|Dear Unknown Friends:
As we continue to serialize the magnificent 1958 lecture Poetry As Happening, we come to a section in which Eli Siegel speaks about the Latin poet Catullus, who lived from about 84 to about 54 BC. In the lecture Mr. Siegel is showing that what happens in the world, occurrences, periods in history, have a structure like that of art: they put opposites together. He is illustrating this great Aesthetic Realism principle: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." In the section published here, he is objecting to what occurs most often as writers deal with an era, nation, period: there is the leaving out of the fact that each person, of any time or place, is a full individual.
Everyone who ever lived — whether in the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment — was a oneness of two huge opposites: a tremendously particular self, different from anyone else; and someone affected constantly by and related to the world around him or around her. Each of us makes the same mistake that writers on history can make: we lump people together, rob them of their fulness and specificity. And with that mistake comes this: we make ourselves inaccurately different from other people; we don't see that we are vividly related to every human being. These two wrongnesses are so ordinary. But from them has arisen the huge cruelty of all the centuries. So I speak a little here about the agony now going on between Israelis and Palestinians — and give the only real solution to it.
What Do We Do When We Feel Hurt?
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago, Mr. Siegel explained a large cause of trouble in my life, so that I could change: I was, he said, more interested in seeing myself as hurt than in understanding. We — an individual or a nation — have two choices when we are hurt, and only two: We will either use it to want to know; or we will use it to justify and give free rein to a desire present in us all the time — the desire for contempt.
Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." It is had by "nice" people day after day and is always awful, though people certainly don't see it that way. Contempt is the pleasure in seeing another person as less than oneself. Jews have had it for Arabs, and Arabs for Jews. A little boy right now is having it for his sister: he feels like a big shot as he calls her "nerd!"
The Two Necessities
I shall present a very specific way for good will to begin to end the horror in that small, disputed, revered part of earth. But first I say: the other approaches have been tried. Israel's "getting tough" with the Palestinians has been tried. It has included killing and torturing people, and dealing with them every day as though they were less human than oneself. Arabs' showing their "toughness," through bombings and killings, has also been tried. Negotiations and treaties have been tried; they are not the same as good will and won't work until there is good will.
This Should Take Place Immediately
Every Israeli Jew is asked to write a 500-word soliloquy of a Palestinian. Every Palestinian is asked to write such a soliloquy of an Israeli person. Every day, on Israeli and Palestinian radio and television stations, these soliloquies will be read, ten of them each day. First Ms. B_______, an Israeli mother, might read the 500 words she wrote, trying to get within and describe the feelings of a Palestinian mother. Then an 18-year-old Palestinian will read the soliloquy he wrote of an elderly Jewish man who landed in Haifa in 1945, just liberated from a concentration camp. A young woman in the Israeli army, Rachel, will read her soliloquy of a Palestinian woman her age, Salma (Rachel's family now lives in the house Salma's family had before they fled in fear in 1948).
The soliloquies will be read on the air, day after day. Persons in government, too, will write them. There will likely still be some persons viciously angry on both sides, but they will not be able to get the adherents they now can get. People will see others as real at last, real as oneself, and will feel others are seeing them as real. And you cannot hurt a person whom you see as having feelings like your own.
I am presenting a principle, a solution — not "taking sides." Contempt has been, in its way, democratic: it has been had by Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Arab. But as a person who is Jewish, I say this: Jews were subjected to a contempt as gigantic as any in history — that of the Nazis. The tragedy, and also the horror, is that by and large, Jews did not use the terrible brutality they endured to say, "It is necessary for us to see people different from ourselves with depth and justice!" Like other people and peoples, Jews used their hurt to feel they did not have to think about being just to others.
There is a short poem by Eli Siegel that I love. Through it we can see both the mistake of Israel and what should occur. The poem represents the beautiful largeness and accuracy of Mr. Siegel's thought:
A Preference Must Change
Now, as people are killing each other and terrified, there must be a different preference. There must be the proud study of what Eli Siegel, in his courageous honesty, saw, and embodied in Aesthetic Realism. The study of Aesthetic Realism is, literally, the same as humanity's kindness, self-respect, and, yes, peace.
