Dear Unknown Friends:
As we continue to serialize the great lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature, which Eli Siegel gave in 1950, I'll comment here on a work that, 50 years later, has been affecting men, women, and children throughout the English-speaking world. I refer to the first of the Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, originally published in England in 1997. What does its enormous popularity say about people and what they are looking for?
First of all, the importance of this novel, its goodness, and the enthusiasm about it are explained by the following principle, the basis of Aesthetic Realism: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." And the chief opposites that Ms. Rowling has made inseparable are the opposites that are central to romanticism, that new way of feeling and showing the world which began in Europe at the end of the 18th century: the opposites of the strange and the ordinary.
Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that romanticism did not stop by the second half of the 19th century, as is generally thought — and it has never stopped. He documents that fact in his essay "Romanticism Is Still with Us." These are sentences from the first and last paragraphs:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is, I believe, true literature; while not art in excelsis, it is art. And the ordinariness and strangeness of reality are more deeply one in it, more sincerely joined, than in many contemporary presentations. We see them right away in the title. Harry Potter is about as unmysterious, non-tingling, ordinary a name as one could think of. Sorcerer's Stone is something else. And this boy with the dull name, who is hardly striking, and wears eyeglasses held together with Scotch tape, is a wizard; in fact, a very special wizard.
The Countering of Contempt
And there are the ordinary and the strange. Millions of people day after day feel the ordinary is dull. In so feeling, they have contempt: they have wiped out the meaning, annulled the life, made into nothing the true mystery which are in a relative, a city street, the brick of a building, a coffeepot, a co-worker at a nearby desk. Men, women, and children then go after creating a separate "exciting" world that is deeply disparaging of reality and people. They can do this through drugs, drink, interest in violence, misuse of sex, and simply having a world within themselves apart from and preferred to everything. Also, millions of people are afraid and scornful of what seems "strange"; they feel that only what they're used to, only persons "like" them, are friendly and matter.
So the severing of the familiar and the strange can be equivalent to boredom; fear; the deep disinclination to learn something new; coldness to the insides of other people; racism. It is always narrowness. But when we see these opposites as one, we are seeing a world we have to respect, a world we cannot have contempt for. The need to like the world itself by feeling the wondrous is factual and the factual wondrous, is, I think, what Mr. Siegel is speaking of when he says romanticism "meets something" in people that we "must go for." It is the chief reason Harry Potter is so popular.
There Is the Family
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley sever horribly the familiar and the strange, the conventional and the wondrous. They don't want to see any wonder in the world, and that is why they hate Harry. They have a child, the obnoxious Dudley, whom they adore and to whom they give multitudinous presents. In turn, Dudley sees reality as something to grab, despise, and have power over — a power that often takes the form of bullying Harry. In being affected by all this, readers, young and older, are welcoming a criticism of acquisition — which is related to the use of family against the world in its wideness. After Dudley shows he will have a tantrum unless he gets more than the 36 birthday presents he sees before him, there is this response from Mr. Dursley (page 22 of the Scholastic paperback edition): "'Little tyke wants his money's worth, just like his father. 'Atta boy, Dudley!' He ruffled Dudley's hair." Within this book is criticism of the profit motive: the desire to own things rather than see their wonder.
Magic and Everydayness
People have seen magic as a way of being able speedily to manipulate the world — of not having to work to understand it. Writes Mr. Siegel: "When, as Doctor Faustus does, we go for dismissing the wearisome world, we are saying hello to magic" (p. 11). But in Harry Potter, the magical world is not a dismissing of the ordinary world: it is itself a oneness of the strange and ordinary. The way school life in a wizard school is so like school life in an "ordinary" school, makes for both the depth of the book and its humor. This magic is not a speedy changing of reality: there is work — courses to take, some difficult, some boring; there are exams, worry about them, cramming. This sentence, for instance, is a oneness of the supernatural and workaday:
A character valuable in late 20th-/early 21st-century literature, is Hagrid, who assists at the school though he was unable to graduate from it. He is massive, gigantic, rough, awkward — and very tender. He carried the infant Harry in his arms; and he lovingly nurses a baby dragon. Related to the strange and the familiar are the grotesque and the kind. They are important in romanticism too: Hugo made them one mightily in Quasimodo, the bell-ringer in Notre Dame de Paris. They are one in Hagrid.
Ms. Rowling's prose is generally quite good, and some passages are beautiful. This, about Hagrid's buying Harry an owl (needed for school), has strangeness and sweetness — and dark and light — and mysterious manyness become a particular creature one can care for:
Because of Mr. Siegel's beautiful intellectual and ethical courage, Aesthetic
Realism exists: the most necessary and kind education there is. It is the
means to understand and combat contempt and to have — not only in art,
but in every aspect of life itself — the deep and bounding pleasure of
respect for the world. Some of that pleasure is in Harry Potter.
And I see the popularity of that book as a sign of how much people want
There Are Whales, Too
By Eli Siegel
Note. Mr. Siegel has been discussing passages by Richard Jefferies, who wrote fervently and powerfully about nature in England.
There are so many ways of seeing nature that one can hardly expect those ways to be dealt with shortly; they won't. Some representative ways will be dealt with. In fact, the history of civilization is the history of the continuing ways in which nature has been seen or felt.
I go now to another book. It was written by a Harvard young man who was sick, and it was felt that if he took an ocean voyage and worked on the ship, he would be better. He had some very big experiences. This is an American classic, Two Years before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who lived from 1815 to 1882. We are not now on a hilltop in summer in England. Dana's ship is going to go to California, around Cape Horn. This passage, about hearing "the near breathing of whales," is from chapter 5:
Aesthetic Realism says that we can learn from anything in nature — if our purpose is to learn. Our deepest purpose always is to learn about the world so that we can know about ourselves, and to know about ourselves so that we can learn about the world. There is always the interaction. But if we begin specializing in one thing in the world, and say this is for us and the rest not, our very purpose that much has been spat at. We came from the whole world, not from a part of it. And the whole world is the world in its unity and all its variety. We don't have to know all its variety as long as we respect it; and we should try to know as much of it as we can.
If we took that hilltop in England, and then we took what is happening here in the late 1830s near Cape Horn, and said, "Through this we know ourselves, and through this we can understand people better," that would be good, because the experience would be used for exact knowledge. But if we are going to use it to forget the people of Boston and New York and what they may be going through — their achievements and their downfalls — then we are false to whales and grampuses. The purpose of seeing whales and grampuses is to see conscious nature — that is, man; the purpose of seeing man is to be fairer to whales and grampuses, and not to have that division. Anyway, this is a charming passage.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
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