|NUMBER 1873.—April 23, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
The great essay published here was written by Eli Siegel in the 1950s. Yet there is nothing more contemporary, avant-garde, new. “The Question of Pride in Sex” explains so much mix-up of today, so much pain that men and women have—and don’t understand—and feel they should pretend they don’t have.
Why, in this 21st century, when we are so liberated corporeally, can a person still feel deeply ashamed after his or her body is close to another’s? The pretense on the subject is gigantic; because the way of seeing put forth in the media and all around one is that having sex is like shaking someone’s hand—you can do it with little thought or psychological wear-and-tear. Then, when a person feels profoundly uneasy afterward she tells herself that there must be something wrong with her—that her contemporaries are quite comfortable.
Millions of people think they are the only ones who feel a self-disgust after an amatory happening. Megan envies the “ease” of other women as to body; Jack envies other men their apparent un-self-doubting savoir-faire. Meanwhile, so many of those envied persons secretly feel agitated and disgusted after sex. All the light talk and anything-goes humor do not change that feeling.
What Is the Cause?
The sense of non-pride can occur not only with “casual” sex. People in “committed” relationships can have it—and they don’t know why. So what is it that makes one not proud as to body? And what will make one proud?
Aesthetic Realism is beautiful on the subject. It is completely un-puritanical and it is ringingly logical.
Aesthetic Realism explains that how we are as to sex, how we are as to everything—from food, to education, to politics, to sleep—arises from, has in it, how we see the world itself. We are in a fight about the world. And this fight, between one purpose of ours and another, is the biggest matter in our lives. It is a fight between respect, the desire to see meaning in what’s not us, and contempt, the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” That is the unseen fight as to sex. Our purpose—either to respect reality or have contempt for it, including the reality of another self—is what determines whether we will feel proud or ashamed. Purpose is immediate, throbbing, propelling in sex: it is as real as flesh, and it is always there.
In a work of 1976, Mr. Siegel wrote:
Sex is either a means of having the world just the way we want it—that is, having contempt for it; or it can be the means of making the ordinary things of the world take on more meaning. Sex, therefore, is always either for contempt or respect. The chief thing wrong with sex is that it so easily can be used as a means of ecstatic revenge on a world which we see as not having been good to us. Sex often is revenge, not expression.
Those sentences explain a related matter about which there is also much current pretense: pornography. What with the Internet, such imagery is more accessible than ever, and so much in the media gives the impression that one shouldn’t be squeamish—just enjoy it and feel fine. Well, the reason people don’t feel fine about the pleasure they get from certain images is: they’re using those images to have contempt for the world and people.
Self-dislike in relation to things erotic does not come from religion or societal mores. It comes from the ethics that is as inseparable from us as our blood circulation. This self-dislike comes if we have tried to conquer the world through a person; tried to have the world serve us—give us ecstasy without our having to think, know, be fair to anything.
The purpose that makes for pride is described in the essay printed here: “Sex is a means, or should be, of liking oneself by liking rapturously a person standing for the world not oneself.” A large part of that liking is the joyful desire to know the person we are close to, understand him or her, richly and steadily, and be known ourselves. And as I present this Aesthetic Realism explanation, in its logic—I do so with the happiness of knowing personally that it is true.
A Person & the World
The two poems by Eli Siegel that follow the essay were written about thirty years earlier. The poems are different from each other. Yet in both there is the oneness of a particular person and the width of things; the oneness of exactitude, tactile exactitude, and mystery. The “girl” in “Girl, January and All” is just herself, ever so particularly herself; yet she is inseparable from other things, real things—including snow, subways, children, moving pictures, and more, and more. This is how we need to see a person—in love, and otherwise. And the music of the poem is warm and mighty.
The second poem is about a complex person of history, Frederick the Great. We feel him as a person, somewhat bewildered perhaps, as his own horse can be unsure. In both these poems of 1926 or ’7 are the beginnings of Aesthetic Realism: the seeing, as Mr. Siegel wrote, that “the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things.”
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
The Question of Pride in Sex
A Philosophic Essay
By Eli Siegel
But man is a noble animal. —Sir Thomas Browne
The phrase quoted from Browne’s Urn-Burial has in it the essential question about sex. It is not a fight between sex and chastity which man has violently and intricately had: it is a fight between sex and pride. As Aesthetic Realism sees it, man wants to enjoy things and people, but he also wants to like himself. He wants to feel “noble” even as a carnal forest is present. Men and women are no different here; they want to have a good time, but they want to look good to themselves. When a person doesn’t look good to himself, his deepest desire has failed. Two big desires are at war; it is not a fight between desire and abstention; rather, two forces are mingling antagonistically.
