Complaint and Beauty
Dear Unknown Friends:
In his class of August 3, 1966, Eli Siegel spoke on complaint in poetry. And it is an honor to begin serializing that great lecture. In the opening section, published here, his text is a book he had been discussing for several weeks: The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, edited by Robert Payne. Now he is in the midst of looking at lines by one of the eminent poets of China: Chu Yuan, who lived from about 332 to about 296 bc. In some of Chu Yuan’s writing there is that huge thing in life, complaint, and as the lecture continues, Mr. Siegel will comment on poems by people who could seem quite unlike Chu Yuan but who also express complaint: for example, Emily Brontë, Lord Byron, John Milton.
What makes a good poem about complaint vastly and magnificently different from how we complain in life, is, Aesthetic Realism shows, urgently important for everyone. Eli Siegel is the critic who has explained the difference and why it matters so much—and I’ll say something about that later.
A Favorite Subject
Complaint is a favorite occupation in people’s lives. It may be expressed verbally, to another or to oneself in one’s own mind. It may take the form of a sigh, a groan, an expletive, a grimace. But complaint can go on from the moment one wakes up. It can take in scores of things: for instance, the traffic, and how somebody in the office looked at one—and also the feeling one isn’t loved enough, one doesn’t know enough, one is in a world that’s confusing.
Some complaint is beautiful. Every fight for justice began with complaint, and gave form to it. That is: achievements in such matters as civil rights, voting rights, the ability to unionize, laws against child labor and slavery, regulations against environmental pollution and against unsafe working conditions—these and more would not have come to be without authentic complaint, the feeling, “What is going on is wrong. Its wrongness pains me. I want something better!”
But mostly, the complaining that takes place in people’s lives is not beautiful, is not good. And often, while ordinary, it is very ugly. What distinguishes good complaint from bad, beautiful complaint from ugly? The criterion is something Aesthetic Realism alone explains—and humanity needs to know it. “The large fight,” writes Eli Siegel,
...in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now,...is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality. [TRO 151]
Complaint is an aspect of that fight in us between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt—to feel we’re important because we can look down on something.
There is a complaining that people feel driven to, feel they can’t do without, an impulse to feel rather constantly that the things one meets are unsatisfactory and somehow insulting. This desire to complain is contempt. A person might protest, “I don’t have a desire to complain—it’s just the appropriate response to what I meet.” But everyone needs to learn that there is an actual hope to be displeased, because one feels more important being displeased by things than grateful to them: when you’re displeased, you look down, feel superior; when you’re grateful, you look up, have respect. And so this morning a man felt impelled to curl his lip, and sigh, and say with disgust yet a touch of triumph, “Geez—there are even more idiotic drivers on the road today than usual!” And a wife found herself just leaping at the chance to complain, “There—he left his socks lying on the living room rug again. No matter how many times I tell him, he doesn’t care. He’ll never change.” To something in us, to complain is to have a victory—the victory of feeling we’re superior to everything.
Meanwhile, we also have a huge desire to value what’s not ourselves, to respect, to be grateful. In fact, Aesthetic Realism shows, honestly to like the world is our deepest desire. And so, there is the fight.
Some Further Notes about Complaint
As Mr. Siegel shows in his magnificent lecture, the subject of complaint is gigantic. But here are several points about complaint in the daily lives of people.
1) You can meet something that should be objected to, and yet complain about it in a sloppy, inexact way, rather than accurately. This happens often.
2) A big reason people like to complain is: as you complain contemptuously you don’t have to think deeply. A certain kind of complaint is a wonderful way of evading thought—of evading the fact that there’s more for you to know.
3) To complain about something or someone can be a means of not having to question yourself, criticize yourself.
4) Complaint has been used by the ego as a means of feeling one doesn’t have to be fair to anything—because look how hurt one is!
5) One of the quickest ways of getting into a cozy team with someone is to complain to her about another person or a happening—or even the weather—and encourage her to complain. This kind of team goes on in domestic and social life very much. Within it is the feeling, “You and I are better than everything else—superior to the world, which has hurt both of us.” Yet the two people in this team are secretly ashamed of themselves and angry with each other—because their deepest hope is to respect the world.
6) People have worried about why they cannot stop complaining. The reason is: they haven’t understood the fight between respect and contempt in themselves.
7) Good complaint is always respect for the world. A good complaint is not just personal. Its purpose is not self-pity or self-glorification. It is a wanting to see truly—the thing complained of, oneself, and reality.
8) Good complaint is impelled by the hope to value things rightly: to like them and therefore to object when they can’t be liked. And so it is at one with—is a friend to—gratitude and praise. Good complaint is the same as kind criticism.
And There Is Poetry
The lecture we’re serializing is on poems about complaint. And as a means of placing Mr. Siegel’s discussion of them, I’ll comment briefly on the subject I love most in this world: the Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry. In the centuries of art criticism, it is Eli Siegel who has explained what art, including poetry, is. He showed that art is no offset to life, or decoration of it, or respite from it, but is the vital guide to how we want to be.
“Poetry,” he wrote, “like Art, is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” When a poem comes to be, it is because the writer has seen the subject—which may be anything, from a flower, to a war, to a kiss, to a feeling of his own—a certain way. He has seen it with so much accuracy, depth, width, relatedness, that he finds in that thing, feels in that thing, the structure of the world itself: the oneness of such opposites as intensity and ease, wonder and the definite, motion and rest. The result of this seeing, this finding, is that, as Mr. Siegel wrote, the words “take on a music, which is the poetic music.” All this is true about real poetry of any time, any place, any language. It’s true about the poems Mr. Siegel speaks of here, written in China in the 3rd and 4th centuries bc.
If the subject of a good poem is complaint, even if the complaint dealt with is a questionable or contemptuous complaint, it has been seen by the writer, and told of, in a way that is fair to the world itself—and so the lines have that decisive poetic thing: music.
The opposites in a poem are reality’s opposites, but they are also what our own lives are about: we are trying to put them together, and we have pain because they are not one in us. For example, the Chu Yuan poems Mr. Siegel looks at are a beautiful oneness of stir and order; of factuality and large feeling; of surface—something immediately seen—and depth. These opposites can trouble us very much in our lives. But in the poems they come, as one, across the millennia and show us: This is how you want to be, and can be.