Always with Us: Lightness & Weight
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we publish two very different works by Eli Siegel. First, a poem of 1961, in which he writes about words, sounds, that have taken on a certain new meaning in our own time—tweet and twitter. Second, we reprint a work that is ever so literary, rich in culture, philosophy, kindness (also playfulness): “Death by Various Hands,” first published in the August 1930 issue of Poetry World. It is composed of short essays on the subject of death, written in the manner, and from the viewpoint of five different authors. And Eli Siegel is able to convey the quality of each of these writers, be within their various ways of seeing and expression. He doesn’t necessarily agree with what he has these persons say; but in each instance, what he has written is beautiful.
There is Max Beerbohm, much better known then than now. (He lived from 1872 to 1956.) In “Max Beerbohm: Somewhat, Anyway” his style is represented in prose that meanders, is graceful, has a chattiness that somehow becomes also grand.
Then there is Samuel Johnson (1709-84), represented by prose that is nobly, magnificently sensible in the 18th-century manner. Mr. Siegel has Johnson tell us that some thoughts about death are a means we have of chiding ourselves for making less of life. And he has Johnson write, at the end of that second essay, about the ugliness of death even as Johnson honors the mysterious bigness of the universe.
Next there is Walter Pater (1839-94). Mr. Siegel presents him as saying that death is an element of reality itself: death is an aspect of the fact that reality is rest and motion—with death an utter form of rest. And Eli Siegel gives us the quiet nuance and precision of the Pater prose style—its delicacy inseparable from majesty, power, life.
The fourth author is Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). He had, in 1930, not yet written the novel for which he is now most famous, Brave New World. And he had not yet become interested in Hindu philosophy and meditation. This short essay is in the manner of the early Huxley: Mr. Siegel has a presumed Huxley character, a woman, speak of death with, at once, intellectual ease, a tough scientific interest, and sensitivity.
The fifth writer is Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859). Eli Siegel gives us the magnificent, ornate, and honest De Quincey style wonderfully. It is a style that has majesty, as Pater’s also does. Yet the De Quincey prose accents motion, hubbub, while Pater accents rest. In both, though, rest and motion are one, in keeping with this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Two Tremendous Opposites
This issue of TRO has dramatically to do with a pair of opposites that people are confused and pained by: lightness and heaviness. The 1961 poem is about something ever so light, slight: the sound tweet-tweet. Mr. Siegel did not know what tweets, tweeting, twitter would come to be in the 21st century; but I think what he shows here is relevant to our new use of those words. The poem tells us: tweets and twitterings represent the fact that the delicacy of things, the slightness and brevity of things, is also meaningful, deep.
So we have a poem about something very light. Then we have a prose work about a matter as big and weighty as anything: death. And yet: in “Death by Various Hands” we see how something that may appear unbearably deep and ponderous can be written of with grace! The monumental can be expressed with charm and variety! The mighty impersonal can be told of with personal style! Here too—with one of the most feared of subjects—we feel the lightness and weight of reality are one.
Meanwhile, every day people are troubled and ashamed about the way lightness and heaviness are in them. When a person—we’ll call him Nathan—is serious, he feels heavy, not freer, not joyful. And when Nathan is having a “good time,” trying to be lighthearted, he does not feel there’s large meaning to things; and soon he feels rather empty. In a 1965 lecture, Mr. Siegel called this “perhaps the most difficult subject in the world for oneself: the way one laughs and the way one is heavy doesn’t make sense.”
With these opposites, as with all the others, the great falsifier and disrupter in everyone is contempt. Aesthetic Realism describes contempt as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Our contempt has us go for a fake, ugly lightness: for mocking, “making light” of things; dismissing, summing up. Contempt also can take the form of feeling we’re important through dreariness, through feeling weighed down and oppressed by what we meet—because that way we have the secret satisfaction of feeling we’re too good for the world, superior to the cads it’s filled with. We can also feel heavy because we haven’t been just to things and people—and though we may not articulate our self-criticism, our injustice “weighs” on us.
These opposites, in the world, art, and our lives, are immense. But for now I’ll say: Aesthetic Realism is the education that enables lightness and weight to make sense in people at last; enables us to have them in a way that makes us proud. They were beautifully one in Eli Siegel himself: there was no rift between his tremendous seriousness and his (sometimes wild) humor; between his constant respect for the world and his joyful like of things.