Does a man feel proud in going after a woman? It used to be said that one’s “Puritan heritage” interfered with the free expression of joyous corporeality. The desire to feel proud, however, is deeper than any historical “Puritan heritage.” Shame is a subtle, constant, ageless thing. It arises from man’s unceasing ability and tendency to look at himself and criticize himself, even when he doesn’t know what the criticism is about.
Many People Now
There are many people now courting each other, and they are not proud. Mary is really not pleased with the way she’s getting the love of Mark; and Mark doesn’t look good to himself as he goes after Mary’s favor. To like what we get requires liking how we get it. If Mary does not show herself as she truly is in making an intense impression on Mark, Mary is displeased with herself. If Mark arranges himself to please Mary, and Mark is afraid to be critical of Mary, then Mark is in a state of ethical unease. The victories in sight may be so attractive—as they have always been—that the defeat accompanying them may not be noticed; yet the defeat is there. You can’t get love falsely without some awareness of it. In the long run, we cannot fool ourselves. We’re our own toughest customers, as the Greek writers of tragedy knew.
All this means that there are two dimensions in pleasure or victory: one, we must like the pleasure or victory; and two, we must like how we got it, the form of it—that is, we must be proud of how we have pleasure or victory. And people are not proud of how they have victories in sex. Deeply, they are ashamed, and the shame has an effect on them. The effect is diverse and bad.
It is not too much to say that the boys and girls, men and women now courting each other, or going after each other, are not proud enough of what they’re doing. Should they marry, the lack of pride they now have will come out as ill temper, resentment, uncertainty. It is not good. But that’s the way it has been, and apparently still is.
The question, then, for persons who have to do with love is, Am I proud of what I’m doing? If there is a doubt, the doubt ought to be studied. The possible biology is only an incident in the general ethics of the persons concerned. All this is so, because the purpose of sex is to like oneself, be proud of oneself, while meeting another person in the most entire, most critical, most self-exacting manner. Sex is a means, or should be, of liking oneself by liking rapturously a person standing for the world not oneself.
If sex is not used this way, deeply we are foiled. The grandest yet most pervasive purpose in us is frustrated. There is the frustration the twenties in American history were not so aware of. And the fifties in American history are not so aware of it either. Consequently, the fifties in American history, socially speaking, will consist of a jumpy alternation from possessive zest and rapture to sulky dolefulness and fatigue. The greater our joy, the more critical we are. Even in our frenzies of satisfaction, the self is watchful. The light is obscured by a thick covering of triumph; the light is there, though.
As Man & Woman Met
The reason that the work of Henry James* eschews so noticeably the detailing of delightful tactual procedures, is that James felt the fate of the self was in play as man and woman met; and unlike Maupassant, say, he felt he should write about the less observable vicissitudes of self, in its approval and disapproval. And I think that one of the big reasons for James’s astounding contemporaneity is his beautiful involvement with selves as knowing and not knowing, even while they have limbs, and their hearts are beating, and the blood is flowing with eternal impetuosity under their skins. James’s novels are about the attainment of pride, the avoidance of ignobility; the just maintenance of self.
Surely, the desire of the self to look at what it is, and to be pleased, even while the corpuscles shake darkly, was much written of long before James. Sonnet 129 of Shakespeare is all about pride and shame. When Shakespeare writes in this sonnet,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
he is describing a situation often, often taking place in the amorous life of all the cities and towns of Ohio, Indiana, and Delaware. Sonnet 129 does reach into every corner of human Delaware.
Before and after Shakespeare, man’s drooping doubt of himself was written of. Hardly a poet or novelist has failed to record in some way the muggy misgivings, the thick tendency to self-abasement, which have accompanied and have followed amorous achievements. Byron, for example, is just as much the bard of love-as-disgust as of love-as-romance. Women, too, have recorded revulsion. Edna St. Vincent Millay, for instance, often dealt with love as making for shame. And we should remember all the while that in most denunciations of sex in its effect on pride, the ecclesiastical or evangelical or theological is not present. Theology has much, importantly, to say on pride, but it seems that a novelist or poet could write of sex versus pride without any employment of divinity. The question of the pomp of flesh as hostile to the grace of spirit is certainly present in profane complaints against love as a disintegrator of personality. But the vocabularies, as of now, remain apart.
