a flower is looked at, the more one can give it feeling.
The important thing is 1) whether there is feeling possible from every object, and 2) whether that feeling will ever run out. I’m not now in the field of relation, because if I were I could show that along with the feeling from (for instance) stars as such, there’s a feeling from stars in relation to lizards that is different from the feeling from stars in relation to octavos. Stars and octavos give you a feeling that stars and lizards don’t give you. Feeling is large enough to include any combination of simple feelings. If you find a clothespin suddenly, you have a feeling. If you find a page of a magazine in a high wind, you have a feeling. The fact that every object makes for a feeling is witness to the possible fact that being and being known are the same thing.
Our next science is ethnology, which is very popular. The sentence: It is so interesting to see an Asian man, a black man, an Indian, and a white man talk in a friendly way together. One of the words used about feeling is in this sentence: interesting—and that means that you want to know and also have a good time knowing. It is so interesting to see an Asian man, a black man, an Indian, and a white man talk in a friendly way together: yes, that can be. To have a group of things (or people) brought together in a hostile manner makes for a feeling quite clearly different from the feeling about a group brought together in a friendly manner. We could have a picture of the Asian man with his back to the black man, who in turn has his back to the Indian, and the white man has his back to all three of them. We would get another feeling from that: man will never be wise. But the sentence I used is good ethnology.
There is a feeling about time. The feeling in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and many other poems is about time. Thomas Moore’s “Last Rose of Summer” is about time. The speech of Hamlet about Yorick is about time and Yorick. So we get to anthropology, in which there is a feeling about time and also process.
Lo, the long history of pottery. If you don’t get a feeling from this sentence, it’s too bad. But when one thinks of how many hundreds of years, let alone thousands, it took to get to pottery that would really hold water and be hard enough to be moved from one place to another; how many years it took to get to Venetian glass, or where that was had in colonial times—to think of this is to have a feeling. It’s also to have an emotion. But all emotions are feelings. All passions are feelings. All attitudes, even, are feelings. An attitude is just a possibility of feeling seen as going on for a long time.
Feeling takes in a great deal. The most naïve remark that a person made in visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art was made in 1911. The person said, “Being in the Metropolitan Museum gives me a feeling I don’t get at home.”
For geology: Earth comes in many forms—hard, soft, and all. If you look at the possibilities of feeling, you’ll find that, as in music, these possibilities are hard and soft. Earth is hard and soft. We have adamant as something to be found in earth, and we also have mud. We also have Illinois prairie ground.
In thinking of anything hard, which is the same thing as having feeling about what is hard, we have to take on hardness ourselves. If we think of a billiard ball or a reef, a black reef, like Norman’s Woe, we take on some of that hardness. And if we think of the foam of the water, we take on some of the softness of things. If we think of the wet shore, we take on softness. A feeling is, in every instance, an identification with an object too.
This is shown in acting, where we take on feelings that are not ours and identify ourselves with them even as we don’t have them. A woman playing Hedda Gabler better take care that she isn’t Hedda Gabler. But she is Hedda Gabler. Playing Hedda Gabler is an arrangement of feeling which a person can put this way: “I think I got that part down—I feel as if I were Hedda Gabler, and I know everything she says.” It’s a feeling composed of a lot of rehearsal, but it’s instantaneous.
This identification is present not only in acting but every time we think of something. Mind can be like everything it thinks of. So when, in a novel, a hardhearted landlord is asked to melt, he’s asked to have feelings like ice when April comes along.
Hardness and softness are in all feelings. Obviously, love is softer than hate. Contempt is a strange mingling: contempt can go towards pity or towards anger. As it goes towards pity it’s soft, even though there’s a sneer in the softness. If it goes towards anger, it’s hard.
It can be shown that feelings have everything that objects have. There are feelings that, by their very nature, are fast. There is apprehension. In a novel a person can say, “I feel apprehensive.” That is about a swifter state than the phrase the same girl may use in the next chapter: “I feel really downcast and I have misgivings.” It is also faster than “I don’t trust that man—I have a feeling of distrust.”
Every word or feeling has a certain speed and a certain slowness. To say of a person that she seems grouchy is to make a state faster than when the same state is described in these terms: “There is a look of constant gloom on her visage.” But it may be the same state.
Anger is in many forms. There is the possibility of anger’s being very sudden. That can be accompanied by a word like rebuke. It can be accompanied by glare. Rebuke and glare are different from feeling akin to what they stand for, in the phrase “She went about her task grimly, resolved to show her true feeling to no one.” The words grim, rebuke, and glare are about anger but they show different speeds in anger.
With history, we can have: What did go on in the 18th century? That, obviously, is both for and against, because what did go on could be some awful things, but also could be some very good things.