Originality, Convention, & What’s True
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize a 1963 lecture that is historic—great in what it says about both life and art. It is Romanticism and Guilt, by Eli Siegel.
Part of its greatness is Aesthetic Realism’s explanation of guilt. Whether guilt is searing or murky, whether it shows itself as agitation or emptiness or “low self-esteem,” it is the sense that we have been unjust to the world. Guilt does not come from society or religion or our upbringing. It comes from what the human self is. If we are unjust, whether we’re clear about that or not, we have to dislike ourselves—because our purpose from birth is to be ourselves through seeing truly what’s not ourselves. This purpose is in keeping with the aesthetic nature of the human self: each of us is, all the time, a situation of opposites needing to be one, and the chief opposites are self and world. Writes Eli Siegel in two clear, resounding, and beautiful sentences:
The basis of the Aesthetic Realism method is that every human being is a self whose fundamental and constant purpose is to be at one with reality. It is impossible for that self to evade this purpose, although he can curtail it, obscure it, limit it.
That is how “The Guilt Chapter” of his Self and World begins.
And There Is Art
In the lecture Romanticism and Guilt Mr. Siegel is explaining something huge. Every important movement in art, he shows, has arisen from guilt felt keenly and welcomed. It has arisen from the feeling, “We, and art, have not been fair enough to the world! We’ve put fake, reprehensible limits on where we could find beauty and meaning. We’ve put restrictions on what has value. We’ve lessened what things are!” In particular, romanticism, which began in Europe at the end of the 18th century, was a resplendent attempt to give justice where it had been denied—to everyday things, to people who were seen as lowly, and also to things that seemed far off and strange.
Convention & Originality
In the present section, Mr. Siegel speaks about William Wordsworth. And he speaks about two large matters which, in a sense, are opposites: convention, conforming; and originality. People today are terrifically confused and pained about these—including people who present themselves as ever so at ease and sure in the field.
Let’s take the matter of originality. It’s wonderful, of course. People want to be original. In fact, people knock themselves out trying to be original, in both art and life. You want to make your mark. You don’t want to be just like everyone else. You want to stand out. But it happens that there are a true originality and a false—and this lecture explains the difference between them.
In order to understand what makes some “originality” spurious—really unoriginal and also hurtful—we have to understand that which Aesthetic Realism has identified as the most harmful thing in everyone. That thing is contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Ever so much bad art has come from persons’ feeling, essentially, “I can use this subject, this object, this idea, these words, to show how brilliant I am—how original.” When art is bad, the impelling thing was not a drive to be fair to the object, but to use it to make oneself impressive.
I’ll mention swiftly an example (and some people, I know, would disagree with it). It’s the phenomenon of E.E. Cummings in the 1920s. There was a sense, for a while, that something quite original had occurred because Cummings dispensed with punctuation and capital letters. A word often used of him was unconventional. But it was a fake “originality”—not because of the lower case letters or lack of punctuation, but because neither they nor the poems’ statements came from the one thing that makes for art: the desire—authentic, passionate, constantly seeking—to use oneself to be fair to the object.
That is what has made every good poet—whether Chaucer, Keats, or Hart Crane—original. Because if we want to be just, there will come from us a justice which, while in keeping with other justice, will have our own individual self within it.
The same principle is true in our lives. Every day, people try to stand out, not through valuing other things and people, but through looking to diminish them. A woman, Liz, prepares for a party. She feels that the way she’ll be notable there is by arranging herself so the other women will seem less lovely than she, less stylish, less striking. She takes this logic for granted; doesn’t think there’s another way to be important. And a man, Ron, engaged in a conversation right now, is trying to be an individual through showing he’s much more brilliant than the others taking part.
Both Liz and Ron may succeed. Yet they’ll feel sort of sick later, perhaps faintly and naggingly, perhaps sharply. The reason is: this dislike of self, this guilt, is inevitable if we have not gone after the one thing that is original: justice from ourselves. In fact, Liz and Ron have been doing the most unoriginal thing in the world, the most unglamorous, tawdry, dull thing: having contempt.
Convention vs. Truth
Then, there is what seems the contrary of originality: conforming, convention. People want to be safe, think well of themselves, get approval, through uncritically going by what others—those in power—have presented as correct. This conforming is contempt too. It’s a terrible contempt for truth—because you’ve made truth valueless; what you value and are after is fitting in. Going by convention is also, as Mr. Siegel says, contempt for your own mind. The big matter in both life and art—and he was passionate about it—is: Do you want to see? Do you feel the world is for you to understand, know, be fair to? Do you want to see what you yourself feel?
He Was in the Midst of These Opposites
A person who, with all that could be criticized in him, courageously tried to put together opposites related to conforming and originality was Abraham Lincoln. Conforming has to do with representing what other people want; originality, with representing oneself. Lincoln took as seriously as ever a president did the need to stand for the American people and what they wanted. He tried to stand, not for their shabby, comfort-seeking desires, but their deepest desires. Eli Siegel wrote in a poem: “There was something in Abraham Lincoln that saw what America hoped for.” At the same time, Lincoln was trying to see what his own feeling was and be true to it—and that feeling included his intense desire to do away utterly with slavery.
The Civil War itself stands, in various ways, for two other opposites related to convention and originality. That is, convention is a phase of maintaining what’s established, or sameness; and originality is a phase of newness, change. The North was fighting to maintain something that had been established: the Union, the United States herself as a nation in wholeness. It was also fighting (though some denied this) for a vastly and agonizingly needed change: the freeing of slaves. Lincoln wanted both. He was criticized by some abolitionists for his feeling that if he went after the second, emancipation, too rapidly, the first, preserving the Union, would not succeed. Whoever may have been correct in this matter, it is clear that Lincoln was tormented about it. He was trying adamantly, sincerely, to have both occur.
The South was a horrible relation of convention and originality. Slavery—the utter contempt that is the owning of human beings—had become a convention. It was, in all its viciousness, a beloved established institution, to be conformed to and protected. Then, when Lincoln was elected president and slavery appeared threatened, the South went for the other opposite—an abhorrent change: it had the phony, ugly originality of trying to secede from the Union. In the Confederate South, maintaining and change were in one of the foulest relations in human history.
How much Abraham Lincoln saw the Civil War as about the doing away with slavery—how much he felt that the maintaining of the Union and the change from slavery to freedom were inseparable—pulsates eloquently in his Second Inaugural Address. There is this, toward the end:
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Those words, and the entire address, are history, and they are art. They are original, because their writer was ardently trying to be in conformity with what is true.