An Individual Pagan
By Eli Siegel
Note. Mr. Siegel has been discussing a review, from the April 1865 Edinburgh Review, of Hippolyte Adolphe Taine's History of English Literature.
The reviewer is quoting Taine, on the Renaissance: "'The ancient pagan idea reappeared...: first in Italy.'"
There is a great deal of talk about "the pagan spirit," "what happened in Italy." I'd like to dramatize this for a moment, make it specific, by reading some sentences about Catullus and his life. Catullus is a poet very much in fashion these days; there is hardly a person in the 1st century BC who is more around. And Catullus, we can gather, had his ups and downs and different points of view.
First of all, we see that he was born in a provincial town in Italy, Verona, and went to Rome. He met Romans; and he met a lady, Clodia, whom he calls Lesbia in his poems, and she affected him a good deal. And it seems that Catullus himself, though he lived a very short time comparatively, changed his attitude to his poetry, or to what he could do in poetry. I'm going to read a sketch of him, one early Italian, one pagan, so we don't sum up with phrases like "pagan," "this happened in Italy."
It seems that Catullus's family permitted him to go to Rome early, more than likely encouraged him to go. The sentences I'll read are from Harold N. Fowler's History of Roman Literature. And it is obvious that while Catullus was nothing but himself, he was affected by the currents swirling about him: by what was happening in the '50s of the 1st century BC:
Rome was then a brilliant capital, in which Greek culture, with all its intellectual vivacity and all its vices, had taken firm root. The family connections of the young Catullus, whose father was a friend of Julius Caesar, introduced him to the aristocratic society of the capital.It happens that Italy in the 3rd century BC looked with disfavor on Greece as being too "effeminate" and fit only for domination. It was the way, later, certain Germans could look on France. However, as time went on, there was a disposition on the part of Rome, of Italy, to learn from Greece.
We have in this passage "intellectual vivacity" and "vices." We have to think of the relation of the two. And we have a certain form: Somebody is in the provinces; he's distinguished. He goes to the capital. The capital has an ambiguous effect on him. It stimulates him intellectually, but it tempts him from the point of view of the flesh.
Love and Art
About 61 B.C. began his passionate love for the brilliant but dissolute woman whom he has immortalized in his poems under the name of Lesbia.What women have done to poets is something which should be taken seriously. On the one hand, it would seem that the women were more interested in themselves than in poetry; but they seem to have had a poetic effect. The subject is still debatable. What is the influence of women on art; or, for that matter, what is the influence of gentlemen on lady artists (if I may use the phrase)?
So the question is: if Catullus had not met this particular lady, Clodia, would he have written love poems at all? Weren't there other Roman ladies who were just looking to be the subject of Catullus? We cannot say.
When he met her she was the wife of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. For a time she seemed at least to return the love of her young adorer, but almost immediately after her husband's death, which took place in 59 B.C., she is reproached by Catullus for faithlessness.I cannot go into all the attitudes of Clodia, but she does seem human, if the story was just as it is told here.
In the spring of 57 B.C., Catullus went to Bithynia as a member of the staff of the propraetor C. Memmius, and by this time his connection with Clodia seems to have been at an end.
"In the spring of 56 B.C., Catullus returned to Rome, after visiting the tomb of his brother." He wrote what seems to be a sincere poem of respect for a brother.
Most of the poems belonging to the last years of his life, when they contain personal allusions, are inspired rather by the political events of the time than by love.We find that two things, seemingly different, can be inspiration for poetry: political events and love.
As I mention all these things, we should see them as part of the history of earth. The history of poetry is part of the history of earth. The history of seeing, as Aesthetic Realism puts it, is part of the history of being.
That was an excursion,
giving some individuality to the meaning of Italy.
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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