The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Care for Self

BY ELI SIEGEL

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is rather clear that if a person is to care for himself, he must make some sense of our great desire for love and our great desire for contempt. Man is both a diminishing and an enhancing animal. He would like to make everything smaller, more wretched, less important, so that amid the unattractive ruins he might be distinguished. And then there is a tendency in man, rather unsuccessful, to give more meaning to all things.

Unless both possibilities—lessening and increasing—are seen as of man himself, there will be pain. In love, this pain takes place in a manner which literature, music, painting have made memorable. Religion, too, is about man’s desire to dismiss and to welcome.

In the life of Sara Teasdale (1885-1933), one can see quite well what I am talking about. She had the great desire to love truly; yet she valued her scorn exceedingly. She saw contempt as a rather secluded treasure. In a poem, “On the Dunes,” Sara Teasdale writes:

If life was small, if it has made me scornful,

Forgive me.

And she wrote of a person who seemingly had her love:

All his faults are locked securely

In a closet of her mind.

And there is the following sentence about ara Teasdale in William Rose Benet’s The Reader’s Encyclopedia:

She committed suicide in her home in New York.

Was the fight between contempt and love a cause of death by her own hand? I think it was.

1. Is the Fight Necessary?

The largest desire of self is to be at one with everything. The self is at one with everything when it thinks it is greater through caring for what seems not to be itself. Sara Teasdale knew this; and she valiantly tried to care for the space of night; the space of noon. She tried to care for a person or persons; but scorn held her back. So Miss Teasdale could see herself as a nun looking loftily at the perturbations of people. This is from “Effigy of a Nun”:

These pale curved lips of hers, holding heir hidden smile,

Once having made their choice, knew no regret.

The disdain which is quietly present in these lines is more tempestuously present in “What Do I Care?”:

But what do I care—for love will be over so soon—

Let my heart have its say and my mind stand idly by,

For my mind is proud, and strong enough to be silent—

It is my heart that makes my songs, not I.

Contempt is in tempests; and it is in smiling self-weather. When Sara Teasdale in the lines from “What Do I Care?” makes such a difference between the coolness of her “mind” and the song-writing tendency of her ''heart,” she is making herself a field of inter-contempt, with mind and heart apparently the contenders.

While there were the stillness of aloofness and the delicately chiseled smile of superiority in Sara Teasdale, there was also the feeling that wished to be everywhere, a feeling fiercely amorous of space and difference: you can see this in nearly her best stanza, from “Morning”:

There in the windy flood of morning,

Longing lifted its weight from me,

Lost as a sob in the midst of cheering,

Swept as a sea-bird out to sea.

Is it not hard to join peacefully the aloof smile in the “Effigy of a Nun”—contempt in wood; and the being “swept as a sea-bird out to sea”? The self is large enough or strange enough to have in it the carved fixity of wood and a swift horizontal trip over water, out to territory unseen. Nevertheless, we can have contempt both for fixity and for a swift journey.

2. Indifference and Contempt

Indifference is one of the cruel things that persons have used. Indifference is the statuesque or static aspect of contempt. We are unmoved as we are disdainful. We are lofty sculpture as others are running from a fire. And Sara Teasdale went for indifference; as many do. As chilling a poem as any Miss Teasdale wrote was one which, written about 1918, tells of how she saw the Great War and the dying of many people. Miss Teasdale uses robins to tell of her own feelings. She writes:

And not one will know of the war, not one

Will care at last when it is done.

Miss Teasdale says also in this poem (“There Will Come Soft Rains”):

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,

Would scarcely know that we were gone.

In the lines I have quoted is the aiming for indifference. A girl gets revenge on a man by hoping zealously for untinged indifference. We get revenge on existence by hoping for uninterfered with, unmottled nothingness. We should like to be glazed in coldness as others move about us worriedly. This is contempt triumphant, welcome, sweet. Sara Teasdale was not without the contempt possibly had as others fumble in discomfort.

3.The Self Can Be Separate

In the deepest sense of the words “self” and “separate,” the self can never be separate. Even in the deepest coma, the self is related to all that ever was; all that is present now; all that is possible. Yet it is useful to see that the self can do ever so much in making what it is seem separate from persons, from all that’s visible, from all that can be thought about.

In writing about Nietzsche some weeks ago, I said that the tendency to seem victoriously separate was in him. Such a tendency was in Sara Teasdale, quite different, born a few years before Nietzsche died. In an atmosphere of poetry, verbal decorativeness, blandishing melody, Sara Teasdale tells of the separating inclination in herself. I quote from “On the Sussex Downs”:

It was not you, though you were near,

Though you were good to hear and see,

It was not earth, it was not heaven,

It was myself that sang in me.