There is Rupert Brooke. In 1914, he stood for what was best in the young manhood of England. His sonnets made for some bright ethical certainty, which even today seems somewhat authentic. I cannot praise Brooke’s sonnet series, “Nineteen-Fourteen,” utterly; nevertheless, there is commendable, orderly expression in it. It was thought for a while that the nobility in the sonnets was not sincere, but the critical drift has been to see something fundamentally acceptable in these poems of Brooke, while objecting to a lack of casualness, flexibility. Brooke does, though, make clear that in the spring and summer of 1914, love and pride and sex and pride were at odds. There are these lines in the sonnet “Peace”:
Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Certainly, there is dissatisfaction here and it isn’t just “general.” Brooke saw something.
In “Retrospect,” a rather muddled poem—at least of varying spiritual direction—Brooke, after saying of someone who is woman-and-mother that “In your arms was still delight, / Quiet as a street at night,” says, rather astonishingly:
In your stupidity I found
The sweet hush after a sweet sound.
These last somewhat discordant lines point to an aspect of man’s lack of pride as to sex. He feels that his whole self, his lucid self, his administrative conscious self, is not around. It is blissful to be unaware and triumphant, but our discerning self may object anyway.
And so, men, while going frantically after love and sex, desperately fear it. Their body is fighting their pride, or so it seems. And with all the “liberating” literature about sex, the fight is as fierce as ever. Pride will not walk away, defeated. It’s there. Therefore, males are taken with a great desire to be close to women and with a great desire to forget them. And women are taken with a desire to forget men. The male is for them the glory that makes for confusion and dejection.
In Art—Its Best Answer
Our century is still one of pride. Sex and pride will become friendly, or suffering will persist. Meanwhile, it is useful to say that in art the question has, so far, been given its best answer. In art, where it is the real thing, substance is at one with form, intensity is at one with ethics, material is at one with design.
If we learn from art, instinct will be at one with pride, blood will be at one with ethics, and the body of another person will be at one with our very self—in the moments of our lives, every day, every year.
Two Poems by Eli Siegel
Girl, January and All
O, girl in New York now, with the sun coming every day: every day—how well known this is; and rain coming, too, sometimes, and sometimes rain and sun together,
How well do you remember now that dark day, with snow and rain, and white and dullness last January, and one last November, too?
Elevateds scurried by; subways noisily went by, underneath you; your shoes were wet then, sometimes by snow, sometimes by dull mud, by mud in snow, snow in mud.
All in January, last January; on a Saturday.
Now, June, and the skies are soft—how well known this is, and what are soft skies; elevateds still scurry by; subways go underneath you; babies cry in parks; children walk around in New York, in parks, with fingers in their mouths; moving pictures go on; dresses are being bought; dresses are worn; white’s everywhere; white bodies are to be seen often; in this June there is talk of millions of people; millions of people go to work; lust, dear me, is so much in New York; there, girls and girls and girls and boys and boys and boys; women and girls and boys and stores and thoughts and relations and marriage and thoughts and pains and doings and bodies and dresses and clothes and stores and suns and June and New York, and wonder a little and you go on, and the universe is in you and all of the universe, O, all. You, you, you and all.
O, girl, love, body, January, misery, June, love, misery, elevateds, subways, universe, bodies, dresses, relatives, January and all.
Frederick the Great in Night
Frederick the Great, on his horse, looked at trees and stars.
It was dark in Germany.
Battles had been won.
Life had gone on.
Frederick the Great thought of the time when he was young.
His horse gave a start.
It was night and the night went on.
See those trees, in night, in Germany.
Stars are over Germany, over Prussia are stars.
France had been beaten by Frederick, been beaten in a way.
He had seen Voltaire.
He had thought of America.
He had thought of Alexander; he had thought of Caesar.
O, Frederick, Frederick, there in the night, on a frightened horse, looking at trees, looking at stars.
It is night in Germany; in Prussia it is night.
Fontenoy’s been fought; Rossbach’s been fought; Voltaire has gone; there have been many mornings, afternoons and nights, and there has been so much, much, much, O, so much in Germany, so much in the world.
The horse gave another start.
Night goes on.
Frederick the Great rides back.
Frederick, Frederick the Great.
*In the 1950s, James’s novels were having a new popularity. —ER
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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