These lines have a perilous prettiness. Prettiness can obscure peril, but does not annul it.

Sadly, Sara Teasdale knew that others wanted to be separate likewise. The desire to be separate is about as common as politics. Sara Teasdale knew that someone close to her wanted to be separate even as he had affection—when she wrote his quatrain in “Night Song at Amalfi”:

Oh, I could give him weeping,

Or I could give him song—

But how can I give silence,

My whole life long?

The stanza I have just quoted is likely the most poetic passage in Sara Teasdale’s writings. The poem “Night Song at Amalfi,” as I see it, is the one poem Miss Teasdale wrote which is clearly poetic. The poem has a oneness of grace and impetus, of shameless directness and reticence, of uncouthness and subtlety. And this oneness of grace and impetus and so on, has made for poetic music. Nevertheless, with the poetic music and the successful poetic aim, the poem tells of almost maddening discomfort and disdain.

4. Melody and Tragedy

A poem anthologized as much as any of Sara Teasdale’s is “The Solitary.” I quote the poem as it is found on page 722 of The Standard Book of British and American Verse, edited by Nella Braddy, with a preface by Christopher Morley. Offhand, the poem seems to be a melodious arrangement by a noted “woman singer.” Melodious, sad poems are frequent in American literature. Women put their difficulties into stanzas and their longings into iambics and their great uncertainties in to tetrameters and pentameters. The pain remains. The bafflement has not gone. And Sara Teasdale is one of the best fashioners of sorrow and impediment into lines of praiseworthy prosody.

It is well to consider “The Solitary” in its entirety. It says so much. Miss Teasdale says in the first stanza:

My heart has grown rich with the passing of years,

I have less need now than when I was young

To share myself with every comer,

Or shape my thoughts into words with my tongue.

Contempt rears its ugly head amidst melody. Miss Teasdale seems to say that, loving less, she is richer. She doesn’t wish “to share myself with every comer.” Is this snobbishness in a poetic garb? Miss Teasdale also tells us that she doesn’t wish much to talk with anybody: “shape my thoughts into words with my tongue.” Does contempt here hint of the mortuary?

In the next stanza, Miss Teasdale tells us that having herself is enough:

It is one to me that they come or go

If I have myself and the drive of my will,

And strength to climb on a summer night

And watch the stars swarm over the hill.

Should I say that the message of Sara Teasdale here, written in the 20s, was carried on lugubriously and fatally by Sylvia Plath in the 1960s? Sara Teasdale and Sylvia Plath are different; but the problem of self was there for each. Whether a girl writes of self with contemporary boldness and intermittent obscenity, or writes of self in measured, chaste, and fairly Christian stanzas, the problem is there.

Sylvia Plath was, later, defiant in her way, a popular way. Miss Teasdale was defiant in her way; and the fact that this poem is in a general anthology of British and American verse—verse of all time—shows that Miss Teasdale didn’t miss popularity, either. It is well to listen with prosodic melody gone:

I don’t care whether people are with me or not; whether they visit me or don’t. Don’t I have myself and the strength of my will, after all? Can’t I get away from people by climbing a hill on a summer night and watching the stars swarm over the hill I have climbed? Where do I need people in all this?

Once more to melody, in the third stanza:

Let them think I love them more than I do,

Let them think I care, though I go alone,

If it lifts their pride, what is it to me,

Who am self-complete as a flower or a stone?

When you want yourself to be separate, you have to try to convince yourself that your self is complete in some way. When you want to see yourself as complete, you can pretend you care for people more than you do; for as soon as you care for someone, completeness of self is questioned.

To be sure, the large matter is: What is the complete self? ls the self more complete as it needs, or more complete as it leaves out?

Again, I paraphrase a stanza of Miss Teasdale in everyday prose, so that melody not be persuasive:

I don’t care if they think I care for them more than I really do. If they think I care for them, I go alone anyway. If my apparent regard for them makes them think more of themselves or increases their pride, what is that to me? Am I not, with all this going on in other people, as complete in myself as a flower or a stone?

The thought here is melodious, but not kind. It has the deadly, enervating aroma of contempt in it.

5. Prose Summary

Sara Teasdale, one of the most noted of American writers of verse—her Love Songs went through five printings in 1918—killed herself, we are told, either January 28 or January 29, 1933. I have tried to tell a little why Sara Teasdale came to be against life. The reason is inseparable from what contempt can do. The reason, as I have implied in these TRO ethical sketches, has to do with all of us.

With love,

Eli Siegel